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Engadget’s Games of the Year 2023

It’s been a terrible year for game developers, but an amazing year for games. 2023 kicked off with a fantastic remake of Dead Space and the breakout success that was Pizza Tower, and by the end of the year we had dozens more games vying for our attention. There were some missteps along the way — if you’d asked me to predict this list a year ago, I would’ve mentioned both Redfall and Starfield but overall it’s been a packed year unusually low on disappointment.

We’ve never tried to name a single title as “the Game of the Year.” Instead, it’s become a tradition to get the whole team together to talk about our individual favorites. So here are those games, presented in alphabetical order to avoid hurting any of our writers’ feelings. Feel free to sound off about what your favorites are in the comments; there are no wrong answers. Except maybe The Day Before.

Alan Wake 2

I rarely have time to finish games these days, but I devoured Alan Wake 2 in just a few weeks. For me and my limited gaming time, that felt miraculous.

I’ll admit, I’m a mark for Remedy Entertainment. I’ve been following its work since the first Max Payne arrived on PCs in 2001, right as I was gearing up to head to college and building my first desktop PC. (It had a 1.3GHz AMD Athlon Thunderbird and an ATI All-in-Wonder Radeon GPU with a TV tuner. Yah, I was one of the cool kids on campus..)

Max Payne blew me away with its fluid slow-motion gunplay mechanics and immersive narrative. As a lifelong console gamer until then, it was a big step forward from something like Tomb Raider. Playing Alan Wake 2 brought me right back to my college days: Its storytelling is far more mature than Max Payne, but leagues more ambitious. I spent much of the game with a big stupid grin on my face, marveling at how the game balanced two different leads (Saga Anderson and Mr. Wake himself), an array of quirky characters, and some of the boldest gaming narrative choices in the last decade.

As Jessica Conditt said in her review, Alan Wake 2 works best when you’re not in combat. I enjoyed chatting with the locals and digging up background details more than I did shooting a repetitive array of baddies. It also helped that I was playing it on LG’s massive 49-inch UltraGear monitor, which at times made it feel like I was completely immersed in the game. It made the more idyllic environments in the Pacific Northwest seem all the more beautiful, while the scarier bits felt even more nightmarish. Get you a game that can do both.

Over two decades after I became a fan of the studio, I’m just as excited to see what Remedy is cooking next. It feels like college all over again. Maybe time really is a flat circle. Or maybe, as Alan Wake would say, it’s a spiral towards something greater, the accumulation of everything we’ve learned and all the mistakes we’ve made as we pursue the specter of perfection. Anyway, good game. — Devindra Hardawar, Senior Reporter

Armored Core 6

Elden Ring was my first foray into the FromSoftware universe since Chromehounds for the Xbox 360. Elden Ring is an all-timer and no more needs to be said about it, but coming off that I was a bit trepidatious about whether the developers could apply their learnings and innovations to something with a legacy like Armored Core. Silly me to ever doubt FromSoft, because they delivered a game worthy of their developer pedigree. While AC6 doesn’t feel like “Elden Ring with mechs” I’m honestly glad it doesn’t. The developers have done a masterful job of blending classic Armored Core depth, customization and combat with the scale, bombast and world-building they are known for.

Some of the bosses in this game felt impossible, like many of the best FromSoft bosses do, but as always there is a tweak to your gameplay style or strategy that can turn the tables in the end. The first actual boss fight with Balteus had me questioning if I was ever good at video games in the first place, and when I finally adjusted to beat him I had that same triumphant feeling of beating the best FromSoft bosses from games past. Something else less discussed, but still worthy of praise as well, is how FromSoft finds a way to make what is basically a radio play story feel important and impactful when mixed with the heavy action of the actual gameplay. In a game where you wouldn’t expect story or characters to have an impact, FromSoft does an excellent job making you care about its dystopian Mecha pilots and their handlers in a way I never expected.

AC6 is a game I couldn’t stop thinking about, and the one I probably felt the most fulfilled by following each session, after my heart rate dropped and my vice grip on the controller loosened. FromSoftware continues to prove that it’s in a league of their own. — Justin Vachon, Lead Designer

Baldur’s Gate 3

The Game of the Year is my game of the year. I’ve dabbled with Dragon Age, spent a few nights trying to unravel 2002’s Neverwinter Nights, but Baldur’s Gate 3, while still unapologetically Dungeons and Dragons, smooths out the procedural part while still deciding the fates of heroes, villains and the world on the roll of a die. Plus modifiers.

The rules and numbers of D&D are all baked into BG3, but you can also just play it and let the rules take care of themselves. Even when I failed dice rolls (how things are decided in D&D games, pitting your character’s stats against “skill check” numbers), I was happy to see how this affected the story. Sure, you can save-scum (quicksave, fail, quickload and try again), but it eventually feels hollow when there are so many decisions to make.

I talked to a colleague about the game and he was leery about a game with so many options. He’d have to play, replay, choose different options, and feel short changed if he didn’t eke every plot twist of a game like BG3.

The game, the options, the side quests are all so dense with choices and branching paths that there are (almost) countless permutations, distractions and bad decisions to make. I found that oddly freeing. The game, divided into three parts, does block out parts of the world from act to act, but I never found that particularly limiting. In fact, it ensured I tied up the most exciting plot points or destinations before plowing further into the story.

Two tips: being evil is very much an option (as is a mid-game redemption arc) and be careful when you rest overnight, as that will tick the game’s internal clock over and could mess up your plans. Invaders, unsurprisingly, don’t wait. — Mat Smith, UK Bureau Chief

Cocoon

My day-to-day job is mostly behind the scenes, editing stories and scripts, dealing with technical issues and managing a fantastic group of reporters. All of which is to say I actually only have five bylines on the site this year. Two of them are about Cocoon — 40 percent, baby! It stands to reason, then, that it’s my personal game of the year.

You can read my review of the game for some expanded thoughts, but here’s the summary, at least: Cocoon is a near-perfect puzzle game in which you play a bug and who has to jump between worlds to progress. It’s a laser-focused experience that only lets you play around with one or two mechanics at a time, but stretches each of its ideas to its natural conclusion. It’s also dirt cheap and on Game Pass, so what do you have to lose? — Aaron Souppouris, Executive Editor

The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood

The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood is sexy, well-written and replayable, and it’s one of my favorite games of the year, from one of my favorite studios of all time. Deconstructeam is responsible for Gods Will Be Watching and The Red Strings Club, two vibrant titles about the limits of humanity and society, and The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood brings these themes to a new plane.

The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood is about building tarot decks, manipulating an election from afar, betraying a coven of witches, gaining power and seducing everyone. It’s bigger than anything Deconstructeam has ever made, with layered characters, branching narratives and strangely beautiful art. The witches, behemoths and otherworldly creatures in The Cosmic Wheel Sisterhood fill the game with life and interwoven relationships, while the deck-building mechanic is surprisingly dense and designed to encourage creativity. The game pulled me in and didn’t let go until it was done with me, and even still, I find myself happily returning to it. — Jessica Conditt, Senior Reporter

Dave the Diver

No matter if Dave the Diver is an indie game or not, it’s still one heck of a good time. The pixel-soaked adventure breaks down into two main gameplay mechanics that shouldn’t mix at all, but somehow do. During the day you explore the sea, hiding from (or fighting) sharks and catching gobs of fish. At night, you run a sushi restaurant to sell those fish.

Each of these mechanics are completely different. When you’re under the water, it’s exploration all the way, with mysteries around every reef and a constantly-shifting landscape. Running the restaurant is both a management sim, as you have to develop recipes and hire staff, and a fast-paced minigame that resembles the iconic arcade cabinet Tapper. This dichotomy is similar to another recent gem, Moonlighter. I loved Moonlighter, but Dave the Diver is even more addictive.

Both primary elements of the game are polished to a Nintendo-like sheen. In other words, it kept me up, night after night, as “one last run” turned into two and then three. But that’s just the beginning. As you progress through the occasionally hilarious story, Dave the Diver keeps adding new gameplay mechanics. Without giving too much away, there are mid-game additions that draw inspiration from Cooking Mama, Stardew Valley and others. Each of these elements are always a treat and never get in the way of the main gameplay loop. Also, you can hire a velociraptor as a server and Jason Vorhees as a sous chef. Good times. — Lawrence Bonk, Contributing Reporter

Dead Space

One of the best games of 2023 actually came out in 2008. The Dead Space remake landed in January and it stayed at the top of my GOTY list for the ensuing 11 months, slowly covering every other entry in globs of bile and blood. Developers at EA brought the terror and tension of the original Dead Space to modern platforms with thoughtful gameplay tweaks and a layer of visual polish, and in the process, they cemented the game’s reputation as an action-horror classic.

Dead Space spawned in an era of limitations. It was built for the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3, consoles that were powerful, but still constrained in terms of processing power and graphics; they couldn’t support massive, open-world games filled with procedural generation and AI-powered encounters. Innovation at the time had to stem from a game’s mechanics, and Dead Space was the first action-horror blockbuster to remove the HUD and the power of a headshot, creating an immersive and terrifying combat rhythm.

The remake paid tribute to everything that made the original Dead Space a living legend. The USG Ishimura was cold and maze-like, with a few more mysteries added to its corridors, and some boss fights were updated to take advantage of high-fidelity mechanics, but it still felt like the Dead Space I remember. It felt better, even. In an age of living games and open-world blandness, the Dead Space remake showcased the supreme power of restraint in game design. — Jessica Conditt

Diablo II: Resurrected

Aside from the quick turnaround following the original, the wait time between new Diablo games is more than a decade. So to my surprise, in a year when we got Diablo IV, I found myself spending more time playing Diablo II: Resurrected. That’s not to say that the latest entry is a failure, because despite a drop in players and cratering views on Twitch, Diablo IV’s story is the franchise’s best yet and Blizzard nailed the look and feel of the game. Unfortunately, despite having faced similar issues with Diablo III, its endgame still needs a lot of work. This is why in 2023 I’ve had much more fun playing Diablo II, or more accurately Diablo II: Resurrected.

Thanks to a superb graphical overhaul, the game looks how I remember it in my head instead of the chunky low-res textures it actually had back in 2001. But more importantly, Blizzard fixed a ton of annoying glitches from the original (like enemy mana drain being way too strong) while implementing a bunch of handy quality-of-life upgrades such as automatic gold pickup and the shared stash. But the thing I like the most is that, since it came out in 2021, Blizzard has expanded upon the core game with additional patches and balance changes that have injected new life into the game while preserving its spirit. This year, specs like elemental druid and martial arts assassin suddenly went from being underpowered niche playstyles to top-tier builds, essentially undoing 20 years of neglect. The addition of Sunder Charms also made a ton of single-element specs way more viable and the addition of Terror Zones turned item farming into less of a grind while increasing the challenge.

Sure, melee classes still need a bit of love (maybe recalculate how attack rating works or add some more AOE abilities) and the cadence of new content has ground to a halt in the run-up to and subsequent release of Diablo IV. But for an update to a two-decade-old game, Diablo II: Resurrected feels like a great homage to an all-time classic and a wonderful example of a remake done right. Now I’m just hoping Blizzard finds some time to finally finish Act IV or maybe even add a brand new chapter onto the best ARPG ever. — Sam Rutherford, Senior Reporter

F-Zero 99

Nintendo has carved out a little legacy of remixing gaming staples with its 99 (or 35) series, and F-Zero 99 is one of its most thoughtful battles royale yet. (I’d put it second behind Tetris 99.) From afar, it looks simple: the SNES arcade racer, but with 98 other people. But the addition of a persistent boost meter (which doubles as a health bar) and the ability to bank “Super Sparks” that you can spend to access a limited-time “Skyway” fundamentally changes how you play.

Do you throw caution to the wind, use more power this lap and try to hold on from the front? Do you hang back, try to increase your meter by knocking out other players and risk an insurmountable deficit? Where exactly on the track should you activate the Skyway? Winning still requires skill and track mastery — it’s F-Zero, after all — but there’s a new layer of strategy and resource management. What was once a sprint now becomes a horse race. You make more moment-to-moment decisions each time out. And decisions are what makes a game interesting.

All the other things that made F-Zero great 30 years ago still apply. The Mode 7 style. That iconic music. The distinction between the four supercars. The honest test of skill — this entry is a little more forgiving, but if you screw up, no Mario Kart shenanigans are going to come and save you. The course selection still has clear peaks and valleys, but F-Zero 99 doesn’t try to revise the past: It honors its source material, then makes considered changes that present it in a new light. In an industry that is constantly rehashing old ideas, that’s commendable. — Jeff Dunn, Senior Commerce Writer

Humanity

In Humanity, you play as a ghostly Shina Ibu who barks directions at a horde of humans to guide them toward a goal. That all seems simple enough, but like all great puzzle games, developer tha LTD plays around with the concept and keeps building on it until the very end. What starts as a fairly peaceful rumination about the controlled movement of humans soon segues into imaginative boss battles and mammoth lightsaber brawls.

There’s a deeper story than you might expect from a game that’s ostensibly about sheep herding mindless drones. What will stick with me from playing Humanity is a sense of optimism, an idealism that our species can achieve anything if we work together toward a common goal. That, and having the chance to take control of an adorable ethereal pup. — Kris Holt, Contributing Reporter

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom is a perfect game blending exploration, action, adventure, combat and puzzle solving. It looks and sounds beautiful, with Hyrule a wonderful clockwork world you just want to spend your days hiking through without a care in the world. The title’s standout feature, Ultrahand, enables players to construct anything they can imagine to help get them through tricky puzzles. Its technological prowess, given the limited hardware it runs on, has made it the envy of the game development and player world. I started 2023 having never played a Zelda title, and by the end, I’d sunk about 1,000 hours combined into Breath of the Wild and Tears of the Kingdom.

I don’t think it’s unfair to say that the game is also a lot.

Nintendo’s more-is-more approach means the triple-digit play times are a bug as much as they are a feature. This goes hand-in-hand with the freedom you’re given, which lets you play the game any way you choose. The two extra environments may have headed off complaints that it was a glorified DLC, but you can feel the stretching. The Depths is little more than a repetitious traversal zone while the Sky Islands are five puzzles repeated over and over. The company has found the limit of what a coherent single player experience can be, and then just wandered beyond it.

And then there’s the grinding, which extends well beyond the usual gripes around weapons degradation. If you want to reach the end game, you’ll need more than a wooden sword and shield, which means endlessly beating the mid-size bosses. Plus, you’ll need to put a shift in down the mines Depths to gather enough Zoanite to make Autobuild worthwhile. I kept my Switch offline ever since Nintendo nerfed the easy duplication glitch because I don’t have enough hours in the day to play. In fact, I’d pay good money for a “Grown Adult” version of the game where it respects your time more than the existing version does.

While I’m moaning, I might as well add that I hate how Lynels and Ganondorf can destroy your Zonai weapons during combat. If you’re not a gifted sword-fighter, and you’ve never quite got your parrying skill perfect, then crafting robot weapons was a neat workaround. The game lets you pick your preferred way to succeed, except when it really matters, when it eliminates all but the most tedious. I don’t think, after spending so long getting everything else done, I can be bothered to go back and defeat Ganondorf despite pledging to do it before the end of the year.

Still, perfect game, 10/10. — Daniel Cooper, Senior Reporter

Mario Kart 8 Deluxe Booster Course Pass

Even though Mario Kart 8 Deluxe will be seven years old next April, we don’t need a new Mario Kart game. The title is still just as entertaining as it was brand new, thanks in large part to the massive expansion of new tracks Nintendo began dropping in March 2022. And while the waves have been slightly annoying, mostly due to the constant questions about their release dates from my nine year old, the steady cadence that wrapped up last month meant new challenges were arriving regularly for over a year.

The Booster Course Pass is well worth the money at $24.99. It’s less than a new game would cost and you get a new game’s worth of tracks (48) for that price. Not to mention added characters like Kamek, Petey Piranha, Diddy Kong and Peachette – all Steele family favorites. But for me, the best part is revisiting modernized versions of tracks from older Mario Kart games, the ones that endeared me to the series.

Rainbow Road from Wii is an all-time favorite and one course that I’ll go straight to when I only have a few minutes to play. Courses like Waluigi Pinball and Peach Gardens from DS are a lot more fun expanded to a big screen and I’ve enjoyed the road trip through major cities from Mario Kart Tour, a game I never played as karting on my phone didn’t really appeal to me. There are duds, of course, like Mario Circuit 3 from SNES that don’t really translate as well to modern racing.

Maybe there will be a new game that flexes the muscle of the new Switch, but I’m not sure what there is to improve. I’d be perfectly happy to keep paying $25 every few years for a collection of new tracks, whether entirely new or inspired by the past, as this is a perfectly fine way to keep the game fresh for those of us who still really enjoy it. — Billy Steele, Senior Reporter

Marvel’s Spider-Man 2

Like a lot of recent PlayStation sequels, Spider-Man 2 takes everything that worked about the original game and gives us more. There’s more of New York City to explore, two characters that you can swap between at almost any time, more moves and suits and superpowers to take on the many enemies you’ll encounter throughout the adventure. It feels like the kind of game that easily could have gotten overstuffed and collapsed under the weight of what Insomniac Games was trying to pull off.

Fortunately, that didn’t happen, thanks in large part to some of the best mechanics in recent gaming. Swinging around the city remains an absolute delight, and the fluid fighting really makes you feel like a superhero. The new web wings give you another new way to navigate Manhattan and its boroughs, and getting your hands on the fabled symbiote suit opens up yet another new set of battle mechanics. Similarly, the open world map feels vibrant and alive, with tons to do when you’re ready to give the main story a break.

Naturally, the symbiote also takes center stage in the storytelling, as Kraven the hunter gives way to Venom throughout the game as the two main villains you’ll contend with. It makes sense to have two main baddies since there are two Spider-Men in this game, OG Peter Parker as well as his new protege Miles Morales. Each Spider-Man gets plenty of story development and heroic action sequences, and the roster of supporting characters has been fleshed out as well.

Ultimately, Spider-Man 2 is pretty easy to sum up. It’s just plain fun, with a great story, delightful mechanics and a wonderfully detailed NYC to explore. Whether or not you played the original game, it’s easy to get sucked right into this one and feel like a superhero. — Nathan Ingraham, Deputy News Editor

Moonstone Island

Moonstone Island asks the question, “what if Stardew Valley, but with Pokémon?” It’s the same kind of farming and dating sim you know and love, but with turn-based battles instead of manually swinging a pickaxe. Any creature you encounter can be captured and forced to fight in your stead, and there’s an element-based weakness mechanic pulled straight from Nintendo’s iconic pocket monsters.

They already had me with that Stardew meets Pokémon hook, but the developers didn’t stop there. This is a legitimate open world game with a large map that resembles the sky islands from The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. There are dozens upon dozens of these islands and I had an absolute blast sequence breaking my way to dangerous locations in the early parts of the game, only to have my butt handed to me by high-level monsters. That’s my jam, right there.

I also love the art style and, in particular, the NPCs. The romanceable characters here are top-tier and, in my opinion, more interesting than rival farming sims. I want to be friends with the blacksmith Ferra and town scientist Zed. However, my heart belongs to the punk rock herbalist Gaiana. If anyone messes with Gaiana, they are gonna get a visit from a trio of level 99 Pikachus, er, I mean Capacibees. — Lawrence Bonk

Not finishing games

Finish a videogame? In this attention economy?! I honestly couldn’t tell you the last time that I actually made it to a game’s end credits. For as much as I enjoy the PS5 games I buy, there’s inevitably some real-life commitment that draws me away from them, or an unconquerable in-game skill challenge that saps my interest. Doesn’t matter if it’s an indie like the therapeutically smashy Dysmantle or a AAA adventure franchise like Horizon and Assassins Creed — don’t even get me started on Seikiro or Elden Ring — I will invariably get bored at some point before the final boss and wander off towards whatever new shiny title comes out next.

As such, my 2023 GOTY is a toss up between Armored Core 6 and Baldur’s Gate 3, having played roughly the first half of each (multiple times, in BG3’s case). Sure, one is a frantic shooter pitting players against superior armed forces in high speed mobile gun battles, and the other is an inclusive high fantasy dating sim wrapped in an epic adventure RPG. They both offer me an opportunity to tinker, futz, fiddle and otherwise experiment with the physical rules and social mores of the in-game universe without demanding I clear the endgame content first.

In this way, every game becomes a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure game (my absolute favorite genre growing up) and I get to assuage the FOMO anxiety I experience while playing titles with linear storylines. I’m not reverting to a previous save because I realize I messed up an earlier quest or accidentally closed off a storyline, I’m reloading just so I can figure out what all the other buttons and switches I didn’t push and pull also do. I find that freeing. There’s no pressure to “get it right,” only the opportunity to see what might happen.

Between AC6’s mission-based format and the ease at which I can manage save instances in BG3, I can load up any scenario I’ve played so far and try it again differently — maybe see how well an energy weapon-based loadout would work or what would happen if I fought with different companions or modified spell lists. Even though I know that there is a climactic endgame struggle (that the dev team worked really hard to produce) to get to and all the new game+ rewards that come with beating it, neither title really pressures me into getting there.

If I want to go off on a tangent and try my hand at pickpocketing an entire town, I absolutely can — then Groundhog Day the timeline back to before I started and do it all again, this time maybe wearing a different hat. Each gives me the flexibility to interact with their content as I have time and interest. — Andrew Tarantola, Senior Reporter

NYT Connections

New York Times

Wordle, the little word game that could, took over the first half of 2022. Every day, we had a new puzzle to look forward to — and potential bragging rights that would connect us with friends, family and strangers on the internet. Though Wordle fever subsided in 2023, my thirst for a daily word game remained. Yes, I could keep playing Wordle, but just one game wasn’t enough. Even as a subscriber and active user of the New York Times’ Games app, I needed more.

I didn’t want something as time-consuming as the full crossword each day, nor something as involved as getting to the Genius level on Spelling Bee. I wanted to be done in 5 minutes or less, which is why Wordle and the daily Mini crossword were perfect. In June, the New York Times introduced Connections, and it hit that sweet spot of being challenging enough to engage my brain but remaining casual enough that I didn’t need to derail my work day to finish it.

Connections’ mechanics are simple. Every day, you’re presented with sixteen tiles, each containing a word. You have to group those words into four sets of four based on what they have in common. And, like the app cautions, these categories are always more specific than “5-letter words” or “names” or “verbs.” At first, the game was straightforward and almost too easy. A few weeks in, though, and I’ve found the puzzles can get challenging, thanks to devious setups. For example, one time the grid included words like “Apple,” “Dell” and “Intel,” which tricked my tech-obsessed brain into thinking they were company brand names. It turned out that they belonged to other groups like “Synonyms for information” or “Fruit,” instead.

I would be remiss if I didn’t point out that Connections isn’t a unique idea that the New York Times thought up. Various iterations of a similar word game have existed before. Redditors pointed out its likeness to an app called Red Herring, while the host of a British television quiz show called Only Connect asked if the Times was aware “this has been a TV show in the UK since 2008?”

Sadly, though, if not for the Times adding Connections to its slate of word games, I would never have come across Red Herring. And because so many of the puzzles I play daily are in the NYT Games app, it’s much easier to check out all of them in the same place instead of installing a new app.

My daily routine now involves opening NYT Games, finishing Wordle, Connections, the Mini crossword, getting the Pangram on Spelling Bee and then bragging to anyone who will listen. That way, I feel like I’m giving my brain a bit of fun exercise before I drag my attention to my inbox or Slack for the real work of the day. — Cherlynn Low, Deputy Reviews Editor

Pizza Tower

The best “Nintendo platformer” of the year didn’t involve Mario, Kirby or Donkey Kong. It wasn’t even made by Nintendo. Instead, it stars a balding pizza chef named Peppino Spaghetti, and its development was led by a guy who goes by the pseudonym McPig. It’s called Pizza Tower — and while you could crudely describe it as “Wario Land 4 on cocaine,” it is one of the most refreshing and joyously creative games I’ve played in recent memory.

I waxed poetic about Pizza Tower in a write-up earlier this year, so go read that for a more complete picture. The big thing is that it understands how every platformer is fundamentally about movement. For a platformer to be fun, that movement needs to grab you from the off, then give you the space to explore where it could go. Mario games know this. Sonic games often forget that last part. Pizza Tower gets it right. Little Peppino dashes like a freight train teetering off the tracks, slamming through (not around) every enemy and obstacle in sight. You can Do Poorly, but you can’t die, so you have freedom to push the limits. It’s a constant kinetic thrill.

But it’s more than that. In that charming Nintendo way, every level in Pizza Tower presents new ideas, so it never gets stale. The music is incredible. The animation is both grotesque and immediately expressive. (How many other games look like this?) The boss fights actually respect you. The ending sequence might be the best I’ve played in a decade. It all makes for a game with a distinct sense of character and identity; it has clear inspirations, but it’s not pastiche. It is completely in tune with itself, both in aesthetics and design. And it’s fun as hell. — Jeff Dunn

Star Wars Jedi: Survivor

Jedi: Survivor is a game that the best sequels aspire to be. It improves on every single aspect of the original and pushes its systems to new heights while introducing many others that only enhance the base game. Like the greats of Mass Effect 2, Assassins Creed 2, Half-Life 2, Portal 2, Jedi: Survivor never stops upping the ante and pushing what a game like this can achieve.

In an age where there is far too much Star Wars content for any normal human to consume, from movies, TV, books, etc. Jedi: Survivor represents an experience you can hop into with only knowledge from Fallen Order at your disposal, and even that can be recapped for you in a nice short video within Jedi: Survivor itself. Your experience will only be further improved by a greater knowledge of the Star Wars landscape, new and old, but it isn’t a prerequisite to have a great time with this game.

The story of Cal Kestis and his group of rebels grows larger and makes the universe and world you inhabit feel big in a way the first game didn’t. The souls-like combat of the first game returns here and is improved upon in every conceivable way. The Jedi power fantasy that I’ve always dreamed about in Star Wars games has finally been realized within Jedi: Survivor. Many times I ended a fight in a flurry of saber swings and force powers and resolved feeling like I could conquer the world. There’s one sequence in particular involving a towering Imperial walker that is one of the most exhilarating and well-executed set piece moments in gaming since the days of Uncharted 2’s campaign. I had to put the controller down for 10 minutes after just to sit in awe and process what I had seen Respawn pull off.

At the core of Jedi: Survivor is a story and experience that feels more emotionally deep and original than Fallen Order did. Respawn hits their stride with this game from a writing and especially performance perspective that makes its best characters shine and its most impactful story moments hit that much harder. By the end, you’ll be pining for the conclusion to the trilogy in a way that few Star Wars properties have been able to elicit in years. — Justin Vachon

Super Mario Bros. Wonder

There are a few sure things when it comes to me and Mario games: I prefer 2D over 3D, and Super Mario World is my all-time favorite. As such, Super Mario Wonder was high on my list of games to try this year — the first new side-scrolling Mario game in over a decade. And while I really enjoyed the “new” Super Mario Bros. entries for the Wii and Wii U, those games were also a little too slavishly devoted to Mario’s past. Not so with Super Mario Wonder.

Between the entirely redesigned and more involved character animations (Mario grabbing his cap when he goes through a pipe is particularly cute) and wild level designs that feel entirely unique to the series, Super Mario Wonder feels like the first side-scrolling Mario game to really do something new in decades. That’s largely thanks to the Wonder flowers that twist every single stage into a psychedelic version of itself, but the level design is inspired even before you find that flower.

Nintendo also shook up the overall world map a bit, letting you pick your way through stages instead of putting you on a mostly linear path. And as you’re in the Flower Kingdom, not the familiar Mushroom Kingdom, there’s a lot more variety in the themes for each world. (No, world two isn’t the desert this time!) There are plenty of familiar enemies — what would a Mario game be without red and green Koopa Troopas? — but almost every level has a particular baddie that requires you to reshape your approach. And the badge system is a great take on the familiar power-ups, letting you choose a boost best suited to either the stage you’re on or the way you like to play the game. Also, Elephant Mario!

I feel like I’ve barely scratched the surface of what makes Super Mario Wonder work so well, but hopefully it’s sufficient to say that it’s Nintendo at its best and most creative. That’s something I didn’t expect to see in a Mario game again. I can see myself playing Wonder for the next 30 years or so, just like I’ve played Super Mario World for the last 30 years. — Nathan Ingraham

Tchia

Tchia was the right game at the right time for me. As I sailed toward the sunset on a makeshift raft with rousing music filling my ears, I was filled with a sense of calm that I’d been seeking for quite some time. That was my favorite moment of any game this year, but the rest of Tchia isn’t exactly lacking.

You play as a young girl who scours a New Caledonia-inspired archipelago in search of her kidnapped father in this open-world exploration game. While titles like The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom aim to push the boundaries of the genre, Tchia is content to stay in its lane, albeit with some mechanics that provide plenty of opportunity to play as you wish.

Tchia can transform into a variety of fauna and inanimate objects thanks to her soul jumping ability. After you unlock the ability to summon a bird, you can take to the skies from almost anywhere in mere seconds. Each animal you can jump into has an ability, such as dogs digging, sharks biting and birds, uh, pooping.

There’s not much in the way of combat. The only enemies you’ll encounter are monsters made of fabric, and you’ll need to use elements such as fire to dispose of them. But I didn’t have a problem with that. Tchia is far more about the notion of discovery than slashing away at countless baddies.

This seems like a perfect introduction to open-world adventures for younger gamers out there. While there are some fairly bleak plot points, Tchia is a real charmer. It’s an ideal length too, as a playthrough will take between around six and eight hours unless you go hunting for all the secrets and collectibles. Or you decide to spend a few extra hours simply sailing around these beautiful islands. — Kris Holt

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