Continuing the trend begun last year, I wanted to model some Game of the Year awards through categories in addition to simply ranking my personal favorites. Between now and the dawn of 2022, I'll be updating this page regularly with new entries for each category, so make sure to check in and see what titles win which awards.
For each of these categories, I'll choose a winner and mention some notable runner-ups. Any game nominated or chosen for any of these cateories is then eligible for the final category, Best Game, which is the culminating category where I will construct a ranked list of my favorite games from this year.
Best Old Game
Since Genshin Impact's launch, I have played the game every single day. For those counting, that is over 450 consecutive days of playing the same game. Part of the reason for this is the drip feed of premium currency that is part of miHoYo's strategy to monetize its players, but a large part of why that is fine with me (and I keep coming back) is because the world of Teyvat is huge, bountiful, and fun to be in. Beyond the game's surprisingly great main story, there's also always something new getting added game, ensuring you always have something to look forward to. I'm no stranger to gacha games and the way they string people along, but my enthusiasm for 2020's Game of the Year hasn't waned much--if at all--through the duration of 2021, making it the easy top choice for best old game.
Best Streaming Game
It has been years since my favorite card game, Faeria, got removed from the App Store. The game still lives on PC and plays perfectly fine via Steam Link, but sometimes it's hard to get excited to play a game that was once native to iOS through this circuitous method. With their follow up title, Roguebook, streaming is the only way I can enjoy this roguelike deck-builder on an iOS device, and oh boy is it enjoyable. Co-created by Richard Garfield, Roguebook takes most of what you'd expect from deck-building games these days and tosses it all completely out the window. It's good to grow a fat deck and experiment with combos in this game, and you can succeed while doing this. It's a super refreshing game in that respect, plus it's full of polish, borrows lore from my beloved Faeria and is a sinch to play using touch controls on Steam Link.
I played a lot of great games with really great music in them this year, but Psycholonials is a true standout among its peers in this category. Andrew Hussie's visual novel about a depressed twenty-something living alone and unemployed during the 2020 COVID-19 outbreak succeeds as an experience primarily through its writing, but every moment of strikes a perfect emotional chord thanks to its phenomenal and varied soundtrack by Clark Powell. I posted my favorite track above, but just go listen to all of it. Better yet buy it. It's so good.
This might be a bit of a surprise pick because Nauticrawl is a game mostly about telling and not showing. You play as fugitive who has stolen a bizarre machine with an arcane set of levers, buttons, and screens that make it work, and no windows or instructions of any kind. That said, the design of your vessel is so immaculately detailed, creatively constructed, and provides just the right amount of glimpses into the outside world to make it one of the most compelling experiences of the year. With Nauticrawl, less is certainly more.
Rocket League Sideswipe
I'm gonna be honest: This was a really tough call. Three of the best mobile multiplayer titles in years came out in 2021, but Rocket League Sideswipe takes the cake for being such an incredible interpretation of the base Rocket League game shrunk down into a manageable but still highly competitive and intense package that is incredibly easy to enjoy in short bursts or long sessions. Best of all, the game asks nothing of you but to enjoy it. There's no microtransactions or ads, just fun team-based car sports and some goofy unlockables if you want to play for anything more than just your own enjoyment.
In playing Psycholonials this year, I felt like someone had finally put together a story that acknowledges and observes the way our society currently functions and told it through a lens custom-tailored to my interests and experience. It's interactive fiction that is both beautifully written but also borderline unhinged at points, and constantly walks a tightrope of delivering a cohesive plot while spiraling out of control to pop off on all kinds of online discourse. I haven't experienced anything like it, but I loved every second of it. Forget just games, Psycholonials is the best thing I read this year.
Night Book squeaks onto my year end list because it captures the best of what FMV games can be in a really tight package. I had so much fun with it the first time I played it I immediately played through the entire thing again. It's just a great little horror game that knows what it is and delivers on the small promises it makes to its players.
I like a good management game on mobile, and Hundred Days was the best one I played all year. This wine-making sim is surprisingly easy to get sucked into, and it's got a nice little story to boot.
Platformers are hard to get feeling right on mobile, but Unruly Heroes makes it look all too easy. This stylish action game has wonderful pacing and level design and controls beautifully on touch. Easily the best single-player action game I played this year.
This warm and inviting collectible card game is diabolically compelling without any of the icky monetization schemes that tend to hang over this genre. You build your best deck and face off against real or AI opponents to put your skills to the test, but you also always have to hope you have a little luck on your side. This makes every match of Nova Island exciting and feeling fresh every time you boot it up.
A mashup of auto-chess and a sort of Geometry Wars-style take on the classic snake arcade game, SNKRX is a dangerous combination of good ideas that fit well together. This is one of those games that is easy to get sucked into for run after run, and SNKRX is constantly prepared to reward you with a greater challenge the more you master and overcome the obstacles it puts in your way.
Say No! More is a cute and heartwarming game that preaches a very simple mantra to preserve your own self-worth, and it actually works to comfort and give guidance as you play it. Rarely have I encountered games that do this so effectively, especially while also being legitimately funny to boot.
Nauticrawl won me over from the immediate shroud of mystery it drapes over itself. There's no tutorial or much in the way of introduction to the game. It just expects you to figure it out, but the ways in which you can start to intuit solutions to create momentum through the entire game just speak to its immaculate design. Every little thing you uncover in Nauticrawl is immensely rewarding as a result, moreso than just about any other achievement I made in playing games this year.
I've already honored Psycholonials in two previous category selections for this year. I could probably go further in depth about the game here, but instead I'll just encourage you to read my review. In revisiting it, it's some of my own most inspired writing from this year, and I stand by every word of it. That should tell you enough about its placement on this list.
I'm no stranger to mobile MOBAs, so when I say that Wild Rift blows everything else out of the water, I mean it. The sheer depth of this game is staggering, but its also been made surprisingly easy to pick up and start learning. This is the most complete, hardcore multiplayer game you could ask for by mobile standards and it makes everything else that's even in the same ballpark of the genre feel like a cheap toy.
As mentioned earlier in this piece, mobile got a stack of great multiplayer titles this year, and Rocket League Sideswipe sits firmly on top of the heap. It's stylish, easy to play, brutally competitive, and almost always incredibly exciting. Psyonix also did everyone a massive favor by keeping things simple and not trying to monetize the game. There's really nothing quite like it. If you don't believe me, go try it. There's literally nothing stopping you from playing 2021's Game of the Year.