Drew Scanlon is a former Giant Bomb video producer. He now works in game development as a producer at /Other Ocean Interactive and occasionally talks about .
It has been, as they say, a year. After global travel became virtually impossible, I decided to end , the travel documentary project I had been doing since March 2017. The feeling was bittersweet. With the support of hundreds of generous folks around the Internet, we made some videos I’m incredibly proud of. But the opportunity to rejoin the game development world was just too good to pass up!
Anyway, after such a weird year, it seems only fitting that I should give you a weird list.
The list, like 2020, starts normally, with video games that came out this year. I didn’t have the chance to play 10 games thoroughly enough to render an opinion, but did manage to make it to five. Here are the five 2020 games I played the most this year, ranked in order of goodness.
There’s no denying the artistic and technical abilities of the team over at . This game looked absolutely incredible, even on my stock PS4. Where it lost me a little was the story. The first game’s story, while straightforward, felt nuanced and touching. The sequel, however, felt like a more complicated story told with less finesse. Still, it was a pleasure to play, and had enough going on to pull me though all the way to the end.
is one of my favorite games of all time, so for me, the pitch for this game could have ended at “return to .” Unsurprisingly, I found walking/teleporting around the city at 1:1 scale thrilling, and could have stayed there all day but for the discomfort of wearing a VR headset. The realities of Virtual Reality are probably why I haven’t finished the game yet. I was playing a tentpole game with Valve's own headset, and still found plenty of rough edges. It’s unreasonable to expect perfection in a still-nascent technology, but I found myself having to psych myself up to play the game, which was unexpected.
I don’t usually go for action roguelikes, but MAN does Hades make a case for breaking with tradition. ’ ability to produce beautiful, polished games is unmatched, and the story is no different with Hades. Except that the story is different with Hades. The team’s commitment to narrative, even within a game structure that makes such a task an immense challenge, is refreshing and inspiring. My only wish is that I had played more of it this year.
The pandemic has affected people in different ways. Rather than feeling motivated to engage in deep, complex experiences with all my newfound “free time,” I found myself seeking ways to “turn my brain off” and relax. Trackmania hit at the exact right time for me. The game has a certain zany zen to it, and the experience of chilling out and doing flips with a server full of Giant Bomb fans made it a game I always looked forward to playing.
No real surprise here. I’m pretty sure I’d be breaking some FAA regulations if I didn’t put this one on top. I have long tried to use simulators to practice visual flight navigation as a way to ease my anxiety flying the route in a real plane. No other game has even come close to what and Microsoft have achieved here in that regard. That would be enough to earn it top honors in my book, but the cherry on top has been seeing folks who are not sim weirdos diving in and enjoying the game. Hearing about Vinny’s excitement and Rami Ismail’s experiences warms my heart like a brand new pitot tube.
And just like 2020, partway through is where this list starts to go off the rails.
Like many, I eventually found myself with a weird lockdown project. My Galaga cocktail arcade machine, it seemed, was malfunctioning. After some poking around with a multimeter, the problem turned out to be an undervoltage, quickly remedied by turning a knob on the power supply. But while I was under the hood, I figured, why not see what else I could do to supercharge this hog?
Enter . The ArPiCade is basically a tiny Linux computer running emulation software that can interface with old arcade hardware. If you’ve got a JAMMA machine (or an , like me), the device is surprisingly plug-and-play. After some acquisition, I soon had tons of arcade games at my fingertips, many of which I had never heard of.
Of course, not every game can be played on a Galaga cabinet. For one, the screen is vertical, limiting the number of compatible games considerably. Galaga’s default controls of a four-way joystick and a single button were constrictive as well. Something had to be done. After much research and browsing of websites that look straight out of 1996, I had a new control panel, a second button, and, most importantly, an that can convert from four-way to eight-way with a simple twist. (Ever try to play Pac-Man with an eight-way joystick? It’s not pretty.)
Even with a vertical screen and a maximum of two buttons, my revitalized cabinet was now compatible with hundreds of games. Of course, having that many games to choose from is overwhelming. Someone would have to go through that list and select the best of the best to be included on the cabinet. After many mornings of sampling and note-taking, I’ve come across a number of gems; great games I had never heard of before, old classics I had never played, and complete oddballs that, while not necessarily “good,” are so weird and charming you can’t help but smile when they boot up.
So here we are: five notable vertical-screen arcade games I touched in 2020. If you see any of these in an arcade (whenever we can visit those again), do not pass them up!
It’s tricky, and the top-down perspective that twists around the player’s car can be nauseating, but the game accurately mimics the feeling of “I can do a better lap than that” that I get playing modern racing games. 2D racing games can often feel like they’re guiding you around the track, so this is a welcome challenge.
Plus, it has real driver likenesses! Who can resist a pixelated Mansell mustache?
You’re a martial arts man.
You jump around and kick people.
Sometimes ramen pops out of nowhere.
When you win a stage, your character says “GUTS!”
This game actually reminds me a lot of : it’s a basic gameplay loop (jump from platform to platform and avoid/beat up enemies) framed in a setting that is way more involved than you would expect from the simple mechanics. But instead of relationship drama, Evil Stone throws you into a grotesque fantasy world to fight against horse people and demons with prominent butts.
Top-down beat-em-ups are a dime a dozen, but how many of them feature a protagonist legally distinct from Conan the Barbarian who flexes when he obtains power-ups? Or enemies who travel via those that street performers use in front of the San Francisco Ferry Building? Want a green lizard man on the end of an elephant’s trunk? You got it. And who could forget such classic quotes as “huh!” and “jub?”
Okay, yes. I am a child and laugh every time I hit the start button and “Let’s Uncle Poo!” shows up on screen. Then I laugh again when I press the action button and our beloved uncle bends over to fart out a... projectile. But the game itself is pretty good too! Like many games of the era, Uncle Poo is a maze game that requires the player to collect a set number of items. But it sets itself apart by scrolling sideways (watch out for the tidal wave!) and blocking your path with destructible blocks. You can avoid the blocks and make them disappear by collecting a power-up, or destroy them with–you guessed it–poo.
And on that note, I bid 2020 farewell. May you and yours have a healthy and happy 2021!