Even as a Nintendo fan who had to suffer through (mostly) radio silence on the Wii U, 2016 was a decent year for gaming, punctuated by some surprisingly-good releases. Outside of the Nintendo hardware bubble, however, there were some major releases that just couldn’t be ignored, regardless of their release platform. It’s time for my list of the Top 5 games of 2016!
- A game has to have been released during the 2016 calendar year to be eligible for inclusion on the list. That’s it!
#5: Kirby: Planet Robobot (HAL Laboratory)
Kirby has been relegated to B-list stardom behind other Nintendo stars like Mario, Link, and Pikachu, but the plucky pink ball has produced several quality titles in the last few years. This year’s installment is Kirby: Planet Robobot, in which Kirby must combat an evil corporation seeking to mechanize his world.
The levels are gorgeous and cleverly-crafted, the code cube puzzles were challenging but not frustrating, the boss battles were a blast, and the developers did a nice job of making Kirby’s mech useful without making it overpowered. The ending gets special props for throwing some cool twists at you and being suitably epic.
Unlike the Wii U, the 3DS had a pretty decent 2016, and Kirby: Planet Robobot was one of the best games of this year’s bunch. The absolute best of the bunch, however, turned out to be…
#4: Pokémon Sun/Moon (Game Freak) (review)
For the seventh generation of Nintendo’s flagship portable franchise, the developers pulled out all the stops to change up the classic Pokémon formula and give players something new to enjoy. Thankfully, they succeeded in this task when it came to outdated mechanics that needed to be tossed out, and failed when it came to aspects that were just fine the way they were.
Despite all the hubbub about “trials” replacing the usual Pokémon Gyms, I found little difference in how the trials actually played out: You fought a few minor battles, maybe solved a puzzle or two, and eventually had a tough battle as a chaser. Additionally, Team Skull was essentially a re-hash of Team Rocket, albeit with less of an idea as to why exactly they were doing evil stuff. As someone who has enjoyed fighting their way through twelve different Pokémon games, I was totally okay with all this.\
The biggest difference (aside from the removal of HMs, which I support wholeheartedly) was the immersiveness of the world and the characters inside it. Random NPCs no longer seemed so random; they had dashes of personality! Your rival wasn’t just some battle-obsessed prodigy, he was a masalada-loving kid struggling to live up to his family’s name. Lillie and Nebby were so well-designed that they ending up going viral (NEBBY, GET IN THE $%^&ING BAG ALREADY!!).
In other words, Game Freak, Nintendo, and the Pokémon Company put a lot of heart into this game, and it showed. It wasn’t quite as impressive, however, as a game that debuted a month earlier…
#3: Paper Mario: Color Splash (Intelligent Systems) (review)
Now that Yooka-Laylee has moved onto the Nintendo Switch, Paper Mario: Color Splash is officially the final love letter written to the Wii U (no, the Breath Of The Wild port doesn’t count)…and what a letter it was.
The developers of PM: CS faced a much bigger challenge than the teams working on the games described above: Whereas Kirby was fighting underexposure and Pokémon was trying to avoid overexposure, Color Splash was attempting to salvage Paper Mario from the wreckage of Sticker Star, one of the most-disliked games Nintendo had released in the last five years. While Color Splash took the same radical-innovation mindset as its predecessor, this game actually stuck the landing through a combination of gorgeous visuals, unique environments, and the sharpest, wittiest dialogue I have ever seen in a game.
Sure, the battle system was a bit clunky, but after playing through a world or two, you didn’t care. You were too wrapped up in the story, too busy chuckling at the dialogue of random Toads and your partner Huey, too busy breaking out your best dance moves along with Mario when the plumber threw out a disco ball in battle. There were homages to past Mario games (especially Mario Bros. 2), there were some self-aware moments where enemies and Mario broke bread and lamented their shared plight, and there were some veiled political commentary thrown in for good measure (did that Toad really just mention infrastructure investments?). Nintendo and Intelligent Systems knew they had to bring their A game for Color Splash, and they pulled it off.
Paper Mario: Color Splash earns the distinction of being my favorite game on a Nintendo console this year. As someone who only owns Nintendo consoles, however, it begs the question: What games could have topped it?
#2: Overwatch (Blizzard Entertainment)
Consider the following: I put this game at #2 despite the fact that I’ve never actually played this game. I’ve watched a ton of Overwatch livestreams, but I’ve never actually taken part in a battle.
So why did I rank the game this high? Simple:
- Splatoon would have been my runaway choice for 2015 Game of the Year.
- Overwatch was the Splatoon of 2016.
For the most part, Overwatch‘s gameplay follows the standard FPS template: You join a team, you decimate the opposition, you work to achieve an objective, yada yada yada. When sets Overwatch apart, however, are the playable characters: Not only do they offer unique playstyles and are generally well-balanced against each other (although anyone who’s been flattened repeatedly by a Bastion might disagree), but they’re so darn likeable because they’ve been infused with so much personality! From Reinhardt to Roadhog, Mei to McCree, and Zarya to Zenyatta, each character has a compelling, carefully-constructed backstory that players can relate to and enjoy. Toss in some well-designed maps and chaotic action, and you’re a couple of ink tanks away from my favorite game of the past few years.
So why isn’t Overwatch #1? Well, it had the unfortunate honor of being released in the same year as…
#1: Pokémon Go (Niantic)
Like Overwatch, I didn’t play this game, but unlike Overwatch, there was no possible way to avoid coming into contact with this game.
Pokémon Go captured the world’s attention like no game I have ever seen. (Having GameXplain, Nintendo Life, and IGN discuss your game is one thing; having Lester Holt, David Muir, and Scott Pelley talk about it is quite another.) For a good month or two, the entire world seemed to bout wandering the countryside looking for Pidgeys and Pikachus (and finding the occasional dead body instead).
There was no escaping the hype train; it was everywhere you looked. Police were issuing warning to stop trespassing in the name of Dratinis. Businesses were offering discounts to players who caught monsters in their establishments. Politicians referenced the trend by telling us to “Pokémon Go to the polls.” As great as Overwatch was, that wasn’t the game the good folks at the Arlington National Cemetery were concerned about people playing.
The fact that the game achieved world domination with just Gen 1 monsters should strike fear into the heart of the competition, because Nintendo’s still got six-hundred-plus Pokémon to throw at people. Virtual Squirtles weren’t enough to entice me to play, but virtual Squirtles, Natus, Cacneas and Starlys? That will be a tougher question to answer.
The game was (and is) overly simplistic, and it’s cooled off a bit since the initial rush, but that rush alone guaranteed that Pokémon Go would not only be the top game of 2016, but perhaps one of the top stories of 2016 period. 2017, your predecessor has just dropped the mic—let’s see you top this.