GOTY 2013

Eh, screw it. Everyone seems to be writing theirs today, and I can't imagine I'll get through anything else monumental this year. Subject to change, of course. If I can squeeze in Super Mario 3D World or A Link Between Worlds (or if Remember Me really surprises me) I might have some last second editing to do.

So here we go, then. My top ten games of 2013. Actually, let's make it top twenty. I like reading myself talk.

List items

  • Oh, what's this? A last minute upset? Yep, the new Zelda game is actually my GOTY, coming in at the eleventh hour. It does every Zelda element right, reimagines a classic in a way that doesn't ruin it (which is an impressive feat in any medium) and has oodles of charm and great game design. I loved all the uses it found for its 2D gimmick and it was jam packed with collectibles; my continued appreciation of which probably needs looking into. In a therapeutic, possibly pharmaceutical, sense.

    Absolutely recommended if you love A Link to the Past, and if you don't then what the hell are you even doing with yourself. Take inventory, good lord.

  • 2013, and this has been remarked by many others including our own Jeff Gerstmann, has been a year of consistent excellence but no real stand-outs. At least in terms of video games anyway; in terms of actual life events it's been something of a shitstorm.

    Saints Row IV is not unlike a maelstrom itself, though thankfully far less unpleasant. Though I hesitate to call any sandbox game that lazily copy/pasted its entire world from its previous entry "GOTY-worthy", it's easy to exonerate Volition for a few mistakes and shortcuts due to the busy year they've had jumping from one sinking ship to a slightly sturdier one built on the backs of animated corpses. What it did right was instill more of SR2's (still the peak of the series) manic, open-world, non-scripted fun on top of its now customary bananas main story. Its inclusion of Crackdown-esque spheres to collect is never something a noted OCD completionist like myself would ever say no to (as much as I'd like to; the words just can't seem to form in my mouth) and there's a lot of legacy references to reward those who have been with the series since its inception, rather than those Johnny-Gat-come-latelys that jumped on for Game #3. It also had Futurama's penchant for references, either ripping on sci-fi movies like the Matrix or They Live directly or playing around with various ideas and conceits from the world of speculative fiction. Some of the references were particularly subtle too: I didn't realize you could (dual-)wield RoboCop's gun until I tinkered with the weapons a bit.

    Goodness, this is way more words about SR4 that probably needed to be said. It's just a very solid game in a series I adore, which - spoilers ahead - will be pretty much the theme of this GOTY list, if not of 2013 in general.

  • Remember when I said that most of the games on this list will be solid iterations from franchises I'm attached to? I mean, it was like five seconds ago, so I'm going to assume that you do. Rayman Legends is that. It builds on Origins in many meaningful ways - some of which are brash and "bulletpoint on the back of the case" apparent like the inclusion of daily/weekly online challenges and the inclusion of local multiplayer manic funfest (of which there seemed to be a lot this year) Kung Foot, while other changes were more subtle like the way the game checkpoints more often and gives you more time to chase lums, balancing the (thankful) drop in challenge with more experimentation and exploration to find all its secrets. Plus those musical stages were something else entirely.

    Importantly, for me at least, having so many Teensies to find puts this series ever closer to the collect-a-thons of the 3D platformer era, which is a movement I can heartily endorse. Not sure why they felt the need to include almost all of Origins as extra levels but, hey, it's more content, so why complain?

  • I've yet to beat Rogue Legacy as of typing up this list, but I already recognize it as something special. Though its chief gimmick - that you're meant to get beaten down the first few (hundred) times and slowly grow stronger through purchasable upgrades - has existed in Indie games forever (another game that just missed my top ten - Super House of Dead Ninjas - had a similar conceit), the way Rogue Legacy implements this feature is nothing short of masterful. There's a real sense, whether earned or imagined, that you've become far better at the game - though enemies are hurting you for less (and you, them for far more) because of stat/armor upgrades it's all the double-jumping through spike rooms and carefully dodging an enemy's approach after painstakingly learning their pattern that makes you think that maybe, just maybe, it's your own skill and perseverance that has made what initially seemed like an impossible challenge anything but.

    Sure, I'm walking around with a bunch of new runes and shiny armor, but I beat that last boss through pure skill. Surely. Surely?

  • The Tomb Raider reboot was one of the strongest relaunches I've ever seen of a legacy character. Ms. Croft has been rebuilt to resemble a human being instead of a cartoon character, and the gameplay has reciprocated Uncharted's purloining from the original Tomb Raider games to create a far better combat system in a series that I wouldn't have thought until now needed it. But then this is less about robbing tombs: this neophyte pre-raider incarnation of Lara's more about simply surviving for right now.

    The story's hokey and dumb, the peripheral characters generally pointless and the violence borders on absurdly gratuitous - but then it wouldn't be a Tomb Raider game if these factors weren't present. It has more fidelity to the franchise than it would initially seem, then, while looking and playing a lot better than the series has in years.

  • I was a little hard on Shadowrun Returns to begin with: though it does a deft job of recreating the cyberpunk world of its campaign setting, it seemed particularly lacking in features and complexity. So much of its indentikit-built world was simply non-interactive dressing, and its combat seemed a bit too "XCOM-lite". What I did remark upon, in a rare moment of optimism, was how having a lot of room for improvement might actually be a godsend for a game built specifically to be mod-friendly. Dead Man's Switch, the built-in designer-built campaign, was deliberately gentle and tutorial-ish, as if to introduce new players to Shadowrun's high concept world of magic and computers after the well-received but relatively ancient Genesis and SNES incarnations. The Berlin Campaign, the next designer-built campaign that's supposedly due any day now, will not only build from that awkward origins story (which is something that generally benefits superhero movie franchises as well) but add a heck of a lot of new features that were either intended for the original but couldn't be implemented due to time/money constraints (this was a Kickstarter project, after all) or have been suggested by a lot of dedicated fans of the game and setting.

    It really gives the impression that this a game created by people, developers and fans alike, who want to give this setting its video game due: not through incremental sequels, but through episodic and user-generated content that is all united with the same decent turn-based strategic combat and story-telling systems reminiscent of the much-beloved Infinity Engine. It's perhaps the closest a video game has come yet to the endlessly customizable player-written campaigns afforded by the table-top dynamic, and I really hope more D20/GURPS table-top RPG franchises follow suit.

  • Diablo 3 is, like Borderlands 2 last year, something I think back on with a certain degree of "meh" before realizing just how much time I actually spent playing the game. It occurs to me that the reason I look back on it with some small degree of antipathy is because these games are built to be played over and over until you inevitably burn out on them. Like pizza or ice cream, it's very easy to have too much of a good thing, to the extent that you can reach a point where you feel nauseous just thinking about them.

    Diablo 3 sequestered a huge amount of my gaming time in 2013, for better or worse, and I can't fault something that addictive, as much as I'd like to. Although the 2013 console version was probably not the preferred means of playing something like Diablo (hey, I stand by the PS1 version of the original, screw the haters) it was still a gripping experience, to say the least.

  • I still submit that Sly Cooper is the best non-Mario 3D platformer series of all time, but Thieves in Time just felt a little off in many ways. This is largely due to switching design teams from Sucker Punch, currently busy with their little superhero PS4 game, to Sanzaru, who are an entirely competent but fledgling team who took over to produce the HD remixes of the original three Sly Coopers. Like the understudies of the theater world, Sanzaru hit all the right notes, if not quite with the same level of charm and finesse as the originals. Still, it's not like Sanzaru had a lot of practice building their own Sly Cooper game from scratch, so I can only expect future entries to be even better as they become more confident with the franchise.

    In a sense it's like a hand-me-down jacket that you have to grow into a bit before it looks as sharp on you as it did your older brother.

  • New Super Mario Bros U was, like many other games in the faintly ironically-named "New" series, nothing really to write home about in spite of how incredible it looked as the first HD Mario game. It just regurgitated the same old tricks pulled by Super Mario Bros 3 and Super Mario World, absent the notion that the reason those games were so fondly remembered (and why games like Super Mario Galaxy and 3D World continue that trend) was because they felt so different and imaginative than any Mario game previously. New Super Luigi U almost bridges that gap between the insipidly pointless and something exciting and new by remixing all of New Super Mario Bros U's content to create these short but intense stages that required a lot of quick reactions and precise rhythm. If anything, it felt a little bit like Super Mario imitating Super Meat Boy, which has been more or less defined as the new hotness as far as 2D platformers are concerned.

    I also can't hate anything that chooses to headline Luigi, though I can't say his "Year Of" did anything for me personally.

  • Though Gone Home has a wonderful, affecting story told in bits and pieces through direct journal entries and less-direct subtextual clues, I found myself really just enjoying the carefree exploration of a huge house full of 90s nostalgia and odd little secrets. I do wish that there was more of a game beyond the story, as good as it was, because there's no reason we can't have both an excellent game and an excellent narrative driving it. I've frequently thought that they might have improved Gone Home by creating a new game plus mode that focused more on the contents of the house in some way, either hiding a series of collectibles to find or by providing a collection of the items you've already found so you can be sure you didn't miss anything. But then that's just backseat designer talk.

    Still, though, I think it deserves more than the vitriol certain others are reserving for it, either because it didn't live up to their expectations of being a taught suspense-filled survival horror or whatever twisted misogynistic agenda that seems to have taken over the internet of late. Just let people make touching games about teenagers coming to terms with things in peace, will ya? Jeez.

  • Though too long by half and so repetitive you'd be forgiven for dropping out halfway through, Project X Zone was a heck of a lot of fun for a multitude of reasons. Even in spite of its length the game's combat system, which required you enter in a series of pre-generated combos with sufficiently precise timing to maximize the number of hits, was just compelling enough to keep me glued to the game until its conclusion. What really appealed were the sheer number of fanservice-y references to Namco Bandai, Sega and Capcom games and how characters from so many diverse settings fought alongside each other and cracked wise about the really bizarre JRPG plot that brought them all together.

    It definitely helps that the game was partially built by Nintendo second-party RPG maestros Monolith Soft, who may well become Nintendo's unexpected savior in the years to come.

    With recent developments, PXZ has sadly dropped out of my top ten for one too many flaws, but it's really a solid SRPG if you take it slow and aren't too concerned with playing a game where there's no risk of losing someone permanently and having to restart a 30 minute mission. I know some people around here seem to enjoy that.

  • It slipped out of my top ten for being a tad on the short side, and I grew less attached to the game once it started being all about colored cube management, but Antichamber is a deeply intelligent and bizarre little first-person puzzle game that I'm thankful exists. Not only because it's a great self-contained brainteaser, but because of how many of its ideas might go on to revitalize the first-person genre. Thinking back to how Prey might've been incredible as a FPS backed with Portal technology had it not fallen way short of the mark with its vagina doors and Native American racism, it's possible that Antichamber might end up inspiring a lot of really cool first-person games down the line with its non-Euclidean trickery.

  • Pretty much an action game equivalent to Rogue Legacy, SHoDN has some tight controls and a very frantic pace as you need to keep moving to avoid a Baron Von Blubba-esque demise. Once you get good, either through practice or a few permanent upgrades, the game takes on this marvelous flow that only improves if you manage to hit a Rage Mode chain and keep it alive with constant arterial sprays. It's an upgraded flash game that has no business being this fun in prolonged stretches.

  • I discussed my eventual disappointment with Guacamelee in the GOTY blogs, namely how the last few bosses made the whole game a pain in the neck to complete, but I love its visual style, its music, its convenient Metroidvania innovations, its sense of humor and its combat. (Mostly - the color-coded shield stuff got kind of old.) I really thought this would end up higher on my list when I bought it.

  • NES Remix baffles me in more than a few ways. Like how it only has sixteen games, or very little in the way of multiplayer elements beyond the standard Miiverse nonsense, or how it doesn't include the full versions of its games to play considering you've already seen most of what they have to offer through NES Remix's challenges. Really, though, I want there to be more weird experimental games like this from Nintendo. WarioWare seems to be out for the count, and there's a hell of a lot more NES and SNES games that IndiesZero and Nintendo could frame challenges around. They just need to lean into it a bit more than this.

  • We don't even have a page for it, but Santa Ragione - the developers of MirrorMoon EP - created a little thing called Video HeroeS for the LA Game Space that ended up becoming my favorite game in there, despite stiff competition from Katamari Damacy creator Keita Takahashi and the Arcade Kids. I would've been happy just perusing a huge stack of high-res images of VHS tapes, of both classic 70s/80s movies and miscellaneous self-help junk you'd expect to see on TV Carnage or Red Letter Media's Wheel of the Worst, but they added an addictive and stress-free game of finding items that suit customer requests on top of it. Like Gone Home, the rose-tinted glasses may have risen it higher in my estimations, but I love that there's stuff out there like this. Sometimes treasures in video games aren't all gemstones and +5 broadswords. Sometimes it's finding a VHS copy of "IronMaster" or "Dragonslayer" or even "How To Raise a Streetsmart Child".

  • Ittle Dew's a neat but brief Zelda clone that chooses to strongly emphasize the puzzles of that series, creating a lot of rooms with sliding blocks and pressure plates to push. It's rarely as inventive as its inspiration, but it took what it clearly thought were the best parts of classic Zelda games, concentrated them and wrapped the resulting package around a goofy little story about an obstinate female adventurer. I also dig the jiggly hand-drawn-style animations on all the characters. Were it not for some really off-putting strict timing puzzles in the game's "Master" dungeon, it'd be a lot higher on my list.

  • Now for a couple of Android games I got the chance to play, whenever I could borrow the tablet in question from its owner. Ridiculous Fishing has a fairly basic premise of "endless running" your lure down past as many fish as possible before finally coming back up and swiping them all, only to blast the resulting population of SeaWorld out of the sky as they rain down with the strongest guns you have. It can be an addictive little cycle of angling and heavy ordinance, but there's not a whole of substance to it. I hear that's often the deal with these tablet games, and I can't fault them for being their own thing. Portable games always do well to play to the strengths of their format, rather than presenting tinier and less visually impressive versions of big retail games.

  • Despite its obnoxious "freemium" methods of trying to draw cash from you - putting Hans Moleman and Hank Scorpio behind a paywall is just diabolical - I love the game's attention to detail for Simpsons fans to drool over, possibly while intoning something about "free goo". So many of Springfield's buildings, residents and quirks are represented, and the player is free to shift them around and create whatever type of Springfield they can imagine. Just be prepared to wait a few days at a time for anything to be built or for any of the story missions to proceed.

  • ESJ's placing on this list has nothing to do with being my least favorite, it's just the twentieth best 2013 game I played this year. ESJ is a masocore platformer with an absolutely sublime techno soundtrack, and honestly it feels like the game was built around the music rather than the other way around. I don't know if we have a term for a music video equivalent for games (besides maybe "music video game"), but its slight yet tough pixel-art jumping had just enough gameplay to hold my interest until its conclusion. But man, if you thought the bosses were the worst thing about Super Meat Boy...