For once, I’m not interested in bogging anyone down with a 1,000-word preamble on what video games meant to me this year. I don’t want to sugarcoat it: 2020 sucked, man. The games that came out this year were mostly great, and obviously I had more time to play them. Some of them in particular helped me get through some dark times. But the world is still a mess, life continues to be an intense struggle for many, and while we’re closer to the end of this pandemic, we still have a long way to go.
That said, I want this list to be mostly a positive experience for anyone reading it. This year highlighted more than ever the importance of taking care of yourself, and for me gaming was a form of self-care in 2020. It didn’t wash away my constant anxiety and dread over the state of this country’s political and social mores, it didn’t make me any feel any better about living in the midst of a global pandemic, it didn’t make me miss my family and friends any less, and it certainly didn’t help me get over the loss of one of my closest friends. But it helped make each day a little easier, and provided me with a lot of happy moments during a mostly unhappy year.
For this year’s list, I shook things up again. Instead of what I did for previous GOTY lists, I decided to take every 2020 game I played and organize them into seven tiers, with the final tier revealing my official Game of the Year. Each other tier has two to four games that will be listed in alphabetical order. I will also explain what each tier means in terms of my general enjoyment of all the titles in it, and each game will come with a brief blurb explaining my overall feelings on it and why it has landed in the tier that it has.
Ughh Fine I Guess
This tier includes my least favorite games of the year. These games aren’t necessarily bad (all include some notably positive qualities), but none of them deserves to be honored too far above “not terrible.”
Battletoads, more than anything else this year, could have used some editing. Each component of the experience—brawls, space combat, platforming—works fine enough on its own, but they never blend together to make the experience feel whole. Still, the parts that did work for me (in particular the early side-scrolling beat’ em up sections) worked fairly well.
Super Mario Bros. 35
Fun at times (and intensely challenging in late stretches), but never lives up to its namesake. This is where I might draw the line at battle royales. I won’t miss the genre when it’s gone.
The Last of Us Part II
The Last of Us Part II is my anti-Game of the Year. It’s cynical, tiresome, mean, and misanthropic. The voice acting is great, the quiet moments are incredible, the gameplay is largely solid, but its all-around narrative is overbearing, pretentious, and fake-deep. The polar opposite of “the game we need right now.”
Literally Pretty Good
Named after NFL analyst Cris Collinsworth’s confusing description of a decent-but-not-excellent football player, this category is for games that are somewhere between slightly above average and flat-out good. Every game on this list is worth a try, but no masterpieces are to be found here.
Doom Eternal is actually triumphant in a lot of ways. The colorful battles, glory kills, and captivating world design (with damn good first-person platforming controls) make it the best game in this tier and almost worthy of a promotion to the next one. But once I put it down, I could barely remember what actually happened in many sections and felt virtually no reason to return. A fun but fleeting experience.
Conceptually, Fall Guys is one of the best games of the year. In practice, I found it equal parts fun and frustrating, and it didn’t take long for me to walk away and never look back. I still think Mediatonic deserves props for making an original battle royale game that doesn’t involve violence (outside of Wipeout-style knockouts).
Ghost of Tsushima
I’m still not fully sure how to feel about this game, since it has so much going for it: a big and lush overworld, solid combat mechanics, engaging stealth sequences, and a handful of interesting side characters. But every time I pick up the controller to play more, I realize I don’t really care all that much about anyone or anything in this game. It’s a fun time (with some really incredible vistas), but is by no means a remarkable step forward in open-world game design.
Star Wars: Squadrons
I might have to revisit my feelings on this game at a later date, as I have yet to engage meaningfully in its multiplayer offerings. But Squadrons does Star Wars space combat right, even though I dislike how I can’t play in third-person. Its story mode isn’t really all that compelling narratively, but the actual dogfights are mostly a good time.
Solid as Heck
Also not a list of masterpieces, this tier includes games that are very good and worth your time and emotional investment. Imagine the games on this list as a really solid diner burger: not life-changing, but hits the spot.
Carto is a puzzle-adventure game where the player must move and manipulate map pieces in an effort to explore new lands as part of a colorful, lighthearted romp. Each chapter of the game involves the titular character figuring out how to navigate certain types of land (e.g., forest, desert, volcano) while learning about the relationships various locals have with their surrounding environments. It’s not exactly a classic, but Carto is fun, inspired, challenging enough, and perfectly laid-back.
I haven’t been able to play as much of Spiritfarer as I’ve wanted to, but it really is one of the more interesting takes on “cozy” games I’ve seen. It requires the same kind of patience, creativity, and time investment that other games of its ilk do, but Spiritfarer’s focus on relationship building, kindness, and love makes it one of the more pleasant virtual experiences of 2020. It’s heartbreaking in spots, and some of the platforming gameplay falls flat, but it deserves recognition for its focus on providing a largely positive experience in an otherwise negative year.
Streets of Rage 4
While not original in any meaningful sense, Streets of Rage 4 proves that sometimes games are at their best when they invoke the same feelings that classic arcade titles do. SoR4 takes a tried-and-true formula and refines it to present a phenomenal (though predictable) brawler experience.
Now we’re talking! All of these games are really, really good, and I would recommend them to just about anyone. Maybe none of them are GOTY material, but all are more than worth your time.
Paper Mario: The Origami King
While it’s certainly not what traditional Paper Mario fans had in mind, The Origami King is a wonderful experience that teems with joy, character, humor, and wonder. It may not fit neatly into a single genre, but it consistently keeps the player interested with great gameplay and solid storytelling. The combat system is original, the plot and characters are compelling in their own right, and the arts-and-crafts visual style never fails to charm.
Tetris Effect: Connected
I never thought a puzzle game could invoke the kind of feelings that Tetris 99 did for me last year. Once I played Tetris Effect: Connected, however, I realized just how far this genre can really go. I’ve played Tetris in many forms throughout my life, but the integration of music, multiple visual shifts, and wonderful multiplayer offerings make Connected among the best the franchise (and genre) has to offer.
Treachery in Beatdown City
As players and critics continued to flock this year to praise various big budget darlings for their narrative “ambition,” Treachery in Beatdown City was there to truly challenge systems of power. This RPG-brawler hybrid is a gem, as it not only cleverly fuses two separate combat systems to present a novel kind of gameplay, but directly addresses issues of gentrification, police brutality, and systemic racism in ways few of its contemporaries do. If only AAA studios were so bold.
Hall of Curtis Granderson
This tier is named after former MLB star Curtis Granderson, who had about as good a career a baseball player could have without any real chance of making the Hall of Fame. All of these games are awesome, but just miss being in the GOTY discussion.
Dark, oppressive, seductive. Every bit of Carrion is power fantasy goodness, with some of the best sound design and movement controls I’ve felt in years. Truly an impressive debut for Phobia Game Studio.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
Everything about Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a treat, from its effervescent world design to its greatly improved combat. While there were some performance issues at launch, the game drips with love, care, and creativity. Ori and the Will of the Wisps is heartbreaking, heartwarming, and thrilling throughout.
Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Miles Morales takes everything about 2018’s excellent Spider-Man and improves upon it. The world is less bloated, the City feels more alive, the gameplay is more streamlined, and the characters are more fleshed-out. In an uneven year for Western AAA releases, Miles Morales shows what’s possible when a big studio really cares about an IP.
Could Be GOTY in Any Year
The cream of the crop. While none of these games is my *actual* game of 2020, each is phenomenal and could easily have been the winner in a different year.
Final Fantasy VII Remake
FFVIIR succeeds on so many levels: The combat is dazzling and energetic; the beautiful orchestral score electrifies every moment; and its daring political narrative resonated with me this year more than ever. But what really separates FFVIIR from its peers in 2020 is how it not only expanded on what was largely a brief chunk of the original PlayStation release, but also refused to simply tell the same story again. The game’s ending is as bold and powerful as anything I’ve played in years.
The more I think about it, the more I believe Supergiant’s Hades is 2020’s most complete game. Its combination of striking visuals, award-worthy voice acting, bombastic gameplay, and seemingly never-ending narrative choices make it easily the best rogue-like I’ve ever played, and its blend of Greek mythology with the horniest of sensibilities presents one of the most entertaining atmospheres of any game this year. From its wildly imaginative approach to storytelling to its broad array of build options in each escape attempt, Hades never fails to amaze me, even dozens of hours in. Just an all-around excellent experience.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
When Activision announced that it would release a remake of the first two Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater titles, I knew I would enjoy playing it. I didn’t realize I would adore everything about it. In terms of achieving its stated goals, THPS 1+2 is perfect. There’s virtually nothing I would change about it. The skating controls are as smooth as ever, the online modes are fun and inclusive, and the updated skatepark visuals make the game feel brand new. A marvelous remake.
Game of the Year: Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Ultimately, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game about kindness, both to others and yourself.
In my more than 100 hours of New Horizons played this year, I fully populated a museum with fish, bugs, and artifacts, for no other reason than I believed it would benefit the community. I built outdoor restaurant areas so my fellow villagers had even more places to convene. If I found a cool new item in the store or elsewhere, I often gave that item to one of my neighbors without expecting anything in return. I engaged in Turkey Day, Halloween, and firework events to even further solidify my place as a beloved member of this community, and the love I gave to Antonio, Fuchsia, Anicotti, Camofrog, Bangle, Deena, and others was always given back, sometimes in the form of physical gifts but other times in the form of sweet, heartfelt letters (a few of which made me a little emotional).
I also made sure to treat myself in Animal Crossing. I bought every K.K. song I could in order to bolster my music collection. I decked my house with expensive things, including a jacuzzi and a grand piano. I created multiple outdoor seating areas so I had more places to relax and appreciate the world around me. I allowed myself to be the center of attention in a lot of ways, but never at the expense of anyone else; the other villagers were always happy to see me, even complimenting me on my new outfits.
2020 was a year where genuine kindness felt increasingly rare. Politicians left the most vulnerable to die and starve. Many right-wing cretins refused to protect their fellow community members by wearing masks. Droves of people in this country took to the streets demanding just a shred of humanity and kindness, only to be met with vitriol and violence. If there’s anything we can learn from this pandemic, it’s how little some people care about others.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a fake, virtual world where nothing bad happens and everyone’s just happy to be there. While it may seem thematically simplistic and childish, its emphasis on how to look out for your community and yourself really struck a chord with me, and continues to do so even nine months after release. There’s no princess to save or apocalypse to avert; sometimes, the best thing you can do to show you care is just give your neighbor a t-shirt or donate to a local museum. New Horizons isn’t just the game I enjoyed most in 2020; it’s the game that frequently reminded me to care about myself and the people around me.
As always, a big thanks to everyone who reads my work, as well as the work of my colleagues at The Punished Backlog. Let’s hope next year is better than this year (low bar to clear if you ask me). See you in 2021!