2013 was anything but a boring year for gamers. We had two new consoles released this year, one of which had one of the most public outcry of any tech release that I've ever seen in the Xbox One. We also saw some of the lowest lows in a long time; SimCity had a disasterous launch where people couldn't even play the game they bought, and Aliens: Colonial Marines had a marketing campaign built on false game footage and a laughably finished final product. The Walking Dead: Survival Instinct was another low, where the publisher felt it had to ride the coattails of Telltale's own Walking Dead game by rushing out a poor excuse for a game. And, as usual, middling scores given out to Grand Theft Auto V were met with death threats rather than constructive criticism.
It was an ugly year for games, but at the same it was also a fantastic one. We saw loads of fresh, interesting titles, as well as sequels that drastically improved upon their predecessors. As much as everyone was hating Microsoft at e3, I really have to give the company credit for turning their console around as much as they did. Indie games continue to grow, showing that you don't need a huge budget to create a great game (though there's certainly a few games on this list who make the most of their budget). Overall, 2013 was a fantastic year for games, and I can't wait to see what 2014 holds. Let's get started, shall we?
10. The Stanley Parable
I've played a lot of games over the years that had me make choices that were completely irrelevant to the game's story, or force me to do something I didn't want to. Last year's Spec Ops: The Line deconstructed those narrative choices by forcing the player to commit atrocities, but The Stanley Parable takes a more head-on approach and points out the inherent problems with interactive stories. It only takes a couple of hours to see most of the content in the game, but the writing is so hysterical that I don't mind at all. I'd happily recommend this game to anyone, regardless of their skill level as a gamer.
Horror is a difficult genre to do well. When done correctly, it can force the player to confront their fears just to see what happens next in the story. When done poorly, it's boring and predictable and a slog to get through, no matter how many jump scares you throw at them. Fortunately, Outlast is in the former category. The first time I played it, I quit the game in less than 10 minutes when my nerves got to me. But I went back in and toughed it out, I managed to see the story through to the end. It's a sometimes uneven experience, with some frustrating encounters and an ending that makes you wonder what all that effort was for. Regardless, Outlast is a chilling and immersive game that I happily recommend to horror fans.
I hate Spelunky. I really do. All the hours I've lost because I misjudged a jump, or an enemy unexpectedly got in my way and killed me before I could recall have led to countless swear words. With that in mind, Spelunky is very different from your average "hardcore platformer". The challenge comes not from difficult jumping sections, but from being able to read your environment, manage your resources, and knowing when to fight or flee. It's a brutal and unforgiving game, but when I finally managed to get through the entire game and leave with the treasure, I felt like I had accomplished so much.
I'm including Spelunky on this list because the PC version was released this year, which is the platform I played the game on. If you think it doesn't belong because the Xbox 360 version was released in 2012, just imagine I put Runner2 or Cloudberry Kingdom here or something.
7. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies
I was a huge fan of the Ace Attorney series back when the first three games were released on the DS. I found the combination of likeable characters, fantastic writing, and great music made them instant classics. I was let down by Apollo Justice and, to a lesser extent, Ace Attorney Investigations, and my desire for visual novel-style games made me seek out games like 999 and Professor Layton. Thankfully, Dual Destinies is right up there with the original trilogy when it comes to quality. It took me a little while to adjust to the series' wacky sense of humor, complex motives, and ridiculous coincidences, but once I did, I was in for a treat.
It's a shame that Capcom decided the English translation wasn't worth a retail release, especially since niche titles like Virtue's Last Reward have done just fine, but I would rather take a digital-only copy than no copy at all. Even then, it's clear that the translation was rushed; I spotted numerous typos throughout my playthrough, so Capcom better gives its writers some more time for the next project. Regardless, Dual Destinies provided me with Simon Blackquill, my favorite new character of 2013, as well as one of the most chilling images of any game this year. If you can stomach a text-heavy game, grab this one.
I have a love/hate relationship with fighting games. On one hand, I adore the way two players battle as they try to predict the other player's actions and react accordingly, especially if it's the final match in a tournament. Unfortunately, the learning curve for the genre is unbelievably steep, comparable only to RTS games like Starcraft. There have been too many times where I sunk time into a fighting game only to find that I was too far above my friends to have fun playing with them, but too inexperienced to hold my own in a real tournament.
Enter Divekick, a fighting game with only two buttons: Dive and Kick. With the learning curve stripped out, we now have a game that's easy to learn, where all anyone needs to be able to do to win is read their opponent. The shining moment of this game for me was at a convention this year, where an attendee had brought the game on his laptop to display. People constantly heard the game and watched us play. When we invited them to join us, they said that they didn't think they would be very good. We assured them that the game was only two buttons, and that they would get the hang of it instantly. Sure enough, a large group had gathered around this laptop, passing around controllers just so they could Dive and Kick each other to death.
5. Rayman Legends
Sad to say, I'm starting to think that Rayman Legends will be the last platformer I truly fall in love with in a while. This console generation has seen a whole host of fantastic platformers like Super Meat Boy, Super Mario Galaxy, and LIMBO. However, the genre has become so common among the indie scene that even Spelunky earlier on the list left me feeling a bit too familiar. Even though I think the genre may be wearing itself out, that doesn't take away from just how fantastic Rayman Legends is.
Everything about Rayman is pure fun. The environments are jaw-droppingly gorgeous, the music is a joy to listen to, and the platforming is challenging without being frustrating. Not to mention, "Castle Rock" might be my favorite level in any video game, ever. So far, this list has been pretty diverse, with games bordering on meta-commentary, horror, and visual novels, so it's rather nice to see a game like Rayman Legends that's just trying to be as fun as it can be. Speaking of which...
4. The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds
I'll admit, I was skeptical when this was first announced. After being put off by the last few Zelda games, I felt like Nintendo was just pandering to its fanbase by releasing a sequel to A Link to the Past, a 20-year old game. While I'm disappointed that A Link Between Worlds does not star a drunken, middle-aged Link trying to desperately reclaim his former glory, I'm glad to say that the new Zelda is the best game the series has put out in a long time.
All the things that have bothered me about Nintendo games as of late (excessive tutorials and hand-holding, linear game design, uselessness of money and other resources) has been completely stripped out. By allowing me access to all the items early on, I was finally able to explore Hyrule (and Lorule) at my own pace, rather than being hampered by gameplay limitations. I loved being able to figure out puzzles and game mechanics on my own rather than have them force-fed to me by an NPC. With all the fat stripped out, the game may feel a bit short compared to other Zelda games, but the fact that I dived right back into hard mode after completing it proves that padding is completely unnecessary. A Link Between Worlds is fantastic, and anyone with a 3DS owes it to themselves to pick it up.
3. Bioshock Infinite
I still hold up the original Bioshock as one of the best games of this generation, despite it being released six years ago. It was atmospheric, well-written, and best of all, thought-provoking in a way few games still fail to do. I was worried that Bioshock Infinite would end up as another disappointment, considering how many delays it went through during the course of development, but now that it's finally released, we can all take a breath of fresh air, as the game, while still falling a bit short of its predecessor (in my opinion), isn't afraid to go to new settings and explore new ideas like so many other shooters out there.
The world of Columbia is beautifully designed and feels like a living, breathing place, despite some of the absurdities of its design. It's hard to go into specifics of the game's story without spoiling anything, but the trip Booker and Elizabeth take as they try to escape from the floating city goes some weird places that you wouldn't normally expect from such a story. The gameplay also mixes things up from your usual shooter fare with the magical vigors or the skyhook that allows Booker to ride along rails as he shoots at his foes. In a world dominated by modern military shooters, it's nice to see one that's willing to be colorful and adventurous, confident enough in what it has to offer that it won't compromise itself to try to appeal to an audience that doesn't want it. (Then again, that box art isn't doing it any favors...)
2. The Last of Us
As much as I loved Naughty Dog's Uncharted series, I couldn't help but feel awkward as the hero Nathan Drake mowed down constant bad guys, going so far as to spout one-liners as he snapped people's necks. They were gorgeous games with excellent gameplay, but Nathan sometimes came across as a psychopath, not a hero. The Last of Us feels like a direct response to that criticism, where death is given the emotional weight it deserves, and even the enemies are just people trying to survive. It's a morally grey world that's emotionally draining at times, and at moments feels as much of a horror game as Outlast.
Just like Bioshock Infinite, The Last of Us focuses primarily on a tough, grizzled man with a younger female sidekick. But while Elizabeth was being forced to confront the terrors of the world she grew up in, Ellie was born and raised in this nightmare, showing a lot of maturity for someone her age while also still feeling like a kid as she reads comic books and marvels when this ugly world finally shows its beauty. Joel is also a complex character that wasn't trying to necessarily be a hero like Nathan Drake; he's just the protagonist of this story. I didn't feel right performing the actions of his final action sequence, but at the same time I could respect where he was coming from. The Last of Us is the best written, best directed, most beautiful game of 2013, and it deserves every Game of the Year award it gets. However, as far as I go, I can't help but give my own personal award to...
1. Fire Emblem: Awakening
The first Fire Emblem released stateside in 2003 is one of my favorite games of all time. It has just the right balance of great characters, great music, and addictive turn-based gameplay that sets it apart from practically every game I've ever played. The following games in the series were just as fantastic, and for a while, Fire Emblem was my favorite game series. Unfortunately, the last great entry was 2007's Radiant Dawn, and, like Ace Attorney mentioned earlier, I thought this great series might finally be over. (2009's Shadow Dragon did nothing but disappoint me)
However, Fire Emblem: Awakening was not only the game that finally convinced me to get a 3DS (though I was entertaining myself with Virtue's Last Reward during the wait), but it was by far my favorite game of 2013. Within minutes of turning on the game, I found myself locked in battle against a group of bandits ransacking a town. It wasn't long before I was getting to know my fellow soldiers, watching them grow stronger, become friends with each other, and even fall in love. It had been so long since I had last played a game in the series that I had almost forgotten what I loved about it so much. With so much talk in recent years about female characters in games not being up to par, it's refreshing to see a cast full of female soldiers, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and personality quirks. The men, too, range from strong, womanizing, inquisitive, or quiet to the point of being invisible.
Not only that, but Awakening was also supremely challenging. It forced me to use the most my brain had to offer, calculating risks and strategies on the fly as new challenges emerged. Often I would lose a half-hour's worth of progress when a key soldier in my party died, yet every time I was willing to dive right back in in order to save them. I was constantly checking on my army between missions, reequipping people in order to prepare them for future battles. As the bonds between my soldiers strengthened, the more it hurt when I lost one of them, but each time I would restart the mission, refusing to let anyone die. Until finally, I had to let one go.
I sunk dozens of hours into Awakening this year, and I imagine in the future I'll be going back and seeing all my old friends again. I can't wait to see where the series goes in the future, and perhaps Shin Megami Tensei X Fire Emblem may convince me to get a Wii U in the same manner Awakening convinced me to get a 3DS. Fire Emblem: Awakening may have balance issues, and its story is weaker than a lot of other games on this list, but I can't imagine giving Game of the Year to anything else.