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Rich Gallup's Top 10 Games of 2020

Weird splorts, hot newsletters, and a heaping helping of Super Mario Party are just a few of the things that took up space in Rich Gallup's 2020.

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Rich Gallup is Executive Producer at OtherSide Entertainment and knows more Whats than there are Legos in his entire house. Find him working in his makeshift basement office surrounded by wood paneling, or on Twitter.

Hello everybody!

For many this year was stressful, sad, and lonely. I feel incredibly fortunate to have spent 2020 in relative safety and seclusion, waiting, listening, learning, and trying to keep my kids entertained in this Groundhog Day loop of laundry, dishes, and remote schooling. Big thanks to Battlebots, Jelle’s Marble Runs, and Word Girl, among others.

I am hopeful for 2021, with its arrival of vaccines and a new administration. In the meantime, I’ll keep willing the clock forward. I have learned in previous times of stress that video games are excellent at turning today into tomorrow, and hey, here are some now.

My Kids’ Games of the Year Leading up to December 25: Mario Kart 8, Pokémon Go

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Last March, when I still wore hard pants and it was clear that we were going into lockdown, I decided to accelerate my plans for introducing my kids to video games. I finally bought a Switch and you were all right! It’s an amazing machine. Animal Crossing was our intro to a weekly family video game ritual. Every Saturday morning after pancakes and waffles (yes, both), we’d settle in for an hour or two of hustling on our island of New New Ham. Eventually that grind wore thin, my kids could only get so excited about collecting yet another type of cicada, and that’s when Mario Kart 8 took over our Saturday mornings. My oldest and I are working towards unlocking that Gold Mario, currently trying to 3-star every cup at 150cc, wish us luck!

Last year on here I wrote about starting Pokémon Go for educational purposes, and that Pandora’s Box has only yawned wider. My kids are obsessed, and it’s adorable! We’re talking Level 40 in Go, full Dex in Let’s Go Pikachu, Pokémon sweatshirts, a Pokémon advent calendar, constant quizzes from the Pokémon almanac, and a seat of honor at the breakfast table for our stuffy Detective Pikachu (dubbed “Pik-Pik”, thank you). They couldn’t care less about the trading cards, funny enough. Niantic has done a great job of adapting Pokémon Go to work better for folks who are playing from home, and I love having my kids crowd around the phone to help with a remote raid or a catch. Some more Froakie spawns would be nice, though.

Honorable mentions: Let’s Go Pikachu, Katamari Damacy, Co-op Untitled Goose Game

What My Kids Now Say is their Game of the Year: Super Mario Party

Santa made a mistake.

Brain Game of the Year: “Do you know what, Daddy?”

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I’m trying to stay sharp during quarantine, keep that mental acuity up. For a while I was obsessed with getting on the Good Sudoku daily leaderboards, then I binged Grey Alien Games’ solitaire-ish Ancient Enemy, then I was talked into getting stomped on a weekly basis in the Stormy Division of the Boswords crossword puzzle league. All good mental exercise, yet the longest running brain game I’ve tackled this year is a personal creation--I try to deliver a new response every time one of my kids says “Do you know what, Daddy?” This question can pop up anywhere between 2 and 200 times a day, and while it’s proven impossible to create an original answer each time out, it’s been fun to try. Some of my favorites:

  • Yes, I do. (Turn and walk away)
  • I know more Whats than there are _____ in the _____. (Gotten a lot of mileage out of that one)
  • In fact I just had a Zoom call with What, they say hi.
  • Which Pokémon is What? Is that a ghost type?
  • I forgot about What! (To wife) Is it too late to send What a holiday card?

Honorable Mentions: Remembering the Cartoons and Toys of My Youth as a “One Last Story before Bed” Substitute; Memorizing the Pokémon effectiveness chart

A Mobile Game I Quite Liked: Retro Bowl

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Retro Bowl is a tight homage to Tecmo Bowl with some light general management. It got me through the spring, and for that I am forever grateful. Our kids’ schools had just gone fully remote, my wife and I were working full-time from home, and chaos reigned. I played a couple games of Retro Bowl and had so much nostalgic fun I immediately bought enough optional in-game currency to hire two 5-star (female!) coaches, sign future Hall of Famer Taco Anger, and max out my stadium’s facilities. I never lost again. It was a great, fun distraction when I needed it most.

Honorable Mentions: Dear Reader, Assemble With Care

Best Newsletter: Brian Feldman’s BNet

I’ve become a bit of a newsletter guy, the same way that others may have taken to podcasts a decade ago, and I cannot recommend Brian Feldman’s BNet newsletter enough. Brian is incredibly wise when it comes to the internet, and does an excellent job of sharing, explaining and investigating current trends or interesting weird bits. His tone perfectly matches the content, and there’s even stuff about video games so I can justify writing about it here. Here’s a quote from his year in review article that resonated for me:

“Internet culture… is about accidental collaboration between pseudonymous users who don’t know each other, transmuting art and media and ideas as they pass through niche communities… I just kinda shove my head in the woodchipper and see what I can see and follow the trail as far as it’ll go.”

Reading BNet makes me feel like I’m back at GameSpot, really plugged in to what is the internet’s interesting and/or ridiculous thing of the moment thanks to all of my coworkers and forum users. Yes the internet is full of nonsense, but I feel it’s important to document its trends and weirdness, if for nothing else but historical record. If I was a dot com zillionaire I would build an entire news outlet around Brian’s style of coverage and print an annual summary, leather bound and embossed with gold leaf, and just fill the shelves of the world’s libraries with doofy internet reference material.

Honorable Mentions: Ben & Jerry’s Chunkmail, Defector’s The Cipher

Favorite Game that I only just heard about thanks to other folks’s GOTY lists: Murder by Numbers

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Every year, thanks to all of the diligent folks who turn in their homework on time, I learn about some previously-unknown-to-me-yet-great game and become so obsessed with it I am compelled to include it in my list. For 2020, Murder by Numbers is that game! It’s picross meets “1980s Hollywood TV crime drama star turned real detective” meets cheerful floaty robot. Upon discovering the game, I played through 50% of it in one evening. The picross controls feel great on my PC, and the story is well written and compelling. It gives off strong Phoenix Wright vibes but a little more serious. Thanks to everybody who wrote about this one!

Honorable Mentions: Umurangi Generation, Star Renegades, art of rally

Best Game I 100%’d: Maneater

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The stars must align for me to full out, 100% complete a game. It has to be so fun I don’t want to turn it off, while also not asking too much of me in terms of complexity or overall scope, and then there’s how much free time I have and if there are any other games I want to play. This year’s great conjunction was the Deepest Bluest power fantasy Maneater. Initially I found the game a little frustrating as I was barely scraping by as a wee shark in a big swamp, losing my sense of direction and falling prey to alligators. In short order though the game opened up and it was easy to outpace the difficulty ramp by completing all of the side missions and just eating everything in sight. I felt unstoppable. By the end I was belly flopping across beach parties to chow on humans, leaping dozens of feet in the air to crush fishing boats, wielding electrical teleportation powers to rip through whales, and unlocking every customization option in the sea. The developers did a nice job of keeping the mood light with humor, and by cramming a million references throughout. Most importantly, it felt really good to mash buttons and chomp chomp chomp until there was nothing left to eat.

Honorable Mention: Sticky Terms

Best Game Made by Friends: Hades

Nice work Greg and the Supergiant crew! I usually prefer to constantly move forward in my games, like a bioelectric super shark, but I found nearly every aspect of Hades so compelling I just kept playing their roguelike escape mission. Responsive gameplay, gorgeous visuals, great storytelling and characters, it’s all there. I ran into that classic roguelike conundrum where I lucked into a really deep run early on with the Captain America shield and some Ares boons, and didn’t repeat that success for another half dozen attempts. Normally that would make me bounce out of a game, but with Hades I had people to talk to, blessings to unlock, a giant 3-headed dog to pet, too much to do to stop. Also kudos to Supergiant for tackling early access and live ops development during a pandemic, and to Noclip for the great documentary series that made me feel like I was there for it all.

Honorable Mention: 3 out of 10, Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit

Best Vibes: Blaseball and the Hawai’i Fridays Community

I am a Blaseball fanatic. (If you need a primer on Blaseball I recommend Cat Manning’s or this video by People Make Games.) I first heard about the cultural phenomenon that is Blaseball via some tweets from its amazing producer and fellow friend of Giant Bomb Felix Kramer. When I signed up, it was Season 3 and there was a fledgling wiki to help newcomers like me answer that immediate, seemingly innocent, yet also rather intimidating question: which team are you rooting for? Any other year I probably would’ve gone for a fiercely competitive squad like the Hades Tigers or Baltimore Crabs. But since abandoning the Red Sox after they traded Mookie Betts, I was searching for a more chill splorts fan experience. Enter this fan lore description of the Hawai’i Fridays:

The Fridays are blessed/cursed by Our Lady of Perpetual Friday. For the Fridays, it is always island time. Players cannot feel the passing of the hours for it is always late afternoon on Friday, a time to stop worrying about the trials of the week and instead a time to hang out with family and friends. No matter the temperature, the Fridays experience the weather as a cool 70-something degrees with a pleasant ocean breeze. The smell of pit oven smoke lingers around them. They are fun at parties.

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Yes please. Give me a hammock and a constant stream of fictional stats and I am good. Just as I was settling into the rapid flow of simulated games, official Discord channel, and betting strategies, three Fridays were incinerated by rogue umpires! They were gone! Forever*! What kind of splort is this? This surprising event led to my realization of the core appeal of Blaseball: the community. At the time the Fridays-specific Discord channel was committed to the bit, so even though three of our players had been burnt to a crisp, everything in the chat was chill. And if anybody started getting upset, they were gently reminded that we all share the blessing of Our Lady, and that we have no worries. The Fridays channel got to work collaborating on biographies for our new players: the sentient home plate Evelton McBlase, the sentient palm tree Basilio Fig, and the sentient super powerful cocktail Juice Collins (Blaseball autogenerates the names for players, but the fans get to create the biographies and wiki entries). I bore witness to a powerful burst of respectful and fun collaboration between folks who had been total strangers days or weeks before.

I found this role-playing and collaboration so unique and endearing that I started hanging around more and learned that the fans, volunteer mods, and The Game Band (the developers of Blaseball) are all incredibly nice and welcoming (at least in the Fridays channel, I can’t vouch for other teams or channels). As long as you are respectful and considerate, anyone and their ideas and contributions towards the fan lore of Blaseball are welcome. And it all magically works, the vibe is so chill. For months! Anytime I needed a break from 2020, I popped into the Fridays Discord channel and hung out. I was even inspired to make fan art, though it pales in comparison to what others have made. The fan art for Blaseball is next level.

I haven’t participated in an internet community that tight since like the official Beastie Boys dot com chat room circa 1998. Much credit to the mods and team captains for their caretaking and guidance. There is much more that could be written about Blaseball, the 11 seasons leading up to its current Grand Siesta got incredibly wild, and witnessing it unfold live alongside other Fridays fans is right up there with many of my other shared sports experiences. So chill.

Honorable Mentions: Manifold Garden, Among Trees

Game of the Year: Sludge Life

This year I missed or skipped nearly every big budget launch. I’ll probably play a few of them, but they seem like so much work. The desire just isn’t there to take on that kind of burden. Getting into even one of them could mean dozens of smaller games I never would have time to try, like my Game of the Year: Sludge Life by Terri Vellmann, with a great soundtrack by Doseone.

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Sludge Life is a vandalism game, but it’s not a game where you are using your graffiti to make a capital-S Statement or fill a drab world with color. You’re tagging because what else are you going to do on this garbage island? The appeal of the game is in its style and weirdness. I have a hard time finding video games that feel cool from top to bottom, and while I won’t claim Sludge Life is for everyone, the art, music, and most of all the attitude and humor provided by the ambient characters really did it for me.

Sludge Life is open world but the world is comfortably small, with enough exploration and content to fill an afternoon of playing, a perfect amount for me. There’s not a lot of wealth to be found on the island, and there’s a strike going on at the big corporate HQ so you get a little bit of anticapitalism, which is nice, but there are plenty more denizens who are just trying to get through the day with menial jobs, or by drinking in the shower, or by stealing washing machines. You get the feeling everybody has found their groove and they collectively express a very real range of emotions from acceptance to depression to happiness, with an edge of wry humor throughout. All this comes across even though each of the few dozen NPCs has only 2-4 lines of text dialogue.

If one was going to pry deeper into my feelings on Sludge Life there might be some kind of connection to draw between 2020 and the appeal of a game that feels cool even though it has a less than hopeful setting, but let’s not dwell on it. Go play Sludge Life, it’s free in the Epic Store.

This year has brought a renewed appreciation for life. I will forever treasure these memories of playing so much Mario Kart and Pokémon with my kids, their joy is pure and infectious. When I see them so happy, it feels like every decision I made in life to bring me to that exact moment was the correct one, no regrets, no second guessing. Before I go, I’d like to take this moment to remind anybody reading this who is in a position of leadership at a development studio: life outside of work is meaningful. And forcing your team to miss that by imposing or encouraging crunch is hurtful, destructive, and disrespectful. Yes, making video games is incredibly difficult and fraught with challenges, but your employees' personal lives and mental wellbeing should not be sacrificed for your desired scope, quality bar, or delivery date. Strive to find the balance, you can do it.

Thanks for reading everybody, good luck out there!