One more! Like the other Best Of lists I put together (for books and for movies/TV, respectively), these aren’t necessarily games that were released in 2016, but ones I played during the year. That said, six of these ten did in fact come out in 2016, and the other four are all 2015 releases, so it’s about as recent as a non-professional gamer like myself could pull off.
What I kept remarking on the whole time I was playing Firewatch—besides how gorgeous the Shoshone National Forest is in this game, with a color palette and visual layering that made me spend more time than was necessary just looking around the place—is how easy it would have been for this game to be bad. For a game to hinge so heavily on its narrative, not only does that narrative need to be good, but the rest of the game needs to be functional without getting in the way; a hard line to walk, but Firewatch does it brilliantly with efficient control and menu options, a navigation method that could be as easy or as natural as you prefer (I highly recommend making sure the “you are here” icon on the map is disabled, so you can find your way through the Forest via landmarks and a manual map, which is a huge part of the game’s big-empty allure), and a well-paced story (both in plot and forest exploration). The voice acting is terrific, the narratives concerns far-reaching (while remaining rooted in the human, everyday concerns of Henry and Delilah), and the experience has a resonance that carries on beyond the final screens.
My go-to mobile game of the year, before Reigns and Pokémon Go and Super Mario Run. The conceit is simple—a platformer that explores the only cardinal direction left untouched—but the execution is outstanding. A perfect subway-ride/waiting room game that takes 3-5 minutes in most runs (before you get good and make it to later stages), takes no explanation but has room for the player to grow into a jetboot-stomping, wall-kicking demolisher with practice and timing.
- Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask 3D
Is this more or less the same game that came out for the Nintendo 64 in 2000? Yep. Did the addition of 3D elements make the game any better? Not really (I played with 3D off). So why is this on here? The game is just that good, that weird, and this 3DS version makes a number of smart improvements, some graphical, some mechanical, that don’t change the game but sharpen it. For a series so heavily marketed towards kids (in early editions) and (now) all-ages audiences, Majora’s Mask is decidedly offbeat, mature, and deep. It explores themes of grief, fear, and mortality that flew over my head when I was younger and played it, but now resonate deeply. The characters in Termina are all staring a world-ending apocalypse (via the moon crashing into the planet) right in the face, and they react in varying, interesting ways. Add to this sense of doom the forced impermanence the game imposes on the player through the repeated three-day cycle and you have an existentialism that is rare in games even today, much less in 2000.
No matter all of the time you spend helping or befriending people in Clock Town and its surrounding environs, the game refuses to allow you to forget that your impact is inconsequential; before long, you must reset time and all of these positive steps and friendships are inevitably undone. This is a challenging way to play the game, both mechanically and emotionally, but there is an absolute kind of poetry in these cycles that only vary in accordance with the wind caused by the player’s movements through them.
Coming out three years after the Kyoto Protocol, which the US famously did not sign in 1997, it’s also a pretty strong rebuke of the planet’s indifference to climate change, but you didn’t hear that from me.
- Pokémon Sun/Moon
Cute monsters aside, the main entries in the Pokémon franchise are always well-polished, expansive RPGs that build out the universe of monsters and regions and add a handful of features that generally aim to make collecting and training easier. Occasionally Game Freak adds a new mode to flesh out the games’ campaigns or add replay value. Sun and Moon do a lot of the same but also change quite a surprising amount of the formula that’s been a given for the last 20 years and features some of the more substantial additions that the series has seen. It’s a good entry point for newcomers to the series (some of the minor changes make it a lot more forgiving to new trainers), but has a lot to offer the veterans as well. It’s also the most visually impressive and deep entry to date. Progress in Pokémon games is incremental, but around now it’s really adding up to something quite impressive.
Simultaneously a love letter to early 8- and 16-bit RPGs and a subversion of the conventions those games began, Undertale is not only clever in its elevator pitch (a game where killing the monsters is not necessarily ideal and opens up new paths), but around the edges it’s one of the most polished, surprising, and complete games in a long time. There are multiple endings and subplots in the game. There are little interactions and moments that you can easily walk by without noticing, alternate routes for an objective and many, many little secrets and winks. Its combat system is so unique and effective it’s ridiculous how simple and easy to grasp it is. Undertale’s music is true to its early gaming roots, and remarkable; it really help sells the games emotional moments, and at other times is just energetic or catchy, whatever the game calls for—this one of the best composed games I can think of.
It’s also both tender and hilarious and brutal in turns. Undertale is unabashedly an emotional experience. Toby Fox has an outstanding knack for emotion, and both the dialogue and music of the game echo this core. The drawings range from silly to more silly to absurd, but there’s always an idiosyncrasy and a factor of human depth that breaks through in the more important ones when it matters. No wonder this game made such noise in the community when it came out; it’s an achievement on nearly every front.
- Hyper Light Drifter
To fully appreciate how gorgeous this game is, you need to see it in motion—these gifs are a start, but honestly the effect loses a lot when it’s not flowing in front of you. And the game within is certainly great—fast, fun action that bounces back and forth between being a bringer of destruction and eking out a victory against some of the most brutal bosses in recent memory—but what makes this game exceptional is the aesthetic, for sure.
Pixelated but somehow lush, the tone and color of Hyper Light Drifter made the game like a feast. Add a lack of dialogue and a plot that is only hinted at (but no less world-altering) makes for a game that engages the player in a visual-emotional way that no other game did this year. Think of it like a visual symphony.
Who would have thought that the answer to first-person-shooter malaise would be…more? And “more” is the operative word that underpins Doom. It’s excessive, fast, stupid enjoyment. The game wants you to dive into the battles and not back up once you’re in—the only way is through, and it’s a hell of a lot of fun (pun intended). It does away with more storyline than is needed (hint: it’s not much), revels in over-the-top action, and calls back to the earliest shooters like the original Doom without sacrificing the advances in gameplay and technology developed since. Somehow, this all works for Doom. Doesn’t hurt that the game’s visual polish is exceptional, either. The multiplayer is okay—it feels like early aughts-eras multiplayer in both the good and bad ways—but for players like me that prefer a single-player experience more often than not, the campaign is excellent (if a couple stages too long), has a great build and is satisfying in quick, fiery bursts.
- Pocket Card Jockey
Game Freak put out their best game in years in 2016, and it wasn’t Pokémon Sun/Moon (though, yeah, those were good. See #7). Surprisingly, this is the game I spent the most time on in 2016. No joke. Something about the combination of good ol’ fashioned solitaire and a horse-race with light RPG elements just worked and hooked me. And to be fair, the game is actually weirder mechanically than that description. It still works. (The minimal “plot” is weirder still, but again, nothing can stop me from enjoying the core mechanics of this one.) It’s a darn near perfect little game, and an absolute surprise. There’s no better way to enjoy a mobile game for far less than full sticker price (it’ll run you just $6.99 on the 3DS eShop).
- Life is Strange
What to say about Life is Strange that hasn’t been said a thousand times before? This is the “choose-your-own-path” type of experience, perfected. While the early episodes suffer from the occasional clunky dialogue and the more-regular odd mouth movements, those are really the only things negative I can say about Life is Strange (and both improve as the series goes on, particularly the former). Everything else is sparkling. The visuals, the characters, the agency the player is given (and notably, is taken away at key moments), the story’s blend of surrealism and small-town ennui; it’s all remarkable, and added up to one of the most emotionally fulfilling interactive experiences you could ask for. This is another great one to share with those that don’t think video games are for them; you don’t need to have lightning-fast reflexes or a detailed knowledge of gaming history and tropes to enjoy Life is Strange; just a willingness to invest in the characters and experience something out of the ordinary.
For a short, dialogue-free game with a plot that is vague at best, Inside has incredible staying power. All of the intangibles that make for a compelling piece of art are in full force here. Visually arresting, atmospheric, and thematically resonant, Inside is a marvel. I don’t want to say much more about what actually happens in the game, because how that unfolds (and the player’s take on it as it does) is a key component of what makes this game work so well.
What I will say is that Inside does something remarkable: it builds a unique visual language that teaches players how to progress, using cues such as color, lighting, camera angles, and recurring objects to develop a grammar that the player is schooled in and can then use to parse puzzles as the game goes on—there are no written words past the title screen in this one. These all fit seamlessly into the world that inhabits Inside, adding to the fully-engrossing atmosphere that leaks out of the screen and into the player. There is such a wealth of details that would be easy to overlook in Inside, but the game rewards careful attention and full suspension of disbelief. This one has stayed with me even months after putting it down, even though I still have a limited idea of what on earth was going on. If you play one game in the next year, Inside should be it.
Honorable mentions: Rocket League, Shovel Knight/Plague of Shadows, Virginia, Bioshock 2/Minerva’s Den (via the Bioshock Collection), Jackbox Party Pack 3, Reigns
Games that might have made the list if I had actually gotten around to playing them this year: The Witness, Overwatch, Titanfall 2