Note: I wrote this thing for a Discord server, but maybe it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to keep it locked away, so I’m just publishing it here without any edits (unless I reread this and later change my mind). There are some omissions I later thought of, I would have written this all better if it hadn’t been for a one-off Discord post, so and and so forth, but ultimately: who cares.

Yet another year has gone by. Crazy stuff, huh. I feel like I no longer process any information; everything just washes over me. What happened this year? Who the hell knows, couldn’t tell you. I don’t know I’ve played a single game released this year so instead you’ll get a list of some things I’ve played and liked this year. Whatever. The SMW romhacks are actually from this year. That’s good enough.

7. The Mansion of Hidden Souls, System Sacom (Sega Saturn)

A sequel to the Sega/Mega CD FMV game of basically the same name. Like that game, here you move about a mansion that makes people turn into butterflies, solve some extremely basic puzzles, and get to the ending within a few hours. As you investigate the mansion’s goings on you learn the things that drew its residents there in the first place: a troubled life of poverty, inattentive parents, a ceaseless desire to see more of the world, and so on. Touching when it wants to be, the ending kind of biffs it however.

6. Dysphoria, shovda (SMW romhack)

The rare SMW romhack that takes a somber tone, here explicitly talking about shovda’s own experiences with gender dysphoria. I don’t exactly have dysphoria in that exact way (listen even I hardly understand its full nature), but it’s deeply affecting nevertheless and one of the only romhacks to make me tear up a whole lot. The level design itself is rather simple and thematically consistent, with each level revolving around the need to navigate your way through a single hardship.

5. Lunacy, System Sacom (Sega Saturn)

Fucking batshit wild FMV game that improves on basically everything System Sacom tried in the Mansion of Hidden Souls games. Bigger in scope, better in story and gameplay (if you want to call it that). One of the antagonists always begins conversations with the player character by saying “Hiya, stupid”, which is really fucking funny. Amazing game. Just don’t pay $350 for a real copy or whatever the fuck it’s going for these days.

4. Cruelty Squad, Consumer Softproducts (PC)

Legitimately one of the biggest achievements in modern video games. As a shooter, it brings to mind the more open-ended vibes of 00s-era PC FPSes. Aesthetically it is daring and abrasive in a way that very few games have dared to try, and one that couldn’t suit our gig-based bullshit society any better.

3. Boku no Natsuyasumi 2, Millennium Kitchen (PS2)

I guess this one sort of counts as a 2023 release thanks to the comprehensive translation efforts by Hilltop. Set in 70s Japan, the player travels by boat to a small island to live with his aunt and uncle for a month of summer vacation. Excellent carefree childhood vibes intertwined with an underlying melancholy permeating throughout. I haven’t finished it yet so I don’t feel fully qualified to rank it, but I just know.

2. Brave New World 2, derv82 (SMW romhack)

Truly joyful hack that showcases the beautiful ways the Super Mario World engine can do some real weird (and very unintended) shit. Unlike a lot of similar hacks that require encyclopedic knowledge of glitches and bugs, Brave New World 2 has a genius hint system that keeps the hack accessible and fun, while still giving the player the feeling of discovery in the way that, say, watching clear videos does not. Easily one of my favorite romhacks.

1. Iblard: Laputa no Kaeru Machi, System Sacom (Sony PlayStation)

Many have been calling 2023 The Year of System Sacom, and here is where it all culminates.

Iblard is an adventure game using Naohisa Inoue’s fantastical “Iblard” series of paintings as a source material. Real Studio Ghibli heads may recognize his work from the backgrounds of Whisper of the Heart, or some other more shortform works I don’t think were ever disseminated beyond the Ghibli Museum.

Unlike System Sacom’s FMV games, Iblard has full 3D environments that are freely navigable. As you might expect of a PlayStation 1 game without analog controls, it’s a little bit rough to control, but nothing too intense is expected from the player so it’s not an issue. Think Myst but not bullshit, or maybe a more structured LSD: Dream Emulator.

But what really makes Iblard work is its theme: as the player you are tasked with clearing the world of these little elephant looking guys called Megezo that really fuck everyone up. Most of the time we do this by shooing them away with a broom. Just sweeping them aside. What we soon realize is that the Megezo are the physical manifestations of our own self-doubt, and maybe the healthy way to deal with “all that shit” is a route of acknowledgement rather than outright dismissal. As a person who’s never liked a single thing I’ve ever done in my life, it’s a theme that resonates deep. I sincerely wish there were more games that could make me feel in the way Iblard did. A Top 5 game of all-time for me.