AKA The Anime Awards
It’s been a pretty grim year for many people, but all things considered, it’s been great if all you care about is games and anime! Thank goodness, then, that we’re on a website primarily concerned with those things, which means I don’t have to think about any headlines beyond a bunch of silly titles for the random awards I give out to my picks of the year.
As ever, if you’re into anime and want more than my paltry list, visit us at Japanator, where we dig deep into the seasons to remember, re-watch, and then tally up our favorite bits of Japanese media from the year.
Best Game Anime and Anime Game (AKA The Brand Synergy Special Prize)
Danganronpa 3: The End of Hope’s Peak Academy and Naruto Shippuden: Ultimate Ninja Storm 4
As written, this award is handed off to the best game based on an anime, as well as to the best anime based on a game. Historically, the success rates for both forms of licensed tie-in have been about evenly low.
Danganronpa 3 gets the nod here because its component series, Future and Despair, function as essential narrative bookends to all the extant Danganronpa material, including both main games, the Ultra Despair Girls spinoff, and all the assorted novels and manga released in Japan. They’re an extended coda that both puts a capstone on the fates of the characters in Trigger Happy Havoc, as well as getting to the roots of the ones in Goodbye Despair. The directing wasn’t great, but the writing and characterization were on-point, preserving the tense qualities of Danganronpa’s fiction and finally making sense of the increasing levels of lore-bloat the franchise was accruing. One can only wonder whether next major game, Danganronpa V3, can make the most of this clean break with what came before.
Yet another Cyberconnect2-developed Naruto fighter has made the the top of my list, but I can’t hide the fact that I’m actually kind of glad that it is, at least for now, the last of its series. No doubt it deserves its place in the sun, as a genuinely amazing-looking game that beats both the anime and manga in visual splendor, and as a credible fighting-game experience to boot, but the formula has been showing its age. If nothing else, the ending of the Naruto story itself is a fitting place to draw the series down. Here’s to hoping Masashi Kishimoto can learn to leave well enough alone once he gets all this Boruto stuff out of his system.
About the Runners-Up: Brotherhood: Final Fantasy XV is an endearing look at the boys in the game’s core crew, and brings enough backstory to make the quartet that much more likeable, while also not wasting too much time. Meanwhile, Psycho-Pass: Mandatory Happiness captures the spirit and tone of Psycho-Pass so well that I wish the story in it were part of the main series rather than a somewhat toned-down spinoff.
Best “Import” Title (AKA The Weeaboo Special Prize)
Macross Delta and Persona 5
This award goes to the imports, early access games, betas, and other titles of otherwise limited availability to the majority of our readers.
Persona 5 is dope, y’all. I was worried after Persona 4 that Atlus would need to hit a sea change in the formula to really bring things forward after announcing Persona 5. I was convinced that it couldn’t possibly make the game feel fresh in the wake of what I considered the apex of that structure. I was wrong. By revisiting some of the elements from Persona‘s earlier days and updating them for the demands of the franchise as it is today, the crew at P-Studio made a sequel that feels fresh as it ever has, without losing what made Persona 3 and 4 feel as good as they do. My worries haven’t disappeared entirely, of course, but the game I got is still great. You guys are gonna love it next year.
It was actually difficult to pick a “not actually out yet” anime for this, seeing as we’re hitting a level of “peak anime” when it comes to legal streaming. Between stalwarts like Crunchyroll, Daisuki, and Hulu having shows on simulcast while Netflix and Amazon grab them for batch release, it’s more a question of what shows you won’t find in a given season. Macross, perpetually ensnared in licensing limbo thanks to the undying Robotech franchise, is one of those shows, and this particular rendition felt fresh. While some chafed at its new idol-group excess (versus the pop-diva angle taken with Macross Frontier), I found that it took the right cues from 2013’s gloriously absurd AKB0048 (which was a Macross anime in all but branding). It was the right kind of stupid for the moment we live in, and it’s technically not available, which means it makes this list.
About the Runners-Up: Thunderbolt Fantasy is technically available by streaming, but it’s also technically not an anime. You should still watch it, though, because it’s an amazing hardcore wuxia puppet show from the guy that wrote Psycho-Pass. Summer Lesson is due out in English next year, and while rather blurry, did fulfill its promise of being everything I wanted out of VR at the time – which is to say it’s about trying not to leer at an attractive-yet-nonexistent youth with no conception of personal space.
Most Pleasant Surprise (AKA The Bahamut Genesis Special Prize)
Keijo!!!!!!!! and Hitman
This award goes to the most pleasant surprises, titles that exceeded any expectations I had initially, or that ended up being kind of awesome despite my own rude dismissals.
Among games, Hitman was the big shocker, and not just because IO made a great Hitman game to finally succeed Blood Money. I already knew it could do that, and would do so again, eventually. No, the surprise here is that the studio finally made episodic gaming work. Sure, Telltale’s games are a thing, but those games draw heavily from TV and other media that are already very comfortable with the episodic, seasonal format. With Hitman, IO managed to drill down and recapture the inherently goofy, improvisational soul of the series, and build on it in a way that turns the Hitman games from one-off events that you play once and put down into a regular habit, something that you do with all the frequency and routine as a weekly MMO raid or shooter session. That the creators did this for their peculiar style of clockwork murder-sim makes the achievement all the more heartening.
Keijo!!!!!!!! should be trash. Keijo!!!!!!!! is trash. I love it and it is the best. It’s also goddamn brilliant. At first glance, or seeing it on a seasonal chart, you think it’s just your run-of-the-mill boobs anime like Queen’s Blade or Manyuu Hikencho that just uses its premise as an excuse to draw sexy anime ladies, and that stuff is still there, to an extent.
But around it is an actually-not-bad sports/battle anime where swimsuit ladies knock each other around with their boobs and badonkadonks. It is weaponized fan service employed with the hardcore fighting spirit of the best super robot anime. It is a show with technique names like “Breast Hypnosis,” “Ass Guillotine,” “Hips of Babylon,” and “Vacuum Butt Cannon.” I can’t even be mad. It is One Punch Man for the Dead or Alive set (but is better than actual Dead or Alive). It deserves all eight of the exclamation points in its title. Here is a gif:
About the Runners-Up: Mobile Suit Gundam: Iron-Blooded Orphans isn’t over yet, technically, but it’s the freshest and most character-driven Gundam in years, and has some bitchin’ mecha named after Goetia’s demons. Final Fantasy XV should also have been a disaster, and while it – incredibly – could still have used more time in the cooker, what we got put some real life back into a franchise everyone had pretty much given up on (and this is coming from a guy who liked all of the FFXIII trilogy).
Most Ruinous Bullshit (AKA The Eternal Throne Special Prize):
The Ending of ERASED and the Gunplay in Watch Dogs 2
This award goes to otherwise solid, memorable, even borderline-fantastic productions that risk being torpedoed by their own bullshit. And I don’t mean just regular old bullshit that you just put up with as the “price” of enjoying something or bullshit that actually adds “character” to the project (i.e. Kojima stuff), I’m talking about bullshit that threatens the integrity of the whole damn thing. I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed (in this game and anime).
ERASED could’ve been a great character study with an exciting time-travel twist, if not for its desire to keep harping on inane supernatural murder mystery fluff that should’ve been jettisoned early on, after viewers had been hooked by the initial whodunit. But it didn’t, leading to the weakest moments in an otherwise strong and affecting series. To its credit, the ending we did get pulled things off about as well as could be expected, but one can’t help but be dogged by the feeling that it shouldn’t have been that way in the first place.
On the other hand, Watch Dogs 2 would really have been better off if Ubisoft had decided to reflect the game’s California setting and implemented some gun control. For one, the pervasive presence of firearms just doesn’t jive with the game’s happy-go-lucky Hackers
About The Runners-Up: I like No Man’s Sky quite a bit, and while there are far too many other good games this year for me to give it the time it wants, I appreciate it. Yet there’s no denying that the distance between hype and reality is much farther in this case than for virtually any other game I’ve ever seen. A perfect storm of marketing and audience projection put impossible expectations on a tiny team’s clever little game, and now everyone is paying the price for it.
Meanwhile the spread of legal streaming worldwide (we just got Netflix where I live!) has been great for anime fans, it feels like outfits like Netflix and Amazon aren’t quite down with what anime fans really need. The way they’ve locked up prominent shows and sat on them until the season’s over has functioned to effectively kill many series’ public profile. For a medium that thrives on real-time social discussion (Read: Anime fans like to bitch on Twitter), it’s frankly damaging. Hopefully they’ll change their tack next year.
Most Profound Existential Crisis (AKA The Bachelor of Arts in Communications, Minor In Japanese Studies, Yay! Award):
Mob Psycho 100 and Quadrilateral Cowboy
This award goes to games and shows that make me question my life choices, or at least second-guess my decision to study a “softer” skill in college.
For example, I now wish I could’ve taken up more coding, because who knows, I might have ended up an awesome hacker-bandit like the people in Brendon Chung’s stylish heist game Quadrilateral Cowboy. Or if I had taken up some more rigorous film/animation studies, I could say more about Mob Psycho 100’s amazing animation than “It looks very nice. I think, uh, t-the frames look pretty and stuff.” Instead, all I can do is vomit some words about the way the show takes a sometimes-touching look at the trials faced by Mob, a socially awkward middle-schooler struggling to not be driven nuts and unleash his endless psychic potential in an orgy of gloriously animated insanity.
Honestly, they’re really good, but I can’t help but resent them a tiny bit since they make me think about my personal inadequacies. Thanks a lot, escapist media!
About the Runners-Up: Haven’t You Heard? I’m Sakamoto is about a guy who’s basically so cool that everyone around him questions whatever choices they made in a previous life that made them reincarnate as someone other than Sakamoto. Duskers makes me wish I was both a programmer and a drone pilot (which means I should play a bit of Unmanned again to curb that urge).
Actual Best of 2016 (AKA The Game and Anime of the Year Award):
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu and The Last Guardian
In a year full of strong contenders, it just so happens that favorite picks have really long titles (The Last Guardian’s Japanese name translates to “The Man-Eating Great Eagle Trico”). But they’re also both stories about legacy, bonds, and the way relationships build and change over time.
Shouwa Genroku Rakugo Shinjuu (“Rakugo and a Lovers’ Suicide amid the Shouwa Golden Age”) is a straight-up historical prestige drama in animated form, focused on an obscure Japanese storytelling format. It’s rich in characterization and atmosphere and is expertly delivered by a veteran voice cast, challenging the common misconception that “anime” is a set of stylistic and thematic cues.
The Last Guardian’s view of legacy is more outside the game itself, being nearly a decade in development and the current standard-bearer for the games of Fumito Ueda and his team. It’s very much in the vein of the team’s other works, but comes closest of all to, through your giant catbird Trico, making a thing seem to really live on-screen. Viewed in the context of playing god and creating life rather than putting out a pretty but slightly dated-feeling environmental puzzler, it’s entirely justifiable that the game took as long as it did to make.
About the Runners-Up: Last year I named Shirobako my top anime for its real, but optimistic take on the process of making anime. Girlish Number is Shirobako with knives out. ’nuff said!
Superhot is SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. SUPER. HOT. In a year full of superlative shooters of every shape, size, persuasion, and development budget, only Superhot achieved a level of elegance that makes it transcend genre. I barely even think of it as a “shooter” and more as the perfect realization of its core idea, which isn’t “time moves when you do”, but “How do I make a game out of being the coolest fucking action hero ever?”