After finishing my “top 20 games of 2013” list, I remarked two interesting points: more indie games than usual and even more Japanese games. This year, we indeed saw a rise in quality and popularity of indie games (bigger budget, more innovation, more diversity), but also a return of great Japanese games, thing that we didn’t see since some years. And while some of the usual publishers (Square-Enix or Capcom for example) seem to be putting aside the console and handheld market to focus a bit more on mobile, they also keep working on their IPs, and even create really good new ones.
Not only was 2013 the beginning of the end for the Xbox 360 and the PS3, but it was globally a better year than 2012 on those consoles (and surprisingly a poorer year on PC). Of course, the transition didn’t happen completely (and probably won’t before the fall of 2014 at best), but this really felt like the swan song for those platforms, with games like The Last of Us, GTA V and Tomb Raider.
You’ll see that most of my favourite 2013 games have been developed or published by Nintendo, but apart from their WiiU hardware sales, they really had a great year in terms of games, especially on 3DS (which was probably the platform to own in 2013) with titles like Fire Emblem Awakening, Animal Crossing New Leaf and Pokemon X&Y.
The Wonderful 101 by Platinum Games / Nintendo
This game has been compared to “Pikmin on steroids”, reviewers complained about shapes difficult to draw and not giving all the tools from the start, players avoided it as it was a WiiU exclusive and really different from the usual beat-them-all. All of these are wrong: this game is a love letter to sentais (the Japanese group of super heroes) and action games (that Hideki Kamiya is best known for, with Devil May Cry, Bayonetta and Viewtiful Joe). This is also probably the best use of the WiiU’s second screen as well (puzzles, action phases, heroes’ management...).
Sure, this game is unforgiving (even if you can die as much as you want), the camera is sometimes misplaced like most games with this much action on the screen, but these are problems the player learns to deal with and to surpass thanks to his own skill. The Wonderful 101 has a great combo system where the main character determines the weapon and abilities used, and the others the attack’s power. On top of chaining attacks as any good beat-them-all, the player can decide to use several different attacks at the same time by separating his group of super-heroes. And later in the game, you can unlock new attacks and powers, to customize even more the gameplay (parry like in Metal Gear Rising, slow down time after avoiding an attack like in Bayonetta, etc). Of course, you also have the Platinum touch: humour, over the top action and story, 60fps (mostly), great art, and a lot of references (from Platinum, Clover and Nintendo games, as well as popular culture).
As said by the game director himself, the first walkthrough could be considered as the tutorial, the appetizer. That’s just how deep and full of possibilities this game is.
Not only this is Platinum games’ longest and most polished game yet, but this is also arguably their best. And I really wouldn’t be surprised if Nintendo’s support has helped them to polish this diamond in the rough (like they have done in the past with several exclusives developed by other development studios: Luigi’s Mansion 2, the Sin&Punishment games, etc).
Super Mario 3D World by Nintendo EAD
This is probably the game I have the less to talk about, yet the one that is probably the closest to a “10/10” in my list. As usual with Nintendo EAD and Yoshiaki Koizumi, you’re getting one of the best 3D platformers ever made. It feels safe, yet each level is different. It feels that Mario already did everything that he could, yet the new powerups (a catsuit allowing the characters to climb on walls and a cherry duplicating the characters) open new possibilities and are perfectly balanced.
The first truly HD Mario game is also great graphically: it seems full of tricks exploiting the hardware as only first-party titles do on Nintendo consoles, and it never drops below perfectly fluid 60fps goodness. The music is as good as always, taking more of a jazzy inspiration this time. Miiverse also adds good things to the player’s experience: you can see messages and drawings at the end of each level, generally similar to your own impressions (“this level is hard !”, “where is hidden the second star?”, etc), and you can see other players ghosts after finishing the game a first time.
The game will be easy (in single player) for most players, but after beating for a last time Bowser, you’ll be against some of the hardest levels and most interesting levels ever seen in a 3D Mario game.
So of course this new title isn’t as magical as Super Mario Galaxy, or as game-changing as Super Mario 64, but this feels like the culmination of every 3D Mario game in terms of mechanics and manages to feel as fresh as the best Mario games we may have experienced in the past.
Also, the Captain Toad minigame (puzzle based on perspective) is so good that it deserves its own spinoff/digital standalone version.
Bravely Default by Silicon Studio / Square-Enix
This game just recently came out in Europe (enhanced version of the original japan-only game), yet it’s already one of the best JRPGs I’ve ever played! Bravely Default is very reminiscent of old Final Fantasy games (particularly III and VI), but improves those solid foundations with new gameplay features. The most important one, Brave/Default, is a modification of the “defend” mechanic: your characters gain several action turns by defending themselves. Another important one, particularly for players new to this kind of JRPG, allows the player to summon other players’ characters, as well as send theirs over streetpass and internet, considerably helping to win a fight. Each time you meet new players, you also gain villagers for a village you’re building, with your own stores (allowing your characters to buy items from time to time inside dungeons)
The international version, also named “For the Sequel” in Japan, adds a lot of small improvements here and there: you can change the encounter rates, the difficulty, choose your favourite voice-overs, and it also introduces (completely optional) microtransactions. A little cutscene after the credits also basically confirms that the sequel, Bravely Second will be localized as well (be wary of spoilers if you didn’t play it yet), so Square-Enix is probably (and rightfully) putting a lot of faith in this new licence now.
In the end, this game is a feast for the ears and the eyes, but it is also the best RPG Square-Enix published in years, deep yet accessible, for old fans and novices alike. I’m sure it will please a lot of people in North America when it’ll come out in February 2014 there. I have not finished this game yet as it is pretty long and only came out a week ago, but I can only regret some slight censorship (costumes) in the international version so far.
Dragon’s Dogma Dark Arisen by Capcom
You’ll probably think this doesn’t count, as the original game came out last year. However, a lot of people skipped on this great game made by a great team (developers previously made games like Devil May Cry, Resident Evil, Breath of Fire). If Dark Souls is the Simulation/Tactical hardcore fantasy game, this one is the Arcade/JRPG (and still hardcore) counterpart. You can feel Monster Hunter and Berserk influences, making it a typically Japanese game, but you can think of old Dungeons&Dragons adventures while playing it, and even probably think of it as the best Gandalf combat simulator yet (you want powerful spells and a sword? Done!).
In this game, in terms of interesting design, you can probably retain two great elements. You can create your own “pawns” (basically your companions throughout the adventure) and share them over internet with friends and strangers alike, as well as recruit them and customize them even further, adding a lot to the experience. The second element made its apparition since then in Monster Hunter 4: you can climb on the monsters to attack them even more efficiently. It doesn’t seem like much but it makes battles a lot more frantic and open a lot more gameplay possibilities.
The Dark Arisen expansion adds various fixes and tweaks to all of that, as well as new content (new zone to explore, weapons, quests, etc).
If the game hadn’t cut so many content due to the usual development restrictions (time, budget, technical constraints...), it probably would be my game of the generation. Hideaki Itsuno (the game director) talked about more about its long development in a conference at this year’s GDC.
Bonus: internal greenlight video.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link between Worlds by Nintendo EAD
It isn’t really a surprise that this game found its place in my list given the critical acclaim it received from players, developers, and journalists alike. Literally “A Link to the Past 2” in Japan, the latest Zelda is reusing elements from the SNES episode (overworld, atmosphere, most weapons...) and improves upon this base with new gameplay elements (Link can rent weapons and become a painting to walk on walls) that change a lot of things: progression, clever puzzles and dungeons, linearity...
Another interesting thing is that the 3D feature of the 3DS serves the gameplay and the quality of the game as well: there’s a lot more verticality involved and the new art design really pops out a lot more thanks to this. I really feel that this game won’t be enjoyed as much on the new 2DS (or with the 3D turned off on older 3DS models).
It isn’t as good or better as the masterpiece that is A Link to the Past, but it isn’t far off from that as well. This is probably the best Zelda title we’ve been able to play in years, with great dungeons, a feeling of nostalgia mixed with discovery, and hopes renewed for the future of the series.
I also really recommend reading (as for the first and second games of this list) the Iwata Asks about the development of this game. When you understand what the developers have been through, it really helps putting some design choices in perspective.
All of these games were built on very solid foundations, and did it better than their challengers. A new IP isn't enough if the gameplay just isn't good enough, and an entirely new game sometimes just isn't enough to be the best. 2013 was a great year for the industry and the players, and both Japanese games (like in this list) and indie games (like in several other lists and the rest of mine) particularly marked it. Western AAA games were great too, just not as much this time.
Some honourable mentions: Pikmin 3, Kentucky Route Zero, Dragon’s Crown, The Stanley Parable, Saints Row IV, and NES Remix.
For those interested and wanting to make some comparisons, here is my top 5 from last year: Kid Icarus Uprising, Mark of the Ninja, Hotline Miami, DayZ, and Endless Space.