2017 vs 1998: Battle for the Best Year Ever

2017 has been widely hailed as the best year ever for video games. And perhaps rightfully so.

Within those twelve months we saw the release of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, Resident Evil 7, Nioh, Persona 5, Horizon: Zero Dawn, Neir: Automata, Super Mario Odyssey, Destiny 2, PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, Cuphead, Splatoon 2, Sonic Mania, Divinity: Original Sin 2, Metroid: Samus Returns, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, Injustice 2…

It’s a long list; one that doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of stellar indie titles released in the same period.

And it wasn’t just a great year for software. 2017 also saw the global launch of the Nintendo Switch, Nintendo’s fastest selling console ever.

Best year ever, right?

Well… 2017 was also the year that saw the release of disastrous AAA launches like the heartbreakingly compromised Star Wars Battlefront 2, a game so nakedly designed to encourage the player to purchase loot crates in order to unlock highly desirable content. What happened with that game would be enough for a post of its own (and has been exhaustively covered elsewhere). Still, it stands as an icon of everything wrong with the game industry in 2017, so it bears mentioning when discussing the possibility that last year should stand out as the best ever for the industry.

It’s also not the first time we’ve declared a year in gaming to be the best ever. Previously, that title belonged to 1998.

If you were lucky enough to be around and of gaming age in 1998 you would have had the chance to play Half-Life, StarCraft, Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Metal Gear Solid, Baldur’s Gate, Grim Fandango, Banjo-Kazooie, Thief, Xenogears, Resident Evil 2, Fallout 2, Spyro, Oddworld: Abe’s Exoddus, Suikoden 2, Mario Party, Marvel vs Capcom, Panzer Dragoon Saga, Tenchu: Stealth Assassin, Parasite Eve, Star Wars: Rogue Squadron, Star Ocean: The Second Story…

No, seriously, those all came out in the same year, and that’s not even close to a complete list.

1998 was an impressive year for gaming, no doubt, but was it the best? Has it been dethroned by last year’s stellar releases, and how do they compare? Can you even compare two years of games nearly 20 years apart? And more importantly, how?

To start, let’s try to lock down what makes a game “great”.

Defining Greatness

The qualities that make a game “good” or “great” are highly subjective at best and very rarely will you find consensus in the general gaming population. Even the highest rated games have their detractors.

We could talk about graphics, but then you’re comparing Solid Snake’s low poly face to Senua’s almost impossibly rendered visage that rivals even the best CGI that Hollywood can muster. Sure, Metal Gear Solid was a high watermark for console graphics at the time, but it hasn’t exactly aged well. Graphics then hardly feel like a fair comparison.

Gameplay holds up as a better metric, but even the best games from the past wind up being refined in future iterations. It’s the rare game that resists refinements to be a timeless example of perfected gameplay.

With that in mind, let’s do ourselves a favor and objectify the subjective by limiting the comparison to critical reception only. Sure, it’s not a perfect metric, but it’s likely to be the best one for this exercise as delving too deep into the qualities of each and every game from both years would be well beyond the scope of this post. For that, I’ve compiled the Metacritic scores for 10 games (selected at random) from each year and compared the averages. This is hardly scientific and could easily be manipulated by picking and choosing titles to minimize or maximize average scores, but hey, let’s go with it for now:

 Totally scientific random selection of titles from 2017 and 1998.

Totally scientific random selection of titles from 2017 and 1998.

So… that’s pretty darn close. 1998 wins, but it’s far from a landslide and there’s certainly more to the story than review scores alone.

If we really want to compare these years, context is king.

Signs of the Times

The video game industry in 1998 was a very different beast than its current incarnation. For starters, DLC and microtransactions simply did not exist. Online gaming was strictly limited to PC titles and even then was rarely a selling point. Streaming? Not for another 13 years. Games were on discs and cartridges and you had to leave your house to get one. And that game was (with few exceptions) the same game from the day you bought it to the day you finished it. A development team of 30 people could create a game like Half-Life.

Now it’s not rare for a game to ship in an unplayable state that requires a 50 GB patch to play, even if you bought the disc. Required patches drop randomly that can fundamentally change the way the game plays. Gameplay is often designed to entice a player to purchase additional content (See Star Wars Battlefront 2, Middle Earth: Shadow of War). Most modern games have a multiplayer feature whether they need it or not, with an increasing number of multiplayer only titles.. Stories are spoiled the moment the game launches (and sometime before release). By the time you get your game installed, your favorite streamer is wrapping up the end-game content. 120 people were on the development team for Resident Evil 7, a far cry from team sizes 20 years prior.

Considering the state of the industry, it’s remarkable that so many titles managed to escape last year in the excellent state they did.

The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a prime example of a game that impossibly resists the corrupting influence of the games industry in 2017 to create a long, fully formed single player experience jam-packed with engaging content.

It would have been all too easy for Nintendo to compromise Breath of the Wild with microtransactions, lock off areas behind DLC paywalls, or otherwise chop up the game in order to generate extra revenue. They didn’t, and the game will live on as a shining achievement in game design for many years to come as a result. And while the game did eventually have DLC available for it, it was well after the game was released and in no way felt like content held back to be sold separately.

Diamonds in the Rough

Game production is a far more mature (and expensive) endeavor in 2017 than it was 20 years ago, and the results show in games that are, if nothing else, highly polished. Yet it is in that same evolved industry that games are squeezed and compromised and chopped up in order to maximize profit in order to satisfy shareholders.

With all that added manpower, experience, and money flowing through the industry, you would naturally expect any game in 2017 to easily trounce any game from 1998. But when you consider just how fractured and incomplete $60 titles have become, it’s a wonder that any game manages to release these days unscathed by those corrupting practices.

It is despite these practices, and even perhaps because of them, that I’m inclined to agree with the masses and declare 2017 the new Best Year Ever for video games.

Sorry, 1998, you were truly amazing. Still are! And you deserve to be remembered and celebrated as one of the finest years the industry has ever seen. But the games that stood out in 2017 did so with the deck stacked against them. They managed to be phenomenal, memorable experiences without the baggage that weighs down the rest of the industry. They are the diamonds in the rough, so to speak, that elevated 2017 to legendary status in spite of itself.