Games of the Year

RPGFan Games of the Year 2023 ~ Editors’ Awards: Mike Salbato

RPGFan Games of the Year 2023: Editors' Awards

Favorite Game of 2023: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

If you ask most people what seasons 2023 had, you’ll get, well, a funny look but also an answer of the expected four. But for me, I missed summer. My 2023 was late winter, spring, Zelda, autumn, and winter again. Tears of the Kingdom was not a game I played for several weeks, but the season between May and August. We all know the reality of having responsibilities and how it impacts our time for games, but somehow I made it work by sinking every spare moment I had into Link’s latest adventure. It consumed me day and night, sometimes literally — I had more than a couple dreams due to late-night sessions and pondering how to tackle a situation or puzzle.

I constantly went back to something my friend Alana Hagues (once of RPGFan, now NintendoLife) said in her review, “Somehow, Tears of the Kingdom does the impossible and makes Breath of the Wild feel like a proof of concept.” It’s the most succinctly accurate description I’ve heard of ToTK. I’d argue Breath of the Wild is almost as much of a reinvention as Ocarina of Time was, albeit in different ways. The extent to which Eiji Aonuma and his team built upon those ideas in Tears is staggering, to say nothing of how Ultrahand and other new abilities continue to inspire people to build and perform acts way beyond what anyone intended. More than just an incredibly fulfilling experience and love letter to Zelda fans worldwide, Tears of the Kingdom is fascinating from top to bottom.

Link falling through the air in The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom

Favorite Nostalgia: Super Mario RPG

Gamers talk about “the” golden era of RPGs, but as I get older and see more people of different ages get into the genre, it seems that this is really a subjective thing. We all have a time that is the golden era for ourselves. It isn’t for my generation alone to decide.

That said, my golden era IS one of the frequently chosen ones: the 16-bit era and the Super Nintendo. That the likes of EarthBound, three Final Fantasy games, Chrono Trigger, all of Quintet’s legendary action RPGs, and more all appeared on one console is still incredible to me. Among the best, though, is Super Mario RPG. Nintendo and Square working together to build an RPG was a staggering choice, and to make a turn-based RPG in the MARIO world? Unheard of. Even the combined might of the “Dream Team” that created Chrono Trigger (long between Square and Enix merged) the year prior didn’t prepare us for such a team-up.

Square and Nintendo created something magical, charming, and near-perfect, but the circumstances of Super Mario RPG‘s development meant most of us thought we’d never see a re-release. Instead, we got this remaster/remake (call it what you wish) that is the same beloved game but polished to an unbelievable sheen. Upgraded visuals, even more gorgeous Yoko Shimomura music, and just enough additions and adjustments (hello, larger inventory) make it a no-brainer purchase for RPG fans, whether or not you played the original.

From Link’s Awakening to Metroid Prime Remastered and now Super Mario RPG, the remasters/remakes Nintendo has been releasing are a step above many other companies, and I can’t wait to see what comes next.

Favorite Faux Nostalgia: Sea of Stars

Sea of Stars is not a classic RPG getting a new lease on life. It’s not a game developed in the ’90s or early 2000s that someone forgot to release until 2023. But it FEELS like those things. Sabotage Studio’s latest game does not just present itself in 2D and hope retro game fans like it, but it feels like a game developed for a bygone era with modern touches like fancy lighting.

I know some people don’t like the weirdly casual writing of the game — frankly, I don’t love it myself or even get why everyone talks as if they’re friends in a Discord channel versus using proper punctuation. It’s incredibly strange and jarring. But the gameplay is so tight, the artwork so gorgeous, exploration so satisfying (seriously, 2D map exploration with the ability to jump is a game-changer), and music so lovely that I can look past it and enjoy the overall experience.

Sea of Stars screenshot of Valere, Zale, and Garl carefully crossing a tightrope stretched between two cliffs in a mountainous area filled with yellow grass.

Favorite Encore: Theatrhythm Final Bar Line

While my favorite game of the year may have been Tears of the Kingdom, I’ll tell you there was no game I anticipated more going into 2023 than Theatrhythm Final Bar Line. I absolutely adore the Theatrhythm series, and it has been far, far too long since the last home release. The arcade version, All-Star Carnival, is a ton of fun, but that only helped players in Japan or those fortunate enough to live near an arcade with the Japanese cabinet. Going from the confines of a handheld screen to a TV screen (and the expanded song roster that came with it) made me desperate for a home release of All-Star Carnival that never came.

Instead, Square Enix revealed Theatrhythm Final Bar Line and blew the doors off my expectations with new and better multiplayer modes, a ton of music outside Final Fantasy in addition to way more FF music than was found in Curtain Call, and did I mention it contains over 500 songs? It’s an RPG music lover’s dream.

While they may be done with DLC, I would love to see them continue to build on it. Bring over the music lineup from Theathrythm Dragon Quest since it never left Japan. Drop the whole tracklist from Kingdom Hearts Melody of Memory in here so I can play KH music in a form that, unlike Melody of Memory, would actually be playable and enjoyable. Do a big FFXIV pack and get more Shadowbringers, Endwalker, and Dawntrail music in. Seriously, Square Enix — and more specifically, developer indieszero — you perfected the formula with Final Bar Line, so keep adding to it, and I’ll keep coming back.

Favorite Tangentially RPG-Related Game: PowerWash Simulator

PowerWash Simulator was somewhat on my radar as someone who likes cleanliness, order, and the KonMari Method, but when we had the opportunity to cover it for RPGFan, I had to scratch that itch. And I’m so glad I did. The game is silly, but it knows that. It’s also supremely satisfying and cathartic for the right audience, and as I learned earlier this year (and was reminded when the game topped my Steam “Wrapped” for 2023), I am that audience.

But I’ll stick with the Final Fantasy VII DLC for this writeup because it’s so well done. The FuturLab team has great writers, and getting work orders from Reeve, Heidegger, and Tifa let them get really playful with the dialogue. And, of course, the machines and areas you clean (like the Scorpion Sentinel and Seventh Heaven) are modeled with enough detail to make you work for that 100% completion. The DLC alone instantly made me a fan, and after the recent Back to the Future DLC, I look forward to whatever comes next.

PowerWash Simulator Midgar Special Pack Screenshot cleaning the Shinra logo

Most Needed to Play: Dave the Diver, Baldur’s Gate III, Final Fantasy XVI, Octopath Traveler II, Wandering Sword

Look, I was busy in Hyrule and Midgar this year, so I’m behind on playing some vital RPGs. But they’re on the list.

Mike Salbato

Mike Salbato

Mike has been with RPGFan nearly since its inception, and in that time has worn a surprising number of hats for someone who doesn't own a hatstand. Today he attempts to balance his Creative Director role with his Editor-in-Chief status. Despite the amount of coffee in his veins, he bleeds emerald green.