My Top 10 Games of “2023”

By Brian • 25 March 2024

We were perilously close to a “Top 6 Games of ‘2023,’” friends.

After the birth of my first child some years back, I found populating a list of my top ten games of the year much more challenging, but still doable. Now, with two children under the roof, playing games still exists, but it’s just over there somewhere. Possibly behind that pile of paper scraps my daughter cut up, but didn’t throw away. (They’re for a project, I’m told.) Meanwhile, life rushes on in survival mode, like the late-game of a round of Tetris, when the blocks start to pile up and only the happy accidents manage to clear a few lines—that’s when a brief window may open for games, and I’m happy to fill it before the blocks overtake me again. Don’t get me wrong—I live a fulfilling life, but it’s quite the adventure, too. I will gladly take a break when I can. (It’s either that or stay up too late, which isn’t recommended. If I’m not up at five every morning, the whole day gets thrown off for the rest of my family. The guillllt.)

Fortunately, a couple of co-op arcade games with Craig and some dependence on Nintendo Switch Online late in the year saved our little tradition here on the blog—the Top 10 Games live on...barely. Except, I daresay this is more of a “the only 10 games I played in 2023” list, as opposed to a Top 10 of 2023 list, but whatever. (And, to be fair, a lot of time was spent on Skyrim, which I haven’t finished yet.)

Are you ready for the best of “2023?” Here are this year’s criteria:

  • I beat the game for the first time in 2023. “Beat” simply means I saw the end of the game—it does not necessarily mean I’ve seen or done everything the game has to offer.
  • If the game is a high-score chaser or otherwise doesn’t really have an ending, just playing a lot of it makes it eligible.
  • I try not to repeat games that have made my Top 10 lists before.

You’ll find that it was a really big year for games from the early 1990s. So, what made the list? Let’s find out.

Honorable Mention: The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Switch, 2011)

I played a ton of Skyrim—two blog posts’ worth, and far beyond. Despite that, to the surprise of no Skyrim player ever, an immense amount of game still remains. I tried to power through in short spurts, and while I had lots of fun, frustration set in when I found I couldn’t accomplish enough in those brief sessions. It’s the same reason I haven’t even bothered starting The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom. I plan to revisit Skyrim sometime in the future, when our schedules solidify somewhat, unfettered by irregular baby sleep and other unpredictabilities. Perhaps then, I can throw a couple of hours at a time into my Dragonborn adventures and make some real progress.

[Note from the distant future: Brian never played Skyrim again.]

10. Kirby’s Dream Land (Game Boy, 1992)

I almost bought Kirby’s Dream Land many times as a kid, but never wanted it enough. Later, I almost bought it many times from the 3DS eShop, but still never wanted it enough. Finally, it debuted on Nintendo Switch Online, and I gave Kirby’s first outing its due. It’s brief and easy, which I certainly welcome in my current state. Keep in mind, this is an early Game Boy game with no save or password functions, so the brevity makes sense. Kirby’s full slate of skills isn’t available to him, yet—most notably the copy ability—but he still floats, and he still inhales and spits out enemies as only a pink, sentient, intergalactic puffball can! All that said, the simplicity and cute Dream Land aesthetic make Kirby’s Dream Land a fun and cozy experience. As always, Whispy Woods is a joke.

9. Mario Kart 8 Deluxe (Switch, 2017)

I like Mario Kart, but it’s not normally a go-to for me. I’m sure it comes from years of utter decimation at the hands of my friends, as we played Mario Kart 64 countless times in Josh’s basement. Josh’s main is Toad, but Toad is also my main, so I got stuck with bleating ape Donkey Kong, my alt, more often than not. While Donkey Kong is good, he’s not Toad, and the results didn’t lie, as I didn’t win very often.

Anyway, I wanted to get a family game that we could play with our daughter, and Mario Kart 8 Deluxe proved more than adequate in that capacity. She has lots of fun just picking characters and customizing her cart—great care and time goes into this during every session. When we finally get to the races, that part is good, too, although my daughter tends to depend too much on the steering assist and auto-acceleration. In fact, one time I caught her lying on the sofa with the controller next to her, letting the game play itself, and I told her she couldn’t do that anymore. When she’s actually playing, I get more joy out of watching her play than playing it, myself.

8. Bad Dudes Vs. DragonNinja (Arcade, 1988)

What’s that? You’re surprised that the namesake of this very blog is a game I have never beaten?! Honestly, I’m kind of surprised, as well. I don’t think I’ve beaten the NES version, either, to be frank. It feels like I have, but I think I probably just watched Craig beat it when I was a kid.

Craig and I played this over the summer, engaging in Intense 2-Player Action™ to bring down DragonNinja and save President Ronnie. Bad Dudes always strikes me as a rather simplistic game—not in the sense that it’s necessarily easy, but that the mechanics and strategy are simplistic: run forward, punch bad guys. I fear that misconception probably cost us a lot of credits. Despite Bad Dudes’ straightforward appearance, great care must be taken to play it well, like if you would want to beat it on one quarter or something crazy like that. Health management, acquiring and holding onto a good weapon, finding advantageous positioning for combat—it’s all important. But, let’s get serious. There’s no care here. We play Bad Dudes to wail on a million zillion ninjas and hear the “I’m Bad!” sound clip at the end of every level, and we don’t care if we lose a thousand lives in doing so. Bad enough to save the president from ninjas, but probably not bad enough to do it competently.

7. Power Blade (NES, 1991)

I mentioned Power Blade in my Extra Life 2023 recap. Having never played it before, and having not taken the time to read the instruction manual (which I make an honest attempt to do on these old games, as they do frequently reveal important details about story or ambiguous items), I had no idea what to expect, other than that it was a sidescroller I read about in Nintendo Power when I was a kid. Maybe I was burnt out on my marathon regulars and needed something new to spice things up a bit.

I jumped in, totally blind, and ugh, why did I wait so long to play this?! I was instantly enamored with Power Blade. It’s completely goofy, but isn’t that what we all need in life? You get to be an action hero named Nova, wielding a powerful boomerang against robots, oddly aggressive frogs, and these big faces on the wall that spit projectiles and are way out of place in this setting. It’s like they took a Castlevania enemy and plugged it into the most technological future possible. Plus, Nova looks like Arnold Schwarzenegger. (Look at that title screen—it’s him.) What more do you want? Oh, here are some fabulous, high-energy chiptunes, one of the best NES soundtracks I’d never heard before. Sector 4?! Listen to it once, then go outrun a bullet train.

Maybe it’s a little easy? I beat it the first time I ever played it, and I only had to continue a few times. But, I dunno. Maybe that isn’t even necessarily a bad thing. It’s okay for games to be fun, but not Nintendo-hard. And, like with Kirby’s Dream Land, the ease is kind of what I need in my life right now, anyway. All that said, Power Blade is a solid B-tier NES platformer that is worth your time.

6. Dungeons of Dreadrock (Switch, 2022)

So Dungeons of Dreadrock was a pretty interesting experience in that it was not at all the game I was expecting. Perhaps I skimmed the reviews poorly and possibly didn’t even bother to watch a trailer, which seems odd for me, but last year was kind of a blur, so, I dunno. All I know is I was anticipating a game in the style of a traditional 3D dungeon crawler with loot, XP, and more emphasis on combat, but with a 2D overhead perspective. What I got was primarily a puzzle game with some light combat. I don’t know where I went wrong? How I got so off the mark on my expectations? This sleep deprivation is getting to me.

Now! That being said, after the initial shock wore off, I found that I liked Dungeons of Dreadrock a lot! Full of twists, both in the literal and literary senses, this 100-floor dive demands patience and crafty thinking, with puzzles ranging from simple switch-flipping to complex sequences spanning multiple floors with monsters chasing you all the while. While the game is light on music, what’s here is exciting. The voiceover is good, too, throwing in a touch of humor (and a fair share of worldly cynicism) here and there. The game provides clues for troublesome puzzles if you need them, but I’m proud to say I only used the clues on three floors out of 100. The replay value is limited, but then again, I play Shadowgate all the time. Think of it like a memory game!

5. Vice: Project Doom (NES, 1991)

Nintendo Switch Online saves the day with another crazy NES platformer I’ve never played before! Like Power Blade, I remember Nintendo Power coverage on Vice: Project Doom from when I was a kid and, while I was always curious about it, I never played the game until the very end of 2023.

Again, why did I wait so long?! There’s a lot going on here! As agent Quinn Hart, an investigator of illegal substance-trafficking, I took on platforming action that mashes up Ninja Gaiden and Batman—imagine the speed and fluidity of Ninja Gaiden combined with the dark backdrops and weapon-swapping of Batman. Not only that, there are driving sequences akin to Spy Hunter, as well as rail-shooting segments reminiscent of Operation Wolf. The action follows a bizarre, but fun story involving aliens, human clones, and a bio-tech company producing a neon gel the aliens need to survive. The story also takes some brutal turns for Agent Hart that I’ll leave for you to experience yourself. The story isn’t delivered quite as deftly as Ninja Gaiden—I had trouble discerning which character was speaking at certain times—but it’s worth your time.

All that said, Vice: Project Doom can be brutal in its difficulty. It’s lengthy (with no saves or passwords on original hardware), the boss fights demand expert pattern recognition, there are plenty of enemies and projectiles waiting to knock Hart into pits mid-jump, and the final level is a challenge that will no doubt remind players of Ninja Gaiden’s stage six gauntlet. No worries, though—with the modern convenience of save states (used responsibly, of course), you’ve got this.

4. Burgertime Deluxe (Game Boy, 1991)

I blogged about Burgertime Deluxe in September of 2023, so I won’t spend too much time rehashing here. Deluxe is the word here—a great, portable reinterpretation of the arcade Burgertime, complete with additional level types and styles, more power-ups, a touch of story, and a fair and steady difficulty curve. By the end of the game, some of the levels felt more like they belonged in a puzzle platformer than an arcade game, demanding mastery of manipulating enemy movement and memorizing level layouts while managing a limited number of lives. The continues might be unlimited, but they reset your score to zero, so there is lots of replay value here for high-score chasers.

3. Smash TV (Arcade, 1990)

Craig and I used to play Smash TV on an almost weekly basis on Xbox Live Arcade, but the continues on that port of the game are limited, so we never beat it. No, we’re not bad enough to beat Smash TV with limited continues, but it’s one of the toughest challenges I’ve ever faced in the arcade, so chances are good that you’re not, either! (But if you are, please, share your secrets, both for video games and for life.)

However, couch co-oping the game on Craig’s PC over the summer, with unlimited continues, netted us the resources we needed to finally witness the end of this televised carnage—not to mention escape with millions of dollars in winnings and like 500 brand new toasters. Breakfast at our house, friends!

Anyway, Smash TV is a longtime favorite, a perfect combination of Robotron: 2084 and The Running Man. It was awesome to finally see the ending, even if it would have cost us 50 dollars in quarters on an original arcade machine.

2. Bionic Commando (Game Boy, 1992)

Bionic Commando on Game Boy got its own entry earlier this year, so, again, I won’t repeat too many details here. What you need to know is that this version of Bionic Commando is its own reimagining of the story, not a diluted port of the NES game, and fans of the franchise need to check it out for more swinging, grappling, fascist-fighting action. New graphics, both original and remixed music, and quality-of-life updates such as a password feature and mid-level equipment-swapping all contributed to a fantastic portable iteration of the adventure. I heard good things for years, so my expectations were high, and I was not disappointed.

1. New Super Mario Bros. U (Wii U, 2012)

I'm using my top game of 2023 to throw some love to a beleaguered Mario title. When I think of New Super Mario Bros. U, I do not get a warm feeling at all. It was the final Mario game among four bearing the “New” moniker, a subseries consisting of four games across seven years on four(!) different platforms. I think they’re great, but by the end of 2012, despite growth and improvement with each new installment, after four games with (roughly) the same graphics, themes, music, and types of levels, I think players burnt out. Compare the leap between Super Mario Bros. 3 and Super Mario World to the leap between New Super Mario Bros. Wii and New Super Mario Bros. U, for instance. Two pairs of games that are both fantastic, right? While Super Mario Bros. 3 will always be my favorite, the leap in graphics and sound in Super Mario World cannot be ignored, and the level design and new power-ups contribute to a completely new and different game. New Super Mario Bros. U came three years after New Super Mario Bros. Wii, also jumping to a next-generation console, and while it got HD graphics, new power-ups, and a more involved world map, if I’m being honest, it is otherwise pretty close to just more New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and I think players were looking for something fresher.

On top of that, until its re-release on Switch, New Super Mario Bros. U could only be found on the much-maligned Wii U, which, while I find it to be quite charming, was ultimately a bust. This game can’t catch a break.

So there I was, 11 years later, trying it out for the first time. Having now played it, I cannot deny that the criticisms above are, in fact, valid. Despite that, I still think it’s a really good game, and a worthy number one in an admittedly pretty light year of gaming for me. Like its three-dimensional Wii U counterpart, Super Mario 3D World, this game went unplayed by the masses for too long. Is it more of the same? Sure. But it’s also more Mario and more joy, and who am I to say no to that?

I’m not much of a videophile at all, but I do think the HD graphics give the presentation a gorgeous and needed boost that New Super Mario Bros. Wii missed out on. I also think the level designs are brilliant and fun, certainly a step up from its predecessor, which I also found to have good level design, but more on the repetitive side. Bonus points to New Super Mario Bros. U’s secrets, which are deviously hidden and begging me to return to the game for some more exploring. I know some of these levels still have secrets in them, and I absolutely cannot find them. It’s driving me crazy in the best way, and I need to make some time to get back in there and look some more. Mario fans, do give this misunderstood adventure the time of day.

That’s it! That’s the list!

What did you think? Are my picks nuts? What were your top games of “2023?” Thanks for reading, and see you next mission!

Some Screenshot Credits: MobyGames