One of these days we'll surprise you, but not today. The world's top selling game of 2015 wasn't Shovel Knight, or Super Mario Maker, or A Good Snowman Is Hard to Build. And it wasn't Fallout 4, or Her Story, or Geometry Wars 3: Dimensions. Am I dragging this out too much?
Okay, Call of Duty: Black Ops III, take your bow. Activision says its futuristic military-minded shooter was the top selling game of 2015 "by a wide-margin in both units and dollars sold-thru." You can read my review here.
Nintendo's best idea in years, Splatoon sees two squads of four players battling in skatepark-inspired arenas, outfitted with ink-spewing gadgetry and one imperative: to paint as much of their team's color on the ground as possible before time runs out. There’s nothing else quite like it, nor the cathartic dopamine jolt to be had when you sail up a paint-smeared quarter pipe, an Inkzooka at the ready, leap over the edge, take aim with your weapon, and reduce a startled opponent to goo.
In the guise of a Japanese roleplaying game, Undertale is an investigation of what may really be happening when we play so-called Japanese roleplaying games. It's a fantasy odyssey that deconstructs itself as you wander. It invites replays, winking at us like a smarter, subtler version of a "Let's Play" YouTuber shouting insults at the screen. And it's relentlessly, fastidiously obsessed with helping us see the consequences of the choices so often flippantly made, and the implicit violence we're wont to do in the name of freedom.
Batman: Arkham Knight
Rocksteady reversed the curse of the shoddy superhero tie-in when it surprised with Batman: Arkham Asylum six years ago. Arkham Knight is everything the company's learned since cranked to 11 with a side of 12. And it's not just a fitting fireworks finale that banks on past design glories rubbed in next-gen gloss: the studio took big risks by turning Arkham Knight into a buddy game, pairing Batman with the Batmobile, managing to make its inclusion both essential and exhilarating.
[PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One]
Ryan North’s To Be or Not to Be
Ryan North's To Be or Not to Be is the digi-fied version of a crowdfunded 768 page choose-your-own-adventure that came out a few years ago in book form. Studio Tin Man Games' digital version is the quirkiest, funniest, most insightful retelling of Shakespeare's Hamlet I've experienced in any medium. Multiply by a gazillion possible narrative routes, cultural takedowns and goofy cameos by everything from ghostly aliens to undead presidents. Like Inkle Studios' 80 Days last year, it's the smartest bit of interactive fiction you'll flick through all year.
[PC, Android, iOS]
Super Mario Maker
It's Super Mario Bros., Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World and New Super Mario Bros. U rolled into a rich but accessible toolbox, letting players create and share whatever bizarre level ideas they can dream up. Why it took Nintendo this long to release a Super Mario level maker is anyone's guess, but if one game sells the two-screen idea of the Wii U--the stylus is essential here--it's this one.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
One way of talking about studio CD Projekt Red's open-world magnum opus The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt might be "the game that made me like Fallout 4 less." It's that near roleplaying perfection, assuming you like slow-burn fantasy games about potion-chugging mutants and ethical courses of action with inexorably bleak outcomes. The Witcher 3 is to the rest of the video game roleplaying genre as George R.R. Martin to J.R.R. Tolkien.
[PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One]
A whodunit subjectively pieced together by scanning full-motion video clips that require you to spill real-world ink turns out to be a superlative example of how to rivet employing the sparest techniques. It's complexity from simplicity, a mesmerizing, hybrid investigative-voyeuristic experience where you observe a woman interviewed by detectives about a 1994 murder, unraveling (or deepening) the mystery by lighting on terms or phrases used to ply a vast but fragmented database, trying to puzzle out what happened — and why.
[iOS, Mac, PC]
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain
Metal Gear Solid creator Hideo Kojima's series swan song turns out to be his finest work yet, a tactical stealth simulation wrapped in a colossal resource management puzzle inside a love letter to theatrical inscrutability. It's a clandestine feast of open-world prowling, a tactical toybox staged in sprawling bulwarks bristling with eerily sentient enemies--the new pinnacle of stealth gaming, and a triumphant final act from one of our luminaries.
[PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One]
Rise of the Tomb Raider
The antithesis of Sony's linear, shoot-heavy Uncharted games, Rise of the Tomb Raider moves at comparably ruminative speeds, embedding you in its bleakly beautiful and broad wintry landscapes with only your wits and scant weapons. It's both a study in how to craft a relatable protagonist whose every fight is tooth and nail, and the best puzzle-exploration-survivalism odyssey since Crystal Dynamics' 2013 series relaunch.
[Xbox One, Xbox 360]
As its name suggests, Prune is a game about removing things to nurture other things, where you swipe your finger to sever restrictive limbs and free others to grow. But it's also about basking in a minimalist garden of forking paths as you work out the spatial logistics of coaxing a tree to blossom. It's both an arboricultural exercise and a meditation--on light, darkness, color, sound and perhaps most of all, the things we're forced to leave behind.
[iOS, Android, Windows Phone, PC]
This would also be the franchise's seventh bow in North America in as many years. The Call of Duty series now totals 250 million copies sold globally since the first game arrived in 2003.
That puts Activision in striking distance of Nintendo's Pokémon (275 million copies sold as of January 2016, the second-bestselling video game franchise). Still, it'll have to more than double its haul to catch up to Nintendo's indefatigable Mario games, which all told surpass 500 million copies sold.