Looking beyond America's tumultuous presidential election and the depressing surfeit of celebrity deaths, 2016 will go down in history as a pivotal year for interactive entertainment. Shigeru Miyamoto appeared on-stage at an Apple event! Sony and Microsoft rolled out half-step consoles! And it turns out Pikachu was as popular over the summer as he ever was in 1996.
What follows are, in no particular order, just some of the gaming stories that caught the industry's collective attention over the course of 2016.
Disney Infinity Became Finite
Mickey's complexion looked fine on May 9. On May 10, Disney dropped a bombshell: Disney Infinity would be discontinued effective immediately. Unfortunately, the House of Mouse's toys-to-life brand took developer Avalanche Studios with it.
Seven months after the fact, many still wonder if Infinity's sudden finiteness marked the beginning of the end for toys to life. Disney had everything going for it—its droves of iconic characters on top of hot properties like Marvel and Star Wars. Activision's forging ahead with Skylanders, and amiibos, while (still) next to useless for in-game functionality, still sell like hotcakes. Positioning them more as collectibles could insulate Nintendo from oversaturation.
No longer a cheap sideshow attraction at carnivals, virtual reality made a huge splash all throughout 2016. Oculus was first on the scene, with the release of Rift in March. Just a few weeks later, HTC rolled out its Vive headset. Although Sony crossed the finish line last with the release of PlayStation VR for PS4 in October, it offers the most affordable headset at only $399—half the price of HTC Vive and $200 less than the Oculus Rift.
Make no mistake: VR is here to stay. However, we've yet to see what the technology is capable of. Just recently, Facebook developers hacked together heat-and-cold sensors that could be an integral piece of the next Rift. That sort of innovation appeals to Oculus CTO John Carmack, who spoke frankly about the need for VR developers to quit "coasting on novelty" and deliver meatier experiences unique to the nascent medium.
Id Software's Doom Reboot was (and is) Awesome
After a reboot from a design described by id Software developers as "Call of Doom," Doom 4—simply named Doom—landed on Xbox One, PS4, and PC this May... and it's good. Really, really good.
Setting out to reimagine arguably the single most influential FPS ever made, id Software melded classic and modern conceits to craft a shooter fast enough to satisfy the need for speed of fans who grew up playing id games in the '90s, while also mixing in plenty of exploration and an upgrade system—new-school conventions that mesh perfectly with aforementioned old-school ideas.
"While other first-person shooters have stepped forward to challenge convention in recent years, none carry the clout and cachet of Doom," I concluded in my review. "For id Software to overcome the challenges specific to its history and craft a shooter that flies in the face of convention marks Doom as nothing short of a triumph—and, one hopes, a sign that change is in the air for a genre in desperate need of it."
No Man's Sky Launched
On the flip side of the games-that-finally-came-out coin, you've got No Man's Sky. Following years of opaque marketing and noncommittal answers from developer Hello Games, the exploration-driven title released in August on PS4 and PC.
Reviews were mixed, with most critics agreeing that No Man's Sky was pretty boilerplate as far as open-world, spacefaring games go. Whether you loved No Man's Sky or loathed it—and Internet hype dictates there can be no middle ground—the most important lesson it taught us is that marketing campaigns for any product, let alone overhyped video games, should be taken with a mountain of salt.
Nintendo Made a Super Mario Game for Smartphones...
Legendary designer and Mario maker Shigeru Miyamoto joined Apple CEO Tim Cooke on-stage at Apple Keynote to premiere Super Mario Run for iPhone. And that's a sentence I never thought I'd type.
Super Mario Run was announced this September as an endless runner-type game, and a timed exclusive on iOS—meaning Android owners will get to play it on their platform sooner or later. Although the game was still three months off when Miyamoto announced it, the announcement was worthy of a new App Store trend: a pre-order notification to alert users the moment Super Mario Run became available. Jimmy Fallon of The Tonight Show got his hands on the game a week ahead of its December 15 launch date.
... and Pokemon Go Reignited Pokemania
Developed by Niantic under the auspices of Nintendo and The Pokemon Company, Pokemon Go is a pocket-monster adventure designed for smartphones. It's shallow as far as Pokemon games go: you walk around your neighborhood or public venues, throw a Pokeball at any Pokemon that appear to capture them, and then go on about your day.
But Pokemon Go didn't earn over $600 million in revenue faster than any mobile game—and set a record for most downloads in its first week—in history because of complex mechanics. The hook was how its AR mechanic got people off the couch and out into the world to hunt down Pikachu and his friends together. Anyone could play; all you had to do was watch for Pokemon to appear on your iPhone screen against the backdrop of your real-life house, school, workplace, and other environs. Another positive: businesses lucky enough to be registered as a PokeStop or gym saw a boost in business thanks to passersby who stopped for a drink, snack, or other product before returning to the hunt.
Pokemon Go has cooled since its July debut, but not since the release of the inaugural Pokemon Red/Blue cartridges has a Nintendo property been on the tip of virtually every tongue on the planet.
Lionhead Studios Closed
Co-founded 20 years ago by provocative industry figurehead Peter Molyneux, Lionhead Studios closed its doors this spring. Most famous for "god game" Black & White and the irreverent Fable RPG series, Lionhead's final game was 2014's Fable Anniversary, a remaster of Fable Lost Chapters developed for the original Xbox.
Lionhead put out several Fable games between 2010's Fable 3 and 2014's Fable Anniversary, but all were off-shoots. Perhaps the saddest part of their demise was a report that several buyers were interested in acquiring the studio, but Microsoft refused to sell; doing so would have meant relinquishing the lucrative Fable IP.
Microsoft and Sony Announced Upgrades to Xbox One and PS4
Console upgrades were a thing long before 2016: the N64's RAM expansion pack, the Jenga tower-like assortment of add-ons for the Sega Genesis. Upgraded versions of Xbox One and PS4, however, are different beasts. Whereas Sega CD was an add-on designed to play software the cartridge-based system couldn't run, PS4 Pro and Xbox One are being positioned as bridge systems—not quite PlayStation 5 or Xbox 2, yet flashier than their 2013 incarnations.
Sony released PS4 Pro in November to uneven reviews. Although it sports more RAM and graphical processing power, 4K TVs aren't affordable enough for many consumers to take advantage of the console's upscaling. Meanwhile, Xbox Scorpio is on the horizon for a 2017 launch, and Microsoft promises it will be the "most powerful console ever made."
Valve Cracked Down on Gambling
The "GO" in Counter-Strike: GO stands for Global Offensive, not Gambling Opportunities. Throughout the summer, Steam users exploited a loophole in Steam's in-game trading feature that enabled gambling sites like CSGO Lotto to let their users bid real money on weapon skins for CS: GO. Valve promised legal action against any other such entities, but failed to respond fast enough for the Washington State Gambling Commission's liking (Valve is based in the Evergreen State).
How proceedings will unfold going forward is anyone's guess, but it's clear Valve has a problem on its hands: many gambling sites wrote bot accounts to initiate trades through Steam, and there's no way even a company as powerful as Valve can possibly track down all attempts to break its EULA. The real losers are legitimate players, who have to work around tightened in-game trading rules and guidelines.
Nintendo Revealed Switch, Its Next Console
Following years of speculation and fake controllers, Nintendo pulled back the curtain on Switch, its console/handheld hybrid. Investment reports indicated that the console would be released in March 2017, but those reports came out earlier this year, back when Switch was still known by its "NX" codename.
After all that waiting, Nintendo released a three-minute trailer in October that said, in essence, to wait a little longer: salient info like an exact release date and price won't be disclosed until a streaming event scheduled for January. Likewise, Switch's launch lineup will also remain under wraps until the first month of the new year.
What we do know is that relative to the Wii's motion controls and the Wii U's off-TV-play gimmick, and barring any surprise proclamations next month, the Switch is the most conventional Nintendo console since the GameCube. It's a console, it's a handheld. You can play it at home, you can play it on the train, you can play it here and there and everywhere. And that's a good thing. Maybe "conventional" is what Nintendo needs to retake its crown in the console space.