by Jed Pressgrove
In my estimation, 2016 has been a better year for games than 2015 or 2014, the year Game Bias started. While nothing in 2016 beats last year’s best (Cosmo D’s Off-Peak), the quality has been more evenly spread across releases, and I hope this trend continues in 2017. A friend, critic Patrick Lindsey, asked me if the new Doom would be on this list, so now that he and everyone else knows it is not on the list (I would say spoiler alert, but spoilers can’t hurt creative expression), I can say Doom serves as a prime example of a good game that had too much competition to make the cut.
(For more reading, check out the 10 best games of 2015 here.)
Note: I am aware my No. 1 choice arrived to Steam in 2015, but I only first heard of and played it this year when it came out on consoles. If this troubles you greatly, imagine it is not on this list at all, move each subsequent choice up a spot, and insert your own No. 10.
1. Assault Android Cactus
Assault Android Cactus tops every twin-stick shooter in arena and weapon design, transforms into camp when you fail and listen to Jeff van Dyck’s “Little Android” (the video-game song of the year), makes Doom (2016) look relaxed, and puts an unforgettable spin on evasive maneuvering. For these reasons and more, developer Witch Beam can say it has made one of the greatest shooters of all time.
Through Severed’s touchscreen/motion controls, developer DrinkBox Studios has reimagined the first-person dungeon crawler as a bizarre action game that requires both turn-based logic and frantic but precise timing. When you’re not interrupting enemy tactics or dicing up the bodies of foes into parts needed for upgrades, Severed mesmerizes with dream-like cuts as you move from one part of the map to the next and unsettles you with its ominous tone, which is sometimes punctuated by maddening melodies that evoke Philip Glass. The search for the protagonist’s family members is an emotional roller coaster that few games this year can match, with the denial of catharsis trumped by the rush of continuing a strange adventure.
3. Titanfall 2
The big-budget masterpiece of the year, Titanfall 2 supports the idea of suicidal combat and thus elevates the standards we should all have for single-player campaigns. The “Into the Abyss” and “Effect and Cause” missions deliver the most dizzying one-two punch of the 2010s, as the former puts you through a horizontal and vertical gauntlet of prefabricated communities and the latter allows lightning-fast time travel with the press of a button. “Screw getting online with a bunch of strangers,” the people might finally say after experiencing the story of Titanfall 2.
4. Kirby: Planet Robobot
As a contrast to 2014’s Kirby: Triple Deluxe, Kirby: Planet Robobot proves that new content means nothing without new context. Director Shinya Kumazaki has delivered a personal, essential take on Kirby that goes unexpectedly suggestive in its climax, challenging the way we have always looked at the androgynous hero and his role in restoring dreamy worlds.
5. Hyper Light Drifter
Unlike Arnt Jensen’s Inside, Alex Preston’s Hyper Light Drifter understands that mature nihilism leads to an appreciation of life as much as it does to a criticism of supposed meaning. By making the world design of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask more nonlinear and limiting characters to a language of imagery, Preston creates an unpredictable and mysterious fluctuation between beauty and misery so that life and death are never trivialized nor fetishized.
6. Layers of Fear
P.T. director Hideo Kojima should take design and writing lessons from developer Bloober Team, whose blunt Layers of Fear registers both as the most spectacular vision of unnatural hallways in games and as an unsentimental critique of the tortured artist and self-obsessed husband.
7. That Dragon, Cancer
Don’t let most positive reviews limit your understanding: That Dragon, Cancer will remain underrated until critics realize the “empathy” marketing label should not drive our personal reactions to art. Relying on far more than emotional appeals, Ryan and Amy Green don’t make the game only about the brief life of their son, sending the player through myriad portraits of humanity affected by cancer. With this more universal framework and an unrelenting dialogue on faith in God, the vignettes of That Dragon, Cancer represent a philosophical challenge to those in troubled times: what are you going to rely on when all hope seems lost?
8. Mighty No. 9
Due to Kickstarter drama that the gaming press shamelessly helps invent, people have been denouncing Mighty No. 9 creator Keiji Inafune when they should be thanking him for executing a daring take on the shooter-platformer so well. Basing a combo dynamic on stunning and dashing through enemies is a simple yet wild innovation that results in some of the most unusually compelling action of the year.
What appears to be an idiotic game becomes an exhilarating breed of racing in which platforming is mandated and disaster is ensured. Creator Wilhelm Nylund needs a slap on the wrist for forcing players to unlock essential maneuvers via points, but the level design of Clustertruck gets better and better (that is, crazier), reminding us that counterintuitive game design can be as elating as rules and conditions you can depend on.
10. Shadow of the Beast
With this brawny but emotive remake, Heavy Spectrum Entertainment Labs infuses the original game’s parallax scrolling with gravitas. Through mostly visual suggestion, Shadow of the Beast’s bloodletting is accompanied by moral purpose that shows up the storytelling of most platformers.