John Ricciardi’s Top 10 Games of 2023 (and 1998)

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Marino

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Edited By Marino  Staff

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Hello! John here. You may know me from my work at 8-4 (and 8-4 Play!)—or if you’ve been around the sun a few dozen times, you may remember me from my days at Electronic Gaming Monthly, where I served as reviews editor in the late 90s.

These days, I’m busy running twocompanies in Japan so I don’t have a whole lot of free time, but with a year as exciting as this one, I made it a point to sleep less and ditch as many social and professional responsibilities as I could to try and keep up. Still, it feels like my backlog doubled this year. I haven’t (yet) spent more than a couple hours each with a whole bunch of stuff I want to play: Baldur’s Gate 3, Cocoon, Lies of P, Armored Core 6, Diablo IV, Spider-Man 2, Starfield, Octopath II, Hi-Fi Rush, the Star Ocean 2 remake...... The list goes on and on. In any case, here’s what I actually DID play a lot of—after I was finally able to put last year’s Tactics Ogre: Reborn down (which was awesome, by the way):

10. Final Fantasy XVI

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This is a tough one. As an FF14 lover, I had super high hopes for this game, especially after that sick demo. But even though I played it for more than 60 hours as of this writing, I still haven’t been able to bring myself to finish it (I’m apparently close to the end). The story peaks like a quarter of the way in and then it just sort of inches forward for a Really Long Time and I guess it eventually just drained my enthusiasm. The visuals are incredible, the music is superb, and the voice acting is likewise excellent—but combat is repetitive, battles are too long and drawn out, and the side quests are abysmal. Still, I like it, and I plan to see it through. I just wish I loved it.

9. The Making of Karateka

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What an exciting concept this is. Just as with last year’s Atari 50, Digital Eclipse is once again doing the Lord’s work by providing the best kind of documentary one could ask for: one that’s actually playable. I’m a big believer in preserving video game history, and if you ask me, this is by far the best and most interesting way to do it. As a console kid growing up, I went into this not knowing a whole lot about Karateka, but I came away from it feeling like I’d known the game—and its creator Jordan Mechner—my entire life. Also, his 92-year-old dad is in it too, and he’s amazing. If you haven’t played this yet, you’re missing out.

8. Super Mario RPG

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I haven’t finished this yet (as of early December), but I’m enjoying it plenty for what it is—a polished, if conservative, nostalgia trip back to 1996, the first and only time I ever played through the original game. I say “conservative” because outside of a few quality-of-life adjustments to bring things more in tune with modern releases, it feels extremely faithful to the original SMRPG. If I had revisited it numerous times over the years, I might be a bit disappointed, but as it stands now, I’m happy it exists. Also, Yoko Shimomura’s soundtrack remains one of the best of all-time.

7. Super Mario Bros. Wonder

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It’s good. It’s real good. Worth taking slow and relishing. I wish online co-op allowed you to play on the same level, like couch co-op does. Or more specifically, I wish I looked that up before I bought separate copies for myself and my wife. (Whoops.)

6. Like a Dragon Gaiden: The Main Who Erased His Name

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I don’t think I can ever get enough of this series. Gaiden does an excellent job of filling the gap between Yakuza 6 and 7 (Like a Dragon) while also setting up the upcoming 8 (Infinite Wealth). With only five chapters, it feels a bit more like a DLC expansion than a full game, but that’s fine by me—not every Yakuza game needs to take 50+ hours to beat. It’s definitely a more streamlined experience than the usual games, and occasionally it feels a bit undercooked (or maybe rushed; there’s like 7000 typos, for example), but combat feels better than ever, and to be honest, it just feels great to wreck endless swarms of dudes as Kiryu again. The new gadgets are fun as hell, too—those jet shoes especially are a riot.

5. Monster Hunter Now

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I know, this is a weird one, but I can’t deny I’ve been spending a lot of time with this sucker. Somehow they’ve managed to distill the Monster Hunter experience down to a mobile game while retaining the core elements of what makes the “real” MH games fun—using kickass weapons to slay giant monsters and then crafting gear and weapons from their remains. Just now you do it in 75-second fights that you have to walk all over the neighborhood to find. I imagine it’d be hard to play if you’re out in the boonies, but at least where I am, in the middle of Tokyo, there’s no shortage of players to hunt with at all hours, which offers up a really compelling excuse to get out and move around every day. Battles are actually fun and do involve skill and planning, but the RNG gods could definitely stand to be a bit more generous with this one. Still, I’m excited to see where it goes!

4. Resident Evil 4

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I didn’t fully realize it until I played this game, but man, I think this is how I want all my remakes going forward. RE2 did it to a certain extent too, but the RE4 remake especially does an amazing job of capturing everything that made the original game great while intentionally not sticking 1:1 to the source material, and it’s so much better for it. It’s really satisfying to play what is essentially an alternate take on a classic that respects and understands the original but also isn’t afraid to mix things up and make improvements and changes for the better. Kudos to Capcom for basically knocking this one out of the park. I can’t wait to go back and play it in VR.

3. Theatrhythm Final Bar Line

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It certainly helps that Square Enix has a history of producing incredible soundtracks to their games, and the latest Theatrhythm takes full advantage of that to create one of the most addictive rhythm game experiences in recent memory. I spent a ridiculous number of hours with this game as well as all of its numerous DLC packs this year, and I had such a great time with it. They should branch out and start licensing the engine to other companies and just turn this into a massive franchise, the way Koei does with its Warriors games. Theatrhythm Castlevania? Theatrhythm Mega Man? Theatrhythm Yuzo Koshiro? The possibilities are endless.

2. Alan Wake II

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If it weren’t for Zelda (which I’ll get to), this would’ve been an easy GOTY for me. The amount of love and care that went into this game is unreal. I liked the first Alan Wake and I absolutely loved Control but the way they’ve managed to weave the worlds of these two games together on top of creating a compelling survival horror experience is not only super impressive, but also extremely satisfying for fans of either franchise. The writing and the performances in this game are second to none. And by performances I mean A) voice acting, B) live action performances, and C) musical performances. It’s all SO good. It’s kind of hard to believe how good it is. I can’t think of another game that has ever done all three as well as Alan Wake II. Remedy is a treasure.

1. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

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As a lifelong Zelda nut, I was at once completely enamored by and yet also mildly disappointed with Breath of the Wild. The stuff it did good, it did amazingly good, but the stuff it was missing—a proper underworld, hidden caves scattered about the world to discover, more traditional dungeons/temples—these were all things that happened to rank very highly for me among the Things I Like About Zelda Games. So when Tears of the Kingdom came along and brought literally all of that back, you can bet I was pret-ty, pret-ty stoked. Granted, the dungeons in TotK aren’t quite as enthralling as the more focused ones in the older 3D games, but they were still a huuuge step up from the Divine Beasts in BotW. Traversal in Tears is an absolute joy thanks to the gameplay systems introduced this time, all of which were seemingly designed purely with the intent of making the game world more fun to explore. Who cares that it doesn’t make any sense that you can travel through ceilings when it feels so good? It’s also crazy how you can build almost anything you can imagine and then use it in the game world without breaking stuff. The fact that everything just works is nothing short of a miracle. I like different Zelda games for different reasons but in terms of pure video-game-ass video-game-ness, Tears of the Kingdom is easily the best they’ve ever made. I’m sad there’s no DLC planned but at the same time, I can’t wait to see what this team makes next.

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Bonus: Turn Back the Clock

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All in all, 2023 was a pretty fantastic year for games. I’m bummed I didn’t have time to play more stuff, but such is life. But you know when I did have lots of time to play games? A quarter century ago, when it was my job. I went back and did a little reading and figured out that I reviewed 153 games in 1998 for EGM (not a typo) over the span of 12 exciting and probably sleepless months. Here are the top 10 review scores I handed out in EGM for games that released in the US in calendar year 1998:

  1. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (N64): 10
  2. Metal Gear Solid (PS1): 10
  3. Tekken 3 (PS1): 10
  4. Final Fantasy Tactics (PS1): 9.5
  5. Panzer Dragoon Saga (SS): 9.5
  6. Gran Turismo (PS1): 9.5
  7. The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening DX (GBC): 9.5
  8. Point Blank (PS1): 9.5
  9. Pokémon Red/Blue (GB): 9.0
  10. Resident Evil 2 (PS1): 9.0

Oh, and the Game Boy Camera got a 9.5 too, because it rocked. (Still does.)

I also gave 9.0 scores to 21 other games, but I picked two of the bigger ones to show in this list just to illustrate how many epic, genre-defining games dropped that year. Can you believe all that stuff released in a span of 12 months?

On the flip side, the lowest score I gave was a 2.0, to Konami’s Deadly Arts for the N64. Because it was garbage.

And on that lovely note… Happy Holidays to one and all! May 2024 bring you peace, joy, and lots more video-game-ass video games.

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beard_of_zeus

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I also played a ridiculous amount of Theatrhythm Bar Line this year! I often found myself sitting down planning to play a couple songs and then accidentally whiling away an hour or two. As you mentioned, would love to see this sort of thing but for other long-running game series with great music. I also played a bunch of that Theatrhythm Dragon Quest that only came out in Japan years ago and quite enjoyed it.

Tangentially related, it's quite funny to me that the Final Fantasy rhythm game spinoff might legitimately have more RPG elements than the mainline Final Fantasy game that is also on this list.

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#2 Marino  Staff

Theatrhythm Final Bar Line was #3 on my list as well. It's the best FF of 2023! For real, though, it's the perfect game to celebrate 35 years of the series, and then it also adds a bunch of other Square Enix games in the year-long DLC they did.

It's also the most time I spent on a wiki page here this year. It's not entirely complete, but... it's a lot.

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Listen to the man: the champ is 1998.

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styx971

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i forgot Theatrhythm Bar Line came out this yr ... its been packed with too many solid-great games , but i'd just like to say the idea of an entry based around yuzo koshiro's music would indeed be amazing , i really do love his work. that said all n all great list i realy should start listening to 8-4play again , i always loved it but fell off during early pandemic due to the issue of 'too many podcasts'

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ALLTheDinos

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I knew 1998 was loaded, but seeing it laid out like that was even more stark. Honestly, I hope there's a Bombcast Revengeance episode where they do Eurovision voting for '98. Jan filibuster for FF Tactics!

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beard_of_zeus

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@marino said:

Theatrhythm Final Bar Line was #3 on my list as well. It's the best FF of 2023! For real, though, it's the perfect game to celebrate 35 years of the series, and then it also adds a bunch of other Square Enix games in the year-long DLC they did.

It's also the most time I spent on a wiki page here this year. It's not entirely complete, but... it's a lot.

Wow, you weren't kidding about that wiki page, holy smokes! That's some nice work!

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#7  Edited By Marino  Staff
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csl316

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Enjoying the mini-EGM reunion on the lists this year.

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lethalki11ler

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EGM! EGM! EGM!

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FunkyHugo

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Hell yeah.