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Game of the Yesteryear 2013

As someone who by sheer circumstance is rarely able to enjoy games in their zeitgeist-laden prime at launch out of sheer financial necessity, it's hardly uncommon for the bulk of the ones that I do play over the course of a given year to have come out in years past. 2013 has been no different; having graduated university and constantly lacked anything in the way of a stable job beyond the occasional forays into freelance translation, my year in games inherently couldn't be defined by such titans as GTAV, The Last Of Us, and many others. Instead, it was mostly an odd menagerie of games from years gone by that impacted me the most and, in many cases, pleasantly challenged my idea of what could constitute good, worthwhile gameplay experiences.

So profoundly did some of these games manage to impress me in one regard or another that, if I'm being honest with myself, compared to many other lists on here that are bound to focus on games that properly came out this year, this list is the one that best summarizes my 2013. The games on here are admittedly a curious bunch, with some from the recent past, some from distant decades ago, and many not even in English, but they all will nevertheless go on to inform my understanding of games and what all they can be in the coming year and beyond. As I'm stubbornly of the opinion that we cannot fully comprehend the impact of today's games unless we better contextualilze their place by consulting history, this list is therefore as much of a celebration of video gaming's past, as well as a sincere hope that maybe, just maybe at least some of these games are still potent enough by today's standards to inform the creation of future works. While many developers have drawn upon similar sources of inspiration in creating the best contemporary works that the medium has to offer, I'd wager that those nostalgic wells have hardly been sucked dry and that all of these games still have plenty to teach about the philosophies of fun, design, and experience, especially those not readily available in English.

Given the diversity of experiences available on hand here, placement on this list is less about raw quality than it is simply the amount of impact I personally felt while playing these games. On their own, I would argue that each of these games could stand proudly among the best in their respective genres and, indeed, I also feel that they would have likely ended up on proper GOTY lists on the years of their releases had I been able to play them in a more timely fashion. Lasting impressions, then, are what ultimately dictate a game's position on this list, even if it's ultimately a granular distinction between absolutely fantastic for number 1 at the top and pretty god damn great for number 10 at the bottom.

List items

  • (Japanese version played. While I believe the raw gameplay is the same across every version of Zettai Zetsumei Toshi 2, the international edition, Raw Danger, comes with a slew of visual and writing changes that deprive the game of its Japanese setting and overall flavor. As such, I can only guarantee that the experiences described here are applicable to the original Japanese version.)

    Having played all three Zettai Zetsumei Toshi/Disaster Report games over the course of several months this year, I wouldn't be inherently against just giving the top spot to the series as a whole. But if I were to condense my choice down to one game that best convinced me about the empathetically compelling nature of the series' premise and its greater potential to influence games as a medium, it easily goes to this second game. Placing you in the role of several playable protagonists as they attempt to escape a ruined Japanese city alive as it's being engulfed by a wintertime flood, ZZT2 retains the sense dread and vulnerability that makes the original game a distinct experience while significantly propelling the series forward with various mechanical additions and improvements that better underline the humanity that emerges from people trying to survive the brink of their own demise. The most profound addition comes in the form of how the game treats player choice relative to your ability to play as multiple characters over the course of the story. Rather than take the expected route and simply limit player choice to specific gameplay and dialog points that subsequently affect only their own respective stories, ZZT2 instead remembers a lot of what you do as one character and then replays that decision for you as you come across that same point in time as another character, forcing you to react to your old decisions and live with the implications of them as the new characters accordingly.

    The reason that feature is so riveting in ZZT2, though, is that the extent of what the game remembers stretches far beyond mere dialog choices and how you chose to play through specific situations. To be certain, it's neat to see how when two characters encounter each other how the later character simply has to live with what you said or did to them when you encountered them as that first character. But it's even more striking to see the game even remember the state of the world across different characters as you go through some of the same areas as different points in the story. The implications of this feature can be really poignant and underline how survival in disaster situations is a delicate balance between personal needs and those of others people. One of the strongest memories I still have in the game, for example, is how as the first playable character, I almost completely raided an empty restaurant of its food in an attempt to have enough energy for the wintery trials that were sure to come. All that was left was a single cup of ramen, abandoned because of a lack of room in my inventory. When I came back to that same restaurant while playing as a different character later in the game's timeline and in a similarly dire state, all I had to survive off of was that lone cup of ramen. I had no idea anybody else was even going to come across those remains later, let alone that I was going to have to make contingency plans as a result of my actions. As a result, I had to somehow endure the story from that point forward with limited resources and it was entirely my fault because I didn't have the foresight to think of the prospects for other player characters earlier in the game. ZZT2 is littered with a lot of similarly quiet, poignant moments that are entirely driven by player actions rather than statically set plot developments, some of which made me feel genuinely sad and brought tears to my eyes when I realized what I had done to some of these characters.

    ZZT2 isn't without some quirks and limitations that are due in large part to the aged hardware, but so much of its core ambitions are realized that it still feels like a groundbreaking game seven years and two hardware generations later. I have yet to find a game that implements player choice to such an organic degree and it's done so effectively with the technological means available to the game that I'm frankly flabbergasted I haven't heard of another game emulating these features yet. It's hardly a happy game or an empowering one as a result of these design philosophies, but it very convincingly makes the case that games about human vulnerability also have plenty of emotionally worthwhile experiences on offer. With Irem's game output all but dead aside from pachinko simulators, I can only hope somebody eventually picks up this game's torch and keeps pushing it forward, as it's on about as right of a track for achieving its goals as it can possibly be.

  • (Japanese version played. An English translation patch is available and the Vita port is also set to come out officially in English next year via NIS America. See below for why I stuck with the original Japanese PSP version specifically.)

    I wouldn't be entirely surprised if Dangan Ronpa makes some people's 2013 GOTY lists because of the English patch, but since I played the PSP version in its native Japanese, I felt it was only correct that it should belong on this list, rather than another one for this year's games specifically. Like a lot of Spike-Chunsoft joints, being primarily of the visual novel and adventure game persuasion, Dangan Ronpa lives and dies almost entirely on the quality of its writing. Its Battle-Royale-meets-Phoenix-Wright premise certainly sounds neat, but unless the narration and dialog uphold their end of the bargain and make the seemingly implausible either plausible or at least engrossing and entertaining, then it's all for naught. I can't speak for the quality of any of the existing or upcoming translations for this game, even if at least some of them are very well-received. But what I can say is that if you can play it in its native Japanese, you absolutely should. Dangan Ronpa's prose is not only a remarkable achievement by game standards, but it absolutely holds its own against its more traditional literary peers, all while being thoroughly self-aware about its existence as a game and a specifically Japanese one at that.

    It's hard to articulate why I like Dangan Ronpa's writing to those who don't already speak Japanese, but I suppose the best word I could use to describe it in such a circumstance is that it's very playful in its native language. Character dialog, for instance, deliberately relies on a lot of stereotypes based on different Japanese dialects and the subtleties of certain word choices that in turn influence how you come to perceive the cast, often toying with your expectations during the investigation and trial segments for the game's various murder cases. The main character's inner monologue that serves as the game's narration is also handled masterfully in Japanese, deliberately breaking with grammatical norms and other linguistic standards to really invoke the emotions that you should be feeling as a reader and player as you go through the motions during the storyline. And while it may not matter much to those who don't speak Japanese, I also feel it's worth noting that the game features some of the smartest voice acting casting I've seen in a long time. Not only do the actors turn out incredibly solid performances for each of their characters, but they also often play characters that very blatantly reference some of their most famous roles, with the associated expectations are also often upended when those characters turn out to be nasty. Nobuyo Oyama's performance as Monokuma is especially commendable; making no attempts to differentiate her voice from the iconic one she used on the classic Japanese children's TV show Doraemon, her character sounds especially demented and haunting given how it's fueled by a voice that's beloved and thought to be pure and lighthearted. I could ramble endlessly about how much Dangan Ronpa does right in its writing and voice acting and how they make it worthwhile to play through the game, but suffice it to say that I fell so in love with its Japanese that I simply cannot imagine enjoying it in any other language. More power to those translators that can turn out versions of that game for people to play around the world, but I don't envy their work knowing just how much the Japanese nature of its nature makes so many aspects of that experience work in its native language.

    But it also doesn't hurt that the actual adventure game mechanics are also well-thought and engaging. The class trials that are held to decide who the murderer is for each case are particularly noteworthy. While often similarly reliant on wordplay and semantics, the fact that you're forced to actively participate in things like debates and verdict deliberations in real time makes it feel like a genuine and dynamic evolution over something like Phoenix Wright, which has regularly been held as the standard bearer for games with similar mechanics grounded in courtroom battles. Furthermore, while the specifics of each case often turn out to be pretty dense and require intense concentration for long stretches, Dangan Ronpa is also very good about actually ensuring you're on the same page as everyone else during trials in a number of different ways, most notably by making you reconstruct the incident in the form of manga panels to fill out at the end of every case. While the writing alone would have made playing Dangan Ronpa justifiable in and of itself, the mechanical aspects of the game ensure that your engagement in the proceedings goes well beyond your interest in the core writing itself. While I do say that I wouldn't personally play it in any other language outside of the original Japanese, I feel pretty confident based on the global reception to the game that if you're not in the position to enjoy it in its source language, you absolutely should indulge in it however you can. The industry probably didn't need any more reasons as to why Spike-Chunsoft is considered one of the masters of adventure and visual novel games in Japan, but it sure doesn't hurt to have Dangan-Ronpa as part of that illustrious resume anyway.

  • EX Troopers comes across as a pretty exuberant game and save for its pretty throwaway storyline, that sentiment is pretty rightfully earned. Molding Monster Hunter and Phantasy Star Online-esque monster battling cooperative mechanics with a unique, constantly fun and fast-paced take on third-person shooting, EX Troopers is a very great reminder of how shooters can be well within the domain of Japanese developers as well when the emphasis is on unique gameplay, rather than mere emulation of western juggernauts. Indeed, speeding around levels, especially with friends online, as you experiment with new weapons and loadout combinations is as fun the hundredth time as it is the first, if not more so. Couple such solid mechanics with a wide array of weapons that all feel good and have their uses and a lengthy single player campaign that manages to be lengthy without sacrificing fun and having even more quality content in the post-game sequences and you have a game that deserved a much better shot at success than it was given. Anime aesthetics or not, I'm pretty certain this game would have found a passionate home in the west had it been localized and it's a shame that it wasn't allowed to properly carry the Lost Planet torch overseas.

  • Thomas Was Alone is a testament to the place the human imagination can still have in video games today. What begins as a rudimentary, but solid platformer with some neat teamwork mechanics thrown into the mix slowly shifts into an engrossing, existential drama about finding one's place in the world and attaining the means to realize it. With little more than a ragtag squad of rectangles of different shapes and colors and a witty narrator, Thomas Was Alone is one of those games that genuinely is greater than the sum of its parts. Its sparse means aren't meant to be yet another attempt to invoke our memories of video games' past, but rather a way for us to connect directly with the heart of the game, free from the superficiality that may well have come from more detail. As it turns out, when given the chance, something like a bulky, floating blue square can have plenty of character; we just have to be allowed to detail it in our minds once we're told what it is without superfluous visual information that could spark biases. I felt really strongly about a group of lowly polygons that could have well fit in with the Atari than I have for a lot of other characters with a lot more to look at on the surface and that fact continues to astonish me long after finishing the game. If there's any game that proves that narrative-driven video games can, in fact, still let players indulge a lot in their imagination to help shape the experience, it's this one and I can only hope that we see more games experiment in this vein in the years to come.

  • (Japanese version played. The raw gameplay is mostly the same between that version and the international ones, save for some slight level tweaks and, I believe, edited story stuff. I'm pretty confident in saying it's a hard game no matter what flavor you play, but, again, I can only speak for the Japanese version specifically.)

    For a gameplay design trope that's been pretty prevalent in platforming levels throughout the decades, the number of games that actually revolve entirely around shifting gravity are surprisingly few. In recent years, VVVVVV has been the most famous example of this, but Metal Storm for the NES is another such game that also happened to come out about 20 years before it. Like the best games of its genre in general, Metal Storm has complete mastery over the three most important things in such games: mechanics, control, and level design. Being able to shift your mech from floor to ceiling and back again and also have the gravity affect enemies makes Metal Storm feel like a fresh experience even by today's standards purely by virtue of how rare it is to see an entire game devoted to the concept. But what elevates the game from being novel to genuinely great is how tight the movement of the character feels and how elegant the level designs are, constantly introducing you to subtle new ways to utilize the same few basic abilities at your disposal, all without ever feeling the need to explicitly telegraph these new paradigms to you. It's a short game, clocking in at twelve levels and six boss fights, but it's gratifyingly difficult to make it to the end after pushing the mechanics for all that they're worth. The second run through the game that retools all the original levels to be even harder can be excessively daunting, but that core content is so outstanding that Metal Storm easily ranks among my personal favorite platformers of all time, aged or otherwise.

  • Last Window speaks to the power of localizations and their ability to make a game shine even brighter outside its home territory when placed in the hands of the right writers. Like Hotel Dusk before it, it's a wordy exercise in retro noir that still sports plenty of literally sketchy-looking black and white character art occasionally splashed with some newfound color, but the English translation work that has gone into the dialog and overall narrative is so superb that the game is almost unrecognizable as something originally developed in Japan. Everything from the expressions and word choices in the dialog to the environment design is consistent with the game's early 1980s American setting to an astonishing degree, making it all too easy to get lost in that world and its prose for hours at a time. While the gameplay itself is still largely the same as the original game, the few changes that are present such as fewer game over opportunities and an optional novella that can be used to refresh your memory about each chapter's developments are readily appreciable. Hotel Dusk wasn't necessarily the sort of game that demanded a sequel be made to it, but Last Window is so well-written and filled with retro intrigue that it's easy to forgive its superfluous nature and just happily indulge in another adventure with Kyle Hyde. It's a shame it was only released in PAL territories, but the localization is so fantastic that it's well worth the effort to track down a copy so as to experience Cing's swan song as a developer. The written word has rarely looked this good in games in any language and Last Window is all too happy to paint an optimistically convincing picture of a future where games get more wordy and not less.

  • (Japanese version played. This largely doesn't matter because the voice acting is still in English, but, as always, it's worth having on the record.)

    Silent Hill is a game I include on this list with some trepidation. The storyline is throwaway at best, incomprehensible at worst, and oftentimes laughable in-between. The puzzles, while doable, tend to be obtuse for the sake of it and don't necessarily feel all that justified within the game's world. And the ways that some of the endings are obtained are unapparent in ways that only games of its era excelled. It is, in many regards, a curious product that is very representative of its era. But there are still some areas that I feel Silent Hill wildly excels at today and those aspects are so strong that there's still plenty to learn from it 14 years later. In particular, the environmental design coupled with the quasi-open world setup for the town traversal sequences make Silent Hill as a setting feel distinct. Its character and history is made apparent in its rich texture work, possessing just enough detail to telegraph the fundamental details of an area without being so indulgent that you can't use your imagination to fill in some of the purposeful blanks left behind. It's impossible to know what all has happened in this sleepy American hamlet, but that doesn't matter as Silent Hill's ability to make its setting feel like it was once lived in even with its now meager graphics hardware is indicative of the power of environmental design as a compelling narrative and experiential tool. You can argue that the sequels are potentially better in this respect just given the sheer advancement of graphics hardware, but this first game still feels incredibly notable by virtue of accomplishing so much on dated technology.

  • I largely grew up playing games alone and while there are a handful of multiplayer experiences that were cornerstones in my development as a video game enthusiast and human being, the appeal of many online games is simply lost on me. I'm interested in too many games to ever sit down and seriously master just one and only one and I feel very few games of that ilk genuinely foster a culture where more casual players like myself are embraced. That's not necessarily a bad thing per se, but it does mean that a sense of apathy is fostered within me towards what are probably otherwise fun, perfectly solid experiences. In recent years, though, I've come to discover that I tend to like Japanese flavors of online multiplayer in that they typically rely heavily on cooperative experiences, rather than competitive ones. There can still be elitists within some sects of the player population, but when the core gameplay and socialization aspects are fleshed out sufficiently, it does mean that somebody like me who's more interested in just going out, having a good time, and maybe making some new Internet buddies can put time into the games, play it on their own terms, and come out feeling like they accomplished something.

    Phantasy Star Online 2 is therefore one of those rare online multiplayer games that clicks with me. While for the first 20 or so hours it was incredibly dense, it was the intimacy that comes with forming small parties with a few other people and going out on quests that ultimately motivated me to push forward and really learn what it had to offer. Everybody in a party might have different roles by virtue of their classes, but because the combat plays much more like an action game than a traditional MMORPG, it's easy for me to feel like I'm contributing to my team's progress simply by participating in fights. It's not without strategies to learn or character builds to refine, but nothing is so high stakes that I feel like I'm a genuine liability to my team as long as I'm trying to be a team player relative to what I can personally contribute. That feels genuinely amazing time and time again when so many other online communities elsewhere correlate player worth with player ability in a more competitive context. Even if a lot of aspects in the game are smaller in scope compared to its contemporaries by virtue of the gameplay design and monetization schemes, the fact that it also has things akin to boss raids and other large scale instances that are par for the course in more traditional games of its genre also goes a long way to making the appeal of such experiences apparent to me without, again, necessarily requiring a huge time commitment or a base level of skill. The fact that everybody just works together to make big moments happen and that an individual player can feel important during big moments simply by being there is, in my mind, a huge accomplishment that will definitely shape how I judge future multiplayer games going forward.

  • 2013 has been the year when I secretly gained a real respect for vehicle simulators after deciding to give Euro Truck Simulator 2 a real chance. Much of that probably has to do with that game's ability to scale down the intensity of the simulation aspects to a level you're comfortable with, but that game made me realize that a lot of genuine game design work does go into this seemingly impenetrable genre, given its basic directive is to fundamentally recreate the appeal of a given experience, no matter how niche it might be. Densha de Go Final, then, was my second real foray into vehicle simulators, albeit set in the vastly different world of Japanese trains. As it turned out, Densha de Go, given its arcade roots, plays more like a light simulator with arcade gameplay as window dressing than a proper hardcore simulator, but there's still enough nuance in just the right ways that I came away better appreciating the Japanese train system that I already had substantial affection for. The different weather conditions, track layouts based on real routes, and varying passenger loads mean that there's a lot of nuance afforded to an otherwise pretty simplistic and approachable control scheme, making the focus of the game more about timing and following conductor rules, rather than simply mastering some behemoth Steel Battalion-esque controller. Plus, as somebody who misses Japan as an old home, the attention to detail in terms of sound design for things like the station announcements feel nostalgic and help me relive some happy memories. Densha de Go Final thusly isn't the most exemplary vehicle sim in terms of overall density, but it makes for great comfort food for me and is something I'll likely pop in from time to time in the years to come.

  • Conception has a very clever ruse going for it when you're just starting to get to know it as a game. Everything from the box art to the marketing to the opening sequences of the game make it feel like it's pandering to the portions of the otaku crowd defined by their high libidos with a straight face. The game claims it's an RPG about baby-making and that's backed up by the title and what look to be a whole hell of a lot of stereotypically attractive anime ladies. You wouldn't be wrong to think that Conception has little else going for it other than what it plays up front and center. But if you actually dive into the game, it only takes several minutes of wading through the introduction before you realize that there might actually be a lot more to it than developer Spike-Chunsoft initially implies. This is thanks in large part to its actual tone and not the marketed one; as it turns out, Conception is actually a really brilliantly written work of Japanese satire on the current state of Japanese pop culture as it bets more and more heavily on moe culture and its rampant sexualization of doe-eyed female characters as the wave of the future. From more or less the get-go, Conception is keen on humorously belittling you, the player, as someone who's lecherous enough about fictional girls to believe that the game was just going to be another one of those games.

    Indeed, with the big joke being that there's no actual sex or pregnancy to be had, Conception is instead an elaborate deconstruction of Japanese media that's layered behind impressively solid RPG and socialization mechanics. Had I known that this game was written by the Dangan Ronpa team ahead of time, perhaps these twists would have been a little more predictable, but the game is nevertheless very cleverly written and occupies the rare status of making me regularly burst out with laughter. This is the one game on this list I didn't properly finish as the dungeon crawling grind just got be a bit too much for me, but it's not otherwise for a lack of liking everything else the game represents and it's entirely possible that I may still go back and finish what I started. In the interim, I'll continue to regard Conception as one of an increasing number of games that brilliantly prove satire is more than possible in the medium with the right forethought put into it. Until there's a translation patch sometime in the future, just believe me when I say that there's a lot more to like about this game than you might initially expect.