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Ben Pack’s Top Six Games of 2023 (So Sorry That I Didn’t Finish Ten in Time)

Ben “Ben Pack” Pack is a former Giant Bomb employee and current gadabout. He is currently working with Null Signal Games to continue support of Netrunner, one of his favorite games ever. Please feel free to connect with him on LinkedIn.

I’ve been a busy, busy man this year. I’ve been working with Null Signal on keeping Netrunner alive and well, sharpening my skills as a developer, working on my first video game(!!!), and honestly just watching way more movies and TV than I ever have before.

Here are the six games I played enough of this year to feel confident enough to add to a list that is basically a summary of the best games I played enough of this year to feel confident enough to call my best games of the year. Make sense? Good.

6. Lethal Company

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These days I find it easier to game socially. After hearing the buzz on Lethal Company, I convinced a few friends to pick it up with the promise that at any moment we could initiate “BattleBit Protocol,” a term developed from the time we bought BattleBit Remastered and all simultaneously refunded the game after 30 minutes. That moment never came.

Going in blind on this one was crucial. Figuring out exploration, enemies, items and objectives all while engaged with proximity voice chat was crucial to building a shared experience. The fact that we would split up, experience calamity ranging from hilarious to downright frightening, and reconvene at the ship to share our stories made me feel more engaged with this world than many of the AAA open world games I dipped my toes into. Also the game is just downright hilarious at times. I laughed harder than any other moment this year when me and two friends were being chased back to the ship by alien dogs only to have a sandworm pop out of the ground and eat my comrades just mere feet from the ship. Do yourself a favor and grab this game to play with your friends, I cannot recommend it enough.

5. Puzzmo

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I have been following Zach Gage’s career for over a decade. Arguably gaming’s most-interesting mobile-first developer, Zach has always had a knack for modernizing classic puzzle games. When I heard that his next project was not a game in the traditional sense, but rather an entire platform that serves as a digital version of a newspaper’s puzzle page, I was thrilled.

Getting into Puzzmo while it was still in beta was a big part of my enjoyment. There were limited keys, and you could only claim one by being one of the first ~200 people to do well enough on a puzzle. Once I was in, though, I found myself returning daily. I have a few friends who I occasionally compare scores with, and there is a leaderboard so my gamer brain is firing on all cylinders when I’m able to see that I am in the ~20th percentile for speed when it comes to crossword solving. Even if there was no community aspect, I would still be enjoying Puzzmo. Wordle and the hundreds of clones it produced showed that we as a society were severely lacking in compelling browser-based games, and I’m hoping we see even more advancements in the coming years.

4. Baldur’s Gate 3

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What is there to say at this point that hasn’t been said. The scale, the systems, the writing, the performances - all crafted with a level of passion and care that is severely lacking in many other marquee gaming releases.

If I hadn’t played 60 hours of Divinity II while deeply depressed in the middle of the COVID lockdowns, I don’t think I would have given this game the time of day. I’ve been much more of a casual gamer these days, opting for experiences where I can also be listening to a podcast or watching One Piece (oh my god I watched so much One Piece this year), but BG3 kept me full engaged.

Unfortunately I was so all-in on the game that I had played through almost the entire thing before it had received any patches. I suffered not only minor annoyances like performance issues in some of the more densely-populated areas, but also huge questline-breaking bugs, which really stopped me from enjoying it as much as others. That being said, now that the game has received sizable performance, bug fix, and content patches I have started a second playthrough. I can tell this will be a game I continue to revisit and will only grow fonder of in the years to come. Even though this isn’t my game of the year, Baldur’s Gate 3 is probably the canonical game of the year, and one of the great accomplishments in gaming.

3. Counter-Strike 2

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It’s no secret that I love games with deep systems and a learning curve steeper than Lombard Street. My experience with Counter-Strike prior to 2023 was mostly limited to my middle school gaming club, where I could be found buying a negev and running around Dust II doing my best Scarface impression. I played about 30 matches of CS:GO, placed at the second-lowest ranking possible, and called it quits.

I made friends with some Valorant enjoyers over the last couple of years and found the game impenetrable, even for a freak like me. If I wanted to be competitive, not only did I have to learn the complexities of an incredibly low time-to-kill shooter, I also had the MOBA issue of having to learn all the abilities of all these sexy freaks like scary poison lady or Moroccan Dracula.

When CS2 dropped I was excited. The new subtick system seemed like a great step forward for shooters, and the updates to things like smoke grenades and weapon animations made the game feel fresh and relevant, but really it was the same CS that I wish I had loved in the past, but I was finally at a point in my life where I was ready to engage with it on its terms. I am practicing everything from crosshair placement and counter-strafing to map-and-side-dependant smoke lineups. I calibrated at 3,000 MMR and, at the time of writing this, have climbed to about 11,000. Unfortunately because I am over the age of 30 I am about to hit my peak, but the climb so far has been a blast.

2. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

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I’m so glad that I gave Breath of the Wild another shot in 2021. I was somewhat of a hater when it came out, but it was from a twisted place of love. Zelda was always a series near and dear to my heart, but I was somewhat nostalgia poisoned to the point where I completely dismissed games like Majora’s Mask and Wind Waker for straying too far from the traditional Zelda formula. However, after appreciating BotW more on a second go I was primed to engage with Tears of the Kingdom on its own terms.

The building mechanics were at their best a canvas for player freedom, one of the qualities of a game I admire most, and at worst lead to often completely hilarious moments. The game’s story was touching, but I found myself the most invested in the quieter side stories. One highlight for me in particular was the Lurelin Village Restoration Project, a multi-step quest where you help repair a ravaged village. Everything from the way the music would evolve with the town, to the rewards it unlocked felt so carefully thought out and really helped this massive world feel lived-in and full of love. I think generally

I still long for Zelda to have larger and more memorable dungeons and boss fights (something I think ToTK lacked), but I am now at the point where I fully trust the Zelda team to keep the series going in whatever direction they see fit. Maybe just give me another fun old–school 2D Zelda to tide me over.

1. Super Mario Wonder

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I would not be speaking my truth if my number one game of the year was this year’s Mario game. In fact, I would say it’s the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario World, and the 4th best mainline Mario game overall just behind World, 3, and 64. The New Super Mario Bros games were competent and fun when they came out, but modern 2D Mario games felt lacking. This is the first Mario game that feels like it was designed by a team that played Mario games in their youth and understood the, well, wonder that those games were packed full of.

Mario games live or die by their platforming. I haven’t played an honest Mario game that has felt “bad,” and even a mediocre Mario is better than 80% of what’s out there, but Wonder’s mechanics are tight in a way that feels both retro and modern. This is backed up by incredible animations, from just the standard look of how characters move to little loving moments like Luigi reaching back through a pipe to grab his hat that had flown off. And the levels are so lovingly crafted, that you feel like every last coin was deliberately placed in the perfect spot.

What really pushed this from a “good” Mario to a great one are the wonder mechanics. Each is so carefully crafted that I was always so excited to surrender myself to the new mechanics. From engaging in a gameplay sense (turning the game into Contra IV top-down platformer) to just purely funny (Mario Quiz), Super Mario Wonder’s mechanics had me glued to my Switch in the same way I was glued to my SNES 30 years ago. And that’s video games, baby.

Honorable Mentions

A selection of these games would most definitely have filled out my top 10 if I had more time to play them.