Play these: the unsung heroes of 2016

It was a raging tire fire in virtually every other way that mattered, but 2016 was an exceptionally good year for gaming. So good, in fact, that your backlog probably is already overflowing with entries from our Game of the Year 2016 list, and yet here we are, adding more to your pile.

What follows is a list of games that, for one reason or another, didn't make the GOTY cut, but that we just couldn't let go by uncelebrated. They're marvelous and distinct, and we're really very sorry, but your backlog is now positively immense. Better get at it.

Happy gaming, everyone! See you next year.

Mini Metro (iOS, Android)

Planning subway routes doesn’t sound particularly fun or relaxing, yet Mini Metro’s elegantly simple design makes it both. The premise of this mobile game can be gleaned in moments: just drag your finger to connect the geometric shapes representing subway stops so that passengers can get where they want to go. Easy when there are just a handful of locations, but as stops are added and passengers become more impatient, success depends on having an eye for organization, a willingness to scrap designs that aren’t working, and making smart use of limited resources. The minimalist design, with its brightly colored metro lines snaking across a crisp white background, makes Mini Metro lovely to look at, even when chaos is breaking out. Daily challenges will test your mettle, as will levels based on real-life locations such as Berlin, Hong Kong, London, and New York. Susan Arendt

Tharsis (PS4)

A ship bound for Mars runs afoul of some asteroids, leaving you and your crewmates struggling to survive for the ten weeks remaining in the journey. Each turn in this dice-based strategy game represents one week of your trip, where things keep going terribly, terribly wrong. It’s like Apollo 13, but with more cannibalism. See, your food stores were lost in the collision, and your ability to fix the ship is directly proportional to how well-fed you are, so you may find yourself forced to use the one source of nourishment left on board: each other. Tharsis is brutally difficult and doesn’t do enough to teach you how to actually play, but once you make it over the learning curve you’ll find the challenge to be as satisfying as a home-cooked meal. (What, too soon?) The randomness of the dice means you’ll lose more than you’ll win, but when you finally do manage to set down on Mars, the victory is just that much sweeter for all the suffering you’ve been through. And if you can put all four crewmembers on Mars playing on Hard? Just go ahead and apply to NASA. Susan Arendt

Dragon Quest 7: Fragments of the Forgotten Past (3DS)

Describing Dragon Quest 7 makes it sound like an absolutely miserable exercise in drudgery. No monsters appear to fight you for at least 90 minutes. Over the course of 70 hours adventuring, you will have to explore every single dungeon at least two times, often more than that, and there’s no way to effectively fast travel to them half the time. The most mechanically satisfying part of the game, its class system that lets you train in disciplines like mage or weird stuff like shepherd, doesn’t even open up for a third of the game.

Yet Dragon Quest 7 takes the brutal tedium of classic RPGs, elongates it, and somehow turns it into one of gaming’s most pleasurable slow burns. Moving on the map with your small group of characters, even small personal moments and slow changes in the landscape strike with the impact of massive action scenes in Final Fantasy and The Witcher. A town of winged farmers, a lonely robot tending her creator’s house for centuries, and the repopulation of a world that you thought was just a single island; I could have kept unraveling its tiny but long story threads for another 70 hours. Anthony Agnello

Kirby: Planet Robobot (3DS)

HAL Laboratory has a system for making its Kirby games. First you make the totally normal one and then you make the crazy one. Think how Kirby: Return to Dreamland showed up on Wii and then the next one was Kirby and the Rainbow Curse; traditional platformer and then a zany claymation, all touch screen sequel to a decade-old DS game. The cycle’s worked for a quarter of a century now, but the result is that people tend to forget that the weird ones like Rainbow Curse aren’t the only great Kirbys. HAL makes some of the best damn platformers on earth and Kirby: Planet Robobot is one of them. 

Gorgeous, lengthy, and tactilely delicious, Robobot nails the balance of action and puzzle solving that makes for a great Kirby but also warps it with a novel twist. The challenge of these games is always finding the hidden items in each stage, and learning how to properly manipulate Kirby’s new mech and its powers spices up that process nicely. Plus: it’s a mech shaped like Kirby’s face. No one knew how badly they wanted that until 2016. Anthony Agnello

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided (PS4, Xbox One)

Deus Ex: Mankind Divided's advertising would have you believe that is a Serious Game with Important Things to say. But every time it tries, the fact that you are a robot man capable of mass murdering people with your sweet arm blades kiiiinda gets in the way. By the end of your journey, you and gravel-voiced Adam Jensen have more questions than answers. Experienced as a story, Mankind Divided is unfulfilling and limp. But, as a playground where you can approach a problem from multiple angles, and as a game where your hero has ludicrous amounts of customization available, it's a joy. And while its depiction of cyber-futurism may not always be in the best taste, there's no denying how well-realized the world is and how visually beautiful it can be. Sam Prell

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst (PS4, Xbox One)

Mirror's Edge: Catalyst wasn't the revolutionary sequel/reboot (seboot? requel?) that many hoped for. It is, to use a familiar phrase, "more of the same." But when the same is what set fans on a years-long campaign petitioning EA to develop a sequel, that's fine by me. There's still too much gunplay at work and Runner Vision can make the open playground of Glass feel constricting, but Faith's moves are as smooth and satisfying as ever, and that's what sells me on the Mirror's Edge fantasy. After Catalyst's mediocre reviews and sales, I think this is the last we'll see of Faith (at least for awhile). But weep not for what might've been, because Catalyst is still a great game in its own weird, underappreciated way. Sam Prell

Headlander (PS4, Xbox One)

Blessed are the Metroidvanias that encourage and reward your efforts to explore every last inch of their expansive maps. Headlander's premise is sci-fi so silly, you can't help but love it: you're the last living human - that is, the last living human head, encased in a hovering helmet - in a 2.5D world where everyone's uploaded themselves into robots straight out of '70s visions of the far future. By exploring the picturesque space station as your free-floating head, then hijacking any robo-body by catapulting yourself onto its neck-socket, only you have to power to restore freedom to the metallic masses who all act like brainwashed hippies. 

The '70s ambiance of your surroundings - from the groovy tunes to the abundance of shag carpeting - is  wonderfully unique in a quirky, retro-future way, and Headlander shines with Double Fine's trademark humor that's as heartfelt as it is ridiculous. But perhaps the piece de resistance of Headlander's wonderful little details is the dance button: every last body type you can take over has a unique animation to let you get down with your bad self, and they're all utterly delightful. Not since Symphony of the Night and Guacamelee have I been this focused on full completion, and every moment of my quest to see the entirety of Headlander was a hoot. Lucas Sullivan

Hyper Light Drifter (PS4, Xbox One)

What is it about the excellence of 2016 Metroidvanias that start with H? Hyper Light Drifter blends beauty with brutal difficulty: if you get distracted mid-scuffle by the pristine pixel art of this colorful post-apocalypse, you're as good as dead. But no worries, because Drifter drives home the fact that any seemingly impossible challenge can be overcome through persistence and smart play. The isometric combat is a delicate dance of swords slashing, rifles blasting, and deft dodging, and once you come to grips with the flow of your preferred fighting style, you'll be decimating swarms of your gorgeously animated adversaries with ease.

The simple act of exploring Drifter's overworld is a treat, as you soak in sights of serene nature besmirched by the ruins of disturbing machinery. And the game's penchant for perfectly obscured secrets adds plenty of replay value for aspiring completionists like myself, where taking notice of even a few errant pixels can lead to a massively rewarding find. Whether you're fighting for your life or basking in the tranquility of its quieter moments, Hyper Light Drifter is as engrossing as games get. Lucas Sullivan

Let It Die (PS4)

Suda51 is an auteur after my own heart. The sheer weirdness that's generously injected into all of Grasshopper Manufacture's games is legendary, and Let It Die takes that penchant for the peculiar into some bold new directions. For starters, this PS4-exclusive action RPG is free-to-play, yet shines with the kinds of grand designs and subtle touches befitting a full-priced title. It's also one of the most generous F2P games around, where the acquisition of the audience's real-world cash almost seems like an afterthought. With how easy it is to find the currency that keeps you afloat, you're free to ascend this fantastical, ever-shifting tower of skyscraper ruins and urban detritus at whatever pace you see fit.

It's worth installing Let It Die for the price of free just to experience the first hour alone, which introduces you to my favorite cast of NPCs in recent memory. The skateboarding, sick-shades-sporting reaper Uncle Death is your host of all this hyperviolent dungeon-crawling, always encouraging Senpai (that's you) to keep at it despite the Tower of Barbs' challenges. Then there's a vendor obsessed with stewing mushrooms to produce stat-enhancing stickers, a vandalized animatronic that cheerfully whisks you away to attack other players' bases, and the god-tier Naomi Detox, a self-proclaimed "bi-atch" who's constantly texting while you peruse her quests. Oh, and the soundtrack is like a metal take on Jet Set Radio. I'll be (Shadows of the) Damned if I don't spend at least $60 on this free game just to monetarily express my love for it. Lucas Sullivan

Enter the Gungeon (PS4)

I am not very good at Enter the Gungeon. Combining elements of twin-stick shooters, bullet hell games like Ikaruga, roguelikes like the Binding of Isaac, and making everything ridiculously difficult, all of it basically combines to form something that by all accounts I should totally despise. And yet I can't stop coming back to it, returning to dip my toes in every few days to make one more run into the depths of the Gungeon.

It helps that Enter the Gungeon is legitimately one of the most charming and hilarious games I've played in years. The weapons you'll find in its treasure chests run the gamut between obvious (pistols and AK-47s) to the ludicrous (a gun that actually shoots the word 'Bullet', or a T-Shirt cannon that leaves little pink garments all over the floor). While it's filled with memes, in-jokes, and pop culture references, it's never obnoxious about it, its humor winking and nodding rather than annoyingly shouting and pointing at what it thinks is funny. It's also filled to the brim with tons of clever tricks and secrets that reward repeat playthroughs, and a persistent currency lets you buy even more guns and items on each run. I may suck terribly at Enter the Gungeon, but that's not stopping me from trying my damndest to make it to the lowest level so I can finally earn the weapon that'll let me kill the past. David Roberts

Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE (Wii U)

If we had a Niche-iest Niche award at GamesRadar+, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE would take it, no question. There's the name, a play on both series it's inspired by (Tokyo Mirage Sessions are the same letters as Shin Megami Tensei but backwards, and FE stands for Fire Emblem - and yes, that's a musical 'sharp' in there, too). There's the genre - a JRPG that skews far more toward standard genre tropes than the Western RPG-influenced Final Fantasy 15. There's the platform it's on, as one of the last exclusive Wii U games before that console's inevitable ride into the sunset. And then there's the subject matter - it's the story of a group of Japanese teens who attend high school, work for a talent agency as J-Pop stars, and moonlight as demon hunters.

But if you can get behind all of that, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is one of the bubbliest, breeziest games of the year. Filled with positivity and the notion that any obstacle can be overcome thanks to the power of friendship, Tokyo Mirage Sessions' ridiculous and hyper-anime story is made far more relatable thanks to its characters, who end up growing into more than just a bundle of stereotypes. Its gameplay is also far easier to get into than many of its contemporaries, thanks to a turn-based system that gives you as much information as you could ever need to exploit enemy weaknesses without overloading you. Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE may be the last good Wii U exclusive ever made - and it's a hell of a note to go out on. David Roberts

The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine (PS4, Xbox One)

It's a shame that The Witcher 3: Blood and Wine isn't a standalone game, as it deserves a place on a Game of the Year list with the rest of them. It's incredibly meaty for a mere 'expansion', offering another 20-30 hours of gameplay, complete with an all new storyline, more quests, more items, and a whole new region to explore. But the 'muchness' of it isn't what makes Blood and Wine worth playing - it's how it effectively puts a bow on the final chapters of CD Projekt Red's take on Geralt of Rivia.

Blood and Wine is a slow burn through the nation of Toussaint, a world of excess, rich culture, and beautiful, painterly landscapes - a sharp deviation from the dour, grey swamplands of Velen or the frigid tundras of Skellige. As Geralt wends his way through his final mystery, an air of finality hangs over the proceedings. We all know this is probably the last we'll see of Geralt for a while, and in a way, he knows it too. Blood and Wine represents CD Projekt Red at the peak of its craft, giving the lonesome fantasy ronin the proper sendoff he deserves. David Roberts

Maximum Car (iOS, Android)

I just want to play Burnout on my phone, alright? I don't need fancy graphics or motion controls or even multiplayer. I want to go fast all the time, and even faster when I run enough other cars off the road or narrowly avoid enough head-on collisions to fill a meter. Maximum Car lets me do all that on my iPhone, and that makes me very happy. But it's not a straight-up clone: Maximum Car makes smart, mobile-focused tweaks to the combat-racing formula to keep the ride smooth. Your voxel car always drives forward and you simply press on one side or the other to steer, or hold down on both sides to start drifting. Then swipe on either side to boost or shoot missiles. Did I mention you can shoot missiles? It's great. Maximum Car is great. Connor Sheridan

Layers of Fear (PS4, Xbox One)

This has to be one of the best horror games of the year, if not all time, thanks to some very clever and unique ideas. While Layers of Fear could have easily gone down the YouTube-feeding route of jump scares (and it has its fair share) what makes it stand out is how it plays with your perceptions. Rooms reshape themselves behind your back, while incredibly clever design has pictures, and other objects changing just on the edge of your vision, leaving you uncertain what you actually saw. And it's all happening within the whispering threat of a Gothic tale of an artist gone mad. The story alone is an unpleasant thing to unravel, but it’s the game’s ability to have you questioning yourself in the real world that really injects terror under your skin. It’s a new and unsettling way of scaring you that few games have exploited and fewer still have mastered. Layers makes that its own and for that reason is an essential 2016 play. Leon Hurley 

Overcooked (PS4, Xbox One)

They say you never truly know a person until you’ve shouted “ONION!” at them until they weep. Overcooked lets you enjoy this very specific rite of passage with three of your most trusted friends, as you control cartoon chefs working together to prep, cook and serve meals made from different ingredients. Sounds simple? It’s really not. Fresh, ever-changing environments test you in ways that make Kitchen Nightmares look like a genteel afternoon reverie about sugar sculptures. You don’t know stress until you’ve tried to prepare pizza in a haunted, floating kitchen. Overcooked might sound like Chef Hell, but it’s actually amazing fun. There’s a sense of busy satisfaction from setting up the smartest systems for allocating tasks - honestly, way more fun than it sounds -  and serving food on time always feels rewarding. It’s also *whisper it* the best local multiplayer game since Towerfall. Does it make me want to work in a kitchen? Certainly not. Do I wish I was playing Overcooked instead of writing about it? Absolutely. Onion. Onion! ONION! Matt Elliott

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