I take it as an indication of the quality of 2013’s games that BioShock Infinite, a game that seemed a shoo-in for copious awards come this point in the year, now looks likely to be frequently overlooked. I’m kind of the same now that the lustre has worn off and the rough edges – prosaic shooting, an occasionally annoying AI companion, bullet sponge enemies, that boss – have become evident.
But the original BioShock did very little… original, gameplay-wise. That achieved its plaudits through its setting and story, and while Infinite’s Columbia doesn’t grab me as firmly as the glorious Rapture and its rug pulls can’t touch BioShock’s, I played through the whole thing in two sittings because it kept me enthralled, keen to see what it would do next. The pre-release hype hinted at parallel universes and time travel, but it still surprised me in how quickly and to what extent it ran with those themes.
Just imagine the praise that would be heaped on its shenanigans had it been a Christopher Nolan film, say. Gaming as a mature storytelling medium? Never in doubt.
I’d been disappointed by my returns to Pokémon since what I perceive to be its heyday in the late 90s. It’s a series whose advancements between iterations had been conservative by even Nintendo’s standards, with everything from its templated story to the designs of its new Pokémon exhibiting diminishing returns.
X and Y, though, while still not a reinvention, felt refreshed. Actual 3D graphics, like anyone who’d played Pokémon had wanted since the N64 days, were the banner feature and injected personality into the limited sprite-based characters of yore. Also impressive was the well-integrated networking, which brought social aspects that only a game with the popular clout of Pokémon could pull off – I’m still waiting for my first Fire Emblem StreetPass, but Pokémon was netting me a couple a day. A nice reminder of what a world where the 3DS was an unmitigated hit.
I still say we need a Pokémon game that really mixes things up in the way that past transitions to 3D have done for Nintendo’s popular franchises, but X and Y were at least a step towards that. Kudos for being the first instalment I’ve enjoyed since the GBA.
Did I say that big budget RPGs were dead? OK, I lied. They’re only mostly dead. Think of this as the last hurrah before Final Fantasy XV comes along and introduces a cover system, surely representing the death knell for the genre.
I’ll admit that my love for Ni No Kuni is mostly skin-deep. It marries Level-5’s cel-shaded style, seen previously in games like Rogue Galaxy and Dragon Quest VIII, with Studio Ghibli to stunning effect. It tickles the nostalgia gland through its animated aesthetic and young-boy-on-an-adventure story that’s straight out of an 80s family film. And playing a voiced game with a character called Oliver is like something from the future, where speech synthesis is of a standard where naming the protagonist after yourself does more than personalise the name of your save file.
It was enough, however, for extremely traditional JRPG tropes, supported by a bit of Pokémon catch-’em-all-ing, to keep me at it for over 50 hours, which doesn’t happen often. I adored the wonderful world in particular; I frequently cite the standard of its towns as being the ultimate barometer of an RPG’s quality, and Ding Dong Dell and the Fairyground are right up there.
What Ni No Kuni lacks was never enough to dilute its charms for me, and so it remains one of the few shining lights among last generation’s crop of JRPGs.
If I’m honest, I could take or leave Pikmin, but this is a revival from Nintendo’s GameCube wilderness years that surprised me by doing that wonderful thing of giving you something you didn’t know you wanted. Although it would have been pretty far down my list of desirable Nintendo revivals, Luigi’s Mansion 2 became a showpiece for the hardware, the atmospheric potential of the 3D effect, and the banner release for the Year of Luigi.
Only the fact that its qualities can’t sustain it throughout some gratuitous backtracking keeps Luigi’s Mansion from climbing further up this year’s list. But if you take your time, avoiding tiring of going through the same corridor for the fifteenth time, you’ll be rewarded with one of the most charming games around. It’s like the gaming equivalent of a Pixar movie, full of personality, wit and fun little touches.
Whereas the original Luigi’s Mansion disappointed as a flagship launch title for a new Nintendo console – it followed Mario 64 there, let’s not forget – I feel like the 3DS would have had a less bumpy debut had it arrived with a game as complementary to the hardware as this game. I loved it, and it’s now my go-to recommendation for new 3DS buyers.
A lot’s been written about how JRPGs in general and Final Fantasy in particular have gone off the rails in recent years, but it frequently seems to escape the notice of such editorials that portable RPGs have thrived. While Final Fantasy stuttered on consoles, minor classics like Radiant Historia, The World Ends With You, Jeanne D’Arc and innumerable Shin Megami Tensei games have shone on the last two handheld generations. Dragon Quest saw where the action was, and now Final Fantasy does. Kind of.
Square Enix got cold feet, instead making this the spiritual successor to a minor Final Fantasy spin-off, but it doesn’t take long to see where its roots lie. Familiar enemies, items and tropes show up in a world that blends Final Fantasy IX – an easy way into my heart – with the style of the DS Final Fantasy remakes.
Some late subversion of various RPG stereotypes aside, it’s disappointingly conservative – more old-fashioned than nostalgic. But as a fan of classic JRPGs, I had a great time with it. It makes some clever use of StreetPass; it’s beautiful, making subtle use of 3D to add depth to its watercolour environments; and the return of the job system is welcome, since it’s one of my favourite character development systems that got left by the wayside for some reason.
JRPGs as big budget entertainment burned brightly but lasted only two generations. The likes of this show where the real talent has gone.
Wow. After the disappointment of 2012, where Halo 4 was good enough to make number 2 and my favourite game, brilliant as it was, was a year-old PC game, 2013 has been staggeringly good. Less in the way of indie titles and phone games padding out the list and – spoiler warning – a very surprising spread of host platforms given this year’s new developments. Some of the honourable mentions that didn’t make the final lineup would have walked on to 2012’s selections, to the extent that I’ll certainly put together something to flag them up, as they don’t deserve to be overlooked.
The rules, as always, are that a game must have been released somewhere in the world and played by me within calendar 2013. That means some omissions simply because I hadn’t played them – no Wii U means no Super Mario 3D World, unfortunately – and other 2013 contenders like Shin Megami Tensei IV falling victim to the curse of region-locking. Maybe next year for that one.
Posts will go live at 2100 GMT over the next ten days. Enjoy.
Below are my selections since I’ve been doing this: