"2023 was a crazy year for gaming". I'm sure at this point, you're tired of that phrase and its infinite variations. So let me spice up this intro a bit:
Man, 2023 was a crazy year for me to start working in games media.
Back in January, I was putting most of my efforts into Twitch streams that were lucky to get a dozen viewers (shoutouts to anyone who showed up for Mario Mondays) and making silly YouTube videos with a certain Frequent Leaker and his Disney-loving cohost. Now, I'm... Well, working alongside said Frequent Leaker, his Disney-loving cohost, and a whole team of absolutely incredible people. Hell, I even put this article into Giant Bomb's content management system myself because, to quote one of the biggest duds of the year that won't make it anywhere near this list, "that is something I do now".
One last sappy thing before we begin:
You, reading this right now. If my saccharine introduction hasn't driven you away yet, it means you care at least some amount about what I have to say. That's still wild to me. I can't believe that I'll put out a goofy edit for socials and people will tell me that they loved it, or that I'll be chilling in a Twitch chat I've frequented for years and someone will identify me as "TurboShawn from Giant Bomb". Seriously: Words can't express how much it means to me that people like what I do.
Love y'all. Now, let's talk about some games.
I debated whether or not I even wanted this game on the list. It just barely beat out Honkai: Star Rail (shamefully, the only turn-based RPG I had time for this year before my schedule went to hell) and The Murder of Sonic the Hedgehog (which I wanted to include simply because I love the incredible fun Sega continues to have with its IPs). I didn’t completely love playing Wonder because I found it incredibly easy the entire way through my 100% playthrough. I mostly dislike the multiplayer components since they take me out of the flow I get into with Mario games, even if I did have some cute moments interacting with people through a series of jumps and shuffles. The further away from Wonder that I get, the more I see the unfortunate amounts of New Super Mario Bros. DNA in its otherwise incredibly personality-filled take on 2D Mario.
Ultimately, however, this game barely squeaks onto my list at number 10 because 2D platformers continue to be my comfort food in gaming. Each evening I played it, I would zone out and just let my retro gaming instincts take over. The fantastic animations, shockingly elaborate musical numbers, and countless other little flourishes of charm continued to put a smile on my face during every single play session. Even if I didn’t love the game in the same way I do Super Mario Bros. 3 or World, I still thought it was the refreshing revitalization that Mario’s 2D outings desperately needed and I look forward to what comes next.
Much like the base game of Cyberpunk, I have a bit of a love-hate relationship with Phantom Liberty. That mostly stems from core issues that would be difficult to fix until the inevitable sequel, such as Night City feeling significantly less dense than I expect or the dialogue continuing to be very hit-or-miss. Unlike the core Cyberpunk campaign, however, I continually felt compelled to progress through Phantom Liberty’s excellent spy thriller story. The set pieces are fun, the core characters are way more interesting than anyone I met in my initial playthrough, and player choices feel significantly more important, regardless of how much of that agency may be an illusion. Every time I thought I was done for the night, a new plot thread would emerge and tempt me into giving it a gentle pull that inevitably turned the next two hours into a disappearing act.
When I rolled credits and seemingly reached the end of V’s most recent adventure, I didn’t stop. I loaded up an old save and went down a different path. Then another. And another. Honestly, I don’t know how many ways Phantom Liberty branches out (or how much it all leads to the same place, for that matter), and I likely never will. 2023 continued to be 2023, and yet another new release that I can’t even put my finger on at this point yanked me away from my self-imposed loop through President Myers’s maze of political intrigue. I can at least say with confidence that whenever CD Projekt Red gives me a reason to return to this world, in whatever form that may take, I’ll happily jump at the opportunity.
Oh, and if anything I’ve said has compelled you to pick the game up, even for the first time: Just make sure to go watch Edgerunners first. It realizes CD Project’s initial pitch for the world of 2077 far better than this game likely ever will.
I have barely played Lethal Company. In fact, I’ve never played it outside of a Giant Bomb stream. Despite this, I know for a fact that there’s something special here. Initially I thought the game would just be “Fun With Proximity Voice Chat” (which, to be fair, is where most of the humor comes from), but it’s so much more. All the Steam Early Access-flavored tropes that litter Lethal Company simultaneously feel jank as hell and polished in a way I’ve never seen, adding up to a canvas that somehow organically allows players to create some of the funniest moments I’ve ever seen in a video game. My echoey voice fading away as I fall down a bottomless pit seems like a simple gimmick on the surface, but is just one of many examples of the game expertly using its tools to drive home a joke that I was the center of, however unintentionally. Lethal Company is a perfect example of a product that is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s the video game equivalent of working with an improv expert with impeccable comedic timing, always setting you up to deliver the funniest punchline of the week.
THIS PRODUCT SUCKS.
Alright, strong start, now I’m going to follow up that declaration with several things I always try to leave out of my criticism of a game. Modern Warfare III is not worth $70. It is barely a “game” in the traditional sense, as it feels like the DLC pack it was reported to be in development. The tacked-on single-player campaign is atrocious. Zombies? I stopped caring about those over a decade ago. Let’s not even get into how the Call of Duty... Launcher? App? “HQ”? Whatever. The thing Steam launches when I press “play” is a convolutedly laid out monument to the glory of M I C R O T R A N S A C T I O N S.
After all that, you might be wondering: “Well, why the hell is it on your list then, genius?” Simple. The multiplayer. Regardless of how or why it came to be, the introduction of Modern Warfare 2 (not to be confused with Modern Warfare II) maps to current-day Call of Duty gameplay is a match made in heaven. Each time my childhood friends and I fire it up during our weekly Discord hangouts, we’re instantly transported back to 9th grade where the only thing that matters is having a higher K/D ratio than everyone else on the call. It’s a magical feeling, even if the rampant consumerism and dark patterns in the game client snaps us back to reality at the end of every round.
But hey, it continues to be the only place I can body the haters as Nicki Minaj on Rust. That has to count for something, right?
Yes, it’s a collection of older games. But it’s a collection of some of the best games. Capcom’s affinity for iterating upon or even just rereleasing old content used to be the butt of endless jokes, but many people, myself included, have come to appreciate the preservation angle of this business strategy. The Battle Network series is one of my favorites in gaming, and I love that I can now just direct people towards this release instead of telling them “go fire up an emulator”. Granted, $60 is definitely too much for a handful of Game Boy Advance ROMs in a nice wrapper, but the availability of physical copies, the inclusion of a book’s worth of concept art, and a bunch of little tweaks like the inclusion of gameplay content that was previously lost media makes for a nice package for collectors and newcomers alike.
Final Fantasy XVI is a very flawed gem of a game. The story is often... Problematic. There’s disappointing plot thread conclusions left and right. The gameplay strays oddly far from RPG territory for a numbered Final Fantasy entry, even considering how action-heavy XV and VII Remake are.
But much like Clive’s sins of the past don’t define him as a person, neither should bearing the burden of the biggest name in RPGs affect XVI’s perception. It’s a reinvention of what Final Fantasy could be. Those who see that as a betrayal likely have no idea what the discourse has actually been like during the entire series’ history. Overhauling the combat to resemble a different franchise is ironically the most Final Fantasy-ass thing Creative Business Unit III could have done.
Now that the stipulations are out of the way, let’s forget about what’s “lacking” and discuss what’s actually there: One hell of an epic action RPG, with yes, emphasis on the action. I love character action games, and the combat of XVI is a love letter to the best in the biz (which shouldn’t be surprising, considering some of the talent on the project). Trying my best to keep an enemy juggled in the air or otherwise extend a comically lengthy combo isn’t something most people expected from Final Fantasy, but to this long-time fan, it feels like it fits right in with the vibe of previous battle systems. The ultimate goal of a turn-based RPG is to lock your opponent down with crazy combos while avoiding as much incoming damage as possible. For as grimdark as XVI always goes out of its way to be, that whimsical sense of fun really shines through, especially in the jaw-droppingly epic and gorgeously over-the-top Eikon fights that are backed by one of the best soundtracks in recent memory.
One final note: A somewhat mediocre script is really carried by the incredible performances in this game. You probably know how much we love our boy Ben Starr around here, but the entire cast deserves so much more kudos than they get. Even background characters who, frankly, I don’t even remember the names of stick in my mind as essential to selling that world. Characters make or break an RPG of any variety, and the cast of XVI are a giant part of the game making my top five of the year.
It’s one of the single greatest video games ever made, better than ever. Despite how verbose I’m being with this list, I’m almost at a loss for words here considering everything that has been and will be said about Metroid Prime. Instead, I’ll simply comment on the “remastering” (let’s be real, it’s a remake) on display. If this game was released as a new, original Switch game in 2023, I genuinely don’t think anyone would be surprised. The fact that Prime was years, if not decades ahead of its time continues to be proven by major visual and minor control overhauls making the game feel just as modern as any other Nintendo release.
Street Fighter is back.
It feels incredible to say that with confidence. Street Fighter V absolutely dropped the ball with a lack of player expression, mediocre presentation, and a severe lack of content... At the start, at least. V eventually clawed its way up from “middling” to something I’d consider “great”, but that’s simply a testament to Capcom being back. Staffing changes, a shift in focus, and the game generally being pulled out of the development hell that led to V’s launch state are all essential changes that put the company’s fighting game department in a state of being able to create the absolutely incredible experience for all players that is Street Fighter 6.
“For all players” is an important point to note. I haven’t seen people outside of the FGC this excited for a new fighting game not named “Smash” since... Well, maybe ever. People who I’ve never even heard talk about playing fighting games were pumped to play it leading up to release. This excitement was rewarded in spades. Street Fighter 6 hits every note for every level of fighting game experience. There’s a fantastic tutorial and training mode. There’s the expected (yet somehow frequently absent from modern releases) arcade mode complete with unique endings for each character. Capcom included their own take on Arc System Works’ signature avatar-based online lobbies, and they’re a blast to hang out in with friends. Not only is there a story mode, but it’s actually unique by being inspired more by Shenmue of all things than the latest NetherRealm game. On top of it all, the game is perhaps the best-balanced initial release of a fighting game ever. People talk about the evolving metagame of online play like constant changes are happening, but Capcom has stayed true to their promise of letting the balance rock for an entire year at a time. They intentionally haven't touched that part of the game outside of releasing new characters and fixing bugs. Remarkably, it works.
I can’t talk about this game and its effect on me this year without at least addressing the fact that it was the reason I went to my first Evo and had the time of my life. Sure I went 0-2, but hey, it’s kind of hard to get out of your pool when it includes one of the greatest Street Fighter players of all time and one of the top-ranked online warriors in the game. As Tam predicted, I did, in fact, get cooked. That aside, I’ll never forget the feeling I had there playing matches competitively and casually against world-class players. Even while getting my ass beat, I couldn’t get one, singular thought out of my mind:
“Just one more set.”
I love this game. People everywhere love this game. The arena packed with people on finals day at Evo, chanting along to iconic character quotes and jumping up and down in awe at every upset solidified both of those facts to me. In nearly any other year, Street Fighter 6 would’ve easily taken the number one spot on my list. So... How on Earth did it only end up at three?
2. Hi-Fi Rush
This game was made for me.
I love rhythm games. As mentioned above, I love character action games. Hi-Fi Rush rewards my adoration for both by expertly blending them together. I already instinctively nod my head to the driving beats in my favorite action games like Metal Gear Rising, but Chai actively responds to my quirk of syncing everything up to music. EVERYTHING. When I learned that even basic movement like dashing gets buffed when performed on-beat, I knew I was in love with this game. That magic trick wouldn’t work without a fantastic soundtrack to back it up of course, but Hi-Fi Rush absolutely delivers. The grunge/alternative rock sounds of the opening leads the way to an awesomely diverse lineup of songs that range from pop to funk and all the way out to classical. It’s beautiful chaos.
Some of what I said about Final Fantasy XVI strangely applies here as well. The epic set piece moments, incredibly fun boss fights, and fantastic characters make for an experience that’s just fun. You know, “fun”? That thing that all games are supposed to be about? You may have forgotten thanks to the recent deluge of social media discourse and sad dad “prestige” games, but this shadow dropped and budget-priced passion project from a company mostly known for making horror games is here to remind you that video games are supposed to be fun. Everyone talked in the late 90s about how Super Mario 64 looked like a “playable cartoon”, but Hi-Fi Rush is the best-realized version of that dream thanks to it actively aiming to make it a reality. Hell, I don’t even like the aesthetic all that much myself, but it doesn’t matter. At any given moment, the game is having a blast with its wacky Saturday morning vibes and dammit, so am I.
There’s really only one thing holding me back from giving this game the top spot, and it’s a pretty big “but”. The middle of this game sucks. The entire sequence of climbing a tower by flipping switches and opening doors in a series of dreadfully dull gray corridors to reach Korsica accounted for about 2 hours of my roughly 10 hour playthrough. That is far too much time spent on PS2-era “filler” gameplay. It’s painfully obvious that this level exists as it does just to pad out Hi-Fi Rush’s length, something that’s been a long-running problem for the character action genre. It’s okay for games to exist in the 6-8 hour range. I hope Tango learns that for any potential sequel. This first attempt is so close to being a game I would definitively call a “masterpiece”, but comes just shy thanks to that one really big blemish. That’s okay, though: The fact that I’m willing to overlook something so big and confidently slot it in at number two for the year is just a testament to the greatness of everything else that’s there. It’s my flawed, not-quite-masterpiece.
But while Hi-Fi Rush felt hand-tailored for me to the point that it might as well have “Shawn” stamped on the virtual tin...
This game was not made for me.
I don’t consider myself a Zelda fan. Breath of the Wild is by far my favorite game in the franchise. I’ve never seen any of its quirks as “flaws” in the way that most other people do. The desolate landscapes aren’t “empty”, they’re intentionally sparse to sell a convincing sense of loneliness. The music isn’t lacking, it arrives precisely when it means to in order to make you appreciate its bombastic presence even more. Weapon degradation isn’t a burden or penalty, it’s a rule the game puts forward and enforces tabletop-style that encourages creativity. The Divine Beasts, while aesthetically tiring from all sharing the same visual style, are incredibly fun self-contained puzzles.
Tears of the Kingdom “fixes” all these “problems”.
By all logic, I shouldn’t like this game as much as I do. A sequel upending so much of what I love about the original seemingly just to appease a vocal subsection of the internet should be a recipe for personal disaster. And yet... I can’t help but love the masterful craftsmanship of Tears of the Kingdom. I don’t think I love it as much as its predecessor, but I may never know for sure. Who has the time to replay either game? I’ve done two and a half playthroughs of Breath of the Wild and looking back, I have no idea how. Love makes a person do crazy things. What I know for sure is that there’s a solid chance I’ll never return to this slightly-less post-apocalyptic version of Hyrule, and I’m okay with that. It took me more than one hundred hours over the course of several months, but I’ve done everything I want to do in the world and I’m content with leaving my time in it as a perfect memory, an emotional roller coaster I’ll never forget.
This game made me cry. Not tear up a little here or there, I mean cry as in tears streaming down my face for nearly a minute at a time, frequently. Very few pieces of media have ever done that to me. Off the top of my head, I can only recall my revisit to Pokémon: The First Movie as an adult and Final Fantasy VII Remake’s constant capitalizing on over two decades of nostalgia moving me in the same way. I suppose “nostalgia” is the key word there, despite the fact that, again, I am not a Zelda fan. That title, or lack thereof, is irrelevant. I know how important every little callback is. I know that I get goosebumps every time the soundtrack expertly weaves in a classic Zelda melody. I know that Princess Zelda’s transformation is one of the craziest moments in gaming history. I know that this game simultaneously exists as a monument to everything that people love about Zelda and completely turns the series on its head by introducing mechanics so open-ended that they occasionally make Breath of the Wild’s systems feel like relics of the past. Above all else though, I know the single most important thing about Tears of the Kingdom that elevates it above every other release of the year for me:
This game made me cry. And I loved every second.