Patrick Miller does a lot of thinking, talking, and writing about fighting games. When he's not working at Riot Games, he's tweeting inane stuff @pattheflip, teaching fighting games on YouTube and Twitch, and writing on Medium. You can download his book on how to learn to play fighting games for free at Shoryuken.com.
When Alex asked me if I was interested in writing about my top 10 games from 2016, my response was, "I don't know, my list would be like, Clash Royale, Overwatch, maybe Street Fighter V, and then a bunch of stuff that didn't come out this year."
3400 trophies, $0 spent over eight months
I am from a rather carnivorous tribe of competitive game players. If I'm playing a game, it almost certainly delivers some kind of competitive element, either directly (player vs. player) or indirectly (I put my Flappy Bird high score on my resume).
When it comes to mobile games, it seems to me that most of us Carnivores pick up either Hearthstone or Clash Royale, maybe both if you spend a lot of time on your phone. I had too many bad memories of losing in Magic: The Gathering to kids with bigger allowances, so I tried Clash Royale.
Eight months later, I can't say I'm glad I play Clash Royale, but I still play it, though my co-workers tell me I should quit. (Congrats on going cold turkey, guys.) Supercell, you made Cigarettes: The Video Game.
The general feeling towards Clash, as a Clash player, is one of irritation; I'm annoyed because I lost a lot of games in a row, or I'm only getting garbage cards, or ugh I should really sit down and play for a bit right now so I can get some chests to unlock overnight but I don't feel like it, maybe it'll ruin my mood. I lost because they had better cards, god that deck combination is so brainless, the lag totally made my fireball miss, this game sucks.
But sometimes I get that clutch outplay with my weird Hog-Dragon-Furnace combo, and a Super Magical Chest drops. Sometimes I win some and I lose some, and it feels like I earned them all. Sometimes I beat my friends. Sometimes this game is okay.
Level 85, unranked
Before I got into fighting games and never left them, I played a lot of first-person shooters--mostly Quake III: Arena, where I spent untold hours of my life chucking rockets on Q3DM17. I stopped right around the time people were getting into Counter-Strike, and aside from a brief CS: Source phase in college (I was experimenting, okay) I never really made the transition to realistic-damage, realistic-weapon shooters. I also didn't really play TF2, which was like, the standard-bearer for arcade-y FPSes on the PC. (Last time I played an FPS with a pad, my Halo-ladybro girlfriend laughed at me, so I'm never doing that again.)
Thanks to Overwatch, I got to relive my FPS glory days by flying around chucking rockets as Pharah. The rocket launcher isn't quite how it should feel. It needs a little more bass and a little more physical displacement, right now it feels a little mushy, like the Quake II rockets. But the flight is cool, and the concussive blast is handy, and there is literally nothing that feels better than owning the enemy Pharah in a midair duel for air superiority, except maybe the part where your girlfriend grudgingly admits you might be okay at this.
As a competitive game, Overwatch kind of does everything well. This is pretty darn rare, and failing to do any one of the following things could easily kill a competitive game's community shortly after launch.
It rewards individual skill, but not so much that a single player can make a game feel unwinnable.
It rewards teamwork, but doesn't make basic teamwork a thing that can't be learned by playing normally.
It has a wide range of characters for different player types and preferences (even people who don't like aiming!), and somehow, the easier-to-play characters don't feel unfairly strong or weak.
It even has a sniper that heals her teammates, which is a brilliant way to make a sniper's teammates happy they're on the team (that's rare, in my FPS experience).
Also, that sniper happens to be a super bad ass war veteran Mom--Pharah's mom, actually--which is a cool idea for a character that fits in nicely with the rest of this weird paramilitary freak family outfit.
Overwatch is a competitive multiplayer game that relies on the kindness of strangers, and somehow it works pretty well, which is a small ray of hope for people in general, I think. We can all play Overwatch together, and have fun playing with each other, even if we lose and get a little salty sometimes. Why don't you switch to Hanzo? You've been playing Mercy for the last few games, you deserve it.
Street Fighter V
Platinum, ~9000LP, drowned in pools at Evo to randos
Street Fighter V's long, laborious path to Most Dubious Game-of-the-Year pick starts in February 2009, when the world was re-introduced to Street Fighter. Millions of people, high on (often second-hand) memories of doukens and all-you-cans, picked up Street Fighter IV and began the slow, painful path out of Scrubland. Most of them stopped playing after they discovered that spending $200 on an arcade stick would not enable them to bypass practicing Dragon Punches in Training Mode for a few months, but some of them stuck around, reinvigorating the worldwide fighting game community.
In February 2016, everyone who came back to Street Fighter seven years earlier learned the lesson that we old-timers learned countless times before: The first new game in a Capcom fighting game series is always pretty bad. (That's why we buy the Super Turbo HD Remixes.)
As a product, Street Fighter V may have been the worst release of 2016. Capcom planned on releasing SFV as one of two tentpole titles for their previous fiscal year, and in order to get it out in time, they released basically the stuff that competitive players cared about--a set of 16 generally balanced characters, a very robust training mode, and online play--and everything else was either half-assed or omitted. People who liked using Story Mode and Arcade Mode as low-stress ways to play the game got screwed; previously freely-available content like alternate colors were locked behind obnoxious grinds; and so on, and so on.
And things got worse before they got better. The community dissected the guts of the game to find that SFV had 8 frames of built-in input lag. They found that Capcom lacked the ability to consistently punish ragequitting, which made the online ranking system near-irrelevant. They discovered that a post-release update by Capcom included a rootkit. New players were sacrificed on the altar of matchmaking until they churned out; experienced players would speak longingly of Guilty Gear Xrd's superior features and performance as an example of the way they wished Capcom would treat them.
I have tried to figure out why it is that I keep on coming back to Street Fighter's various incarnations, over the years--and in doing so, suss out why it is that Street Fighter remains at the core of the traditional fighting game community even when it seems like it doesn't deserve to be there. Why aren't we all playing Mortal Kombat X, which probably sold at least five times as many copies? Why hasn't Killer Instinct, which is free-to-play and lovingly nurtured by Dave Lang himself, surpassed Street Fighter with its excellent tutorial, innovative combo breaker system, and significantly lower barriers to entry? (Why isn't Tekken 7 out yet?)
I've heard plenty of guesses: Street Fighter is the most familiar IP; Capcom is more aggressive in supporting the community; the aesthetic in all the other games is too off-putting to attract a wide audience. But none of those ring true to me, personally. After all, the Street Fighter IP hasn't managed to yield anything successful besides games, Capcom's support is new to the last few years, so it can't account for the decade-plus of SF-centric organized play, and when it comes to SFV I don't see people generally citing its aesthetics as a draw.
Near as I can tell, the simplest explanation for Street Fighter always having a prominent spot in the fighting game community is because when it comes to the core player-vs-player game loop, it does the best job creating a connection between both players. You do a thing, I do a thing, one of us gets hit, and we both try to adapt to each other's thing in time for the next exchange until one of us loses--somehow, Street Fighter seems to do that more clearly and consistently than other fighting games.
Where SFV stands out from previous Street Fighters is that, for once, it feels like the team actually has an idea about what it is that SF does better. Most Street Fighters can be roughly described as "Basically, Street Fighter II, but X." Super SF2 Turbo is SF2 with Supers; Third Strike is ST with Parries; SF4 is ST with dash-cancelable Focus Attacks. It's as though the core that makes fighting games work is alien technology, and no one knows how it works so everyone tries to just build around it and hope it doesn't break.
SFV is "Basically, ST, but with a bunch of subtle decisions around effective ranges, tweaks, animation timing, and attack payoffs that could have made for better footsies if it weren't for that whole built-in input lag thing." Compared to the other SF games, SFV is more restrictive in what the characters can do at any given location in time and space, and it feels like an attempt to distill the game's legacy to its essence and start to find improvements. It feels a bit rough and clumsy at times, but I feel like someone is trying to make a better Street Fighter, not just a different Street Fighter. And that gives me hope.
Best games I played in 2016 that were not released in 2016
We Know The Devil is a wonderful short visual novel written by Aevee Bee and illustrated by Mia Schwartz. I love it because A. the narrative design structure is tight enough to make it feel like a game, with narrative rules that make the outcome of your decisions intentional and obvious, and B. the characters' wonderfully brutal teenage voices and the poetic tone of the narration are not things I find often in games, and it makes me want to play more games written for people who like books.
Samurai Shodown V Special is a fighting game that I didn't really appreciate until I learned more about game design. This round of a tournament, in particular, is an amazing moment of design and atmosphere combining to create a moment that feels like the players are living out a damn samurai duel from the movies. Watch it and tell me it isn't beautiful.
SC2VN is a visual novel about going to Korea to become a professional Starcraft II player. I adore this! We accept that there are stories to be told about listening to music, or playing sports, but we're still figuring out how to tell stories about people playing video games. I am glad SC2VN exists; now I want to see a love story between speedrunners, or a Kevin Smith movie set in the indie dev community, or a dramatized version of Nuckledu's road to the Capcom Cup championship.
Honorable mentions: I liked Firewatch and Pokémon Go because they're two very different games about walking; Oxenfree was super creepy; Emily Is Away hit me right in the repressed memories of teen angst on AIM. Now I'm off to welcome 2017 by playing Sleeping Dogs. Maybe it'll be on next year's list.