As people search for new and exciting forms of entertainment to wile away their hours at home, the team at Launcher has a few suggestions. For those interested in either embracing gaming for the first time, or those who already have that passion and now have more time to explore, we’ve compiled a list of our “essential” games for your consideration.
These are titles that have amazed and captivated us over the years, with the main qualifying factor that they are all playable on this current console generation or a modern PC. So, no, you won’t find Super Mario Bros., or even some games we’ve previously dubbed the most influential video games of the past decade. But you will find hours of quality gameplay and entertainment for gamers young and old.
You can find the top five suggestions from our contributors and chief video game critic below.
I enjoy a wide variety of genres, but typically I lean toward role-playing games (RPGs), adventure games, simulators and titles with strong narratives.
Night in the Woods
This indie, narrative-heavy gem from 2017 puts you in the shoes of Mae, a 20-something anthropomorphic cat who returns home to her parents after dropping out of college. Night in the Woods tells a story about confronting mistakes, mental health and the challenges of finding one’s place in the world as a young adult. With snappy dialogue and painfully relatable themes like losing direction in life, this game makes its storytelling not just personal, but also incredibly impactful and evocative.
The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt
As one of the best games I’ve ever played, it’s easy to recommend The Witcher 3. It sets storytelling and role-playing on an epic scale, with a gorgeous land filled to the brim with thoughtful characters, romance options and a branching narrative in which your decisions mold the world – and its characters’ lives – around you.
Overwatch did something different, revitalizing the team-based shooter genre by infusing it with Blizzard’s excellent world building, a diverse range of heroes with many backgrounds and ethnicities, and a colorful aesthetic that enticed a large spectrum of players. With all that said, this is an extremely fun game to drop in and out of with friends, and it’s accessible enough that you can learn the ropes at your own pace.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
No other game this year, or even last year, has come close to how many hours I’ve put into Animal Crossing: New Horizons – especially in a short amount of time. This is Animal Crossing at it’s best, with new elements like crafting and terraforming bringing a new level of creativity to the experience. It blends excellent simulation on par with The Sims with the ability to fine-tune a town to your heart’s desire. Considering the challenges we face during a global pandemic, New Horizons is a welcome respite from our anxiety-ridden world.
Horizon: Zero Dawn
What if machinery replaced our organic ecosystem in a post-apocalyptic world? What would that mean for humanity? Horizon: Zero Dawn explores that reality, where robotic dinosaurs dominate wildlife and humans have retreated to the stone age. With polished combat, beautiful landscapes, rich lore and excellent role-playing mechanics, Horizon: Zero Dawn is a game you shouldn’t miss out on.
Aside from sports, I dabble in just about any genre. But I definitely prefer action adventures and role-playing games, paired with a side of a good, meaty shooter.
If you’ve held out on trying out the world’s favorite online shooter this long, congratulations. But all signs point to Fortnite sticking it out for the future. Following Fortnite is following an industry trendsetter.
Released in 2013 as an under-the-radar PlayStation 4 launch title, Warframe was an early live-service game before it became the trend. And it somehow blossomed into one of the most popular online shooters today, thanks to consistent, robust updates that kept its community humming.
The last single-player Fallout game had its faults, least of all its middling approach to player choice. But it is moddable, even on console, and those user-created changes and additions push it just far enough to be an essential play. Even in its original state, there was a lot to love about post-apocalyptic Boston.
Getting tired of getting to know your living space? Get to know Hitman’s expansive modern hunting grounds instead. The game’s levels require a keen awareness of location, its people and their routines to win. Yes it’s not that many levels, but each one is massive, and together would make up a great open world. Try the game franchise that inspired Untitled Goose Game. (Yes, really.)
This is the best written story in gaming, hands down, and if you’re able to break through the “quarter-inch barrier” of subtitles, you’ll discover a harrowing small-town crime drama saga with deeply personal stakes. It helps that the game is essentially a Japanese RPG, which would offer well over a 100 hours of play, and there’s also six more games to get through.
When I play games, I form long-term habits around them. I’ll play a game – usually the same game for months – while listening to a podcast or chatting with friends. Task-oriented games (think Animal Crossing) or multiplayer games (Warzone or Rocket League) best fit the bill.
What is there to say about Minecraft that hasn’t already been said? The game has something for everyone. If you haven’t played it yet, you should.
Arkane Studios doesn’t get the praise it deserves. In crucial ways, each of its games defy convention, starting with Dishonored in 2012, where the developers built a game around what seems like a game-breaking mechanic – the ability to teleport freely, all over a map. Prey takes this a step further. Its writing anticipates the player’s biases and expectations and wholly subverts them, and a mechanic which transforms hostiles into commonplace items turns players’ focus from the objective to their surroundings.
Kentucky Route Zero
I never finished Kentucky Route Zero. But when writing this list, I thought not just about games I had already played and loved, but also games that I would want to revisit – or even play for the first time. Kentucky Route Zero sits atop that list of aspirational, “gee, I hope I’ll get to these someday” games. All else aside, a game about capitalism, labor, foreclosures and debt feels like a particularly appropriate game to play these days.
When my friends and I started playing Rocket League, we were terrible. Just awful. But one of the big draws of the game, in which you can play soccer (or basketball, or hockey) with cars is how concerted effort yields gradual and visible improvement over time. Slowly, my friends and I clawed our way up from Bronze (the lowest tier) to Platinum (roughly the top 50 percent of players). The game is simple on its face, but the room for possibility just keeps expanding as you go up in rank – an exhilarating quality in a game.
Apex Legends(and Titanfall 2)
Warzone is bigger. Fortnite is more popular. PUBG has the distinction of legacy. But Apex Legends still feels like the battle royale to beat, especially when it comes to features and design. No battle royale has developed better travel mechanics or ping systems than what Apex had out of the gate, and the game’s respawn feature did more to change the genre than any subsequent twist or evolution by its competitors. It doesn’t hurt that it takes place in the same universe as Titanfall 2, an undeservedly overlooked first-person shooter with incredible level design.
I’m a gamer who’s just as into couch party games as deep, 100-plus hour single player experiences. I prefer role playing games, immersive worlds and games with high replay value.
Fire Emblem: Three Houses
Perhaps the eastern hemisphere’s best take on a “Bioware RPG,” and if you know what that means, you’ll probably appreciated this game a lot. (If you don’t, I just mean an RPG that has found a good balance between complex story and variable experiences.) Fire Emblem: Three Houses takes character customization to a whole new level as the 20-plus characters you can recruit can become almost any class your play-style prefers. Add in a calendar system that requires time management, similar to the Persona series, romance options and a branching narrative with multiple routes, and you’ve got an immersive RPG that begs you to play through it at least three times. It’s a must-try if you’re into strategy games like Final Fantasy Tactics, XCOM and Advance Wars.
Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
This is the reason you buy a Nintendo Switch. Nintendo’s take on an open world is unlike any game we’ve seen. The game doesn’t litter world maps with thousands of map icons. Instead, natural curiosity for the world itself is what inspires players to explore, and go off the main path. This usually leads to great rewards like rare gear or lore bits revealing more of the story and the desolate world Zelda left behind.
Star Wars Jedi: Fallen Order
A fantastic entry point to Dark Souls-like games that feature timing-based, challenging combat. Fallen Order combines explorative elements of Metroidvania games like gated, ability-dependent progression with difficult, precision combat that forces you to really understand an enemy’s abilities and behavior. It’s also got the best Star Wars story since Knights of the Old Republic, and it really ramps up toward the end. The main character – a Jedi on the run from the Emperor’s infamous Order 66 – grows on you.
Easily the funniest game I’ve played in a long time. This Dungeons and Dragons-style RPG (it even has 20-sided die rolls!) has a bunch of text and plays similarly to Planescape Torment. You play as a down-on-his-luck, alcoholic detective who’s just awoken from a blackout bender. He’s tasked with discovering a very public murder in the run-down nation of Revachol, which is currently under foreign occupation after a failed revolution. Certain choices will lead to different outcomes for not just the case, but for your character and the people around you.
Super Smash Bros. Ultimate
This monumental video game achievement is a celebration of gaming itself. The game has more than 75 (!) characters from various video game developers, and it continues to update with new characters and fighter balance patches. What makes the game special though is its versatility. It’s a fun party game w/ friends and a legitimate competitive experience. Its changes to the classic fighting game formula – less focus on health management/button inputs and more focus on creative combos to knock your opponents offstage – make the game more accessible.
I prefer single-player, story-driven games but do not shy away from a good co-op experience. I’m also a fan of retro games or retro-inspired games and I’m especially a sucker for a good Metroidvania.
An addicting, masterfully crafted farm simulator with dungeon exploration, relationship building and so much more. If you have time to kill and want to really throw yourself into a truly blissful experience, fire this up and the hours will melt away. A must-play for any fan of the Animal Crossing series.
Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night
I absolutely adore Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, the PlayStation One classic that helped define the Metroidvania genre. Bloodstained plays and feels almost exactly like its predecessor, mostly because this kickstarter-funded game was created by Koji Igarashi, a key contributor to other games in the Castlevania series. It’s not just a shallow tribute game, however, as it features a robust crafting and cooking system and gives you so many weapons and abilities that you’ll never see them all in one playthrough.
A Lynchian supernatural thriller set in a labyrinthine government agency building called The Bureau of Control. It might be a bit trite to describe this game as “Twin Peaks meets X-Files,” but it’s also accurate. The world-building is second-to-none and the well-paced introduction of Jesse Faden’s abilities makes you feel more and more powerful as the game progresses.
Roguelikes are usually not for me. I have a limited time to play games and if I get a whiff of anything that barricades my progress, I usually lose interest. The difficulty in Dead Cells, however, is fine-tuned in such a way that it is equally challenging and rewarding. The permanent upgrades between runs give you the motivation to say “maybe just one more run” and the thrill of the sublime combat system had me hooked.
An expansive, compelling shooter that looks as good as it plays. A triumph of the ‘games-as-a-service’ model of development, it continues to improve and add layers of nuance with each of its massive updates.
I’m a casual gamer that tends to focus on one or two games for a long period of time. I lean toward games with strong stories, competitive multiplayer elements and an epic scale.
God of War
When it released I didn’t think I had the time to invest in it as a dad of two kids under 5. Once I played it though, it easily became one of my favorite games of all time. The scale of the explorable areas is vast (like, interdimensional), and flat out gorgeous. The combat is challenging but not too hard to master. And the major characters of Kratos, Atreus and Freya are complex, with morally gray actions that play out over a 25-plus-hour story. The lore of the Greek and Norse gods was a great bonus for a mythology buff.
Open-world games sometimes make cross-map travel feel like a chore. For Spider-Man, it’s a joy. Swinging above avenues, vaulting through pipes and hurtling over the rooftops of a (fairly) realistic reproduction of Manhattan feels so good it may be the best part of a game that features a story every bit as rich as the recent Marvel movies.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare/Warzone
What doesn’t this first-person shooter have? Gripping and gorgeous campaign mode? Check. Multiplayer modes that reward brains as much as reflexes? Check. A freaking ginormous battle royale mode that might be the best-in-class for that genre? Check. Sign me up, Captain Price.
Singling out one iteration of a game updated and released annually, may seem silly, but if you’ve played all of them, it’ll make more sense to you. In truth, NHL 2003 is my all-time favorite installment of this series, but the sports junkie in me demands a fix and NHL 14 was my favorite version released on this console generation. The skating/checking physics were fun, franchise-building was involved but not overly complex (as it is with later updates) and multiplayer matchups were always entertaining, giving it a slight edge over another favorite sports title, MLB The Show: 19.
I may actually prefer Battlefield 3, but that was the previous generation. What won me over about BF4 was how it dialed up the big battles, doubling the multiplayer mode from a max of 32 players to 64 on the PS4. Add in drivable vehicles, dynamic environments and destructible buildings and a first-person war game never felt so immersive.
I dig indie, adventure and single-player RPGs and shooters.
The Beginner’s Guide
This game about a reclusive video game designer and his “friend” who decides to share his work with the world is rich in ideas and feelings. Davey Wrenden’s masterpiece is a powerful example of video games as art.
The second game from the Danish studio Playdead is a tour de force of game design. It follows a boy who becomes mired in a mysterious world filled with lethal threats. Inside is a hauntingly atmospheric game composed with a cinematographer’s eye and dramatist flair for unspoken tension.
Red Dead Redemption 2
Rockstar’s western epic is one of the most visually impressive games to date. Simply wandering its huge map can be a merry end to itself since novel distractions – things to see, hunt, investigate, etc. – abound.
One of the most extravagant video game experiences that I’ve ever had, Persona 5 is a 100-plus hour game about a group of Japanese high school students who plumb the depths of the collective unconsciousness and revel in Jungian archetypes. (Trust me, I didn’t think it would be my kind of thing at first, and then I put over 150 hours into it.) Persona 5 is full of charm, wisdom and silliness all mixed together.
Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
Melina Juergens delivers one of the more indelible acting performances in a video game to date. Juergen’s portrayal of an 8th century warrior who goes on a vision quest gives meaning to the word “pathos” in a video game.