When did you realize 2023 was shaping up to be a bonkers year for video games?
Was it when some of 2022’s most anticipated prospective titles were delayed, leading to a pileup in the first few months of this year? Was it when the normal midyear trough in game releases never really arrived, as The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom’s debut in mid-May gave way to the releases of Street Fighter 6, Diablo IV, and Final Fantasy XVI in June and Pikmin 4 and Remnant 2 in July? Was it when publishers played musical chairs with release dates to avoid one another’s big games, as Baldur’s Gate 3 shifted forward to avoid Starfield (which in turn bumped back Stray Gods) and Assassin’s Creed Mirage moved up to avoid other October blockbusters? Was it when Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Super Mario Bros. Wonder debuted on the same damn day, one week before Alan Wake 2? Was it when the makers of games such as Atlas Fallen, Immortals of Aveum, and Sonic Superstars—the last of which ill-advisedly dropped on Spider-Mario Day—blamed disappointing sales on the summer’s stiff competition?
Maybe it was just the FOMO you felt as the next great game came out while you were still sinking dozens or hundreds of hours into the last one. (We see you, folks who haven’t left Hyrule, Sanctuary, or Faerûn.) It’s sometimes tough to recognize in real time when we have it good: Only later do we look back and realize that those were the days. This year, though, gamers were well aware that their cups—or should we say CPUs?—were running over. From the surprise announcement and release of Hi-Fi Rush in January to the surprise announcement and release of God of War Ragnarök: Valhalla and The Finals, respectively, in December, 2023 was stuffed from start to finish.
Which, naturally, raises the question: Was it historically stuffed? How does 2023 compare to the best gaming years ever?
Unless we want to base our analysis solely on vibes and personal preferences, we have to consult some close-to-comprehensive source of critic reviews and/or user ratings, which gets tricky. Video game data is difficult to work with. For one thing, it often requires cleaning to filter out ports or avoid double or triple counting multiplatform titles. Then there’s the question of how to treat remasters, remakes, and expansions. And the further back you look, the fewer reviews are available, and the more skewed they are toward the high end of the scale.
Still, we can study this in a couple of ways. The first is via Metacritic’s critical consensus scores. To find a year that topped 2023’s total of 16 games with a Metascore of 90 (out of 100) or higher, we have to rewind to 2011, when seventh-generation consoles—the Wii, PlayStation 3, and Xbox 360—still roamed the gaming landscape and players were treated to a new Zelda, a new Super Mario, a new Bethesda role-playing game, the middle entry in a trilogy of open-world superhero games, and a game called Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3. (My, how things have changed.) That’s a pretty impressive testament to the top-tier games that defined this year, but it undersells the scope of 2023’s gaming greatness. Although 2011 boasted one more 90-plus-scored game than 2023 does, it featured about 30 fewer 80-plus-scored games. This year had huge stars, yes, but it also assembled an incredibly deep bench.
We can capture this two-pronged nature of a standout 2023 by averaging the annual numbers of 90-plus games and 80-plus games. By that metric, 2023 is the strongest year dating back to at least 2001, beyond which Metacritic’s corpus of video games dwindles dramatically. The nearly yearlong onslaught of must-get games didn’t leave a lot of playtime for anything else, but anyone who found themselves between bangers had plenty of good and very good games to get into.
We can also see how 2023 measures up to previous years using IMDb’s user ratings, which go back further than Metacritic’s review library but can be a bit spottier in the present because players haven’t had as much time to deliver their verdicts on recent releases. Even though that places the current year at a disadvantage relative to years that have had more time to accrue ratings, 2023 more than holds its own. For instance, IMDb users have bestowed 8.5 or higher ratings on more games released this year than in any other year since the turn of the century.
This year doesn’t stand out to quite the same degree in the 8-plus and 9-plus divisions. But 2023 distinguishes itself through the quality of its best games even more than through the quantity. The GIF below displays the average IMDb rating of the top 10, 25, and 50 games in each year, with 2023’s figures easily clearing those of its closest rivals:
This year also leads if our sample includes all games with 8-plus or 9-plus scores (not just the top 10, 25, or 50), even if we limit to non-remakes, non-remasters, and non-expansions:
In many of those cases, 2023 took the lead by surpassing 1998, which The Ringer previously labeled “the best year ever for video games.” Granted, there’s more to a great gaming year than sterling scores soon after release: In the long term, influence and legacy matter, too. It’s almost impossible to assess the lasting impact of a year’s crop of great games before the year is even over. Although our research reveals that the number and fraction of games that belong to existing series actually aren’t near their highs, many of this year’s greatest games are sequels. Will they leave their stamp on the medium the way the original Half-Life, Metal Gear Solid, StarCraft, or Halo did—or, for that matter, the original Diablo or Baldur’s Gate? Is it possible for today’s sequels to blaze trails like The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or Grand Theft Auto III, which translated existing series to the third dimension and/or open worlds? Is the medium too mature for such evolutionary leaps, or will some of this year’s standouts cast similarly long shadows?
However we slice it, 2023 looks special, placing it in a pantheon with ’98, 2007, and other legendary years such as 2001, 2004, 2013, and 2017. (And that’s without considering that this was the year when Hollywood finally figured out how to stop screwing up high-profile game adaptations.) If it wasn’t the GOAT gaming year, it wasn’t way off, which sparks a second question: How did the industry do it?
This answer may be more surprising than the first. The biggest factor is probably chance—or at least, accidents of timing that caused this year’s slate to work out this way. If fewer games had been delayed from last year to this year, or more had slipped into 2024, we wouldn’t have gotten the confluence of future classics that made many players pinch themselves during a serendipitously stacked year (or, from some companies’ perspectives, a prohibitively competitive one). It takes longer than ever to make big-budget, triple-A titles (unless you’re Insomniac, seemingly): Tears of the Kingdom and Baldur’s Gate 3 development got going in 2017, and work on Final Fantasy XVI and Starfield started earlier than that. Countless things had to go right (and wrong) for all of those games to come out within a few months of one another, or even in the same year.
That said, this year’s blockbuster boss rush wasn’t purely a product of randomness. It also reflected where the console life cycle stands. After years of hardware shortages, Sony and Microsoft have finally built up big enough user bases for the Playstation 5 and Xbox Series X/S, respectively, that they and many other publishers are opting for next-gen-only—is it time to call them current-gen-only?—releases. Freed from the shackles of cross-gen development, and aided by knowledge of the latest systems gleaned over the past few years, studios such as Insomniac (Spider-Man 2) and Larian (Baldur’s Gate 3) have harnessed the extra processing power to great effect. (Though the limitations of the Series S did delay the Xbox debut of Baldur’s.)
Even as the burden of designing games that would work on weaker systems abated for many developers, others wrestled with the almost-seven-year-old Switch. (Sometimes, the Switch forced them to tap out.) Nintendo, however, has learned how to eke out every capability of the console, like NASA coaxing extra juice out of the aging Voyager probes. At the tail end of the Switch’s reign as Nintendo’s flagship console, the maker of Mario, Zelda, Metroid, and Pikmin emptied its chambers for the swan song that preceded the probable 2024 launch of the hybrid system’s successor. But old-guard game makers from traditional development powerhouses don’t deserve all the credit for this year’s successes: European game makers like Larian, Remedy Entertainment (Alan Wake 2), Geometric Interactive (Cocoon), Sabotage Studio (Sea of Stars), the Game Kitchen (Blasphemous 2), and Croteam (The Talos Principle 2) produced some of 2023’s leading titles (and cleaned up at the Game Awards), reflecting an increasingly global distribution of creative talent.
Behind the scenes and on the shelves (or more often, the digital storefronts), 2023 told a tale of two industries. As great as games were, this year was rough for many of the people who made them. The industry struggled to surmount a multitude of woes, including extensive layoffs that struck amid a post-pandemic downturn, not unlike the wave of job losses that swept tech at large (not to mention the media). Then there were the leaks and hacks, the concerns about consolidation, and the AI fears. As outgoing Nexon CEO Owen Mahoney recently said, “Nobody in our industry is happy.”
Yet the output of that industry made many millions happy. Not every game lived up to high hopes, of course. (Remember Redfall, Forspoken, Modern Warfare III, and the most mockable of flops, The Lord of the Rings: Gollum?) But so many more met or exceeded expectations that it’s not just daunting to anoint a game of the year—it’s also a challenge to pick a winner in certain subcategories.
Which was the better fighting game: Street Fighter 6 or Mortal Kombat 1? The better Soulslike: Lies of P or Remnant 2? The better retro role-playing game: Sea of Stars or Octopath Traveler 2? The better game about climbing to the top of a mysterious tower: Jusant or Chants of Sennaar? The better multifaceted fishing game: Dredge or Dave the Diver? The better survival-horror remake: Resident Evil 4 or Dead Space? Or the better Nintendo remake and quasi-remaster: Metroid Prime Remastered or Super Mario RPG?
Time and money permitting, gamers got to enjoy all of the above—but this was a year when one couldn’t go very wrong choosing between the best and second-best options in almost any genre. The problem with this PC and console cornucopia is its potential to spoil us: Because great gaming years result in part from cyclical ebbs and flows in development, next year’s games may have a hard time following 2023’s sensational showing. Although the release slate for early 2024 doesn’t look much lighter than this year’s, that pace probably won’t persist. In other words, we may be in for a comedown from the highs of this year’s nonstop gameplaying party. Which would be fine, as far as we’re concerned, because the industry has supplied a perfect hangover cure: all the great games from 2023 that we still haven’t had time to play.