2016 has been quite the trash fire of a year. With conflicts erupting all across the world, beloved celebrities dropping like flies, political divisiveness like our country hasn’t seen since the Civil War, I think everyone will be pretty happy to see 2016 into the past. Even the gaming industry hasn’t been immune to this year’s vitriol. We’ve had to watch No Man’s Sky elicit some extreme hate (some justified, some not so much) from gamers, Palmer Luckey of Oculus fame be more or less removed from the public scene after news broke that he supported white supremacist groups and VR just not taking hold like many people hoped it would. It’s been a rough one.
As they say though, adversity brings about art and 2016 has been a great example of this because although the year has been a rough one, we have gotten some amazing games in 2016. As such, I feel particularly strongly about calling out some of my favorite titles of the year that managed to rise above the rest.
I want to make sure I say a couple things though before I start with this list. One, as with every top 10 list, this is purely my opinion and a pretty arbitrary one at that. I will do my best to rank them in order but when you are comparing shooters to farm sims, there’s some gut decisions at play here. Every game on this list is great in it’s own right and deserves to be played. Two, as much I would love to have played every great game this year, I’m simply not that cool (or rich). I can’t rank games that I haven’t played and there are undoubtedly some amazing titles that I’m going to omit because I simply haven’t tried them yet. So for any titles you want to see, please, please, PLEASE, state your case for them in the comments. There were a lot more than 10 great games this year that should be played and I’d love to hear which ones meant the most to you. So, without further hubbub/ass covering, let’s go!
10. Pony Island
What? Not familiar with Pony Island? It certainly wouldn’t have been hard to miss this bizarre indie title that came out first thing in 2016 (January 4th to be exact) involving a satanic arcade machine about an adorable pony. While I greatly enjoyed my time with Pony Island, the gameplay isn’t the main draw so much as the bizarre nature of this game. The idea of being forced to play a demonic game constantly being altered by the Great Deceiver himself is enough to warrant the number 10 slot on this list. It’s stuck with me over the course of the year and right now, it won’t even cost you two dollars on Steam.
Oxenfree is a game made by former Telltale Games employees that tries to revolutionize the way players interact with a story in a video game and they damn near nail it. Instead of awkwardly forced dialogue decision moments like you see in Telltale or Bioware games, all dialogue is chosen on the fly in a completely natural way. If you don’t pick an option fast enough, people just take your silence as your response. It isn’t stressful though because, as with real life, not every dialogue choice is a life or death decision. It only took me a few minutes before I was perfectly comfortable entering the life of this teenage girl dealing with some crazy stuff both in her life and on the supernatural island she’s stuck on. If you want to try something a little experimental, Oxenfree will not disappoint.
8. Dragon Quest VII
This is kind of a weird one. As Square-Enix has been slowly making their way through the Dragon Quest series, remaking each title for modern handheld systems, everyone has been wondering how they would deal with VII when it came. Unlike Final Fantasy, the seventh Dragon Quest game is actually very much the black sheep of the franchise. The game had a greatly extended development period only to release a game chock-full of mindless fetch quests padding out the 100 hour game time onto a dying console with decidedly poor visuals. Needless to say, it didn’t sell particularly well and it marked a strong decision point for the continuation of the Dragon Quest franchise. Thankfully, they continued with the great Dragon Quest VIII but VII was still hanging out, getting odd glances from all of its friends for the last few decades.
So when it finally came time to remake VII for the 3DS, nobody knew what to expect. But boy did they nail it. Updated visuals and a much better translation have done wonders for this game. It’s still an odd RPG, opting for many short stories rather than having a clear over-arching narrative, but without all the negativity surrounding it’s initial release, it’s much easier to appreciate the good in this game.
DOOM had absolutely no right to be as good as it was. A sequel/reboot to a stagnant franchise, trying to regain the popularity it had in the early 90’s. This was set to be another Duke Nukem Forever but then, reports started to come out. DOOM was actually pretty good. It wasn’t just pretty good, it was actually really great. So, I gave another look to the game I had already written off before it released and I’m so glad that I did. DOOM manages to craft a modern first-person shooter that truly understands what was good about classic-era shooters and incorporates those elements into a modern game. It neither feels like a retread of covered ground nor a franchise that’s lost its purpose. DOOM is a masterpiece of a game that serves as both a callback to the genre’s roots as well as a hearkening towards the future.
It has been a great year for experimental games and of those, SUPERHOT is probably the best example. It takes a relatively simple mechanic, an FPS where time slows down to a snails pace when you aren’t moving, and expertly crafts what may be the world’s first puzzle-shooter, all while creating a weird but intriguing storyline around the whole thing. The game is short, only clocking in at about 3-4 hours for completion, but it was a joy to play the entire time through.
Paradox Interactive has always been an extremely niche studio, catering specifically to those looking for the crunchiest of strategy games. Games like Crusader Kings and Europa Universalis have always served their audience well but to the mainstream, they are arcane like no other studio can produce. Stellaris is the first game by Paradox that I feel has crossed into the mainstream consciousness in the best kind of way. It doesn’t sacrifice the strategic depth the company is known for but presents all the options to players in a way that makes sense, at least for most 4X gamers. I’m not going to lie and say this game is accessibility at its finest but for those fans of games like Master of Orion or Civilization that have always been scared off by Paradox’s games, Stellaris is made just for you.
Remember when we were all excited for No Man’s Sky? I know that I was excited to be able to travel space and explore new worlds, find interesting alien species to talk to and interact with, maybe even find some environmental stories telling interesting tales about life on these planets. I would be able to colonize different planets and build up a base all while collecting minerals and upgrading my equipment and ship. I may even be able to do all of this with friends! Man, too bad we never got that No Man’s Sky… Good thing we got Starbound which is EXACTLY THAT GAME! If you were one of the many people who felt burned by No Man’s Sky, go buy Starbound right now. It is exactly the game you wanted No Man’s Sky to be without all the disappointment.
3. Civilization VI
The Civilization series has always been a mainstay of top 10 lists throughout the years but Civ VI is an especially notable entry in the series. While it may not be as crunchy as the previously mentioned Stellaris, Civilization VI brings 4X games to the masses and it does so with a finesse rarely demonstrated in the games industry. To be able to create a 4X game that anyone with board game experience can jump into and understand is impressive. On top of the accessibility, Civilization VI brings in several new, much needed features into the genre. The high point, for me at least, is the Eureka system, which rewards your actions with bonuses towards learning new, related technologies. I’ve always felt that the next step for 4X games needs to be organic technology advancement and the Eureka system is the first system I’ve seen in a game that seems to be leading down that path.
2. The Witness
Back when Braid had first come out on the Xbox Live Arcade, Jonathan Blow was basically an overnight celebrity. The idea of making a game independently was still pretty new then and Braid represented the first real jump into making indie games a relevant part of the gaming industry. While he may not have been the most personable video game personality, his work was well respected and everyone, myself included, eagerly awaited the follow-up, The Witness. First announced back in 2009, I remember following his development blog with an eagerness I hadn’t felt in years. The idea of a modern day Myst made by someone like Jonathan Blow was so exciting but as the years went on, I lost faith that it was ever going to see the light of day.
But then, on January 26th, it actually happened and The Witness was released. I bought the game immediately and played it with only the remnants of the expectations I once held for the title. It was everything I had hoped it could be and more. The Witness is a title unlike any I have ever played and to explain why it is so great would be a disservice to anyone reading this who hasn’t tried it. The game won’t be for everyone, that’s for certain. But if you enjoy puzzles on both a grand and small scale and don’t mind spending some real thought on a game, The Witness will not let you down.
1. Stardew Valley
This year has been filled with great games but none of them grabbed me and held on like Stardew Valley. While it was in development for five years and had a lot of people very hyped, I had never heard of it prior to its release back in February. The idea of a modern, indie Harvest Moon game was intriguing though and the $15 entry was low enough that I was willing to give it a try.
I have to say, if you have even the slightest interest in games like Harvest Moon, Rune Factory or Animal Crossing, you have to try Stardew Valley. While it isn’t perfect, it is the best version of those types of games that you could possibly hope for in 2016. Not only is it a beautifully crafted game made from the best elements of all those games as well as games like Terraria and Minecraft but it is still being updated with significant and free content patches plus the modding community is alive and well making all sorts of cool mods for the game. The amount of time I have happily sunk into Stardew Valley has been incredible but even more so is the fact that I still find myself constantly being drawn back to check on my farm almost a year later. As such, Stardew Valley wins my game of the year of 2016.
So, that’s my list but there are plenty of games I haven’t played from this year! Games like Overcooked, Hyper Light Drifter, Owlboy, Obduction, Final Fantasy XV, Deus Ex: Mankind Divided, Titanfall 2 and many more still call to me. Which games do you say belong on this list? Any sleeper hits that just need to be played? Let me know in the comments and I’ll see you all back here in 2017!