Mike Drucker is a writer and comedian living in New York City. He’s currently the co-head writer and co-executive producer of Full Frontal with Samantha Bee on TBS. You can follow him on Twitter @MikeDrucker and on Instagram @MikeDruckerisDead.
Man, thank fucking God for video games. As cynical as I want to be, and as unjustifiably bitter as I am as a human being, I have to admit that video games really did some heavy lifting this year. In a time when every article has to use the phrase, “in a time,” video games have been a source of incredible comfort. They’ve given us a way to spend time together, to travel somewhere that isn’t the inside of a quarantined house, and perhaps most importantly of all, make fun of Cyberpunk 2077.
As with any “Game of the Year” list, I was a bit limited by what I had the time to play. As much as I wanted to / want to / and let’s be honest, never will, I didn’t get a chance to spend enough time with Crusader Kings III, Ghost of Tsushima, Gears Tactics, or Hyrule Warriors to develop my identity around them and yell at people online who don’t enjoy them. But I can 100% do that with Hades if anyone wants to fight about the best builds.
Yakuza’s worlds are smaller than tedious open-world empires and dead-eyed retro-future landscapes, but they feel so much more alive. If a game tells me I can just fuck around, it has to give me something to do while fucking around. I could skip the entire story of Yakuza and just hangout in arcades. Or ride in a go kart. Or go to school to learn a vocational skill, apparently.
Beyond the world, Like a Dragon is a fucking fun RPG with a good story and characters that actually matter. Every game that imitates Earthbound goes for the aesthetic style first and the charm second. Like a Dragon is a completely different game--don’t get me wrong--but there’s something in it that reminds me of the joy there. Turning the modern and the mundane into a goofy roleplaying world. Yet it still treats its characters with respect, handling issues like homelessness with surprising grace.
It’s a good game that doesn’t take place in a future that somehow has flying cars in the air, but only three or four models of car on the ground at any given time.
I wasn’t really a fan of the original Last of Us! I recognized why it was a good game. But to me, it felt like I was trying to earn movie cutscenes by moving a ladder back and forth across various beautiful landscapes. Although, now that I describe it, that kind of sounds like a good indie game. It’s also Death Stranding. What is it about games and ladders?
By my count, The Last of Us Part II only had one significant ladder moving area, and for that, I applaud them. The story here is also incredible, and the (spoiler) switching between characters halfway through the game. In a movie or show, the turn would have worked. But making us play the same events from two opposing sides with legitimate points of view is genius. By the end of the game, I was not expecting to see some fucking villains where I saw heroes before.
It’s the Uncut Gems of games and runs great on the PS4, base or pro. Gotta love companies that optimized their games for the PS4. Not every PS4 game is perfect out the gate, but most of them actually do run on the system marked on the box. Just a thought.
I dunno, it’s Fall Guys. Jump around, get angry at cute rubbery characters, play another round and lose again. It’s Fall Guys. You know, Fall Guys. You’ve all played Fall Guys. And if you haven’t? Then… It’s Fall Guys.
Really all I got on this one.
Brawlers have a weird feel to them now. Doubly when their aesthetic still reaches back to the mid-'80s when every gang was expected to have a specific theme. There’s a pure joy to Streets of Rage 4. It’s a game that’s happy to exist made by people who are clearly excited that it does.
Like Sonic Mania before it, Streets of Rage 4 feels like it comes from an alternate dimension in which the Saturn succeeded and Sega spent the next two decades churning out quality 2D games. Playing online with friends has the same chaotic co-op energy it did when Streets of Rage was on the Genesis. In a lesser update, the sound and visuals would either be exact pixel replicas or so far off they feel alien to the series.
Instead, it all works just right, creating an exciting dystopian urban setting that doesn’t crash all the time or cause characters to float in the middle of the street doing a T-pose like they’re Jesus Christ ascending into Heaven.
I’m a sucker for minimalist games. One, they run on everything, so I don’t have to feel like an asshole for not upgrading my graphics card every six months. Two, they tend to find creative ways to set a mood that leans more on imagination than pushing polygons. Three, playing them gives the false impression I have some sort of refined taste.
If I didn’t want to sell you on the game, I’d say you play as an AI staring at a minimap and telling a woman you can’t see where to swim. If I did want to sell you on the game, I’d say that you’re solving a mystery while having a gorgeous world described to you as you help a scientist explore. If I really wanted to sell you on the game, well, unfortunately I don’t have the energy for that.
In Other Waters feels so much bigger than it is. After the first couple hours of adjusting, you get lost in it. Fear at objects on your radar turns to joy as the scientist tells you how they look and move and behave. In a strange way, the game feels a bit like an older text adventure or table top RPG with its reliance on saying where characters should go and having the results explained to you.
It’s really not good, the job I’m doing at trying to make this game sound fun. It’s fun. It’s cheap. You need the vacation.
The cheapest game on this list was freeeeeeeeeee (with purchase of a PS5 from a scalper on eBay). It’s also the only game this year to make me actively excited for the next generation of consoles.
Sure, respawning so fast in Demon's Souls is great, and Miles Morales looks incredible on the PS5, but Astro’s Playroom gave me that sense of wonder I had playing Super Mario World or Mario 64. The shininess and newness of it, the feeling of joy at something entirely new and--for lack of a better word--better.
To be fair, a lot of this is by design. The treasure hunt for classic PlayStation products would be cynical if not so carefully designed. The fact you can open disc drives and push buttons on virtual PlayStation museum pieces shows an actual care. Sony may be trying to copy Nintendo in its play for nostalgia, but it’s doing a good job.
But without the collectibles, Astro’s Playroom is just fun. The environments are beautiful. Discovering little scenes from classic PlayStation games is a delight. The way the PS5 controller resists and shakes and moves so far the only real example of what can be done with it. The whole package is built to make you happy you bought a powerful new console that can only decently run a previous-generation game made under sweatshop conditions.
Outside of Hades, Carrion is probably the most I’ve enjoyed playing a game this year. Sliding around a science facility, murdering soldiers and scientists through stealth and hate. Slowly unlocking the story of just how I came to be here. Escaping and realizing I was going to bring about the end of the world. Good stuff.
In the game, you’re essentially a pile of meat with a mouth. At its core, Carrion is a relatively simple and linear Metroidvania game. But the way it moves, feels, and controls is absolutely perfect. Rather than running and gunning, you use every area of the space to hide and attack and move.
And it’s short, which makes it better than almost any other game on this list.
At this point, I don’t even like Animal Crossing: New Horizons. When I check my island, it feels like a chore. I’m guilty for not spending more time with residents. My heart sinks when people ask to leave. Finding a drunk bird sea captain fills me with dread and annoyance.
But I kept coming back. Animal Crossing: New Horizons ironically doesn’t feel as lived-in as many of the other games in the series, but this year it gave a lot of us something to hang onto. As a thousand think pieces have already pointed out, pulling weeds and chopping down trees becomes a luxury when you can barely leave the confines of your home.
I’ve noticed a soft backlash to the game. A sense that, in retrospect, it’s not quite as good as previous entries in the series and that after putting in enough time, there’s really nothing to do other than move furniture around and change up decorations. But for a few months early in the pandemic, that was freeing. It somehow created a new experience, an entry-level Second Life that anyone could join. Visiting virtual families, seeing what my friend’s kids put up in their town.
The joy may not have lasted, but for a month or two, a lot of us lived a special moment inside a horrible time.
As a fan of Final Fantasy VII, I wanted to dislike this game. I was absolutely certain Square Enix would ruin a classic by updating it with a new battle system and needlessly melodramatic additions to a story that I refuse to admit to myself I enjoy because of the melodrama. Even playing the demo let me down in a way I haven’t been let down since seeing what CD Projekt Red took eight years to make.
What really surprised me about Final Fantasy VII Remake was that it didn’t just want to reference the original; it wanted to expand on it. It made Avalanche an actual group of real characters. It expanded on the emotional core of the game while keeping a whole shitload of the weird. Rather than pulling back on areas such as Wall Market, we got a crossdressing pro-queer rhythm minigame. Almost every time Square Enix could expand, they did, and when nostalgia did hit, it was done so in small doses without ever overtaking the entire experience.
The game is far from perfect, and some of its most fun secrets take a little too much time to collect. But with a wide-open post-game and the ability to jump around the story, this is a game I’m going to be perusing, if not always playing, for a long time.
As is required by law, Hades is my game of the year, which is a surprise. Here’s how little of a shit I gave about this game. When my friends start talking about it, I checked Steam to see if I wanted to buy it and I realized I had bought it long ago in Early Access and just never bothered to play it. Not once.
I was wrong. Hades is incredible. What starts off as a generic-seeming roguelike grows and evolves and changes. As the gameplay opens up, the story moves past its early beats into something truly special and touching. Within a few runs, I went from annoyed with the environment to talking to everyone, trying to learn what each person’s “deal” was.
Pound for pound, Hades also has the most satisfying gameplay of the year. Step-by-step it walks you through weapons and upgrades and enemies, leading you to eventually beating the big man himself. What starts as awkward flailing at enemies soon becomes motherfucking figure skating around bosses leaving deadly explosions in your wake.