There's no doubt about it -- 2011 was an epic year for gamers. Though it started off a bit slow, by summer we already had a handful of legit Game of the Year contenders. Fast-forward to the end of the year, and it's a monster overrun with Batman, Skyrim, Modern Warfare 3 and about ten other huge hits.
But is it the best year ever? Time will tell, though it's got some seriously stiff competition. Fruitless though it sounds, we scoured through past release lists in an attempt to pick the five most impressive years in gaming's relatively short history. The result? We had a tie and couldn't stick with just five. So, here are the SIX best years in video game history.
Pac Man (1980)This was the year gaming got its face. A weird, yellow, eyeless pizza face, but it was better than a Pong paddle.
Pac-Man not only became the industry's first pop-culture icon in 1980, but he had some serious company. Legendary games like Defender, Tempest, Battlezone, Missile Command, Warlords and Centipede all rolled into arcades, a blitz of hits that remain etched in the memories of countless geeks.
But it wasn't just about coin-ops. 1980 saw another arcade hit, Space Invaders, get ported to the Atari 2600. That version of the shooter — widely regarded as home gaming's first "killer app" — sold more Ataris than any of those wacky commercials.
Even if you didn't own an Atari, 1980 was sublime. Intellivision players enjoyed Baseball and real-time strategy precursor Sea Battle, while PC owners killed trolls with axes in Zork. And if they wanted to see what they were doing, they could play Mystery House, the first computer adventure game to use graphics. Today's old-school pretty much started here.
At a glance: Pac-Man, Space Invaders (2600), Centipede, Tempest, Defender, Missile Command, Warlords, Zork, Mystery House
4. (tie) 1991
Street Fighter II (1991)The year that brought us the Super Nintendo also brought us some of the biggest games ever.
Let's start with the platforming masterpiece Super Mario World, the best-selling game for the SNES, and considered by some to be the plumber's best effort. And it couldn't have come at a better time, as Sega chose '91 to release their own mascot platformer in the lightning-fast Sonic The Hedgehog.
While the two fought over console gamers, another fight was taking place in arcades. Street Fighter II hit the coin-op scene like a hadouken fireball, quickly asserting itself as the best of its breed. Another 'best of' was turning PC gamers into one-more-turn zombies courtesy of the downright legendary Sid Meier's Civilization.
Other hits? How about Tecmo Super Bowl, starring the unstoppable Bo Jackson? And if you preferred your games artsy, 1991 was the year of the influential Out of This World (called 'Another World' in Europe). A little of everything, 1991, and all of it great.
At a glance: Super Mario World, Sonic the Hedgehog, Civilization, Street Fighter II, Out of This World, Tecmo Super Bowl
4. (tie) 1996
Tomb Raider (1996)It was year two for the Sony Playstation and year one for the Nintendo 64, but for gamers, it was just an incredible year overall.
On the consoles, it was all about the move to 3D space. If you owned an N64, you started with Super Mario 64, one of the most revolutionary games ever made. If you owned a Playstation, you were playing another timeless 3D platformer, Tomb Raider, or fighting for your life in the survival-horror masterpiece Resident Evil. Or perhaps you were racing like a maniac through Wipeout XL or blasting away killer clowns in Twisted Metal 2.
Meanwhile, PC gamers enjoyed an embarrassment of riches, not the least of which was id's genre-redefining shooter, Quake. Duke Nukem 3D also ran out of bubble gum in '96, while a clickfest from Blizzard Software called Diablo gave non-shooter fans something very, very important to do.
At a glance: Super Mario 64, Tomb Raider, Resident Evil, Quake, Twisted Metal 2, Duke Nukem 3D, Diablo
Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)When it comes to influential blockbusters, 2001 only needed a one-two punch to earn its spot on the list.
Grand Theft Auto III arrived quietly enough, without the midnight madness that has accompanied every GTA game since. But once it hit, things would never be the same. The controversial action romp paved the way for countless open-world 3D games and signified a seismic shift in the direction of game development. Also, it was just plain awesome.
Not that Halo was any less important. Microsoft's Xbox launch game was an immediate sensation, solidifying the first-person shooter genre as a viable one for consoles and giving Microsoft the mascot it desperately needed to compete with Sony and Nintendo.
The second tier stuff was pretty killer as well: Gamecube fighting legend Super Smash Bros. Melee, hit sequel Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty, arthouse staple Ico, PC groundbreakers Black & White and Max Payne, and role-playing monster Final Fantasy X round out one of the biggest years on record.
At a glance: Grand Theft Auto III, Halo, Ico, Super Smash Bros. Melee, Metal Gear Solid 2, Black & White, Max Payne, Final Fantasy X
Rock Band (2007)Talk about a franchise year.
If it's a hit today, there's a good chance it got started right here. Rock Band, Assassin's Creed, Uncharted, Mass Effect and BioShock all hit store shelves in 2007. That's quite a launchpad.
But 2007 also packed some mighty fine blockbusters, including Master Chief's last official outing in Halo 3. Even bigger? The game that put Call of Duty back on the map, Modern Warfare, which would go on to become the year's top seller and reboot the franchise into something truly special.
Another shooter stole our hearts, however: The Orange Box, a collection that included three Half-Life games and, more importantly, the original Portal. In one package. At once price. Still the best deal ever, anywhere. And Wii owners finally had a reason to truly love their systems, as the sublime Super Mario Galaxy became the system's first truly must-own title.
Last but not least? Peggle. You know you love it.
At a glance: BioShock, Rock Band, Mass Effect, Assassin's Creed, Halo 3, Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare, The Orange Box (Portal), Super Mario Galaxy, Peggle
The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (1998)There are good years, there are great years, and then there are years so astounding we're still shocked they really happened. For us, that's 1998, the best year in video game history.
Why? Start with The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. Considered one of the greatest games of all time, it remains as beloved now as it did the day it turned the N64 into a must-own system.
And that's just the tip of the iceberg. Shooter fans got one helluva twofer in the vastly different but equally awesome Unreal and Half-Life. The former was a mind-blowing technical landmark, while the latter was just a classic in first-person storytelling and AI programming (fingers crossed we see the Half-Life story finally come to an end next year).
Prefer strategy? How about a little number called Starcraft? Action game junkies met Metal Gear Solid for the first time, just as role-playing fans got swept away in Bioware's amazing Baldur's Gate. If your tastes skewed off the rails a bit, you could play best-in-its-class adventure great Grim Fandango, sneak around in the stunning Thief, philosophically role-play in Xenogears, or sit on the bus glued to your Game Boy and Pokemon Red/Blue — the very first Pokemon games.
At a glance: The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Half-Life, Unreal, StarCraft, Thief, Metal Gear Solid, Baldur's Gate, Grim Fandango, Pokemon Red/Blue