Dan Ryckert is an author, professional wrestling manager, two-time Guinness World Record holder, veteran level designer, and the man responsible for the creation of the Waluigi amiibo. He lives in Akron, Ohio with his wife and four children. You can follow him on Twitter.
Hey, a bunch of video games came out in 2016! I didn't like some of them. I liked some of them a lot. Here are the good ones!
10. The Witness
I loved Braid as much as the next guy, so I was naturally curious about what Jonathan Blow would be up to next. During the several years of pre-release rumblings and infrequent demonstrations of The Witness at industry events, I did my best to avoid them. I knew that line puzzles made up the heart of the game, but I knew there had to be more of a mystery to be found. Braid had many more layers than a standard platformer, and The Witness was bound to come with plenty of surprises. My media blackout paid off once the game came out, and I was consistently amazed at the clever methods Blow used to make hundreds of line puzzles feel like unique challenges. No other game this year had me taking phone pictures, loading up Photoshop, or constructing Tetris shapes out of paper. The Witness had me seeing puzzles in random carpet and wallpaper patterns in real life, as its world stuck in my head long after I put the controller down.
A new 2D Metroid is something that fans have been clamoring for for years, but Nintendo has confined the series to ill-conceived spin-offs like Team Ninja’s Other M and the drab Federation Force for most of the last decade. AM2R was in development for most of that time, and the final product stands up to any of the 2D classics that Nintendo has released in the series. I’m a fan of the series that had never played its second entry thanks to the Game Boy’s lackluster screen, so this couldn’t have been a better way to first experience its world. AM2R’s visuals are on par with the excellent Zero Mission and Fusion, and the exploration and action are as good as the series has ever been. This would have been a fantastic Metroid game if Nintendo itself had developed it. The fact that it’s a fan-made labor of love makes it all the more impressive.
Ever since the success of games like Towerfall and Nidhogg, you can’t glance at Steam’s new release list without spotting plenty of local multiplayer indie games. Overcooked is one that stands out from the pack. It requires teamwork and plenty of chaotic yelling (a la Spaceteam), and it’s packaged with a charming aesthetic and goofy setting. It’s versatile as well, proving to be a blast whether you’re running a tight ship with one partner or coordinating with a fully-staffed kitchen of four. Running a kitchen with friends is a simple enough idea, and the game does a great job of frequently switching things up with unique kitchen mechanics and numerous settings. There wasn’t a better couch multiplayer game in 2016 than Overcooked.
The lore of Gears of War has never been a huge selling point for me, so I was less curious about the new cast of characters and more interested in how The Coalition’s takeover of the franchise would affect its gameplay. As it turns out, it feels like a Gears of War game and I actually found myself enjoying some of the new characters (and the treatment of returning faces). Horde mode is still fun after all of these years, and the card pack system didn’t turn me off to any significant degree. In a world where even Halo has abandoned split-screen campaign, I was also very grateful to be able to play through the story alongside my fiancee in the same room. Gears of War 4 is certainly “more Gears of War,” but The Coalition did a fantastic job of justifying the start of a new trilogy.
6. Titanfall 2
Respawn’s debut effort in 2014 made waves thanks to its innovative concept and the pedigree of its developers. Now that the studio is established and the game’s Titan-based multiplayer formula was well-received, the sequel needed to address the issues fans had with the original. Namely, more multiplayer progression, and a real-deal story mode. Titanfall 2 adds plenty of unlocks and customization options, and surprised me with a story mode that not only exists but excels. Big moments, gameplay-based surprises, and a heavy emphasis on platforming helps this campaign stand out among the numerous shooters released this year. Coupled with a much deeper multiplayer suite, this is every bit the sequel that I had hoped for.
I’m by no means alone when I say that Doom succeeded in ways that I never would have expected prior to release. Within five minutes of the game starting, I was laughing out loud and wondering how things could possibly ratchet up from there. Crushing imp skulls and blowing enemies apart with the shotgun seems tame by the time you’re bouncing between monstrous enemies like a pinball, chaining glory kills and leaving rib cages and entrails in your wake. This game knows exactly what it is, and it revels in the over-the-top destruction in a way that had me smiling from beginning to end.
My time-travel game. I commute to work, and that often takes upwards of 45 minutes. If I grab a seat and there’s juice in my 3DS, I can make 45 feel like 10 by loading up Picross 3D: Round 2. It’s not just that it’s great for passing time, it’s great period. I’d have happily accepted a few hundred more puzzles in the vein of Picross 3D, but Round 2’s new color system changes so much about how you approach these block puzzles. It seems complex at first thanks to numerous tutorials, but any fan of Picross will quickly shift their way of thinking to accommodate these new blue and orange tiles. With a great presentation, a new take on the gameplay, and a huge assortment of puzzles, Picross 3D: Round 2 will be one that I return to for years.
In the past, I’ve generally appreciated the idea of Hitman games more than I’ve enjoyed playing them. The series clearly encouraged creativity and presented the player with ample tools to create chaos, but I always felt like the controls and mechanics were a bit too cumbersome. 2016’s Hitman isn’t completely free of frustrations, but it plays better than ever, and leans hard into its open-ended nature. Opportunities for stupidity are everywhere in this entry, from hastily throwing soda cans into targets’ heads to terribly bungling missions with ill-placed proximity mines. Its episodic format and elusive targets kept it in my rotation throughout the year, and I’ll happily continue getting Agent 47 into trouble once the next season begins.
I’ve always loved first-person shooter campaigns, but my history with multiplayer offerings in the genre is a little more spotty. My lack of a gaming PC growing up kept me away from Quake, Unreal, Counter-Strike, and many other seminal titles. Once online multiplayer came to consoles, I learned to love playing games like Halo and Call of Duty against other players. When Overwatch was first announced, I thought it would be more along the lines of PC multiplayer offerings like Team Fortress. Without a campaign, I worried that I’d play it for a couple of weeks, get eclipsed in skill by other players, and end my time with the game.
Seven months later, and I’m happy to say that I was wrong on just about every front. Team Fortress comparisons died off soon after release, as Overwatch quickly established itself as much more than a copycat. I liked the characters way more than I expected, both in terms of personality/design and in their unique arsenal of powers. Jumping around from hero to hero and learning which ones fit my playstyle was a blast, and I’m still finding new favorites months later (oh hey, D.Va is great!). With Blizzard’s track record, it shouldn’t surprise me that Overwatch is as good as it is. I look forward to playing it well into 2017 and quite possibly beyond it.
If I had personal winners for all of our site’s categories, Stardew Valley would take the crown in many of them. It’s certainly my Biggest Surprise of the year. ConcernedApe (Eric Barone) would take home Best Debut. Its music was my favorite of the year, with a soundtrack so catchy and upbeat that several tracks became my real-life morning alarm song.
Most importantly, it’s my favorite and most-played game of 2016. This was the best kind of out-of-left-field surprise. I hadn’t even heard the title of the game until it released on Steam and started earning some positive buzz. My job is the only reason I gave it a shot in the first place, as the prospect of a Harvest Moon-like wouldn’t be something that I’d seek out if Jeff hadn’t asked me to check it out for a potential Quick Look.
Stardew Valley grabbed me from its touching setup, with your character’s grandfather passing away and leaving you with a plot of land in a small farming village. You decide to leave your soul-draining corporate job and move there to pursue a more simple life, and the variety of activities you can pursue is staggering.
Each in-game morning, the day started and I left my house excited to see what I’d be doing. I didn’t have a set schedule for my days, and opted to adjust on the fly based on things like crop availability and weather. Some days were spent digging up and reorganizing fences. Others were spent optimizing my crop layouts and placing scarecrows. If it was raining, I tended to hike to the mines and spend my hours slashing through monsters. If it was a clear day and I didn’t have a particularly hefty crop bounty, I’d bounce around town, giving gifts to my crushes and foraging for items that would complete my community center bundles.
The excitement I felt returned each morning, and directly led to many nights in which I played for hours on end when I told myself that I’d only play for one in-game day before going to bed. It’s amazing to me that this indie farming game hooked me just as hard as new entries from two of my favorite franchises of all time (Metal Gear Solid V and Super Mario Maker) last year. Stardew Valley is my favorite game of 2016, and one of the most memorable and surprising games I’ve played in many years.