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Phil Theobald's Top Game of 2023

Phil Theobald from the Player One Podcast is here to rant about his favorite game of 2023 because he doesn't get to write things like he used to at EGM and Nintendo Power.

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Webster’s Dictionary defines “Game of the Year” as “The word you've entered isn't in the dictionary. Click on a spelling suggestion below or try again using the search bar above.” That sentiment is especially true in 2023, a year that was chockablock with really quite good video games.

There were so many really quite good video games released this year, in fact, that some really, really quite good video games have kinda fallen out of the “Game of the Year” discussion because other really, really quite good video games came along and hijacked the conversation. Not necessarily a bad thing, mind you. What am I gonna do? Complain about too many good video games?

For me, though, the really, realliest best video game of the year is one of 2023’s earliest releases: Tango Gameworks and Bethesda’s surprise release, Hi-Fi Rush. And by “surprise release,” I’m talkin’ about how the game was announced on January 25 for a January 25 release. Which is… just great. Now, am I saying that all video games should be shadow dropped? I mean, not really, but boy, did I like waking up on a random Wednesday and hearing, “Hey, check out this neat game we got comin’ out” followed by, “Also, why don’t you give it a go later today when it comes out?”

No endless trailers and updates over the course of a year and a half. No weirdos yelling about screenshots of puddles. No buildup of internalized hype that’s only destined to let you down in the end. Just “you didn’t have a new video game” and “now ya do!” Maybe I am saying that all video games should be shadow dropped? I dunno. It was nice. I’m definitely saying that.

Actually Talking About the Actual Game

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Anyhoo, Hi-Fi Rush is incredible. It’s super pretty in that bright and saturated way that I wish all video games were. Everything’s cel shaded and cartoony and wonderful. There’s one point early in the game when Chai, your main character, gets launched up into the sky, giving you a wide view of the expansive and intricately-detailed Vandelay Campus where the entire adventure takes place. It’s a shocking explosion of color. A little comic book-style “Whoa…” appears next to Chai’s head because—yeah, they knew how great it looks.

This is one of those character action kinda games (is that what we’re calling them?) that relies on mastering a complex fighting system, which in this case, is rhythm-based. It took me a while to really get the hang of it—I was about halfway through the game before I started getting decent rankings on each stage—but once everything clicked? When you start boppin’ along to the music and your eyes glaze over a bit so you notice how background objects bounce with the beat and your button mashes start to vibe with the entire world? Oofa doo… was I feelin’ it. Pulling off elaborate combos, making use of your upgraded skills, dragging your allies in to assist during battle ends up feeling slick as heck.

What really sold me on the game, though, and what kept this thing at the top of my list all year are the characters. The heroes are an endlessly affable collection of goofballs, and I love each one of them. At the start, you worry that Chai’s gonna be an obnoxious idiot, but no… turns out he’s a charming obnoxious idiot. The villains—from the bored, put-upon robot drones to the over-the-top boss characters—are all given distinct and fun personalities, too. It’s always a treat whenever any of the characters start a conversation as you venture through the stages.

And yeah, there are even some twists and turns with the baddies that add some interesting character development (and some nuggets for the shippers out there) as you go. It’s funny, too. Like, multiple genuine laugh-out-loud moments thanks to both the fantastic dialogue and the stunning character animation (Zanzo’s muted Zoom call! Korsica’s poor noggin!).

Any Chance to Bring Up Gitaroo Man

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Without dipping too far into spoiler territory, I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for a good (and yes, corny) “we can win through the power of music and love/friendship.” No big shock, then, that the whole last chunk of Hi-Fi Rush got me good. It’s the same reason I get so emotional during the climax of, say, Space Channel 5 or the Ouendan games. Cripes, on the right day, Gitaroo Man can get me to tear up on three separate occasions! So, yeah, Chai and Peppermint and all their buddies coming together to save the day is right up my alley.

Yeah, the game’s not perfect. There are stretches where you’re running through bland, mostly-empty hallways looking for the next room full of enemies, and sure, the platforming can be a little wonky, but whatever. The combat’s so good that I got annoyed when it switched to a cutscene, and the cutscenes are so good that I got annoyed whenever they stopped and I had to go back to playing the game.

Hi-Fi Rush had me sitting around for a dozen or so hours with a big, dumb grin on my face, and I still can’t help smiling a bit when I think about it all these months later. To me, that’s the real meaning of “Game of the Year.”

Look at that, brought it right back around.

Oh, and also:

Best Game of the Year That Lets You Play as Shin Godzilla

by Phil Theobald

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SD Shin Kamen Rider Rumble for Nintendo Switch and Steam lets you play as the version of Godzilla from the 2016 film Shin Godzilla, which is cool. Of course, that game was only released in Japan and other parts of Asia. Also, you had to buy some DLC to play as Godzilla, but that’s OK. Except that they’re apparently gonna stop selling the DLC on December 21, 2023, so sorry if you read this after that date. It’s probably some licensing thing, yeah? Still… Shin Godzilla is super rad.