Weird! I'm writing into a CMS. I haven't done that in a while, and now that I'm doing it -- well, I probably won't have time to do it more often going forward. I do like it, though.
I played a lot of games in 2023. Like normal, I did a ton of dabbling. The thing with ADHD is that you're never doing the thing you're supposed to be doing. That causes me to frequently bounce off of games if I get to a point where I "get it." That's how I know 2023 was such a good year because I actually completed so many games. Not enough for Bailey to not make fun of me on the Bombcast, but I wouldn't have it any other way.
But for me, a year of gaming is not really about a list of games that I finished. That is nice, but I'm more interested in the moments and the stories I can take away from them. So with that in mind, let's talk about some of my highlights and lowlights before we get to my top 10.
The worst game I played in 2023
Looking back and realizing that -- over the last 12 months -- I beat Bubsy 3D and Batman: Dark Tomorrow for Blight Club is truly messing me up. I also played Skull Island: Rise of Kong and Red Dead Redemption II -- y'know, some real stinkers.
But while all of those games are a bad time, none of them can match the mind-numbing whiplash that Ride to Hell: Retribution provides. When you start playing Retribution, it feels like a miracle that it even works as well as it does -- which isn't very well at all. It is a game of the dead. The way it jumps from one scene to the next with no sense of presentation is like the exposed stitching on Frankenstein's monster. And yet, somehow, this walking corpse of a game shambles along well enough to gaslight the player into wondering if maybe they're missing something obvious.
Ride to Hell: Retribution isn't just bad -- it's wrong. I find it offensive. It hurts to play.
Although, you do have to hand it to the game for its portrayal of so many different characters who are women. Now, Jake (the rider to hell) does have fully clothed sex with nearly every single one of them, but ... OK, I'm being told you don't have to hand it to them.
Surprise last minute fave
I never really watched anyone play Suika Game before I tried it. The hype had reached me, but I'd barely qualify it as "hype." It felt like any other game recommendation. And maybe because I approached it with the idea that some people think it's neat, that helped it win me over.
Suika Game is simple. It's Threes with physics and fruit. But it gets the key elements right in its simplicity. The most important of those elements are the feel and the sense that you are always on the cusp of something bigger -- literally. God, if only every game understood how crucial feel and motivation are in games.
Now, I get that many of you might not be motivated by turning two persimmons into apples (hi, Mike), but the feel of the physics and the way the fruits slide against one another with just the right amount of friction is undeniable.
I also love a game I can hand to my kids without missing a beat. Suika Game's designers have peeled away all the cruft and left only what you need to have fun.
The most fucked up way I played games this year
Every day after I drop my kids off at school, I go for a hike. I have a well-maintained state park with a 2.5-mile trail that is really pleasant to walk through. And about three days a week, I end my night before showering and sleeping by lifting weights.
It will become obvious why I'm sharing all of that with you when I tell you about the most disgustingly lazy way I discovered to play games in 2023: laying flat on my back on a bean bag while wearing a VR headset.
The Meta Quest 3 has done a lot to rekindle my interest in VR. Sure, that includes some VR games, but mostly I'm using it as a next-gen display of sorts. The resolution is high enough that you can create a massive virtual screen that looks a lot like an HD TV. Valve's Steam Link app enables you to move that floating screen anywhere -- like, say, directly above you while you're supine on that aforementioned bean bag. Yes, this is sliving.
It really hits the spot to get in some Star Wars Jedi: Survivor while I'm also recovering from 120 kettle bell swings and Romanian deadlifts. And while it might seem like this would be aggravating for the eyes, I've never felt that with the Quest 3. In terms of optics, this is the most comfortable headset I've ever used. And I sleep great even if I was using the Quest 3 an hour before bed.
List of things I can't stop thinking about
These are just things I kept thinking about in 2023. I might update this after I publish:
- Sony's total lack of interest in the PSVR 2
- Insomniac's Marvel's Spider-Man 2's $300+ million budget
- Hitman 3
- Steam Deck
- Just how bad Rebel Moon is -- what the hell
- The Michael Lewis books:
- The Big Short
Handheld gaming quick guide
- Best overall: Steam Deck OLED
- Most essential: Switch OLED
- Best under $100: Retroid Pocket 2S
- Best budget (but still great): Anbernic RG35XX Plus
- Coolest mini handheld: Miyoo Mini
- Coolest micro handheld: Funkey S
Jeff Grubb's top 10 games of 2023
OK. I'm actually writing this on December 26, and I want to get back to doing nothing. Let's get on with it.
10. F-Zero 99
The truth is that I've never loved F-Zero. I thought it was cool on the Super Nintendo, but that was mostly because I adored the look and the music. For F-Zero 99, the look and sound get paired with a bit of gameplay tuning and a fresh set of battle royale mechanics. That was apparently enough to make me fall in love.
Although, I still love the Captain Falcon rap more.
9. Hitman: World of Assassination - Freelancer
One of my favorite games of the last 10 years got even better by coalescing around a single SKU and then adding an infinitely replayable roguelite mode? Yeah, Hitman still rules, and it will continue to rule long after the big publishers finally learn how to replicate it.
In the meantime, Hitman's Freelancer is the ideal structure to pair with its already top-of-the-line sandbox gameplay.
8. Hi-Fi Rush
While playing Hi-Fi Rush, I learned that I could add an attack to the end of the rhythmic dash combos so that I basically never stopped moving to the beat. That was pretty cool. Chai's found family is also pretty cool and touching. Give me a game about a close-knit crew just trying to make it work, and you've got a Giant Bomb-ass game.
7. Marvel's Spider-Man 2
When I first started playing Marvel's Spider-Man 2, I was terrified. Something about the way the game felt in the intro was so off. Insomniac was so much more interested in presenting its bombastic Sandman fight as expensive and important, that somehow it made the swinging feel bad. Those concerns didn't last. Once the game gets going, it is more exhilarating than ever to experience the lives of Peter Parker and Miles Morales. The combat and the walk-and-talk sequences get old near the last-third of the game, but the getting around is still world class.
Also, this probably the slimiest and gooiest game of the year, and that's gotta be worth something on this website.
6. Super Mario Bros. Wonder
Super Mario Bros. Wonder is my multiplayer game of the year. It is also the best-feeling platformer I've ever played. And I love platformers. But getting to share the discovery of this game with friends and even with strangers (through the Journey/From Soft-like online features) made it an even more special experience.
5. Chants of Sennaar
This is part of a relatively young genre of video games that you primarily play in your head. Or maybe it has existed for decades and I've been missing out on it. But like Return of the Obra Dinn and The Case of the Golden Idol, Chants Of Sennaar confronts you with evidence, and then it is up to you to determine what that evidence means. Unlike those other games, though, Sennaar isn't about murder, it is about language. That means you get the fun of also thinking laterally about syntax and culture, and I promise that is more enjoyable than I made it sound.
And maybe this will give me the confidence to actually learn a real language -- who knows? OK -- actually, I know that it won't.
4. Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon
No game made me feel cooler in 2023 than Armored Core VI: Fires of Rubicon. At a certain point in the game, the Rubicon Liberation Front hires you after you've spent the previous four missions kicking their ass. They wait until you're cornered down a narrow shaft before they start firing at you with the half-dozen invisible mechs that they set up to ambush you. Realizing that I was set up in the middle of fighting my way out is my storytelling moment of the year. This required no cutscenes or big expensive performance capture. It was a radio play over top the best-feeling combat. What a cool game.
3. Resident Evil 4
It is hard to admit that Mike Minotti knows what he's talking about, but he does. It was fun to realize when I was making this list just how much I love Resident Evil 4. Mike is right about the pacing. That comes down to never having an area or gameplay distraction overstay its welcome, sure. But that is also about maintaining an incredible level of quality even while introducing sequences that are often wholly distinct from one another.
Game looks great and feels great. It's all I ask for in a game. Capcom is special. Mike is only alright, though.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom has a surprisingly emotional story. I know that some fans have quibbles with how it fits in with Breath of the Wild or the overall lore, and ... that doesn't matter to me. The game has several great sequences, and I found many of them to be deeply moving.
But as is ever the case with me, Tears of the Kingdom is really here at No. 2 (and among my favorite games of all time) because it empowered me as the player. I said this about Breath of the Wild, but it's even more true for this game: Zelda is about discovery. In the Link to the Past era (which included all of main Zeldas through Skyward Sword), that discovery was prescribed by designers. They would hide a tool in a dungeon, and then you would have to "discover" how the designers wanted you to use that tool to overcome a set series of obstacles.
In other words, Zelda was approximating discovery. It was faking it. But that's not how things started. The Legend of Zelda for the Nintendo Entertainment System was genuinely interested in giving players a sense of discovery. That is why it was so natural when the series broke out of its predictable formula with Breath of the Wild -- it was returning back to a guiding franchise principle.
In Breath of the Wild, and even more so in Tears of the Kingdom, it's not about finding a treasure buried by someone else -- it's about creating your own discoveries based on how the physics and chemistry system works. And now, thanks to the Ultrahand and Ascend abilities, those moments of discovery can happen constantly and at any time.
That is the magic of Zelda, and it has never been bigger than it is with Tears of the Kingdom.
A part of me will always prefer Breath of the Wild, but I still think Tears of the Kingdom is the better video games. And it is certainly the most impressive.
1. Pikmin 4
I have a lot of problems with you people. But mostly that you probably haven't played the best game of the year.
Now, I get it. I've found previous Pikmin games to be pleasurable, but my feelings for the series were never stronger than that. At least not until Pikmin 3, which tightened up a lot of the gameplay and emphasized its satisfying loop.
Pikmin 4, however, is a precise instrument for delivering a sense of fun and accomplishment. Like with Suika game, it feels great and knows how to motivate the player. A big part of that is you always have a strong idea of where your next goal and upgrade are. That means that even as you get a new item or skill that makes you more powerful, you're already thinking about five ways that you're going to use that ability. And by the time that ability becomes routine, well, you've certainly found something new and you're probably sniffing around the next upgrade as well.
Those characteristics lend a huge amount of momentum to playing Pikmin 4. So much so that by the time you get to the first set of credits (there are two), you'll almost certainly want to carry on to see the true ending. In fact, I found it impossible to pull myself away. That same momentum makes Pikmin 4 one of the easiest games of the year to 100%
When so much of the industry is drowning in an attempt to make games feel more expensive than ever, I'm grateful to have a game of the year that is happy to be a game.