Video Games: They’re good! As usual, I almost hardly ever play games released exclusively in 2023, so this list is a hodgepodge of my gaming journeys throughout the year.
The Oddball Accolades
Let’s kick things off with some not-so-straightforward awards. This category is designed to cram games I want to talk about but didn’t really fit any other category.
Most Accessible Game
The game that really understands how important play is.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder
I have complicated feelings about Wonder. On the one hand, it is wildly imaginative, a ton of fun to play, and made me want to see what gimmick they’d think of next. On the other hand, there’s so much crammed into the game that no one mechanic or idea stands out.
Where Nintendo absolutely deserves its accolades is making all of these off-the-wall ideas work with the myriad of ways the player can approach the otherwise linear levels. Character selection is more than just which series mascot you like – Yoshis can’t die and Nabbit isn’t affected by projectiles. The online play lets other players help carry you through the level, one ghost at a time.
The real shining crown on the game’s accessibility is the badge system. Use your cap as a parachute, get a spin jump, shoot vines from your hands like Spiderman – the badges let you pick the right tool for the level, or just goof off and damn near break the game. The amount of variety the badges provide gives depth to the gameplay in the form of badge challenges, while also letting you shape the game how you’d like. It’s commendable! Good Nintendo!
Waiting for Game-Dot
I’ll get to it next year.
I actually started Commander Shepard’s space opera once before, but was never compelled to finish it. With the Legendary Collection out, a long winter ahead, and a fairly empty slew of new games until February, I think it’s time to finally see why everyone is hot and bothered for Garrus.
Hindsight is 20/23
The game that grew on Me
Someone once said you’re supposed to wear your influences on your sleeve, not make the whole shirt out them. That’s Signalis in a nutshell. It’s a game that struggles to find its own identity amidst the survival horror trappings it’s trying to ape. I didn’t really like it!
But after the game finished, the influences it was working from boiled away in my head and all I’m left with is a really strong classic-style horror game with a striking art style. It’s a work that the two person dev team should be proud of. Rarely has an indie budget game felt like it should be sitting comfortably on the shelf next to my other PS1 classics, and that’s something to applaud.
I look forward to their next outing that should have a bit more identity to itself…and hopefully less bad anime art.
Dubious Essay Award
The game that makes you want to crack open a blank Google Doc.
Final Fantasy X
When my wife started Final Fantasy X this year, I had forgotten how much of an influence the game’s religious themes resonated with my own religious deconversion when I first played it. Right around the moment Seymour revealed himself to not be the all holy idol Wakka made him out to be, I pulled up a five year old Google Doc where I did start to jot down a dubious essay about how correctly Final Fantasy X gets the process of turning away from religion.
Watching my wife replay the game, I realized I identified with all of the characters at different stages of my life. I’ve been through Wakka’s well-meaning but ultimately harmful blind piousness. I’ve worked my way through Lulu’s “this is just what I’ve been raised to believe so I’ll keep going to church on Sundays” apathy. I’ve tried on Yuna’s heart aching belief that the core ideas are good, but the institution is corrupt and should be fixed.
I realized this playthrough that I’ve certainly gone through a Tidus phase as well. I cheered on his pushing, prodding, and questioning. I pumped my fist at his brashness and irreverence towards longstanding beliefs in the world around him. I felt my heart flutter during his moment with Yuna where he straight up asks why even put yourself through this suffering to begin with. He might has well have looked right at the camera and said “What are we, Catholic?“
I love Final Fantasy X for showing me myself. It makes the strange ethereal process of casting off religion feel less lonely. It showed me that the process of turning away takes time. The realization you’ve been duped doesn’t just snap your belief overnight. Deconversion is a slow, bargaining process with yourself until you come to your own truth. It takes multiple failures of institution and relentless questioning of tenets that you were told to just take for granted. It’s work.
When you finally realize there’s a whole other world that doesn’t live like that and you can be a part of it, what’s left of the religion in your heart is a pathetic creature, a pale ghost of an idea that doesn’t even offer up a proper defense of its own existence. It needs others to heal it and attack for it and sacrifice themselves to it. It deserves to die and you deserve to really, truly live.
I don’t think I was supposed to actually write the dubious essay, was I?
A game whose reputation preceded it.
I thought I knew what I was in for with Banjo-Kazooie. I was prepared for bullshit platforming sections. I braced for incessant sound effects. My skull was already throbbing at the thought of listening to Grant Kirkhope’s clowncore soundtrack on loop.
It didn’t take long for me to realize I was exactly right.
Yet, it also holds an undeniable charm. Everything has eyeballs on it. The levels are cozy. The music is certainly…iconic. I understand why it’s a childhood staple of many N64 folks and I did have a lot of fun with it (thanks to the save state system of Nintendo Switch Online).
The most unique game system I encountered this year.
Dragon’s Dogma – The Pawn System
Dragon’s Dogma doesn’t have a whole lot going for it. Its world and story are more generic fantasy than a twelve year old’s first stab at Lord of the Rings larping. The combat boils down to a poor-man’s Monster Hunter. The dialogue repeats and repeats and repeats and repeats.
The shining star atop the this paint-by-numbers action adventure is the Pawn system. You see, you’re the Arisen. The chosen one who will defeat the dragon. But you can only class into one area, so you’ll need a party to round things out. Luckily the god (?) of this world saw fit to create a separate class of beings, like humans in look, manner, and mechanics, but with one key difference: they have no will of their own and serve only the Arisen.
Ah finally, a bit of friction! Surely there’s a whole world to the Pawns, deep lore, complicated feelings, a desire to shake off the burden of helping some generic schlub kill a dragon, maybe even a dash of sexiness with the dynamics at play…
No. Not even a little. The game is very explicit here: they don’t have emotions. You’ll be reminded how much they don’t have emotions by all the generic facts they throw out at you because they can’t form an opinion of their own. They really wouldn’t know what to do with themselves if they couldn’t be at an Arisen’s beck and call, honest. No really, it’s cool, use them how you like, throw them off a cliff, they’ll come scrambling back up and let you know they won’t mind if you want to do it again.
Anyway, Pawns are fascinating, but what makes them work is how integral their mechanics are to the Dragon’s Dogma experience. When you start the game, you create your main Pawn. Then you go to the Rift, some purgatory meat market where you choose which other Pawns you want to hire to round out your party. Each one is created by another player, carrying equipment and skills that assisted another Arisen in another world. They don’t just help out in combat – Pawns retain information about missions they’ve been on, and if they’re in your party they’ll often lead the way to secrets and treasure, or know strategies to defeat bosses. You’ll notice your own Pawn will gain knowledge as you progress through the game, which they in turn will carry to other Arisen if they’re cool enough to be hired.
It’s a brilliant system! Perhaps some of the most unique online play I’ve seen since Death Stranding. There was one particularly hilarious moment where I dismissed a Pawn I had been using for a while only to realize she had actually been created by a real life friend of mine! I had just hired her at random, I hadn’t chosen to search by Steam friend list! Thanks Hestia!
Just don’t think too hard about the whole no-will-of-their-own thing.
Favorite Game Experienced Through Another
The game I had the most fun watching someone else play.
Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective
Last year was Ace Attorney, this year is the other Shu Takumi favorite – Ghost Trick: Phantom Detective. The game won Best Encounter back in 2021, and I was eager to see if the twists and turns of the visual novel/puzzle game held up.
It does! The game is charming and funny, and the ending still feels earned. It was a joy to watch my wife experience the game for the first time, even if she knew the twist. Watching Sissel’s mystery unfold is as satisfying a yarn as the best Ace Attorney investigations. The music slaps, too. Just a great time all around.
Glad I Stuck With It
The game I’m glad I kept on playing.
Super Mario Galaxy
This is a bit of a cheeky entry. This isn’t about sticking with Galaxy itself. That game is so fantastic that I messaged a friend of mine not two hours into the game to talk about how mechanically perfect it was (his response: “It hit you already?“). Galaxy rules from start to finish.
No, what I’m really glad I stuck with is Mario as a franchise.
I have trouble getting into Mario games! I didn’t grow up playing them, so I don’t have particular nostalgia for the series, and I was way behind on the mechanical muscle memory. I eventually played Super Mario 64 and really liked it, although I felt like the quality took a dive in the back half. I hated Sunshine almost across the board. Odyssey was fun but felt too breezy for me at the time. 3D World is…I have complicated feelings about it.
Thus it fell to Galaxy, a game I had high hopes for. Everything fell into place almost instantly. Finally, a Mario game I can unequivocally say I love. All the backlog playing paid off and I was able to go full sicko mode on the movement. It’s brilliant, it was worth building up to, and I can’t wait to play Galaxy 2.
The Stinker Superlatives
Looking back on my list of games this year, I realized I played more games that I had…complicated feelings for. Certainly more than one didn’t really click for me, but there are quite a few I downright hated. I can’t think of another year where I played so many stinkers. This category includes not one but two wildcards because I wrote all of one before completely forgetting I had an idea for the other, so here you go.
Game I fell Asleep To
I’ve never literally fallen asleep while actively playing a game before. Controller in hand, limp on my lap, head tossed back on the couch, honk-shoo honk-shoo. I think that’s impressive, and I want to recognize Diablo IV for the accomplishment.
Didn’t Click Award
The game I feel kinda meh about.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
To say that I was disappointed in Tears of the Kingdom, the first major Zelda release that I was able to get hyped for and experience as a new fan, kinda hurts. Frankly, the game is a technical marvel. The Fuse mechanic, the Depths and sky, the oddly gross Ascension ability – I frequently dropped my jaw at how Nintendo was able to get it all into the cart!
But as the hours I played climbed, I found myself really hard pressed to remember anything I was doing in the game. There was that one extremely good Colgera fight that showed me what the highs could be, only never to be reached again. I held up signs for a dude. I exhaustingly visited a lot of locations I had already seen before in Breath of the Wild. I floated from sky island to sky island, lugging shrine crystals to their correct positions. Oh yeah, there were shrines?
When all was said and done, I realized what I got most from Tears of the Kingdom was tedium. The world wasn’t a playground so much as a todo list. The new fuse mechanic, in its infinite possibilities, rarely required me to be a MacGuyver to achieve something that felt worth doing. I sighed every time I pulled up the map because I felt a sense of obligation rather than excitement to see what they changed about an exact location I had already been to before.
I’m sad Tears of the Kingdom didn’t land for me. I’m looking forward to what new direction Nintendo takes Link in the future so I can be well and truly surprised.
Most Forgettable Award
Did I play that? I did, I think.
Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII Reunion
I cannot imagine why this game would be required playing before Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth. Nothing happens. You want to know how Aerith got that ribbon in her hair? Zack gave it to her. How about how she learned to sell flowers out of a wagon? Zack built the wagon. What was Sephiroth up to before the major events of VII? Farting around with some theater kid.
There you go.
There weren’t even any juicy tidbits implying a greater involvement with the new series, and the gameplay isn’t worth the squeeze either. It’s just a straight up port of an already forgettable title, and now it gets to undeservedly sit on my shelf next to the other, much better Final Fantasy games. Tch. At least Stranger of Paradise will keep it company.
“Stop, Stop! He’s already Dead!”
That’s right, I’m burning my Wildcard to dunk on Alan Wake II some more.
Alan Wake II
You think you’re so clever, Remedy. You wrote a meta story about writing. You want a pat on the back? A cookie for doing what the Dark Half did decades ago? I just saw a movie trailer for Argyle which I’m now going to see out of spite just to prove your concept isn’t original or fun.
Oh you have a music video interlude? Cool beans. I was doing mixed media presentations as a sophomore in college. Grow up. You’re not quirky or meaningful or deep. You’re a high school writer who just learned how to curse. Let me know when you figure out how to have fun again.
Fun. Yes, most games that you play are supposed to be fun. I don’t know who over at Remedy had the backwards notion that making your enemies zip around like Sonic while you slowly turn with the speed of a Mario autoscroller was fun but they clearly missed the mark. No surprise coming from the game that implements a dynamic loot system while also featuring puzzles involving linear algebra that nets you…more of the same loot. You’re so smart!
Come back when you’ve learned to make an SCP adventure with Saga, Casey, and Estevez.
Now we come to the end of the awards show. Nothing but the highest highs and most glorious moments of 2023 video game playing. These categories need no further introduction.
Mario Kart 8 Deluxe – Booster Course Packs
My wife has been slowly turning me into a Mario Kart fiend. I’m on a strict training regimen of Biddy Buggy, rollers, and 200cc courses. I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve beaten that Pink Yoshi. Most often it ends with me seconds behind, just in time to catch the bomb she left at the finish line.
Which is all to say, Mario Kart has been a staple in our household for some time now. It was such a pleasure to have a slow drip of new courses that doubled the size of the game! Each new pack was the perfect dose of dopamine. We loved exploring the new courses, and a handful of them are now among our favorites, showing up in constant rotation.
Sure, there were a few stinkers. No one likes a Tour course that isn’t Paris. On the whole though, the Booster Course Packs have extended our love for the game and given Mario Kart 8 new life that we’ll be enjoying for the foreseeable future.
I have a tough time explaining why I like Gundam. I don’t actually care about the big robots. I want the military logistics. The crunchy strategies. The character maneuvering. Amuro getting slapped. The big robots are just a tool in the arsenal of future warfare.
Thus, I wasn’t really hooked on Armored Core until an early mission had me use my walking one-man-army rig to bust some unionizing workers. Ah, this game Gets It.
From there, the crunchiness came in the form of meticulously managing parts for my mech, making choices that actually mattered in terms of play, and finding the best build for the job. It even had a handful of fun character moments, giving you duals with other pilots who have been MIA for years, returning to satisfy their eternal longing for battle by being chewed on by your dual chainguns. You know the drill.
I played a lot of Armored Core games this year, and while they were all good, and Fires of Rubicon is clearly the tightest mechanically, the first game felt really special. I didn’t expect to get sucked in the way I did, and found it to be quite an impressive PS1 game at that. It held up way better than its clunky controller reputation might have preceded it.
Favorite Game Encounter
Final Fantasy XVI – Getting Your Limit Break
There comes a moment when you realize that years of sticking with a franchise are about to pay off. You sit there, tightly gripping a sweaty controller after a hard fight. You lean forward in your chair. It’s not enough, narratively. There’s no way Clive can beat this thing, a shadow mirror of himself. He’s about to be pushed to the point of breaking, and you know what that means.
He screams. Your heart beats faster. Is this it? Are they really gonna do it? Am I a goddamn fanboy? Hell yes you are. This moment is for you.
Then it happens. Pixel by pixel, the limit break gauge grows at the top of the screen. It’s blazing.
Press L3+R3 to accept the truth.
You smash those sticks and you scream. The music kicks in. Clive is on fire. You’re on fire. The hair on the back of your neck stands on end. Goosebumps break out over your flesh. Payday. LET’S FUCKING GO.
You’re high. At some point later you realize this must have been what it felt like to play Final Fantasy IV on release. You don’t know when a game will ever be this good again. This is spectacle and gameplay. This is whatever the opposite of fucking ludonarrative dissonance is. This is why Final Fantasy has been going for sixteen plus entries.
Resident Evil 5
I had heard a lot of things about Resident Evil 5, but no one told me it’s actually a really good multiplayer game. Capcom somehow figured out how to replicate the tension of the opening village sequence from Resident Evil 4 and sustain it for the length of the co-op campaign.
It’s a lot of fun! I can see how playing with your AI companion would utterly ruin the experience though. My wife and I got immense enjoyment at screaming at each other on the couch for more ammo or a healing item, and strategizing how best to manage two inventories and what roles we would take for the upcoming mission. It felt like we were playing the game as it was intended.
It may be a terrible Resident Evil game, but it’s a banger co-op title.
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
You know those games where once you play it, you find yourself thinking about it constantly? You catch yourself humming a tune from the soundtrack all the time. You name creatures and pets after its characters because of course the bat in your attic is an Alucard. You can’t stop comparing other games in the genre to its masterful take on level design (sorry, Dread).
That was Symphony of the Night for me. It’s one of those old games that I played for the first time this year and it instantly felt like it’s been a part of my life for way longer. It absolutely deserves all of the praise it’s been given and I’m happy to count it amongst the best games I’ve ever played.
Shadow Hearts is the most unique JPRG I’ve ever played. Its horror themed East Asian setting boasts perhaps the strongest first half of a JRPG in the genre. I’ve never been so hooked before, so utterly sucked into the world and its design, gleefully perturbed with every new random encounter.
A lot of that is thanks to Yasunori Mutsuda’s top tier score. It elevates what is clearly a much lower budgeted affair to the realm of greats. Each new area theme pulls you along, making each of the locales you visit feel cozy in their own way. Does any track take transport you to a tiny fishing village faster than the opening notes to Highnoon Fish?
But no other song exemplifies his sense of groove, style, and otherworldly sonic textures better than Conveyerbelt for Killers.
It’s a lengthly OST punctuated with many S-tier tracks that have become staples in 24/7 chillhop video game mixes for a reason.
Game of the Year
Final Fantasy XVI
Final Fantasy XVI just might be the dumbest entry in the series. The writing sucks. It’s overdramatic and clichéd in all the wrong ways. The side quests are monotonous fetch quests. The music is kinda hit or miss.
I’ve never felt so satisfied playing a game. The pivot to full on action instead of whatever half-baked mess XV was is done with aplomb. I played this game for hours on end and when it was over I wanted to go back and start New Game Plus. No game has ever made me want to play NG+.
Final Fantasy XVI is pure fun. The combat is simple to understand, but deep enough for you to start coming up with interesting combos and game breaking moves in a way that feels like the developers are encouraging you to do. There are so, so many gauges to fill, and I’m nothing if not a sucker for bar-go-up. Stagger bars to chip down, special moves to cool down, Zantetsuken meters to fill – the game is often a perfect dance of timing and action.
I’m a bit averse to the word spectacle. Spectacles to me constitute on-rails destruction a la Uncharted – a PlayStation 3 era sensibility of showing how pretty the graphics are but please don’t touch them. Maybe they’ll let you mash a button so it feels like you’re doing something while the spectacle unfolds. Not so with Final Fantasy XVI.
The spectacle here is all in the gameplay. Everything is so flashy as a result of your inputs. The boss fights are scripted in a way that give you the fist pumping moments in the form of pulling off a sick combo or counter. And then there’s the Eikon fights. Finally, series staple summons are given the grandiosity they’re due. The fights aren’t just pretty to look at, they’re often fun and challenging encounters that make it difficult to put down the controller because you can’t wait for the next one.
Of course I’d be remiss not to mention Dion. He doesn’t just get the sickest Eikon encounter in the form of Bahamut (yes, I screamed when he cast Zettaflare, joining the ranks of Donald Duck in Square’s small pantheon of top tier spell casters). He gets the series’ first on screen gay kiss. Just a straight up gay-ass kiss. In my mainline Final Fantasy game. In the era where it feels like Disney is constantly saying no-honest-for-real-this-time-if-you-squint-the-gays-exist-in-our-movie every other release, one of the biggest Japanese game franchises in existence managed to make my little queer heart sing.
Final Fantasy XVI rules. It’s full of genuine spectacle, has a pure sense of fun, and knows what it is. It even gets good little character moments occasionally, tasty nuggets that make the hack-n-slash downtime worth investing in. It’s a beautiful game, and some of the most fun I’ve had in 2023. When the DLC was released this month I found myself so happy to spend time in that world again.
Cheers, Square Enix. Thanks for making this fantasy not final, or whatever the hell you actually had Clive say out loud near the climax of the game.
That’s a Wrap
There you have it folks, the end of the 2023 game awards. Sorry I was so surly there in the middle. I expect to get a lot of shit for Alan Wake II. That’s fine. I’m okay, honest, I can be normal about not liking a thing.
Onward towards 2024, where everything is riding on Final Fantasy VII: Rebirth.
If you want little tidbits of what I thought for almost all the games I played this year, you can check out my 2023 Game Journal tag on Tumblr.