It’s that time of the year again — when we get to look back at the last 12 months, think about the mobile games that really wowed us, and wonder if 2017 could possibly top it.
While there’s no telling what next year will have in store, it would be hard to deny that 2016 delievered some spectacular games. Here at Gamezebo HQ, we’ve put our collective heads together to distill our favorites down to the following list of 10. If you’re wondering what greatness you’ve missed out, look no further than our picks for the top 10 iPhone and Android games of 2016.
10. Rusty Lake Roots
Awarding Rusty Lake: Roots a Best Of title is akin to awarding it to the games that came before: as the tenth title in the ongoing Rusty Lake / Cube Escape series, Roots grows out of the creepy world and history that has been nurtured and expanded with each subsequent release. At the same time, Roots feels like an excellent entry point for newcomers thanks to its focus on a newly introduced, single family over a generation. Yet it still rewards veteran players with answers and insight to recurring characters and items to help us continue piecing together the mystery of this place.
Its massive scope—beginning with one couple’s first date and ending with their adult grandchildren—creates a world unto itself within the larger universe that is the surreal, mysterious, and often creepy Rusty Lake. Its many puzzles range from fairly straightforward mini-games like arranging jigsaw pieces to utterly bizarre journeys like a trip inside an old man’s corpse. Everything that makes Rusty Lake the engaging, enigmatic series fans have been devouring over the past year and a half is present in Roots and multiplied tenfold by its length, scope, and admirably branching scale.
It’s good to be king, right? That’s what the old adage always told us anyway. Reigns begs to differ, and it does so in spectacular fashion. As a monarch who is new to the ruling scene, you quickly discover that being king means making hard decisions. Continuously. Some of them have financial implications, so one eye on the kingdom’s coffers is a must. Others might tick off the church or your own subjects, either of whom could lead to your downfall if you wrong them severely enough. There’s no guide to the intricate balancing act you need to perform, so you learn by doing, which means failing over and over again, replaced by your next of kin when you fall.
All of that would be interesting enough with any framework, but Reigns pulls it off with a simple card game-meets-Tinder game mechanic that assures anyone can find out what it’s like to sit on the throne. Add in a number of memorable characters and a wicked sense of dark humor and you’ve got an unexpected but compelling formula for success. Lots of games have gameplay loops that keep you coming back for more, but few do it as effortlessly as Reigns. Come to think of it, maybe another famous saying concerning royalty is more appropriate: uneasy is a head that wears a crown. Until you play this game, you have no idea.
8. Punch Club
There aren’t many boxing or fighting games out there that are sims instead of action-oriented affairs, so Punch Club would be notable if that’s all it was. Happily, it’s much more, since it shows off a narrative that celebrates and pokes fun at American pop culture cliches of every stripe. Not bad considering it was made by two guys from Russia. The branching storyline means that decisions have real consequences while maintaining plenty of replay value, and the retro graphics and soundtrack can’t help but send you back to a warm, fuzzy place from your gaming past.
Yet there’s another inescapable truth about Punch Club: it’s pretty hard, enough so that its developers ended up creating an Easy Mode just so gamers who couldn’t handle it as originally presented could experience all it had to offer. The “video games should be difficult” crowd should be pleased with the game as is, but anyone who just wants to see the fighting sim at its heart can check out Punch Club: Fights to see what some of the fuss is about. There’s plenty of reason to be excited that a sequel is on the way. We’re just wondering what Lazy Bear and tinyBuild can come up with to top the release day stunt they pulled off the first time around.
7. Return to Grisly Manor
Fire Maple Games aims for quality over quantity. Return to Grisly Manor is the first Fire Maple adventure since The Hidden World released in 2013, and we not-so-patiently waited for its launch with only fond memories of our first visit to Grandpa’s house to keep us warm. The wait was worth it, however, and Return to Grisly Manor meets and surpasses Fire Maple’s high expectations as a highly polished game packed with puzzles and gorgeous destinations.
Although we were happy for a chance to return to the secret-laden manor, newcomers to the series won’t be lost in any way as the sequel follows a new story and references the previous game in easily understood callbacks. And, although there is a plot to follow and purpose for your visit, the majority of the game will be spent exploring, collecting items, and solving the countless series of puzzles that are on offer. Those puzzles provide a great mix of item hunting, like finding keys and codes, and standalone mini-games like sliding blocks and jigsaw puzzles.
Despite the seemingly foreboding setting of a mansion on a hill at night, Return to Grisly Manor is quirky and playful, featuring challenges starring a garden gnome, potato batteries, and classic board games from the 70s. This playfulness extends throughout the entire game, from your eccentric inventor Grandpa to the openness of the explorable world to the many strange solutions that will let you continue through the story. And trust us, you will want to continue, and keep continuing until the next Fire Maple game comes around.
6. Chameleon Run
Endless platformers have already thrown just about every wrinkle imaginable at us over the past few years, so it’s especially delightful to discover one that has a new trick up its sleeve. Chameleon Run accomplishes that by turning color into a primary consideration. If that sounds like a nightmare for the color blind, no worries, since we’re dealing with one light color (yellow) and one darker hue (pink) here. Running and jumping with one hand while switching colors with the other turns out to be an incredibly effective gameplay mix, one we never would have expected before giving Chameleon Run a shot. It’s not the longest game out there, yet the developers manage to encourage repeated playthroughs with multiple objectives for each level, followed by a pure speed focus even after you’ve cleared them all.
“More than meets the eye” is a sentiment that is trademarked (probably) for a famous group of shapeshifting robots, but it applies just as much to this game in its own way. Every year needs a simple but addictive title that makes you keep coming back over and over again, and for 2016, Chameleon Run was it.
If you had told us just last year that an ‘80s-styled, synth pop endless pinball game would be one of our Best Of selections for 2016, we would have been all “As if!” and returned to playing endless ‘80s-arcade update PAC-MAN 256. But PinOut! earned a place on this list and in our hearts almost immediately upon booting it up and hearing its pulsating, techno background beat.
The gorgeous soundtrack sets the mood perfectly for the neon-coated, TRON-reminiscent levels filled with twisting alleys and looping overpasses that your silver ball gracefully slides through at the tap of the screen. Developer Mediocre has managed two significant accomplishments in PinOut!: they’ve made a pinball game that’s effortless and fun to play on mobile, and they’ve proven that the endless format is a perfect fit for a previously tightly confined game. Aiming for distance and time as opposed to just a numerical high score creates a sense of progress that is sometimes hard to find in pinball. And progressing across those distances in PinOut! is simply a treat: the pitch-perfect graphics, sound effects, and music, as well as the power-ups, intricate board layouts, and ‘80s-inspired mini-games, all combine into a superb package that scream “Pinball is back, baby!”
4. Rodeo Stampede
In a genre that’s passed beyond the point of “oversaturated,” it’s nearly impossible to do something new and interesting. Yet Rodeo Stampede managed to be not only a novel take on the endless runner this year, but one with flawless controls, a hoard of content, and adorable critters to tame and collect. In addition to dodging obstacles and other animals as you race through crowded savannas and jungles, you had to also jump between the nonstop-stampeding inhabitants and learn their individual styles of movement as they attempted to buck you into the looming mountainside.
Rodeo Stampede combined the addicting fun of character collection through finding rare and weird animals—like the living Tron bike Elektro Zebra or the sad clown Cryin’ Lion—with consistently engaging runner gameplay and topped it off with a mini-zoo simulation. And if all of that wasn’t already enough, developer Featherweight Games has updated the game regularly since its June launch, adding two new environments, limited time holiday zones, tons of new animals, unlockable outfits, and an endless list of little fixes and flourishes that have made the game better every month—and it was already amazing to begin with.
3. Mini Metro
One of the more pleasant surprises any mobile game can provide is when it works on more than one level. If you like sims that have imaginary little people scurrying around, you’re likely to enjoy Mini Metro, an exercise in mass transit planning. But if your thing is simply puzzle games in general, then you’re okay here too, because it’s abstract enough that the subway theme of it somehow isn’t essential to its success. The secret sauce is how the game challenges you to deal with factors you can’t control — in this case, when and where new stations arrive — by efficiently utilizing the tools you do have.
As others have pointed out, Mini Metro is also the perfect companion to doing something else at the same time, as you can look away for a bit and then refocus your attention on it without dooming yourself in most cases. And who among us doesn’t multitask while we’re gaming at this point? We haven’t even discussed its visual style, which is a masterpiece of presenting just what players need to have and nothing more. It’s fair to say that the next time someone releases a transportation sim, this is the measuring stick we’ll be using.
2. Clash Royale
It’s hard to imagine that any game released in 2016 arrived with the unique blend of anticipation and scrutiny that we saw for Clash Royale. As a sequel/follow-up to Clash of Clans, it was natural to wonder if Supercell could concoct another super-sized success after other companies with a massive mobile hit had struggled to do the same. As it turns out, we needn’t have worried. Instead of reinventing the wheel, Clash Royale does something smart by taking the best parts of two different wheels, MOBAs and collectible card games, to create something new.
It has a serious metagame like the best competitive multiplayer titles, but it’s simple enough (and has those familiar Clash characters) to be inviting to newcomers. That accomplishment might be the most impressive one of the entire year in mobile gaming. The usual Supercell polish is just the icing on the cake.
Now it’s fair to ask if Clash Royale is actually a “better” game than Clash of Clans. It’s certainly meatier, and the constant updates and balance tweaks give players the comfort of knowing that its developers are always thinking of ways to make it better. Already, we’ve seen other games imitating its monetization scheme and its combination of MOBA and CCG elements, for better or worse. Its spawned toys and animated shorts, so the Clash Royale characters are never going to be out of the public consciousness. Let’s just agree that next time Supercell has another big new release ready, we’ll just assume it’s going to be a big deal until there’s some reason to think otherwise.
Game of the Year: Crashlands
Crashlands is huge. Its constantly-expanding list of quests will send you across the vast reaches of three endless biomes as you save (or slaughter) numerous indigenous species, from the always-flying, religious potato-like Tendraam to the ruthlessly political, judgemental-owl-faced Brubus. As intergalactic delivery woman Flux Dabes and her robotic companion-slash-slapping bag JuiceBox, you’ll come across ungodly amounts of resources to gather, creatures to battle, corpses to loot, items to craft, and areas to uncover. It is the most content-packed game we have ever had the pleasure of playing, and the entire experience is exactly that: a pleasure.
Crashlands manages to combine survival exploration, sandbox building, pet rearing, and RPG stat-tracking plus questing into an action adventure romp, and that’s the first time in our entire lives we’ve felt justified in using the word romp. But it’s only fair in a game so riddled with humor that we even look forward to re-watching its trailers.
Despite its ability to instill pure joy every time we play, Crashlands is filled with plenty of challenges and head-banging moments. Have we died mid-battle to a tadpole-spewing volcano-beast Vomma and left piles of hard-fought acid fish littering the squishy ground? Of course, but we get right back up from our stone bed and return to the scene of our grisly death and tombstone, because Crashlands succeeds at making everything–traipsing across the Savanna to find the Baconweed Fairy, organizing awkward alien coups, making giant floating head Hewgodooko cry, and even corpse-litter retrieval–so much fun that we want to do it all again and again.