Every month we get a nice roundup of the bestselling games for that time frame. The NPD group meticulously gathers as much data as possible to rank which games came out on top in terms of overall dollar sales across all platforms and presents them in a convenient ranking system. These are great for seeing how well your favorite games are selling, hopefully seeing them in the top 10, and where they stack up against the other games released. This information can also be helpful to know whether or not a game was successful, and perhaps will be getting a sequel or continuation of some sort in the future.
2020 was a landmark year for game sales, leaving many to wonder if 2021 could possibly continue, or even surpass, the explosive growth the industry saw that year. Even with new consoles still incredibly scarce, most major releases were available on current and previous generation hardware. Still, there are some exclusives here that managed to easily crack the top 10. As with most years, there will be a handful of titles you can already guess will make the cut, but plenty of new faces shake things up in some surprising ways. Here are the 10 bestselling games of 2021.
- The bestselling games of all time
- The bestselling games of 2020
- The most expensive games ever developed
1. Call of Duty: Vanguard
2021 was a rough year for Call of Duty. A massive cloud loomed over the series once a massive lawsuit and litigation against Activision began early in the year. For as big and public as that story was, and continues to be, the truth is most people who play Call of Duty don’t know or care much about it. What probably did hurt sales more this year compared to the previous is the general exhaustion with the World War 2 setting. Just two years after Call of Duty: WW II, Call of Duty: Vanguard once again revisits the most well-explored conflict ever depicted in video games. In a series that, even among the hardcore fans, is known for having nearly identical gameplay, having such a familiar setting on top of that may just be too much.
All that said, Call of Duty: Vanguard still outsold every other shooter with a more unique and interesting setting on name and brand power alone. It was second only to last year’s Call of Duty right up until December, when it was able to overtake its predecessor and claim the No. 1 spot. This time the campaign focuses on a new special forces unit that jumps between different time periods and locations all across the war that didn’t leave much of an impression. Multiplayer had plenty of content, with 20 maps and four new game modes. Zombies, as always, was also revived, but much less robust at launch than almost ever before. There was only one map, and the biggest attraction, that being the long, cryptic, and sometimes insane Easter egg ending wasn’t there at launch. This wasn’t the best year for a new Call of Duty, but even a down year still puts it as the best selling game of the year.
Read our full: Call of Duty: Vanguard review
2. Call of Duty: Black Ops — Cold War
Because the yearly Call of Duty games always come out near the end of the calendar year, they mostly end up in the top 10 of both the year they release and the following year. That’s no surprise. Just like with last year’s Call of Duty: Modern Warfare hanging on at No. 2 behind Call of Duty: Black ops — Cold War, Cold War lands right behind its younger sibling in 2021. This entry did enjoy quite a long life, having a nice synergy with Warzone alongside a full package of campaign, multiplayer, and zombies mode. The Black Ops subseries within Call of Duty is also one of the more popular, probably second only to Modern Warfare, so the sales potential of this title was never really in doubt.
Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War took players back to the cold war era of American history on a series of fictionalized classified missions for the CIA focusing on more small-scale and covert action. That isn’t to say there aren’t the big bombastic set pieces the series is known for, but this game offered a good balance of gameplay styles, plus even some side missions and alternate endings that only a couple of games have offered before. Aside from the setting, though, you know what you’re getting with this entry of Call of Duty if you’ve played any of them for the past decade or so. If you’ve never been a fan, this one won’t change your mind.
3. Madden NFL 22
The two games you can set your watch to being on the year’s top bestselling list are Call of Duty and Madden. Madden is a little more fluid in terms of placement, but always makes the cut. Unlike most other annual games, however, the Madden series has had a mostly mixed reception in the past few iterations for lack of new features and content, or even having less content than previous years. This year attempted to alleviate that with deeper systems and more updates to expand the title as the season went on. In the end, at least reviews-wise, it was seen as a fine Madden title, but without ambition and a few poorly implemented modes and mechanics.
Just like Call of Duty, reviews don’t mean much to Madden NFL 22. Sales were, as usual, high enough to make it the best selling sports title of the year, and claim the No. 3 spot on the list. The iconic Franchise mode returns, but with a new Scouting feature to expand the management side with more RPG style elements and control, plus the new A.I. system was a major step up from previous entries. Of course, as a football sim, you can play in all the notable stadiums in the highest quality graphics yet. In the end, Madden still delivers on what most people look for from it: a great football simulator you can run through your own seasons with and play against opponents online.
4. Pokémon: Brilliant Diamond/Shining Pearl*
Our first Nintendo title comes with the asterisk that all Nintendo games have, that being they never share any of their digital sales information. What that means is that we only know how many physical copies of Pokémon: Brilliant Diamond and Pokémon: Shining Pearl were sold without adding in however many more were purchased digitally. On one hand, that leaves out a potentially massive number of sales that could easily boost this title higher on the list, but on the other, it is technically counting two versions of the game in one sales number. Either way, the Pokémon franchise just proves that it is a cultural and sales phenomenon that has no signs of slowing down. Every year a new game in the franchise hits, you can count on it being high up on that year’s bestselling games.
Pokémon: Brilliant Diamond and Pokémon: Shining Pearl aren’t even technically new games. They’re remakes of the older Pokémon: Diamond and Pokémon: Pearl, though with a handful of new features and a decent chunk of new content. Perhaps because those original games are quite old now, coming out in 2006, many new fans never played them before and could consider them new. Naturally, the old fans who may not like where the modern series has gone have enjoyed the series remaking all the old games for modern consoles. Frankly, the power of the Switch plus the name Pokémon was just a recipe for sales that no one would bet against. We’re eager to see how the new Pokémon Legends: Arceus does in comparison as a much more risky and experimental take on the tried and true RPG series.
Read our full: Pokémon Brilliant Diamond and Shining Pearl review
5. Battlefield 2042
If 2021’s Call of Duty’s name was enough to carry it through a mixed reception, then what happened with Battlefield 2042 is nearly miraculous. The Battlefield name is by no means weak, there’s a massive fan base that loves the large-scale, squad-based, vehicular combat mixed with ground battles that this series essentially invented, but it has always fallen behind the likes of Call of Duty. With Battlefield 2042, hopes were very high from the reveal. It promised a near-future setting, 2042 obviously, with massive player counts and new dynamic weather events that would shake up the course of matches in unpredictable ways. Add in the advanced destruction, great graphics, and impeccable sound design, and it all seemed like this Battlefield might be the one to finally dethrone Call of Duty.
On the press side of things, all that hype came to a screaming halt after people got their hands on the game’s beta. Even with a slight delay, Battlefield 2042 was known to be extremely buggy and flawed right up to launch day. It was also launching with no single-player component at all, but instead would include a new Portal mode that allowed players to create their own custom games with elements from just about all the previous Battlefield titles. That turned out to be the best aspect of Battlefield 2042, since the player count has fallen drastically from launch. It seems the game was able to sell itself fast enough to enough people before the warnings about its technical quality hit the mainstream. Hopefully it improves over time, but this was a surprise to see so high up on the list.
Read our full: Battlefield 2042 review
6. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Here’s where the surprises start hitting. A Spider-Man game would make complete sense to make the top-10 bestseller list — he’s the most popular superhero in the world after all — but Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales has two key points that make it a nice surprise to see hit this list at No. 6. First is that it isn’t a full Spider-Man game in size, or even in terms of staring the “typical” Spider-Man. Comic fans will know there are plenty of Spider-Men(?) in the universe, but for most people, Spider-Man is just Peter Parker. Also, Miles Morales is not a full-on sequel to the first game, but more of an expansion. It’s not a short, DLC-sized experience, but also not a 20 or more hour adventure. That leads into the second key point which is that this game wasn’t full price, and this list is based on dollar sales, meaning it would have had to sell way more copies than a normal full-priced title to match them.
Starring the titular Miles Morales, who had also just gotten his own fantastic film, this smaller title acts as a bridge between the original Marvel’s Spider-Man and the eventual sequel where both Peter Parker and Miles Morales will be main characters. This game also benefited by being the first big IP available on the PS5 (no offense Demon’s Souls), and from the smaller price tag. It also came to PS4 — otherwise, it probably wouldn’t have managed to hit this list, but certainly got a lot of eyes on it for being one of the showcase titles for the new system. The new winter theme, new powers, gripping story, and amazing web-swinging mechanics from the first game all helped Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales reach the heights of the original, even at a discounted price.
7. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe*
This kart never seems to run out of gas. Mario Kart 8: Deluxe might as well be sold bundled with every Switch because, at this point, there can’t be many people out there who have the system but not this game. Originally a Wii U game from way back in 2014, all Nintendo had to do was port it to their new, way more successful, handheld and home console hybrid, add a few bells and whistles, and they got a game that just won’t stop selling. Since they released it on the Switch in 2017, Mario Kart 8: Deluxe has sold over 38 million copies, easily putting it as the systems best selling game. It’s completely deserved, too, because this is the unchallenged king of kart racers.
Mario Kart 8: Deluxe is the biggest and best Mario Kart game yet. It has amazing visuals, tons of courses, characters, ways to customize your kart, and perfectly responsive controls. Every drift just feels right, and the way each character handles only takes a second to adjust to before you’re corning like a pro. There are also the items that spice up the races, naturally, that are intended to keep things close. In a rare twist, however, Mario Kart 8: Deluxe also has a surprisingly functional online system compared to most of Nintendo’s efforts. Hopping online with friends for a race is pleasantly painless, and the quality is more than good enough for a fun day at the race track.
Read our full: Mario Kart 8: Deluxe review
8. Resident Evil: Village
An early game from 2021 that kind of fell off the radar as the year went on was the latest installment in the long, long-running survival horror franchise Resident Evil: Village. This is also technically Resident Evil 8, but also technically not with all the spinoffs and subseries, but really it’s a sequel to Resident Evil 7: Biohazard, which revived the mainline series by returning to the horror focused roots and experimenting with a first-person perspective. Resident Evil: Village remains a first-person adventure, but is less horror-focused and instead tries to call back to the survival action style of Resident Evil 4. It managed to succeed considering it has now become the bestselling title in the entire series.
The internet went wild for Resident Evil: Village when it was first revealed and we were introduced to one of the main villains dubbed Lady D. This giantess garnered quite a fan following, perhaps contributing to the game selling so well. It turns out her role in the finished product was not as substantial as the hype built her up to be, but those who played still found a very enjoyable horror-themed ride. The titular village had some cool Metroidvania-style exploration options, the new enemies were frantic and fun to fight, and fans of the series were given some new revelations to chew on for where the series would go in the future.
9. MLB: The Show 21*
If you’re not into them, it can be easy to forget just how insanely popular sports titles are. There’s a large overlap in fans of sports and games to be sure, but even more people who only play sports titles on a year-to-year basis. The MLB games, prior to 2021, had all been developed by a PlayStation first-party studio and released exclusively on their systems. That all changed in 2021 when MLB: The Show 21 was confirmed to also be coming to the Xbox family of consoles, drastically widening the sales potential. But, there are two wrinkles to this story: The first being that Xbox made this game available day 1 on its Game Pass service, meaning any subscriber could download and play it without purchasing it. The second is that these sales numbers don’t include any digital sales made on the Xbox platforms. So, between being “free” for Game Pass members and not counting Xbox digital sales, MLB: The Show 21 still managed to hit a home run and be the best selling sports title of 2021, and was the best selling baseball game in U.S history.
MLB: The Show 21 is exactly what you expect. It’s a baseball game, but with everything you could ever want out of one. A new addition made in this year’s entry was the ability to design and customize your very own baseball stadium, which can be shared with other players online. The Road to the Show mode is back, plus a revamped Diamond Dynasty, tweaked pitching mechanics, and a brand new tutorial system to help new players get their feet wet. MLB: The Show 21 is just the latest in a series that has always delivered the highest quality baseball games, and now we’re finally able to see just how popular it is when not restricted to a single console.
10. Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury*
This game sits somewhere between a remaster and a new game. Yes, the bulk of the experience is just the old Super Mario 3D World from back on the Wii U, with the addition of some quality of life features and the option to play four-player co-op online, but it also includes a smaller, brand new experience in Bowser’s Fury. By this point, nearly every Wii U game of note has been ported to the Switch and seen massive success, so the best Mario game on that console coming over was already a sure hit. They didn’t even have to change anything about the game, either, since it was universally loved by everyone who played it before. The problem was not many people did due to the poor Wii U sales. Again, this is a Nintendo game so, just like with Pokémon, Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury makes it this high on the list on physical sales alone.
Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury probably didn’t even need the brand new mode to sell this well. The fact that it did add that additional mode in, and that it is so good, just makes it an even greater package. The normal Super Mario 3D World is a classic Mario game that is brimming with life, creativity, and all-around joy (at least until you get to the super difficult stages in the end game). Bowser’s Fury is a completely new beast. This little experiment is an open-world adventure where you can explore and take on different objectives to collect Cat Shines while Bowser looms in the distance and occasionally harasses you over time. If this is a possible template for a new 3D Mario game, Nintendo likely has another hit on their hands considering how much people loved this little taste of what it could look like. Also, this is the game that gave us the catsuit, and no one can say that seeing Mario and friends scampering up walls and running on all fours while covered in fur isn’t peak video games.
Read our full: Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury review
Other notable figures
Let’s wrap up with a few quick points that are somewhat interesting:
In terms of hardware, the Nintendo Switch outsold all other consoles in 2021. That tracks considering how difficult the PS5 and Xbox Series X and S are to get, and the drop off in interest for PS4s and Xbox Ones.
Two other Switch games made the top 20, with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, last year’s bestselling Switch game, hitting No. 14, and Super Smash Bros. Ultimate sneaking in at No. 17.
Forza Horizon 5 was the only Xbox first-party game to barely make it on the list as the year’s 20th bestselling game.
Back 4 Blood, despite a mixed reception and being available on Game Pass, still sold well enough to grab the 18th bestselling slot, hopefully meaning we will see more from this studio.
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