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Jeff Gerstmann's Games of 2020

Something from your editor-in-chief about these 2020 video games.

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Jeff Gerstmann saw a dude skitching along the side of a minivan while he was going up the 5 this summer and it was the illest thing he's ever seen. You can send him questions for "Jeff Gerstmann Presents Jar Time 2021" by PM'ing the account "Jeff" on this very website.

Ya know, it's pretty funny that the Macintosh Plus single that released at the very end of 2019 asked the world (well, it asked the artist, at least) to go outside not long before we kinda had to stop going outside so much.

A lot has happened since then.

Before I get into my ten favorite games of the year, here's some other stuff about my year that was.

I'm really thankful for Discord, which is where I did around 98% of my socializing in 2020. It's been a real joy to recapture a lot of the dumb IRC vibes of 1990s, but it's also been nice to have tight clusters of folks to hang out with, too. I pay for Discord's subscription service, but I think the only part of it I actually use is an animated emote of Ryback nodding his head. I also lucked my way onto a server with a bunch of super-talented musicians and it's both made me want to make more music or a video mixtape or something and it's also made me think "wow, I'm not sure that I have the skills or energy to make much of anything right now." Energy's a weird one these days.

As for the real world, well... hmm. I don't really have a lot of comparison points, so I don't know what parenting is supposed to look like. But I think you're supposed to occasionally be able to have a family member over from time to time so they can watch the kid and give you and your wife a brief break from things. Circumstances haven't really allowed for that, so we've been on our own. Balancing the schedule around here isn't easy, and my wife is the true star of the household for keeping the rest of us going, but honestly, I love a lot of things about it. I think if I were still driving to San Francisco every day I would have lost my mind by now. Getting home at 8PM when the baby goes to sleep no later than 5 got just a little bit more soul crushing every single day. Being able to spend real time with my daughter every day is, undoubtedly, the best thing to happen this year. Even if she wants me to read the same book to her eight times in a row. I just keep thinking: if I spent all of 2020 driving 80 miles a day, five days a week, and only saw her before leaving for work in the morning, would my daughter even recognize me? Would my wife?

Anyway, the game industry thrived in a lot of ways last year, but we also saw a lot of games become casualties of the work from home experience. Some games were lucky to have just been delayed. Others came out in states that they... really shouldn't have shipped in. The way games and consoles got announced twisted and changed in ways that quickly got away from what we think of as the typical E3-style announcement, and ultimately that's probably a healthy thing for video games. I can't imagine there being an E3 this year, but hey, we'll see.

I do not know what 2021 will look like. But I think everything is going to work out OK in the end. More on that later.

My Ten Favorite Video Games in 2020

10. Teardown

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As an ongoing early access experience, at times Teardown feels more like a brilliant idea than a fully realized video game, but this little voxel world that you can blast apart with a sledge hammer or a blowtorch or propane tanks or hey, maybe just drive a truck through the house you want to blow up. Why not?

The game part of Teardown has you do things like intelligently plot a path of destruction that leads you past all of a level's key items, so you can grab them all in 60 seconds and escape for the the law shows up. It very different than the first couple of levels, which are really just there to let you get used to breaking stuff.

Blasting the voxels apart feels great, and even though the performance isn't great (on my machine, anyway), the way the game slows down and chops up when you set off a huge explosion gets me amped just like when I used to crash a Garry's Mod server by filling it full of way too many objects (dominos and/or bikes, in case you were wondering).

9. Fuser

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The big problem with Dropmix was that it wanted you to play Dropmix instead of just dropping cards and making bad, terrible, no-good mashups. The trouble with Fuser is that the game part of it isn't actually much fun! But the freestyle mode is so rad that it's extremely easy to forget that the game part of the game is too bossy. I mean, some of that has to be there, it's also kind of a tutorial.

Whatever, I'm not here to pick this thing apart. It's great! Being able to load into the freestyle session and screw around with all these different stems is extremely satisfying and extremely goofy, if you're doing it right. Or wrong, I guess. Point being, you can make a lot of things that sound legit good in Fuser, but I'm here to generate nightmares. Heavens to Betsy, they've invented a soundclown machine!

8. Genshin Impact

It is 2021 and you must choose one game inspired by The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to represent you in the coming year. Will you choose Immortals: Fenyx Rising? Or Genshin Impact? Choose fast, it's already January.

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I went the Genshin Impact route.

The developers of Genshin Impact have made a world that's fun to explore with just enough going on out there to keep you coming back. The anime art style, mashed up against some Breath of the Wild-like effects and world design, worked for me way more than I figured it would. I found myself getting invested in leveling up my various characters, feeding weapons to other weapons to power it all up, and so on.

It eventually gets into a pretty good rhythm of daily-ish adventures that give you something to quickly do every day, even if you aren't going to be able to put any time into the main story on that particular night. My erratic schedule really meshed well with that sort of stuff, making it a good end-of-the-night check-in. Sometimes I'd do that on PC, but since the progress all carries over, I found myself playing the phone version way more than I thought I ever would. It's too bad that the PS4 version doesn't hook up to the same progression, it'd be nice to have that as an option, especially now that it's been patched to run better on a PS5.

I found it to be a good free-to-play game in that I never put any money into it but always had stuff to do. But at this point I've had a good enough time with it that I wouldn't be opposed to throwing in on something, but let's not get too carried away here: paying for random rolls is a sucker's game.

Also Paimon is good. I can't believe this was even a talking point last year, you people are monsters.

7. Phantasy Star Online 2

One of 2020's most surprising releases is 2012's Phantasy Star Online 2, which finally saw its English release on both Xbox and PC this year. Weird! It's so weird that this happened! The game was originally announced for North America years and years ago. Hell, Sega even showed it off at PAX back then. And then the line went dead. The US website was a hilarious zombie site, never updated, never officially canceled. The Microsoft put it on stage at the last E3, E3 2019.

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I put a lot of time into the Japanese release, which received fan translations and a lot of overseas fan support over the years, but I quickly surpassed that time spent when the English version hit.

I'm not going to build some huge case for PSO2 here--this one is kind of a nostalgia hit for me. The original PSO is an intensely important video game that brought online action-RPGs to console players around the world. The aesthetic of that game, a lot of which is mirrored and updated in PSO2, is perfect. PSO2 is a weirder and way-more-online take on that game. Its story is nonsense and is also poorly implemented, making it easy to completely miss it.

It also suffers from a lot of free-to-play roadblocks. They'll let you pay a monthly fee to accept more quests at once, hold more items, and all kinds of stuff. On top of that they have a battle pass sort of thing. And a zillion cosmetics, some of which cross over with other properties, Sega or otherwise. Feels like a shakedown, at times.

Here, maybe I should just erase everything I typed above and just say this: my robot has a cube-shaped Sega Saturn for a head and he's wearing a cowboy hat on top of that. It's the seventh best game that came out in 2020.

6. Trackmania

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I want Trackmania to be better and more user-friendly, but also that road leads to Trackmania Turbo, a game that took the general size and shape of Trackmania, but sanded down so many of the rough edges that the end result felt sterile, like it was engineered in a clean room by people who didn't understand why the ability for players to run their own weird, broken servers matters. Or why a server admin might want to filth up their server with XASECO or some other front-end mod that paints the edges of the screen with way more data than a sane person could ever want.

Trackmania--effectively Trackmania 3, I suppose, but trying to count Trackmania releases is a path that ends in pure madness, so they're right to go with a reboot-friendly name here--brings back most of the nonsense that you (read: I) want out of the Trackmania experience while still offering the aiblity for players who don't want to dig into that nonsense to slap together a batch of tracks and put them on a Ubisoft-hosted server, all within the game.

The game ends up confusing a lot of players around the payment, which gives players three tiers (including a free one), but even the highest tier is reasonable enough to make getting confused more of an annoyance than a financial hardship.

At the end of the day, Trackmania makes some gameplay changes while also still feeling a little too similar to its previous selves. Considering there are people out there doing the esports with this (something I still can't help but chuckle at a bit, considering I'm coming for the exact opposite of that), it probably makes sense to remain a little rooted in the past. The end result is a game that, like most of the Trackmania 2 "flavors," seems like a damn ghost town. Most of the servers are empty, with two or three still managing to attract players. It's a bummer!

Special thanks to redcoin for running a variety of Trackmania servers for the community over the years and for creating the classic Star Wars Metallica maps.

5. Minecraft

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Minecraft ended up being one of the most important games to me in 2020. It's exactly what I needed on some of these lonely nights, after the family has gone to bed. This was also the year I finally wrapped my head around how mods and stuff worked with the Java version of Minecraft. It's not especially difficult, it's just... well, it's not quite as easy as modding most other PC games, I guess I'd say. Having to dig into a bunch of sketchy-ass websites that all seemed to have the files I was looking for while also managing to look exactly like the sort of site that'd be serving you up some hot-ass malware certainly didn't help. This, naturally, led to me supporting some Patreons for a few months to get access to various path-traced lighting add-ons, some crazy-looking texture packs, and so on.

I did a lot of good stuff in Minecraft this year. Here's a partial list.

- We streamed a bunch of it, built some silly-ass art, beat the game, and flipped over to creative mode to eventually just burn the whole thing down.

- I built a very nice hot tub out in front of a very good, high-ceilinged cave that I hollowed out. At one point I showed it to my wife and we talked about vacations we might take someday, when we're finally on the other side of all this.

- I built yet another weird sky platform on a friend's server.

- I attended a music festival where both 100 gecs and BOYZ B2B MEN performed.

After all that, after I finally remembered to drop the Patreons I was paying for, the RTX update for Windows 10 Minecraft left beta and I fell into it all over again. I had some really great times with friends in Minecraft this year, but building stuff alone was... nice. It was all very nice. I went through some stupid rough shit this year--I mean, I get it, plenty of us did, I don't really want to get into it here, though--and Minecraft was... very important. Very calming. Very necessary.

4. Hades

the crossover event gamers the world over have been dying to play
the crossover event gamers the world over have been dying to play

Hades was rad in early access, but I never really stuck with it. Maybe they did a little too well at conveying their future plans. It felt like every time I loaded it up and saw the countdown to the next scheduled update and saw what was coming, it made more sense to just wait. So I kept waiting. Ultimately, I'm glad I did. The complete experience of Hades feels like straight-up wizardry at times.

I think I'd chalk a lot of that up to the characters and story, but maybe that's because the game already felt great out of the gate, when it first launched in early access. That gameplay provides an amazing foundation for some really fascinating storytelling. I mean that both in that the story itself is really good and, once you start peeling back the layers of the endgame, you absolutely need to know how it'll end. But also the way the game's story serves the gameplay and vice versa is really remarkable. Hades isn't necessarily the first game to attempt to write a story that lays on top of a game you're meant to play again and again, losing on most of your attempts. But most roguelikelitelikes-with-stories just choose to dripfeed you a story bit here and there. Hades goes the other way with it and fills the game with meaningful character interactions, a great, expansive cast, and a layered narrative that is absolutely worth seeing through to the end.

Also? It's all very attainable. Hades is a very beatable game, once you get accustomed to its sharp gameplay and dial in a few weapons and builds that you like to use. In the event that you're having too much--or not enough--trouble, it offers options to make the game easier or harder in smart ways.

Hades feels fully realized in a way that a lot of run-based games usually don't.

3. Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2

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It's certainly a knowable number, but I'm not going to do the math. How many words do you think I've written about the Tony Hawk games over the years? Thing is, I'm still getting unbeliavably amped just sitting here, thinking about this year's game.

It's wild that THPS1+2 is as good as it is! It isn't the first time these levels (or games) have been remade, but the level of quality of those remakes and classic levels have always felt a little bit like cast-offs and budget games. 1+2 doesn't look like a remaster or an HD upgrade or whatever the other stuff did. This is a full-on remake that looks fantastic while including a lot of the later Tony Hawk's Pro Skater moves that complete the trick system and help give it more flow.

Flow is the thing that makes these games so good. Completing the objectives and all that progression stuff is great and all, but the best part about a great Tony Hawk is just... skating around and doin' stuff. Figuring out lines, working on a nice combo, or even just exploring the space a bit... these are the things that make it more than just an objective-based platfomer on wheels. 1+2 doesn't duplicate the exact feel of the old games, but it does right by the spirit of those old games and feels outstanding.

I would've hoped there would have been some kind of add-on or something for Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 3 levels by now. Hopefully 2021 gets us some more of this or... a new Tony Hawk game? I don't know. I've been hurt before. But I'm ready to try again if Activision is.

2. Marvel's Spider-Man: Miles Morales

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Less is more here. Miles Morales trims all the extra fluff and stealth junk from Insomniac's last Spider-Man game and is way better for it. It also has its own skill tree, giving you some crucial powers that make your move set feel viable and fun right out of the game. The previous game required you to unlock a lot of really key stuff, which made it pretty hard to go back to that Remastered PS5 version of the first game after finishing Miles Morales.

I really took to the story in Miles Morales. Once you get past the setup of "Peter Parker's on vacation, New York is all yours, kid" the game has a plot that feels smaller and bigger at the same time. It feels like a more human tale, watching Miles come into his own. Miles breaks all the rules of being a superhero by telling way too many people who he really is over the course of the game, and watching the consequences of that along the way is really cool. Even the game's primary villain has a connection to Miles that makes it all feel personal and, well, small. At the same time, the stakes are high. The evil-ass corporation run by a guy who gives off crazy young James Spader vibes is probably going to blow up Harlem if you don't stop them. Simon Krieger absolutely sucks, and dealing with his operation was very satisfying.

The game feels extremely tight, with no wasted time. As such, you can really cook through it quickly, if that's your thing. But the side quests offer enough of a human touch to really help ground the whole thing. It's just a really well put-together game, man, you should check it out.

1. Astro's Playroom

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Is even less... even more? I don't know if that applies here, because if you told me "hey, they're putting out four more worlds for Astro's Playroom next month," I'd flip out. Astro and his brand of little controller robots have kicked around in a couple of other projects, and Astro's Playroom further cements them as "the characters we put into this free and/or experimental tech thing we're doing." But instead of showcasing augmented reality or virtual reality, Astro's Playroom showcases the whole damn PlayStation 5. It's such an astoundingly good introduction to the system, too.

It's also a totally delightful 3D platformer, too, with a pretty complete moveset (jumpin', punchin', some boosted jumpin') and a good set of levels. Nothing's too difficult here, with plenty of signposts as to where secret items are hiding out and combat that keeps you focused, but it's not especially taxing. The game's four worlds break up into two platforming levels and two "vehicle" sort of levels that put you into a little Lunar Lander-style spaceship, a bouncing frogsuit, a Monkey Ball-like ball, and a monkey suit that lets you climb and flip your way up the levels. Each one of these makes great use of the PS5's unique controller in ways that feel magical.

Each world also maps to one of the four previous PlayStation consoles, resulting in some amazing little remixes at the end of each world and collectible items that fill a section of your hub area with, like, the entire history of PlayStation hardware. You can jump onto a PSOne, climb up a PS3, hop onto a hanging PlayStation VR Aim Contoller, drop down and kick a PSP GPS unit for funsies, and... everything has its own little animation or noise that makes the simple act of running around and staring at all of this Sony stuff feel worthwhile. The game also plays off of nostalgia really well in its final confrontation.

On top of all that is a speedrun mode that gives you one platforming and one vehicle level for each world. These are new levels, built specifically for the speedrun mode, and completing each of them gives you a total time. The game has leaderboards for your total and for each level, and these integrate into the PS5's notifications, letting you know when a friend beats your time. These levels are short enough and the game loads fast enough on the console's fancy hard drive that just launching into a speedrun to try to take your leaderboard spots back is a smooth, fast procedure that kept me coming back to this mode way, way more than I would have if it had required a full-on launch process, menus, and all that rigamarole. It's seriously impressive. About the only thing I'd add to the package is the ability to watch speedruns from other players off the leaderboard, if only to get a sense of how, exactly, some of these lunatics are getting these insanely low times.

Asobi should make more levels or a full-on sequel to this.

And now, More

Some other games I want to make a quick note of here. Most of these were on my long list at one point or another.

Ghost of Tsushima - This game is mostly great, but I burned out too hard on the side stuff and got to a point where the whole game just started to feel a little repetitive. Beautiful game, though.,

Granblue Fantasy Versus - I wish I played more of this. It's good, but I just never put in the time.

Umurangi Generation - Great soundtrack, I quickly found the photography stuff to be a little more than I was looking for.

Final Fantasy VII Remake - I wanted to like FFXV and.... didn't. This seemed like it might be the flip on that game's action that I might get into, but it just didn't quite happen. I like what they've done with the story, though, it's great that they didn't just crank out some slavishly accurate thing. Very bold.

Forza Horizon 4 - Seriously impressive on the Series X. I mean, it already looked great on PC, but having it run this well on a console is great. It was nice to have an excuse to revisit it.

Sludge Life - Big Mud rules

Some other notes

I first heard of The KLF in 1991. The video for 3AM Eternal came out and got a fair amount of airplay on MTV, which was a "television channel" for music videos. I didn't always fuck around with the club/dancey stuff, but it all happened around the same time that C&C Music Factory blew the hell up with Gonna Make You Sweat, so there was definitely a club rap/hip-house thing starting to happen in a mainstream way. I bought the C&C album for some reason. Well, I mean the reason was that the first couple of singles were good. Disappointing album, though, overall.

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The video for 3AM Eternal is incredible. A large part of it are these two incredibly tired looking dudes, one of whom is wearing one of those Russian sideflap hats that me and my roommate Chris tried to make happen around 2004 or so, sitting in the front of a busted-up police car. In the back there's a guy rapping his lines into the police radio, which is just an ill idea. Off to his side, two ladies, asleep or passed out. In my mind, back when I was 15 or so, they were definitely on some kind of drugs. One of the ladies would open her eyes just long enough to sing her part. It just looked crazy. That was all cut together with this huge pyramid scene, like some kind of music ritual was happening. The rapper is now rapping directly into a gigantic cell phone, which only gets better as the years go on and phones get smaller, then bigger, then smaller again. The car guys were here, though I don't know that I realized that until years later. They're playing guitars in the video for a song that doesn't seem to have very much live guitar on it, a bit of posturing that I really can't get enough of. Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond's ridiculously exaggerated strumming stuck with me.

The song stuck with me, too, but as it was 1991 and as I didn't buy every album or single that I wanted back then, I wasn't really able to go out of my way to hear the song. So, here, in these United States, in my 1991 living room, The KLF made a memorable video and were kind of a one-hit wonder. I mean they did that song with Tammy Wynette or whatever, but by that time I was 16 instead of 15 and was too busy driving around in a way-too-hot Chevy Nova with my friend Wes, wherein we would yell stupid shit at people on the street and listen to the Geto Boys. I'd wreck the car doing dumb shit, Wes would hit his head on my windshield in the crash, and I think he bought his first car with the insurance money. He later got a ticket while giving me a ride somewhere. Things were never quite the same. I suspect his parents were not big fans of the way I crashed a car with him inside of it. Totally understandable, really.

The KLF had quite a career and then decided very firmly to have no career at all, firing a machine gun full of blanks into the crowd at a UK awards show and quitting the music business a few months after I wrecked that car. In the following years they'd "delete" their catalog, effectively removing it from sale and leaving it to the realm of collectors and bootleggers. They'd also go burn a million pounds (the money, not the weight) on a Scottish island. And with the exception of a couple of one-off recordings, they kinda went away. It's a legendary move, really, having a massive music career, trying to make a movie, failing to finish it, quitting the business, and burning what was said to be what was left of the royalties they made off of that music career. Heroic? Maybe. You be the judge on that, I guess.

Over the years, 3AM Eternal became one of those one-hit wonder-y kind of songs that I'd remember and want to hear. Mostly I'd want to see the video, which as I mentioned above, was amazing and left quite an impression. But I never really thought to dig deeper than that. Then one day, I did. Wait, these guys burned a huge pile of money, filmed it, but then decided to not release the film beyond some various, controlled showings? And they agreed to not talk about any of the music for, what, 23 years? Hang on, they left a dead sheep at the awards show afterparty after pretend-shooting the crowd and performing some kind of proto-grind/thrash version of 3AM Eternal with a band called Extreme Noise Terror, of all things? Clearly there was more to know.

Naturally, the nature of a "deleted" music catalog made going out and just buying up everything a little weird, so... I didn't. It was all easy to find. It's the internet, after all. The only catch was that, removed from context, none of it made any sense. Why are there so many different versions of The White Room? Hang on, why are some of these marked as a soundtrack? What the hell is all this? Wow, they burned a bunch of records on the side of a road after trying to settle a sample issue with ABBA by driving up to see them in person? Huh.

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I'd go through various versions of this exact process on and off, mostly over the last five years or so, but I'd get to the money burning stuff, read a lot of things about it, and fall off. In 2020 I didn't fall off. Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty came across like two guys making and doing the things they felt intensely strong about, whether that was music or some kind of art statement and honestly is there even a difference? The statement of walking away from it is just as valid, if not more valid than cranking out increasingly desperate records for that 23 year stretch probably would've been.

They largely shied away from talking about their music careers in the years since and the catalog remained undeleted. I listened to as much of their music as I could get my hands on in 2020. I made an all-night road trip back from Southern California and that music made the drive happen. It made the hours fly by. I think somewhere between the Del Taco in Santa Nella and home was where I realized that I should probably get a pyramid blaster tattooed somewhere on my body when this is all over.

On January 1, 2021, The KLF released its most popular singles to streaming services in a collection called Solid State Logik 1. Everything is going to work out OK in the end.

Lastly: A Helpful Index

Dear reader, if you are looking for records to put on while you are under intense stress and looking to get some sleep, might I recommend:

Jeff Gerstmann on Google+