Which year was the best year for video games? It’s a complex question, and one that’s bound to cause all kinds of arguments, fist fights, and general chicanery.
We’ve had a lot of years, and a ton games over those years. Every year has had at least one incredible game, and every year has seen at least one stinker. What you consider to be the best year for video games is entirely down to your own personal taste, and not some arbitrary formula that objectively proves that one year in particular was better than all the others.
Some people will try to tell you that it was 2004, with its Halo 2, Half-Life, San Andreas, and World of Warcraft. Others will scoff at that suggestion, and insist that 2017 takes the crown for being the year that saw Breath of the Wild, Persona 5, Horizon Zero Dawn, and Super Mario Odyssey. It seemed to me that there was no “right” answer.
So with that in mind, I decided to objectively prove that one year in particular over the last two decades saw a higher quality yield of video games than any other. There were about a thousand holes in my plan, but it took me a while to do all the sums so I decided I might as well force an article out of it.
The big question I had to start with was exactly how I should go about objectively proving which year was the best. It seemed to me that the quickest route would be via the reviews aggregation site, Metacritic, since they already provide an average score for every game in the database, based on a certain number of reviews.
That’s right, I used a site that collects and averages out the subjective critical scores awarded to various games to reach an objective answer. Still with me? I hope not.
Once settling on Metacritic, I filtered the review scores by year, starting with 1997 (because that was the first year available). Obviously, I didn’t have the time to work out the average of every game’s score from each year. Besides, some years would have had more games than others, so I opted to work out the average of the top 20 games from each year in order to try and keep things balanced.
I had a few rules, too. A lot of games are multiplatform, and Metacritic counts the same game on different platforms as separate entries. In these instances, I would only count the version of the game with the highest score. For example, in 2015 The Witcher 3 had a 93 on PS4 but a 92 on Xbox One, so I’d count the 93 and skip The Witcher 3 on Xbox One to move to the next game in the list.
However, if a port was released in a separate year, then I’d count it. So Resident Evil 4 and Okami on the Wii would be counted as they weren’t released in the same year as their PS2 versions. I also didn’t count DLC and expansions, because it didn’t feel right to do so. Disagree? I don’t care, it’s my list.
In the interests of further balance, once I’d collected the average score from every year between 1997 to 2018, I did the same thing on a second aggregation site (Gamerankings.com) to ensure that there were no major anomalies on Metacritic.
Sure enough, everything seemed to balance out roughly the same on Metacritic and Gamerankings.com. I then worked out the average between each year’s score across both sites, and surveyed my results. Said results make for some interesting reading, but I dunno how accurate they are. I mean, I got a C in Maths at GCSE.
Regardless, let’s take a look at what I found, shall we? Drink in the handy dandy bar chart that I whipped up below. I haven’t actually had to make a graph for any reason since secondary school, so it took me a little longer than I’m proud of to make this, but it’s a tasty little visualisation of my results nonetheless.
So, as you can (hopefully) see thanks to my gorgeous graph, 2000 seems to have come out on top as the most critically-acclaimed year in gaming, followed closely by 2001. 1997 and 2016, despite being almost a decade apart, fared the worst.
The results aren’t actually what I was expecting (although I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting, to be fair). Was there any reason or logic as to why the results ended up the way they did? Am I just really bad at maths? That’s what I’m about to try and make sense of, if you care to read on.
The Worst Years
Hands up if 1997 was your favourite year for video games? Great. Now put your hands back down, because I have definitively proven that you’re an IDIOT for thinking that. The top 20 rated games of ’97 only managed an average score of 89.10. How sad.
Despite having some genuinely heavy hitters like GoldenEye 007 and Final Fantasy VII, the year was ultimately let down by too many review scores that dipped below 90. Were critics crueler back then? I can’t say. What I can say is that 1997 was only one of two years on the entire list that had an average score of below 90. I blame all the critics who contributed to Age of Empires getting a shocking 83.
So what was the other year that dared slink below the 90 mark? A return to such lows doesn’t actually come for nearly another decade, but 2016 coughs up a pathetic 89.44, meaning it barely scrapes past 1997’s offerings.
2016 is an awful lot fresher in my memory, so it’s a lot easier for me to accept its relatively low score. While 2017 and 2018 threw up so genuine hits, 2016 really was a shrug of a year for video games.
Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End was a fantastic end to years of misadventures with Nathan Drake, but it was also the very best 2016 had to offer with an average score of 93. After Overwatch and Inside (both great games in their own way), we rapidly dipped below the 90 mark which had a disastrous impact on the year’s average.
I will say this; anyone involved with Titanfall 2 and Stardew Valley getting average scores of 89 ought to be ashamed of themselves. The very nerve of it.
What Did I Expect?
Beyond 1997 and 2016, there aren’t any major deviations, as you can see from my graph (love that graph). At no point did a year have a game so bad in its top 20 that it dragged the average down below 89, so that’s something.
There were a few years that I’d actually really expected to do a lot better, though. You’ll remember that 2017 was a pretty incredible year for video games, with that one week in March being a particularly hectic and crowded seven days packed with fantastic titles.
The year the Switch launched saw two generation-defining games in the form of Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey, while Persona 5, NieR: Automata, and Horizon Zero Dawn also helped to keep PS4 owners occupied. Xbox One users got Cuphead, too, but that’s essentially all they got. Classic Xbox One, really.
Weirdly, 2017 only managed a score of 90.57, though. Despite Zelda, Persona, and Mario bringing in some big numbers, Horizon Zero Dawn and NieR have much smaller average scores than you might have expected (89 and 88 respectively).
On a similar note, I also would have banked on 1998 doing better. Ocarina of Time is the highest-rated game on Metacritic with 99, and we also had the likes of Metal Gear Solid, Resident Evil 2, and Banjo Kazooie.
Once again though, 1998’s overall score was essentially let down by a string of games in the bottom half of the top 20 that scored below 90, with Resident Evil 2 getting an 89. I know, I don’t get it either.
While such scores obviously aren’t bad by any stretch, I know plenty of gamers who would argue that each title deserves at least to be in the mid 90s. Unfortunately, this is the “danger” of a review aggregation site in action.
Not everybody scores a game using the same metrics, so a 70 from one publication might be considered pretty great, while another would slap a 70 on a game because it’s merely “good.” All it takes is a few of these differing scores to drag down the numbers.
It’s not like the arbitrary number a game has been given matters, either, although the way some gamers react to review scores you’d be forgiven for thinking a game’s Metacrtic average is somehow connected to their grandad’s life support.
The Best Years
On the subject of unexpected results, I never would have guessed that 2000 would be the “best” year for video games in the last two decades. I think it’s actually fair to say that there aren’t many gamers out there who would have thought so (sorry if you would’ve backed 2000).
Regardless, that’s what I found on my mathematical quest. The beginning of the new millennium was comfortably the highest-rated year overall, with a score of 93.1. Why? Evidently, people really loved Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 (98), Perfect Dark (97), and… NFL 2K1 for Dreamcast (97). Okay then.
The average was further bolstered by a top 20 packed with scores in the mid 90s. While most other years would eventually have games that dipped below 90 and into the high 80s, consistency boosted 2000 thanks to likes of Majora’s Mask (95), Final Fantasy IX (94), and SSX for the then-nascent PlayStation 2 (93).
Close behind in second place was 2001, which saw the triple threat of Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 3, Grand Theft Auto III, and Halo: Combat Evolved, which all scored 97 apiece. Following those was a selection of scores in the top 20 that, much like 2000, stayed in the mid 90s, thanks to Metal Gear Solid 2 (96) and Devil May Cry (94).
A Pointless Conclusion
So, what’s my main finding from this entire mathematical misadventure? Easy. Review scores are bull. Not really the conclusion I planned to come out with, but life comes at you fast.
I don’t think there’s a single person out there who will agree that I’ve objectively proven anything, and you’ll go on thinking that 2006/2008/2010/whatever year is the best year for gaming, because it was the year that you connected with the most.
Hopefully that means at least some of you will stop getting hung up on review scores and their meaning. Because really, if my wonderful and gorgeous bar chart has proven anything, it’s that there’s no set formula or specific way to calculate what makes a game special.
Games are diverse, multilayered, fascinating, and – crucially – incomparable. There’s no sliding scale that we should all adhere to, and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2 isn’t a better game than, say, Super Mario Galaxy because it has a higher average score on Metacritic. They’re entirely different beasts, and every year is guaranteed to be made up of a different selection of said beasts.
So yeah, I guess we can finally say once and for all that 2000 was objectively, definitively the best year for video game review scores… but the best year for video games? That’s entirely up to you. Now on you go, and we can all pretend that you didn’t just waste ten minutes of your life reading this.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.