It’s been a long year filled with massive games, but we’ve finally reached the end of 2023. There’s no question that this year will be remembered as one of the all-time best for new releases — and one of the worst for game creators — but it’s been a whirlwind 12 months for the “big three” console makers. PlayStation, Xbox, and Nintendo all had pivotal years, though in entirely different ways. While the Nintendo Switch took a victory lap, the PS5 entered an experimental era. The Xbox Series X, on the other hand, finally delivered the suite of exclusives fans had been waiting for … with mixed results.
To reflect on such an eventful year, we’ve decided to take on the role of teacher and hand each company a final grade for 2023. We took several factors into account here. Exclusive games are a major component of the final grade, naturally, but we also looked at how well each system maintained its wider ecosystem. That includes supporting services like PS Plus and Game Pass and evaluating how new hardware changed how we play.
Put your pencils down; it’s time for the final exam.
It’s no stretch to say that the PS5 has been the top dog of this console generation since 2020. Though Xbox Series X offered a strong value with Xbox Game Pass (last year’s lineup of additions was particularly extraordinary), Sony has consistently delivered the more traditional home console experience with expert precision. Every year brought several blockbuster exclusives that made the console a must-own. Sony continued that this year, but its momentum started to slow. Marvel’s Spider-Man 2 and Final Fantasy XVI gave PS5 two massive exclusives, but there weren’t too many more top-tier exclusives outside of that power duo (Forspoken would have been the third, but it launched to an unkind reception).
There’s a reason for that: 2023 was a bit of an experimental year for Sony. The company began to widen the scope of its vision, with a much larger focus on hardware and ecosystem. That started with the PlayStation VR2, a promising headset that would deliver a strong enough launch title in Horizon: Call of the Mountain and the excellent Humanity shortly thereafter. First-party support for the headset has been nonexistent since then, making it look like a pricey paperweight next to the Meta Quest 3 and its crown jewel, Asgard’s Wrath 2.
Other hardware releases were similarly disappointing. The streaming-only PlayStation Portal is a serviceable cloud handheld, but one that failed to deliver key features like Bluetooth support. A mid-generation PS5 “slim” refresh was a welcome change, but its lack of a price cut made it hard to justify an upgrade. The only area where Sony scored major points was in its PS5 Access Controller, a truly innovative piece of tech that allows more players than ever to experience Sony games.
Sony’s revamped PS Plus service didn’t help bridge the gaps in its schedule either. A lack of retro releases — one of the service’s major selling points — and a price increase would reduce the Game Pass competitor’s value. All of that left us with a mixed year that set the stage for a worrisome 2024. Will Sony’s live service and mobile push pay off? Can indies like Pacific Drive make up for the fact that there are few tentpole exclusives on the horizon? That’s a question for next December, but at least 2023 left us with enough highs to counterbalance the PS5’s first underwhelming year.
Microsoft had a lot to prove heading into 2023. The Xbox Series X had yet to deliver a truly generation-defining exclusive to make it a must-own system like the PS5. Especially coming off an empty 2022, Xbox needed big games. It delivered that, though in scattershot fashion. The long-anticipated Starfield would finally launch in September, giving Xbox owners the big game they’d been waiting for. The only problem? It wasn’t all it was hyped up to be. Overly ambitious marketing would leave Bethesda’s sci-fi epic feeling like a second-tier release; it wouldn’t win a single award at this year’s Game Awards. Even worse, Bethesda’s Redfall would land as an even bigger disappointment.
Thankfully, Microsoft showed the power of diversification this year. While Sony focused on one major first-party exclusive, Xbox had several under its belt. Hi-Fi Rush would start the year as a left-field game of the year contender, while Forza Motorsport would give the Series X a strong, long-tailed service game. Minecraft Legends, on the other hand, would offer niche strategy fun for kids. That line-up was beefed up by a strong slate of console-exclusive indies and major Game Pass grabs, like Lies of P and Cocoon. It was yet another year that showed the power of Xbox’s ecosystem-driven strategy, though Game Pass did seem to deliver fewer watercooler zeitgeist moments overall.
While Series X delivered enough games, it was a quiet year for Xbox otherwise. Microsoft’s only hardware release would be an under-the-radar Series S upgrade, and Game Pass would quietly roll out to a few niche platforms. The biggest Microsoft development of 2023 would come from its final acquisition of Activision Blizzard, but that wouldn’t result in any games. It was business as usual in 2023, though that’s perhaps what Microsoft needed after a rocky start to its latest generation.
We’re hoping to see some more ambitious moves in 2024. Big-name exclusives like Senua’s Saga: Hellblade 2 and Avowed need to push Xbox’s momentum with more consistency. We’re also hoping that some of Xbox’s upcoming hardware plans can make the console exciting again. Documents leaked during its FTC battle over Activision Blizzard revealed a refreshed Series X and controller on the way. Both are the kind of exciting mid-generation shake-ups Microsoft needs to keep its brand on top in 2024.
Usually, when we’re in a console’s final years, expectations are low. You might have assumed that most of Nintendo’s first-party studios would have moved on to developing games for the rumored Switch 2, leaving third parties to fill the year. That was far from the case; 2023 might have been the Switch’s best year ever. That was, of course, thanks to The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom and Super Mario Bros. Wonder, two must-own titles, but Nintendo didn’t stop there. Pikmin 4 and Fire Emblem Engage gave the console two more great strategy games, while surprise double dips like Super Mario RPG and Metroid Prime Remastered gave players plenty to play through the year.
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Bayonetta Origins, Advance Wars 1+2 Re-boot Camp, WarioWare Move It!, Kirby’s Return to Dream Land Deluxe, F-Zero 99, Xenoblade Chronicles 3‘s Future Redeemed DLC … I could keep going. While you could count PS5 and Xbox’s headlining exclusives on one hand, Nintendo delivered more in one year than most put out in three. It was a firm reminder of why Nintendo is still able to compete despite delivering underpowered hardware and dated online decisions: It has the games.
While that was more than enough to make Nintendo the publisher of the year, I’m left with one nitpick: Nintendo Switch Online. The service has become an increasingly important piece of the Switch’s overall value, delivering a catalog of classic Nintendo games from the NES through the Nintendo 64. Nintendo upped the ante this year by adding Game Boy and Game Boy Advance games to the service, but support for those additions dried up immediately. We only got a small handful of games from each this year and it was a similar dry spell for the other included systems. Instead, Nintendo seemed more keen to resell old games like Pikmin — something that’ll continue next year with several planned HD re-releases. It was one of those moments that reminded me of how often Nintendo struggles to modernize, botching what should be gaming’s best retro game service.
That’s a small gripe in the grand scheme of Nintendo’s strong 2023. While it didn’t deliver anything in the way of new hardware or accessory innovation, we got one heck of a send-off for the Nintendo Switch, as its successor may be right around the corner in 2024. You couldn’t ask for much more this late in a console’s lifespan.
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