For many of the team here, 2013 will be remembered as “Year of the Handheld”. The 3DS dominated so much of our gaming time, that you’ll not be surprised to see that reflected in this list. But let us not forget the PS Vita, either. The release of the PlayStation 4 has already given new life to the Vita as a remote play device, though the future of the device seems confusing.
As we run down each position, our writers will have their say on each title, telling you exactly why they think each game is so good. Of course, we’d love to hear your thoughts and picks for this category too, so please leave comments at the end of the article. In reverse order then, let’s get it on!
Adam Cook: I must admit, first impressions of the direct follow up to one of my favourite games of all time weren’t great. But then you quickly discover the power that lets you shuffle along walls, then in turn discover this is yet more Nintendo genius in a year that was, frankly, littered with their brilliance. A world I could probably have drawn on a map myself was recreated beautifully, with vibrant colours reminding me why I enjoy playing games so much in the first place.
Don’t let the familiarity put you off, there’s enough that’s new to make even the biggest fan of A Link to the Past enjoy this version of Hyrule all over again. Magnificent.
James Bowden: A Link Between Worlds is tight and classic, but cheekily experimental at the same time. Nostalgic, but also forward thinking. This is top down Zelda as it should be – slick, deceptively playable, and nimble. Ultimately A Link Between Worlds is a relief after the more plodding DS entries quietly jingled the potential death bell for true top down Zelda. This is the game that proves their jingling came to nought, and it does so with startling confidence and heart.
The item renting is A Link Between Worlds’ most obtuse element in that it lets you grab all of Link’s toys remarkably quickly and tackle the challenges in an order of your choosing. It’s not a perfect system – the rental prices are really too low, and farming rupees too easy – but it’s a liberating feeling, being able to just poke your nose in all of Hyrule’s holes at the earliest possible moment, and it opens up some rather tantalising speed-run questions for the game’s future. For Zelda stalwarts this system is a nice way of avoiding those typical early game motions, as a handheld game it minimises any “can’t go there yet” confusion, and it also hints towards a truly great, open adventure in Zelda’s future if this mechanic is explored further.
Mike Stubbs: Animal Crossing is the perfect world, it’s life as it should be lived and it is the best escape from the, at times, horrible real world in which we all live. I don’t play Animal Crossing properly, I haven’t checked my town daily for a couple of months now, but whenever I’m feeling down or annoyed I boot up Animal Crossing: New Leaf and I can guarantee that after a couple of hours of picking weeds, catching new fish and chatting to my neighbours, I will once again be in a good mood. There are very few games that have this effect on me.
What makes New Leaf better than the previous games is the amount of customization you can make to your town. You can add or remove bridges, add features such as fountains or benches and even apply ordinances that are effectively very lenient laws. These ways of customizing your town, as well as the usual collecting of furniture make your town feel unique. Knowing that your town is different to all the others (or at least will be once you finish paying off that fountain) makes working your ass off worthwhile, which in turn makes playing Animal Crossing one of the most satisfying and rewarding experiences available. If only bugs could be sold for thousands of pounds in the real world.
Ben Skipper: The fact that New Leaf was my first excursion into the world of Animal Crossing undoubtedly added a lot to my experience. I was won over by the cuteness/borderline creepiness of its characters and found myself as addicted as everyone else singing the game’s praises.
It probably says most about the game that in the time since I last played it a couple of months ago it has crept into my thoughts a number of times. “My village is going to be a right state when I get back,” “I bet that prick Riddle is waiting for me as soon as I hop off that train.”
Adam Cook: I truly believe that games should be inclusive, that they can bring us together and make us smile. Animal Crossing has always been a series that was popular in our household, but New Leaf took this to new levels. Both of my children, my wife and I were hopelessly addicted to paying our debts to Tom Nook. We discussed what was going on in our town, we visited one another, and we shared. In a medium dominated by who kills who the most, New Leaf is a breath of fresh air and a game that I had to fight to play, such was the clamouring for the 3DS in my family.
Martin Baker: We’re always told not to judge a book by its cover but, whether we like it or not, that’s something that we constantly do when it comes to games. We look at trailers, screenshots and more, and make a snap decision about whether we want to play it. With Thomas Was Alone, I was guilty of such a judging. I looked at the various cubes and other shapes and immediately made the decision that I’d rather play something else.
I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Thomas Was Alone has an absolutely amazing story and narrative. The puzzles in the game were difficult without being frustrating, the length of the title was just about right and the humour contained throughout hit all the right spots. Mike Bithell created something truly stunning and, if you own a PlayStation Vita, then you owe it to yourself to experience its charm and appeal.
Calvin Robinson: Thomas Was Alone is an example of game design in its purist form. Here is a game that is entertaining and somehow manages to invoke emotions, without any real characters. It’s essentially a game about humanised rectangles on a journey of self-discovery while trying to navigate an increasingly puzzling 2D environment as they attempt to escape from the game itself. With simple, clean visuals and great voice-over work from Danny Wallace, Thomas Was Alone is a modernisation of games of old. If Atari were still making video game consoles today, Thomas Was Alone would be a launch title.
Mick Fraser: If you’ve never played Mike Bithell’s wonderful puzzle-platformer, you’d be forgiven for assuming that the narrative would be the weakest element. Essentially, you’re just using the combined properties of several different blocks to move them from one end of a nonsensical environment to the other. But the simple truth is that without the narrative thread and, above all, the narrator, Thomas Was Alone simply wouldn’t work. The almost touching story behind each level, combined with the developer’s insistence on giving each block a name and sentient personality, creates an almost heart-warming experience out of nothing but a bunch of coloured blocks. Like many games ported to the Vita, Thomas Was Alone wasn’t initially designed with the handheld in mind, and yet proved to be a perfect fit.
Colm Ahern: I despised turn-based combat. With an unadulterated passion, I truly loathed video games that wouldn’t allow me to really get my hands dirty and annihilate the enemy. Over the years, I’ve become more open to the idea and XCOM: Enemy Unknown was the first game to take me into its bosom and teach me how delightful that type of combat can be. Fire Emblem: Awakening went even further.
I had been hearing hoopla for months and eventually gave in and bought a 3DS, specifically to go onto the battlefield with Marth. As I was new to the series and relatively new to the genre, I think I was expecting the hype to lead to something lacklustre, but the game delivered well past what the crowd had said. Every battle felt massively important as it was imperative for me to level up each one of my brave soldiers. Alas, I lost a few out there. Names I’ll never forget: Frederick, Sully, Stahl…the list goes on. I wasn’t a fan before, but I know that I’ll be right there on launch day for Awakening’s follow-up.
Sean Smith: Fire Emblem is a series that hasn’t garnered much mainstream press, but that all changed with the brilliant, user friendly masterpiece that was the cherry on top an annus mirabilis for handheld Ninty. You can play this regardless of your experience in the RTS genre, with a brilliant set of customisable options and an expert learning curve. It looks great, sounds great and features characters you will fall in love with, and cry salt tears over when they peg out.
Adam Cook: This game defined 2013 for me. I’d already been playing plenty of 3DS games, but Fire Emblem really saw the onslaught of incredible titles for the device begin. 40 hours after starting, I had finished my Awakening, then instantly restarted it. Easily one of the best games released this year, and I’m delighted to see it get not only critical acclaim, but appreciation in our awards.
Ben Skipper: The biggest of Nintendo’s numerous 3DS releases this year lived up to the hype. It made big changes, including the addition of diagonal movement at long last, and overall was a much-needed breath of fresh air for a series previously criticised for its lack of progression.
Including as many Pokémon from the original 151 as they did hinted that this was being pitched as a sort of reboot for the series, and as a starting point for a new generation of players it couldn’t have been much better.
Mike Stubbs: The Pokémon series has always been great, but the recent games have felt a bit stale. However, this year Pokémon X and Y changed up the formula enough that it felt fresh and different but still retained all the things that made the series great in the first place. Sure, the new Pokémon introduced in X and Y weren’t the best, and the way they changed the Pokémon Centre is unforgivable, but this is the first Pokémon game in years that I truly loved.
The new 3D visuals added a new dimension (pun somewhat intended) to the game, which changed so much. Towns and buildings looked impressive and were a great improvement over the 2D games but yet they still had the Pokémon ‘feel’. Some of the new areas were the most unique and entertaining ever seen in Pokémon and were made possible by the 3D world, but perhaps most importantly, the core gameplay didn’t change a bit. Pokémon X and Y is perhaps the 2nd best entry in the series (behind the originals, obviously) and it rekindled my love of ‘catching them all’.
Sean Smith: In a year where the 3DS was on fire, you just knew that a new Pokémon title was going to be something special, and this was. Arguably the definitive entry in the long running series, this expertly combined classic RPG battling, a tonne of new monsters, and genuinely entertaining online features. Utterly huge, there is enough gaming for your buck to last well into 2014.