If you’d told me at the beginning of the year that an Animal Crossing game would be on my top 10, much less kicking off the top half of my list, I’d have laughed in your face. I’ve historically found the games to be an exercise in tedium, and I’ve always gotten bored within a few weeks of trying to get into them, as the same routine of errands, fishing, bug catching, and fossil hunting gets old and monotonous really quickly.
But I got New Leaf skeptically at release, and I’m still playing it. No, I might not be making the rounds religiously every day anymore, but I check on my town at least a few times a week. My 3DS play history shows more time on New Leaf than any other game, and I’m still trucking away – funding public works projects, expanding and (re)decorating my house, building relationships with my neighbors. I’ve seen so many villagers come and go – and it’s always crushing when your favorite villagers move away for good (I miss you, Deli and Keaton!) and at the same time sadistically rewarding when you finally force out that one neighbor that you just don’t like. Mayoral duties and the island activities add even more things to do. I’m not so sure whether New Leaf is that much of an expansion on previous games in the series or if it just finally clicked with me, but I’ve spent a lot of time and energy on my town and I don’t see myself letting go anytime soon.
4. BioShock Infinite
I never got around to playing the first two BioShock games, so I can’t join in the debate of whether Infinite is a “real” BioShock or not. What I can say, though, is that I found Infinite to be an incredible experience from start to finish. The bright, colorful setting of Columbia is among the most beautiful of any game I’ve played, but the juxtaposition of this utopian paradise with the underlying dark currents of racism, slavery, violence, and unchecked capitalism and nationalism made the game fascinating to me. Make no mistake, Infinite is a dark game despite its impressive color palette, and there’s plenty of violence to go around.
The characters you meet throughout Columbia are incredibly memorable, from the sinister manipulations of Comstock to the paradoxical ramblings of the Lutece twins. And then there’s Elizabeth. Holy crap, Elizabeth. She’s by far the best companion character in any game I’ve played – opening tears to bring in cover or weapons from another dimension, finding extra money and refilling my ammo when I’m running low, and being able to take care of herself when the need arises. Her growth as a character throughout the game is fantastic, and you’ll truly miss her (and her help in combat) during those sequences when the game takes her from you. The gunplay may be fairly standard, and the plot is a colossal LSD trip on steroids, but everything comes together to make a terrific package, and I’m definitely going to go back and visit Rapture at some point this year to see what I missed.
3. Super Mario 3D World
Two words: cat suit. Next.
In all seriousness, this game is pure joy from start to finish. It might not have been the revolutionary 3D Mario title that we all were hoping for, but what we got was a concentrated dose of Nintendo EAD Tokyo creativity injected straight into our pleasure cells. 3D World is a fantastic evolution of the 2D-3D hybrid formula pioneered in the 3DS’s disappointing 3D Land, and there are so many great ideas in this game that it never ceases to surprise and amuse. The cat suit adds an impressive verticality to the levels, and it’s rewarding to explore every nook and cranny to find the hidden collectibles scattered throughout each world. It’s refreshing to see the developers at their most creative, constantly trying new things, with design ideas being used in one or two levels and then never reused in favor of more new ideas.
3D World is fantastic, and though it doesn’t reach the heights of Galaxy, it makes me excited to see what Nintendo does with the next revolutionary title in the series. Now go out and buy a Wii U and play this damn game already.
2. Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
I played through Brothers in its entirety in a morning, but no other game had such an emotional impact on me this year. The bond that the game builds between the titular brothers over the course of just three or so hours is incredible, and what’s even more impressive is that it’s all done without any dialogue: the characters speak in their own language, and there are no subtitles or any type of translation whatsoever. The bond between the brothers is built not with exposition, but with mechanics. While the controls take some getting used to and may never really click for the less-coordinated among us, controlling both brothers simultaneously is a key part of the experience, and any other control scheme would be detrimental to the emotional impact of the brothers’ journey.
And then there are the little things along the way, from tossing a lonesome white rabbit into a pile of soot to turn it black like the rest of its comrades, or stopping to appreciate a musician playing a harp – and then attempting to play it yourself only to find that the older brother has no musical talent while the younger is a prodigy. The adventure takes a decidedly dark turn after a certain point though, and there were several points where I literally gasped at the things I had to do to progress. It all builds up to a jaw-droppingly emotional climax and then…that moment. The moment that stuck with me more than any other this year. If you’ve played the game, you know what I’m talking about.
1. Fire Emblem Awakening
When I played this way back in the spring, I suspected that this would wind up being a serious contender for my Game of the Year, and I wasn’t wrong. Awakening takes everything that’s great about the series, builds upon it, then streamlines it in a way to appeal to a much wider audience while still giving hardcore strategy fans plenty to like. The pairing system adds even more depth to the gameplay and the relationships between characters that have always been a hallmark of the Fire Emblem series. Not only that, but it’s one of the best casts of characters in series history, and the fact that pairing them with each other can result in children – who subsequently can become valuable parts of your army – adds a whole new reason to care about them and keep them from dying. I found myself constantly trying to find the best supports, reclassing and promoting units to get the best skill set and stats, and building my characters to be the best they could be. The options are near-limitless, and even after beating the main story, the game can become a huge time sink with extra chapters, DLC, and StreetPass battles.
Awakening is not only my Game of the Year for 2013, it’s my favorite 3DS game to date as well. It’s been stated that Awakening was the last-chance for the Fire Emblem series – if it hadn’t broken out and been successful, the series would be over. Thankfully, Intelligent Systems created a breakthrough hit, and I’m looking forward to seeing what’s next for what has now been cemented as one of my favorite series in gaming.