Top Ten Games of the Year 2003

Sooo.... My Game of the Year 2013 list won't be done for a while. I tend to take my time with it every year until I'm pretty damn confident in it. I find that rushing into Game of the Year in December both prevents me from playing all the games I want to in a year and leaves me frustrated about the final outcome, as it seems like my list is currently shuffling every day. Plus, I don't feel the need to participate in the December GOTY of the Year rush because it's not my job to deliver these silly lists.

So: Ha!

But I want to! So instead of looking at the games I enjoyed most in the past twelve months, I'll look at my favourite games from the wonderful 12 months that was 2003.

Now, 2003 is not exactly the first year to pop into your head when you think of great years in video games. Especially since the very next year saw Halo 2, Half-life 2, San Andreas, World of Warcraft, Metal Gear Solid 3, Pikmin 2, and Unreal Tournament 2004. '04 was a HUUUUGE year for games... if you were a console or PC player. I've always been drawn to the portable side of gaming and 2003 was the year the GBA peaked. Six of the best games on that beloved handheld came out in 2003, all of them classics of that generation.

So while people have fond memories of 2004, 2003 holds up for me as one of my favourite years for video games.

List items

  • #10. Lots of people hated this game. And I mean HATED this game. Something I've noticed in the past two years or so on Giant Bomb is that there is a pretty good chance someone who is still so butthurt that Breath of Fire 5 is not a typical turn based JRPG has taken their frustrations out on the wiki page, vandalizing due to their now decade old fanboy hate.

    And I'll admit the game is not the best game ever made. Dragon Quarter has a ton of problems, especially with its pacing and its difficulty curve. But man, was it a fun game to play. You'd have to set aside a huge chunk of time to really feel like you're progressing (kinda like Dark Souls), but it told an interesting story, had a great sense of atmosphere, and its combat system was unique, strategic, and incredibly fun.

    It's got some hurdles, but I thoroughly enjoyed my time with Dragon Quarter, even if I had to restart the game a few times and never did quite finish it.

  • #9. Okay, it may be a little hypocritical to make fun of the fanboys for hating Dragon Quarter for not being a stereotypical JRPG, then place a stereotypical-ass JRPG right above it. Whatever. Golden Sun: The Lost Age doesn't have the same unfortunate downfalls as Dragon Quarter. It's just a straight up solid JRPG with a neat setting, a well done (if a little annoying) save transfer mechanic from the original game, and some solid combat.

    Nothing more, nothing less.

  • #8. I swear, this is the last JRPG I'll talk about on this list. Just bear with me.

    Mario & Luigi was the first time I felt Nintendo's mustached mascot came close to matching Mario's original RPG experiment, Super Mario RPG for the SNES. Mario & Luigi was funny, well written, had a great aesthetic, and had a memorable cast of characters, but what really impressed me was how it mixed the RPG combat with Mario's platforming roots.

    SMRPG may have given us timed hits, but Mario & Luigi gave us the ability to actively hop on a koopa shell as a special attack in a turn based JRPG. Or to jump on a goomba to avoid its attack. Or smack a piranha plant with a hammer to prevent it from biting. Using a button for each brother made both the combat and platforming a weird and enjoyable exercise of simultaneous control that, even after 3 more games in the series, still hasn't gotten old.

  • #7. A little bit of a black sheep on this list. While you'd think that with my love of platformers and... lukewarm feelings on GTA-like games that Jak II wouldn't sit too well with me, especially since it went for a laughably "edgy" look after the cute and innocent original.

    But here's the thing: the first Jak wasn't a very good platformer. It was a shallow and unsatisfying attempt that filled its holes with needless collectibles, a ton of running around too big environments without much to do, boring combat, and a plot that was charming, but a bit paper thin.

    With Jak II, on the other hand, Naughty Dog decided to throw Jak straight into a vat of 100% angst and make a game masochistically difficult, but, shockingly, it was a better game for it. The guns were fun to use and a nice balance to the game's challenging platforming. The world was a lot less colourful than the original, but it was more interesting, providing a good backdrop for a better story and offered a ton of variety in its missions. Heck, even hoverbiking around the environment was fun.

    Game design has progressed a lot in the past decade and a lot of Jak II's mistakes would be pretty much unforgivable by today's standards, but it was still a game I had a fantastic time with, warts and all.

  • #6. I remember a lot of people rolling their eyes at Warioware when it was first announced. The minigame collection was dying a painful death (or, at least, most people wanted it to) and Nintendo creating a minigame based franchise outside of its already milked to death Mario Party franchise didn't really impress people.

    But then you played it. And you didn't stop. The stressful and lightning fast nature of the minigames meant that your full attention was necessary to get through each set of them, especially when you had no idea what was coming next. It was frantic fun that made you crave more, well after you unlocked everything and beat every minigame to a pulp.

  • #5. Okay, remember when I said no JRPG's? Yeah, there aren't any. All that's left are Strategy RPG's! Awwww yeaaahhh!

    Final Fantasy Tactics Advance was my first time jumping into the genre. It wouldn't be until 2005 that I'd pick up the original, fall in love, and try to play every single SRPG I could get my hands on, but FFTA functioned as an excellent entry point into a very complex genre. Mostly because Square Enix boiled away much of the complexity and difficulty that the original was known for.

    This admittedly made FFTA a pretty poor and disappointing sequel, but for someone new to the series and genre? It was a godsend. It allowed me to get the basics down and be completely sucked in. I sunk several hundred hours into the game, even going so far as to complete the awful co-op missions with friends. I remember one day playing this game after coming home from school and finally putting it down ten minutes before my alarm went off for the next day of classes.

    Needless to say, FFTA was the start of me sleeping through a lot of high school classes.

  • #4. This is where this list gets really good. Of the top 4 games of 2003, all of them have a spot on my favourite games of all time. And it begins with my favourite Zelda game.

    When the HD version of Wind Waker came out this year, all everyone talked about was fond memories and it's incredibly impressive cel shaded look. Yet, back in 2003, Wind Waker still had a ton of hate being thrown at it. The very mention of the game would get the internet so riled up that, as an impressionable young teen, I felt bad or wrong for liking it.

    People on the internet who hated this game because it looked "kiddie": Fuck you.

    Kids, never let some assholes on the internet tell you what you can and cannot like. Including me.

    Wind Waker was easy, it was slow, and the triforce quest sucked, but the game was fucking awesome. It did something different than the now normal Zelda experience and not just in how it looked. Its story was charming as hell, its characters were diverse and memorable, and just the general relaxed pacing of the game was refreshing. Once the game opens up, you weren't forced to immediately tackle those handful of badass dungeons. You could explore the high seas, finding a new island to explore or jumping into a moblin submarine to give them a smackdown for a piece of heart. Or you could bomb a kraken in the face. Or jump on a ghost ship. Or fight your sword master so you can spin violently with your sword until you spin so much you want to puke.

    These were what made Wind Waker memorable. While popular choices like Ocarina of Time or Majora's Mask may be better games in the series, nothing in the series has matched the starry-eyed wonderment that I felt when playing this game for the first time.

    Or match the feeling of stabbing Ganondorf right in his fucking head. God DAMNIT that was badass.

  • #3. Believe it or not, Aria of Sorrow was the second Castlevania game I played. And that was only because I decided to give Harmony of Dissonance a shot first when I bought their combined re-release. As boring as Harmony of Dissonance was, I'm glad I played it fist, because it allowed me to have some perspective on just how amazing Aria of Sorrow is.

    The game has pretty much everything I could ever ask for in a metroidvania: interesting world design, fantastic power ups, and impeccable controls. That's not even mentioning the highly customizable souls system. Sure, it quickly could make you grossly overpowered, but when you discover you can cancel backdashes into certain abilities, you'll feel like a god.

    If I have anything bad to say about Aria of Sorrow, it's that I wish I played Symphony of the Night first. Aria ruined my expectations for metroidvanias and while Symphony is a classic for some, I felt that Aria improved on it in every single way.

    Except in the case of speedrunning. SOTN speedruns are the shit.

  • #2. You know what? I'm not even mad that we didn't get the first six games in the Fire Emblem series, because Fire Emblem 7 is pretty much god damn perfect. It's a simple and addictive SRPG system on the surface that is deep down just as brutal, punishing, and unrelenting as X-com: Enemy Unknown. It had a perfect difficulty curve and created an immediate investment into each of your troops with the Support system, making their inevitable and permanent deaths all the more heartbreaking.

    Unfortunately, the series stagnated after its North American release. Sacred Stones and Path of Radiance, while great, didn't quite capture the magic of FE7. The series then hit a pretty dark period with Radiant Dawn and Shadow Dragon reaching new lows for the series and Heroes of Light and Shadow's Japanese only release making it seem like there was no hope for the series going forward.

    If only a new Fire Emblem was released... one that saw a worldwide release that lived up to the series's potential... a new title that simultaneously kept what made Fire Emblem 7 so wonderful and fixed what made it so unapproachable... a sequel that would bring Fire Emblem to a wider audience and into the current era of video games... if only such a game existed on, say, the 3DS perhaps...

  • #1. If Fire Emblem embraces and perfects the simplistic side of the SRPG genre, Disgaea has always dived head first into the genre's complexity. And none of the Disgaea games have been more enjoyable than this classic.

    Disgaea has a dumb, annoying anime storyline with awful characters, stilted voice acting, and some terrible attempts at humour, but that's not why I play these games.

    Ignoring the gross anime inspirations, the trite storyline, and the barely-dressed characters, you'll find the deepest rabbit hole in the Strategy RPG genre. If you're a huge fan of these types of games, you can't ignore Disgaea. While Final Fantasy Tactics is a game where, if you know what you're doing, you can break the backbone of its combat systems over your knee, Disgaea is a game that will not only teach you how to break its back in a more efficient manner, but give you the tools to break every other bone in its body. Disgaea makes breaking its gameplay systems the only gameplay system that matters. Sure, it becomes horribly unbalanced, but does it matter when seeing the game systems crumble is the most enjoyable part of the game?

    I will never be done playing this game. I have sunk, all told, 750+ hours into the original game over three platforms, yet I have still not seen all the endings, unlocked all the classes, beaten all the bosses, or upgraded my units all the way. Once and a while I will load up these old save files and be greeted by my team of units whose levels are in the hundreds/thousands. I'll beat the game again to see a new ending or jump into the item world to level up my team and equipment, all in an effort to, one day, tackle all of the insane challenges Disgaea's end game has to offer.

    While Disgaea: Hour of Darkness isn't my favourite game of all time, it's damn near close. And it's certainly my favourite game of 2003.