Many years stand out in the gaming industry as momentous periods of history for the medium. There are the golden years of the 1980s when the NES redefined home consoles and introduced some of the most enduring icons of the industry. There’s 1996 when 3D gaming finally hit the big screen in the form of heavy hitters like Super Mario 64 and The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
More recently, some gamers claim 2007, the year that Bioshock and Halo 3 were released, or 2017 (Breath of the Wild, Super Mario Galaxy) could hold the title of “best year in gaming”. Today, we’re not talking about any of those years. Instead, we’re looking at 2001, the year that the Game Boy Advance, Nintendo Gamecube, and original Xbox all hit the market.
The first year of the decade included some of the best games ever made, unforgettable experiences defined by the limitations of their consoles and bolstered by the creativity of their creators. From epic titles like Grand Theft Auto III to smaller outings like Advance Wars, the year was full to the brim with unparalleled games. Let’s take a stroll down memory lane and find out why 2001 might have been the best year in gaming history.
Advance Wars sees players taking control of a diminutive army of toy-like soldiers from one of four color-coded countries in a fictional world. There are infantry units, tanks, planes, boats, and countless other cute, bite-sized military units to unlock and battle with. The game plays out on a grid and uses turn-based combat to keep things orderly and strategic.
While the Wars series was a known entity in Japan for decades before Advance Wars was released in the West, the first Game Boy Advance entry in the series proved a massive success in the US. The game was released on September 10, 2001, over the protests of some higher-ups at Nintendo of Japan. Some of them worried that the game was too brainy for the West and that its strategy-based gameplay would confound some players.
Players defied their expectations by taking to the game swiftly. Advance Wars’ combination of smart turn-based gameplay and charming, colorful graphics made it a smash hit for Game Boy Advance owners. The cartoony, non-violent depiction of the toylike soldiers went over better than Nintendo expected, giving the company enough confidence to release several sequels to the popular Game Boy game in the West.
Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
Metal Gear Solid 2, the sequel to one of the most-celebrated PlayStation games, Metal Gear Solid, saw the series reach new heights on the PlayStation 2’s superior hardware. The second entry in the series is renowned for its excellent storyline, tight controls, and impressive (for the time) graphics. Players once again control Solid Snake, the cloned secret agent who works for the paramilitary FOXHOUND organization.
Well, they briefly control Solid Snake.
Players spend much of the bulk of the game controlling Raiden, a newcomer who replaces Snake in the main narrative. He has to infiltrate Big Shell, an offshore oil rig, which has been overrun by terrorists calling themselves the Sons of Liberty. The game’s eerily prescient story tackles issues like post-truth politics, fake news, synthetic media, and echo chambers.
It’s also just a downright fun game. Sneaking around as Raiden and fooling guards is as entertaining as ever, and it’s always great to play through a Metal Gear boss fight. It’s impossible to forget the anime-inspired villains in this wide-ranging and inspiring adventure.
Halo: Combat Evolved
Developer Bungie rewrote the entire first-person shooter genre when it released Halo: Combat Evolved on the Xbox in 2001. The game features tight aim controls and an addictive sandbox-style gameplay loop that made it a one-of-a-kind experience upon its release. Bungie cracked the code on an aim-assist algorithm that made Halo the first console FPS to feature controls that actually felt intuitive and fun to use.
Halo is also a strongly narrative-driven game, which was unique at the time of its release. The storyline follows a superhuman “Spartan” soldier named John-117, though everyone in the game just calls him by his rank, Master Chief. The player controls John as he and the crew of the Pillar of Autumn explore a mysterious alien installation, the titular Halo ring. Along the way, Chief and his Marine allies constantly clash with the villainous Covenant, a cabal of religiously fanatical aliens who believe that humans are abominations.
The game has remained enduringly popular over 20 years after its release, thanks to a strong online multiplayer component and numerous sequels. The Halo franchise has gone on to become one of the most recognizable and popular first-person shooting series in history, and it’s all thanks to the incredible Halo: Combat Evolved.
Super Smash Bros Melee
Sure, the original Super Smash Bros for the Nintendo 64 was a big deal. It was a smash hit game that tickled the imaginations of young gamers the world over, and it led to numerous late-night multiplayer games, with four friends huddled together around their N64 system, beating each other up as Mario, Luigi, and other classic Nintendo characters. However, it was the second entry in the series, Super Smash Bros Melee, that saw the franchise become a definitive centerpiece of Nintendo’s evergreen library.
Melee is a dramatic upgrade from its predecessor in basically every way. It features faster, fiercer combat, smoother graphics, better visual performance, and way more playable characters. The inclusion of new fighters like Mewtwo, Pichu, Marth, Roy, and Falco made the game significantly more popular among competitive players. The fighting game features a swift and skill-testing gameplay loop that rewards the fastest reflexes.
Melee was so popular, in fact, that it remains a go-to competitive event for fighting game tournaments and other organized events. While the game’s sequels have arguably replaced it in the public eye, diehard Melee fans swear that it’s the definitive Smash Bros experience.
Developer Atlus struck gold with Golden Sun, its criminally-underrated 2001 Game Boy Advance RPG. The game is often compared to classic Final Fantasy, as it features a party of four adventurers on a quest to seal the four elemental lighthouses that threaten to destroy the world with their unchecked magic. It’s unique, though, in that it features plentiful environmental puzzles and numerous side quest lines that allow you to find new “Djinn,” playful magical creatures that fuel each character’s magic.
The storyline follows an “adept,” a young man named Isaac, who can channel elemental earth and knows advanced sword techniques that make him a deadly opponent. Along with his friends, he embarks on a world-spanning journey to contain the unchecked forces of magic that threaten to destroy his home. The game’s twist ending and compelling narrative make it unique among Game Boy games of the era.
Golden Sun is renowned among fans for its impressive, deep combat system, well-written story, and genuinely appealing graphics for a Game Boy Advance game. While the game received a handful of sequels, its third entry ended on an unresolved cliffhanger. Fans of the handheld-only RPG series continue to hold out hope that Nintendo might revive the series and bring it to the hybrid Switch system soon.
Jak and Daxter
Jak and Daxter was developer Naughty Dog’s first outing on the PS2. The company catapulted to fame in the 1990s with its popular Crash Bandicoot series, but Jak and Daxter saw the team turn to more open-world designs, inspired by 3D platformers like Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie. The colorful, energetic game received rave reviews at the time and kickstarted a huge franchise for Sony’s home console.
Players control Jak, a teenager who lives in a fantasy world with steampunk-style technology. At the outset of the game, Jak’s friend Daxter is transformed into an “Ottsel,” a fictional creature that is a hybrid of an otter and a weasel. Jak and Daxter set off on a quest to reverse this transformation, which leads them into conflict with Gol Acheron and Maia, evil sages who plan to flood the world with a mysterious substance called Dark Eco.
The game went on to receive numerous sequels, like the critically-acclaimed Jak 2 and the spin-off racing game Jak X. While Naughty Dog has since moved on from the series, it remains one of the most beloved PS2-era franchises.
Pikmin was a launch title for the Nintendo Gamecube, and it quickly became a fan favorite new entry in Nintendo’s catalog. The game is essentially Nintendo’s console-friendly take on the real-time strategy genre, a game genre that is notoriously difficult for newcomers to break into. Pikmin alleviates this learning curve by allowing players to ease themselves into the deep combat system and learn how to control their swarms of plant-like Pikmin in combat against bugs, slugs, and other monsters.
The game’s narrative follows Olimar, the captain of a tiny spaceship that lands on Earth to find relics to sell back on his home planet. Those relics are usually common household items like batteries and shoes, which appear massive to the diminutive Olimar and his tiny Pikmin armies.
Like many other entries in this list, Pikmin launched a franchise that is still going to this day. Its two sequels are also beloved Nintendo titles that frequently top lists of the greatest games ever made. If you haven’t played this excellent game before, good luck–it’s only officially available on the GameCube, a system that hasn’t been on store shelves for 16 years.