Whether laid off and looking or stuck inside for nine months, gaming was critical in helping fill the void for many of us this year. Here are some of my standout experiences of 2020.
Phantasy Star Online Episode I & II (GameCube | 2002): A seminal experience for me in high school with my Dreamcast, PSO has continued to be an alluring, simple hum of a grind that relaxes me almost 20 years later. The household and I started new characters and I personally pumped over 160 hours into this classic this year. Our characters as of writing: a 110 HUcast, a 99 RAmarl, a 91 FOnewm, and our guest character, a 26 RAcast.
Halo: The Master Chief Collection (Xbox One | 2014): Halo has never lost its luster for me since my introduction to two-stick console shooters in 2002. The MCC has been a yearly party machine since 2014, and it now supports cross-play with PC for multiplayer and Firefight. This has allowed us to welcome many more friends into the fray, and we’re never too many days from our next MCC night. Hit me up if you’d like to join!
Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch | 2019): Despite the game releasing a year earlier, SMM2 got a huge new lease on life with its world builder update. And with lockdown leaving us with less to do, we took advantage and created household worlds (and even held a couple livestreams to play them!). The opportunity to create 26 unique, interesting Mario levels for my friends and family to play was a lifelong dream come true and one of the few bright spots in 2020.
A Short Hike (PC, Switch | 2019): A really charming and nice one-shot game night alone with a bird finding his way to the top of a mountain. I missed the game a couple years ago but bought and played it to completion the day is was ported to Switch. Highly recommended for a chill three-hour smile.
Spyro the Dragon (Reignited) (PS4, Xbox One, Switch | 2018): I was pleasantly surprised by this one! A very chill, very sparkly game that controls well and lets you relax doing the one and only thing it tries to be good at: collecting everything. I’m definitely looking forward to many relaxing nights with the second and third games in 2021.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch): ACNH was my first Animal Crossing game, and I think we can all agree Nintendo really couldn’t have timed its release better. The slow burn was a welcome distraction early in the pandemic and its simple joy became part of my daily routine for weeks. It even inspired me to produce a video! Social media, as with most critical-mass experiences these days, kind of ruined it for me though: posts of intricate builds and customizations appeared weeks into release and took some of the magic out of discovering where the game led. The cumbersome online interface also stopped me from caring much about the social aspects of the game. I didn’t experience quite the magic that some seem to, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I invested.
Doom Eternal (Xbox, PS4, PC): Doom Eternal is a smart sequel that keeps most of what made the original fantastic while crafting a package that’s overall distinct. The minute-to-minute carnage is as good as it’s been, the music is still great, and the upgrades, customization and quality-of-life features to find secrets and replay missions are all top-notch. The strange hub world slows the pace down a bit but I kind of dug it, and the weirder/sillier tone to the narrative is a better fit for me. I just wish some of the platforming and bosses were less frustrating, but overall it was a winner for me.
Final Fantasy 7 Remake (PS4): I grew up with the Eidos PC release of FF7 and it’s been a favorite since. The anticipation for this remake was high but muted by Sqaure’s recent mixed bag of releases. It’s hard to overstate how fantastic the re-imaged Midgar is to see and explore in this Remake, and the updated battle system may be the best part of the package. It’s unfortunate that the game stalls repeatedly with boring filler and tack-on side quests, because the meat that’s there is about the best it could have been. After the bizarre commentary-on-remakes of an ending I’m super excited to see where this series goes, or even what the next game will be about.
Bugsnax (PS4, PC): Much more than a meme and a catchy Kero Kero Bonito theme song, Bugsnax is actually a pretty enjoyable experience for a few nights. It’s charming from start to finish, driven largely by the constant introduction of groan/chuckle-worthy creatures to trap and catch in increasingly-silly ways. It’s never too hard or frustrating, but fast travel and less fetch quests would have been nice. The narrative goes…places… but I had a ton more fun with it than I thought I would.
Runner Up: Ori and the Will of the Wisps
My favorite quote I’ve seen to describe Ori and the Will of the Wisps is from the Kotaku review: “Ori and the Blind Forest is the best. This is better than that.” It kept everything about the original that was great: amazing visuals, an effective rising-and-falling orchestral soundtrack, and tough-but-fair platforming and combat. It tossed old save and combat systems for auto-save and weapon customization. And it grafted on every good thing from Hollow Knight: more-distinct world locations, side quests, equippables, weapon upgrades, maps (and even a map-maker!) and a cast of delightful NPCs. It even cribs from Link’s Awakening with a trade quest.
It’s almost too good, and I really mean that. I originally didn’t have Ori’s sequel in this spot, mentally, and it took me awhile to unpack why: bad timing. The pandemic had just started, I had a huge glut of free time I didn’t yet know what to do with, and here was a blockbuster game staring me in the face to binge. And binge I did, so much so that typically Rob and I were playing on the Xbox One X and my PC simultaneously. It was so brilliant but exhausted so quickly. And in the emerging dread of our new reality, the story’s blunt beats were too harsh for me. Couple that with the hollow feeling of mopping up collectibles with monotonous fast-travel and bugged end-game achievements and I think the game just fizzled for me.
On further reflection and dipping back into the game momentarily, it’s hard to overstate how highly it sets the bar for quality in almost every way. It’s so good that it’s easy to take it for granted. It’s a manageable game with a better difficulty curve and more options for play than its predecessor. And it’s half the price of most AAA games. It’s really a must-play and outpaces the quality of almost every other best-of candidate by a mile.
Game of the Year:
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Part battle royale, part Japanese game show, and part bubblegum, Fall Guys asserted itself as my Game of 2020 without question. Another completely-out-of-left-field experience, I owe it to Sony’s PS Plus for allowing me to discover and fall in love with this delightfully silly (while devilishly frustrating) experience. Just a few rounds in and I was completely and hopelessly hooked on the chase for the win.
60 players compete in match-made episodes of 5-6 rounds with only 60% or less advancing to the next round. Only one player (in most cases) can win the final round and a coveted crown. Episodes last up to 20 minutes, and despite the often-bitter taste of defeat, it’s only one button press to re-queue for another. Each episode awards “kudos” (in-game currency) based on finish position, and both kudos and crowns can be spent on cosmetics like outfits, in-game gestures, and nameplates.
It’s aesthetic is amazing—it subverts the inherent frustration of the high probability of losing with squishy amorphous bean characters, bright, saturated colors, soft rounded shapes and edges, whimsical sounds, cute and derpy customizable outfits, dead-simple three-button controls, and a candy-sweet soundtrack that I enjoy unironically outside the game.
I maxed my progression to level 40 in season 1 on PS4, obtained all but the 5-wins-in-a-row trophy, and drifted to the PC version to play with other friends. I dabbled in season 2 on PC lightly, being mostly done with the game.
But then I discovered how much fun it was to watch streamers play Fall Guys. I’d been familiar with Twitch and followed some runners from GDQ events, but I’d never had much interest in watching live speed runs aside from having background noise. A combination of missing fresh human interaction in the pandemic and a strange crossover of speed-runners and Fall Guys players hooked me into watching Twitch in a way I’d never done before. Twitch is now daily viewing in the house, and we look forward to relaxing with Fir, Dangers, FireDragon, and all of the other streamers we’ve discovered through them.
When season 3 released, it was right back into my life. I have since maxed to level 40 on both PS4 and PC and am sitting at 85 wins at the time of writing, having invested about 150 hours into the game across both platforms. It has helped me connect with lots of friends for silly-but-determined fun on both console and PC, and the game has enough downtime that we can chat casually throughout. It made for a fantastic Xmas Eve and New Years Eve experience with four players, streaming and friends watching.
Fall Guys is really the whole package for me: incredibly silly, thrilling, and challenging (mechanically and emotionally) all rolled into one. It’s fun to play both alone and with friends, and it’s just as enjoyable to stream or watch. It has been my go-to game for the latter half of 2020, flaws and all, and is definitely my game of 2020.
And I made a little montage video of my streams and win clips to celebrate the joy the game has brought me! Check it out:
Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Switch): I was so bored. The game’s meh framerate and clunky controls turned me off after multiple starts and restarts. I bet this would be a relaxing game to watch on Twitch, but not for me to play.
Crash Bandicoot (PS4): As with Spyro, I tried my first Crash game this year. Unlike Spyro, I came away mostly confused. Extremely clunky controls and strange character physics, antiquated life and progress systems, and frustrating boss fights and secrets turned me off to the series. I’d like to give Crash 4 a try sometime, but I’ve written the remastered collection off.
Call of the Sea (Xbox One): Heralded by many reviewers and included on Xbox Game Pass, we were excited to add this to the holiday backlog. The game is gorgeous and serene but holds your hand through virtually every puzzle and steals any sense of epiphany and accomplishment these types of games usually provide. The story is also so bizarre that it loses its grounding quickly.
All Games Played in 2020, Chronologically
- Sly Cooper: Thieves in Time (PS3)
- SteamWorld Dig (Vita)
- Resident Evil 5 (PS4)
- Burnout Paradise Remastered (PS4)
- Kirby’s Epic Yarn (Wii)
- Team Sonic Racing (PS4)
- Halo: Reach (MCC) (Xbox)
- Risk of Rain 2 (PS4)
- Pokémon Mystery Dungeon DX (Switch)
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Xbox, PC)
- Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Switch)
- Phantasy Star Online Ep 1 and 2 (GameCube)
- Final Fantasy 7 Remake (PS4)
- NES Remix 2 (Wii U)
- Mario Maker 2: Super World Update (Switch)
- Doom Eternal (PS4)
- Far Cry 4 (PS4)
- Call of Duty: Infinite Warfare (PS4)
- The Touryst (Xbox)
- Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout (PS4, PC)
- CrossCode (Switch)
- A Short Hike (Switch)
- Luigi’s Mansion 3 (Switch)
- Battletoads (2020) (Xbox)
- The Last Campfire (PS4)
- Final Fantasy 12 HD: The Zodiac Age (PS4)
- Spelunky 2 (PS4)
- Super Mario 3D All-Stars (Switch)
- Bioshock 2 Remastered (PS4)
- Crash Bandicoot (PS4)
- Super Mario 35 (Switch)
- Lanturnium (PS4)
- Episode 1 Racer (PS4)
- Spyro the Dragon Re-imagined (PS4)
- Bugsnax (PS4)
- OnRush (PS4)
- Batman: Telltale, Season 1 (PS4)
- Call of the Sea (Xbox)