This is the year that my daughter got excited about video games. It’s been really fun watching her explore the Mario back catalog I have on my Wii U: she started with Mario Maker and Super Mario Bros. and Super Mario World, then quickly graduated to the more modern games--New Super Mario Bros., Super Mario 3D Land, and even Yoshi’s Woolly World. Those moments playing some of my favorite games with her--playing two-player 3D Land or helping her figure out how to tackle a tough Bowser level--are my very best gaming moments of the year.
2016 was an incredible year for games, so here’s my list. It’s got a lot of games on it.
1. Dishonored 2
I loved the original Dishonored. After bouncing off stealth games since the original Thief, the one-two punch of Mark of the Ninja and Dishonored finally taught me that stealth games were more about manipulating systems than actually being stealthy. For that reason, Dishonored 2 was one of my most anticipated games this year and goddamn did it deliver. It’s rare for me that the second entry in a franchise exactly nails what I loved about the first game, but Dishonored 2 does exactly that.
I’ve just finished my first Emily playthrough using the same strategies I apply to my day-to-day life: living a low-chaos lifestyle, ruining the life of anyone who crosses me, and murdering only when it was the expedient option. The magic of Dishonored, for me at least, is picking apart the clockwork city, figuring out how everything works, and how I can break it.
I love that Dishonored 2 respects its player--the game is defined by the choices it forces you to make. It’s a game that’s precisely as difficult as you choose to make it. Murdering everyone is easy, leaving everyone alive is difficult, and avoiding being spotted is insanely difficult. If you want, Dishonored 2 even lets you lock yourself out of your magical powers in the opening moments of the game--making an already difficult stealth game ridiculous.
I won’t get into specifics because spoilers, but the Clockwork Mansion and Aramis Stilton’s Manor are inspired game design. Depending on the approach you choose to take, you can have one of a handful of completely distinct experiences traversing those maps and dealing with your targets.
Not enough choice for you? The game forces you to make a blind choice during the introduction between two lead characters with different skillsets and powers. This was probably frustrating for some people, but Dishonored rewards multiple playthroughs in ways that most big games can’t. I’ll be doing a Corvo run sometime in 2017.
In a year lousy with amazing shooters, Overwatch stands out for combining a bit of the depth of a character-based MOBA-style game with a class-based first-person shooter. There’s something here for everyone--character action fans, the Quake 1 rocket launcher aficionados, n00b tube COD players, MMO-style support players, people who like to set up turrets, people who like to be turrets, blinking WoW wizards, and even dirtbag snipers.
The game is relentlessly competent, the level design and art are terrific, and the game’s rock/paper/scissors/lizard/spock/d.va gameplay works exceptionally well while bringing some much-needed meta to a moribund genre that’s been focused on either filling up an infinite number of tiny XP bars or collecting hats for the last decade. Blizzard left a ton of money on the table by making new maps and characters part of the core game, and only letting people spend cash on cosmetic upgrades, but I’m not complaining. It’s a delight to play a multiplayer game that doesn’t try to squeeze another $10 out of me every time I play.
The real hero of Overwatch (at least on the PC) is the matchmaking system. In most competitive multiplayer shooters, I find myself on either the receiving or giving end of blowouts as often as a I get a good, close match. But with Overwatch, the blowouts are the exception. I consistently get matched with people who share a similar approach to the game and most matches seem to come right down to the wire, which--win or lose--is OK by me.
PS: Fuck Hanzo.
By the time I finished Firewatch, at 3 a.m. on a Tuesday after one marathon (for me, at least) session, I’d been through an emotional wringer. The story of Henry’s summer escape to a fire watchtower in the Wyoming forest and his relationship with Delilah isn’t just told well for a video game, it’s told well, period. The team at Campo Santo managed to tell a nuanced, adult story without relying on any narrative trickery or shenanigans. That they tell that story and build that relationship while masterfully preserving the player’s agency is astounding.
If Firewatch had been a text adventure, it would have been a delight. The art surrounding the script elevated the game to legendary status. The voice performances by Rich Sommer and Cissy Jones turned characters whose only communicate with each other through a walkie talkie into people who felt real. And the team at Campo built a world that looks and feels like Olly Moss’ gorgeous concept art.
The emotional journey I took with Henry is even more notable because the game does it without resorting to any common video game tropes: you don’t save the world, you aren’t the hero, and there aren’t really any bad guys to defeat. You’re just a guy who couldn’t cope with his life and ran off to the woods.
It’s an emotional journey, and no one tells a story quite like the team at Campo Santo. Firewatch is an incredible game that everyone should play.
*You could probably accuse me of having a pro-Firewatch bias, since we featured it on the preview episode of The FOO Show. I am biased. I asked Jake and Sean from Campo if we could feature Firewatch on to the show because I love the game, because they’re doing something that’s completely unique, and because they’re friends of mine. Bias confirmed.
I love ads for old board games. In an ad for a game like Pictionary, everyone is always having fun, there’s no downtime, and everyone is fully engaged. Contrast that with actual Pictionary games, where you spend all night being screamed at because your perverted friends thought your Mr. Peanut drawing looked like an erect, uncircumcised phallus. Oink Games’ A Fake Artist Goes to New York is Pictionary, if Pictionary were actually fun.
The premise is simple. A bunch of artists get together to work together on the same drawing, each making a single line on his or her turn. The artists are all on the same page, but hidden in the group is one poor hack who doesn’t even know what they’re supposed to be drawing. At the end of the game, if the artists identify the faker, they win. If they can’t, or if the artist can prove his mettle by successfully identifying the subject of the communal work, they lose.
Fake Artist has become one of my staple board games--I bring it to family gatherings, parties, conferences, and even meals with game-playing friends. It takes just a moment to explain, it works with all ages, a complete game takes about 15 minutes, there’s no downtime for any of the players, and the deception required to succeed for either the real or fake artists gives it nuance and complexity that is reminiscent of Werewolf, The Resistance, or Secret Hitler.
Fake Artist’s tiny box holds everything that ten people need to play the game, but it’s about the size of two packs of playing cards, which makes it small enough to fit in your jacket pocket. In a pinch, you can even play with a whiteboard, enough markers so everyone can have a unique color, and some scraps of paper. If you like playing games, you should have a copy of this game.
I first played SuperHyperCube in 2015 at E3, and was transfixed. The premise is deceptively simple--you control a three-dimensional, odd-shaped block that’s flying toward a solid wall with an odd-shaped hole in it. You have to rotate the block to fit in the hole, when you succeed, more pieces are added to the block, when you fail, pieces are knocked off.
Yes, it’s a VR game. No, it probably doesn’t need to be a VR game. I don’t care. I love SuperHyperCube because it lets me consistently and reliably attain that meditative flow state simply react to the game without conscious thought. That puts it in the same lofty heights as some of my all-time favorite games--Lumines, Rez, Geometry Wars, and Tetris.
1. Mini Metro
I’ve been playing Mini Metro for years on my PC, first in a browser and then on Steam. But where the game really shines is on the iPad and iPhone. The release of those versions earlier this year added a ton of new stuff to the game that I hadn’t seen before.
In Mini Metro, you design the subway system for a series of real cities, as represented by the ubiquitous Harry Beck-style London tube map. The system starts with a handful of stations, which you have to connect. As time progresses, the map zooms further and further out, more stations are added, more passengers enter the system, and you have to allocate your resources (additional lines, locomotives and train cars, and tunnels) to cope with the ever-growing network. The game inevitably ends after 20 or 30 minutes when one station gets so overcrowded that the passengers revolt and presumably devolve into murderous zombies, rendering the system unpassable for future travelers.
Mini Metro’s deceptively simple visual design hides a rich and complex strategy game that somehow works perfectly for short sessions. I like to play it when I’m on the train.
Holy shit is this a video game. Inside tells a delightfully macabre story about a little boy (or maybe girl) traversing a dystopian puzzle world. The level of attention to detail Playdead put in this game is astounding. Each puzzle introduces some new way to interact with the world. While the puzzle progression guides the player through increasing challenges relatively smoothly, each puzzle seems to be a unique design. That represents an astounding amount of work for such a small team.
It doesn’t stop there. The character animation is equally incredible, especially for what is ostensibly a 2D game. When your character approaches an object, his hands don’t just lock to predetermined grabby points specified on the model. When your character runs toward a wall, he puts his hands out to slow himself. When he pushes an object from the back, his hands work around the sides to get better leverage. Every time your character encounters an object, he interacts with it in a way that looks deliberate and natural. No matter what you were doing, the transitions are seamless. Playdead makes this look easy, but it certainly isn’t.
Oh, and the final scene of Inside is my favorite moment from a game in 2016. After an intense four hours, it provided a much needed release.
The first wave of virtual reality titles included a lot of phoned-in concepts and demos masquerading as games. One of the standouts of that first wave was a game that I’ve watched evolve from just another shooting gallery into a really well-designed arcade-style shooter. At the risk of being reductive, Space Pirate Trainer is first-person, VR Galaga, except you have a bunch of different weapons, a grenade launcher, and a club that has a tractor beam and can also turn into a shield.
Bad VR games feel like shitty carnival games. Shooting tin ducks with a bb gun is only fun if you walk away with a novelty oversized stuffed animal, it isn’t fun in VR. Good VR gun games make you feel like an absolute badass--like John Wick making impossible shots while dodging bullets. Space Pirate Trainer lets you murder robots like a person who very much enjoys murdering robots.
Doom is fast, gloriously violent, and it feels like I remember OG Doom playing in the '90s. There’s this thing that happens when you start fighting demons in Doom. You shoot some demons and then the game gets faster and faster and the music gets faster and louder and faster and then you start punching demons so hard they explode and give you a little bit of health and armor so you punch more demons and then you end up playing the whole game like that and grinning like an idiot. That whole thing is an absolute delight.
Doom is also a good reminder that I shouldn’t judge games until I’ve actually played them. I distinctly remember seeing the first trailer for the game, which featured the aforementioned demon punching and exploding, and saying something like, “That looks violent, gratuitous, and distasteful.” Turns out I was right, but boy was I ever wrong.
1. Titanfall 2
This is a fabulous multiplayer game, but the campaign was surprisingly innovative and a ton of fun. Everyone is going to be talking about the time travel level, which is amazing, but the last two levels were actually what cemented Titanfall 2’s status as one of my favorite single-player campaigns of the year. I’m pretty much always going to be OK with a game where your giant robot pal decides that the only way to fulfill the mission is to throw the player across the map.
Titanfall 2’s multiplayer is great as well. Mechanically solid, with the same fast movement that was a hallmark of the first game. The community-based matchmaking is a brilliant idea that makes it easier to find like-minded parties for popular game types, but I wish that Respawn had consolidated some of the less popular game types into Halo-style playlists--I’m playing on the PC, and simply can’t find a game in some of the less popular game modes.
It’s more Picross 3D. Hundreds of new Picross 3D puzzles, even. I heard you can use amiibo to unlock even more puzzles, but I haven’t tried that yet. There are more than enough 2D Picross clones, not to mention the 2D Picross games for the 3DS, so getting more 3D Picross is really really exciting to me.
As I write this, Super Mario Run has been out for less than a week, and I was hesitant to include it on this list, but I’ve already pumped almost a dozen hours into it. It’s amazing to see Mario on a device with the power and resolution of an iPhone, and although the controls are simplified, the game is at least as complex and demanding as any modern Mario.
I am amazed at how difficult and varied Nintendo managed to make Super Mario Run. As I explored the first few levels of the game, I found myself in secret areas looking for powerups. Despite the minimalist controls, SMR feels like a Mario game. Mario handles the running, you just tell him when and how high to jump.
After I completed my first run through the game, I opened up Toad Rally, which is where Super Mario Run got really interesting to me. Nintendo took advantage of the weaponized PvP mechanics that free-to-play games use to squeeze whales, and made something really special here. You earn tickets by playing the main game. Those tickets let you play Toad Rally, where you compete against the ghosts of other players to see who can collect the most coins. If you win, you gain some Toad fans; if you lose, you lose Toad fans. When you get more Toads, you unlock more stuff to decorate your kingdom, which in turn generates more tickets for Toad Rally.
I loved the idea of this kind of multiplayer in Clash Royale, but my enjoyment was tainted by my suspicion that the developer was using matchmaking to encourage me to spend more money on card upgrades. It was icky. By charging a flat fee to unlock the full game instead of applying traditional F2P monetization, I feel really good about Super Mario Run.
And it goes without saying that it’s really, really fun.
Brendon Chung’s games combine a wicked sense of humor, a filmmaker’s sensibility, and a unique art style to tell unusual stories in completely novel ways. His use of what are now ancient game engines--mostly old iDtech--helps his games attain a completely unique look and feel. Quadrilateral Cowboy, his latest release, tells the story of a trio of cyberpunk hackers and their big heists.
There’s only one catch. You never really run the actual heists. The heists all take place in in-game VR simulations, where you can work out the details of each heist in the safety of your deck. Once you’ve nailed the to-the-millisecond timing required to disable alarms and unlock doors so that the protagonist can just stroll in and out with the loot, you can move on.
After you complete a heist, you’re treated to a scene from the life of the protagonists’ day-to-day life. Not only do you gain a more complete mechanical understanding of the game as you play more, you also get a deeper understanding of the prototagonists, as shown in a series of brief vignettes that show you how people live in separate levels.
1. The Witness
Witness confession time: I don’t really know what The Witness was about, but for the first two weeks after it came out, I voraciously consumed it, muddling through 100% of the puzzles on the island on my own (or maybe with a little help from Twitch chat) before climbing to the top of that mountain to move to the final level. Then, I had to leave town for a few days and when I came back, I never picked it back up.
I’m not sure if this is a personal failing on my part, if I ran out of steam, or if I had just reached a conclusion that I was subconsciously OK with. It’s still installed on my hard drive, maybe I should load that last save and finish the fight.
Bonus Board Games - Never stop YouTubing the rules.
1. 7 Wonders Duel - It’s a better 2-player variant of 7 Wonders than the one that the game comes with.
2. Splendor - This was on my list last year, but Splendor was my go-to 2-player board game in 2016.
3. Secret Hitler - I’ve only played a half dozen games of Shitler, but it’s become my favorite Werewolf-alike. It moves faster than traditional Werewolf, is better balanced than The Resistance, and more fun to play than any of them.
4. Monopoly Deal - This is a really solid Euro-style card game with a Monopoly skin tacked on.
5. Sushi Go - Sushi Go makes an entire game out of the 7 Wonders-style card drafting mechanic. It’s simple enough you can play with 5- or 6-year olds, but there’s a fair amount of strategy, especially with older kids.
Games that I really enjoyed despite being complete garbage at them and didn’t put on this list because my understanding of these games is at most superficial: Hitman, Enter the Gungeon, Tharsis, Duskers, Salt and Sanctuary, Darkest Dungeon, Thoth, N++, Hyper Light Drifter, Stephen’s Sausage Roll
Perfectly competent games that would have probably merited more discussion in years that were less unrelentingly awesome: Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, Gears of War 4, Call of Duty Goes to Outer Fucking Space, Superhot, Rise of the Tomb Raider, Obduction, Headlander
The creepiest game I played this year: Oxenfree
Games that made me really uncomfortable about fucking with NPCs after watching Westworld: Watch Dogs 2
Games that I poured way too goddamn much time into in 2016, but I regret nothing: Factorio, Stardew Valley, RimWorld, Stellaris, Destiny: The Taken King, Offworld Trading Company, Dark Souls III, No Man’s Sky
Games that I poured way too goddamn much time into in 2016, and hate myself for playing: Clash Royale, AdVenture Capitalist
Games that I poured a lot of time into but am ambivalent about: Star Wars: Battlefront
Games that I really, deeply love, but would feel like kind of a scumbag for putting on a 2016 Best Of list because it’s the third or fourth actual release of the original Dreamcast game: Rez: Infinite
Dope iOS board game ports: Paperback, Patchwork, Splendor, Star Control, Agricola All Creatures Great and Small, Twilight Struggle