2016 is nearly over, and before I do my usual year in review at the end of the year, where I celebrate various games I played via category, I decided it would be fun to do a list before that and get it up in November, because until Sometimes Always Monsters comes out and rocks my world (THEY GOT THE ACTUAL SUNLIGHT WRITER), this list is pretty final. Here are my top twenty favorite games of the year, and only two entries on this list could be considered embarrassing. Finally, I’m getting a taste for games that aren’t anime titty garbage.
20. Gone Home
I finally got around to covering this one for Hardcore Gaming 101 this year, mainly because nobody else would talk about it. Glad about that, because Gone Home ended up meeting all my expectations and then some. On the surface, the game seems to just be about exploring a house to solve a mystery, but the way it’s designed leads to some really surprising revelations if you pay attention. Every character mentioned in the items you find have some dark secrets that reveal hidden sides to themselves, so while the main story is effective and touching (and I won’t spoil it here if you aren’t aware of what it is, but it hit me on a personal level a few times), all the side stories have some unexpected punch.
Replaying the game can be really rewarding as you start picking up on the small details you may have missed out on before. It was the father’s story that particularly intrigued me afterwards, as while his attempts to be a successful writer touched me at first, it was realizing why his books were obsessed with the JFK assassination that made me realize just how much thought and care went into this game’s unorthodox style of story telling. This is how you tell stories with the environment, designers take note.
19. Cinderella Escape
It’s amazing what weird shit you can find from the Japanese indie scene. Everything about Cinderella Escape’s Steam page confused me endlessly, so I just had to see what the hell this even was. Turns out it was a bizarre fetish game that gets even more bizarre with the R18 patch. It’s not a porn game, just a very strange fetish work that caters to a very specific set of masochistic kinks …and then makes a good game surrounding those kinks.
Turns out Cinderella Escape is a surprisingly intricate block puzzle game, giving you a ton of control over a camera to see what each level has in store and to help you plan. You have limited jumps and kicks to get around and manipulate blocks, so you have to really pay attention to what you can and can’t do. Levels in the later stages can take up to an hour, but solving them always feels super satisfying to me. The bizarre subject matter and terrible translation only adds to the game’s charm, because when a game starts with an evil step family putting a girl into a bondage outfit and suggesting she likes it before transitioning right into a Silent Hill style flashback showing the aftermath of a gruesome slaughter, you know you have found something you’ve never played before.
18. Cherry Tree High Girls’ Fight
You know, I wasn’t sure what to expect from another Cherry Tree High game, but changing from a comedy club forming visual novel to card fighter with raising sim sections definitely wasn’t anything that anyone could have expected. And yet it works! Girls’ Fight has a huge cast of brand new characters that are instantly likable and memorable, and remembering to add Haru for her past as a martial artist was nice. The goal is to train a team of three wacky anime girls (including a sadistic mad scientist that drugs herself and a girl that literally fights with a ghost) to kick butt and win an anime girl fighting tourney, and it handles its elements pretty okay. The sim parts are very simplistic, and the card fights only have one winning strategy of using high level, low power attacks for advantage, but it has charm out the wazoo to make it special.
The Cherry Tree series has this goofy, carefree style to it that really puts a smile on my face, and Girls’ Fight doesn’t lose that atmosphere entirely. Despite the weird added sexual gags (seriously, who thought making the coach attracted to students was a good idea) and the hot blooded music tossed in at points, the game never loses its sense of humor or takes itself seriously. Even when it does, there’s usually a punchline not far behind. I could replay this for months just to see all the script for every character, and I wish I wasn’t joking. I have articles to write, but I also need to have the magical girl idol, the cyborg, and the Bruce Lee expy together just to see what wackiness overload will result.
17. Still Life 2
Microids is quite the studio. They make some of the most beautiful games I have ever seen, especially the original Still Life. But its sequel, made by another studio under the management of Microids, actually manages to improve on a lot of Microids ideas. Where Still Life was only interested in being your usual graphic adventure game, this sequel took the FBI investigator angle and really tryed to make that work within a game. It also added a new character that had to deal with death traps, creating a long story with two different play styles that eventually combined in the last third.
Still Life 2 almost entirely takes place in a single setting, an old cabin home with a winding basement dungeon. By the time the game ends, you will have figured out the entire layout of the place and have it memorized to the smallest crevice. Where as Still Life looked like something from painters, this game looks like something you’d see in a horror film. It’s fitting, considering the new and surprisingly threatening Hollywood themed killer. The harsher style really works once you hit the big tone shift, and the earlier dull investigating and the sort of bullshit death trap parts can suddenly be forgiven a bit as the game puts you in full on survival mode in the coolest way. I’ve never seen a game tackle horror the same way Still Life 2 has, but there’s a real satisfaction to outsmarting the hunter. Also, the cinematics are fantastic, they stand up perfectly to this day.
I’m not that big of a fan of 2D Zelda, to be honest. I only ever really dug Link’s Awakening DX. But the makers of Anodyne figured out how to make me like that style of game: Fill it to the brim with artsy fartsy bullshit. I have not played as a game as vague and abstract as this one in a long time, which is fitting with the dream theme of the game. It is just exploding with so much random weird stuff, and while each level has a theme, those themes range from creepy (the Lovecraftian flesh world) to baffling (a hotel populated by ghosts and arsonists bugs). But there does seem to be a point to all this, with imagery just concrete enough that it makes sense in the setting.
Really, all this weirdness to read into is what makes the game so memorable, almost enough to make me forgive the god awful late game platforming puzzles. The strange blending of childlike characters, bizarre threats, and fairy tale like areas results in a game that feels not like a bunch of games smashed together, but a bunch of concepts that never managed to be proper games in their own right getting weaved into something far more interesting. The stunning music only cements the game’s status as an indie gem, and I implore you to at least give it a shot. It takes a few minutes to get going, but once it does, it becomes something magical.
And now onto something that could not possibly be more different, Divekick, the game with the dankest of memes, so dank that only a certain type of gamer will understand most of them. This game exists entirely for fighting game fans, and to take the piss out of figures in the fighting game community. Also, like Cinderella Escape, it manages to be a great game despite all that. You come to Divekick for the dumb jokes you may or may not get, but you stay for the surprisingly in-depth mechanics. That’s where things get really interesting, because the game works exactly as the title says. First, you dive. Then, you kick.
That’s the entire game. I’m not joking. Every character has their own moveset that works in things like swinging, teleports, and even item searching, but it all ends up coming back to a dive and kick. Get hit by a divekick once, and bam, you lose. This sounds like it would be boring, but Divekick manages to distill fighting game mechanics to a much purer form than normal, creating some of the most tense gameplay in the genre. Sure, it constantly memes on you, but it is pretty damn addicting despite.
14. Pony Island
I can’t think of a better time for this one to get released than January 2016. After Undertale shocked the world with its surprise tone shifts, people started to become way more interested in games that held more than you’d expect. Enter Pony Island, a game that seemed like it was trying to do the same thing, even advertising itself as such on its Steam page, only to pull and even more brilliant twist. See, Pony Island is a genre aware comedy, and it’s one of the funniest little games I’ve ever played. It just keeps finding new ways to get an unexpected gag out, making use of being a game to do so.
The premise is that you’re someone playing a bad game called Pony Island, and you’re kind of trapped and doomed to play-test it forever for the devil himself. So, you try to find a way out. The game presents itself seriously at first, easing you in with a strange and threatening atmosphere and code manipulation puzzles, but it quickly becomes apparent that the devil is not trying to torture you. He’s really trying to make a good game, but every addition and change he makes results in an even bigger disaster. The game only last two hours, but those two hours just explode with gut busting moments, like the finished Pony Island sequence, or finding out the devil’s password. I also have to give a shout out to the last guardian program, which I dare not spoil, but it takes perfect advantage of its method of distribution. Pony Island is such a stupid game, but it knows it, and knows just how to undercut the pretense with laughs.
13. Punch Club
Russia is a wild place in the gaming world, I found out. Nothing quite changes your views on a medium like playing a Russian point and click involving a recreation of a Pulp Fiction scene after a long brothel sequence. But despite how utterly insane and wonderful Red Comrades Save the Galaxy is, Punch Club was the best of the Russian games I tried overall. It’s a raising sim where you help a fighter train himself to be strong and rise in the ranks to avenge his father, and it’s all done within the concentrated essence of 80s and 90s Americana pop culture. I mean, you fight teenage mutant ninja alligators with pizza addictions. The Rocky allusions feel minor compared to that.
Unlike the more roughly developed Girls’ Fight, Punch Club’s systems are really well balanced and addicting in how they weave together. The learning curve is steep at first, but it makes finally succeeding all the more rewarding. The fantastic presentation is what ultimately sold me, though. The retro filter really adds a ton of character and makes every cheesy cinematic and fight scene stick out. Also, one of the side quests ends with you discovering your pet cat was a supervillain threatening to nuke the world. And that’s amazing.
Someone made a 2D action game where you can play as nearly every single action movie hero ever made and it is the most gloriously stupid thing. Broforce really is as good as you’ve heard, and it’s kind of brilliant in its stupidity. It constantly jokes about its own hyper-masculinity and overt patriotism in some hilarious lines and mechanics, like helping villagers to only see them get easily slaughtered, until it hits the introduction of the xenomorphs and proceeds to go completely off the rails in the most beautiful way. The final boss is just damned amazing and worth the price of admission alone.
What sets it apart from other 2D action games is the complete destruction system, where you can actually destroy the entire level if you’re dedicated enough. As a result, every level feels very open in how you can tackle them, which is good due to the huge cast. You play as a different hero every time you die, and everyone controls radically different. It’s absolute chaos, but it is endlessly addictive chaos. Ash is OP for bosses, by the by.
11. Randal’s Monday
Now here’s one I would have never expected to be anywhere near a list of games I even remotely enjoyed. Just look at that art. It’s like if Family Guy and CTRL+ALT+DELETE had a baby and then tossed it in a garbage can. There also some pretty bad jokes targeted at queer folk I wasn’t so keen on. But the fact Randal’s Monday ranked at 11 should tell you that it’s doing something right. Less is more often more for me, but this game is one huge exception. It’s a comedy point and click bloated with so many jokes, gags, one-liners, and references that something eventually has to stick, and the laugh to silence ratio is surprisingly strong in the favor of laughing.
Despite relying on some lazy tropes (like Randal being an alcoholic and deadbeat), there are some clever ideas here (like Randal picking up everything he sees being explained by making him a kleptomaniac, which is a major plot point). It does a refreshing spin on time loops by letting Randal’s actions affect the next repeating day, but the effects become increasingly unpredictable, and the story spins off into all sorts of bizarre situations. Old jokes come back in unexpected ways, and the final level goes out on a huge high note I dare not spoil. But the strongest aspect the game has going for it, which really shocked me, was that Randal …is likable. He’s painted as your normal dickhead protagonist, but his quest to save his best friend and erase a terrible mistake he made is treated seriously by him the longer the loops continue. Despite his faults, he’s not a one note character, and he’s not trying to harm anyone unless they mess with him first. Randal’s Monday manages to do what all its contemporaries can’t, and that is creating a likable and even relatable cast of main characters. Well, with one major exception, but even the game knows this and uses it for a last minute gag. Well played.
I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.
This game really is trash in a lot of ways, but goddamn it, the thing works. If you’re not sure what I’m talking about here, Huniepop is an infamous puzzle/dating sim game with a staff that hang around chan boards and mistake constant cursing as good writing. I was gifted it for review, because I promised, and to my horror, I ended up kind of loving it. It’s one of my most played games on Steam now because I am terrible. I mean, there is so much wrong with it, not the least being the writer just reusing het dialog if you choose to play as a woman, or the drinking mechanic that was INSANELY bad for obvious reasons (and I’m glad to say I never used it). Hell, the achievements use MRA lingo. Oh, and don’t even get me started on the bizarrely racist gifting system.
But …it’s a good game. A really good game. There’s a ton of polish in every menu and transition, and the main puzzle stuff is a fun twist on the match three formula. Managing all the various mechanics that help decide if a date is successful is surprisingly fun and involved, and there’s a lot of characters that instantly leave an impression. My personal favorite was that weird alien girl (who also got the best outfits, by the by). It’s guilty pleasure in every sense of the word, but the staff knew what they were making and made it the best version of that terrible concept.
At least I can say that HunieCam Studio was genuinely bad and should be avoided.
9. NOT A HERO
So this is what happens when people who make skateboard games take those design sensibilities and put them into an action game. NOT A HERO is a violent, hilarious, and utterly fucked up fun time, and I can’t wait for more of it. It’s a political satire about a group of vigilantes working for a weird time traveling rabbit that wants to win an upcoming election to save the world, and his plan is to win votes by murdering all of the bad guys with guns and knives. He also gives strange pep talks that sometimes have special guests, like a clown, or the rotting corpse of an animal.
This game is a laugh riot at times, but its addictive gameplay is what makes it truly something memorable. NOT A HERO goes with high risk, high reward level design, as your characters can’t last in firefights long, but they can all dish out pain in their own ways. Some rely more on weaponry, others their mobility. Everyone can slide, dive, and do dramatic jumps out windows, not to mention hide behind cover and do stealth kills. You die a lot, but each level becomes a blast to memorize and dominate. You have power, but it’s power that requires mastery. Also, as you unlock characters, you can pick out the one that fits your style best. Myself, I levitated to the very methodical Clive and speedy Sammy. Mainly Clive, because nothing is more satisfying than offing someone with one well timed shotgun blast at point blank range.
8. Hector: Badge of Carnage
This one surprised me just as much as Randal, if not more. Hector is another adult only comedy point and click, and it’s a genuinely nasty game. The titular Hector is a truly unlikable jerk, and every single character in the game is a horrid excuse for a human being, all populating the worst part of London. I’d normally hate something like this, but the longer length that comes with making a point and click over a cartoon allows jokes and scenarios more room to breathe and set in fully, which also means more chances at great lines. I love that even the game’s hint system, which is basically a full on walkthrough, kind of hates you and insults you for using it. It’s a nasty, mean spirited game that goes all the way in that direction and never looks back.
It helps that the scenarios presented aren’t tired concepts, unlike Randal’s Monday. For every slum and alley, you’ll find such strange things like a disgusting all meat restaurant and a store that only sells guns and muffs. Don’t look up what that is, kids. There’s always something weird and unexpected hiding out somewhere, really showing how much effort the writers put in. I adore some of the exchanges here as well, thanks to Hector’s surprising amount of crude wit. Also, what other game lets you solve a puzzle by capturing a leprechaun with a bear trap? Never has something so fucked up made me laugh so much.
7. Saturday Morning RPG
I’m kind of mad with myself for not getting to this game sooner. Saturday Morning RPG is a genuine delight that really understands how you make nostalgia work. It’s a Paper Mario style RPG about a hapless loser who gains a magical trapper keeper and has to fight evil villains based on 80s cartoon staples to save the world. It’s more than just references, though. The entire game structures itself like a cheesy 80s cartoon, from the dialog to the characters and plot beats. They even got the composer for the original Transformers cartoon to compose music for the game, including a power ballad that references the oh so famous “The Touch.” There’s even an anti-drug chapter and a Christmas special. This aesthetic is so pure and adorable.
The mechanics are equally enjoyable. Every area has a childish pop-up style with 8 and 16-bit sprites on display, really inviting you to explore and see what wacky things you can find. The battle system, on the other hand, is all based around using different everyday objects to gain special powers that you can use via quick time events and timed button presses. Those powers are all over the place, ranging from throwing a Tron disk to becoming Mario and even playing the electric piano guitar to melt some faces. There is not a moment in this game that doesn’t leave me smiling on some level, it’s complete nostalgia overload in the most positive way possible. This game is more than just a string of references, it’s a recreation of an entire style of entertainment lost to the ages.
6. The Westport Independent
One of the things I love about videogames is how it can use player interaction to make a point about something. It invites far more audience participation than most other mediums, which can lead to an audience being impacted in a more straight-forward way. The Westport Independent is a great example of this. Based on an old flash game from the Papers, Please guy, this game presents itself as a newspaper censorship game. You run a paper in the middle of the rise of a fascist regime not unlike the Nazis, and you have to print stories either for or against the government, with both options having huge impact on you, your writers, and the country you inhabit.
Unlike the more hectic Papers, Please, Westport benefits from a slower pace that lets you think and muse over every decision at your own pace. You have to censor out certain bits of information and change headlines to put across a narrative to your readers, while also not arousing suspicion of the government or other factions that read your paper. It all becomes a complex balancing act, especially if you want to avoid getting your writers arrested or killed, and the smallest story can have far more radical effects than you realize. The game really shows the power that the news has over us, and the incredible responsibility that is proper journalism. Also, you can slander celebrities as a tabloid mag and this never stops being hilarious. Their agents and lawyers send threatening mail sometimes.
It’s amazing how Wadjet Eye keeps managing to find new ways to top themselves. Shardlight doesn’t have the best puzzles of their work, but it definitely has one of the richest worlds and strongest narratives. It’s a great sister piece to the more nihilistic and contemplative Primordia, giving a heartfelt story about a woman trying to survive after the end of the world and having to deal with a complex political conflict she finds herself dead center in. These are some of the most likable characters Wadjet Eye has ever written, and they explore themes of death and violence with a great amount of weight and tact.
This may also be one of the most stunning looking games the studio has ever put out, and that is absolutely no small feat after making Blackwell Epiphany and Technobabylon. The highlight for me would be a spiritual journey at the church of the Reaper, where you have to speak with dead characters to figure out your next actions and and come to terms with everything that’s happened so far. It’s a very moving scene that lets the art team really go all out on abstract imagery. I wouldn’t say this is my favorite Wadjet Eye game, but second? It’s made a strong case for itself.
4. The Stanley Parable
I am still amazed by how good this game is. I came in knowing what it was and what was in store, and it still surprised me. The Stanley Parable is a game about games that doesn’t just look at game systems, but the people who make them and the people who play them. But at the same time, it uses that as a foundation to make wider commentary on the nature of choice, our place in the universe, and even how we react to authority to assert our own independence, sometimes in meaningless ways. It’s like if a clever comedy got crossed with cosmic horror, and it is absolutely my jam (boy oh boy do I love me some nihilism).
It’s amazing how tightly designed this game is. There’s so many paths to explore with wildly different outcomes and things to say and dissect. The game takes so much into account too, even including endings where you don’t leave the starting room at all, or another where you fall through a glitch and get mocked for it. It’s both a work of comedic genius, and one that gets into your brain and doesn’t leave once the full weight of what its saying comes through. This is one of those indie games that absolutely deserved all the attention it got, and then more. The Stanley Parable is the sort of thing you only see once every decade.
3. VA-11 Hall-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
I waited for this game and number two for a long while, and both were absolutely worth the wait. VA-11 is seriously one of the coolest visual novels I have ever picked up, and one with a ton of cross audience appeal this genre normally lacks. It’s also one of the best bits of cyberpunk you’ll ever find, telling your usual hackers fighting for freedom story in the background as you play as a lowly bartender serving customers in a dying city. Even once the main story becomes clear, it’s a reserved and personal affair all about repairing a relationship thought long gone, and not a major dramatic one like a lost love or anything like that. Yet this story packs so much weight and hits so hard.
But it’s all the little conversations of your regulars that really stick out. Everyone has a story and an unexpected human side to them, hidden beneath all the anime style wackiness. Lost loved ones, insecurities, personal confusion, growing relationships, family troubles, making a living, philosophy, dreams, goals, morals, political leanings, and most importantly, hope. Every single character in this game is amazingly well realized and likable on some level, even the most despicable of them. VA-11 understands the power of simple human stories, presenting them in a fantastical way while putting across very familiar emotions and moods. It’s easily one of the best written games I’ve ever played, and the fantastic score and sprite work is only icing on top (and yes, play with the filter).
2. Ladykiller in a Bind
The other big release I almost waited half a decade for, Christine Love’s follow up to the Analogue games is one of the best games about sex you’ll ever find. Yes, it is pretty openly about sex. Queer BDSM sex, to be precise. The game uses choice in clever and interesting ways, even down to how you make decisions depending on if you’re being dominate or submissive to another party. It also takes advantage of choice with a high stakes game of politics between your player character pretending to be a completely different character having to walk on eggshells around a group of eccentric high schoolers that are all trying to manipulate everyone else for their own benefit. Sometimes, it’s for material gain. Other times, personal things that our out of place heroine has no knowledge of. Comedy ensues. Tumblr is dunked on multiple times.
It’s a very sex positive game that uses choices to show the balance in kinky relationships, and embraces the complex fluidity of sexuality in such a refreshingly open way. I particularly like the dom route with Stalker, because it’s all about not abusing the power she gives you over her and helping her grow some self-confidence. This is also the first time the harem route in one of Love’s games feels thematically appropriate, because it turns out both your love interests were already seeing each other before you got there. Great. It’s all Love at her most indulgent and it’s great, especially with all the groan worthy gags made hilarious with a bit of unexpected placement in the dialog. Honestly, this is her best work so far, and I’m excited to see what she does next.
Ladykiller was always going to be my big game of the year, I expected.
But there’s this one little known game I found that completely changed this.
This fucking game.
I’m not even sure Sometimes Always Monsters will be able to wow me like this one did. Masochisia is a game by one Jon Oldblood, and it appears to be his only released game so far. If this is his first attempt, I shutter to think what his second game is like. Masochisia only last two hours, but so much is said and done in those two hours that I don’t even know where to begin. It’s a horror game with a very uncomfortable twist I’ll avoid spoiling here, but the long and short is that you’re an abused kid who’s told by an angel who is clearly not an angel to kill your father. Bad things then follow.
The game is drenched in dread and a vague violent presence, but what makes it terrifying is how it uses choice. Where Undertale was very blunt in its childlike script, Masochisia aims itself both at adults and those who already have expectations to where this story is headed. Its choices are still just as clear on the surface level, but the way it presents everything discourages trying to exploit testing the choice system. It expects you to kill the father. It expects you to become something horrid.
And then it stops and asks you why you did it. You give an answers, and then it asks for further information about that answer. The game constantly mixes around choices you can make with ones already made for you, never making it clear exactly what the end game is, and proceeds to screw with you in the most sadistic, skin crawling ways imaginable. There’s one sequence in this game I dare not describe because it still disgusts me to this day, but mainly because the game forces you to take part in this act in order to complete it. That’s also where the incredible sound design goes completely insane and becomes a nightmare you can’t escape from.
But Masochisia isn’t trying to say if you’re a good or bad person. It wants you to think about that yourself. It lets you make answers, then questions them. By the time it’s over, Masochisia leaves you different then when you began it. There’s not many games I can honestly say have accomplished that.