We’ve done it again. We’ve had another monumental year when it comes to sheer video game quality, but somehow, the industry decided to have quite the caveat to go with all the successes we’ve seen.
I’m talking, of course, about the fact that over 10,000 people in the gaming industry have lost their jobs, and there’s absolutely no guarantee they’ll land on their feet. Of the members of the (unpaid) SmashPad Staff that does this for the love of it, I have the unique privilege of actually working in the industry for one of the biggest publishers in the business and it really sucks to say that knowing what’s going on right now really leaves me on my toes wondering if I’ll be next.
This is something the industry has to fix, and for the love and passion I have for this business–I really hope it does. I’m not a numbers guy, and I don’t know what has to happen aside from businesses really understanding the people part of game design, development, and appreciation, but it all starts there. CEOs make money because they’re CEOs with business acumen that earned their way there–I get it, but if they really believe that they deserve to make THAT much more than the people they overlook, then I’d say it starts with looking in the mirror. I’m not saying every suit should be Satoru Iwata (though that would be nice), but the rewards and incentives need to be attainable whether or not there’s a global pandemic happening.
But I digress–even though it’s a shitstorm right now, 2023 has probably been gaming’s best year from a product standpoint. While certain members of our staff have a point that there’s no real reason for the current generation to exist (because both the Xbox Series X and PlayStation 5 don’t even have at least 10 exclusives between them), the fact of the matter is I don’t ever remember a time in my life where games have been more enjoyable, and it makes me wish I was a kid in grade school again who had less responsibilities and more time to just enjoy everything.
Oh wait, I had way less money back then.
I’m rambling now, so let’s move on to my Top 10 Games of 2023.
10. Hi-Fi Rush (Xbox Series X/S, PC)
It’s crazy that a shadow drop can get GOTY acclaim–much less one that came out in January, but that’s how good Hi-Fi Rush is. It’s a testament to what a studio can do if you just leave them alone and let them cook. Hi-Fi Rush combined high octane action with an amazing soundtrack and gameplay to boot in a heck of an execution to make this rhythmic action game oozing with style.
9. Octopath Traveler II (Multiplatform)
I’m not gonna lie. I’ve only played like five minutes of this game, but it’s not because I didn’t want to, and it’s not even because I haven’t made the time to. My brother is currently playing the game, and I don’t want to interrupt his flow. But hey, I’m not going to blame him for enjoying something awesome. The original game was my Game of the Year in 2018–yes, even over Marvel’s Spider-Man, so the fact that I haven’t put any real time into this one hurts me… but I’m still going to give it its flowers. I’m just sad that I know it could’ve been higher than this. My opinion of the game would probably match Michael Higham’s. (Filipino shoutout!)
8. Venba (Multiplatform)
The experience only lasted an hour or two, but Venba definitely hit. While I’m not of any Indian descent, being an involved member of my Filipino-American community really let this amazing story about family and inclusion hit home. Food is a universal language, so using it as the main pull in gameplay really let Venba sing, and I’d urge anybody who cares about diversity to play this game.
7. The Legend of Heroes: Trails Into Reverie (PC, PlayStation, Switch)
After superb entries in Trails of Cold Steel IV and the aforementioned Trails to Azure, Trails into Reverie ties most of the subplots from Erebonia and Crossbell up in a neat little bow, while also introducing us to characters we can look forward to seeing in future games.
6. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 (PlayStation 5)
Marvel’s Spider-Man was SmashPad’s Game of the Year in 2018, so the fact that its sequel that does pretty much everything better than its predecessor is sitting here at Number 6 should go to show how strong of a year 2023 was. Like Marvel’s Spider-Man before it, Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 really found ways to raise my eyebrows with the story and this combined with its awesome platinum trophy made it a thrill to play as much of this game as possible. My girlfriend even enjoyed watching me play it, which says a lot.
5. The Legend of Heroes: Trails to Azure (PC, PlayStation, Switch)
This might be cheating because this game originally came out 12 years ago, but hey, it deserves its flowers. I have absolutely no qualms putting two Trails games in here despite how great the year has been–heck, the fact that there were two mainline Trails games makes the year even better.
Much in the same way Trails in the Sky SC took Trails in the Sky to new heights, Trails to Azure really allowed the story of the Special Support Section to come into its own and become the exciting force we saw in the later Trails of Cold Steel games. The careful attention to detail with each character shines brightly in Trails to Azure, making it a real treat for people who waited this long for it to finally come out.
4. Super Mario Bros. Wonder (Switch)
I’m on the fence about this game looking wildly different than the recent New Super Mario Bros. games… I just don’t see it, but that doesn’t take away from the sheer quality and value that Super Mario Bros. Wonder offers. The game is an absolute blast and Nintendo obviously used plenty of ideas raised in the Super Mario Maker games to really make a game that’ll satiate those looking for both a casual and hardcore experience. Combined with the talking flowers, Super Mario Bros. Wonder is for 2D Mario games what Super Mario Odyssey was for 3D Mario games.
3. Sea of Stars (Multiplatform)
In a huge year for JRPGs, an indie game not even made in a Japanese studio finds itself here. Sea of Stars is a game that takes classic JRPG conventions and melds them with environmental rule-breaking and one of the best plots and turns it all into a simply wonderful experience. I did this for you, Garl!
2. Final Fantasy XVI (PlayStation 5)
While the series has grown to become something that might have alienated its original fandom, I’m someone that can appreciate the strides Square Enix has made at keeping Final Fantasy epic. Sure, the turn-based battle system is all but gone, but the action in the game is quick and seamless, allowing players to really take in the atmosphere of this broken mideival realm as Clive Rosfield. On top of that, the callbacks and hints to previous games in the writing, environment, and amazing music easily make this the best Final Fantasy I’ve played since Final Fantasy X.
1. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom (Switch)
The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild was nothing short of astounding, and while I’d stop myself from calling it my favorite Zelda game, it was easily the one game I’d love to experience again for the first time. The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom did that and a lot more. Not only did it give me the same epic and whimsical sense of exploration and accomplishment I had when exploring, but it also made me into various gameplay mechanics that I never thought I’d like–building, for instance. And lastly… Ascend. As someone that also works at a gaming studio, this sort of thing shouldn’t be possible, but it is in this game and it’s a testament to the quality and creativity that Aonuma’s team undeniably has.
I’ve said it quite a few times now. 2023 might have been the best year in gaming. I haven’t even gotten a chance to sink my hands into other GOTY-worthy titles like Baldur’s Gate 3 (because I don’t know if that type of game is for me) and Alan Wake 2 (because I never played the first, and I was never much for the horror genre), but I know I’m missing out by not at least giving them a chance, so I will.
That said, 2024 is already looking good. I’m not sure it’ll reach the heights of what this year was, but the early JRPG onslaught of Like A Dragon: Infinite Wealth, Persona 3 Reload, and Final Fantasy VII Rebirth definitely leave me a lot to be excited for, and these are just Q1 releases!
Bring. It. On. As the great Reggie Fils-Aime famously said, “My body is ready.”