"Are games art?" Many of this year's best are easy examples to point to, with their emotional narratives and nuanced performances. But our Game of the Year, Super Mario 3D World, doesn't aspire to justify the medium to Hollywood types. Instead, it focuses on the singular goal of just being fun, gosh darn it.
Created in Nintendo's vacuum, 3D World eschews modern gaming trends: there's no open world, there are no RPG elements, there's no online multiplayer, nor are there microtransactions or DLC. Yet in spite of Nintendo's resistance towards adopting modern conventions, 3D World is far from primitive. What elevates 3D World to the top of our list is how fresh it is. Every level introduces a new way to surprise and delight players--either by innovating with new gameplay mechanics, or tapping into Mario's storied legacy in an unexpected way.
One subtle feature exemplifies Nintendo's mastery of creating fun. In multiplayer, the player that earned the highest score in the previous level dons a gold crown on his or her head. However, if that player gets hit, the crown goes flying off, encouraging players to go after it. The addition of the crown doesn't have any meaningful impact on the gameplay (you don't earn any extra powers by wielding it). However, this minor feature encourages all sorts of mischief when playing with others.
The fact that such a small detail can have such a large impact on the overall experience only emphasizes how carefully crafted the 3D World experience is. It's easy to point at the large strokes--beautiful graphics, inventive worlds, and multiplayer characters that control drastically different from each other. But it's the small stuff--like being able to run up the flag pole with Cat Mario, or the way Toad is animated when he has a block stuck to his head--that separates 3D World from the competition. How often can one say a game is so through-and-through designed to delight?
Financially, the Nintendo vacuum has resulted in quite the dire situation for the company. However, gamers are reaping the rewards. In 2013, we've seen Nintendo boldly reinvent its key franchises to tremendous critical success. Super Mario 3D World is the pinnacle of Nintendo's gameplay-first ethos--a strategy that may be reconsidered in Nintendo's brave new world.
The Shacknews Best of 2013 Awards were determined by ballot voting across the entire Shacknews staff. Previous Game of the Year Awards have gone to The Walking Dead, The Witcher 2, and Red Dead Redemption.