Research firm EEDAR tracks just about every quantifiable attribute of videogames and then mines that data to help their clients, which includes developers and publishers. In a GDC session on how games get reviewed, Erik Brudvig, director of editorial insights, shared some universal traits of games that score well. The five points seem like obvious choices, but checking these points against some recent games seems to show that they're onto something.
Gamers say that gameplay is everything, but EEDAR's data shows that visuals are key, and that games with good art and attractive visuals bring better review scores. Brudvig says that top-rated games also feature top-notch presentation. Menus and user interfaces in highly rated games are smooth and easy to use, and those that miss the mark won't score as well.
On the play side, Brudvig says that fluid controls are arguably the most important trait of the five for a good game to possess. He also said that review scores go up for games that evoke a strong emotional response, like nostalgia or excitement. Finally, gamers respond to unique or innovative design, and positive reviews of games that feature these help drive the industry forward, encouraging developers to try new things.
Brudvig pointed to Nintendo as an example, saying that many of their top francise releases typically feature all five traits. He used Super Mario Galaxy 2 to make his point, as it still stands as one of the highest rated games, and is currently rated at 97 on Metacritic. It features visuals that take advantage of its platform, features great presentation, sports tight control, capitalizes on nostalgia, and implements little twists on platforming action.
I've been putting some of my favorite (and least favorite) games up against EEDAR's list of traits this afternoon and haven't found any examples that don't fit. Developers might not intentionally set out to hit these points when they create games, but all of the great games seem to have them.