I played a lot of games this year, which doesn’t sound like a huge accomplishment for someone who works at Video Game Website, but my role really changed at the tail end of 2019 and I wasn’t sure how much time I’d have. Still, you’ll notice that a lot of my picks for 2020 are best consumed in short bursts or have a passive element to them with some notable exceptions. Good games this year, though!! Really good games, actually.
Final Fantasy XIV
This is the year Final Fantasy XIV finally got its hooks in me. After several attempts and false starts over the past few years, mid-2020 is when I created my incredible Viera mage Fidona Tehp (don’t @ me) and went on unforgettable adventures. I’m not even out of A Realm Reborn yet, but I want to see everything this game has in store. I just have to get my motherboard repaired first.
Paper Mario: The Origami King
I was hoping this would be a return to form back to the halcyon days of Nintendo 64 and Gamecube-era Paper Mario games, but Origami King doesn’t quite do that. Instead, we got one of the most tedious battle systems put in game in recent memory attached to a game that is impeccably written with some of the best graphics on Nintendo Switch. It still makes my honorable mentions because it’s so engrossing when you’re not in the middle of your 134th consecutive puzzle battle with the same solution that takes 5x longer than it should to complete.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
I didn’t play a lot of this, but it’s making my mentions because playing the Warehouse level for the first time in 20 years put me into a nostalgia trance I’ll always remember. Just vibing. Perfect. Will play more of this in 2021.
More specifically, the first three weeks of Blaseball. This browser-based game completely consumed the Fanbyte crew at the best time. Sports were mostly gone (and they should’ve stayed gone) and this passive, always-on (mostly) simulation got our imaginations running in a big way. We picked our teams (go Steaks), we discussed our favorite players, we texted each other updates during the playoffs — it was team-building. I loved watching people fall in love with sports, too. I think a lot of Blaseball fans were — and crucially, still are — reluctant to admit that, but it was a blast to see.
Blaseball passed me by. The fandom saw the inch its creative developers gave and took a mile. I don’t blame them. It’s fun to turn something into Homestuck when given the opportunity. But this thing, this sport that was safe to consume in 2020, became impossible for me to keep up with. I hope someday the same fans will give sports a try with a fresh perspective, but I am genuinely glad they have a remarkably deep and increasingly complex meta-narrative to explore. That first few weeks though…nothing like it.
9. NBA 2K21
It’s almost unfair to put this game on my list, but it’d be a lie if I didn’t. I don’t play this game like 90% of its audience. In fact, I don’t typically play this game at all. I’m a simmer. I pick my Dallas Mavericks and manage their off-the-court moves and simulate the rest. It’s how I “play” a lot of sports games. I totally avoid the thing this franchise gets deserved ire for, its microtransaction systems with terrible exchange rates.
Though I feel like it should’ve been a bigger story that this game came out months before its updated next-gen content was actually ready, it gets a little bit of a pass because the 2020-2021 NBA season was also delayed in real life. The next-gen content is solid, too, with gameplay tweaks that mimic real player behaviors and tendencies in a pretty stunning way.
Case in point, players’ footsteps aren’t canned animations anymore, so gone are the days of players not having the awareness to know when they’re in front or behind the three point line. That is, of course, if they’re players that have that awareness in real life. Players like James Harden or Luka Doncic, who create space in order to hit jumpshots from distance more than many other players in the league, will bounce and float around the three point line until their defenders lose the plot and BAM, they leap backwards and shoot. And presentation? They have two full commentary teams in NBA 2K21 to provide a more authentic broadcast feel.
8. Astro’s Playroom
It seems unfair that a tech demo designed to showcase the DualSense controller on PlayStation 5 would set the bar so high for the rest of the generation, but the real kicker is the game is the best platformer of 2020. It’s short, but hides a lot of secrets. It’s a master class in giving players a ton of stuff to do with a limited moveset as well as a look into what goes into designing the perfect theme park.
I didn’t know I felt nostalgic for certain parts of Sony PlayStation history until I bebopped through the stages patterned after parts of the PlayStation 5 hardware to discover a robot dressed like Dante juggling another robot with playful gunfire. And this game’s use of each console’s startup music? Perfect.
7. Paradise Killer
This neon murder mystery is confident and sleek and sexy more than any game on this list. I think the only reason it didn’t creep up higher on my rankings is I haven’t spent that much time with it yet. What time I did spend with it this year was exhilarating. Sold to me in screencaps as a visual novel, Paradise Killer is so much more than that. It’s open-ended. It’s full 3D exploration. It’s driven by player action. I’m a huge, huge sucker for rifling through drawers of a weird character’s apartment and judging them, for better or worse, by the vibes I get from what I find.
Don’t worry if it doesn’t all make sense right away. The language of the world starts to fall into place and then it’s all jazz, baby.
6. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
No other game on this list was released at the perfect time, but the new Animal Crossing has that (bizarre) distinction this year. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, corners of the internet begged Nintendo to release this slice of life game early. Our own private island to escape to. Our own place to gather. Our own place to communicate.
And it was beautiful! I didn’t keep up with it and have mostly followed developments via Twitter timeline, but during a period in the Spring where I felt so far away from folks I love, this game connected us. I’ll always be grateful for that.
Harmonix’s Fuser turned me into an unprofessional mess. At PAX East in Boston this year, I popped on a pair of alcohol-wiped headphones and played a set of this DJ game that made me fist pump and bob my head shamelessly in front of the PR handler I was talking to. I hated this. I hated this for me. I’m cool, I’m so cool! I can’t be like this. I have to be cool. But listen, Fuser got on this list after about five minutes of playing a demo. It’s just that transcendent of an experience.
I’ve talked to Niki, our resident Fuser expert, a lot about this game. We’re not sure it’s actually a great video game, but it is a remarkable experience. So whether I’m playing this game or watching my favorite people have sets on Twitch, Fuser rules.
4. Streets of Rage 4
The original Streets of Rage trilogy is just the coolest. There’s nothing like it. Whether you’re focusing on the snappy brawling, the wild character design, or the perfect thumping of Yuzo Kushiro’s music, there’s nothing about this Sega franchise that isn’t the fucking coolest. They even tell you the cops won’t help you.
When I found out about Streets of Rage 4’s development, I dismissed it. “It can’t compare,” I thought. In some ways, I was right. The effortless cool of the original has been replaced with a bit of a wink about how Gen Z would run a brutal street gang and how the cops might only be bad if they’re corrupt, two ideas I wouldn’t classify as particularly cool. Still, there’s a bit of nuance to the proceedings and besides, I’m in it to bash some skulls.
And wow, the bashing is good. Better than the originals. The devs made a few really smart choices, like adding wall juggles, that make this game feel so unbelievably good. And yeah, Yuzu Kushiro’s contribution to the soundtrack is fairly minor (and it is missed elsewhere), but it’s a great effort all around and maybe the happiest I’ve been playing a game all year.
3. Risk of Rain 2
“I think I have time for one more run.” I said this about 65 times over the summer, when I played Risk of Rain 2 for many consecutive days with friends or by myself. This roguelike shooter explains shockingly little but collecting powerful modifiers and seeing how they interact with the world and enemies around you is addictive.
I’m not sure how much I have to play to uncover all of this game’s secrets, but I’m willing to figure it out. In a year full of surprises, figuring out how to love roguelikes (more than one, actually) is a positively wild one for me. Risk of Rain 2 got me in the door with a simple low-poly presentation and kept me there with the feeling of “if I just get one more power-up to stack I’ll become a literal god.”
2. Final Fantasy VII Remake
Square Enix probably should’ve risked nothing with the anticipated remake of their most iconic video game. They should’ve phoned it in. They should’ve played the hits. This probably would’ve cracked this list if they had! What I expected was safe, but what I got was so bonkers I can’t believe they did the damn thing.
This retelling of 1997’s best eco-terrorism simulator gives Square’s marvel of environmental design, Midgar, the starring role it deserved long ago. All 35 hours of my playthrough dove deeper into the lives and dark corners of Midgar than I expected. More than that, the superb writing and voice performances added so much depth to the relationships detached protagonist Cloud Strife forms with abandoned childhood friend Tifa and the mysterious Aerith.
Final Fantasy VII is Aerith’s story, truly, and it was incredible to find such a funny, sweet, interesting person jabbing back at Cloud’s bullshit or consoling souls touched by tragedy in her neighborhood. The reworked compositions of Nobuo Uematsu’s original soundtrack and additional new tracks are unfathomably good.
And the end. It arrived exactly where I thought it would, only rearranged in a totally unfamiliar way. It’s new. Remake is a misnomer. This is a whole-ass new thing. This game stuck with me the whole year and I’m impatient for what comes next. Final Fantasy VII Remake is the triumph I didn’t expect.
I’ve loved every Supergiant game. Bastion, Transistor, even the riff on sports they made with the underappreciated Pyre. I’ve loved the way this team has navigated the brutal waters of game development. But roguelikes? No way. Nevermind the fact that trusted friend and colleague Steven Strom told me this game ruled a year ago. Nevermind that this team has made nothing but bangers. It’s the roguelike thing I won’t be able to get past.
Hades reinvented a genre that was closed to me. A perfect mix of persistent progression and skill-based improvement. A reason why death is part of this cycle. It’s not a mechanic, silly, it’s the only way our hero can win.
And what a hero our Zagreus is. Determined and slick and sad and full of love, Zagreus has a beautiful cast to play off of. Beating Zag’s dad felt as good the first time as the 12th as the 27th as the 48th because Supergiant has the goods. They’ve built the perfect little package of action and heart and hardwired it into the pleasure centers of my brain. There’s nothing out there like Hades and now that it’s all the way out of Early Access I hope other roguelike haters give it a real shot. It’s the best game of 2020 and it was probably the best game of 2019, too, if I had wised up and listened to the geniuses in my orbit.