It’s that time again, folks. Awards season is here. 2019 has been a wild ride full of both massive critical (and commercial) successes and high-profile failures. The industry is changing in big ways, and sometimes it feels like we’re all riding a rickety roller coaster. But we made it through another year, and there are plenty of great games worth celebrating.
While the 2018 Cody Awards saw us messing around with the format a little bit, this year we’re going back to a more traditional style. As you click through the categories,take the opportunity to reflect on the year. Which games did you enjoy the most in 2019 and why?
Our list is the result of staff voting, but is more often than not a reflection of our tastes. The game of the year in any category could be wildly different for any individual reader. Reflecting on what you’ve experienced and how you reacted will help you develop your own sense of what you like, and also help remind you that despite all the drama, video games are cool. Let’s do this thing.
Game of the Year
Capcom had a great 2018 with Monster Hunter: World and an even better 2019. While the road there was rough, we got two amazing games to kick off the year: Devil May Cry 5 and Resident Evil 2 . While both of those (and others!) are game of the year contenders, we had to give the rub to Resident Evil 2 .
Resident Evil 2 is a remake, but it is one of the most substantial video game remakes ever made. It also serves as a massive return to form for its series, an achievement that has been years in the making. Resident Evil 2 perfectly captures the spirit of the original, while incorporating elements from the later games and adding a few twists of its own. Somehow, Capcom ended up with a single game that provided everything people love about different Resident Evil iterations, while avoiding some of the more divisive elements. But even without all the historical context, Resident Evil 2 is an amazing, AAA horror experience, thanks to some incredible sound design, top-notch visuals, and smart stage design. It’s going to be hard to follow it up, but Capcom is going for it and we’re here for it.
Our runner-up for game of the year squeaked by at the very end of 2018, but it counts by goofy award logic. Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is exactly that-the ultimate iteration of Super Smash Bros. It has every character from the entire series, nearly every stage, and a massive dump truck full of new stuff. Sakurai and his team never ceases to amaze and, with more DLC on the way, will continue to do so into 2020.
Best Art Direction
The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening isn’t exactly known for its visuals. Nintendo did a great job with what it had to work with, but what it had to work with was the original Game Boy title. The original game had a cute style (bolstered by its weird aesthetic and goofy Nintendo cameos), but Nintendo and Grezzo took this remake to a whole new level.
The entire world has been redone in a style we haven’t seen in the series before, taking the bite-sized The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening world and transforming it into something that would fit right alongside a Rankin/Bass Productions Christmas special. This game looks like a world of toys came to life, and yet it still has the same energy, charm, and even intensity of the original, more straightforward release. It’s also just criminally adorable, regardless of what else it looks like. We figured with the Nintendo Switch we’d see some sort of conversion with the two The Legend of Zelda styles, and with Link’s Awakening we got something really special.
Speaking of intensity, Sayonara Wild Hearts was unleashed on the world in 2019 and, thanks to being a marquee Apple Arcade launch title, it garnered the attention it deserved. Designated as a pop music album in video game form, Sayonara Wild Hearts washes over the player as more of an interactive experience than a score-chasing arcade game. Sure there are point thresholds and high scores, but the real joy is the colorful assault on your senses.
The Game Awards 2018 featured an unlikely musical guest. Casey and Ali Edwards took the stage and performed a vocal track from Devil May Cry 5 . It wasn’t just any track; it was Nero’s new battle theme “Devil Trigger,” which hit the fans like a punch to the face and had millions of views on YouTube alone just from being in early marketing. That set the stage for what to expect from Devil May Cry 5 musically, and the final game delivered big time. From the crunchy metal accompanying Dante to the quieter tunes tied to the Devil May Cry… RV, every piece of music on the soundtrack is just as stylish as the rest of the game. It’s one of the most listenable video game soundtracks in recent years, so thank goodness Capcom recently went all-in on supporting streaming services like Spotify.
And while Devil May Cry 5 won the day at CheatCC, there was some super stiff competition this year. It’s only natural that our runner-up is Sayonara Wild Hearts , since the game is literally conceived as a pop album in video game form. This is the sort of high concept musical tomfoolery that is only possible today, as its weaving together of music, visuals, and interactivity would not have been possible before now.
Gears 5 is, in many ways, a homecoming for The Coalition. The developer’s previous entry and debut effort was more of a proof of concept, a safe showing that proved the series could continue without Epic Games. But with Gears 5 , the creativity got to come out and series got to explore new paths, new stories, and really dig into new characters. At the front of it all is Kait, a character that was on the sidelines in the last game, but was positioned as the series’ new centerpiece by the end. As the new lead, veteran voice actor Laura Bailey more than delivers a performance worthy of a protagonist in an extremely dramatic action game. Gear of War has always been known for its hamfisted-yet-earnest melodrama, and Kait has absolutely earned her spot as queen of the corny shooter melodrama. Hats off to Laura Bailey, but with a resume like hers it isn’t really surprising.
Speaking of resumes, the rap sheet Mads Mikkelsen has speaks volumes to why Hideo Kojima is so attached to the man. There are probably other reasons too, but we’re better off not knowing them, I’d imagine. Death Stranding is full of intense performances, but Mads’ character really takes the cake. Mikkelsen is already an intense human being, but paired with Kojima’s brand of video game lunacy, he may be at his most terrifying here. (And this dude has played Hannibal Lector.)
Best Fighting Game
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate is one of those games where it’s hard to say anything that hasn’t already been said. It’s an all-timer in any context, regardless of how you approach it. That said, Smash’s status as a fighting game is always in contention, with the hardcore fans clashing with folks who love to use items. But at the end of the day, you’re picking a character, matching up against your friends, and scrambling around to hit each other. It may not be Street Fighter in its cleanliness or outward complexity, but it’s still a great game about fighting that has innate appeal for myriad styles of play. That just makes it a good video game, and arguably the best fighting game of the year.
Mortal Kombat II also has a broad appeal, albeit not as broad as Super Smash Bros. Ultimate . Mortal Kombat games are certainly playable at high, competitive levels, but that isn’t the reason they do so well and are so beloved by their fans. There is an enormous emphasis on Stuff to Do in Mortal Kombat , and the eleventh numbered entry is no exception. This time, a bolstered focus on individual player and character customization ensures replayability for more casual players in ways most fighters don’t.
Best Action Game
There’s only one answer to this category, and it’s the one with Smokin’ Sexy Style. Devil May Cry took a while to really find its identity as a series, thanks to a revolving door of management and creative ideas. But once the dust settled, a vision emerged. Devil May Cry is not just a flashy action game, it’s one of the most thoughtfully designed flashy action games you could possibly play. Devil May Cry 5 is built around each character’s limitations and the tools the player has to get around them. How far can you go in a combo when you can’t lean on easy, repeatable moves? That, at its core, is what makes these games feel so good in your hands. Devil May Cry 5 introduces multiple playable characters, several new kinds of tools, and even rounds off the years-long story with its best writing and character work to date. It’s the complete package, the real deal,and the yardstick of its genre.
As Devil May Cry 5 is our best action game, it makes sense that a member of its family tree grabs the runner-up. PlatinumGames’ Astral Chain is a unique, new take on the character action formula. While Devil May Diehards will find the controls off-putting at first, the shift from using face buttons to the shoulders and multi-character movement changes how you approach this style of action in a way that’s enriching. Astral Chain is brain food for adrenaline junkies and accessible for passers-by to boot.
Best Role-Playing Game
Final Fantasy XIV has been around for what seems like ever, but here’s the thing. Since the relaunch, in which the creators literally nuked the world with a meteor, Final Fantasy XIV has only gotten better. Each new expansion is practically a brand new game. From the outside, you may have been confused to see such a resurgence of interest and influx of new players going gaga over this creaky, old MMO. That would be because Shadowbringers , 2019’s expansion, is arguably one of the best games in the Final Fantasy series, let alone a good, grindy chunk of MMO. From storytelling that blends horror with modern social commentary, to kickass music and some really neat visual flare, there is just a ton of stuff to dig into with Shadowbringers . The best part is that if you’re new to the game, you can either skip ahead to the new stuff or have several games’ worth of content to plow through.
While our winner is a long-running service game with a new chapter, our runner-up is a brand new game that gives many fans (and possibly this developer) some closure. It’s no secret that Obsidian got a raw deal with Fallout: New Vegas , yet still managed to make an incredible game despite it all. But in the wake of what happened there, it seemed like Obsidian wouldn’t touch that space again. Enter Outer Worlds , which is basically a new Fallout game without the burden of IP. (That is sort of a blessing of its own, due to recent Fallout happenings.) It’s an original game that is full of heart and love from its creators, but will still feel familiar to fans who loved what Fallout used to be. That’s a real achievement and a testament to what sometimes troubled developers can do when they have the proper time and space to breathe.
Best Strategy Game
Fire Emblem wasn’t always the most approachable series. Tactical RPGs are already not the most friendly games out there, but Fire Emblem could be particularly cruel. Despite its anime style warmth and intriguing storytelling, these games would put players through the wringer with permanent death, no opportunities for grinding, breaking weapons, and missable secrets. But eventually the dam broke, and Nintendo went in a new direction. Fire Emblem: Three Houses is about three games deep into the “new” Fire Emblem , and it takes an even more accessible approach. While there’s still a limited amount of playtime, due to its calendar, players have much more freedom to work on strengthening their armies, customizing their play styles, and bonding with their characters. There are several difficulty options and, while the classic strategy combat is still there, the focus has largely moved to the experiential rather than tactical. The hardcore options exist, but default Three Houses is a drastic change for the series in many ways. In making that approach, the creators really brought out what’s appealing about Fire Emblem beyond brutal challenge.
Fire Emblem is largely a product of developer Intelligent Systems. The house of Fire Emblem sometimes does other things, such as the Advance Wars series. Yet, we haven’t really seen a new one of those since the Nintendo DS. Enter Wargroove , an indie title from Chucklefish that aims to bring back Advance Wars ‘ distinct look and gameplay style. It has its own charms of course, but what it does best is bring back familiar, long-lost genre play that hasn’t been reproduced in a long time, at least with as much polish as there is here.
Best Sports/Racing Game
Activision’s whole remake thing is going quite well, with the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy selling like nobody expected it to and the Spyro Reignited Trilogy doing nearly as well. So when it came time to remake cult classic kart racer Crash Team Racing , you can bet all the PlayStation nostalgia folks were on board right away. Beenox’s take on Crash Team Racing: Nitro-Fueled goes pretty hard in recreating the original, while incorporating content from sequels and offering some new ways to play. It’s also one of the best-looking kart racers out there. Between all the polish and laser-targeted nostalgia, it’s no wonder that it landed so well.
EA hasn’t had the best year, but if there’s one thing it can do well, it’s delivering some exhaustingly polished licensed sports games. This year’s FIFA 20 is certainly another FIFA game, but the cool thing about EA’s sports studios is how much freedom they’ve been getting to goof around with the source material. While you can do the usual sim thing, FIFA 20 also has a mode that’s more about hardcore street play, with more exciting music, colorful and varied venues, and just a metric buttload of multiplayer options. Part stuffy FIFA sim, part adventurous, globe-trotting multiplayer bonanza, FIFA 20 is just impressively bloated with content.
Best Multiplayer Game
Battle royale games have been on top of the world lately, but nobody figured anyone could compete with the likes of PUBG or Fortnite at this point in the game. But then Nintendo said, “Hold my beer.” Teaming up with Arika and The Tetris Company, Nintendo brought Tetris 99 to its online subscribers (although eventually released it at retail too). It’s Tetris as a battle royale, and it’s amazing. The pure thrill of Tetris , combined with the nail-biting threat of instant death due to a gang of other players, makes for some of the most exhilarating puzzle gaming ever. Nintendo has even committed to supporting Tetris 99 post-launch, with new modes of play, DLC, and even themed events featuring free, unlockable themes. It’s easy to pick up and play, super hard to win, and tons of fun even when you get whooped halfway through a round.
Borderlands 3 is perhaps one of the most controversial games that doesn’t have any actual game-related controversy. Gearbox CEO Randy Pitchford has had a heck of a year in 2019. But despite all the drama, Borderlands 3 is still exactly the game the fans wanted. It’s weird, it’s wacky, it does memes, and it does loot. Borderlands is the original “shlooter,” and this is the biggest one of those you can get.
Best Action/Adventure Game
It’s easy to expect a new The Legend of Zelda game to dominate awards, but The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening isn’t exactly a new game. It’s a quirky remake based on a quirky Game Boy title. While there are plenty of fans out there who played and loved the original, Nintendo and Grezzo didn’t exactly expand on it much and it’s pretty small in scope. But everything in that small scope is dang close to a masterpiece, especially when you consider its original format. To top it all off, this new version puts all the energy that could have gone into random real estate additions into the art style. It’s one of the most adorable aesthetic iterations of The Legend of Zelda ever made, and brings a whole new vibe to one of the weirdest entries.
Hey, it’s also almost like Resident Evil 2 is a good game or something, no big deal. Easily a contender for game of the year, Resident Evil 2 is our action/adventure runner-up. While it’s a horror game, it’s a blend of styles that encompass all of Resident Evil history. It has Resident Evil 4 in there, some of Resident Evil 7 , and even those other two in-between everyone argues about. But thanks to some really clever level design and a certain enemy presence, Resident Evil 2 also heavily borrows from concepts like “Metroidvania” in really effective ways. Hence the adventure part.
Best Independent Game
The horrible goose is truly horrible, and we love it for that. Who knew that a silly game from the world of indie games about a goose being a jerk could make such an impact? When Untitled Goose Game dropped, it was all the gaming internet was talking about. It’s such a goofy concept, but thanks to the game’s genuine sense of humor, clever puzzles, and limitless meme potential, it’s also pure gold. The immediate success of Untitled Goose Game reinforces the value of independent video games. Games don’t have to be massive, Hollywood movie-slike blockbusters in order to be good, and they don’t need massive marketing budgets to be successful. Comedy is one of the genre spaces video games struggle with the most, but you wouldn’t be able to tell after just a few minutes with Untitled Goose Game .
Our independant runner-up is a sharp turn in the other direction. Disco Elysium is an intense RPG inspired by tabletop games and governed by dialogue choices and skills. There is no combat in the way you’d normally expect in a RPG; instead investing in skills helps players excell during relevant situations. But excelling in a skill can also come with some drawbacks. The story is just as intense as the mechanics, having the player take on the role of a detective who just went through a mental breakdown. Developed in Estonia, Disco Elysium offers a unique perspective on cop stories, and that perspective led to some of the best writing in a video game, much less a RPG.