If you’re reading this, congratulations. You survived 2016’s clutches.
So…a lot about this year was…not great. But in between a lot of chaotic garbage, video games stayed pretty darn good…kind of. I think it’s one of the least memorable of recent years, but the few things that hit for me hit very, very hard. So let’s talk about those heavy hitters and send 2016 on its way for good.
I still haven’t devoted the kind of time to Stardew Valley that I think it deserves. Imagine if Animal Crossing were more gamified, and if Harvest Moon was a game anyone had ever actually played (I kid!) and that about sums what you’ll get yourself into while you tend to this little town in the middle of nowhere.
I really enjoyed Inside, and I think it’s a masterwork that Playdead could have only pulled off by honing their strengths with Limbo. But, other than the spectacular opening sequence and ending, the rest of the game just didn’t stick with me the way I expected it to. After taking the standard deep dive into forums and podcasts about interpretations of the game’s story a week after release…I just didn’t think about it anymore. It didn’t stay on my mind the way others on this list have, and I’m not quite sure why. This one’s a solid #11 and deserves to be played, regardless of where you find it on this or anyone else’s list.
#10 – Pony Island
I always wish for more weird meta things like this. Luckily, 2016 gave me enough to keep me satisfied for a while. Pony Island takes place with you, a player of a game, logging into a computer and getting sucked into a plot crafted by the devil. Yep. You’ll fight demons in some pretty great puzzle games and a weird platformer about a pony. It’s hard to label what exactly Pony Island is, because nothing like it exists. Escape a game within a game, and then maybe from another game after that. Trust me, you just need to see it for yourself.
#09 – Hyper Light Drifter
What if a Zelda game had genuinely thrilling combat to go alongside its fantastical world design? It would be called Hyper Light Drifter. It’s a very solid world to explore filled with secrets and new guns to shoot, with a Doom (2016) style combat system about making use of everything in your arsenal to maximize your odds of survival. Did I mention it’s gorgeous?
#08 – Hitman
Play Hitman with your friends and enjoy the best comedy game of the year. I don’t think I’ve ever set down to play Hitman and walked away without a story to tell. Whether I’m goofing around just to see what might happen, or I’m legitimately (but poorly) trying to assassinate a target, something goes horribly, horribly wrong. The base concept of Hitman (have one tightly designed area with an objective and and infinite ways to complete it) has been one of my favorites in gaming, but past entries have been hampered by bad controls and visible seams. This year’s Hitman hides those seams flawlessly all while giving the most intuitive controls the series could want. With Season One wrapping up and Season Two on the horizon, I hope we’re just getting started.
#07 – Doom
The last time I loved a first-person shooter was Resistance 3 back in 2011. Borderlands 2 was pretty good, Wolfenstein: The New Order was pretty good, but they weren’t even competing on the same level as Insomniac’s magnum opus. Resistance 3 is my favorite FPS of all time, and until now nothing has even come close. Doom is back.
Always sprinting, quick double jumps, no reloading. Doom wants you to have a good time while blasting everything to…ugh…hell. Demons run at you and you take them down. That’s what Doom is. That’s what Doom was. That’s what Doom should be. The massive number of weapons and unique upgrades for each of them keep you coming back, and keep you searching the maps for platforming challenges in order to get more upgrades. Everything feeds back into itself perfectly. You kill until you run out of ammo, chainsaw a dude to get more bullets (because that’s just how things work), shoot more until you’re about to die and then rip a guy’s arms off and steal his HP, manage to kill everything, breathe, then explore a now non-hostile map for secrets and goodies. Then repeat. I lost my save twice due to technical issues and didn’t care either time. I want to do it all again and again.
#06 – Dark Souls III
From Software knows how to make a damn video game. Which makes it a little frustrating when the last couple have made me feel like somewhere along the way…maybe they forgot. Demon’s Souls, Dark Souls, and Dark Souls II are among my favorite video games ever made. Bloodborne and Dark Souls III are not. When trying to remember if even Dark Souls II was really as good as I remembered it, I compared the boss and area lists from it with Dark Souls III. I had significant memories tied to many of each from the second Dark Souls. This third one though? Not so much.
It’s definitely a solid game throughout, but it really feels like a by-the-numbers From Software game in so many ways that it rarely stands out above anything from the rest of the series. As I wrote in my first piece about Dark Souls III, I still think it stands as the weakest collection of areas and bosses in the entire series. But a middling Souls game is still a Souls game, and that’s what’s so exhausting to express. I love everything about the exploration, the fights, the discussions with friends about “Wow did you find ‘x’?” But the payoffs from this game felt so diminished from games past. Hey From, can we take a year or two off to get priorities in order? Thanks!
#05 – Monster Hunter Generations
I’M SORRY I SNUBBED YOU MONSTER HUNTER 4 ULTIMATE.
Monster Hunter 4 Ultimate grabbed me a lot, but didn’t make its way onto my Game of the Year list in 2014. It probably should have. But all is right with the world, because Generations is even better. There are tons of huge bosses to take down, all with unique strategies and loot to discover. You’ll spend hours perfecting a run at a giant crab until you take it down in record time, and then move onto the same skill level except with GIANT INVISIBLE CHAMELEONS AND BOUNCING RUBBER SHARKS. Monster Hunter is rad as hell, and I’m ready for next year’s to kill an entire month of my game time all over again.
#04 – SUPERHOT
Everything previous to SUPERHOT on this list has been in a state of flux, but these top 4 have been solid since they found their spot. SUPERHOT ain’t going nowhere.
I wrote the following after playing the the SUPERHOT game jam demo in September of 2013: “If a bit more depth were added to the experience, SUPERHOT could be something really special.”
Well, they did it.
[I just left to play SUPERHOT for 30 minutes and am back now.]
Time moves when you move. You recreate every good action movie sequence in slow motion. You punch a dude, take his gun out of the air, and shoot him in the head with it.
Just go play SUPERHOT.
#03 – The Witness
Wow. For better or worse, that’s what stayed in my mind from beginning to end of The Witness. The end being whenever I inevitably gave up, because I’m pretty sure no mortal could ever solve the final puzzles of that game. But just…wow. The world is so well defined and beautiful, and the puzzles that are immaculately designed into it boggle my brain. How does this game even exist? If any one object in The Witness was not placed exactly where it ended up, multiple puzzles would end up broken. The attention to detail is stressful to think about crafting, and still stressful when you’re the one uncovering the depths of it.
When I saw that those weird grid-based line puzzles were the primary interaction with the game, I was worried that my seven year wait for the follow up to Braid would end in disappointment. But as soon as you realize that those puzzles are only a means of interacting with the puzzles you’re really solving, the jig is up and the whole game is blown wide open. The Witness is a remarkable accomplishment in game design, and I hope I’m never forced to sit down and finish it because probably 30% of it goes completely over my head. But when it pushes you right to your breaking point and you FINALLY end up solving that awful puzzle? Man, oh man, The Witness delivers. I have no idea how a team of any number of people made this thing, and it sucks because I don’t know if we’ll ever see anything like it again. It’s a work of art.
#02 – Space Pirate Trainer (and VR)
I’m cheating a bit with this spot, but when I think of 2016 in gaming, I’ll think about the year that nearly everyone I know got to see what virtual reality was for the first time. We felt the first steps into some real cool futury stuff. Riding the rollar coasters and getting jump-scared in Until Dawn VR, being attacked by the shark in that PSVR demo, and creating 3D models in TiltBrush, there’s some crazy stuff we can do now that seems like it shouldn’t be able to exist. Waving to and chatting up strangers in Rec Room is just as fun as going out onto the virtual paintball obstacle course with them. All of these desrve to be mentioned, because combined, they’re some of the most fun I’ve had all year. But in terms of showing off what video games can be in this new world of VR, Space Pirate Trainer takes the cake, for me at least.
Space Pirate Trainer is a pretty simple to grasp shooting gallery. You’re on a circular platform in space and robots fly at you. You blow up those robots. It’s awesome. Your equipped with a varied arsenel of guns, grenade launchers, whips, and you get to feel like you’re blasting drones with them while jumping around your living room. What elevates it beyond the other 9,999 shooting galleries on Steam is how many ways you can go about getting the high score, and how addicting that leaderboard chase ends up being. With so many weapons to use, and two hands to use any combination of them in, finding the one thing that works perfectly for you is such a fun thing to try. I’m partial to either dual grenade launchers, or one grenade launcher with a pistol sidearm, but I’ve tried tons of combinations and all of them are worth trying to master. Timing out when and where to use your single use power ups becomes part of the leaderboard meta game, and I live for that stuff. It’s great that Space Pirate Trainer is just a super fun game to play, but how fluid all of the VR movements are, how good the soundtrack is, and how satisfying it will always be to pull a trigger on a virtual gun are the icing that makes it so tasty. Space Pirate Trainer was my introduction to Virtual Reality, and I’ll never forget the first time I got to try it. It’s nice, though, that every time afterwards was equally as cool.
#01 – Pokemon GO
My game of the year doesn’t exist anymore. I’m used to things like that happening, but this one was even more fickle than usual. I miss playing RuneScape back before the big Runescape 3 update and everything got weird and different. I miss playing Halo 3 and Gears of War 2 with friends in high school that I don’t see much anymore. I miss the first month of Pokemon GO.
The beginning of Pokemon GO was a certifiable phenomenon. I have never seen a video game impact that many people in that kind of way in my lifetime. I don’t think it’s ever happened before. I met so many people just from walking around at a local park or down the street, because everyone was doing the exact same thing: finding Pokemon in real life. There are multiple reasons that the game isn’t as fun anymore. One, I’ve nearly finished the current Pokedex so I’m almost out of reasons to boot up the app. Two, the main draw for me was to have a bunch of friends out hunting together, and everyone either has what they need or are just bored of it by this point.
But let’s keep talking about that first month. Let’s talk about getting a group of friends and heading to the riverfront every night where hundreds of people were gathered who all had the same interest. The parks we went into probably a bit too late at night to maybe stumble upon something rare, and then wait…wait, is that a Gyarados? (Gaming moment of the year right there, by the way.) Calling a friend to say “oh my god there’s a Ponyta get over here right now” or going out together on the night of the Halloween event to see four million Gastlys and Cubones hilariously chilling in the Walmart parking lot. Hanging out at a casino and realizing there’s a Dratini nest outside and then absolutely booking it out of that money trap for the rest of the night to catch dragon worms. There was a lot of fun to be had in Pokemon GO. But a lot of that fun is based solely on how fun you think it is to travel around with friends playing a game that has very little fun actually built into its mechanics. I think if you started playing it today with a bunch of people who hadn’t tried it yet, you would be able to recreate a lot of what that first month entailed. But you wouldn’t get yelled at by other players who were driving past and knew exactly what you were doing and wanted you to know that they were to. You wouldn’t go to the riverfront and see people selling Pokemon bumper stickers out of their car or an ice cream van parked there making baaaaaank selling Pokemon Popsicles. But you still would probably have some fun, as long as you don’t rely on the game itself to provide it.