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2020 Ranked

Another year older, another year wiser, right? Especially this year when it felt like we were learning new things on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis.

No one will ever look back fondly on the year 2020. It has been a collective trauma we all experienced. There were certainly glimmers of positivity sprinkled throughout the past twelve months, some small moments that were incredibly cathartic, but for the most part, I think we'd all like to write this one off and never look back.

It wasn't a good year. But I hope that as we move into 2021, as the end of this incredibly challenging period begins to inch closer, we can continue to find joy in our daily existence. I hope we're able to rediscover spontaneity, something that I didn't realize how much I took for granted until I had to carefully plan out something as simple as going to the grocery store. When all that surrounds us is disorganization and isolation, we must work hard to find the small moments that keep hope alive, spreading that same message to others every chance we can. Love to everyone out there who made it through this year. It's been one for the history books.

Along with the chaos and disaster, there were plenty of strong video games that filled this calendar year, but I'm feeling far less enthusiasm for the specific ranking of these games than previous years. Maybe it's the COVID Blues that've got me down, or maybe I'm just getting older and I care less about getting the order exactly right. Either way, I'm less convinced of the exact position of these games than previous years in which I've made lists.

There were so many great games released that it was sort of a bummer when a lot of them possessed some serious flaws as well. I found myself contrasting the negative qualities of games rather than celebrating their positives. But what else can be done in a year like 2020, right? It seems that all we've done is compare horrible circumstance to horrible circumstance.

I didn't get my hands on either of the new consoles, so I'm almost definitely missing a game or two that probably would have cracked my top ten. If Miles Morales plays just as well as Spider-Man 2018, then it would almost certainly make the cut. The same probably goes for other PS5 exclusives like Demon's Souls. Nonetheless, the following list is filled with the games I got to, and this is the order in which they gave me the greatest satisfaction.

Consider this your mild spoiler warning for the games below, since it'll be hard to talk about some of them without detailing the impact of their narratives. As always, please start at the bottom of the list and work your way to the top.

List items

  • Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the best game of 2020 because I, and thousands of others, might not have survived this year without it.

    Flashback with me to March. Chances are at some point, you were told not to return to work the following day or week. We were anticipating a few weeks off to get the situation with a virus under control. Weeks shifted into months, and, well, here we still are, most of us isolating in our homes, denying ourselves community and spontaneity that we clearly took for granted. Even as the light at the end of the tunnel begins to emerge, as we take stock of the year that was and wasn't, the pervading emotion in my heart is grief. Grief for all of the opportunities that were unrealized, all of the holidays, events, and celebrations that couldn't happen, all of the normal everyday routines that had to be modified, stripping them of their humanity in the process. We'll never get this year back, and I know none of us want to dwell on 2020 any more than we already have.

    Animal Crossing: New Horizons came out a week after my lockdown began. I saw it as a godsend, a gift of structure and community when I could not find any of it in my regular existence. Here, I found a place, my own isolated island, that I could channel energy and time into improving, each day adding a little bit more, slowly expanding by constructing tools and bridges and buildings, inviting friends to come and live with me. My wife moved onto the island and enjoyed what was her first Animal Crossing game ever. As of today, I have logged over 115 hours with the game, and my wife has logged more than me. Needless to say, she's become a fan of the series.

    I've been an adoring fan of this franchise since the original on the Gamecube. Each subsequent release had enough to bring me back, but always seemed to lack the magic charm of my original town, my original villagers. The Switch is the perfect console for Animal Crossing because it provides both high graphical fidelity of the console and the portability of the handheld. New Horizons is, to me, the absolute best Animal Crossing game to be released, eclipsing even the original at this point. And maybe I feel that way because this game was my lifeline during this year, but I also think the game has begun to free itself of the chains that have held it back in previous iterations.

    So many folks have made exhaustive lists chronicling all of the little flaws in this game - the fact that multiple items can't be crafted at the same time, the conversations with villagers that tend to repeat more often than preferred, the rollout of holidays that didn't generate the optimum level of excitement. Some of these are problems that have been with the series since it premiered. Yet we cannot just lament the faults with celebrating the multitude of amazing features here. For the first time, you have complete customization of nearly every element of your town. You have the capability to terraform the very land you stand on, shifting the path of rivers, incorporating waterfalls and gradients where you want them. The resulting creations I've seen from folks online or even in my own Friends List are astoundingly unique. The updates pushed throughout the year have continued to expand the potentials of the game, introducing collectible artwork, diving, and other features that folks loved in previous games. I have no doubt that the game will continue to grow as it moves into its second year, and I will continue to go back to see how it's changed.

    Like so many other great games this year, the small moments are some of the most memorable ones. The way the leaves in the tree would shake as the breeze rolled through them. The subtle, icy glint on the snow-covered ground. The way Apple changes into her workout uniform before pumping iron in my town square. The fact that Bam is always talking to me about getting ripped abs while eating a donut or drinking a soda and sitting on the ground. The sad music that plays in Nook's Cranny in the final minutes before the shop closes. And while a number of my experiences overlap with the masses who also played this game, each one of them had a unique experience with their own villagers on their own island. That's the magic of Animal Crossing.

    When I couldn't see my family for months, I knew I still had a community of people (well, animals) who were counting on me to show up and complete my daily chores. I could still bring joy to others by crafting gifts, planting flowers and trees, inviting residents to stay permanently on my island. New Horizons provided me the community I lacked this year, and the fact that it was one of the biggest selling games of the year, proves I wasn't the only one who felt this way.

    I hope that as we move into 2021, as we emerge from the bunkers we'll have been holed up in for over a year, we begin to cultivate those communities within our hometowns as well. Let's send letters to our loved ones, not because we're expecting some piece of clothing we don't have in our catalogue yet, but because it makes the other person feel valued. Let's invest our time and money in making our local businesses vibrant, ensuring that every town has a unique energy that you just can't find anywhere else. Animal Crossing provided us all with a utopian community in a hellish year. Let's learn from it and strive to make that fantasy island community a reality in each of our own homes.

  • I think I first fell in love with Greek mythology as a kid when I saw the animated Disney film Herclues. Those horrifying monsters, those colorful gods and goddesses, those feats of strength and bravery. It was all exactly what I loved, everything about it. We've seen countless adaptations of the stories from antiquity in film, literature, and, of course, video games. Some are pastiched send-ups, others are grounded and emotional. Hades, the latest from Supergiant, occupies that glorious, gooey middle zone where it can be funny without being immature and heart-felt without being melodramatic.

    I can remember seeing in-game footage of Hades while it was in early access almost two years ago. This was right on the heels of my absolute obsession with Dead Cells, and I was primed for another rogue-like. I knew I had to get my hands on Hades as soon as I could. Lacking a PC, I had to wait patiently until the game was finally announced for the Switch earlier this year. Another stunning port on Switch, Hades is a game that has something for everyone - tight, variable action combat, fully-formed characters with wit and charm for days, an artistic direction that is immediately impressive, and a narrative that is perfectly aligned to the gameplay loop. It just might be a perfect game.

    Honestly, it is the narrative that allows Hades to rise above its companions in the rogue-like genre. The nature of the genre, where rooms and enemies are randomly generated each time you play, usually means there can be little in terms of linear narrative aside from a big idea like "ESCAPE!" or "REVENGE!" pushing you forward. Hades's core is still those larger themes, but it succeeds by ushering in moments of levity and myth-making. It dedicates ten to fifteen minutes between each run for you to converse with your fellow denizens of the underworld, building relationships that develop as you make incremental progress toward the surface. Giving gifts to characters strengthens your relationship, and they in turn give you items to benefit your future escape attempts. All the while, Zagreus, the character you inhabit, is growing stronger and more familiar with the variety of weapons, which, impossibly, all feel amazing to use. The minute I felt that I was really loving the fists or the shield most of all, I'd play another round with the sword or the rail gun and completely change my mind. Even the bow, which I thought to be the least compelling weapon of the bunch initially, proved itself to bring a slew of advantages into the combat scenarios depending on the boons I chose. There is no bad choice, and all of the core weapons can be augmented in compelling ways to suit your preferred play style.

    I finally completed the narrative and was able to see credits after about thirty hours of playtime. And I still went back for more. I think it took me at least a year to beat Dead Cells for the first time, and then I quickly dropped it, satisfied with finally clearing a run. Hades is much tougher to set down, even after multiple successful escapes. To my mind, it's the best of Supergiant's games, and in any other year, it would absolutely be a lock for the game of the year.

    2020, however, had different plans in store for all of us, and a year like this mandates that only one game can rise above the others.

  • I've been an on-again/off-again Hearthstone player for the better part of six years now. It's crazy to acknowledge that so much time has passed since that game first appeared. Since then, mobile card games have expanded tremendously, and plenty of contenders, including the OG Magic: The Gathering, have taken their shot at a mobile game. Hearthstone's lost me plenty of times thanks to its insanely expensive cost of upkeep. I know, I know, card games have always been expensive to play, especially those relying on physical cards. But spending even forty dollars three times a year to only marginally keep up with a fraction of the cards needed for some of the top decks is an insane ask. Especially when an incredible, affordable game like Legends of Runeterra exists.

    Legends of Runeterra is, frankly, the best digital card game available right now, and it's not close. I played a good year or two of League of Legends back at the start of the previous decade, nowhere near enough time to get good, but enough to become familiar with the champions and their roles inside of the game's universe. I've kept up with the professional scene casually over the years, and even though the game is impenetrable and the community is toxic, I still have this weird soft spot for it. I'm excited to see Riot and other studios expanding these characters into other games in new genres. But just because I have an affinity for this universe doesn't mean you need one to enjoy Legends of Runeterra.

    Legends of Runeterra understands what it means to be a free-to-play game in 2020. It has the most generous system for earning cards out there. Within about an hour of playing your first rounds, you'll likely earn enough resources to craft a deck that is absolutely competitively viable. Even after taking a few months off from the game and returning to it in autumn, I still had enough in-game currency to buy up an entire new deck of cards on the spot. When you're not spending hours grinding for cards you need to build your deck, you can spend all of your time honing your skills at the game itself. The meta has evolved and changed dramatically, mostly thanks to quick action on the part of the developers to ensure that any strategy that's too overpowered doesn't stay that way for long. The gameplay exists at a sort of middle point between Magic and Hearthstone. You're still trading turns with your opponent, playing units and spells as you ramp up mana each passing turn. Like in Magic, there's attacking and blocking, and the first to lose all their health loses the match. There are plenty of ways Runeterra differentiates itself from its competitors, though, including a super clever mana reserve system. Each turn, up to three unspent mana can be recycled in the following turn to boost the number of spells you are able to cast. Patience can lead to strategic advantages several turns down the line if you can think far enough ahead.

    On top of the excellent strategic gameplay, the package is the definition of polished. Even having only played Legends of Runeterra on phone and tablet, the game looks and sounds incredible. The animation is fluid, and the card units often engage in banter with one another when a specific enemy unit appears or a spell fizzles out. It feels alive. As someone who always loved the distinct champions in League of Legends, seeing them come to life with sharpened personalities and fleshed-out dialogue has been a treat.

    I love Legends of Runeterra, and if you've not yet fallen down the rabbit hole of digital card games, this is a phenomenal place to start. The game does take some time to learn, but there are enough tutorials available to ensure you know clearly how play works before hopping into an online match. The game is overwhelmingly satisfying when it finally clicks together. Every game feels winnable. At my peak, I battled my way up into the ranks of platinum, a huge accomplishment for a player like me. The sheer volume of competitive decks ensure that there's dozens of ways to play, and you'll never get bored of playing the same set again and again. Going forward, any game that asks players to spend money on in-game resources has even less room to do so now that Legends of Runeterra exists.

  • I never played Final Fantasy VII. I still haven't. The first time I encountered Cloud Strife and Sephiroth was in Kingdom Hearts. Despite somehow learning the larger beats of FFVII's plot, similarly to the way one learns the plots of classic movies and novels despite never having seen or read them, I was completely oblivious to the smaller conflicts within this game. I didn't know who Barrett Wallace was. I still don't know where or when the sequel of this game will take place, but, uh, I guess neither does anyone else, right? What a twist!

    There were a lot of folks in the moments immediately following the release of FFVII Remake that were blown away by what this game gave to this longtime fans. Despite not having waited twenty years for this game, I was delighted by FFVII in ways that I don't think any other Final Fantasy I've played has delighted me. If The Last of Us is the HBO miniseries of 2020, Final Fantasy VII Remake is the big-budget Marvel blockbuster that is ultimately too enjoyable to resist. Every moment of this experience is bursting with detail and spectacle. There are hours of cutscenes, there are intricate menus, there are pull-up bar challenges.

    FFVII Remake takes the active battle system of FFXV and transforms it into a beautiful new beast. It's a blend of active combat that modern RPG players need with those classic elements of turn-based battle still lurking in the fringes. I'm playing one character at a time, but I can still pause time, issue commands to my party members, and watch as they punch, shoot, and enchant the enemies that surround us. After searching for a compelling combat system for years, I think Square Enix finally got it really, really right - the combat is just fun. Jumping from character to character, each of whom play completely uniquely, is way more entertaining than I expected. Blasting enemies from afar with Barrett's hand cannon, pummeling bodies in close with Tifa, and casting spells to maintain ally health and stamina with Aerith all feel rewarding in their own way. Now, I, too, love these characters, and spending thirty hours with them left me hungering for the sequel. Even though the lack of a true climax makes this game feel narratively incomplete, FFVII Remake is probably the most fun I've ever had with a Final Fantasy game. You can tell this was made with reverence for its source material. But I also don't think the positives necessarily end with this series of games. I hope the developers continue to build on this system as they prepare Final Fantasy XVI.

  • Yakuza: Like A Dragon has thundered its way into the hearts of many, mine included. Ichiban Kasuga is absolutely the character of the year. His peculiar eccentricities, his unflappable enthusiasm, his absolute dedication to his fists. The man has it all. He is a bright beacon of optimism in a shattered land, and even though there's nothing better than punching out some deadbeats, he knows that it's ultimately love and compassion that will bring a society together.

    Honestly, make this guy president. He's someone we can all aspire to.

    Yakuza's characters are its beating heart, but its combat is a hilarious amount of fun as well. Gone are the action-based brawls. It's all turn-based now, baby. Characters still have the chance to attack, cast spells, provide buffs and debuffs in combat, but everything is layered with quintessential Yakuza weirdness. Nanba, your homeless party member who rescues you from destitution, can lower enemies' defense by breathing his nasty breath on them. He can also cast spells by spewing alcoholic flames or summoning swarms of pigeons. And that's just one character. One of my favorite moments in the entire narrative was summoning a satellite laser to obliterate hoards of enemy fighters. In the words of Kasuga, "Let's get nutty."

    Even without having played any other games in the franchise, Yakuza left me totally enraptured. I loved the narrative and the gameplay. It's fair to argue that 50 hours is a ton of time to expect a person to put into a modern RPG. There's still moments that require grinding, and those difficulty spikes can be punishing, particularly if you forgot to save and end up losing potentially hours of work. Despite those flaws of the genre, Yakuza: Like a Dragon has completely bought me in as a fan. I will absolutely play the next one of these, if nothing else for the chance to see what wild shenanigans this delightful protagonist gets up to next.

  • That final boss fight was some of the most wild stuff I've experienced in games. Up there with the God of War franchise for most cinematic boss battle. I have never felt more like a superhero as the snow whipped and panels of glass shattered all around me. Plus, there's a suit you can own that comes with its own masked cat living in the backpack. The cat has a mask too and helps claw your enemies when you carry out a finishing move. A ton of personality and heart. Absolutely glugged this bad boy down in a week.

  • Hollow Knight was one of those great games from the last few years that I didn't play immediately upon release, but as soon as I did, I fell in love. Metroidvanias tend to work for me more often than not. I love the reward of digging back through areas that were previously unaccessible, exploring new pathways and uncovering new secrets. The fact that so many developers are now tying intricate stories or gorgeous aesthetics to their games just makes games within this genre even better. And then they ultimately end up on the Nintendo Switch, the ideal place to play them, and it's a match made in heaven. The work that the teams at Microsoft have done to make Ori and the Will of the Wisps look and play as gorgeously as it does on a Nintendo console should be commended. The Switch has proven itself a huge draw for ports, but these past two years have also proven that not all ports are made equally.

    Ori and the Will of the Wisps looks and sounds beautiful. The charming impressionistic landscapes delight, and although I was initially fearful that their painterly style might hinder the accuracy of the platforming, particularly in a game like this one where precise timing absolutely counts, I quickly adjusted to the games's distinctive look. The softness of the scenery blends perfectly with the game's acrobatic movement. Ori as a character is more nimble than other characters in games like this, spryly zipping through the air from point to point. Celeste's main character was speedy but rigid. Hollow Knight's vessel feels sturdier, focusing primarily on combat instead of locomotion. Plenty of players will laud the narrative here. I found it to be touching - somber in places, surprising in others - but it never resonated with me as deeply as I hoped. Though I hadn't played through the first game, I was able to enjoy the story here without feeling that I'd missed out on crucial plot details.

    With the resurgence in popularity of Metroidvanias, games that are now playing and looking better than any of their inspirations ever did, it's easy to feel like this type of game is more accessible and, therefore, less essential than ever before. A lot of games similar to this one exist. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is an essential purchase, offering a surging score and serene visuals. Anyone who loves exploring and then re-exploring dynamic landscapes with expanding ability sets should pick up this one immediately.

  • This year, I was using video games as a coping mechanism far more than any previous year. Stuck in my own house for months, I had to find some sense of fulfillment in the everyday monotony that crept in from all corners of my tiny apartment. For many folks, including myself, Spiritfarer was a late summer delight that provided the perfect combination of realtionship-building and resource-management to keep a brain busy in the face of anxiety.

    Spiritfarer charms with its menagerie of mystical creatures, all of whom possess wonderful, complex, distinctively human personalities. Your job - providing these spirits with food, a home, and some sense of cosmic closure on their life and relationships - is taxing, but it never feels like work. Spiritfarer was one of the most relaxing games I played all year. Its checklists and timers pushed me through the conflicts, and its charmingly breezy 2-D animated style kept the peaceful vibes flowing. Most importantly. there are some beautifully poignant moments here, especially each final conversation you have as you row each spirit to the Everdoor. Bruce and Mickey, a water buffalo and a hummingbird (my personal favorite characters in the game), final moments with my in my boat were quietly tragic and they recontextualized the entire relationship I had built with them. The game is built up of similar, small moments. I can guarantee there will be a spirit you fall in love with here, and the best part is that everyone will have a different favorite.

    Of course, this wasn't the only big game this year that was all about taking care of one's animal buddies. While I ultimately had a better time with that other game, I can totally see why others might prefer this one instead - a tighter, more scripted experience with greater emphasis on cathartic moments of emotional clarity in the face of death. Years from now, I'll likely have forgotten my voyagers' names, but I'll always remember the positive memories we shared together on our voyage to the end.

  • Who knew them lil robots could amount to something console-defining? Astro's Playroom is a phenomenally tactile experience that must absolutely be felt to be believed. The Playstation 5 is lucky to claim the best launch title since Wii Sports. While this simple platformer might not demand the same "You gotta try this, Gramma" energy that Nintendo's game possessed, Sony has irrefutably delivered a showpiece for their fancy new technology that made me giddy after my first few moments. Vibrations, sound design, adaptive triggers work in harmony to usher in the next generation. One must wonder if these splashy gimmicks will take root, especially considering how much additional work it means for developers. All I know is venturing through the past twenty-five years of Playstation, celebrating the consoles and games, the common and the obscure, was a delight, and it resulted in the fastest, most enjoyable Platinum trophy I've ever earned. Gimme more of them robots!

  • If The Last of Us Part II was the surprise sequel that maybe shouldn't have happened, Doom Eternal is the sequel that I would have purchased immediately after finishing the previous game. 2016's Doom was a perfect distillation of what single-player, first-person shooters should be in the modern era. It was fast, loud, and metal as heck. Even if Eternal just gave players more of the same, a sequel would have been necessary.

    But Doom Eternal would never have been satisfied with just more. It had to grow more complex. It was unfortunate that in the immediate moments after booting up Doom Eternal that I found it to be disappointing. The general simplicity of the first game had been refitted into an overly complicated series of systems overlapping on each other, all designed with the intention of Doom Guy using every single tool in his arsenal to win the fight and not just super-shotgunning every enemy in a level. Playing Doom Eternal is like trying to play a musical instrument. There's definitely a "correct" way to string together combat to unlock the most satisfaction, and it takes practice and time to get to that point. Like musical instruments, the game also plays better once you've gotten your hands on some quality equipment, which in this game means unlocking the additional abilities each weapon possesses. We all knew the super shotgun is one of the best feeling weapons in video games. But have you ever launched a flaming chain from that gun into a cacodemon and then gloriously glided across hoards of enemies to blast that monster in the face? That's a pretty sublime feeling.

    Though I was initially hesitant on the gameplay changes, and the story never did much of anything for me since it began taking itself far too seriously, I was surprised that I found myself enjoying Doom Eternal as much as I did in the later hours. I completely embraced the combat, playing through every level multiple times and grinding for the platinum trophy. Having learned its crescendos and time signatures, I think the combat here is maybe even better than the first game now. It certainly looks phenomenal, hitting a delicious 60 frames per second with ease. Some new enemy designs are poor, particularly those marauders whose presence halt all forward progress and any sense of fun, but they're uncommon in the campaign. The overall accomplishment here is a silky smooth shooter that still exists in the shadow of its predecessor but is nowhere near the disappointment that others are claiming it to be back at launch. Based on my hours with Doom Eternal, those players just didn't stick with the instrument long enough to hear its gorgeous, sludge-colored tones ring out.

  • Way back in 2013, The Last of Us ended a generation and elevated video games as a story-telling medium to the most HBO-mini-series-level heights that had yet been seen. Here were characters grappling with deep flaws, who were either pitiable or irredeemable based on the player's personal sense of morality. Here was a story of horrible circumstances, soaked in gray, unfolding in a world a world disinterested in high scores or perfect runs. It was a flashpoint in video games as an artistic medium, a crowning achievement of Naughty Dog. It was a serious game for serious players.

    The Last of Us Part II was not an eventuality, at least I don't think it was. Certainly with Uncharted there was room aplenty for sequels, of larger, louder adventures in different exotic locations. Nathan Drake fits perfectly alongside the action heroes who make up our blockbuster films and always return for one more heist, one more trek, one more job. But The Last of Us was a limited-run series, a momentary flash of brilliance that made its case, challenged a medium to elevate its storytelling capabilities, and vanished. Or at least temporarily vanished.

    I don't know if I could argue that The Last of Us is a perfect game, but I do think it has a perfect ending. As a result, The Last of Us Part II was always going to be at least a partial disappointment. There could be no way of providing a similarly sour yet fitting conclusion here once the announcer screamed, "But wait! There's more!" The choice to focus this game's narrative on Joel and Ellie again when their story was seemingly resolved at the end of the first game feels restrictive. As I played through the narrative at the end of yet another console generation, I found myself floored at some of the choices the scriptwriters made, and not in good ways. Twists that exist only to be shocking, repeated beatings of a theme that felt completely at odds with my own view of humanity, and a seeming reverence for soaking in violence just for the sake of soaking left me often feeling dirty and, at points, uninterested in seeing the game to its blood-drenched, hate-filled conclusion. Even now, staring at that cover image of Ellie's angry, angry face leaves me feeling nauseous inside.

    And yet, in spite of all of those problems, I could not stop thinking about The Last of Us Part II. At least once a week, I would work through character choices and motivations. I would reexamine the allegorical message Druckman attempted to illuminate, questioning if, actually, there were more kernels of truth within it than I was giving it credit for. I would think about Abby's massive tree-trunk arms. I just could not get this game out of my head. It had lodged itself cold in my brain. Perhaps it was the isolation of 2020 that kept me from forgetting about what happened. Today, I realize it was because the game is so well made.

    The Last of Us Part II is a remarkable accomplishment, probably the most remarkable accomplishment in terms of motion-capture and voice-performance in a video game ever. I became convinced that these characters were real people, as unreal as some of their arms seemed to be. One of the biggest reasons why so many moments in the narrative didn't work were because all of the small moments were so incredibly well done. Even though the game constantly wants to go bigger, it works best when it's small, when you can see the subtle change of emotions in a character's face. The flashbacks built into the narrative, like exploring an abandoned museum and an aquarium, were often heartbreaking and beautiful. The new characters are surprisingly great. I will buy and play DLC featuring Abby and Lev in a heartbeat. Such excellent new characters does have me questioning if the game have been better without Joel and Ellie.

    The gameplay is, from moment-to-moment, just as compelling, if not more compelling, than the original game. Firing your gun from a dirty shop floor after you've been knocked down by a blast is intensely effective. The "open-world" section that comes very early on in the story and lasts for a frustratingly short time, is maybe my favorite moment in any game this year. Had Naughty Dog incorporated that style of gameplay throughout the game, and I have no doubt that they will do great things in the next generation, I imagine this game could have snuck even higher up the list.

    I hate parts of The Last of Us Part II. I also think that everyone should play it. It's remarkable, it's frustrating, it's stunning, it's insulting, it's touching, it's insane. I doubt it will go on to have a place in the canon like its predecessor, but once again Naughty Dog proves that they are the absolute forefront of big-budget storytelling.

  • Initially, I was split on whether I should include Mind Control Delete on this list since it was originally conceived as pure DLC for the most excellent Superhot, but ultimately decided it's a stand-alone package worthy of inclusion on this list. Mind Control Delete rules.

    If you're already a fan of Superhot, you didn't need convincing to pick this one up. Even better, the developers gave it away for free so long as you had already purchased Superhot. Though the game is built on the quest for MORE, I was in some ways surprised at how different it is from the original game. Getting hit or shot doesn't end a run anymore. While that might seem blasphemous based on the established rules of this universe, the systems in place here provide more chance for playing the game you want to play. Now you can hack and modify your body, providing additional traits like a built-in dash or wielding katanas that double as boomerangs. The levels are also procedurally generated, adding to the pull of MORE endless playtime. There's an amazing bit of music sandwiched in the club level here as well. It's challenging, it's satisfying, it's just the right length. MORE Superhot is always welcome, and this surprise was a delightful way to pass a couple weeks in the summer of quarantine.

  • Even as a kid who loved his Nintendo 64, the original Paper Mario never held much of a place in my heart. I had a close friend who loved it almost as much as he loved Sonic the Hedgehog. On his insistence, I played through portions of it, though I have no idea if I ever finished it. I do have hazy memories of the end of the game, but I'm not sure if they are from my own playthrough or from just watching my friend beat the final boss. Ten or so years ago I did play through Super Paper Mario on Wii, and I recall it being a neat, polished experience - text-heavy and perhaps overly long, but enjoyable.

    The Origami King probably is in about the same space at Super Paper Mario, maybe a bit higher. The writers clearly had a party giving voice to these characters, particularly your plucky, folded sidekick Olivia. Many moments made me genuinely laugh out loud. The game is stinking cute.

    The combat is less cute, though, and it's frustrating because it never quite seems to strike the balance between too easy and too challenging. The puzzle rings you must solve to boost your attack power are clever, a fresh twist to a series that could never, despite its fans' protestations, return to a more traditional RPG system. That just ain't Nintendo, baby. Their entire philosophy of game design is to blaze new trails simply because they must do so, even if those trails are failures. Yet these puzzles are either stunningly simple to solve or, at least to my mind, overwhelmingly complex. Maybe it's the ticking clock that's pressuring me to solve them quickly that keeps the solutions so hidden to my brain.

    I haven't finished the game yet, and four zones in, it's taking some strength to see the narrative through. Then again, every time I pick up and play, I'm cheered up by the game's unstoppable pleasantness. The hero's journey to collect elemental powers and break five streamers scattered across the world is something I imagine my younger self would be able to tap into easily, considering how much Ocarina of Time meant to me as an elementary schooler. As an adult, I still find it enjoyable, but I appreciate the writing more, particularly the sometimes sly, sometimes blatantly obvious references to Nintendo's properties at large. I hope these elements will be enough to propel me to the finish line, even though it seems to be quite a number of hours from where I am now.

  • (I'm placing Kentucky Route Zero on this list since Act V was released in 2020, and I first played through the entire story this year. The release date here causes some problems, and episodic games like this one continue to raise questions about when the right time is to discuss their merits, but now that the narrative has been fully revealed, this feels like the right time.)

    My first encounter with magical realism, as it also is for a good percentage of American students, was reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "A Very Old Man with Enormous Wings" in high school. As a child, I tended to read stories of myths and magic. I was Harry Potter obsessed for a time. And I liked to think of myself as a serious literary student. I wanted to read a lot, and I wanted to know a lot about what had been written. Marquez's story was peculiar. Its images remained strong in my mind for years after reading it, but the impact of the story never quite landed. Some years ago I read A Thousand Years of Solitude, which landed fairly similarly despite a good ten years of education and maturation separating my reading of perhaps his most famous novel from perhaps his most famous short story. I considered that magical realism just wasn't for me. Certainly, I could appreciate it, recognize it being worthy of all-time great lists, but it didn't whip up the level of enthusiasm within me that I had after reading, say, the poems of William Blake, or the prose of John Steinbeck. Likely, my mind was too simple to comprehend its majesty.

    Since finishing Kentucky Route Zero, I've been scouring the web to find essays written by those who have been enchanted by this game, by its distinctively gloomy aesthetic, by its collapse of weird highways and vanishing towns, by its always excellent deployment of musical accompaniment. I have had no shortage of success in finding moving essays that shower the game with praise. Like the writing of Marquez, which the game references intentionally within Act I, I feel the game is worthy of that hall of fame position even if it didn't personally affect me in the way it has so many others. Here's what I did take away from my experience.

    I loved, absolutely loved, all of the interludes. I loved them more than the primary story itself because each played in a way that felt completely unique from the acts. There's certainly a through-line, but because of the unreality of the setting, I found myself having a hard time attaching my brain to the actions of the story as they unfolded. Obviously, I became attached to the characters, but the meandering of the narrative resulted in me switching my brain off in order to process the sequence. And this is not a game that you can afford to switch your brain off. Getting back to the interludes, because they are singular, they can exist within themselves as small anecdotes ruminating on the themes the game is exploring. The sequence where you are in first-person as a character in a play was incredible, evoking the writings of Raymond Carver as others have noted. I loved playing with the telephone in the other interlude, going back over voice lines and dialing secret extensions. For whatever reason, I didn't feel nearly the same impact in the primary narrative, as beautiful and melancholy and complex as the final act is.

    I feel that I would likely have a very different experience on a second play-through, if nothing else because I can't imagine its even mathematically possible to select all of the same dialogue options again. Now that I know the larger beats of the narrative, the themes it wants to elucidate, I can pay greater attention to the small moments between the characters. Smarter people that I will tell you this game is all-time great levels of important and impactful. They will also probably tell you that the game is not for everyone but that everyone should at least give it a shot. I agree with that statement whole-heartedly.

  • Buuuuugsnax. I like 'em!

  • Well, at least now everyone that's been clamoring for an Assassin's Creed game set in feudal Japan can stop whining. Here it is!

    I love the appearance of new IPs, I deeply respect when a studio is willing to spend insane amounts of money to try something original. Ghost of Tsushima is an entirely original story set in historical Japan. It's playable, polished, and frequently visually striking. Forgiving the physical unreality of those trees shedding hundreds of golden leaves every second that you visit that forest, the color of this world is magnetic. It's so magnetic that by the time you enter the second act and the first location is a rice paddy that has burnt to become gray and devoid of color, it's also a visual treat. The game possesses a massive map, with so many distinct locations. Combat seems to imply there will be as many different ways to play the game as there are vistas to take in, but that doesn't hold up as true. Despite encouraging a mix of stealth and straight-forward samurai action, an unhonorable combination that drives the conflict between Jin and his uncle, I never found stealth enjoyable or rewarding. Portions where I had to play quietly felt punishing. Sword dueling doesn't have the specificity or satisfaction of a pure action game like Sekiro, nor does it have the insane potential for combos like an Arkham game. It exists somewhere in the middle, never being bad enough to make me want to put down the controller, but never being varied enough to surprise me past the end of the first act. This game is long, and its narrative of personal responsibility and redemption landed fairly flat, even as its ambition is proven in a dramatic, cinematic concluding duel. There are stronger side characters, and I like the smaller moments scattered throughout the world, but the larger moments of the story arc seem mostly obvious to the average player.

    The overwhelmingly positive fan reaction to this game is astounding to me. Never has a game felt more "good, but not great" than Ghost of Tsushima. Perhaps it's just comfort food to millions - a map with easily trackable icons and quests, combat that is initially challenging but ultimately repetitious and familiar, a setting that is inherently engaging for a majority. Nonetheless, the production value is clear in this one, and a sequel is guaranteed. I'm hopeful that more interesting ideas can be implemented in a second game, but I also know that Infamous: Second Son was a whole lot of flash and pretty neon without much substance behind it. Still, respect for trying something completely new. And much respect for those insanely speedy load times during fast travel. How the heck did they do that?

  • Resident Evil 2 Remake was one of the best times I had last year. Aside from a few clunky boss fights, the experience was delightfully spooky. I absolutely loved scavenging through that old police station to find artifacts and clues to help me navigate a zombie wonderland. It was a no-brainer that I'd play Resident Evil 3, especially considering I had never played the original, but I also patiently waited to do so until Halloween so that I could 1) enjoy some seasonal scares at the appropriate time and 2) not spend $60 on a game that I knew was significantly shorter than ten hours.

    Resident Evil 3 still looks fantastic. The engine that these games and the newest Devil May Cry are on is impressive with detail, featuring probably the best-looking character models outside of Naughty Dog's games. The glossy sheen of sweaty skin and the atmospheric lighting are sumptuous to take in. Unfortunately, all of the combat involving Nemesis does not work for me. Mr. X in RE2 is great because he's a momentary, slowly encroaching threat. His presence is one of the best sources of dread in that game. You could see how developers might hold onto that one part of the previous game that received such acclaim and decide to structure the entirety of a sequel around it. As a result, there's an even greater emphasis on boss battles here, which despite all playing marginally better than RE2, are still my least favorite moments of the game. Even as someone with no memory of these games from previous consoles, I feel most the limitations of this story on those platforms crop up then.

    There's still resource scrounging and puzzle-solving in RE3, but every moment feels streamlined. You no longer need to remember locations and places for props to be used as carefully. Even the police station, which makes a short return appearance, is a shell of its former self. There are fewer puzzles and fewer divergent paths to solve them. Somehow, there's an achievement in this game to finish it in less than two hours. That's crazy, and yet, I also think it's very achievable. There's just not enough to RE3 to keep me interested for long, even though I do find most of it enjoyable. I never got around to trying out any of the multiplayer component, because I just have little time or patience for those types of experiences. I had deleted RE3 from my hard drive less than a week after downloading it, feeling like I had gotten everything I wanted out of it. As a follow-up to one of my favorite games of last year, I couldn't help but feel disappointed.

  • What a bummer, man. What an absolute bummer.

    The placement here is based on my experiences with the PS4 version, which I know plenty of folks will say is far, far from the ideal way to experience this game. On an upgraded system or at least most definitely a high-spec PC, the constant crashing and graphical stuttering fades into the background. But as it stands right now in December of 2020, this game is practically unplayable. Hell, they pulled the game from the Playstation store! As of about ten hours of gameplay, I had four separate crashes that ended four different game sessions. I had enemies clipping completely out of the geometry, I had voice lines competing for which one had to be first, resulting in a cacophony of nonsense that was completely incomprehensible. For a game that prides itself on submergence in a scene, complete dedication to the role-playing potential, with a script that provides nuance and memorable characters, I felt completely shortchanged. Heart-broken, I uninstalled the game and shelved it until a more serious fix emerges.

    I can see all the potential underneath this thing. There are characters I want to spend more time with. The gameplay feels standard for open world games. And, hey, it turns out putting Keanu Reeves in a game, in any type of media, is always a good idea. But the more I played, the less it impressed me. There's little here that hasn't already been done more throughly by Rockstar years ago. You can seek out the comparison videos for yourself. I'll certainly give this one another shot once a more polished version exists, but I could see that being at least a year away. As it stands right now, considering what CD Projekt Red was promising, I have a hard time seeing Cyberpunk 2077 as anything but a colossal failure.

  • Few television programs are as tied to my adolescent summers as Wipeout. Surely you remember it, right? Based on the pratfall positive Takeshi's Castle, Wipeout was a gameshow where folks attempted to navigate insane obstacle courses, the point for the audience being to laugh at the ridiculous accidents that the contestants bumped, tripped, and fell into. It was simple entertainment for simple people (myself included) and I was completely locked into it for about three summers. Even with the threat of injury, I longed for an opportunity to run the course, just to see if I could do it.

    It's a bit surprising that something like Fall Guys took as long as it did to emerge from that same chaotic gameshow energy. Fall Guys is a brilliant concept that should feel ten times better than it does to play, even though I recognize that fumbly controls fit with the vibe the game is going for. I want to love Fall Guys like so much of the world does. For a few brief months, Fall Guys blew up and became the biggest game in the world, and despite its charming characters and its insane obstacle courses, I find so little joy within this package. Grinding out costumes brought me no satisfaction, and even winning rounds did little to stir my emotions. There is still a great version of this game that can exist. Battle royales are here to stay, but I would put money down that Fall Guys will quickly vanish from the public eye.

  • It felt like battle royales' dominating influence finally began to wain in 2020. There were still plenty of huge new games like Fall Guys, and now classics like WarZone and Apex Legends strengthened their relevancy. But for the first time, it seemed like this genre wasn't a guaranteed success. Maybe it was because the biggest game in the world is now Among Us, a non-battle royale, proving that viral success isn't always found in massive arenas fighting against 99 other players.

    Enter Spellbreak, a game that as a pitch makes perfect sense and was likely green-lit immediately. Imagine yourself in the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender, and also, it's a battle royale. The art style here is charming, and the opportunities to wield different elemental abilities are most definitely intriguing. Like almost everyone else I know, I won my first match of Spellbreak. Suspecting that it came far too easily, even for someone with dozens of hours of Apex now under his belt, I discovered that, yes, of course, the first match is only against bots. That's how they getcha. Too bad for me, I didn't get got. Perhaps it's a flaw of the free-to-play model that when there are so many of these, and I'm still having so much fun playing others, that I don't need another to keep me company. My gaming time is limited as it is, and the rush of finishing in first place doesn't compete with my desire to experience new world-building or storytelling. I might play another round or two in the future, but it's not likely.

  • As of today, Tetris 99 is one of my most-played Switch games. It's a perfect fit for the system, an ideal pick up and play game. I can hop in to a battle in a matter of moments and a match takes no more than ten minutes even when you win. I love the obtrusiveness of its rules and the fundamental satisfaction of clearing lines. The game's continued support for the past two years has been a treat, as have all of the colorful themes they keep rolling out. I like Donkey Kong the best!

    My dad introducing his NES to my four-year-old hands was a foundational experience. Super Mario Brothers, believe it or not, was the very first game I can remember playing. When it came to playing games on our NES it was Tetris or Super Mario Brothers (or Duck Hunt, but the light gun we had died pretty soon after we found it in my grandparents' basement). The worlds, the music, and the gameplay of that original titan are the bedrock of my love of games. And yet despite my adoration of both Tetris 99's model and the original Super Mario Brothers's everything, Super Mario Brothers 35 just doesn't get me in the same way. Turns out it is mathematically possible for two positives to make a negative.

    I suppose someone could argue similarly for Tetris 99, that it's a shell of the real experience and that any satisfaction one earns from winning is passing at best, but I don't think the gameplay here makes any sense. Sending enemies you stomp on or fireball away to other players' screens seems almost useless, especially compared to the act of dropping that satisfying gray junk in Tetris. I've gone back to this one a number of times throughout the year, assured that I would be able to find the key to unlocking its joy, but I never found it. I imagine there is a way to realize multiplayer Mario, but Super Mario Brothers 35 just ain't it.

  • Every year for Christmas, I buy my dad one of those colossal sudoku puzzle books that you can find in a bin at a grocery store. They cost about two dollars. It seems like the world's laziest present, but he's obsessed with those number puzzles. He can't get enough! I know there are some folks out there who are intimidated by sudoku because they see numbers and instantly get scared of the equations they'll need to solve in order to complete the puzzle, but sudoku has no math in it whatsoever. You could replace the numbers with the first nine letters of the alphabet and still be able to complete the puzzle just fine. What seems initially a feat of mathematical wizardry is just a simple exercise in patience and reasoning. Crosswords, on the other hand, those can be challenging. It takes years of acquiring knowledge and familiarizing yourself with the puzzle structure to complete even a Thursday puzzle in the New York Times. But anybody, even a child, can be good at sudoku. It's all about patience, logic, and understanding.

    To that end, Good Sudoku ruins sudoku for me. Don't get me wrong, as an app, this thing is polished and probably the most user-friendly sudoku game I've ever played. Except for maybe the old Brain Age on Nintendo DS. But the way in which the game quickly, automatically eliminates numbers from squares where they logically cannot go means that I can solve a puzzle in a matter of seconds rather than minutes. There are ways to turn off these assists, but it seems that the whole point of this app being called "Good" was that it removes those frustrations. Maybe this is just my Boomer Brain talking, but frustrations are what make sudoku good. To get any satisfaction from solving a sudoku, I need that mental challenge, as taxing as it may be. I want to bang my head against a grid for fifteen minutes, getting absolutely nowhere until finally, I track down that one location where one number can go in and the whole puzzle begins to move. Now THAT'S good sudoku.