This has been one hell of a year for quality and memorable portable titles. So good that the superb games for the Nintendo 3DS and PlayStation Vita deserve a “Best Of” list to put the spotlight on those games that shone brightest in 2013. Many of these games could easily be a contender for a Game of the Year discussion because they are that good. However, it is important to recognize that the console and handheld experience is wildly different and appeals to different demographics, so making a list to highlight some of the particular handheld gems this year is important. While the Vita had a small number of utterly spectacular games, the Nintendo 3DS was straight Rick Ross’n it. So here are 5 of the top 10 handheld games of the year, check back later in the week for the top of the tops.
10. Pokemon X/Y – 3DS
Yes, it is just more Pokemon, that is indisputable. The basic formula perfected in Red and Blue remains, along with many of the intuitive improvements and additions added to the series in the games since those GameBoy stalwarts sparked a cultural phenomenon so long ago. Yet Pokemon X and Y is an excellent presentation of that formula coupled with some profoundly meaningful changes to the series. Shifting the game to 3D graphics was a pleasant surprise resulting in a beautiful presentation of the Kalos region. Many areas in the game played with perspective and 3D graphics in a great way. The art style and direction of the various towns of Kalos is very inviting, creating a sense that you somehow know this place and yet have never visited it. Of course, there are new Pokemon to catch as well as favorites from past games. But what made Pokemon X and Y’s Pokehunting satisfying was the introduction of the Global Trade System, which made making those high-wheeling Pokemon trades so easy by using a simple Wi-Fi connection and the power of the global Pokemon population’s ability to trade with one another. All of the Wi-Fi enabled features improve on what made previous mechanics such a drag. Sure, Pokemon X and Y is more Pokemon, but it is an exceptional presentation of the Pokemon experience.
9. Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney – Dual Destinies – 3DS
It has been a damn long time since Phoenix Wright has shown up, both in the court of law and on a handheld. Dual Destinies sees a return both of Wright to the courtroom and to a Nintendo portable system. Wright’s iconic spikey hair and pointed finger of objection have never looked better than in Dual Destinies’ 3D makeover. Joining Wright as he re-enters the dojo of the law is Apollo Justice and newcomer Athena Cykes. The three attorneys have their work cut out for them as they duel against injustice in the Dark Age of the Law. The core gameplay of the series returns as engrossing as ever, now augmented with improved 3D graphics and perspectives and a new gameplay feature in Cykes’ Mood Matrix where players must unravel conflicting emotions to cut to the truth of a witness’ testimony. It has been a while since the last Ace Attorney game, but Dual Destinies makes up for that wait by being fantastic.
8. Divekick – PS Vita
Divekick is like the RiFF RaFF of fighting game. That is said with all the love possible. In the same way Jody Highroller manages to worm his way into the hearts and minds of people without quite knowing why it has, Divekick does the same thing. At the root of it, Divekick is built on a sound and simple foundation. It is a two button fighting game based around diving and kicking, but that simplicity is deceptive yet remains its biggest draw. The inherent ease of picking up and playing Divekick makes it a fighting game literally anyone can play, but within that simplicity there is a whole wealth of depth to learn and account for. It is distilling down the best bits of a fighting game while getting rid of the elements that sometimes makes the genre impenetrable. Uncle Sensei says this game is one of 2013’s best and the next big thing in eSports.
7. Animal Crossing: New Leaf – 3DS
Animal Crossing: New Leaf is essentially a second job. There always has been an almost indescribable appeal and allure to the Animal Crossing series and New Leaf is no different. No one knows why catching bugs and fish is so satisfying, especially since that bugging and fishing is only really in service of making a profit to pay off a grinning crook who just wants to keep you in debt and his hands in your pockets. But you need those bells and getting them by any means necessary is how they have to get got. Even if getting those bells has people throwing in hundreds of hours into the game in service of building that sweet pad. It is a second job, but for some reason it is alright because that town looks real sweet and those catchphrase-spouting town folk seem to really appreciate it (even if all they ever f***ing want is more favors [sometimes the Mayor needs time to himself/herself, you know!]). New Leaf added plenty of nice tweaks to the game like making players the mayors of their own towns and more social features, so yeah, you should be putting in some hours to make your town super fancy.
6. Shin Megami Tensei IV – 3DS
This has been a trend for a while, popular Japanese RPGs have been moving main series entries to portable systems. Dragon Quest did it with the DS and Shin Megami Tensei did it with the 3DS. Shin Megami Tensei IV marks the return of the main Shin Megami series after last being seen on the PlayStation 2. It has been a long time since the series had another entry, but SMT IV was well worth the wait. The core gameplay for the SMT series returns with all of its Bufu and demon fusion appeal and it is as satisfying as ever. What made SMT IV special was its utterly insane and intricate story that deals with some crazy ideas and heady issues. There is plenty to unpack in SMT IV and plenty of hours to sink into the game, but what SMT IV managed extremely well was packing a console RPG experience into a portable system.
Stay tuned to Gaming Illustrated for Part Two of 2013’s Best Handheld Games.