2020 gave us the PlayStation 5, the Xbox Series X, the Xbox Series S, those fancy new graphics cards, and, oh yeah, a global pandemic that has caused so much pain, devastation and disruption. Not the best year, this 2020.
I’m not going to waste too much space here. I know it’s a bummer to click on a list about videogames and immediately get reminded about COVID-19, but it’s impossible to write about anything that happened in 2020 without mentioning the pandemic, and that includes videogames. These year-end intros have always been a challenge to write (and, I’m sure, a bore to read), but this year celebrating a bunch of videogames just feels disrespectful. Yes, there were games in 2020, and some of them were excellent. Yes, many of us had more time to play them than we usually do, due to the lockdown. Some of them have helped us cope with the tragedy of this year, and some (like Animal Crossing: New Horizons, which became a mainstream phenomenon in a way the series has never been before) were no doubt boosted by the shutdown. Games aren’t just fun diversions or time-wasters, something to while away the weeks and months spent indoors, but have the power to make us think and make us feel, to help us see our world and lives in different ways, and to introduce us to new worlds that otherwise couldn’t ever exist. They can’t do much to fix the real world, though.
Here are some games we liked this year. Maybe you’ll like them too.
Uncredited blurbs written by Garrett Martin, the same guy who wrote that mess you just finished reading. Hi!
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
I’ve never had to wrestle with a controller as strenuously as I do in Maneater. Sharks might be efficient killing machines, but trying to play as one can be hell on your hands and your DualShock. Every time I try to munch on an alligator or mako I have to beat my controller into submission, pounding on the shoulder trigger to take a bite, and then immediately smashing the right joystick to flip around and keep my prey in sight. When we’re evenly matched, these little duels can go on for minutes; when I’m trying to eat up a beast that’s bigger or stronger than me, I have to resort to guerrilla tactics, ambushing them from out of the seaweed, and regularly making short tactical retreats to swallow down some grouper or catfish to regain strength. Maneater reinforces the life-and-death struggle of these undersea squabbles by making me really feel them. These shark fights are the best thing about this weird, ambitious, and inconsistent game, which can veer from disappointing to exciting within seconds.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
I am not generally a Doom man—younger me felt the original sent games as a concept spinning off into the conjoined shitty paths of thinking violence equals maturity and that heavy metal made with computers is actually listenable—but Doom Eternal is one of the least Doom-like Dooms I’ve ever Doomed. It’s also 100% certified Doom, just like a pure unfiltered toot of the totality of Doom. No, these thoughts don’t contradict each other.
Despite carrying around a few extra layers of business, Doom Eternal feels good. It is physically, mentally and emotionally a much-needed jolt out of all the ruts I’ve been stuck in—a shot of manufactured, harmless stress to take my mind off all the real stresses of today. Visiting a fictional hell world will always be preferable to dealing with the hell world we’re actually living in. Doom’s ripping and tearing is more vital today than ever—and not just that which I visit upon my enemies, but, importantly, the torturous ways in which they rip and tear through me. Doom Eternal is a two-way street—the doom I perpetrate and the doom I have to welcome with open arms. It’s a kind of penance, and I am ready to accept my punishment.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, PlayStation 5, Xbox Series X and S, Stadia
Assassin’s Creed games are massive, messy spectacles that elevate boilerplate Ubisoft drudgery with the epic sweep of history. They’re absolutely ridiculous, highly repetitive, and entirely my shit, in a way few big budget franchises are. I haven’t enjoyed them all, and yes, I don’t always finish these mammoth adventures, but every few years a Creed hits me just right. Valhalla makes two in a row, after 2018’s similarly fine Odyssey. It turns the Viking invasion of 9th century England into yet another chapter in the eternal struggle between two secret societies devoted to recovering powerful artifacts left behind by a godlike race of ancient aliens—and I will never tire of typing sentences like that. Valhalla has what I look for in an Assassin’s Creed: memorable characters, vivid recreations of a long gone past, and a completely ridiculous, increasingly tangled, sci-fi conspiracy story rooted in a cartoon version of history. And this time it has way more mead and decapitations.
Platforms: Switch, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Despite accurately calling itself a “roguelite,” what most makes ScourgeBringer work isn’t its trendy genre. It’s not the structure, but the mechanics. Playing this game requires a rigorous physicality that never becomes overly complicated. It’s not dissimilar to playing a fighting game, in how you’ll have to be comfortable using every button at your disposal. You essentially wrestle with the controller, although not in a way that’s tedious; the bulk of the action is entering a new room and slicing or shooting through two waves of enemies as quickly as possible, with a time-based combo meter that increases the amount of money you earn with each kill. Money is important in a game that’s otherwise light on power-ups, so you want to keep that combo as high as possible. And so every fight becomes a sprint, with you trying to string attacks together while avoiding damage; once you’ve defeated a room, you’re still on the clock, and with enough planning can swoop into the next room and start the carnage again within the few seconds before your combo streak resets. You’ll careen through the game’s randomized labyrinths, stabbing face buttons to double jump or strike your enemies, parrying their attacks to leave them stunned and weakened, and clutching down on shoulder triggers to rush through the air or fire off a variety of firearms, and doing it all as quickly and accurately as you can. Yes, it’s like a kind of dance, one that you do with your fingers, and it never quite grows old.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Switch, PC, Android, iOS
Genshin Impact is a free-to-play action RPG that feels a hell of a lot like an MMO without the whole multiplayer part, which is, I know, a vital part of that acronym, but if you play it I swear it makes sense. The game takes place in the massive open-world of Teyvat and follows the story of a pair of fallen twins (you play as either the male or female sibling) as they are thrust into a new world filled with magic, monsters and, of course, cute (and surprisingly well-written and charming) anime people that look fresh out of RWBY. What sets the game apart from feeling like just another MMO or a Breath of the Wild clone is that in Genshin, you can play up to 24 different characters, with each having one of seven unique powers. By cleverly using these elemental powers, you can do some pretty interesting things both in combat and exploration.—Jessica Howard
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Ikenfell is the type of game I wish I’d have played when I was 12. It doesn’t try to be cool or “quirky.” Instead, its charm comes from its awkward sincerity—its unpretentious presentation that could include eyerolls or cringe in those unacclimated to the genuine. Ikenfell is a night spent hunched over the family computer reading fanfiction you’re ready to minimize if you hear footsteps. It’s playing Neopets and flash dress-up games while binge watching Drake and Josh. It’s an experience that takes you back to those fleeting instances of unabashed joy you had in the comfort of your house between your school days and those weird Friday night roller skating things that were popular for like, a year—you know what I’m talking about, right? Right.—Jessica Howard
Platforms: PC, Mac, Xbox One, PlayStation 4, Switch, iOS
After finishing the adrenaline-pumping, 50-hour epic that was Final Fantasy VII Remake, I was looking for something much shorter and lighter for my next game, and found just that in A Fold Apart. It’s a sweet puzzle game about navigating a long-distance relationship, and although I found the narrative to be a little too on the nose and the puzzles to mostly all follow the same formula, it ended up being the game I needed. Only around three hours in length, I was able to complete A Fold Apart within just a couple days, and I let myself slip into a dream-like trance as I folded the paper and guided these lovebirds through their streams of consciousness. If I didn’t have the game included with Apple Arcade, I probably wouldn’t ever have given it a chance. But I’m glad I did, since its adorable art style and characters coupled with a calming and meditative gameplay loop helped calm some of the anxiety I’ve been feeling about the world. — Joseph Stanichar
Platforms: PC, Switch
There’s a lot to like about the stylish murder mystery Paradise Killer. It’s one of the most unique games you’ll play this year, an open-ended first-person investigation game built around searching for clues and interrogating characters that all look like art school demons from some kind of hipster-exclusive hell. With its ‘00s-era 3D aesthetic and vaporwave visuals, it doesn’t really look like any other game you’ll see this year. It’s the writing that really sets it apart, though—often philosophical, often funny, and with a depth and nuance that’s still too rare in videogames.
“Charming” isn’t a word we get to use enough when we write about videogames, but it’s the perfect word to describe Paper Mario. Mario’s latest papercraft adventure has its problems, but it’s so funny and adorable and personable that it’s easy to overlook its flaws. It’s legitimately good at comedy, has an amazing art style, and features perhaps the single best scene in games so far this year. It’s definitely worth unfolding.
Platforms: Xbox One, PC
Tell Me Why’s Michael summed it up best when he reassured Alyson that “families are fuck-up factories.” We all carry our various secrets and problems, weaknesses and wounds. But as I go through a period of my life where understanding and mitigating them is one of my core focuses, Tell Me Why hits harder than I ever expected or perhaps wanted it to. I don’t see myself in many parts of the game—parts I still love and recognize—but the shock of seeing so much of myself in both Alyson and Mary-Ann, in the game’s comforts and warnings, sticks with me. However, there is solace in knowing that how I feel is understood by others, and that a team of people, using bits and pieces of their own lives and pains, created a world I could see mine in—in knowing that there are other “little goblins” looking for answers, too.—Jessica Howard
Platforms: Switch, PC, Mac
For the first hour of Signs of the Sojourner, I was trying to game the system. I built my narrative deck in an attempt to be the end all be all of decks. I was going to succeed in every conversation. The winsome master manipulator. I was stacking my deck with each conversation to have a fresh snappy comeback. The right words. For the right person. In the right moment. In my attempt to be everything to everyone, I became nothing. A rube, a clumsy pick-up artist, the narcissist who thinks they’re God’s gift.
It’s a simple brilliance. You have to be a person, a real one, with a real personality. You have to make decisions about who you are and how you’re going to approach life and the people who fill it. Sometimes, conversations will go badly—too tired to be polite or cunning. Irksomely logical and detached, or far too emotionally invested, or a weirdo creative. You can’t make everyone like you, or enjoy talking to you. And that’s something Signs of the Sojourner urges you to accept. This game wants you to be vulnerable and imperfect. Be open to the possibility of saying the wrong thing and treat this delightful cast of characters as real people, not dialogue piñatas.—Dia Lacina
Platform: PlayStation 5
The PlayStation 5 launched with not one, but two glorious platformers. Sackboy: A Big Adventure dumps all the creation stuff from Little Big Planet (you know, the reason those games existed) to focus on the star of that series, the adorable little burlap buddy known as Sackboy. The peculiar flightiness of those games’ physics has been greatly reduced, resulting in a more precise and easier to control Sackboy. This has made possible some of the most rhythmically minded and musical platforming levels since Sound Shapes. It’s not quite at the level of Astro’s Playroom, but fans of running, jumping, and general Mario-ing about should make room for Sackboy.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PC
Streaming smash Fall Guys can be vicious. It can be one of the cruelest games you’ve ever played. You can be poised to win a round from start right up to the finish, only to shockingly get bumped from contention by a last-second surprise. It takes that element of risk and unpredictability from other forms of racing—from horse to car to track and field—and amplifies it into a candy-colored form of trolling online strangers. You can’t take anything for granted in Fall Guys, which gives it a strong sense of tension.
Platforms: iOS, Android
I’m not used to a game needing me—to a game that routinely makes me feel guilty for not playing it. That’s why Bird Alone is so powerful. George Batchelor’s iPhone game is acutely aware of my presence, or lack thereof. It turns the push notification into emotional warfare. When that window pops up on my phone to tell me that Bird Alone is ready for me to visit again, and I’m not in a place where I can immediately do so, I feel legitimate anxiety.
I just want the virtual bird that lives in my phone to be happy. Is that asking for too much?
Platforms: Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac, Stadia
Continuing in the trend of “games that easily could be a children’s film,” SpiritFarer exhibits a winning combination of heart and magical whimsy. Set aboard a ferry for the deceased, the game is equal parts puzzle-adventure and management sim. Rooms can be built, a garden grown, and adventures embarked upon as the ferrymaster Stella and her merry band travel the world and learn how to self sustain through mining, farming, cooking, fishing and crafting. Along the way, Stella also cares for the spirits of the dead, fulfilling their final wishes before saying goodbye. With a direct but life-affirming approach to the topic of death, the game’s optimistic vulnerability is as wholesome as its charismatic and upbeat characters.—Holly Green
For something called The Pedestrian, studio Skookum Arts’s debut title is a novel little game. It imagines the regulatory signs of our daily lives, those we see at work, in a warehouse or on a busy city street, as a live 2D plane. Starring the little stick figure seen on the door of every public restroom, it presents a secret world where standardized symbols and pictograms come alive and interact to create a series of platforming puzzles. It’s exactly the sort of game you might conjure if you were very bored at work one day, staring at a wall, letting your imagination run away with you. This puzzle game delivers exactly what I desire from games in its genre: a brain busting experience that challenges the limits of my creative problem solving skills without exhausting them.—Holly Green
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
This loving tribute to Sega’s early ‘90s beat-’em-up doesn’t just channel an overlooked classic. It’s one of two recent games, alongside March’s smarter Treachery in Beatdown City, that revive a genre that was once a cornerstone of the whole medium. The primal thrill and eternal allure of pulverizing waves of bozos with your fists, feet and special moves might have ebbed since their quarter-swallowing heyday in the early ‘90s, but Streets of Rage 4 shows that, when done with love and attention, this kind of violence can be as invigorating as ever.
What drives the magical tension in Valorant is that one bullet is all it can take to result in your death. While there is currently one agent, Sage, whose ultimate ability is to resurrect one player, once you die, that’s it. There’s no chance of being brought back like in Apex Legends or dealing with the pressure of returning in a few seconds to make a coordinated push with unwilling teammates like in Overwatch. The pacing of Valorant injects suspense into every moment, and makes sure not a single second feels wasted. It’s also refreshing. While matches can take a good while since you need to wait until a team reaches 13 points, they usually don’t last long enough to feel like a drag. Once you overcome Valorant’s learning curve, it’s thrilling in a way I’ve desperately needed these days. Thanks to this pandemic and being stuck under quarantine, I don’t have the motivation to do much of anything. I wake up, stare at my screen and browse the internet without aim, try to do some exercises, and feel sleepy by 9 p.m. When I play Valorant, I feel something more. It’s exciting and nerve-wracking and just plain fun.—Natalie Flores
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Skater Xl is not so much a return to form for skateboarding games as it is a distillation of what made them great in the first place. Yes, it borrows its core control scheme (with a few minor changes) from the Skate series, but it adds an extra layer of challenge to it. The physics are more grounded, and it’s cool that the game minutely recreates some of the most famous skate spots in America—from the Radio Korea plaza to the Staples Center and the West L.A. Courthouse. The fact that Skater XL is grounded in reality is not what makes it truly special. What makes it so compelling is that you can customize your skater with real skate shoes, pants, boards, and more. Okay, that is not what makes it so great, but it is cool nonetheless. What makes it one of the best games of July is how it just distills the pure joys of skateboarding into a deceptively simple experience. No real objectives or stories or challenges are in the game—just various levels, your skater, and their board. It is all one needs because skateboarding is boundless. Use your imagination, try to skate new spots, craft compelling lines, and then get lost in the simple-yet-fun in-game video editor.—Cole Henry
Platforms: Switch, Xbox One, PC, Mac
There will always be a market for Metroid homages, no matter how uninspired so many of them can feel. Carrion is one of the few recent examples of the genre to actually stake its own unique territory. It’s not just that you’re in charge of what would conventionally be the main enemy in a game like this, and tasked to slaughter your way through the science experiment that imprisoned you, Ape Out-style. Carrion rethought the genre’s entire approach to motion. Instead of the predictable pattern of unlocking double jumps and grappling hooks, your amorphous blob of a creature glides throughout its brutalist prison with startling grace. It’s not elegant to look at, unless you like dripping viscera and globules of raw meat, but to play it is to recall the delicate arcs of Geometry Wars. You’re basically tracing your way through this game, and the contrast between grace and grisliness never grows old.
Platforms: Xbox One, PlayStation 4, PC, Mac
Wasteland 3 puts you in the shoes of an external force with the unique capability to see through internal affairs, and gives players a glimpse at what a stranglehold on power can result in. Every choice you make, from dialogue options to money management, gives the feeling that you really are in a wasteland, just trying to get by. It’s a harrowing vision of a world that could come to pass, and a poignant commentary on the one we’re just trying to make it through today.—Nicolas Perez
Platforms: Xbox One, PC, Switch
From the very first moments of 2015’s Ori and the Blind Forest, the developers at the Vienna-based Moon Studios have been manipulating our emotions. They do it about as well as anybody else in videogames ever had, and there’s something commendable about that. They convince us to immediately invest in their characters emotionally, which is hard to do, especially when no real words are being spoken. And one they have us on their hook, they’re excited to devastate us with unexpected deaths and heroic sacrifices. It can be a bit cloying—a little predictable, a little shameless—but it still has the desired impact, which means Moon Studios knows what it’s doing. And since Will of the Wisps, like Blind Forest before it, is a precisely calibrated machine of a platformer, with the the kind of Metroid-style backtracking elements that makes it almost impossible to put the controller down, there’s more than enough follow-through on that emotional wallop.
Platform: PlayStation 4
Dreams takes the creative aspirations of MediaMolecule’s previous franchise, Little Big Planet, and expands them into something almost overwhelmingly broad. You can make all manner of games within Dreams, or dig in on a more granular level and work on game mechanics or assets. You can even dabble in other mediums, from animation to music. It’s a powerful portal into ideation, with perhaps the freest and most open-ended tools for creating within a game platform. And the community has wasted no time putting those tools to good use, with a massive amount of homegrown content worth playing and exploring.
Platforms: PC, Switch
Games are even more stuck in the past than usual right now. Over the last few weeks I’ve spent time with remakes of Final Fantasy VII and Resident Evil 3, hung out daily in the fifth (or sixth?) Animal Crossing game, and even dug through an entire miniconsole full of TurboGrafx and PC Engine deep cuts. Whenever I needed a break from the old and familiar, from the earthy bonds of our boundless nostalgia, I turned to In Other Waters, a deeply strange, entirely alien game well worth exploring. Its clean, minimal display belies a complex structure of interlacing gizmos and gadgets that replicate the operating system of a high-tech diving suit being used to explore the oceans of another planet. The colors are soft and warm, synths hum lightly in the background, and the main thing we have to do is read about this foreign world, its unusual wildlife, and the relationship that develops between the scientist within the suit and the artificial intelligence helping her carry out her tasks. In Other Waters is a true anomaly in 2020; it has the spirit of an old point-and-click adventure game dressed up in a slick, futuristic, sci-fi display, and is extremely patient with its players and respectful of their intelligence.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Switch, Xbox One, PC
The breadth of its options makes each run an exciting, different time, and makes Going Under a highly replayable roguelike that you shouldn’t miss. When you’re away from the keyboard for a second your character throws her weapon away, sits down, and starts scrolling on her phone. If I was bored in a dungeon, I would do the same thing! Little moments like that are found throughout the game, and showcase that Going Under is plugged in and timely. A lot of the early game is goofs and fighting, but as you progress deeper through the dungeons it becomes an inspiring story about fighting back, unionization, and solidarity. These days it’s way too easy to get down in the dumps, doom scroll, and instantly complain about anything online; this game distracted me from that. It made me laugh, transporting my mind into a world where evil sentient emojis run a corrupt dating app, skeletons are motivational speakers, and goblins drink coffee from a pot. It gave me hope, and made me more optimistic at the prospect of real change, which can only happen when people respect each other, work together and rip it out of clutches of a CEO after slaying them with a giant sword.—Funké Joseph
Platforms: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 5
Sony’s excellent Spider-Man game gets a follow-up starring everybody’s new favorite Spider-Man. Miles Morales is a timelier and more human take on the webslinger than the 2018 original, and although it disappointingly doesn’t fully commit to its politics, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable action game with a conscience. It’s also just about the perfect length for this type of game—you can probably 100% in half the time it takes to do that with the first one. If, y’know, you care about things like 100%-ing a game. Swinging through Christmastime Manhattan never gets old, especially when you have Spider-Man the Cat poking out of your backpack.
Platforms: Switch, PC
Treachery in Beatdown City is no mere brawler. It looks a lot like old school beat ‘em ups. But it has a strategic depth that fans of old school dense-as-fuck JRPGs will recognize and love. It gives what could have been a rote beat ‘em up a unique sense of tempo, a rhythm that feels good, feels like a real fight. Hectic intensity breaking off into deep breaths before resuming, split-second planning before explosive finishes. But the thing about Treachery in Beatdown City that really matters to me? Who gets access to using violence. Most games give you a stock white guy (the “progressive” ones give you a white woman, redheaded, sometimes with white girl dreadlocks). And it’s always in service to some form of cultural hegemony or a version of “Western” imperialism. Violence in games is great, when you are a member of the status quo going ripshit on anything that threatens the status quo. Really the only deserving violence you can usually do in games is on Nazis—and they’re always fangless paper doll versions of actual Nazis. Wolfenstein: The New Colossus didn’t even let me merc a bunch of dopey Klansmen. Beatdown City says “You see that racist? You can wreck his shit.” It’s a catharsis for everyone who has to deal with this shit daily. A place to unapologetically throw hands at all the people who need to catch them. It’s a power fantasy for everyone left out of the normal videogame power fantasy.—Dia Lacina
Crusader Kings III is the strategy game for people who think Civilization is just a little too impersonal. Yeah, you can conquer the known Medieval world, or try to stick to diplomacy and cooperation, but you don’t play as some distant deity overseeing millennia of development. You’re a very specific individual whose goal is to build a thriving kingdom to leave to your heirs—who you then play as when their predecessor passes away. And so on, and so on, for generations. The fractious relationships between power-hungry members of your dynastic clan will regularly have unforeseen consequences for your empire, making Crusader Kings III as unpredictable and chaotic as life itself.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
Remember DJ Hero? Cool, now forget all about it. Harmonix’s new DJ game captures the feeling of a real DJ set better than Activision’s short-lived series ever did, and you won’t need a big chunk of plastic that you’ll never use again to play it. Fuser does for DJing what Rock Band did for rocking, with a deep selection of real songs from the past six decades to chop up and recombine however you see fit. It’s a fun game, sure, but it’s also an amazing tool for musical creativity, turning every player into their own personal mash-up machine. You should play it, is what I’m saying.
Platforms: PlayStation 4
Square Enix pulled off an impossible trick here. They not only remade one of the most beloved games of all time in a way that thoughtfully builds and expands on the original; they somehow turned what was about five hours of story in 1997 into a 30-hour game without it ever feeling all that padded out. Remake preserves the strong political consciousness of the original game while greatly fleshing out many of its secondary and background characters, giving it all a greater emotional resonance than it had back in the day. This game has something to say but remembers to keep the focus on characters and their relationships, preventing it from ever becoming too preachy. It’s not subtle, at all, but it’s more subtle than the original, or what you would typically expect from a JRPG.
Microsoft Flight Simulator is a technological marvel, with a variety of innovations that make its virtual world as faithful to our real one as possible, and I have no idea how any of it works. Forget the technology, though. The most important thing about Microsoft Flight Simulator is that it’s become an unlikely emotional support system. It connects us to something we can’t currently touch or feel, something we’ve been sorely missing, which is a sense of normalcy. Yeah, it’s an illusion. Yeah, it’s disappointing to take those headphones off and look up from the monitor and realize I’m back in the same house I haven’t left in half a year. But when I’m in that digital cockpit all that stuff fades away, and it takes my stress and depression along with it, at least for a little while. And that’s worth something.
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 4
With most videogame sequels you expect the three “-ers”: bigger, badder and better. At least that’s what the standard marketing boilerplate drones on about at every E3 press conference. Spelunky 2 can scratch off that “bigger” tag, at least—it has more worlds than the first game, although its branching structure makes sure that you don’t see them all during a single playthrough. There are multiple tweaks throughout that marks this as its own unique game, and yet despite those changes the ultimate experience perfectly recaptures how it feels to play Spelunky. It’s less a sequel than a continuation, or some parallel dimension’s version of what Spelunky has always been.
The genius of Spelunky 2 is that it somehow adds new possibilities to a game that already had endless possibilities. That’s legitimately impressive. And that’s why I’m sure I’ll be playing this for as long as I’ve played the original, both games coexisting blissfully together as one of the absolute best parent-child pairs in gaming.
Platforms: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 remasters the first two games in the iconic series, updating all the levels from the original games and featuring both the original skaters and new ones. If you’ve been hoping a skating game could recapture the look and feel of those old classics, well, here you go. When I picked up the controller it was like no time had passed. I haven’t played the warehouse level from the very first game in literally decades, and yet it all came back to me immediately once I put thumb to stick.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 isn’t mere nostalgia. It’s a revival. It exhumes a true classic but roots it deeply in the modern world and not in some idealized version of its past. It doesn’t try to hide or ignore the changes of the last 20 years. And that’s one reason it’s one of the best games of 2020.
Originally Animal Crossing applied almost no pressure to the player. You could pay off your house, or not, and that was pretty much it. Much has changed since 2002, though. Almost everything you do in New Horizons has the residue of productivity on it, even if you’re trying to be as aimless as possible. Instead of playing games within this game, the only way to not accidentally be productive is to literally do nothing—to sit in a chair, or lay on a hammock, and put the controller down. To sit quietly with your own thoughts—thoughts that exist fully outside of your Nintendo Switch.
The fact that you can do that, though, is an example of the confidence within Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Nintendo might have ramped up the numbers and the to-do lists, all the tasks and chores that make New Horizons feel like one of the last outposts of whatever notions of normalcy we might’ve once had, but you can still tune that out and live within your own head for a spell. That head might naturally drift towards the hellishly contorted world we live in, and not the delightfully cartoonish one of Animal Crossing, but escapism is overrated anyway. I’d rather worry about every aspect of modern living while quietly reflecting on the rhythmic roar of a videogame ocean than while sitting slackjawed in a living room I won’t ever be able to leave again. Give me these New Horizons—rigid, commercial, and staid—over the chaos of the last decade.
Platforms: PlayStation 5, PlayStation 4, iOS, PC, Mac
Games should have secrets. They should feel like worlds that exist outside of the game and your presence in it, like something you’ve surreptitiously trespassed upon, and that, at best, are ambivalent towards your existence. The Pathless creates that feeling as well as Breath of the Wild, Demon’s Souls, or any of Team Ico’s games. This mythic adventure is set in a land on the cusp of apocalypse, in a battle between a benevolent god and a self-proclaimed godslayer, and trusts you and your eagle companion to sift through the ashes of its civilization to find a way to save it. There’s no violence outside of boss battles, and no threat of death to worry about. It’s built on movement and exploration, with your character slicing through the countryside as quickly as possible, or gliding through the air as your eagle carries you, while searching through decaying temples and fortresses for the tools you need to beat back Armageddon. If there’s anything to criticize about The Pathless, it’s that it’s maybe a little too linear—a little too similar to an Ubisoft game, moving from tower to tower to unlock the next step in the story. That doesn’t lessen its impact, though, or its beauty. This is one of the best games of the year.
Platform: PC, Switch
Does this sound familiar? A city’s in lockdown after a crisis, its citizens wearing face masks for their own health. Heavily armed cops patrol streets rife with anti-cop graffiti. Institutions have violated their compact with the people, and those in power came down hard on those who rose up against them. It’s real life around the world right now, but it’s also the setting for Umurangi Generation, a beautiful photo game that contrasts the peacefulness of taking photos and making art with the fear and violence of a police state, and which came out a week before the protests inspired by George Floyd’s murder went global. The societal issues that people are protesting are timeless, sadly, and embedded at the very foundation of our culture, which means a game like Umurangi will always be timely—at least until society is transformed to the point of being unrecognizable. Playing Umurangi over the last few days can be taxing, especially if you turn to games simply to shut out the world around you and ignore what’s happening. The added context of the last week also makes it exhilarating, though, and in a way that leaves me feeling a bit guilty and shameful—like a tourist who, instead of documenting real life oppression, is living in a fictionalized version of it. The events that inspired Umurangi’s crisis are environmental—designer Naphtali Faulkner’s mother’s house was destroyed during the bush fires that raged through Australia last year, and the game’s dark red skies hint at a different kind of trauma than the one currently happening in America and elsewhere. It’s one that still looms above all of society, though; if we don’t tear our own cities down first, the worsening climate problem inevitably will. Despite the different disasters, and even with its futuristic, sci-fi trappings, Umurangi Generation is a vital, current, powerful game that uncannily captures the mood of its time.
Platform: PlayStation 5
Is this a perfect game? I can’t find anything to criticize in Astro’s Playroom, the short but endlessly enjoyable platformer that comes installed on every PlayStation 5. Judged on both style and substance, Astro’s Playroom is an ideal pack-in game. It’s fun, beautiful, deeply entertaining, and also elegantly introduces the major new features of the PlayStation 5’s controller. And with its meta concept of playing entirely within the new system, while also tracking down art and items from the 26 year history of the PlayStation, it pays tribute to the company’s past and present without getting too schmaltzy or nostalgic. If you’re getting a PlayStation 5, this should be the first game you play.
Platforms: PC, Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Kentucky Route Zero’s final act finally came out early this year, and capped this brilliant game off perfectly, with the same combination of mystery and mundanity that has always been its hallmark. Kentucky Route Zero is one of the slipperiest, most subtle games ever when it wants to be, and thuddingly, powerfully upfront when it needed to be, turning the classic point-and-click adventure framework into an existential Southern Gothic allegory about work, art, life, and everything else. Despite the seven years between Acts I and V, Cardboard Computer somehow never lost the thread along the way, with all its digressions and discursive plot points contributing to its magical realist explorations of life. If you haven’t played it before, it’s the perfect time to jump in, now that it’s finally finished.
Platforms: PC, iOS, Mac, Switch
If Found isn’t a happy story. It’s an honest one. There’s a good chance you will cry, perhaps more than once, but there are also moments of joy, love and triumph. Despite the artistry of its presentation, and despite a recurring sci-fi metaphor that adds a bit of depth to the story but never quite fully connects, this is a low-key, modest, human affair. Its observations about family and relationships are touching, grounded and real, avoiding melodrama or outsized pronouncements about human nature. Much of it is universal, sure, but the focus remains on its lead character Kasio and how her merely being who she is can disrupt her relationships with her family and the world around her. It’s a character study of a specific person in a specific time and place, but whose pains and struggle ring true throughout the ages.
Platforms: Switch, PC
What makes Hades so great—and what elevates it above other roguelikes—is how it creates a consistent sense of progress even as you keep dying and restarting. Part of that is mechanical—although you lose all the boons bestowed upon you by the Greek gods after a run ends, along with other power-ups acquired during your journeys through the underworld, there are a few things you do hang on to when you return to the game’s hub world. More important than that, though, is how the game’s narrative unfolds between runs, driving you to keep playing through whatever frustration you might feel in hopes of learning more about the game’s story and characters.
Between every run in Hades your character, Zagreus, returns to his home—the palace of his father, Hades, the God of the Dead. Yep, he’s another rich kid who feels his first bit of angst and immediately starts slumming it. Here you can interact with various characters, upgrade the decor, unlock new permanent perks, and practice with the game’s small arsenal of weapons. Every time you return the characters who live here have new things to say, slowly unraveling their own storylines and deepening their relationships with Zagreus. And given that the writing in Hades is as consistently sharp and human as it’s been in all of Supergiant’s games, getting to talk to these characters alone is a reason to actually look forward to dying in this game.