I kinda fucked up. In my top ten games of 2016, I not only didn't rank my picks, but I threw in a load of other titles, too, rattling about the main selections like little bonus tidbits. Which, you might think, is not fucking up at all: why not mention more good things than you "should"? Yeah, I hear that, but still: I kinda fucked up.
Because I totally failed to write "Firewatch" even once, and I really liked Firewatch (by Campo Santo, pictured above). Enough that when I'd played it through the once, late at night, I told my wife about it and made her play it with me again a few nights later. In a single sitting. "Honey, it's getting late, I'm ti…" "Just a little longer." You know what I'm talking about. We've all been there. There's a good bit coming. The good bit's coming.
You know Firewatch, right? You don't need me to really dig into it for you, I'm sure. You play around. You switch up your genres, your experiences. You don't mind walking around a forest while the stars stretch out above you like a sea of the most magnificent jewels; or spelunking into places you shouldn't spelunk purely because of a hunch; or stepping over tragedy when it stares you in the face, stark and cold, and there's nothing you can do except keep walking and trying not to cry. Yeah. You know Firewatch.
I know some people got pissy about it. That it was another of these "walking simulators" that independent developers are slowly destroying Real Video Games with. That it had some performance problems on PS4 that turned a pleasant stroll into a queasy swagger from time to time. But to those people I say: prrrrpt.
No fart noises overheard in Loud On Planet X (by Pop Sandbox), a rhythm-action blaster that inadvertently slipped outta my head when I was previously putting together my favorites. Not that it's a solid-gold-standard contender in its class, so far as the mechanical side of things goes: you tap your buttons in time with the beat, those buttons corresponding to different lanes, down which glide and slide alien nasties that get zapped apart by your, erm, speakers. Obviously.
It's simple enough to make for a bite-size mobile game—which it is, too, although I played it on PS4. But the Plants vs Zombies vs Guitar Hero vibe comes alive for me with the song selection, featuring as it does a lil' smattering of personal faves: HEALTH, Cadence Weapon, Fucked Up, CHVRCHES, Purity Ring. It's like someone came to my house, lifted a bunch of records off my shelves and chucked them at a game development studio: here, you, do something with these. Again, I see some people didn't care for it, but to those people I raise a finger.
And point it towards something completely different, since you don't care for stylishly rockin' and poppin' sounds and extraterrestrials with too many eyeballs for not-so-easy Earth girls. Action Henk (by RageSquid). Okay, I know it came out in 2015, but not for anything I own: I'm a consoles-only guy as it stands, so when this stupendously fun Uniracers-goes-Rayman affair (sort of?) butt-slid its way into my life, I grabbed it like it was the freshest, juiciest peach on the tree. And bit down hard. And laughed heartily. As did my oldest son: of all the games released in 2016, this is the one that most aggressively tickled his funny bone.
Action Henk is elementary game design, on paper: here you are, here is a course, and you must complete this course in this time to earn the best score—or, here, a medal. You get more medals, you unlock more courses. You register your time on a leaderboard, you find that you're a few hundred places above that friend of yours, and pub bragging rights are yours. In practice, oh boy: once those breeze-through-'em early levels are behind you, this turns into an equation where speed times precision equals perfection but when your sums are awry you spend an hour constantly restarting the same course until you get it right. Run, jump, slide, hookshot, run, jump, fuuuck. Restart. Run, jump, slide, hookshot, run, jump, slide, jump, fuuuck. Restart.
Which sounds completely awful; but when I look at how many courses I have completed, I've clearly experienced quite the addiction. I'm over it now, but that's more because of the Xbox's crappy dashboard layout, I suspect, than any determined cold-turkey campaign. Out of sight, out of mind except, now, I am thinking about it, and I know there are level-ending challenges I never cracked, and… fuuuck.
Reigns. Reigns, Reigns, Reigns (by Nerial). I did mention this wicked little iOS delight in my "proper" best games piece but it was purely in passing and I feel it deserves a little more love. So, allow me a few paragraphs to slather it in just that.
Y'know when you get home from work and you throw your coat over whatever other junk is in your hallway, force your shoes off without undoing the laces or even deigning to bend over, and heroically crash into the sofa, like an overweight hippopotamus cannonballing into an Olympic-sized pool of butter-like spread? When you just need a drink in one hand and something to stare at and laugh at and get a little scared by and sometimes, just sometimes, feel a little bit sexy with in the other. Y'know that time? It's perfect for Reigns: a one-handed swipe-'em-up where that Tinder mechanic for "yes" or "no" is employed for an eons-spanning tale of warmongering, romance, fame and fortune, dungeon-crawling, demonic possession, revolutions and uprisings, and dogs.
The one-handed game should be a genre in and of itself: ideal for playing with a Bud, or a bitter, or something soft, or a deliciously warming brew. (Side-dunker optional, but you're gonna need an occasional table or something for that, unless you put your phone/tablet/whatever-you're-playing- Reigns-on down to go double-handed; and you don't wanna do that.) Get someone to peel it for you and it suits a banana-sized snack break. One thumb, left or right: that's your controls, end of, more refreshing than a pint of spritzer.
In Reigns you're the king, always the king, never not the ruler of the land in which so much happens, so fast, the clock always ticking down on your decisions. Do you marry this person to aid the peace process, or send the army into your own streets to deal with whatever fresh madness is unfolding there? Who can you trust, when everyone—the people, the church, the army, the bankers—essentially want you dead? Most of the time you can't even trust your own choices, so frequently do they prove your undoing. But it's okay: there's always an heir, and the devil plays a quite incredible waiting game.
There's nothing so inherently evil to be found in Hue (by Fiddlesticks); but the puzzle side of this puzzle-platformer, which I also gave the merest of shout-outs in that other piece, is expertly engineered to infuriate for just long enough until—click—everything slides into position and you, Hue, escape the room in question. Because Hue is you and you are looking for your mum, Hue's mum, who's lost in color.
There's a story here, but really, Hue is all about the head-scratchers; about stepping into a space, doing your best to analyze it without moving a thing, setting about your solution, and then realizing you've completely botched it. It's the most Portal-like game to look nothing like Portal whatsoever that I have played since Portal came out, and has all of that same semi-trial-and-error problem-solving about it. Really, it's more cerebral than just pushing a bunch of buttons 'til the right ones light up.
Like Portal's ASHPoD, it has a unique tool to crack each conundrum: a color wheel that changes the background to the corresponding shade, causing objects in the foreground to disappear and reappear. It's such a simple little trick, but one that never gets dull over the game's course as the context for its use changes at a breathless pace. Wonderfully calming soundtrack too, that I wrote about here, which in later stages is completely necessary. I'd call the game meditative, if I were one of those people. Which apparently I am.