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2016 is finally crawling on its hands and knees to an end, and that means it’s time for everyone’s favorite wrap-up of which games were the best in this otherwise scorched wasteland of a year. As a newly christened games writer, I did my best to play everything I could get my hands on, but as a college student, my wallet had other ideas. So while I didn’t get to play all the big titles like Titanfall 2, Hitman, or Pokemon, I’ve still managed to cook up a list of 10 pretty solid games that I enjoyed- and you might too.
Some solid cuts that didn’t make the list include the dystopian train-based title The Final Station, a game which I thoroughly enjoyed but unfortunately didn’t play enough of to feel comfortable including on this list. Also on there is the Pikmin-inspired furry riot simulator Anarcute, which is incredibly fun but not quite Top 10 material. Pour one out as well for all the games which have been released after I have time to play them, like the absurd free-to-play Suda title Let It Die and the long-awaited The Last Guardian, both of which seem precisely like my kind of thing, but come a little too late for me to dive into. There’s always next year.
10. Duke Nukem 3D: World Tour
I will maintain until my dying day that Duke Nukem 3D is a fun game. However, World Tour, which was released as a 20th anniversary boon in the wake of Megaton Edition’s widespread removal, is not a particularly good release. Despite HD graphics, improved UIs, save functions, and new levels (all of which are great), World Tour fell disappointingly flat of the comprehensive and high-quality Duke package that was Megaton Edition, with half the content and about twice the price.
So why then, did World Tour make it onto my Game of the Year list, or much less deserve to be mentioned anywhere near these hallowed halls intended for quality games? It’s because of the sick, adolescent glee/lizard brain enjoyment that rolled over me every time I heard Jon St. John utter “damn, I don’t have time to play with myself,” or any number of Duke’s other puerile lines re-recorded in crisp HD 320kbps. This isn’t even to mention that the other various additions and improvements legitimately work out for the better too. If World Tour had included all of Duke’s expansion packs, it would be perfect; but alas, not even the King can have everything.
9. Devil Daggers
This year was a bounty for games with dark fantasy and quasi-Satanic imagery, as later entries will prove. However, none of them managed to be so cold sweat-inducing with so little as was Devil Daggers. Aside from the eldritch skeleton nightmares which populate the game, Devil Daggers has a tendency to inspire sheer split-second terror through its simple “try not to die” gameplay. Anxiety breeds as floating horrors come at you ceaselessly, with even more imposing foes often lurking in the murky darkness just out of sight. The audio design layers on the unease as well, hitting you with sounds such as a constant industrial rumbling and the shrieks, growls, and chatters of the demonic forces.
Since it moves at a breakneck pace, I found Devil Daggers to be one of the best kinds of permadeath games: one in which I never got too frustrated at my deaths and was always ready to slam the restart key just one more time. Thanks to its haunting audio-visual design and rinse-and-repeat gameplay, Devil Daggers is altogether ruthlessly addicting, incredibly harrowing, and immensely unforgettable for a game of its kind.
ZAP! Shout-out to Chooch’s own Michael for convincing me to read a fantasy novel disguised as a video game. But really though, I loved the way that Sorcery! manages to meld classic fantasy sentiments with a more modern method of conveyance. It’s in part because the game is lifted from the 1980s “adventure gamebooks” of the same name by Steve Jackson, so the vintage sensibility is no act. This means that for anyone who loves, or even just likes fantasy, Sorcery! is a time capsule of a game, with words of the past repackaged for a contemporary audience. And it’s not just about the game’s storybook presentation, because Sorcery! is a hell of a lot of fun too. I found myself reliving the days of pouring over Choose Your Own Adventure books while playing Sorcery!, except this game is maybe a little more cohesive than, say, CYOA #71: Space Vampire.
By keeping the gameplay simple enough to pick up immediately but strategic enough to require a little thought, Sorcery! stays engaging throughout. Even when the narrative becomes more complex, the game still feels light and enjoyably casual, and it remains something that could be enjoyed by literally anyone, regardless of skill set. Best enjoyed on a spring day, sitting next to an open window and drinking something out of a Medieval Times mug.
7. Enter The Gungeon
Another entry into the top-down, fast-paced, item-based, retro-graphic roguelike genre that spawned Binding of Isaac and Nuclear Throne, Enter The Gungeon is a wonderful synthesis of what makes these kinds of games good. While some of these games (I’m looking at you, Isaac) often feel as though player success is thrown to the whim of whatever random items you receive, Gungeon achieves a sweet-spot of drooling over cool guns and relying on actual player skill for success. The game throws a couple of neat mechanics at you- chief of which, a dodge roll that grants a few frames of invulnerability- and sends you on your merry way. What follows is a descent into a randomized, bullet-hell dungeon, which, despite feeling brutal, also feels conquerable.
Almost more so than any game in this genre before it, Gungeon truly feels as though the player is in full control and manages to succeed despite the random generation, not thanks to it. It’s a fast-paced and stylish game that’s a lot of fun, and it makes me feel like I could reasonably manage with some tougher bullet hell games…even though I know that’ll never happen. You’ve got to have skills to pay the bills in Gungeon, and I can really respect that.
6. Darkest Dungeon
A second “-ungeon” game! From what I remember, Darkest Dungeon was the first game I played this year, and it’s managed to stick with me throughout. As mentioned, 2016 was a good year for games with dark aesthetics, and Darkest Dungeon might be the one that stands out the most. Even when I feel like the style might be too derivative of certain comics, the grim, gothic fairytale look of Darkest Dungeon is so unified and works so well that I’m willing to accept it on its own terms. Of course, Darkest Dungeon has to shine through on its gameplay as well, and it does.
By applying conventions of the Lovecraftian literature from which it takes inspiration to a role-playing system, Darkest Dungeon creates truly unique mechanic systems based on terror and trauma, which both reinforce the game’s brooding atmosphere and slather on a whole new layer of difficulty. The inherently flawed nature of the expendable party characters really hooked me, and their various conditions and vices which affect gameplay are another wonderful example of a mechanic as storytelling. It all gels together to create a game which balances an oppressive atmosphere with, you know, actually being fun. Even when my characters were being brutalized by cultists or fish-people, I never got frustrated with Darkest Dungeon– it wears its challenge well.
5. Dark Souls III
Dark. Dark dark dark. Dark Souls 3? Absolutely. On release, I had a creeping feeling that Dark Souls 3 might just be “more of the same.” And technically, it is, but Dark Souls 3 manages to fine-tune the formula and gameplay of the Souls series in a method that’s immensely satisfying; cherry-picking the best mechanics of 1 and 2, as well as Demon’s Souls. More than anything, Dark Souls 3 takes a lot of cues in terms of both storytelling and mechanics from the first Dark Souls title, and for a fan of that game like myself, it’s a godsend.
In fact, it’s almost as if Dark Souls 3 is a direct sequel to the first game, and I ended up really enjoying it for that. The game plays a lot with the sort of ambiguous, fluid time/space nature of the previous titles, subverting things in a truly wicked way that inspires a lot of “no way” moments for series fans and raises no end of questions for those of us who enjoy digging through the implied mythology of the games. It’s been said that this might be the last Dark Souls title, and I’d be completely fine with that. Dark Souls 3 is a solid package that perfects what came before it while balancing originality and reverence for previous material. And, of course, the visual design is gorgeous as always.
4. Stardew Valley
If Game of the Year titles were ranked simply by the amount of time played, Stardew Valley would be much higher on the list, if not number one. Beginning as nothing more than an impulse purchase back in February, Stardew Valley quickly sunk its hooks in me and spread like a virus amongst my friends, each one infected by the lure of a virtual small-town life. Really though, there’s something refreshing about Stardew Valley, a game which takes concepts from franchises like Harvest Moon and boils them down into one incredibly serene, majorly fun, and hopelessly addicting package.
It’s hard to say what in Stardew Valley really got to me- was it the ability to make, manage, and customize my own farm? Was it the little town itself, filled with unique and charming NPCs? Or maybe it was just the overall lackadaisical nature of the game, allowing me freedom to do any number of activities over any number of days? Whatever the case, Stardew Valley got me good, and every update I see tempts me to come back and sink in another thirty hours.
I have no shortage of vivid memories of myself as a child, watching over my dad’s shoulder as he played DOOM and DOOM II on our boxy computer that still made the dial-up noise and ran on AOL discs. The day that I was finally able to play the game (without my mom’s knowledge, of course) was equally formative. I know I’m not the only one on Earth with fond or important memories of the original DOOM, so that id Software and Todd “Don’t Mod” Howard could release a reboot that’s this good is fantastic. With probably the best gameplay of 2016 and a sentiment that oscillates between hilariously reverent and outrageously in-your-face, DOOM has become a gold standard for classic game remakes (not to ignore Wolfenstein: The New Order) and a new experience all unto its own.
But really though, it’s just so much goddamn fun. Absolutely everything, from the new mechanics like the ammo chainsaw, to Doomguy’s insanely aggressive and truly flippant attitude, works so well. This is the rare game that’s both excessive fanservice and quality product; mediocre multiplayer excluded. My roommate, who prior to this game had no idea what DOOM was about, sat down and tried playing one night. He loved it so much he ended up beating it before I did.
2. VA-11 HALL-A
One of the many triumphs of VA-11 HALL-A is that it can cram itself full of references to other cyberpunk media (Blade Runner and Akira just to name two) without coming across as overbearing or derivative. But it works because VA-11 HALL-A isn’t one of these all-important, high-stakes narratives about a future society- it’s the rare narrative about what happens behind the scenes and down in the cracks of one of these stories. Taking the role of a struggling bartender in a borderline-dystopian cyber society, you become witness the lives and times of a wonderfully unique cast of characters which pass in and out of the titular bar. These characters, much like the grimy aesthetic of the world around you, aren’t exactly squeaky clean, and I appreciated the game for that. Sure, some of the characters are aggressive and sometimes lewd, but it all plays into the questions VA-11 HALL-A poses about a future society. Not everyone is heroic as Kaneda, and even Deckard makes me a little uncomfortable at times.
Anyway, for what’s more or less a visual novel about working a futuristic bar, VA-11 HALL-A is much better than it has any right to be. From the amazing writing, to the characters, to the aesthetic, and to the instantly iconic soundtrack, VA-11 HALL-A delivers on all fronts. What other game, short of Space Station 13, lets you serve alcohol to talking dogs and a brain in a jar?
Wow. Truly incredible. I can’t believe that for the second year in a row, Und-
Prior to its release, Overwatch began as another joke for me; a punchline that, with my played-up ignorance of upcoming games, could be lumped in with the singularly and legitimately unappealing Gearbox misfire Battleborn. However, once the beta dropped, I was addicted. The two weeks or so between beta and boxed copy felt like the longest of my life, and once it arrived, Overwatch had the singular distinction of transforming our living room into a social space. Every time someone fired up the PS4, my roommates and I would gather to watch each other run through matches and to get a feel for the multitude of characters in the game. We laughed, we cried (with laughter), and we all learned something along the way- namely that Overwatch is a really, really good game.
Blizzard managed to take the kind of team shooter which has more less languished in the nine years since Team Fortress 2 and revitalized it with a massive cast of unique, stand-out characters, and more of a focus on teamwork than possibly any game ever. The visual style is perfect, remaining cartoonish without falling into the grotesqueness of something like Battleborn, and the gameplay is simple enough to pick up almost immediately while varied enough between characters to require plenty of practice. There’s something for everyone in Overwatch, and, for so many reasons, it’s by far the most fun I’ve had with a game all year. Sometimes, that’s all that matters.