The coming year promises to be an incredible moment—or, perhaps just as likely, an incredibly disappointing moment—in videogame history. Anticipation is feverish, and so much is at stake: The next eleven months will establish the course videogames take, for good or ill, for a console generation to come.
The majority of 2016’s scheduled releases are set to tread already-well-worn territory. Dusty classics like Day of the Tentacle and Zelda: Twilight Princess are primed for their high-definition facelifts. Meanwhile, beloved one-off fan-favorites like Odin’s Sphere, Bravely Default, Dishonored, plus The Banner Saga, Gravity Rush, and Mirror’s Edge, are all (!) finally getting some overdue sequel love. And established franchises will continue to receive gleaming coats of paint: a new installment of Far Cry, a new Uncharted, a Hitman prequel, a new Yakuza, new Dark Souls, new Gears of War, a new Mass Effect, another Street Fighter... 2016 is shaping up to be, if nothing else, a year of sparkly rehashes.
But it isn’t all HD remasters and sequels. At long last, VR is poised to loose itself into the consumer mainstream. Valve and Nvidia are vying to introduce new, intuitive ways of streaming videogames to every room in the house. Independently-developed titles like Below and Night in the Woods could well advance videogames as a narrative medium. Videogames enthusiasts have a lot to genuinely get “hype” about.
If 2015 were disappointing, it’s because the games industry was maintaining its holding pattern, circling the PlayStation 4 and Xbox One with uncertainty, never quite diving in to make good on the promise of last year’s technology. This year, that’s destined to change. But will developers and publishers stick the all-important landing?
Here, in no particular order, are the ten games scheduled for a 2016 launch that fill me with hope (and trepidation):
Braid is a lot like the movie Memento, for me—not because of the wonky bizarro time-reversal stuff, but because Memento is one of those things you really enjoyed in the moment, and now, in retrospect, you’re second-guessing your own taste. “Was the movie that good?” you might wonder. And then you finally sit down to rewatch Memento and you’re like, oh, thank God, it really is as good as I remembered—maybe even a little bit better than I first gave it credit for, actually.
Whether or not you’re excited about The Witness hinges on how you remember Braid. If you’ve replayed it lately, you might breathe a sigh of relief: Oh, good, Braid really is amazing. Oh, good, there’s a decent chance Jon Blow actually knows what he’s doing.
Blow has invested something like eight years’ labor on his sophomore effort—meaning there’s a strong likelihood The Witness will flop harder than New Coke. (Things that take too long to bake have that unfortunate tendency to defy expectations in the worst possible way.) But for my own part—and I’ve thought about this for a long time—I’m pretty sure I trust Jon Blow as an artist.
So I’m anxiously optimistic. We’ll know whether that confidence were misplaced in just a day or two.
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst
The original Mirror’s Edge (2007) was a thrumming, gut-churning experiment in first-person action—and, at least for now, the only entry in the nascent “parkour” genre. Glossy and disorienting, Mirror’s Edge put the player in the sporty, Sonic-red sneakers of protagonist Faith Connors, who is tasked with outrunning armed enemies (the game tacitly penalized the player for ever using a gun, which was refreshing in its own odd way).
Mirror’s Edge Catalyst, a prequel, pledges to flesh out Faith’s backstory—which, given the resounding success of the latest Tomb Raider games, seems like a pretty obvious direction to choose. I’m not sure it’s the best decision, though; elements of “human interest” aside, protagonists tend to get a lot more mileage out of being “glyphs.” But fans have been hungry for more Faith Connors these past several years, so, hey, why not go for broke and give us more Faith than we can conceivably handle?
Dedicated players have already managed to get the original Mirror’s Edge running with the Oculus Rift; this, by every account, is a mind-meltingly harrowing experience. Will Catalyst support native VR? One can only dread. My stomach is excitedly braced for the worst.
Zero Time Dilemma
The visual novel 999 was frustrating, tedious, but also hugely innovative. And it was effective! For being so text-heavy, it was unusually creepy! Its excellent follow-up, 2012’s Virtue’s Last Reward, only improved on the original, scoring with critics and fans alike. Mashing up the best of Japanese sci-fi and horror thrillers—the plot is evocative of both Battle Royale and Liar Game—the Zero Escape series was a breath of fresh air for handheld-console devotees.
But visual novels are seldom viable commercial successes, and poor sales halted production on the third entry in the Zero Escape series—until late last year, when Zero Time Dilemma was re-announced. (If the game itself weren’t enough of a love letter to fans, there’s also this watch. As the kids say, “Take my money.”)
The less said about 2010’s addled Crackdown 2, the better. But the original Crackdown (2007) was a shoot-’em-up, smack-’em-down, blow-it-all-up joyfest—as well as an accidental critical and commercial hit. The story itself had something to do with something-something cyberpunk dystopian police-state-something, all in service of tenuously explaining why your meathead avatar (or “Agent”) is able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. To summarize the plotline, in short: Whatever.
Crackdown excelled at making the player feel powerful, turning every level-up into a thing of giddiness. Once your Agent’s abilities were maxed, the game was somehow even more fun: You absolutely owned Pacific City. The game’s outlandish side missions, non-linearity, and gonzo co-op rounded the game into one of the most fulfilling play experiences ever.
Crackdown 3 has the estimable opportunity to right the missteps of 2. God knows every last one of us is in dire need of some mindless fun these days; Crackdown 3, your time has arrived.
I don’t think I’m overstating anything when I say this: There is no more exciting game on the horizon than Cuphead.
Game trailers suggest a fluid, stylish 2D run-and-gun platformer, one that filches its aesthetic wholesale from classic cartoon animation: From the swinging noodle-arms, to the swinging jazz, to the psychedelic anthropomorphism, Cuphead authentically pins down the 1930s.
Outside of the rare Alien Hominid or Viewtiful Joe (and Earthworm Jim before them), it’s almost unthinkable that so few developers have attempted to apply traditional animation techniques to videogames. There’s an understood gruesomeness and morbidity to cartoons, and especially to the early-20th-century ones: Death is impermanent, which is comedic in and of itself. Flattened characters are revived with a single puff of air; health is regained by swallowing canned spinach whole; cartoon characters return, unscathed, from Hell. All of this is to say, videogames share a great deal in common with the comic brutality of cartoons—videogame violence is inherently funny, both because it’s over-the-top, and because it doesn’t last—and it’s astonishing that so few designers ever make that connection.
Anyway, Cuphead looks great.