2016 was a rough year, we can all agree on that yeah? The year in gaming saw its share of award winners and flops, but what about the little guys? The ones that helped push the envelope in their own special way in the medium? Those special projects that you wouldn’t give the time of day to if it weren’t for certain articles (or a top 5 list) cluing you into their inherent merits? As much as we’d like to forget about 2016 and all of its tragedies, let’s take one last look back as we bring you the 5 must play games from 2016.
The Silver Case HD
Japanese auteur Goichi “Suda51” Suda is a creative director I love and hate in equal measure. At his best, his games are uneven messes of barely polished gameplay used to present a narrative that sounds like someone read a bunch of philosophy textbooks on a lethal dose of LSD. The headscratching madness of Killer 7 or the surprisingly cutting pop-culture satire of No More Heroes are great examples of this approach, one that I love. Then there are his low points with more recent projects being traditionally more palatable but creatively tepid like Killer is Dead and Shadows of the Damned.
Thankfully it appears whatever drugs he wasn’t allowed to take before has come back in buckets with two releases this year. The first was Let It Die, his take on free-to-play games with GungHo Interactive. A dungeon crawling roguelike action RPG where you pay real money for extra tries at clearing a massive tower of challenges. It also has Death imagined as a skateboarding Spanish-accent having arcade game enthusiast who refers to the player as “senpai” in every exchange. Because buckets of drugs.
The second was an HD remaster of Suda51’s premiere game, The Silver Case. It originally released in Japan on the original PlayStation back in 1999 but hasn’t seen an official English localization until now. A first-person perspective adventure game about a detective agency trying to track down a mass murderer that may or may not be human. There’s a lot more going on at first glance, which is why it took me three paragraphs to get to the point, and to further explain it would ruin the surprise.
The localization was overseen by Suda51 himself and was a huge passion project spanning nine years of effort. Despite being a heavily dated game with a lot of noticeable restrictions, it is still a surreal and unusual trip down the rabbit hole. It utilizes mountains of text, seemingly obtuse puzzles and even clips of live-action footage to deliver a deranged detective procedural. You can find it on Steam and GoG if it suits your fancy and there’s even a free demo if you want a taste of this creative director in his prime.
VA-11 HALL-A: Cyberpunk Bartender Action
I can not get into visual novels. On the one hand they are highly scripted experiences that can dive deeper into certain subject matter that traditional videogame interactivity hasn’t reached just yet but they can also be a total slog. They might be well written and have interesting branching paths based on choices you make, but I always keep wondering if there is a better way to express such choices rather than clicking on a dialogue box. Enter Sukeban Games’ take on the genre with VA-11 HALL-A.
The premise is stock cyberpunk. It’s the future, everyone is being emotionally suppressed by nanomachines. There’s an invasive police state run by an oppressive evil mega corporation, and there are people with robot parts grafted on to their bodies. Things are crap, corruption is rampant, and regular people have been given a raw deal.
But instead of the game turning into a detective noir action romp like the more recent Deus Ex installments, this visual novel has you play out the role of a bartender. A humble mixologist that runs a special paradise away from the prying eyes of Big Brother lovingly called “Valhalla.” You have a reliable clientele that vents their frustrations and problems while you mix them drinks, which you have to get right because those tips are the only things keeping your establishment from being shut down by the man. But the best tips come from you just knowing what your customer craves and how that will affect their mental state.
And there is your unique selling point. Instead of simple dialogue options on a static screen, your interaction with the various characters of the game is done via an elaborate cocktail mixing interface, with recipes meant to help deal with certain people in certain situations. It’s a surprisingly subtle matter of a moral choice system that doesn’t cheapen the visual novel presentation. Do you get a character totally sloshed because you know they have the cash and you need to get the bills paid, or do you know there’s something more going on with how that money was earned and you play the role of a moral guardian angel? There are more examples like this but that would be too telling. It’s currently available on Steam and GoG as well and it isn’t totally demanding hardware wise.
Shantae: Half-Genie Hero
Technically this is closer to an installment of a series with a cult following than an outright obscure gem but WayForward Technologies deserves more love so it gets a spot. The Shantae games have always been solid platformers about a genie that belly dances, transforms into animals, and uses her hair like a whip to defeat her enemies. They have an infectiously campy and humorous tone and each installment has some of the best sprite animation I have seen in any old retro throwback project. The problem is the games usually come out for a console around the end of their life span. For example, the series’ very first installment came out on the Game Boy Color around the time the Game Boy Advance was out and selling like hot cakes, which has led to the physical cartridges becoming a collector’s item.
Half-Genie Hero is the series’ first foray into HD and it was well worth the wait. Seeing Shantae take down larger than life enemies on a big screen has its own charm to it, and it’s utterly eclectic level and environment design has to be seen to be believed. Two words: mermaid factory. It’s available on PC, all current-gen consoles as well as PlayStation Vita and Wii U.
Drinkbox Studios has been a real break-out developer in recent years. The first big critical hit for the Toronto-based developer came with Guacamelee, a Metroidvania style action game about a masked wrestler rescuing his love from the lord of the dead. It had a co-op mode, memorable enemies, and you could piledrive chupacabras in it. Truly a classic for the ages.
Their follow-up, Severed, is quite the doozy. It’s a touch screen based first-person dungeon crawler RPG. The focus is on a young woman with one arm who is on a search for her lost family with the aid of a living sword. The sword can sever the limbs of her enemies, which are then used to improve her skills. Think Kill Bill meets Monster Hunter with an exotic color palette.
The game debuted on the PlayStation Vita which probably explains why it flew under the radar. But there’s an App Store version for iPhone and iPad and a Nintendo 3DS port available now, all of which are respectfully engaging.
Interactive Dramas are a four letter word to some people in the gaming community. Their presence is right up there with the buzzwords “cinematic,” or “Hollywood Movie Quality Writing,” or “emotional,” and in a lot of ways I can agree with the sentiment. But every now and then a drama comes along that remembers that if you take the interactivity out of a video game, you better be bringing something to the table to fill that void. In the case of developer Variable State, they actually added something new to the narrative focused subgenre with Virginia.
On the surface it’s a straight forward police procedural. You play as Agent Anne Tarver sent to investigate the case of a missing boy in a small town while also working a case for Internal Affairs regarding your partner. There are twists and turns, most of the gameplay involves simple key-hunting and outside of a brilliant musical score doesn’t shake things up in terms of narrative or gameplay. So why is it on the list? Variable State understood that making a game cinematic didn’t have to be negative and utilized film editing techniques with the gameplay sections to minimize tedious walking and maintain pacing.
In other words, you don’t have to walk down a hallway, down a flight of stairs and then down another hallway in order to forward the plot, just six or seven steps in each geographically distinct area before the game seamlessly “cuts” to the next point to save time. It’s not obnoxious, it isn’t in your face, and it leads to a more condensed and enthralling experience. There are some issues with the game’s ending but for bringing some much needed cinematic language that gels really well with the interactivity of a video game it deserves some under the radar recognition. You can pick up a copy on PSN, Xbox Live or on PC.
So there you have it. Five games of 2016 that you may not have heard of that are totally worth you time. Here’s hoping 2017 is full of great and interesting experiences as well.