When we asked our writers to give us a list of their favorite games of 2023, everyone had a different game in the top spot. We saw votes for Super Mario Bros. Wonder, Alan Wake 2, Hi-Fi Rush, and even Sonic Superstars. Baldur’s Gate 3 ultimately won out, but what stuck out to me the most following that process was how, on almost everyone’s list, the same game was in that No. 2 slot: The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom.
Released by Nintendo in May after a long wait, Tears of the Kingdom would have been the industry’s unequivocal game of the year in any other year. Although its competition was too stiff in this packed year for that to be the case, that doesn’t make Tears of the Kingdom any less of an experience. In fact, I think that earning a spot near the top on almost everyone’s personal list at Digital Trends demonstrates how widely appealing Nintendo’s latest Zelda game is and that end-of-year gaming conversations should be about uplifting great games, not nitpicking their flaws to determine which one’s the best.
Tears of the Kingdom is a monumental achievement in open-world game design. It essentially has three worlds stacked on top of each other. From almost any point in Hyrule, it’s possible to stop, look around, and find several points of interest around, above, and below yourself. That alone makes it a game that consistently delivers a sense of awe and discovery, even after dozens of hours of playtime.
Nintendo further emboldens its open-world design by giving players lots of abilities to help them explore it thoroughly. It’s possible to climb almost any surface like one could in Breath of the Wild, but Ascend now makes it easier to navigate out of caves or reach the top of overhangs on cliffs or mountainsides. And if climbing isn’t enough, you can build something with almost any physical object in the open world using Ultrahand. Although the controls of Ultrahand are a bit complex, learning to work around the system’s control eccentricities is possible with enough time and practice.
Once you do, one of the year’s most creatively fulfilling gameplay systems is at your fingertips. These ideas permeate throughout every part of Tears of the Kingdom. For traversal, you can build a flying machine or a giant mech to get around. These abilities also come into play in the shrines and dungeons, enabling some of the most creative puzzle-solving moments that I’ve had in a game since playing Portal 2 for the first time.
That emphasis on choice and creation is also present within the combat system. Not only is it possible to build Ultrahand vehicles that can deal damage to enemies, but the new Fuse system adds a salve to the weapon degradation problem that plagued Breath of the Wild. These systems all work together to make Tears of the Kingdom a game that’s almost impossible to dislike and a title other game developers should consider when determining how much freedom to give players in their game.
Months after its release, though, many of these positives were overshadowed by Baldur’s Gate 3. That RPG encourages player freedom by giving them lots of choice in terms of character builds, dialogue choice, and possible actions allowed to be taken during turn-based combat. It’s getting lots of praise for that, thus forcing many a debate about whether Baldur’s Gate 3 or Tears of the Kingdom is better. This, unfortunately, puts a much greater analysis on each game’s shortcomings and weak points rather than a focus on what each did well.
While Tears of the Kingdom has already gotten a lot of praise, factors like Ultrahand’s tricky controls or how it shares a lot in common with Breath of the Wild were ultimately the “negatives” that brought it down to our No. 2 spot on both Digital Trends’ Game of the Year list. While I fully stand by and support Baldur’s Gate 3 being our Game of the Year for 2023, this lineup of titles, more so than past years, has shown me how end-of-the-year game rankings are reductive, especially when a game like Tears of the Kingdom was ubiquitously loved by so many people on our gaming staff and freelancing team.
Every single one of the games on our Game of the Year and honorable mentions list — plus many that didn’t even make the cut — innovated and stood out in extraordinary ways that deserve recognition. Although The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom might not be Digital Trends’ Game of the Year in 2023, the ways it encourages players’ imagination deserve tremendous praise, and I hope it influences developers for years to come. Highlighting strengths and learning from great games is ultimately what end-of-the-year game discussions should be about.
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