For me, 2013 was a year full of surprises, whether that meant discovering quirky games that hadn’t been on my radar, or realizing that the way I approached and enjoyed games had changed. It was a year when I tried to escape the constant stream of flashy new releases in favor of richer, less transient experiences. It was a year where I finally decided I had lost patience (for the most part) for overhyped, triple-A blockbusters that are too often just a different coat of paint on last year’s model. It was a year about learning how to play in new ways, learning how to die, and learning how to sew pants! These are my most unforgettable games from that year.
Honorable Mentions (in no particular order)
BIT.TRIP Presents… Runner2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien
Emerging out of the original BIT.TRIP Runner on the Wii, Runner2 is firmly on my list of best sequels of all time. The solid running/jumping/kicking gameplay is back and expanded to make each stage (and, in turn, the intertwined soundtrack) a complete delight. While the original tended to be pretty unforgiving, Runner2 provides plenty of ways to tailor the game to your level, whether it’s a straightforward easy/hard setting, taking a more difficult route, or just opting to squeeze in fewer bonus-inducing dances—but why would you want to do that?
Metal Gear Rising Revengeance
It’s fast, it’s loud, it has a one-eyed cyborg ninja cutting helicopters in half—how much more of a video game could Revengeance be? In a period where many games ask to be taken more seriously, it was refreshing to just grab a sword, activate Blade Mode and chop everything in sight into bits. The best part was Metal Gear’s usual self-awareness and overindulgence reaching their logical conclusion: When the last boss launches into a typical diatribe about patriotism and the war economy, the hero finally tells him what we’ve been thinking all along: he’s just batshit insane.
I had no clue what to expect when I first set foot in Gone Home’s deserted mansion—is anyone here? Am I in danger? Will I see a ghost?? What followed was alternatingly calm and suspenseful, poignant, and yet featured moments of real dread and urgency. It’s rare to have a game hit all of those notes, let alone in a way that feels this authentic and natural.
The Stanley Parable
The Stanley Parable is something that’s sorely missing from the gaming landscape: an absurdist, self-aware satire that skewers the medium itself. The ever-present narrator immediately inspires parallels to Portal, but whereas Portal was content to remain within its own fictional world, The Stanley Parable breaks the fourth wall every chance it gets. And even though it was often to berate me, the player, I couldn’t get enough.
Mii Plaza 2.0
StreetPassing is one of the 3DS’s most interesting yet overlooked features, and it’s likely doomed to stay that way in the U.S., which is a tragedy because last summer’s Mii Plaza renovation finally delivered some games worth playing. The best are Monster Manor and Mii Force—the latter being a shooting game where the 3DS owners you pass on the street determine the weapons available to you. It’s completely fascinating and I can only hope that developers will continue to expand on the concept.
5. Super Mario 3D World
Nintendo faces probably the most difficult-to-please audience among all gamers, but even the most scrutinizing Mario fan will be hard-pressed to find something they don’t like about 3D World. It’s filled with classic Mario characters and gameplay, but it never for a moment feels stagnant thanks to the endlessly creative level design. Simply reaching the end of each level was a little on the easy side (although there were some levels that had me scrambling for extra lives), but discovering all the green stars and secret stamps is a welcome excuse to revisit each stage for hours on end.
4. The Last of Us
Naughty Dog’s latest opus is an all-too-rare example of what can result when a studio can tell the story they envisioned, free of pressure from the business side of things—at least that’s how The Last of Us felt. The unforgiving stealth gameplay was a gutsy choice and definitely wasn’t perfect, but the tension and sense of real danger contributed to my attachment to Joel and Ellie as I watched them struggle through a journey through a post-apocalyptic world that never once felt clichéd. Naughty Dog dressed each scene—from the writing, to the actors’ performances, to the soundtrack—with an amount of subtlety and finish that I’ve never seen in other video games, and they continued to sidestep my expectations all the way through to the gut-wrenching conclusion, which was probably as perfect of an end to the story as I could have hoped for.
It’s true what they say: You die a lot playing Spelunky. It can be discouraging. But the platforming and exploration are so expertly tuned and inviting that it’s easy to start a new game and try again. I learned new strategies (or just traps to avoid) from each death, and learned immensely more from watching livestreams and previous record runs of other Spelunky fanatics playing the brilliant daily challenge mode. The sense of progression and accomplishment is incredibly rewarding—even after finally completing the game numerous times, I still return to the daily challenge just to see how the caves will unfold that day, and if I can maybe come out of it with just a little more gold than the last time.
2. Final Fantasy XIV: A Realm Reborn
It’s unreal that producer Naoki Yoshida and his team not only salvaged 2010’s disastrous Final Fantasy XIV 1.0 but turned it into the best MMO I’ve played. I’m quick to write off MMOs as tedious and shallow, but the action in A Realm Reborn is nuanced and exciting, especially in a party of other players who are all depending on me to keep them alive. The crafting system is unique and rewards attention and dedication (plus yields the aforementioned pants, among other useful items). The game world is gorgeously rendered and feels like a classic Final Fantasy setting. And, best of all, the game will continue to grow, evolve, and present new challenges and goals to chase, ensuring that even if I hit a plateau, it won’t be for too long.
1. Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate
It’s Monster Hunter so it’s my Game of the Year—it may seem obvious, but its place is well-deserved. Even after hundreds of hours (on top of the hundreds I sunk into Monster Hunter Freedom Unite on the PSP), the larger-than-life monster battles and cooperative play still feel as tense and meaningful as ever. Even with my experience from Freedom Unite, being dropped into an unknown land with new foes to face off against felt overwhelming at times, but I steadily re-learned the ropes and settled back into a comfortable hunting groove, and that’s what I love about it the most—it’s a familiar place I can come back to over and over, with both the breadth and depth to ensure it never gets old.
Monster Hunter image by PE-Travers on DeviantArt