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Games of the Year, 2023

The close calls for 2023 were Dredge and Hogwarts Legacy. I only just started Armored Core 6: Fires of Rubicon, but my initial impression hasn't been particularly strong.

I decided to again revisit some of my favorite games in addition to playing the 2023 releases I was interested in. As a reminder, I pick favorites from 10 years ago, 20 years ago, and 30 years ago to replay. Last year I played two games from each year in question. This year, however, I only played The Last of Us Part 1 to represent 2013 (although the remake was technically released in 2022). I had intended to replay Splinter Cell: Blacklist, but just didn't get around to it.

List items

  • 1993 Favorite #1 (1993 GOTY list #7) - February 1993, Konami

    While attempting to create top ten lists for some of my earliest gaming years, I listed any game that I even remembered playing. Since I was only 8 years-old in 1993, I didn’t have the budget to really ball out of control with my game purchases. And in some years in the 90s I didn’t even play ten unique games. All that to say, I really hated trying to play this game again. For the entirety of the time I played this game as a child, I never completed the second stage (The Western Movie), and playing the game again brought all that frustration back to the forefront. Buster has this strange momentum as he jumps and dashes and I’m not sure that I ever got accustomed to it. Even though I had access to save states while playing this on my modern PC, I still wasn’t interested in putting more effort in.

  • 1993 Favorite #2 (1993 GOTY list #8) - September 1993, Virgin Games USA

    Oh God - ditto the above. The Spot (I guess we’ll call it that) also has an odd sense of momentum, and its body is so small that it’s difficult to tell whether you’re touching a damaging obstacle or not. There are times that you just swear its gloved hand grabs onto a balloon or rope in the air only to just miss it and quickly fall down. However, the biggest issue with the game is the camera. Imagine if whenever Mario jumped to stomp a goomba, the camera followed him up in the air such that you couldn’t see the goomba any more. This is a constant issue in Cool Spot, and you’re always unexpectedly landing on things that hurt your soft little Spot body. I stopped after reaching stage 4, entitled “Off Da Wall.” Cool Spot is cool, so the levels have cool names, you see.

  • 2003 Favorite #1 (2003 GOTY list #6) February 11, 2003 - EA Pacific

    I enjoyed playing Generals back in high school, although the “General Abilities” (abilities that can be used to change the battlefield that are mostly unrelated to your actual base) made my friends want to skip the multiplayer component. Nonetheless, I found these abilities exciting to use in the single-player campaigns. I played a few missions of the USA campaign this year, but got a bit stuck on the mission “Blue Eagle.” Despite my love for real-time strategy (RTS) games, I’m quite a poor player, and I tend to mass powerful, identical units rather than build a balanced force. In some games this works well, while in games like Generals where individual units are weaker, it is a liability. I found the GLA, the faction meant to represent middle-eastern terrorists, to be an exhausting enemy. I enjoyed what I played, but marvel at how Red Alert 2 remains a superior RTS despite being released three years earlier.

  • 2003 Favorite #2 (2003 GOTY list #9) November 18, 2003 - Ubisoft Paris

    XIII was my first taste of cell-shaded graphics, and it really captured my imagination when I first played it. I thought it was exciting to be inside of a comic book and loved the written “Nooooo” and “Aghhhh” that accompanied enemy deaths. At one time I was nuts about first-person shooters, and I’d try and play every one that was released as long as the critical reception wasn’t abysmal. I did get quite far during my replay this year, to chapter 14 (of 15). At this point, the game’s lack of precision began to affect my experience. In this section (entitled “SSH1”) I was supposed to traverse an area without being detected, but I felt that I got too little feedback from the game about whether I was visible or not. Unfortunately, the cutscenes also featured no sound on my modern system, so I missed David Duchovny’s legendarily blasé performance.

  • 2013 Favorite #1 (2013 GOTY list #3) September 2, 2022 - Naughty Dog

    As I mentioned above, this pick could be considered cheating. I had some extra motivation to pick this game as well, since The Last of Us TV series premiered on HBO (or “Max”) in January of 2023. I wanted the story to be fresh on my mind, and to be able to compare the scenes in the show to those in the game. Anyway, The Last of Us (the game, but also the show) is outstanding. The gameplay of the series exceeds that of every other Naughty Dog IP, and the story has a tight and narrow focus that serves it well as opposed to the bloated Part 2. I find it challenging in both games to witness the miserable decisions made by the playable characters in cutscenes and in terms of the overall story direction, but Neil Druckmann has a specific story he wants to tell and by golly he’s not letting YOU get in the way. I loved the post-apocalyptic world and the survival horror gameplay, but there are times when I wondered why Neil didn’t just direct a film.

  • #10 - October 31, 2023 - Don't Nod

    Like a lot of folks, I was pretty surprised to see this emerge from the developer who brought us Life is Strange. Even more surprising coming from Don't Nod is the weak writing featured in the journal entries and in-game missives. The central climbing mechanic of the game is well done and the pillar that you’re climbing is visually compelling, but it really would’ve added something to the game if I were to find interesting lore pieces upon reaching each new threshold. The other things that the player can engage with - the murals, conch shells, and stacking stones, are equally dry. However, I did enjoy witnessing my character’s interaction with the ballast (the small blue creature that accompanies your climber), and then learning about the fate that befell the species. That climbing, though! I delighted in strategizing a way to ascend these varied surfaces (where do I jam my pitons!?), and found the alternating trigger style of control to be tactile in a way not often seen in non-VR video games.

  • #9 - April 12, 2023 - Pmurph Games

    Golf has always translated well to video game format, but I began to look a bit more actively at golf releases after Golf Story won my heart in 2017 (and Sports Story broke it in 2022). Golfinite is a very solid, arcadey golf experience with a fun twist - you can purchase balls and abilities that allow you to modify your shots. These include things like “aftertouch,” which pushes your ball slightly in a direction you choose after it lands, and drop, which makes your shot fall rapidly in the case that you’ve overhit it. While at first I was reluctant to use these skills and wanted to play the courses like a “purist,” the courses are tuned to make them necessary and I had more fun once I embraced them. You’ll often use a few of them in concert to conquer a particularly difficult hole, which makes you feel like Tiger Merlin. Lastly, the developer Pmurph Games is quite an active presence in the game’s community, adding an additional putting distance setting upon my suggestion.

  • #8 - July 21, 2023 - Nintendo EPD/Eighting

    Outside perhaps the original run of SNES Donkey Kong Country games and the Yoshi series (Super Mario World II, Yoshi’s Crafted World), Pikmin is my favorite Nintendo franchise. There’s something exciting and calming to me about navigating these compelling spaces littered with human detritus only to slowly and systematically collect each piece. My first and second experiences with Pikmin were playing the co-op modes in Pikmin 2 and Pikmin 3, but 2023 marks the first time I actually owned a Nintendo system when a new Pikmin game was released. Pikmin 4 was a great time, and reminded me a little of 2022’s Nobody Saves the World in terms of how there is an ever-expanding list of goals for you to meet. You’ll often locate survivors in dungeons, and these survivors will end up having specific tasks they’d like you to complete (structures erected, survivors saved, different types of enemies defeated, etc.). I also loved Oatchi, who gets better and better through upgrades until he’s a one pup wrecking machine. The only reason the game doesn’t rank higher for me is because there were a lot of modes I didn’t like - dandori challenges for starters, but especially the night missions and dandori battles. These modes demanded frantic direction and introduced a lot of chaos. The developers seemed to recognize that these aren’t for everyone, and provided players with the option to skip dandori battles and have an NPC crewmember complete them for you. I only began using this option towards the end of my time with the game when failures became much more common, but these sorts of skips never feel good for a player to use.

  • #7 - April 27, 2023 - Eleven Puzzles

    After playing developer Eleven Puzzles’ free cooperative puzzle game Unsolved Case in 2022, my co-op partner and I were anxiously awaiting this more substantial release in 2023. I love the game’s concept, that you and your co-op partner are detectives that’ve been drawn into a killer’s trap, as well as the game’s stylish comic book-style artwork. Outside of one ill-advised puzzle that involved “wind predictions,” the puzzles were challenging while remaining intuitive. My co-op partner and I are anxiously awaiting the next game from Eleven Puzzles entitled Parallel Experiment, which is slated to release in 2024.

  • #6 - August 15, 2023 - Hungry Couch Games

    Over the years I’ve developed a fondness for top-down shooters, which I think is due to the amount of information I’m given to work with. I can often see around walls and create plans in ways I could only dream of in an FPS, which gives me a feeling of power and control that I tend to crave in video games. Although the combat areas are often too big in Black Skylands to give the player the same sense of control, it couples its top-down shooter gameplay with an open world in such a way that it got me in a stranglehold. You’ll travel from island to island in a skyship, clearing them of raiders and collecting resources and items. The islands are cleverly designed and often require deft use of your grappling hook to navigate. Upon clearing these islands, you’ll witness them change colors on the world map from red to blue. You can use the resources you find to upgrade your ship and the weapons you prefer to use, while you can equip up to three amulets and multiple powers to further enhance your playstyle. The game includes a number of wonderful quality of life features, from your moth’s ability to transport resources (or you) back to your ship from anywhere to the ability to teleport your skyship from one fuel station to another. Lastly, the story is really more compelling that it has any right to be. If you like the style of open world games developed by Avalanche Studios, I’d feel comfortable saying you’d like Black Skylands.

  • #5 - June 22, 2023 - Square Enix Creative Business Unit III

    Full disclosure, this is the first mainline Final Fantasy video game I’ve ever played. The design philosophy of these games has drifted ever closer to my tastes, but 16 is the first time I feel we’ve had some actionable overlap between the two. I much prefer a single character to controlling a party, and prefer real-time combat over turn-based. Although there aren’t a tremendous number of options, there is a bit of customization when it comes to the build you create to use with Clive (the protagonist). I enjoyed the flow of the combat, but especially the larger-than-life fights with foes like Benedicta, Garuda, and Ultima. These take me back to the days of fighting Gods with Kratos in the original God of War trilogy. However, I’ll admit that I appreciate a good power fantasy more than most. FF16 doesn’t rate higher due to some overly-spongy enemies and cutscenes that are just too frequent and long to maintain a feeling of momentum.

  • #4 - October 20, 2023 - Insomniac Games

    Traversal in Spider-man 2 is FUN. It feels as good as it ever has to swing through New York, and getting around has never been easier thanks to a wingsuit and the instantaneous point-to-point fast travel that is unlocked upon completing enough objectives in a given district. Although Insomniac removed a couple of my preferred abilities, they more than made up for it with the addition of the web line that can be created from one perch to another. This massively increases opportunities for stealth takedowns, and I found it exhilarating to try and clear out enemy bases without being detected. However, my favorite thing about Spider-man 2 is what I suppose you could call its “ludonarrative harmony.” For a long time now, the phrase ludonarrative dissonance has been used in games criticism to refer to a disconnect between a game’s story and its gameplay. For instance, many players felt strange about murdering those that stood in their way while controlling the young, warm, and fun-loving Marcus Holloway in Watch Dogs 2. The actions taken by the player don’t add up with the version of Marcus we hear and see in cutscenes, and we aren’t given effective alternatives. But in Spider-man 2, I FELT Peter’s reluctance to give up the Venom symbiote. The excitement and increase in power that was evident during combat encounters was palpable, and it’s rare for the feelings of a character I’m playing to truly align with mine. Although this aspect of the story was quite special, the overall arc was substantially weaker than that of Insomniac’s 2018 original, which is why this entry is no higher.

  • #3 - September 6, 2023 (PS5) - Larian Studios

    I must admit that I was actually a bit frightened when it became clear that Baldur’s Gate 3 was releasing this year. The first murmurs clocked it as longer than Divinity: Original Sin 2 (Larian’s previous release), and I had felt that D:OS2 was something like 20 hours too long! But while Baldur’s Gate 3 has a bit more content overall, the campaign has taken me and my three co-op partners about the same length of time to complete. Not to mention, it’s a better-paced campaign with a more compelling story. Unfortunately, playing Baldur’s Gate 3 in multiplayer has impoverished the game. Players can have tremendously important conversations without other players even knowing that this is occurring, and some of the most skillfully-written party member/story interactions go unseen when playing with a full party of player-controlled characters. Baldur’s Gate 3 also has a bad habit of pulling the first character that enters an area into a conversation that cannot be postponed, which means that you’ll have to pull charisma out of your rear in order to keep these conversations from flying off the rails. You’ll also find yourself unexpectedly running into mandatory skill checks - and after the check is displayed, your friends can no longer provide you with boons and bonuses. In single-player, you might explore with your most charismatic party member, but it’s a tough sell to have your friends’ uncouth characters refrain from exploring in a game like this. More often than not our conversations and checks went extremely poorly, and we ended up murdering almost every group that we encountered. From what I understand, this isn’t rare for parties made up of four human players. But despite this, you’ll note that the game is still at #3! I loved the build options in the game, and found the combat to be emergent and exciting. And seeing as how our party couldn’t negotiate ourselves out of a paper bag, there was quite a lot of combat to be had.

  • #2 - February 17, 2023 - Omega Force

    I was too stubborn to see the genius of Wild Hearts’ karakuri system when I first started the game. After playing and loving Monster Hunter Rise earlier in the year (PS5 release), I wondered what developer Omega Force could possibly bring to the table to match Capcom’s achievement. But after finally opening my eyes, I discovered a game that was every bit as good in its unique way. Outside of your actual weapons and armor, everything in the game is karakuri of one type or another. Structures that you build are “dragon karakuri” that require energy from dragon pits, while combat-based karakuri require the “thread” that suffuses the game’s environments (and its monsters). Karakuri aid in traversal, survival, defense, and of course offense. You can use them to create gliders, pots that emit a healing mist, walls to stop enemy attacks, guns to shoot at the enemy, wires to hold the enemy in place, various boxes and springs to better navigate the spaces where fights occur, and more. I ended up using the spring karakuri to accelerate my cannon's heat meter to maximize damage. The elegant weapon system brings a level of detail that Monster Hunter could only dream of (although Monster Hunter’s armor system is clearly superior). You can navigate through a formidable tree of interconnected nodes and pull upgrades that exist on one weapon to the next weapon you craft (node). A quality of life upgrade that Wild Hearts brings to the table is the ability to find healing plants (that can be instantly used) in the wild, rather than going through the eternal tedium of crafting potions.

  • #1 - August 17, 2023 - Mimimi Games

    For two of the past three years, a Mimimi-developed game has sat atop my Game of the Year list. Although Stonefly sits atop my 2021 GB list, it was later overtaken in my mind by the “Aiko’s Choice” standalone expansion released by Mimimi that year. It likely surprises no one who knows me that their magnum opus sits atop my 2023 list. I had thought that Desperados III represented a perfection of real-time stealth tactics, but I vastly underestimated Mimimi’s creativity and craft. A giant French woman with a cannon that can shoot teammates into out-of-the-way places and launch enemies at one another? A skeletal treasure hunter with a fishing pole that he can cast not only to pickpocket enemy keys but grab dispatched enemy corpses and pull them into his bottomless treasure chest? Integrating the genre's staple quicksaving & quickloading into the game’s characters and story? Introducing character upgrades for the first time, and in a way that incentivizes switching up which three crewmates you take on a mission? Introducing fun and silly “crew tales'' to break up the mental fatigue from playing multiple stealth tactics missions in a row? It really feels like Mimimi thought of everything, and I’ll miss them dearly (the studio shut down in 2023). However, I’m excited to play the two DLCs that were released at the beginning of December. One of the DLCs, Yuki’s Wish, will give me the opportunity to catch up with my favorite character from the Shadow Tactics universe.