For the video game industry, 2023 is a year of contradiction. It will be remembered as a cornerstone year in terms of video game releases. Expectations were met, long dormant series resurfaced, and remastered games reached new heights. An abundance of riches awaited players. Yet, as some publishers saw record sales, the industry as a whole continues to be a toxic workspace. Over 6,500 workers have been laid off since January of this year. However, the actual number of layoffs is much higher. It’s difficult to celebrate an industry that treats its workers so poorly.
Considering this, PopMatters’ Best Video Games of 2023 are worth your time and will stand as important cultural artifacts. This list is not meant to be a definitive statement, just a highlight of a few games that stood out for their artistry, innovation, and accessibility.
Let us hope and fight so that 2024 sees videogame worker unions become a permanent fixture in the industry and for companies to treat their workers with dignity and well compensated. We would not have any of these great games without the talent and hard work of developers, artists, musicians, producers, quality control professionals, animators, narrative designers, and programmers. This list is dedicated to them.
The eight video games comprising our Best Video Games of 2023 list below are presented alphabetically by title.
20 Words // 20 Seconds
Typing is fun. Word games are fun. Kevin Hutchins’ 20 Words // 20 Seconds is a word game where you must type at least 20 words in 20 seconds. The catch is that you can’t use the same word twice. It’s an Ingenious micro game. That will have you trying to beat your highest score.
Kevin Hutchins created 20 Words // 20 Seconds as part of the 20 Second Game Jam 2023. Hutchins shows modern video games don’t need to be overly complex and overpriced multimillion-dollar productions to make an impact. You can enjoy 20 Words // 20 Seconds, a simple puzzle game, or as an educational tool to up your typing skills.
Geometric Interactive’s Cocoon is magic. From the onset, you are playing no guided tutorials or unwanted explanations. The game’s straightforward controls are appreciated. You only utilize the thumbstick for movement and one button for all other actions. It’s a refreshingly simple 3-D puzzle game to play.
Cocoon presents and epitomizes a grounded future. It feels like a modern game, yet it owes its simplistic design to games of the Atari era and early arcade cabinets. Yet, unlike most of those games, Cocoon has an engaging narrative told through environmental storytelling. It is amazing, a masterclass of a game.
The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom
What hasn’t been said about The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom except that it’s a game too big to fail. By now, we know the drill. Link must save the world from Ganon and save Hyrule and Princess Zelda. It’s generic stuff, yet the game’s exploration and gameplay are outstanding. Physics-based puzzles and new tools given to players make this a game for the ages. This is open-world design at its apex.
It took over ten years for Pikmin 4, the latest numbered entry in the real-time strategy survival quasi-gardening game series, to be released. Was the wait worth it? I can only say this: Pikmin 4 was the best time I had playing a game in 2023. Its luscious visual presentation, its comedic yet grim story spoke to my soul.
This time, the core gameplay in Pikmin 4 has been simplified and the tutorial lengthened (the only sour spot in the game). Series regulars Captain Olimar and Louie are stranded once again, and it’s your job to save them. Use the magic of dandori (the art of planning and organizing) to save them and other castaways. The abundance of game modes and missions makes Pikmin 4 a game that one will continuously return to and play. Can you handle seeing fauna and flora vie for survival? Will your Pikmin survive to live another day? Why is Louie so weird? Play and find out.
The old world died. Explore the new world that has taken its place. Developers Die Gute Fabrik outdid themselves with Saltsea Chronicles, a point-and-click adventure game with writing fitting of a Booker Prize novel. The post-apocalyptic world of Saltsea Chronicles is an opportunity for society to be rebuilt with different core values, such as cooperation and sustainability. It’s a great game for those who have had a frustrating day and want to help their mind drift asleep on tranquil shores.
In a year of outstanding game releases, Saltsea Chronicles presents a unique world and possibly future.
Star Ocean: The Second Story R
Space is no longer the final frontier. In Star Ocean: The Second Story R space is both a place in the past and present. It’s the past because this is a remake of a game first released in 1998. It’s the future because this sci-fi role-playing game has the gameplay and story to trap players like the gravitational pull of a black hole. Once sucked into your journey as Claude C. Kenny or Rena Lanford, it will be hard to pull yourself out of playing.
The star creator of this game is composer Motoi Sakuraba, whose score will have you humming along late into the night. Star Ocean: The Second Story R is an admirable rerelease of a classic that defined a generation of games. For those curious, The R stands for remake or remastered.
Super Mario Bros. Wonder
“Wowie zowie!“ Super Mario Bros. Wonder is the most inventive Mario 2-D platformer since Super Mario World (1990). Its trippy levels are full of secrets. It also boasts a fantastic multiplayer experience. This might be the ideal Nintendo online experience.
Once you complete the main game, you can try your skills on the secret world for some bunkers platforming. Super Mario Bros. Wonder is peak Nintendo, an easy-to-play game that offers a challenging experience.
Immigrant stories have a touch of melancholy. In Visai Studios’ Venba, the longing for what was left behind is critical to the titular character’s motivation to explore her culture through her mother’s cookbook. Food is at the heart of the story and ties the family together. While playing, I was reminded of my experience as an immigrant and how food is, at times, the only way to feel connected to the home I left behind. As a bonus, you learn to make Southern Indian regional dishes while playing.
I will keep revisiting Venba for its story. It is my game of the year.