It was a great year for games if you knew where to look. There’s always a feeling on these transition years that there isn’t really much to look for in the way of major releases, but this year more than any other, indie and handheld games really came out and showed you that if you’re just playing on the home consoles, you’re going to be missing out on some pretty good stuff. As enamored as I was with several PC releases this year, though, it was also a great year for the 3DS in particular--I was out a lot for school, and in all honesty, few consoles had the consistent barrage of long, excellently-made games. It’s no surprise that most of my games are then are 3DS ones, but more than last year there’s a huge list of excellent runners-up. Just because they’re not on the actual top 5 doesn’t mean they’re something to be ignored. On the contrary, if these games are here, they’re the cream of the crop. While only 5 of them can make the top, I definitely recommend checking them all out if you have the time.
Favorite Game Released Before 2013, Played in 2013: Mario and Luigi: Bowser’s Inside Story
At some point in Bowser’s Inside Story, Bowser is crushed by a castle. Even in the game he’s basically dead, but Mario and Luigi, taking residence inside his body (it’s a long story) pump up his adrenaline and Bowser grows to be the size of the castle. He then proceeds to fight the castle, hand to hand, beating it until it’s smoking and defeated.
This is a mechanic that repeats multiple times in the game, and it’s awesome no matter how many times it happens. And beyond that, this is an awesome and well-translated game, full of purposefully broken English and ridiculous characters- making Fawful, the Engrishy sidekick from the first Mario and Luigi, the main villain, was an inspired choice, but I also love the Emo-Globin, with their constant screams of “IS THAT NOT GLOBIN?!” It’s a fun game, and the only thing that bums me out is that I waited this long to play it.
5. Pinball FX 2/Zen Pinball 2
It’s been a good year for a pinball revival for me. As soon as Zen Pinball came out on the WiiU, I was all over it, and I was reminded of a deep-seated love that I hadn’t been able to actually indulge in for years. While the tables had a couple of problems, one fact remained- I was playing pinball. And lots of it. And probably the best pinball I’d played since I started on the genre so many years ago. In fact, Pinball FX and Zen Pinball (same game, different names) reawakened something within me, and I began to subscribe to the Professional and Amateur Pinball Association twitch page and watched a documentary about pinball as a dying art that needed to be protected. Even writing this is just getting me in the mood to go play more. It may not be one of the most important releases of the year, but I’ll be damned if Pinball FX didn’t give me more hours and more constant enjoyment this year than most other things I played.
4. Fire Emblem: Awakening
At some point, I stopped playing the actual story missions in Fire Emblem and started focusing on the inter-character relationships. It was fascinating to see the system in place- as characters bate together, they grew closer, and as they grew closer, they battled together more effectively. As this relationship improved, characters could even get married, and the hopeless romantic in me was thrilled to set up clichéd relationships and see how the characters would act as parents. The beautiful companion to the foppish archer eventually wins over his love! The brash, strong warrior and the fierce, lone beast woman find respect for each other’s strengths that turns to love! The creepy goth girl with the quiet crush is eventually noticed by the man of her dreams, who falls for her as well! My brain tickled as I set these things up, playing this hardcore RPG with perma-death and stats and class changes as though it was a dating sim. And when I got through that, I immediately wanted to start over, pairing new people together and seeing how that story plays out. Maybe it’s the best dating sim of the year, but on top of that, there’s a really good RPG in there with gorgeous graphics and awesome-looking 3D for anyone looking for a good, deep challenge on their 3DS.
3. Rayman Legends
Criminal is what it is. Criminal that so few people played this game, despite Ubisoft’s questionable tactic of pushing it back to allow for it to be ported and not just get sold on the low-selling WiiU as an exclusive. Especially since, when it was finally released, it was a game very clearly meant to be controlled in one way- with two people playing together on the WiiU, one controlling with the GamePad, the other doing the platformy bits. And in that ideal situation, this game is beautiful. There’s a sort of beautiful happenstance and accidental teamwork that arises, as you fall into a motion with the other player. As Murphy, you may be pulling out platforms, blocking robots from seeing the player or creating a path for them, and it feels so sublime. You catch each other along the way, helping each other to something greater and to more success. On top of that, their inclusion of a challenges mode gives you reason to play every day, and the music stages are pretty awesome, though there are sadly so few of them. If you have a WiiU, you need to own this game- it’s best on that system, and one of the best games on that system period.
2. Papers, Please
Games struggle with satire constantly, be it social or even just commentary about other games, yet through their interactivity, they offer a unique experience and a way to create a message that no other media really has. Most satire in games tends to be very navel-gazey. Even the best examples, with games like Bioshock or The Stanley Parable, are about games, and their story or narrative problems. Yet Papers, Please chose to do something so few games do, and especially well- it chose to give actual social commentary. It chose to have something to say, and furthermore, it found a way to use the gameplay to add to the message it was sending about privacy and government boundaries. It’s a game that’s especially poignant in the year of the Snowden leaks about the NSA, and its weirdly hypnotic gameplay rhythms and the uncaringness with which you start to steal these people’s privacy as just part of your job, it’s a game that needs to be listened to. And then, no matter how many little ways you can find to rebel and eke away power from the government, there’s a clear message- even if you won’t do these things to help protect your country, there’s someone else who very gladly will. The maturity of the message and the simplicity of the presentation go hand in hand to really sell this world, and make this one of the best games of the year.
1. Animal Crossing: New Leaf
One of my favorite things to do with Animal Crossing is describe it to other gamers, people who’ve never heard of the series, and watch their reaction. “What do you do in it?” they ask. “Can you blow things up? What’s the point?” My friend, that is the point- that you can’t just go blow things up. That this game isn’t about violence and power fantasy- it’s a game about nothing. It’s a game about enjoyment , relaxation, escape. It was always there for me when I needed to escape from a particularly hectic day, giving me a chance to water and visit with neighbors, people I love to see on a daily basis and get sad when I find that they’ve moved out. Animal Crossing is everything relaxing in the world, distilled into a downloadable package.
Yet even this simple and relaxing experience housed a deep obsession for me, and it wasn’t long before I was forcing myself to find time to play it. I have to water my flowers, I’d say, this won’t take too long. I need to just check my turnip prices, that’s all. Soon, I had days where I wasn’t able to play other games because I was so focused on making my town beautiful. To this day I don’t allow myself to play anything else until I’ve finished making sure my flowers are beautiful and watered. 216 hours. It’s been 216 hours as of this writing playing New Leaf since it released in June. And what’s especially crazy about it is the fact that I really wish I could have found more time to spend in my beautiful town, enjoying the special pleasure of doing nothing in a place you love. It’s with no hesitation that I award Animal Crossing: New Leaf the best game of 2013.
Honorable Mention: Pikmin 3, Brave New World, Luigi’s Mansion, The Stanley Parable, The Swapper