Top-Selling, Best-Reviewed, Award-Winning – How Often Is A Video Game All Three?

In other forms of media, there tends to be a disconnect between what wins awards, what makes money, and what the overall audience likes best. The top grossing movies of a given year are seldom the ones that win Oscars or score the best reviews from critics. The Grammys seem to often award the year’s biggest-selling artists, but not the ones on critics’ top 10 lists. TV seems to be closing the gap between critically-acclaimed, award-winning, and most-watched, but a lot of the shows that regularly rank the highest in viewer count aren’t the ones that bring home the Emmys.

That had me wondering: What about video games? How much intersection is there between the year’s best-reviewed games, game of the year-winning games, and top selling games?

I decided to use GameRankings to determine the best review scores for each year, and I used the Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences Game of the Year award for the default “award winner.” I also disqualified ports or special editions of games that came out in previous years for the review score portion and went to the first new game on the list that was a brand new game for that year. Games that lead sales but came out in a previous year – as was the case with Wii Play which lead year-end charts even in years it wasn’t released in – were also disqualified in lieu of the highest selling game to actually be released in that year. Finally, I only went back to 2000, as video game sales statistics get sketchier prior to that, and video game aggregate scores start to be based on less and less concrete sources as you tick back into the 1990’s.

Best-reviewed: Grand Theft Auto V
AIAS award: The Last of Us
Top selling: Grand Theft Auto V

This year could’ve easily belonged to either GTAV or TLOU, as reviews were pretty comparable and TLOU was actually the 6th best-selling game that year, which is impressive for a PS3 exclusive (GTAV was also out on X360 that year). So 2013 very easily belonged to both of those games across the board.


Best-reviewed: Journey
AIAS award: Journey
Top selling: Madden NFL ’12

Journey had no chance of being one of the year’s top-selling games, even if digital sales numbers were actually reported in any kind of traditional and trackable way. But the biggest blockbuster to follow it in terms of review scores is Mass Effect 3, which didn’t even crack the top 10 for sales. Coincidentally, Madden 12 wasn’t anywhere near being one of the better-reviewed games of the year, only receiving aggregate scores in the 70’s. So 2012 wasn’t a consensus-reaching year by any means.

Best-reviewed: Batman: Arkham City
AIAS award: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim
Top selling: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3

Here’s the first year we have three different games in each of the categories. Skyrim however was #3 on both the sales charts and the review score list, and Batman only outscored it by a mere 0.79%. Despite being outsold by MW3, a case could definitely be made that Skyrim was basically agreed upon by all three sides as the year’s overall best even if it didn’t top the sales or review lists.

Best-reviewed: Super Mario Galaxy 2
AIAS award: Mass Effect 2
Top selling: Call of Duty: Black Ops

Another year with a different title in each spot. Mass Effect 2 was the second-best reviewed game of the year, but as in 2012 it failed to land in the top 10 sales-wise. Black Ops also reviewed significantly lower than either of the other two games, and behind almost two dozen other games, making 2010 another year when a consensus just wasn’t there no matter how you look at the stats.

Best-reviewed: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
AIAS award: Uncharted 2: Among Thieves
Top selling: Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2

MW2 was one of the better-reviewed CoD titles, finishing with a strong 93.57% aggregate (for the X360 version) score. It was measurably lower than Uncharted 2, which scored a 96.43%, but not enough to count it out. However, with Uncharted 2 not even making an appearance in the top 10 – and console exclusivity isn’t really an excuse as Halo 3: ODST and a handful of Wii exclusives made the list (and not just games that are bundled with Wii remotes, though that certainly applies to a few of them). So there was a little common ground in 2009, but not completely.

Best-reviewed: Grand Theft Auto IV
AIAS award: Little Big Planet
Top selling: Super Smash Bros. Brawl

GTAIV finished just behind SSBB in terms of sales, and LBP was GTAIV’s runner up on the review list. Meanwhile, SSBB is one of the ten best-reviewed games that year, and LBP doesn’t show up on the top 10 for sales. So one game seems to be left out of each category, making 2008 another year where things are kind of all over the place.

Best-reviewed: Super Mario Galaxy 
AIAS award: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare
Top selling: Halo 3

While this might seem like another messy year with three different games listed, in sales and reviews the other two aren’t far behind: CoD4 and Galaxy finished 3rd and 5th respectively in sales, and Halo 3 and CoD4’s scores were about the same and only a few percentage points behind Galaxy. So while this year didn’t have one overall dominant game, there’s little denying that all three of these games intersect all facets pretty solidly, and more so than in most of the other years we’ve looked at so far.

Best-reviewed: The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
AIAS award: Gears of War
Top selling: Madden NFL ’07

Whenever Madden has a particularly good sales year, it’s always going to skew the data a bit. However, we need only go to #3 on that chart to find award winner Gears of War. TP was absent from the top 10 despite being the most well-reviewed of the Wii’s launch games, though the system’s launch window scarcity certainly played a role in that. On the review front, GoW was nipping at TP‘s heels, finishing with an aggregate score less than 1% away. Madden, while garnering solid critical marks, trailed far behind the other two, however, making 2006 another year where all three top games fell far short somewhere else.

Best-reviewed: Resident Evil 4
AIAS award: God of War
Top selling: Madden NFL ’06

2005 is definitely one of the most conflicting years on record in terms of how games fared across the three categories. Despite the fact that RE4 and GoW are two of the best-reviewed games of their generation (and the two best reviewed for that year), neither managed to crack the top 10 in sales in 2005, which is especially surprising given the PS2’s ridiculous install base at that point and the fact that it clearly still had plenty of non-sports game buyers: the top 10 also includes Gran Turismo 4 and the PS2 versions of Star Wars: Battlefront 2, the Star Wars Ep. III game, and LEGO Star Wars. Creative and commercial success clearly weren’t on the same page that year.

Best-reviewed: Half-Life 2
AIAS award: Half-Life 2
Top selling: Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas

Individual PC game sales tend to be lower than individual console game sales and are also not as easily tracked as console sales, exacerbated by the fact that those in charge of digital distribution channels are generally pretty secretive about sales figures. So it makes 2004 complicated in terms of comparing Half-Life 2 to GTA:SA. The two games’ aggregate scores are also less than 0.5% apart. However, this is one year that we need to look at a game that didn’t show up in any of the categories, Halo 2, as it finished only a million units behind GTA and reviewed very comparably to the other two games. All in all, allowing for Half-Life 2‘s difficult to pin down but most definitely very strong sales, 2004 seems to have a pretty strong consensus amongst three specific games.

Best-reviewed: The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker
AIAS award: Call of Duty
Top selling: Madden NFL 2004

For once, it is actually the AIAS award that is the oddball. Call of Duty’s review scores were lower than a number of titles that year, including Star Wars: KOTORSSX3, Virtua Fighter 4, Soul Calibur II, Project Gotham Racing 2, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time, even Madden in fact. WW also sold very well that year, finishing fifth (fourth if you count Pokemon Ruby and Sapphire as a single game, which is fair as most people buy both). Console and PC sales charts are generally separate, and again solid sales figures for PC games aren’t as easily identifiable, but it is known that on 2003’s PC sales list Call of Duty lagged behind Command & Conquer: Generals, WarCraft III: Frozen Throne, Sim City 4, and a handful of Sims titles.

Best-reviewed: Metroid Prime
AIAS award: Battlefield 1942
Top selling: Grand Theft Auto: Vice City

Another three way split, with the game of the year honors going to another PC shooter (this being the first of three consecutive years the AIAS went this route). Which again makes things a bit complicated to parse out. Vice City is Metroid Prime‘s close second in terms of reviews, but MP – generally an extremely well-received series but one that rarely has blockbuster sales numbers – didn’t even crack the top 20. And Battlefield’s reviews were even further from the top games than Call of Duty’s were in 2003, with far more games outscoring it – even fellow PC FPSes Medal of Honor: Allied Assualt and No One Lives Forever 2. This was definitely a year when the AIAS seemed the most out of touch with both critics and game buyers.

Best-reviewed: Halo: Combat Evolved
AIAS award: Halo: Combat Evolved
Top selling: Grand Theft Auto III

It’s hard to deny that 2001 belonged to those two games up there. One revolutionized the open-world genre, and the other revolutionized the FPS genre on consoles (and in some ways, PC FPSes as well), both were defining games on their respective platforms, and they had the closest aggregate score of any games we’ve compared so far in this article. However, it’s still not quite that cut and dry. For one, Halo didn’t crack the top 10 for sales that year, which you could forgive since it was an Xbox launch game and gamers were a little slow to get on the Xbox bandwagon. And for two, the lists of the best-reviewed and top selling games of that year are startlingly similar. Metal Gear Solid 2 was third in reviews and fourth in sales, Gran Turismo 3 was fourth in reviews and sixth in sales, Tony Hawk 3 was fifth in reviews and seventh in sales, and an especially well-received Madden 2002 was ninth in reviews and second in sales. So in essence, it was a year when critical and commercial success went hand and hand for most of the year’s top games…except for the x-factor (pun intended) of Halo.

Best-reviewed: Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 2
AIAS award: Diablo II
Top selling: Pokemon Stadium

After the mostly harmonious results of 2001, this year is completely all over the place. For starters, 2000 was the year of the PS2 launch, the second (and best) year of the Dreamcast’s lifespan, and the PS1 was still getting some of its best games…and here comes an Nintendo 64 game – and a Pokemon spin-off game at that – bringing in the highest sales for the year. Review-wise, Pokemon Stadium earned a decent score (78%) but that doesn’t even land it in the top 100 best-reviewed games that year. Tony Hawk 2 finished just behind it on the sales chart, so that was a match to its critical acclaim. But then again, here comes the AIAS with another unorthodox pick that certainly isn’t a bad choice by any stretch, but in terms of just PC games it was outscored by games like Deus Ex, Counter-Strike, Theif II, and Sacrifice, as well as about 30 other games overall.

So what did we learn from all of this? Sometimes awards, critical success, and commercial acclaim go hand-in-hand…and sometimes they don’t. It isn’t always particularly satisfying to set out to get a solid answer about something only to find that a solid answer doesn’t exist, but I still found the way each year shook out to be quite interesting. Hopefully you did as well.