2013 was a watershed year in gaming. It was a year that saw countless developers, whether swimming in oceans of cash or struggling to pay rent on studio apartments, pouring their best efforts into an overabundance of amazing experiences that, frankly, the gaming community at large simply didn’t deserve. With such a glut of unforgettable games released over the past twelve months, the act of declaring a definitive top 10 list comes off at best as an exercise in absurdity, and it’s with that thought in mind that I present a list of the ten games I enjoyed the most in 2013.
10. BioShock Infinite (Xbox 360)
BioShock Infinite wasn’t the best AAA action game I played this year, nor was it the most visually or mechanically impressive, with textures right out of the pre-dawn ages (circa 2006) and artificial intelligence that doesn’t try even half as hard as the splicers in the original BioShock. But Irrational sure knows how to paint a picture. From its haunting opening moments involving a choral arrangement of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” to its shrewd commentary on the time we’ve all wasted on fruitless pursuits, BioShock Infinite is a shining example of this generation’s shift from games as games to games as art, and for that, it’s a game I think everyone should experience.
9. Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS)
Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon is a testament to the players-over-profit design ethic that’s guided Nintendo over the past three decades: give players a simple goal and let them have fun accomplishing it. With its spooky environments, deliberately crafted environmental puzzles and emphasis on physical comedy, Dark Moon feels like a cross between a classic Sierra adventure game and a Saturday morning cartoon, and I still can’t help cracking up when I think about Luigi’s reactions to the various spiteful spooks that haunt him through the game’s 5 mansions. Pure joy, through and through.
8. Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale (3DS)
As we go breathlessly from day to day, trying not to collapse under the often maddeningly complex state of being known as adulthood, it’s easy to forget how simple life once was. When making friends was no more complicated than saying “hello” to a new kid on the playground. When storm drains were secret portals to the magical and mysterious. When the future was defined not by the ability to pay rent on time, but by the infinite possibilities borne from our dreams. If you’ve forgotten what that feels like and you’d like get it back, Attack of the Friday Monsters: A Tokyo Tale will make you remember.
7. Guacamelee (PS Vita)
DrinkBox Studios nailed the Metroidvania formula with Guacamelee, with its vast, interconnected environments to explore, secret collectibles hidden everywhere, and plenty of sequence-breaking exploits for speedrunners to take advantage of. But what sets it apart from countless other Super Metroid wannabees is its unique, lovingly humorous take on Mexican mythology (you play as a recently-deceased farmer-turned-luchador, on a quest to save El Presidente’s Daughter from a sombrero’d skeleton with plans to merge the lands of the living and the dead.) Also, those snazzy, sassy trumpet anthems. When I reviewed the game in April, I called it “quite possibly the best game ever released on a PlayStation platform,” which apparently led to the review being featured on the PlayStation Blog. I stand by that assessment. If you love open-ended platformers, you won’t find better outside of a Nintendo console.
6. Animal Crossing: New Leaf (3DS)
I didn’t review Animal Crossing: New Leaf this year, because I was busy packing all my earthly possessions and moving my family from California to New York when it came out. And I’m honestly not sure how I could have reviewed it, because it’s been kind of like a weird parallel to my own life this year — one in which all my neighbors are furries and I only have to pay bills when I feel like it. But in all seriousness, New Leaf has kind of been like the gaming equivalent of Chicken Soup for the Soul for me over the past six months… a warm blanket to wrap myself in during the extended periods of self doubt and loneliness that accompanied the biggest change I’ve ever made in my life. My wife and I are finally, slowly starting to make friends in New York, but for awhile, this (and FaceTime) were the closest things I had to human interaction. It’s hard to meet new people, but even when you’re at your lowest, Isabelle will always be waiting with a smile.
5. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D (3DS)
Super Mario 3D Land is my favorite Mario platformer ever, so you’d logically expect to see Super Mario 3D World somewhere on this list, right? Wrong. As much fun as I had with the game (a metric ton, I assure you!), it was on the wrong platform, and the lack of stereo 3D really dampened my enthusiasm for it after the 500th death caused by my inability to judge space within the game. Similarly, Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii was a beautiful game that was rendered almost unplayable by Nintendo’s insistence on shoehorning motion controls into the experience. Donkey Kong Country Returns 3D eradicates those issues by giving the game the traditional control scheme it always deserved. Both in terms of artistry and game design, it’s leaps and bounds ahead of any other 2D platformer on the 3DS, even outclassing the three legendary SNES games that preceded it. The new levels and optional easier difficulty level are just icing on the banana bread.
4. Fire Emblem: Awakening (3DS)
The Fire Emblem games have always been one of Nintendo’s best kept secrets – expertly tuned turned-based strategy bolstered by well-crafted dialogue, a diverse cast of characters, and stirring musical scores from industry veteran Yuka Tsujiyoko. And though the story in Fire Emblem: Awakening isn’t particularly original, it transcends this limitation by inserting players directly into the narrative and trusting them to fill in the details through the relationships they forge and the decisions they make. Add to that a ton of non-essential missions, copious DLC, and dozens upon dozens of characters to customize and develop as you see fit, and this is one game that gives, and gives, and gives. I’m still playing it, almost a year later.
3. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (iPad)
XCOM: Enemy Unknown was my game of the year in 2012 — a superb modern update of a game I’ve been playing since 1994. Firaxis made Enemy Unknown even better when it released the Enemy Within expansion for consoles and PC in October, but it’s actually been the mobile release of the core game that’s kept me constantly coming back since it launched this summer. It’s never been better than it is on tablets, which is exactly why I bought an iPad Air this year instead of a PS4. Seriously. It’s that good. Also, don’t bother trying to catch me on the technicality that Enemy Unknown was originally released last year. My list!
2. SteamWorld Dig: A Fistful of Dirt (3DS)
What more can I say about Swedish indie developer Image & Form’s western-themed mining platformer? It came out of nowhere and took me completely by surprise. It blends elements of Super Metroid, Dig-Dug, and Minecraft into something completely new. I love, love, love this game (and in fact, I gave it a 9.5 in my IGN review.) It doesn’t get any fresher than this.
1. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds (3DS)
There’s so much to love about The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds. I love how fluid it feels. I love the character designs based on concept art for the original Legend of Zelda. I love the Maiamai sidequest that hearkens back to Link’s Awakening’s hidden seashells, and the not-incredibly-difficult-but-still-awesome bosses, and the simple, challenging StreetPass battles that paid for several of Link’s most expensive tools. And I love the ending. But most of all, I love how Nintendo has cut out all the bloat that has been slowly taking over the Zelda series for the past 6 years and built a game that hearkens back to a time when developers trusted players to figure things out for themselves. A Link Between Worlds is a true masterpiece in every sense of the word, and it’s my favorite game of 2013.