I said it about 2015 and I feel as if it's even more true of 2016: this was a great year to play video games. The general landscape of the industry seems to be trending in a positive direction, with more and more things to love. However it's also a time, for better or worse, that has so many games being released to the public, especially on PC and Steam.
Thus, many games go unnoticed throughout the year. Some perhaps deserve that treatment, but others are simply overlooked due to factors unrelated to the game like release date or lack of marketing. We've rounded up seventeen such titles that you may not have heard people talking about this year, but could be right up your alley.
I was fortunate enough to play Brigador at PAX East and meet one of the developers, Hugh Monahan. He's quite the eccentric and fun character and it was a blast to play his game with him looking on in excitement. As such, it pained me to read his story about how the game fared once it was released. It's a good read, except for the unbearable sadness it induces.
Brigador did not deserve such a fate -- it's great! The music hits all the right notes, the gameplay is super satisfying, and it just feels damn cool to pilot a mech. It's a great world that the Monahans have created, and I do hope that we can see more of it in the future.
Available From: Steam
Okay, this one is by far the least played out of this entire list. Now, it's important to know that this applies to a very specific audience: this game is only two-player local multiplayer. There is no single-player, no online, and nothing for more than two people. That being said, Pitfall Planet is an amazing experience for you and a bud.
Each level has players working together to collect gems and get to the exit while avoiding hazards. It's got a cute and quirky vibe, exemplified by the fact that there's a dance button and you can put fun little hats on your robots. If you fit the (admittedly small) demographic, you need to pick up Pitfall Planet.
I've talked about Stephen's Sausage Roll plenty in my review, which was a 10/10, but I'll take any opportunity to gush more about it. SSR is a masterpiece in game and puzzle design. It just plops you into the world like a sausage onto a grill, and you figure out the rest. The controls are basic, but the amount of ways in which they are used is incredible.
My favorite part is how new mechanics are introduced. There isn't a pop-up or anything that says "Hey, you can do this now!" but instead forces the player to discover them "by accident." Just by fidgeting around, players will unearth new ways to maneuver sausages and grill those tasty lil' things. Don't let the aesthetics get in your way (this should never be a thing, by the way) because you'd be ignoring one of the best puzzle games ever created.
I'll admit up-front that if you are not a fan of DDR/Stepmania, this won't be your thing. It combines those ideas with a party-based RPG. In fact, it plays similarly to Rock Band Rivals. Each party member has a "track" of notes, and completing a certain amount of notes in a row for the character will unleash special moves at the enemy. There are tiers of skills, and to use the higher-tiered skills, you need to hit more consecutive notes.
It's a great balance between the two genres, and just because you're amazing at Stepmania doesn't necessarily mean you'll dominate Metronomicon. It takes some RPG sense and planning with the party members and skills utilized, in addition to the gear that is equipped. The songs can be hit or miss, but this game should not be missed for fans of the rhythm genre.
Available From: Steam
Judging from Steam Spy, this is the most popular game on my part of this list with approximately 100,000 copies sold. And that's good! Wasted is like a Fallout-satire in roguelike (lite?) form with a wonderful '80s Macintosh aesthetic. It's got awkward, yet endearing first-person shooter controls in a wonderfully funny world.
It's hard as heck, too! There's a lot to help players feel as if they're progressing, like getting power-ups from radioactive beer (hence the title) and a way to store items from one run to the next, and these go a long way toward making things feel less hopeless. It's even got an overworld to help "connect the dots" so to speak and really make the game feel more cohesive than I expected.
Available From: Developer's website
The reason you didn't play this in 2016 is because it released late on New Year's Eve. Peter's already written about it a bit, so maybe you played it after seeing his post. Whatever, it still makes this list! Terry Cavanagh, creator of such brilliant titles as Super Hexagon, VVVVVV, ChatChat, Don't Look Back, and this tweet, has created yet another wonderfully simple game.
This is a stealth puzzle game with randomly generated levels. It does that great Mark of the Ninja thing (and other games, I'm sure) where it excellently conveys pertinent information like the sightline of guards and cameras. This way, you'll always know what messed you up, and you will mess up. Enemies only move when you move, so it's a bit about puzzle solving as well. A perfect example of great design shining through such a simple premise.
I'll admit, even I haven't played as much of Even the Ocean as I would have liked yet. I was immediately on board when I heard that it was the newest game from the creator of Anodyne. Also, if you haven't played Anodyne you should also do that, it's great proof that creativity and talent can put new and interesting spins on something like the 2D Zelda formula.
Even the Ocean is something completely different, and focuses on telling its story with some (rather difficult) platforming elements thrown in. It includes options to avoid the 2D platforming and to focus on the story, or even to ignore the story and focus on the platforming, which I've never seen before. Other than an enjoyable story, the core gameplay mechanics are also very satisfying.
VA-11 Hall-A has definitely earned a great reputation from the people who have played it. Every time I see it mentioned, there's always someone in the comments saying something along the lines of "Finally! Some love for VA-11 Hall-A!" And, well, they aren't wrong. It's essentially a visual novel with light bartending mechanics thrown in, but such a simple synopsis doesn't do the game justice.
The characters and world are remarkably unique and the soundtrack is amazing. Mike's review hits the nail on the head with "I honestly believe there is a game in every genre for everyone, so you should give it a shot. VA-11 HALL-A is a damn fine video game, and that's the bottom line."
Robo Panda Z
Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor
Available From: Steam
If we're talking about games that have been swept under the rug, then it'd be a damn shame not to include a game that is obstinately about garbage (and being treated like it). Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor is a gorgeous, noisy, trudging, skull-screaming, just-gave-myself-food-poisoning-from-eating-garbage mess, and I couldn't say that with any more affection.
The first few minutes of Diaries draws you in, only to leave you in the shoes of a blue-toned girlbeast, cleaning up the trash of others and struggling to survive in an intergalactic market so busy, it almost feels alive. There is a goal -- escape the drudgery of your meandering existence and escape the Bazaar (featuring a quest where you purchase alien smut!) -- but the game is more about finding meaning in the mundane in a world that isn't, and having more than a few things to say about gender and classism in the process.
And frankly, any game that lets me shift my gender to CUDDLESLUT is worth my full recommendation.
(Check out Ray's write-up for a much more convincing argument on the appeal of banality!)
The racing game genre hasn't given us much to talk about lately, which may be why many of you may not have heard of Drive!Drive!Drive!. That's a shame, as it's one of the most interesting games of 2017, tasking you to race not one, not two, but three different cars at once. You'd think with all the gravity-defying loops and corkscrews, keeping track of three cars at once would be overwhelming, but the game's difficulty curve is just right, while still allowing for plenty of violent surprises. It also has a set of excellent track-editing tools, making it the perfect fit for any would-be driving game developers out there looking to get their feet wet.
Pocket Card Jockey
Available From: 3DS eShop
Pocket Card Jockey has become one of my favorite games ever, which is why I wrote about both its music and characters in a couple of recent "best of" posts here on this dot com. There is nothing else in the world quite like this game, so it's hard to make an educated guess about how much you'll enjoy it without playing it first. Thankfully, there is a free demo. While it only gives you the tip of the iceberg of all that Pocket Card Jockey is, it's still the best way to get a sense if Head Injured Solitaire Miniature Horse Racing is right for you.
Tharsis is another one that you probably don't have a frame of reference for. How many other games out there take design elements of tabletop RPGs and survival simulators and wrap them together in a scenario about space explorers who may be forced to turn cannibal? Everyone I've talked to about the game is immediately intrigued by the concept, but many haven't been sure that they'd actually enjoy it. That's too bad, because it's a lot of fun, especially for those who enjoy games about defying the odds and developing real-life problem-solving techniques.
Available From: Steam
Price: $1.99 (Rent) $5.99 (Own)
The creators of Tharsis once told me that their own struggles to keep their game studio alive were a major inspiration for them. Those same struggles are brought to light in Surviving Indie, a documentary published by Devolver Digital. Rami Ismail (Vlambeer), Kellee Santiago (thatgamecompany) and Jay Tholen (Dropsy) are some of the bigger names in the film, though most of it centers on developer Richard Cook, who also directed the film. I also show up in there somewhere, if I remember correctly.
Rami, Keelee, Jay, and Richard were all on Sup Holmes in the past, so I came into the film with some pre-installed interest and affect for its subjects, but my guess is anyone interested in indie game development will find plenty here to chew on
Available From: Steam
Speaking of indie crossovers, I would have figured that cameos for Plague Knight (Shovel Knight), Chica (Five Nights At Freddy's), Dr. Fetus (Super Meat Boy), and Balrog (Cave Story) would have helped Creepy Castle's visibility, but I haven't heard a ton of people talking about it. This may be another case of players being confused about what a game is before they actually play it. While it's technically a turn-based combat, 2D exploration game, the action here has more in common with Undertale than Final Fantasy, while the pacing and progression have a decidedly Metroid feel.
I get the sense that the game would do a lot better with the handheld/mobile market. Hopefully it will make its way to those platforms this year.
Available From: iTunes
Swap Sword takes the match-three puzzle format and layers it with multiple combat systems, along with coin collecting and "find the exit" objectives. It's a simple enough premise, but it's got a lot of depth, offering a more streamlined fusion of puzzle and JRPG mechanics than you'll find in such hits as Puzzle and Dragons and Puzzle Quest. The difficulty can be harsh, but that's a huge part of what makes the game worth the cost. The skill building and sense of progression here is real.
Really Bad Chess
Available From: iTunes
A while back, I wrote about how balance in fighting games isn't the exact science that many want it to be. Growing up, a lot of kids in the neighborhood tried to legitimize Street Fighter and Tekken in the eyes of adults by saying that they are "Basically Chess, except hardcore."
As you can probably guess, that line inspired a lot of eye rolling from the grownups. It's also not true. Chess is perfectly balanced, while any fighting game with more than two different playable characters is not. And I wouldn't want it any other way. There is a reason why at its core, Street Fighter is more interesting than Karate Champ.
The same goes for Really Bad Chess, which probably should have been called Badly Real Chess. Each game starts with a randomized set of pieces for both players, though each potential loadout has a good chance of being a winner. That may be a turnoff for those looking for a 100% fair test of their Chess skills, but those folks have already been catered to for hundreds of years. On the other hand, if you like for luck to play as much of a part in your games as it does in the rest of your life, then this is the Chess for you.
Available From: Oculus
I think I have some idea why no one is talking about Superhot VR -- because those fancy $600 helmets didn't take off. Yes, the VR revolution did not take place in 2016, despite the heralding from the press and enthusiasts alike. As it turns out, folks don't want to take a chance and adopt early technology that needs a super expensive machine to run it -- that sounds pretty niche to me!
Speaking of "Super," there were a lot of great games on all three major VR platforms, despite the lack of general fanfare when it comes to hardware sales. One of those projects is Superhot VR, a sort of re-imagining of the original with the Oculus Touch hardware. When you hear VR experiences talked about, you often see the same phrase repeated: "it cannot be explained, you need to try it."
For the most part that doesn't really ring true, as you're basically just playing something with a different camera angle in many VR games, but Superhot VR is that defining moment when you get what the medium is trying to do. You can literally dodge bullets by laying down on the ground, twisting your arms backward, and doing a "no look" one-handed sideways pistol shot. Anything that John Wick did? You can do it too.
It's pretty much an action movie simulator, and by the end of a non-stop one-hour session (about how long it takes to beat it), I was sore as hell for two days. These are the kind of things VR should be pushing -- stuff you can't get anywhere else.