Best of 2021: Top 5 Game Consoles

In all kinds of ways, 2021 was a tired, drawn-out sequel to 2020; a reminder that the rollover to January 1st each year is ultimately pretty arbitrary. But while there was arguably more room for optimism in some parts of life this year, just try to get yourself a PS5 to see how little has changed in others.

Indeed the first full year on the market for Sony and Microsoft’s new machines was slower than some might have hoped, both in getting stock to people and in releasing mind-blowing exclusive games; this kept their last-gen siblings well in the conversation all year. But the experience of using each console did improve substantially, and Nintendo predictably bounced back strongly to keep them on their toes.

This is how I would rank the current five major consoles (disregarding PC and mobile) in order of the impressions they made on me in 2021.

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VR BEST OF 2021 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is beyond unlikely. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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5. Playstation 4

LAST YEAR: 1st

It feels pretty weird having the Playstation 4 at the bottom of this short list, especially after a show-stopping 2020 when the sales titan ushered in its much scarcer successor with a powerful final salvo of acclaimed exclusive games. But even though the lack of PS5 availability has funnily enough made the PS4’s 2022 look mighty tasty – as plenty of next year’s Sony headliners will land for the last-gen machine as well – 2021 will still enter the pages of history strangely blank.

In terms of games not available on Nintendo or Microsoft consoles, the PS4 got a simultaneous release of Kena: Bridge of Spirits alongside the PS5, and received a down-port of uneven PS5 launch title Godfall nine months after the fact. Spider-Man made his promised Sony-exclusive debut in Marvel’s Avengers as DLC, but that’s… it? The only actual 2021 PS4 exclusive of any note I can find in the data is Chicory: A Colorful Tale, which was thankfully extremely well received, but I’m drawing a blank on anything else worth mentioning (EDIT: less than a week before I published this Chicory came out for the Switch and no longer counts, oops). The champion console also received essentially no new firmware features, although I doubt many people were expecting any. So, uh, bring on 2022 I guess.

4. Xbox One

LAST YEAR: 3rd

At this current moment, the ageing Xbox One is still very much a part of the Microsoft ecosystem – and not just because it still has to hold up most of the brand’s home entertainment presence as every Xbox Series X to come off a factory line gets snapped up almost immediately. Though the green team’s marketing is steering more towards its younger brothers every day, you can count the 2021 Xbox games that didn’t make it to the Xbox One family on half a hand.

Last year I treated the One as the year’s lead Xbox platform, but it’s difficult to do that after a full year in which the Series S and X have existed in the wild. After all, most of the impressive firmware and UI improvements the Xbox platform received this year skipped the last-gen boxes, with one very cool exception. As of 2021 you can now stream Series X games to any Xbox One console via Game Pass, meaning with a decent wired connection, you can sacrifice some visual clarity for a 60FPS, quick-loading version of Forza Horizon 5 that doesn’t take up 100+GB on your hard drive. That alone nails the world-weary console to fourth spot.

3. Playstation 5

LAST YEAR: 4th

The Playstation 5 had a much better 2021 than it did 2020. In other news, water is wet.

Though the PS5 still lacks some notable features – such as Variable Refresh Rate support, 1440p output, and a user interface that doesn’t make me want to tear my nails off – a full year on the market saw the black-and-white giant add some welcome flexibility to its expandable storage options, meaning 667GB is no longer the entirety of the platform’s next-gen capacity. The PS5 is also far more stable than it used to be, and the in-built PSN store layout makes a bit more sense.

More importantly, the PS5 has some exclusive games now! Not all that many, mind you – it’s still early days – but Ratchet & Clank: Rift Apart is a phenomenal showcase for the system’s unique abilities and potential (even if supply constraints will limit that potential a tad until Playstation games can properly leave the PS4 behind). Though it sparked a wide-ranging discussion on gaming difficulty, Returnal is another technical marvel with crunchy mechanics and delectable sound design; and though its exclusivity won’t last long, Deathloop has captivated critics from day one. Sure, Destruction All-Stars isn’t a world-beater, but it could be a grower.

Then there were the ‘director’s cut’ re-releases of PS4 games – all very recent source material and all involving some sort of cost, but also three of the best next-gen treatments you could ask for: Ghost of Tsushima Director’s Cut, Death Stranding Director’s Cut and Final Fantasy VII Remake Integrade. There’s still a way to go, but in 2021 the PS5 started to show signs of one day living up to the ridiculous, scalper-baiting hype that still surrounds it – and doesn’t 2022’s Playstation slate just look delicious.

2. Xbox Series X|S

LAST YEAR: 5th

This list has always been anchored by two easily-defined pillars: exclusive games and/or game content on one side; and the nebulous “improved features and/or functionality” on the other. Usually videogame consoles are all about the former, but Xbox has been trying to do things differently for a few years now. Never before have I written up a list entry with the second pillar so clearly dominating and defining a console’s year.

Sure, the dashboard is now actually in 4K, and after almost a decade an Xbox console can actually mute speakers when a headset is attached (hooray), but the PC-like things an Xbox Series X can do now – all with the simplicity, automation and reliability of a console – are simply unprecedented. The very idea of FPS Boost seemed obscene not that long ago; now out of nowhere, over a hundred older-generation games just run twice as well when you boot them up on an Xbox Series console – including some that aren’t even available on PC storefronts.

The appeal of Quick Resume is now more apparent than ever with a permanent system tray devoted to the feature, and Dolby Vision HDR support is a future-focused addition to the Xbox ecosystem that sits nicely next to a wider-than-ever suite of Atmos-supported titles. Then there’s that cloud-streaming support that the Xbox One also received – which works even better on the Series line. And the fact that the bafflingly tiny Xbox Series S supports pretty much all of these features is still wild. 2021 also saw perhaps the densest first 12 months for new controller colours that a videogame console has ever seen, then finished the year with the first special edition hardware of the new generation – and that Halo console is beautiful.

You do still need to get out a spreadsheet and ready your asterisks when it comes to just how exclusive the Xbox line-up of exclusive games is, but that line-up still holds some of 2021’s very best games: Microsoft Flight Simulator, Twelve Minutes, The Ascent, Psychonauts 2, The Artful Escape, Forza Horizon 5, The Gunk, and Halo Infinite were all critically well-received and I enjoyed what I played of all of them. Getting multi-platform multiplayer titles Outriders and Back 4 Blood (both also cross-play) onto Xbox Game Pass for launch was also a huge visibility win that benefited the games and the platform. Last year I had to have the Xbox Series X and S at the bottom of my list because they didn’t do well under my traditional criteria, despite my eagerness to express how much I enjoyed playing them. Now, thankfully, I don’t have to.

1. Nintendo Switch

LAST YEAR: 2nd

After a pair of entries as wordy as those, the Nintendo Switch’s year is almost embarrassingly simple to sum up: In 2021 the console released more exclusive games than any of its competitors, improved its compatibility in tangible ways, and released a sleek new model that improves the overall experience of playing Switch games in all but one configuration – despite a lack of improved processing power (for more on the Switch OLED model, check out my extended review).

Those exclusive games speak for themselves: Bravely Default II, Monster Hunter Rise, New Pokemon Snap, World’s End Club, Game Builder Garage, Mario Golf: Super Rush, Monster Hunter Stories 2, Disgaea 6, Monster Train First Class, No More Heroes III, Cruis’n Blast, WarioWare: Get it Together, Eastward, Metroid Dread, Mario Party Superstars, Shin Megami Tensei V, Big Brain Academy: Brain vs Brain, Loop Hero.

New games not enough for you? How about the ridiculously meaty expansion to Animal Crossing New Horizons, or the excellent Bowser’s Fury bonus game that came with the Super Mario 3D World re-release? How about the Miitopia or Zelda: Skyward Sword remasters, the phenomenal exclusive compilations Danganronpa Decadence and Castlevania Advance Collection, or the nostalgia trip trap remakes Pokemon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl? How about, of all things, an actual western remake of the long-lost Famicom Detective Club? I value my ribs, so I’m not even going to bother talking about that NSO N64 expansion pack and how many hours I’ve put into it. No, sir. The Nintendo Switch takes 2021 in a canter.

And yep, for those paying attention, that’s yet another odd-numbered year with the Switch in first place. I don’t like its chances in 2023, though…

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Honorable Mentions

Wow, I can’t even put a joke answer here this year.

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