One of the hardest things about writing this 2023 best of list is realizing that, ultimately, I didn’t play a lot of the games in a year filled with games I would love to play. I have a couple that I genuinely loved, and I’ll be talking about them here, but going through the list and seeing how many games I just haven’t made time for was humbling. Humbling, of course, in part because as I get older and realize my limits (both personally and those On This Mortal Coil), I can’t help but admit that there’s a decent chance I’ll never play some of these games, and that’s kind of crushing. Ozymandias, look upon my works, etc. 

But one of the blessings of doing a list for folks that are not focused so much on the de rigeur that they miss the promise of interesting content is that I can play with this lack a bit. So what follows is a list of games I played that were released in 2023 and then a series of games that I celebrate because of what they are and what they do, even if I haven’t played them just yet. Splitting the difference, as it were, in order to get to the core of what makes lists like these good: their attention to the trend of the medium in terms of its highs and (by way of a lack) its lows.

GAMES I PLAYED (SOME OF…)

7. Sylvie Lime

So I played this one based entirely on a listener request for the 24 hour stream and I am very glad I did. Half brutal platformer, half lesbian love story, half reverse-Doki Doki Literature Club (it’s a nice game made by someone who loves you, not who wants to kill you), Sylvie Lime is cute, and really hard, and has catchy music, and is surprisingly sincere and earnest. I don’t want to give away much more, but it’s free now and you should go play it and tip the creators! 

6. Slayers X: Terminal Aftermath: Vengance of the Slayer

The work of Jay Tholen – specifically Hypnospace Outlaw – needs no real introduction. However, the fact that Tholen, er, Zane (a character from Hypnospace) made a fully realized boomer shooter based on his x-treme 1999 coded JNCO and hardcore lifestyle and released it in 2023 deserves all of the love possible. As we’re in the heyday of boomer shooters thanks to folks like Dave Oshry, we have tons of options to pick from. But I’d say anyone with a sense of humor and an urge to revisit with a bit of chagrin the world of 1999-2002 should try Slayers X, which has a fantastic mechanical bent and a really wonderful storyline worthy of Tholen. GGZ Zane.

5. Lethal Company

OK look if I were any good at this game, it would be a lot higher. A goofy delivery sim you play with your friends where you, a disposable lil guy in a hazmat suit, are sent into a murder machine pit of monsters and gatling guns in order to obtain and schlep scrap to an unfeeling company? Yeah absolutely, I’m in, where do I sign? It’s just that, like Deep Rock Galactic, I kind of suck at this game and it makes me feel very bad for the people I’m playing with and I kind of disconnect and stop paying good attention to it. That’s not the game’s fault! It’s a great game that, if you haven’t yet, you should totally pick up and play with three other friends who are all good at being the kind of uh, mean-nice that is preferable for these games. You’ll have a blast.

4. Vengeful Guardian: Moonrider

This and the next one are on my radar because I interviewed their developers for No Cartridge, but boy do they deserve it regardless. Danilo Dias (my interviewee) and his partners (including his deeply talented wife) in JoyMasher are maybe best known for Blazing Chrome, which has some cachet as a great retro run and gun, but their work is truly remarkable in the retro gaming space. As I described it in the interview, the games have the weight, the stickiness old games had; they aren’t smooth in the ways you’d expect though they are beautifully produced regardless. Dias told me that this is down to a highly rigorous choice of what inputs, colors, movements, etc were usable for the systems that their games are emulating. Moonrider emulates a PSX/32X experience, and as an homage to the tight pixel work done in that era, it feels like a hidden gem someone like Marc Normandin happened to stumble upon. It’s worth your time as are the other JoyMasher pieces.

3. Bomb Rush Cyberfunk

A ton of people very fairly said this game was hugely derivative and not just inspired by Jet Grind Radio, and I get that I really do. It’s hard to say how much of Bomb Rush Cyberfunk is new material and how much is just rehashing how cool it is to grind on billboards and do graffiti. However, I’m honest enough to admit it truly does not matter to me whatsoever. I am a Jet Grind Radio sicko from waaaaay back and the chance to finally enjoy the feelings that game evoked was absolutely worth the price of entry and the repeated runs thrown into this lovely and enjoyable game. I loved the graphics and the new designs for the characters; I loved the weird cybernetic hell they decided to set the game in; I loved the new bad guys; I loved the graffiti! If you had to ask me what my GOTY was based on vibes, well, search no further. I cannot recommend this game enough if you feel miserable and sad and want to have a good antidote to that/want to hit cops with a skateboard.

2. MY GACHA PROBLEM (Honkai Impact 3rd, end of first story arc)

Sorry, I’ll keep it short, but MAN that was a good ending to a years long story. The folks at Mihoyo simply love to spread their writers out over a bunch of projects but still insist that they cook consistently with their writing, and boy does that work out for them a lot. There’s not a ton I can say about this series without filling you in on a bunch of lore you will not care about or physics you’ll care about even less. But HI3 has been a remarkable success story for Mihoyo, and that’s alongside the lovely Honkai Star Rail and the goliath Genshin Impact. I won’t bug you with Arknights this year because they didn’t finish a storyline or anything, exactly. But I’m blown away by how good the end of the “Kiana Arc” was in HI3 and really truly convinced that, despite their very real downsides, gacha games might be able to hold the line and produce lovely stuff by uh…well, duping their customers into gambling. But the good stuff, though!!!

1. Baldur’s Gate 3

I was thinking about this game a lot when I was reading the Nextlander boys’ top 10 lists, and while it hit highly on most of them, I couldn’t totally understand it not being number 1 on everyone’s list. I’ll admit, I haven’t beaten the game yet, but you don’t have to beat the game to know this is a remarkable piece of work. The first 2 hours of the game really lay that out quite clearly, as you escape from a mindflayer ship, end up in the midst of a new land, and are forced to instantly make about a dozen choices that will direct your quest in myriad new ways you can’t really imagine yet. Plus, the combat is crisp, the writing is dynamic, the voice acting is A+, and the variety of side and main quest choices you can make or ignore is as intimidating as it is astounding. 

This game is a tough one because the hype train absolutely was part of what made it such a massive success and, in this case, the hype train was not wrong. It was 100 percent dead on accurate that Larian Studios had done something really special with this one. It’s almost too engrossing to start unless I know I have 5-6 hours to myself (ha ha ha), so I’ll mark it down slightly for being too intimidating, but like any hot person at the bar, you just need to be brave enough to approach and BG3 will reward you.

GAMES I DIDN’T PLAY OR FORGOT I PLAYED AND LIKED

So special attention here to Alan Wake 2, Like A Dragon: Ishin and The Man Who Lost His Name, Tears of the Kingdom, Ghost Trick rerelease, The Banished Vault, etc. 

Thank you for being a series of games I cannot wait to work towards playing, whose attention to story, mixed media, creative mechanics, attentive writing, and (above all else) frustrating but elucidating gameplay makes me excited about video games in the years to come. I’ll never play all of the games I want to, but watching people play the games I think I’d love is an odd sort of solace, especially when I realize how much quality there is out there that hasn’t been seen or played or read the way it ought to be.

I know we are in a weird moment with games – mega acquisitions and companies laying off hundreds of employees – and I can’t say I have a lot of good to say about the industry as such. But I can say that I am excited about the material that’s out there already from the perspective of a player and a critic. We have a lot to work through as smart people whom game, and I couldn’t be happier to throw a couple more titles on your list if possible. 

Dr. Trevor Strunk is host of the gaming interview podcast No Cartridge Audio as well as author of the book Story Mode. You can find him on Twitter @hegelbon and support No Cartridge on Patreon.

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