The Switch was more than a videogame machine this year. It quite literally helped many of us stay sane during the earliest days of the pandemic, when most of society was shut down tight and the only human contact many of us had was with the decidedly not human (and, yes, not remotely real) critters in Animal Crossing: New Horizons. That may not be our favorite Switch game of the year—scroll down to find out what takes the crown—but it’s hard to argue against Animal Crossing as the most important and notable game released this year, period. Through coincidence it landed at the absolute perfect time for a game of its ilk, and in the process became a genuine pop culture phenomenon in the way few videogames do. It wasn’t the best game of the year, but by most other metrics Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the true game of 2020.
What beat it out on our list, then? Check out the list below to find out. Here are our picks for the best Switch games of 2020.
All uncredited blurbs written by Garrett Martin.
This might be cheating a bit. We generally don’t consider ports or remakes of older games for these lists, but Grindstone’s situation is slightly different. One of our favorite mobile games of 2019, Capybara’s puzzler makes the jump to console with a Switch rendition that offers just enough new wrinkles to stand alone as its own thing. Last year I wrote that “Grindstone is a thoroughly confident game that understands exactly what a certain type of player is looking for from mobile experiences, and then goes above and beyond all expectations to make that a reality;” that’s still true, only now the mobile screen is the Switch and not a phone. And oh yeah, it doesn’t even have to be that mobile, as it’s just as fun on TV as it is on the go.
Rooted in Hindu mythology, and with a gorgeous painterly art style, Raji is an action game that looks and feels like no other. It can move a little too slowly, but with a wide-ranging combat kit that prioritizes fluidity of movement, it’s one of those games that simply feels good to play. Light puzzle elements break up the battle, resulting in a well-rounded debut by the Indian studio Nodding Heads Games.
I Am Dead is a collection of stories about the residents of a volcanic island town. It indulges one of the most delicious experiences in gaming: the satisfaction of snooping through someone else’s stuff. At the heart of I Am Dead is the puzzle of perspective. How do you summarize an entire person when they can be seen from so many points of view? Not all the memories of the game’s characters are fond, and few are perfect. The people themselves are complicated, sometimes misunderstood. But there’s a revelation in that lack of consensus. The truth about each of us, like the game’s illustrations, is nebulous, and something inbetween. Perspective is what we gain as we grow or establish distance, this is true both figuratively and literally. Maybe it’s only with the combined observations of everyone we’ve impacted that a full picture of ourselves can come into view.—Holly Green
Immortals Fenyx Rising is loud, abundant and abundantly loud. The colors are brighter, the map is fuller and the dialogue is frequent and boisterous, with jokes that land, fall flat, and somehow land by falling flat—which feels in line with how farcical Greek mythology tends to be. Furthermore, everything feels a lot less like a process in Immortals. Resources are plentiful, weapons are unbreakable, everything can be upgraded, and the combat is challenging while still being an absolute, fast-paced blast that leaves you walking away from battle feeling pretty damn good about yourself. It doesn’t invoke the same feeling as the somber and delicate hero’s journey Link undergoes in Breath of the Wild, but instead channels the same energy as a Disney movie, complete with jokes that might go above players under 10 but will certainly raise eyebrows (see Aphrodite telling Hermes he’s been loving on himself so much he needs to clean his toga). Also in line with a Disney movie is its story, which is parabolic and surprisingly heartwarming.—Jessica Howard
Age of Calamity is about as far from a “real” Zelda game as you can get. Instead of the exploration and abundant mystery of Breath of the Wild, this spin-off is a fast-paced, action-heavy, hack-and-slashathon where you’ll mow through countless enemies en masse. It does possess some intrigue as our first return to the world of Breath of the Wild, filling in the backstories of that version of Hyrule and its heroes. And as far as the “musou” genre goes, Age of Calamity has a bit more going for it than the standard Dynasty Warriors game, with a solid variety of combat options tailored to each Zelda character. As one-off aside to the Breath of the Wild epic, it’s a fine, if repetitive, diversion.—Garrett Martin
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.