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2023 has already brought plenty of surprises for video game fans

JUANA SUMMERS, HOST:

It is a great time to be someone who loves to play video games.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "FIRE EMBLEM ENGAGE")

BRANDON MCINNIS: (As Alear) The time has come. Now, as one...

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #1: (As character) That's it. The gloves are coming off.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #2: (As character) This may have been a bad idea.

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #3: (As character) I suppose we'll find out.

SUMMERS: 2023 has already brought just a ton of surprises, from long-anticipated blockbusters to some completely unexpected hits. NPR staffers have been playing all of these games.

And here to break it down for us is James Mastromarino, who edits gaming coverage for NPR. Hey there.

JAMES MASTROMARINO, BYLINE: Hi there.

SUMMERS: So this has already just been a really unusual year in gaming. I mean, some of the hottest titles this year came as a total surprise. I'm thinking of Hi-Fi RUSH, which I heard was kept secret until it launched in late July.

MASTROMARINO: Yeah, that's right. It came as a complete surprise and was really a hit. And that's because it's an unusual blend. It is a rhythm-based action game. So you play as this character who somehow ends up with an old-school MP3 player in his chest, and he's able to perform astounding feats so long as he does it on the beat because the whole game is bopping to the soundtrack.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "HI-FI RUSH")

ROBBIE DAYMOND: (As Chai) Bring it on.

MASTROMARINO: It's just a breath of fresh air. And it's not the only surprise hit. There was also Metroid Prime Remastered, which Nintendo surprised us with.

SUMMERS: Yeah, Nintendo is having a really incredible year. I mean, there's a huge new Zelda game that's coming out in a couple months. And I think we've talked about before - I am a big Fire Emblem fan, and there's a new game there. And there's also some fun coming in the Kirby franchise. What do you think is worth checking out?

MASTROMARINO: Well, I think they both are. Fire Emblem Engage is the newest in that franchise. It's just really great combat, beautifully animated. Don't go looking for a deep story, though. You won't find it here. The bad guys are bad. Friendship triumphs over all, et cetera.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "FIRE EMBLEM ENGAGE")

MCINNIS: (As Alear) The breaking of bonds can hurt, but when the bond is reforged, it comes back as strong as ever.

MASTROMARINO: But speaking of friendship, Kirby Return To Dream Land Deluxe is an exceptional game for four players and for families. It's great to just wander around this wonderful, cute world and to play these fantastic competitive mini games that come attached with it.

SUMMERS: So if we're talking about games of the year, we've got to talk about the game Hogwarts Legacy. There's been just a ton of controversy surrounding it. And Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling, she's, over the years, made a number of offensive remarks about transgender people. And in Scotland, where she lives, she's also opposed transgender rights legislation. And "Harry Potter" fans, well, they've really had to grapple with this. But what's the deal with the game?

MASTROMARINO: Yeah. So the deal is that it was hotly anticipated. It broke pre-sales records. But as you mentioned, this controversy just won't let up because while J.K. Rowling was not directly involved in the game's production, she does stand to make money off of it, and that's led to calls for a boycott. Meanwhile, the game itself, well, it really depends who you are. On the one hand, it offers this really beautiful version of Hogwarts, one that fans have been clamoring for. You get to wander the halls, learn spells.

(SOUNDBITE OF VIDEO GAME, "HOGWARTS LEGACY")

UNIDENTIFIED VOICE ACTOR #4: (As Madam Hooch) For those who need a refresher, step up to your broom. Say, up.

MASTROMARINO: It's also more diverse than this franchise has ever been. It's got plenty of people of color, the series' first transgender character, though critics would say that she was shoehorned in in a response to the criticism. But whether this world still has any magic left in it after years of controversies, that's really up to the player to decide.

SUMMERS: And quickly, before we let you go, one thing I would love to talk about is just the world of indie games, where I have been finding just a lot of enjoyment over the last few years. Any games that you and other NPR staffers think I should pick up to play?

MASTROMARINO: One was A Space For The Unbound. It's an Indonesian slice-of-life game. Another - SEASON: A Letter To The Future is this beautiful bicycling and photography game. There's this contemplative dialogue throughout it. It's like reading a really chilled out N.K. Jemisin novel.

SUMMERS: All right. We'll have to check those out. That was NPR's James Mastromarino. Thank you.

MASTROMARINO: Thank you, Juana.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLUE GAME CLASSICS' "SUPER MARIO BROS THEME") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juana Summers is a political correspondent for NPR covering race, justice and politics. She has covered politics since 2010 for publications including Politico, CNN and The Associated Press. She got her start in public radio at KBIA in Columbia, Mo., and also previously covered Congress for NPR.
James Perkins Mastromarino
James Perkins Mastromarino is Here & Now's Washington, D.C.-based producer. He works with NPR's newsroom on a daily whirlwind of topics that range from Congress to TV dramas to outer space. Mastromarino also edits NPR's Join the Game and reports on gaming for daily shows like All Things Considered and Morning Edition.
Kai McNamee