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Kevin Zuhn's Top 10 Games of 2023

Oh-oo-oh! It's Kevin Zuhn! Oh-oo-oh! Talkin' 'bout Kevin Zuhn!

An introduction to me, Kevin Zuhn

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Hey there! I’m Kevin Zuhn, the creative director and head writer at Young Horses Games. My notable work includes Bugsnax and Octodad: Dadliest Catch, which you’ve probably watched a steamer play at some point.

When it comes to games, I have a voracious appetite. By my count, in the year of 2023 I played over 170 games in total. How do I do it? I pretend it’s research!

But having played what my friends and coworkers call an ‘upsetting amount of games’ I find it harder than ever to narrow things down to a Top 10. After all, if I’d only played 10 games this year, the list would write itself! So this is me digging deep into what I love and what I find value in, and I hope that you find value in these games, too.

Triple-A Tentpoles!

Look, do you really need me to tell you that the biggest, most successful, and most beloved games of this year were good?

…You do??

Well alright, then.

Frankly, my top 10 list is going to feature a lot of indies, mostly because I think it’s more fun to recommend games that might have flown under your radar! But heck, I still played all the big releases and they were pretty spectacular this year. If there are some notable titles missing from the list, those are games that I’ve started but haven’t finished yet. Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate are really freaking long, I’m sorry!

Anyway, to whet our palates, here are my top 5 AAA games of 2023!

Street Fighter 6

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I’ve always wanted to like Street Fighter! Unfortunately, I’m terrible at fighting games and terrified of online play. But along came Street Fighter 6 with its ridiculous single player adventure mode; Where I’m free to brawl anybody I can see and hoover up special moves as I live out the Shonen tournament arc of my dreams! It’s an interesting fusion of fighting game and RPG systems, and I hope more fighting franchises give this approach a shot so I can finally like them, too.

Resident Evil 4 Remake

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I played the original Resident Evil 4 on Gamecube in 2005, and it left a huge impression on me. For decades I considered it one of the best games of all time, and I applauded its influence on the wider game industry. I never actually finished it. Hell, I didn’t even get to the castle! That’s, like, one fourth of the way in! So the Remake was my shot at absolution, a way to redeem my childhood crime. And dang, it was an absolute blast! My kid self was a fool, but at least they can rest in peace.

Super Mario Bros. Wonder

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Mario as a series always seems to oscillate between wild experimentation and playing it completely safe; and it’s usually fallen to the 2D games to be the safe choice. So it’s cool to see a traditional Mario whose central mechanical gimmick is just “something unexpected will happen”. Every level’s an experiment of some kind, and there are tons of lil’ experiences in Wonder that I’d be happy to see fleshed out into full games!

Hi-Fi Rush

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After playing it, I wrote in my notes that I should absolutely not forget Hi-Fi Rush no matter what else came out this year. Games have been trying to crack the formula for rhythm brawling for ages, and at last we’ve got the secret; animate everything! Seriously, Hi-Fi Rush has some of the best character and environment animation I’ve seen in games, it’s entrancing. I also have a specific weakness for any game about tackling a series of colorful themed bosses. This is the Triple-A game that I’m least confident you played, and if that’s true, please correct that mistake!

Alan Wake II

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In retrospect, I’m glad that Alan Wake 2 came from a post-Control Remedy, at a time when they seem utterly uninhibited. No other survival horror game would dare to have not one but two show stopping musical numbers! It’s all things strange and delirious, webbing together into some kind of Remedy shared universe that I’m now hopelessly tangled in. Was the combat always fun or fair? No. But I’ll happily struggle through the gunfights for gallons of wispy atmosphere and dread uncertainty. And more Ahti, bless that mysterious janitor.

Downloadable Corner (DLC)

One more relatively quick aside; DLC is getting really good these days. Enough so that I was more excited for these updates than I was for some full game releases! Even if the games themselves came out in years past, I don’t think my list would be complete without giving a respectful nod to some extra content.

Citizen Sleeper: Purge

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The final update to Citizen Sleeper is a doozy, bringing the post-game trilogy to a close. It’s a harrowing story of space refugees fleeing a calamity of inconceivable scale, and your decision to escape with them or find a way to confront it. I’ll take any excuse to spend more time on the Eye, no matter how horrible the consequences of my actions can be.

Horizon Forbidden West: Burning Shores

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Dang, the final encounter of Burning Shores is so bombastic and frankly ridiculous that it makes the end of Forbidden West feel kind of anticlimactic by comparison. One of the reasons I love these semi-standalone DLC is you get to see how much the team has learned through development, with all those lessons rolled up into a lean and focused adventure. Now with robot toads!

Cyberpunk 2077: Phantom Liberty

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Here’s another one I probably don’t need to tell you about. According to the masses, Cyberpunk 2077 has finally caught up to its own potential. I mean, for me I was always in it for the storytelling, but I’m still plenty happy that the play experience has been brought up to par. And as far as the story, Phantom Liberty is awesome in its bleak terror and occasional hijinx.

My Top 10 Games

Well, here we are. I can’t tell you what is best in life or in games, but I can tell you what I like!

As I said, it was a tough year to narrow down, and just for kicks, here are some other great games you oughta look into:

But while there are so many games I’ve enjoyed, what goes on the list are the games that inspire me, the ones I can’t wait to talk about. So without further ado, here’s my Top 10 of 2023!

10. Cocoon

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I like it when an environment feels alive, but this is ridiculous! But really, it’s delightful how everything in Cocoon’s little world is squishy, wobbly, or sat on skittering legs. Every bit of interaction is that much more satisfying; it’s maximum possible juiciness. And that smooth and satisfying feel extends to the puzzles, the player guidance, the incredible sequence for diving between worlds, everything! As puzzle games go it’s not the most difficult, but as a lover of bugs it’s just a nice set of worlds to crawl through.

9. HUMANITY

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Speaking of satisfying, few games gave me the same feeling as finishing a level in HUMANITY and watching swarms of tiny people float and swim and jostle their way to the exit. It’s like I’m painting with a brush made of physics ragdolls! Combined with the synthwave soundtrack, the whole experience is hypnotic. However, more interesting to me is the way HUMANITY evolves; how, piece by piece, it transforms from a puzzle game into a stealth RTS, and suddenly I’m directing an army and drawing battle lines. Surprisingly pretty battle lines. Whatever form HUMANITY takes, it remains mesmerizing.

8. Pizza Tower

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Here’s another treat for fans of animation! In contrast to my smooth and pleasant offerings above, Pizza Tower is everything chaotic, loud, and lumpy. I love the wild energy of Peppino’s moveset, crashing through the levels like a confused wrecking ball. It pulls off a wonderful balancing act of feeling manic while actually being finely tuned! And that curated chaos also shines through the inventiveness of the stages, and the truly surreal boss encounters. It’s so gratifying to see that somebody else played Wario Land 4!

7. My Friendly Neighborhood

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My hunger for survival horror can’t be sated by AAA alone, and I was drawn in by this muppety take on the Resident Evil formula! And it does play the formula well, with maze-like corridors, ammo scarcity, and plenty of oddly themed keys. Despite its ‘mascot horror’ vibes, My Friendly Neighborhood has something that sets it apart from the pack: empathy. It turns out the broken Sesame Street setting is more than window dressing! It’s up to you, the player, to realize that there’s more going on in these monster’s lives than terrorizing you, and to reach out a helping hand. It tickles me knowing that you could play through the entire game without ever realizing there was a better way. (well, in theory, but not for you reading this now)

6. Coffee Talk Episode 2: Hibiscus and Butterfly

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True to the barista-based fantasy of Coffee Talk, the sequel made me feel like I’d never left its world. The soothing atmosphere of rainfall at night, the chill beats to make lattes to, the mixture of fantastical customers with mundane stories, it all warms my soul! It helps that there’s strong character writing and a willingness to paint a larger picture from small strokes. As sequels go, this is the one genre where I don’t mind things changing slowly; it’s enough to have a few new visitors and a couple new drinks on the menu. Am I also biased because this story is mostly about artists struggling to decide the futures of their creative careers? Yes.

5. Venba

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I expected a cute and lighthearted snack and came away with a heavy meal. On the one hand, Venba is a delightful set of cooking minigames where you shuffle ingredients around and do your best to work with imperfect instructions. On the other hand, Venba is a heartbreaking story of an immigrant family growing apart over time, and how cooking forms a cultural bridge that can keep their memories alive. It’s a subtle story, told through quiet and mundane days over many years, packing a dense amount of life into just a handful of scenes. It’s an emotional ambush, I tell you! But still, the cooking parts really are a joy to interact with. Venba is a pretty short game, so you have no excuses not to play it!

4. The Talos Principle II

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Nine years I’ve been waiting for this one, and I was not disappointed! Not that the sequel could ever kick my brain doors in the way the first game did, but it still carried forward with what worked; laser puzzles and philosophical robots. And Talos 2 went all-in on philosophical robots! Now there’s a whole society of ‘em just waiting to pitch moral dilemmas at me in between fanciful puzzle chambers. Jokes aside, the greater emphasis on characters really pulled me in as I got to know my adventuring squad and the mysteries surrounding the previous game’s protagonist. The puzzles are, well, they’re not as integrated into the overall themes this time but I found them as tricky as ever and still the nearest to Portal I can find. It’s nice to stretch my brain out in multiple directions, pondering questions about the mistakes of humanity’s past as I also try to figure out how to get a laser emitter past a giant fan. Is that everybody’s cup of tea? No, but it’s absolutely mine.

3. Shadow Gambit: The Cursed Crew

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Shadow Gambit is now unfortunately the swan swong of Mimimi Games, but it was a hell of a way to go out. It may literally be the peak of this particular sub-genre of stealth strategy game. What strikes me most about Shadow Gambit, even over Mimimi’s other games, is its commitment to flexibility and openness. Your approach to each mission varies wildly based on which crew members you’ve brought, because their powers are situationally unique! Do you want to create stealthy hiding bushes anywhere in sight? Or would you rather possess guards and puppet them around? How about launching your allies out of a hand cannon? I swear this game never got old for me because I never had the same team makeup more than once. It’s just the raw joy of problem-solving as player expression, as filtered through some loveable pirate tropes! And god, that’s all without getting into how the quick-save system is a canon part of the story, and I guarantee you that it gets turned on its head in wonderfully metafictional ways.

2. PARANORMASIGHT: The Seven Mysteries of Honjo

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If I’ve got one beef with visual novels, it’s that they often start off slow. In Paranormasight, I had barely survived a high-stakes game of death before the title even dropped. Yes, it’s a fast-paced and twisting story that can be creepy, tragic, or funny when it pleases. It’s also more interactive than you think, but only when you least expect it!

See, what makes Paranormasight work so well for me is both a narrative in mechanical hook; folks around Honjo, Tokyo have been endowed with curses that allow them to kill somebody instantly as long as they fulfill a specific condition. But you start the game with no idea what the conditions are, or who even has a curse to begin with. Everybody you meet is suspicious as hell, and I realized quickly that it was up to me to figure out their motives and what actions they were trying to trick me into taking. It’s a game of werewolf where everybody is the werewolf! And despite my vigilance, I was thrown curveballs at every step of the way. I also have to mention the incredible soundtrack, which does most of the legwork in building a suspenseful and/or delightful atmosphere. I recommend Paranormasight even to my friends who don’t really like visual novels, and that’s probably why it wound up so high on my list!

1. Sea of Stars

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Okay, I admit it. As much as I’m driven to experience the new and unexpected, I am still weak to the magic of nostalgia. Chrono Trigger haunts me with its memory, and most RPGs I’ve played lack that special spice that made me fall in love with it. Sea of Stars is the closest I’ve gotten to feeling that magic again.

I’ve spent a lot of time dissecting my tastes in RPGs, and I can tell you it’s all about variety, momentum, and a general habit of ‘not wasting my time’. Battles that move quickly and unfold like puzzles, timed hit systems like in Superstar Saga, dungeons that have sensible layouts (and no damn mazes), a world filled with beauty and color and life, goofy-as-hell side content, and of course the most lovingly rendered pixels. Sea of Stars has all of that and a collectibles minigame. Cue the Junji Ito meme of the hole that’s made for me.

Not that it’s flawless! The plot is down to an awful lot of macguffin chasing, and some characters are thinly drawn. But when I’m enjoying myself on a purely aesthetic level like this, I’m fine letting narrative be an excuse to have more experiences. And hey, as the story moves on it sneakily builds to a set of emotional climaxes that hit me pretty good. But why am I trying to defend myself? It’s my list, and Sea of Stars was my favorite!