This year, a lot of things sucked. But a lot of things were also unexpectedly good! Let’s celebrate those latter things with a big list.
As we do every year at Kotaku, it’s time to take a look back on the highs and lows of the last 12 months. (See: the biggest surprises of 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.) We’ll post the biggest disappointments of 2017 later this week.
For now, it’s time for happiness! Unexpected joy! Lots of Nintendo stuff! With input from the rest of Kotaku’s staff, here are the best video game surprises of 2017.
The more we learned about the Nintendo Switch, the more we got our hopes up. Of course, Nintendo is expert at dashing raised hopes, so most of us struggled mightily to keep those hopes in check. When it was announced, the gimmick of a portable home console sounded good but there could still have been some hidden catch or downside. When it came out, the Switch seemed like a good console in general, but no one was sure if there’d be enough games. And then, somewhere around the release of Mario + Rabbids in August, it became clear: The Nintendo Switch in the midst of the best console launch year ever. From Zelda and Splatoon to Mario, Golf Story, Steamworld Dig 2 and Doom, there are already too many terrific games on the system to keep up with. The Switch’s first year went better than almost anyone dared hope. May its 2018 be just as strong.
One hundred players start. The last one (or the last team) standing wins. Many people probably remember Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds as the new early access game with the terrible name that was consistently at or near the top of the Steam charts in March. Terrible name or no, PUBG went on to conquer the world of PC gaming in 2017 with a simple premise and good-enough execution to become a beloved game and a streaming sensation. It seems likely that other games (like Fortnite Battle Royale) will cut into PUBG’s audience significantly, and one may ultimately overthrow it. PUBG will still be remembered as the game that brought Battle Royale gaming to the mainstream.
When cover art from Ubisoft’s Mario + Rabbids crossover leaked in May, the response was nearly unanimous: this is going to suck so bad. Then Ubisoft showed the game at their E3 press conference, and… wait, what? It’s an XCOM-like turn-based tactics game? It actually looks kind of silly and maybe even… fun? Nintendo legend Shigeru Miyamoto came out on stage to show off the game. The guy heading development cried during the press conference. Online sentiment began to soften. And then the game itself turned out to be pretty great, a smartly streamlined take on the XCOM formula with an emphasis on mobility and a few distinct, character-specific abilities. It wasn’t all that surprising that a Ubisoft studio could crank out a well-made tactics game, but it was surprising that Ubisoft’s Minions-esque Rabbids would wind up mixing so well with Mario, Peach, and Luigi.
“Oh yeah,” we joked, “I’m totally sure Nintendo will announce Metroid Prime 4 at E3 this year.” We make those sorts of jokes to inure ourselves to the constant disappointment of wanting a thing to happen, then watching it not happen. Yet… there’s always reason for hope, isn’t there? Nintendo was on a roll with the Switch, and seemed to be consciously targeting the sorts of hardcore Nintendo fans they arguably left behind with the Wii and the Wii U. Maybe, just maybe, a new Metroid Prime really could be in the works? Turns out, it was. Not only that, but Nintendo buried a second, more immediately exciting announcement in their subsequent livestream: Metroid: Samus Returns, a 3DS remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus, would be out in just a few months.
There was a point right around March where the PS4 was just on fire. In just a couple of months it’d gotten a few big exclusives, including the beautiful-if-niche Gravity Rush 2 and the fantastic open-worlder Horizon Zero Dawn. But it was the Japanese games that put it over the top, and more pressingly, over Microsoft’s competing Xbox One. Nier: Automata, Yakuza 0, Persona 5, and Nioh all hit the PS4 at about the same time, a collection of wildly different games that had something for just about anyone. It was, and remains, a very good time to own a PlayStation 4.
There was always a good game hiding in No Man’s Sky, but you used to have to work to find it. After several major free updates, Hello Games has made it a lot easier to love their big, weird galactic exploration game. There’s so much more to do and so many more reasons to do it that the No Man’s Sky of 2017 feels almost like a different game. If you bought it back when it came out, try starting a new game and see what happens. As nifty as Hello Games’ updates have been, the No Man’s Sky community deserves just as much credit for keeping the game alive and interesting, creating and rebuilding a galactic hub and, most recently, working out how to wage a massive war in a game with no built-in PvP combat.
Bloodborne is a game built on mysteries, literally—the city of Yarnham is built on a bunch of catacombs that players in a group called the Tomb Prospectors are still exploring, looking for rare monsters that few have ever seen. In November, they found an elusive Flaming Undead Giant, a beast no one had seen before, in one of the game’s Chalice Dungeons. What other secrets might Bloodborne be hiding?
Along with a bunch of Switch and 3DS games, Nintendo released a new Super Nintendo game in 2017. Two decades after it was cancelled, Star Fox 2 finally came out as a bundle-in with the SNES Classic. It’s a weird game, and while it might not be enough to pull you away from the rest of the classic games Nintendo included on their retro console, it’s certainly a time capsule that’s worth opening at least once.
It may have seemed like Team Ninja’s “samurai Bloodborne” action game Nioh dropped with little fanfare, but it was actually a loooong time coming. Originally announced in the mid-2000s, it apparently went through several substantial overhauls until Team Ninja took over development in 2010. Most games to go through such a process are released in sorry shape, if they’re released at all. Nioh is the welcome exception, a deep, finely tuned, extremely satisfying action game that stands toe-to-toe with the best in the “Soulsborne” subgenre.
When Capcom first revealed Resident Evil 7, there was some question as to whether this new game, with its first-person perspective and focus on a modern found footage horror aesthetic, would be “Resident Evil” enough. Turns out that yep, it is indeed possible to inject new ideas into the Resident Evil formula without losing the series’s identity. The first few hours are nearly unrecognizable, as your terrified protagonist creeps his way through a decrepit southern mansion overflowing with horrors. Then the game gradually settles down and you begin the Resident Evil-y work of upgrading your gear, uncovering secrets, and finding animal keys to unlock corresponding animal doors. Other venerated game series could take a few lessons from RE7 for how to shake up their own formulas.
At this point, Half-Life 3 is a tired punchline. Ditto Half-Life 2 Episode 3. We know that neither one is ever coming out, or at the very least, whatever version of them may have been in development over the last 10 years just ain’t gonna happen. So it was a bittersweet surprise when ex-Valve developer Marc Laidlaw, one of the chief writers of the Half-Life series, published a blog post titled “Epistle 3.” It told a lightly disguised, gender-swapped story of Gordon Freeman and Alyx Vance’s trip to the frozen north in the wake of the shattering cliffhanger the concluded Episode 2. It wasn’t Episode 3, but it offered unexpected closure and even inspired a bunch of indie game developers to come up with their own rough versions of what the game might have looked like.
In the world of speedrunning, a single discovery can reverberate through the entire scene and change everything. That was the case with the “Barrier Skip” in Wind Waker, which two players cracked in 2016 but was only successfully replicated this year. Once the trick went wide, it fundamentally changed the way Wind Waker speedruns will work going forward. These are the sorts of unusual maneuvers that keep a game exciting 15 years after it first came out.
Ubisoft’s Beyond Good & Evil 2 has been a specter at each of the publisher’s major press conferences since the first teaser in 2008. Every now and then director Michel Ancel would say that he was still working on the game, but with no additional information or specifics. This year at Ubisoft’s E3 press conference, they brought an exciting CGI trailer, along with a working version of the game. Sure, it was a very rough build. And sure, the CGI trailer was just that—it wasn’t gameplay. But we know a heck of a lot more about Beyond Good & Evil 2 now than we did at the start of the year, and it seems much more likely that one day we’ll actually get to play it.
Sonic fans have a lot to be grumpy about. There just haven’t been that may good Sonic games, and the series has struggled to find an identity in the landscape of modern gaming. Along comes Sonic Mania, a remixing/remastering of side-scrolling Sonic greatness that often feels like a devious ROM hack, reimagining aspects of the classic Sonic games to make its own twisting, turning levels. 2017’s other big Sonic game was much less of a success, but by going back to the series’s roots, Sonic Mania soared.
The anime visual novel Doki Doki Literature Club is a wolfish tale dressed up in the sheep’s clothing of cheery moe anime and schoolgirls next door. You probably still haven’t played this, so I’ll refrain from saying more. Just know that the surprise here isn’t simply that the game is good.
Right up there with Metroid Prime is Mega Man, whose fans had already been burned by the disappointing Mighty No. 9 just last year. Here comes Capcom to announce an all-new Mega Man complete with in-game footage and a late 2018 release date. It’ll be the first Mega Man in eight years, and while it looks a little plastic-y in screenshots, it looks pretty great in action.
2017 was a weird year for Twitch and YouTube in general, and no one man embodies that weirdness quite as well as Guy “Dr. Disrespect” Beahm. The former Sledgehammer Games community manager decided to don a mullet wig, some aviator glasses, and a fake-rude persona to begin streaming games as Dr. Disrespect. He went on to become one of the most talked-about PUBG players, earning himself a suspension for in-game hijinks yet also being overcome with emotions as he considered the admiration of his fans. Shortly after winning the “Trending Gamer” award at The Game Awards in December, he announced that he had been unfaithful to his wife and was stepping back from streaming to focus on his family. A fittingly controversial end of the year for a character who seemed designed to court controversy.
First revealed in 2011 at Spike’s Video Game Awards ceremony, Epic Games’ Fortnite has been on the cusp of release for so long that many of us thought it’d never happen. It finally hit early access earlier this year, and didn’t make much of an impact, at least not at first. Its profile significantly increased when Epic released a free-to-play Battle Royale mode that followed the template established by Playerunknown’s Battlegrounds, albeit with some notable changes. By the end of the year, it’s become one of the most streamed games on Twitch, gotten some new modes and other tweaks, and is attracting new players each day.
At first, it wasn’t clear why hackers had been able to find a hidden version of NES Golf on the Nintendo Switch. After a bit more sleuthing, it turned out that the software was locked to a certain date and a certain Joy-Con motion, one that matched up with the famous gesture the beloved former Nintendo CEO Satoru Iwata used to make during each of the Nintendo Direct videos he hosted. Iwata died of cancer on July 11, 2015. The Golf game hidden on the Switch appeared to be programmed to unlock on a July 11. Nintendo has remained cagy about the tribute, but a number of people have reported (sometimes with video) that the game does indeed work on the Switch. As our own Brian Ashcraft observed, Golf on the Switch could be coded to allow Iwata’s spirit to watch over the console and guide it to success. If that’s the case, he’s doing a marvelous job.
And that’s it for the biggest, best surprises of the year. Share your own favorite surprises in the comments and we’ll be back later in the week with the worst, most crushing disappointments.