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Was 2017 the most front-heavy video game year of all time?

by Ron Duwell | December 31, 2017December 31, 2017 10:00 am PST

This has been on my mind since June, and the thought especially peaked during both E3 2017 and Tokyo Game Show 2017 when I found myself bored to tears with the sad show of games that surrounded me. Now that we are one month away from the end of 2017, it’s time to release my feelings. I’m sure getting this pent up rant off my chest is going to feel amazing!

Video gaming in 2017 was incredibly front-heavy. The standard AAA model of dumping the best video games out in the fall rush failed us miserably with a host of boring huge-budgeted games and controversy everywhere we looked. Although, it wouldn’t be correct to call 2017 out as a total failure. The truly great releases lined up from January to June, meaning that for once, the niche and quirky releases that are not seen as big enough for the holidays got a chance to shine through.

Nowhere can we see this better than in the five nominees for Game of the Year at The Game Awards. Although hardly the standard for greatness, this list gives us the best look at how the year played out. The nominees and their release dates are:

  • Horizon Zero Dawn – Feb. 28
  • PlayerUnknown’s Battleground – Early Access launched in March
  • The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild – March 3
  • Persona 5 – April 4
  • Super Mario Odyssey – Oct. 27

In short, four of the five best games of the year released before E3 2017, and only one came to us during the usually busy holiday rush. That lays out a general path that the year took. However, when we look at the specifics, the tables turn to the first half of the year even further.

Prior to E3 2017, which we will use as the border between the first and second half of the year, what other games do we find that stole headlines and made a major splash on the gaming community?

  • Mario Kart 8 followed up Breath of the Wild with universal praise as a remaster, proving that the Switch would not be a one-hit wonder in 2017.
  • NieR Automata scored a lot of praise as an early Game of the Year prospect, and it captured the PlayStation crowd with its stellar combat and unique storytelling.
  • Nioh was embraced as a solid successor to Dark Souls and stood out as one of the best action games of the year.
  • Yakuza 0 was routinely praised for getting the series right and tearing down the high barrier of entry for a series that becomes more impenetrable with each release.
  • Resident Evil 7: biohazard overcame the odds and successfully redefined a series that many had written off as dead.
  • Gravity Rush 2 followed up a cult classic with a solid, next-gen sequel.
  • Fire Emblem: Shadows of Valentia continued the series’ blitz back to the forefront of gaming.
  • Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy showed those executives at Activision how very wrong they were about the demand for this game being nothing more than hot air nostalgia.
  • Although it proved to have a pretty short shelf life, For Honor gathered an unusually strong following for a throwaway spring multiplayer release before PUBG stole its thunder.
  • Prey overcame development fears and re-established AAA linear, narrative games as a force to reckoned with.

Strong aggregate reviews weren’t all that separated these games from the fall release, they also captured gamers’ attention in extra ways. Headlines were littered with fun extra tidbits with gamers exploring the games’ inner workings, breaking them open for speed runs, uncovering Easter Eggs, and distracting us from controversy or divisions that tend to get in the way of gaming.

Aside from the botched launch of Mass Effect: Andromeda, which I saw coming a mile away, the first half of the year also gave very little for gamers to be upset about. The barrage of games and exciting Nintendo Switch proved to be so much fun that it even took our minds off of the changes that were coming to gaming generations via the Xbox One X and PlayStation 4 Plus.

Indeed, for a while, it seemed like 2017 was going to establish itself as a contender for one of the greatest years of gaming in history.

When E3 2017 rolled around, I immediately knew something was wrong. Not one of the press conferences was a bonafide knockout, the steady stream of news bored our writers, and we all just wanted the convention to show us a bit of mercy and end early. Tokyo Game Show 2017 proved no better, having little to show on traditional consoles and focusing primarily on mobile games.

As for the releases, the summer started off promising enough. Splatoon 2, Arms, and the surprising success of Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle further helped solidify the success story of the Switch, and gamers rallied around Sonic Mania like it was 1993 all over again. Streamers marveled at it, and fans, new and old alike, sought its Easter eggs, speed runs, the whole nine yards. Seeing such a modern reaction to a classically stylized game filled us retro gamers with hope.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy also drained the series of its last stretch of value, proving it had one more adventure’s worth of gas in the tank, even if its reception didn’t live up to main entries.

Then September came around, and all the goodwill of 2017 suddenly dried up. What game came out that wasn’t forgotten about or swirled in controversy? Well, Super Mario Odyssey is a special case that sort of makes up for everything bad in the world, not just in a disappointing gaming holiday season. Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus seemed solid enough to please its fans, and Cuphead finally released to the adoration it deserves as a streaming favorite and a brutal challenge. Minor releases like Golf Story and Metroid: Samus Returns filled in the gaps…

But what then?

  • Assassin’s Creed Origins leads the pack of “almost there” games. Ubisoft properly got the series back on track and scored a lot of points with fans who compare it to Assassin’s Creed: Brotherhood and Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag, the two games often considered the peak of the series. However, as usual, performance issues hindered the release and it needed a few patches to fix it up.
  • Middle-earth: Shadow of War came out as a solid sophomore attempt by Monolith Productions with Tolkien’s canon, but the epidemic of loot crates soured fans who just wanted a proper sequel.
  • And speaking of our most beloved multi-media franchises, Star Wars: Battlefront 2’s loot crate system was met with such backlash that it cost EA $3 billion in stock value… my goodness.
  • Even the niche games like Ys VIII: Lacrimosa of DANA spurred problems with their fanbase, this one coming out with a host of grammatical and spelling errors in the game’s script.
  • Funny, while writing this article, I almost forgot about Destiny 2. That came out this year, right?
  • Marvel vs Capcom Infinite failed to live up the series’ legacy, and it got beat outright by Injustice 2 from earlier in the year on the aggregate lists.
  • Call of Duty WWII’s dive into history failed to capture the hype Battlefield 1 got the year before.
  • The usual racing games like Forza, DiRT all came and went
  • South Park: The Fractured But Whole… again, forgot about it, and judging by headlines and social media, so did everyone else

So yeah, maybe I’m blinded by Super Mario Odyssey overtaking every remaining inch of my limited gaming time, but I don’t think there is much question that the first half of 2017 trounced all over the second half. When put next to the likes of Nier, Nioh, Persona, Horizon Zero Dawn, Persona, Legend of Zelda, the holiday season simply didn’t have a chance.

From what I can tell, Nintendo carried the solid stream of releases throughout the year, but the problem resides in Sony and Microsoft, both of whom focused more on fancy new pieces of hardware than securing games to make the upgrade worth it. As the year dragged on, loot crates, micro-transactions, online bullying, and the usual host of issues that come attached to modern gaming returned to the forefront stronger than ever.

Given the beating that AAA releases took this year, I feel that 2017 could be a watershed year in gaming in which the power truly switches from blockbuster games to “games as a service” trends, and eSports and competitive games are likely to benefit from that the most. The unholy mammoth that gaming has become can’t survive if we stack the holiday months with disappointments, and I’m left wondering if that’s a good or a bad thing.

AAA has to lean on The Last of Us 2Red Dead Redemption 2, and God of War to get back on track. Sorry Microsoft, but I don’t have much faith in Crackdown 3 cutting it.

My displeasure with the overexposure of gaming hit critical mass a long time ago, and maybe developers downscaling and getting back to their roots is something the industry needs. Again, it’s working wonders for Nintendo, and that positive atmosphere of “games first” in the first half of 2017 helped games like Nioh become million sellers.


Ron Duwell

Ron has been living it up in Japan for the last decade, and he has no intention of leaving this technical wonderland any time soon. When he's not...

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