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Of 2016: My Top Five Games

Here's my five favorite, most special games of 2016!

Even making an unordered list of my five top games of 2016 feels really hard this year. I don’t have a thread to tie them all together or any point to make. Maybe it’s the Retro Effect, spending a lot of meaningful time playing, recording, sharing and investigating old stuff. Nevertheless, here are my Top Five most special games of 2016, meticulously ranked… in alphabetical order.

Dragon Quest Builders (PlayStation 4)
I played the Japanese demo early in 2016 but it was Katy who actually picked this one up. After she bounced off I got totally sucked in by the combination of Minecraft with a Quest Log. There are still some glaring oversights that will hopefully be smoothed out in a sequel but giving purpose to the block-placing and crafting was ingenious.

With the NPCs requesting new rooms and personal favors it almost felt like Animal Crossing. Suddenly it wasn’t just “build this room out of dirt”, it was all about building and decorating a room and the town to feel like a real place. Pushing the game’s limits and trying to outsmart the frequent monster invasions only kept me building for hours and hours on end.

Inside (Xbox One)
It’s not flashy or loud or even very long but if you stop for a moment while playing Inside you can tell why it took nearly six years to make. Almost every step of the way has a unique mechanic that makes you feel like you’ve mastered its nuances by the time you move on.

It may look simple and flat shaded (the characters don’t even have faces, I hear you say) but there are so many miniscule details in the environments, the physics and the animations that subtly sucked me in. The final stretch was also a huge, shocking surprise that had me playing with one hand while the other clasped my gaping mouth below a wide eyed stare. All this without diary entries to explain the story or even spoken dialog.

The Last Guardian (PlayStation 4)
Had this come out on the same schedule as its predecessors (which would put it around 2009) it would’ve been my Game of the Year without doubt. But so far removed from its original time and place it’s hard to fall totally in love with it. The Last Guardian is exactly the combination of ICO and Shadow of the Colossus and nothing more. In fact, it’s missing a few things. There’s no villain which made ICO’s finale so memorable and what is here is more confusing than emotionally resonant.

Still, I found myself in love with Trico for most of the game, talking to it in the same way I would a pet. Questioning where it’s going, chiding it for making perilous jumps and giggling at its antics were all reactions I never expected to feel from a game. Not even my beloved Preston from Petz Hamsterz elicited a real reaction like this. What dulls these amazing moments with Trico are the times when you can practically see the AI routines running. I tried to convince myself it was acting naturally and that this was a “real” creature but I couldn’t help being resigned at times to wait for it to finish its equations.

I may sound down on it but The Last Guardian is absolutely a Top Five for me. Its luster may diminished after all the years in mothballs but it’s still totally unique, memorable and special to me.

Starbound (Steam)
Similarly long in development was Starbound, a spiritual expansion of Terraria which I already loved to pieces. There had been plenty of alpha and beta builds over the years but I really wanted to wait for a 1.0 release to jump in. Like so many other games I’ve enjoyed in the last few years, it’s the mystery of how Starbound works and what sights there are to discover that satisfied me so much. Now that I think of it, it’s also a little like Dragon Quest Builders in that it adds a loose structure to the otherwise directionless crafting that’s typical of the genre.

It was made all the more special by playing it with Katy at my side. There are a few quirks to it but the way Starbound manages everyone’s unique, randomly generated universes across multiplayer is downright elegant. We were able to establish a shared planet where we built a home and farmed our crops while venturing out on quests, delving deep into dangerous otherworldly depths. Hilariously, we found ourselves robbing these quest locations blind, “shopping” for new decorations and materials while rescuing NPCs and fighting bosses.

Being a cute and colorful “2D Minecraft” made the soundtrack hit even harder. Curtis Schweitzer’s score makes even mundane farming feel meaningful and while it looped a lot for the 90 hours we were playing I couldn’t bring myself to turn it off. It was my Soundtrack of the Year for good reason and makes the game feel even more alive.

The Witness (PlayStation 4)
It’s hard for me to call this one as I’m writing this almost exactly a year after I last played it. Right at this moment I can’t recall playing The Witness very clearly but I remember the way it made me feel. Smart! Sure, I stumbled at understanding plenty of its mechanics and had to look up hints and ultimately some naked solutions. But there are hundreds of puzzles to unravel in the game and I sussed out the majority of them on my own, with my own brain. Just like Jonathan Blow’s previous game, Braid, The Witness has a way of making your head feel swimmy in the most empowering way. It’s like turning your head sideways and seeing something that wasn’t there before.

One of the defining moments — which I really hope you’ve had for yourself if you don’t know where this is going — is realizing that the puzzles aren’t contained to the little panels where you draw lines and shapes. Perspective is the key to the game and it is almost narcotically mind altering the first time you see it. Like everyone else I was seeing shapes in real life for weeks and spent hours reading theories and explanations on reddit when I wasn’t able to play.

Who knows, maybe it really did expand my mind as 2016 has been enlightening for me in so many ways, in and out of gaming. I may not be able to recall a lot of it right now but those feelings haven’t left me and for that it deserves to be a Top Five.

Of 2016: The Bummers

Of 2016: The Bummers

I wrote down a bunch of games that I personally didn’t care for but it’s not like they were bad, broken or offensive, it just wasn’t my time to embrace them. Instead, my Bummers of 2016 are all about trends, both personally and industry-wide.

Playing Fewer Games
I miss my glory days when I was able to put my hands on hundreds of PlayStation 2, Xbox, GameCube and PC titles. Between press contacts, freelance writing, working at Blockbuster — and regrettably, piracy — I played through so many more games than I have in the past half-decade. Nowadays I seem to double down on a smaller assortment of endlessly replayable experiences. The kind with more mystery to their mechanics rather than an emphasis on story or the size of their worlds.

It’s not that I feel I’m wasting my time or am left unsatisfied — in a lot of ways these games are more personally rewarding than 12-hour single player campaigns — but there are still loads of games I’d like to have seen through first hand. See the Might’ve Been Cools for just a tiny list of games I intended to play, but still haven’t.

Oh, you mean the 360? Yeah that was great

Xbox, what’s that?
I really did love the Xbox, all the way back to the original. The 360 era was my favorite generation of gaming and most of it was thanks to that console. We even got an Xbox One around its launch and I fully expected it to be my platform of choice this generation. But the games, they did not come. Instead it was the PlayStation 4 that brought the most exclusives that I was personally excited about. With the PS4 always at the ready it became the place I preferred to play and watch just about everything in 2016.

  • After 7 years I let my Xbox Live Gold membership expire and I don’t feel even a pang of remorse about it.
  • Not even their offerings of “free” games were enough to keep me on the hook.
  • We still only own a single Xbox One controller.
  • Even Kinect, whose voice commands are the best way to navigate the kludgy Dashboard, was retired.

Maybe Scorpio will win me over or maybe I’ll build a new gaming PC and the Play Anywhere stuff will really take off. But outside of a precious few exclusives like Inside and FRU the whole Xbox experience in 2016 was a dusty, distant and dormant afterthought for me.

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Delisted Games and Delisted Games
I didn’t fall into a rabbit hole with delisted games so much as I dove into a labyrinthine ant nest with contorted tunnels sprawling out into the darkness. I launched DelistedGames.com in 2016 and spent the spring and early summer really drilling into things. It’s still very much console-focused but without the support I was hoping to find it’s going to be much longer before it grows to encompass PC and mobile delistings. Still, I have a pretty good base and I’ve done my best to keep up with shutdown notices and sudden disappearances throughout the year.

We lost even more games in 2016 due to licensing deals and studio consolidation. Just a very few include: Project Spark, Dead Star, Disney Infinity, The Beatles: Rock Band DLC, Xbox Fitness, Asteroids: Outpost, Asheron’s Call, SMASH+GRAB, Forza Horizon, Castle of Illusion, The Devil’s Third, Planetside, Legends of Norrath, DUST 514 and Nosgoth. Thankfully we got more advanced notices in 2016 so fans could temper their emotions and enjoy the last few days, weeks and months with these games.

It’s still sad to see a game go and it isn’t going to stop, ever. It’s also getting harder to dig up details after the fact as so much of the modern web lacks permanent URLs. Even the invaluable Archive.org can’t capture the current PlayStation Store leaving research to exhaustive data mining or forum heresay. Microsoft recently transitioned all their web stores over to a similar structure leaving a mess of URLs that may or may not be navigable in its wake.

Of 2016: The Most Played Games

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It’s getting harder to track playtime than it used to be. I feel like most games used to give you the full stats breakdown but this year I’m basing most of these on gut feelings. The biggest guestimation is for Dragon Quest Builders which I’ve pegged at 95+ hours. The only stat the game tracks is “days passed” which I timed out to be about 10 minutes. Time stops during dialog scenes though, as well as when you’re in any of the menus and at the beginning of each new chapter until you progress to a certain point. For a game with a restrictive inventory system there’s loads of time spent juggling items, using up materials and deciding what to throw away. What kept me going for 95 hours? Look for my Top Five of 2016 post coming up.

Ace Combat and Starbound, 2 very different games I spent 90+ hours with in 2016

Surprisingly, 2nd and 3rd place are tied at 91 hours between Ace Combat Infinity and Starbound. Having picked up a more reliable slim PlayStation 3 I felt like I could push the hardware with months of non-stop, repeatable Ace Combat action. It’s a free-to-play amalgamation of the series’ greatest hits and it became my new Spelunker World for most of 2016. I checked in daily to use up my free “fuel”, running missions and racking up rewards to pump into the gargantuan upgrade system. Aside from October when I was totally absorbed by Dragon Quest I think I kept at it almost every day from July through December.

Starbound’s time was much more concentrated around its launch in late July. After 4+ years in the making I was ready to dive into the spiritual follow-up to Terraria with Katy at my side, crafting and exploring our randomly generated galaxies. One of the few games I played on Xbox this year was Dead Rising 3 (ironically, in the same year they announced and released a brand new sequel) in which I racked up a reasonable 40 hours. It was a good balance of traditional Dead Rising race-the-clock quests with some forgiving modern concessions. It was a fun and frivolous romp and most of those hours were spent hunting down the array of collectibles in the game.

I Let it Die so many times

Back on PlayStation 4 again is Let it Die with 36 hours, an impressive feat considering I only started it in December! It’s peculiar style, crafting system and punishing multiplayer invasions have me ready to throw myself against its challenges most evenings. A single run at the tower usually requires 60+ minutes and with only a sneaky way to “pause” the action it’s demanding and captivating. More often than not I come back down the Tower of Barbs with my heart racing but ready to do it all over again. It’s the most harrowing grind I’ve ever experienced in a game and it’ll probably last well into 2017.

Honorable Mentions go to Spelunker World which was still going strong through the end of May. It doesn’t have an hour counter though so there’s no way to tell how much time I really spent. My guess would be well over 10 hours, if not 20 or more. Also without a counter is Big City Stories, the free-to-play SimCity lite that I loaded up for between 5 and 30 minutes most days. It’s hard to tell if I put in a lot of time or just played it for a lot of days. The Witness also lacks a counter but I can’t even guess at this one. There were probably hours spent staring at the screen and doodling out solutions in a notebook. I even cut out little Tetris pieces to help brainstorm new solutions outside of the game. It probably makes it into the top five but when it was expanding my consciousness I definitely wasn’t thinking about the time.

Of 2016: The Game Music

Of 2016: The Game Music

For another year my top music post is housed over on Original Sound Version where I managed to write nearly 90 game music posts in 2016 (!). It’d be really great if you’d check out the full post with some very special honorable mentions but since you’re already here I’ll give you the highlights.

Game Soundtrack of the Year: Starbound by Curtis Schweitzer
There’s a tiny caveat with Starbound. Although the game was released in 2016 I’ve been sitting on this massive soundtrack collection since the backer rewards went out… three years ago. I can only give you my solemn Boy Scout promise that I really didn’t start listening (or playing) until the months leading up to the 1.0 release.

Like my pick for Metal Gear Solid V last year, Starbound has a soundtrack I still haven’t tired of even after hearing it on loop for dozens of hours. My wife and I clocked over 90 hours in the game, the majority of it spent farming on our starter world all set to the same few songs. Some of the 60+ tracks are faster or more dramatic but it’s the long, expansive symphonies that stretch for 8, 13, even 20+ minutes that continue to stir me. It’s shocking how much emotion this music whips up in me for a game that looks so simple.

Runner Up: The Flame in the Flood by: Chuck Ragan
Similarly stirring is Chuck Ragan’s original soundtrack to The Flame in the Flood. It’s short but so, so sweet and somber. It’s the perfect accompaniment to the torment of the roguelike gameplay that it accompanies. It’s also a rarity to hear acoustic folk music, heavy with lyrics, on a game’s soundtrack, even if some of these songs aren’t directly in the game. VGMO has a fantastic review of the album and you can listen for free on Chuck Ragan’s YouTube channel.

Arrangement Album of the Year: VGM NXC 001 by: Party Members
How did this April Fool’s joke that spiraled into an actual release become my favorite arranged album of the year? It’s choppy and frantic in all the right EDM/dub/trap ways that speak to me on top of featuring familiar video game themes. It’s the one remix album I’ve come back to the most and the one I desperately wish was longer. You can call me the April fool but I still call this one my favorite!

Runner Up: Fire Pro M: Volume One by: Sonny Bone (and the FP Community)
I’ve only observed a little bit of the Fire Pro wrestling series from afar so when I saw this community remix album pop up on Bandcamp I tentatively clicked to check it out. I did grow up watching the WWF so the samples from early promos and Beyond the Mat were welcome additions to the variety of remixes from the Fire Pro series. It’s another brash, slightly jarring EDM album that really stuck with me through the year.

Hey, that's me in graph form!

Along the same lines as my YouTube Stats post, here’s some data mining insights from Last.fm for 2016. It isn’t entirely accurate as I did some listening on Spotify, Youtube and other apps that I don’t scrobble from but I can’t argue with these figures. I “scrobbled” (meaning I listened to) over 5,182 songs with an average of 21 songs a day. Be it familiar favorites to accompany my daily drudgery or research for a review on OSV, that breaks down to 961 albums from 1,046 artists.

Last.fm gets even more in-depth, pointing out that I listened to music the most from 7:00am to 8:00am on Wednesdays. I apparently had a hot streak going from June 12th through June 30th, listening for 19 days in a row. It was one of the most heads-down periods at work where I frequently turned to Disasterpeace’s Famaze OST and Mindwipe Goes Sonic from Mindwipe for solace while checking out GaMetal V from the self-titled remixer. Appropriately enough, my top tags were Video game music,  Soundtrack,  Electronic, Japanese and Chiptune. Yup, that’s me.

I thought it’d be fun to dig a little deeper and see what the first and last video game related songs I listened to in 2016 were and I was surprised to find they were from the same artist, Shiryu. The first was his remix of Turrican on January 8th and the last on December 30th was from his most recent album, Deckard, B26354. He was one of my top twenty most listened to artists of the year but I didn’t expect it would line up quite so perfectly.

Of 2016: The YouTube Stats

Of 2016: The YouTube Stats

I asked for it, and I got it: stats on my YouTube channel! This may not be terribly interesting to you but here it is anyways because it’s the only time I really look back at what I’ve recorded. Once again things were on the up and up for me with a few milestones in 2016.

It was the year that I topped 1,000 subscribers (Hi to the 404 new ones) and just over a million minutes watched! My videos racked up 441,695 views, a 23% increase over the year before. Unfortunately, the average view duration dropped again, down 11% to 2 minutes and 25 seconds. It’s been dropping steadily since 2013 though which I think is more indicative of the YouTube audience in general than just my annoying voice.

Total Likes of 3,173 far outweighed the Dislikes of 126 and 699 comments were posted. My heart jumped every time I saw a new comment come in, fully expecting the worst. Yes, plenty of them were filled with irrational name calling but I think a greater percentage were positive; thanking me for taking the time to record something obscure or being constructive on my production. Loads of them were also to lament the Kojima/Konami split and theorize what P.T. would’ve been like.

The single most viewed video was a returning favorite, the beloved Battletanx “Snuggle Bear” commercial with 49,953 new views for a lifetime total of 86,764. It made its way to some of the people involved in the commercial last year and we found out that Jamie Hyneman and Co. were behind the production and that Trip Hawkins went to court to defend the commercial from the Snuggle Bear owners.

The remainder of my Top 10 most viewed videos were all familiar faces from years past. The Speed Racer movie game, Body Harvest and Metal Gear Solid V each had tens of thousands of new views. Sadly, my all-new 2016 uploads fell much shorter but there were some highlights. Here’s a quick Top 5 of original 2016 content:

4,884 views   Hands-On with the PlayStation 4 Universal Media Remote
3,545 views   2016 Emulation Station Theme – ‘Striation’ Final Release 1.0!
1,806 views   Let it Die: All (Beginning) Naomi Detox dialog
1,669 views   Spelunker World: How Upgrades, Item Fusion and Litho-Stones Work
810 views      NBA Jam: The Music Videos VHS (1994)

Finally, the heavy hitters. Here’s the rundown on new views in 2016 for my most regularly watched series:

94,017 views   Metal Gear Solid V [Music Tape 1]
83,847 views   Speed Racer: The Videogame
60,455 views   GameLuv Retro
     including 31,050 from “Snuggle Bear”
     including 2,313 from Nintendo’s E3 2001 Conference
22,700 views   Delisted Games Videos
17,462 views   Body Harvest series