It feels wrong to talk about “2020 things” without mentioning that the community of the world was utterly ravaged by a pandemic. But this is an article about video games, and you didn’t come here to read about COVID-19, so I’ll just get straight into it.
Here’s my take on some of the best games to come out last year.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Moon Studios) –
In nearly every aspect, an improvement over Ori’s debut title. Though the developers nixed their creative game-save mechanic of allowing the player to create their own checkpoints, Will of the Wisps lost the need for such a system in favor of liberal auto-checkpointing, which is honestly more convenient for the player anyway.
The combat of OWW is greatly improved. It ousts Blind Forest’s main attack of Spirit Flame, which was a boring auto-targeting projectile and the main method of defeating enemies, replacing it with Spirit Edge, a kind of “energy sword.” Spirit Edge makes combat direct, challenging, and more enjoyable, and the variety of other new combat abilities were fun to play around with too.
Animal Crossing New Horizons (Nintendo) –
One primary reason I’m including this on my list is because I feel like my girlfriend might get mad at me (or at least throw me a look of utter confusion) if I don’t. It feels kind of like an obligation to put Animal Crossing on a “best games of 2020” list because it achieved such widespread popularity and was pretty successful in entertaining a lot of people during the COVID-19 stay-at-home orders. While I haven’t touched the game in months now, I still appreciate the fun I got out of it. It’s my second-most played Switch game of all time (behind Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild).
While I still enjoy the GameCube Animal Crossing quite a bit more (partly due to nostalgia and partly because it seems that the game’s animals had more interesting, complex personalities and a lot more dialogue in general), I welcomed the reboot. It was fun to go to other people’s islands and see what they’d done with the place. But mostly I fished. I probably spent 50 hours alone just fishing…
Blaseball (The Game Band) –
You read that right. Blaseball with an extra L, not baseball. If you haven’t heard of Blaseball, then you’re missing out on one of the strangest and most interesting game crazes of this year. As much as Blaseball is a game with a lot of interactivity, one doesn’t “play” baseball in the same way that you would play – I don’t know – any other game on this list.
Blaseball is a fantasy baseball game. If you go to blaseball.com, you will soon be asked what your favorite team is from a list of names like Tokyo Lift, Canada Moist Talkers, and Hellmouth Sunbeams. An entire simulated season runs each week and at the end of each season an “election” is held that has some kind of impact on the next season. Players of Blaseball (meaning us people) get to vote in these elections.
Blaseball is, sort of, a narrative-driven game. Various strange events occur, usually involving the Blaseball Gods or the game’s commissioner. The game and its rules adapt to these events and the election results. There are flying peanuts and players getting incinerated and a lot of other things going on.
Blaseball has spawned an incredible community of devoted fans. There’s lots of fan-art and lore-lovers and other people in the community who work to make Blaseball more interesting. And the developers of the game are always looking to incorporate this community-driven work into the game. Currently, Blaseball is taking a “Grand Siesta,” but Season 12 should begin sometime soon.
Someone could probably write an interesting piece about the development of the “fantasy baseball” genre beginning with Baseball Game (John Burgeson, 1960) and culminating in the weird game that is Blaseball. (Someone could, but I won’t.) Seriously, Blaseball puts the fantasy in “fantasy baseball,” and it gave me an interesting moment or two in 2020.
Melee with Slippi (Nintendo, fizzi) –
This year was good for single-player gaming and social gaming, but it was especially tough on competitive fighting games and other esports (besides like… online chess, maybe). During a time when it was impossible to gather in large groups and hold tournaments, the new online functionality brought by project Slippi in 2020 allowed competitive Super Smash Bros. Melee to thrive despite pandemic restrictions. (OK, I know it’s weird to put a nineteen-year-old game on this list, but you’ll just have to forgive me.)
And Slippi wasn’t only beneficial to top-level competition and streamers. The incredibly good netcode and quick matchmaking provided by Slippi brought in a huge number of new online players. All you need is to download a few files and hook up to your router with an ethernet cable. Super Smash Bros. Melee through the Dolphin emulator will run on decent and even some not-so-decent laptops, making the prospects of playing a nineteen-year-old GameCube game online with strangers realistic for a lot of people. Every time I boot up and get a connection that basically has no lag, I feel like something magical is happening. It’s nearly unbelievable how well Slippi’s rollback works.
The Last of Us Part II (Naughty Dog) –
It’s the AAA Game of the Year for a reason. Gorgeous art, even if the dreary concrete structures get a bit boring after a while. Movement still feels a bit slow and outdated, but as a player, you have fuller control over your character than you do in Part 1 and there are more items to craft and use.
A good, risk-taking story with a lot of emotional depth. When the game came out, I started to write a review of it, but that review soon grew to the length of a PhD thesis. I could talk about LOU2 nearly endlessly. (My review is still pending. Stay tuned. It might even eventually come out.) Suffice to say, LOU2 is a good game and it was fun, though not as fun as it is interesting and thought-provoking.
Hades (Supergiant Games) –
Roguelikes are hard to get right. Most people get frustrated with a game where they die over and over and lose some or all their progress whenever they die. But Hades is one of the few games out there that goes above and beyond, making video-game death more meaningful to the player than its other genre-mates. Whenever you die in Hades, you get to learn more about the characters and world you’re a part of. People have new things to say to you, often in response to how far you made it or which of the Olympian Gods’ help you took. This distracts you from the frustration of dying and feeds into the excitement of “OK, just one more run.”
Hades is a fantastic game. It’s the most unadulterated fun I had with any of the games on this list. It’s the first roguelike game that I’ve found narratively interesting. The sheer amount and quality of dialogue, plus the quality of the characters and voice-acting, is mind-blowing. I could probably go on about this game for far longer than anyone would be willing to read. (I do have a full review you can check out here.)
And… that’s it. There were a lot of notable games in 2020 that didn’t make my list either because I haven’t played them yet or haven’t played them for long enough. I’ve heard some of them might be good, so if you want other games to play, maybe try these out:
Paper Mario: The Origami King, Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition, Genshin Impact, Disc Room, Microsoft Flight Simulator, Persona 5 Royal, Ghost of Tsushima, XenoBlade Chronicles: Definitive Edition, Ikenfell, Spelunky 2, Final Fantasy 7 Remake, Astro’s Playroom (PS5 exclusive), Monster Train, Tales From Off-Peak City Vol 1, Doom Eternal, Spider-Man: Miles Morales, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, Carto, Half-Life: Alyx (VR game), Star Wars Squadrons, Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, Demon’s Souls (remake, PS5 exclusive), Yakuza: Like A Dragon, Cyberpunk 2077