It feels a little silly to make a “best of” list in 2020, a year that would land pretty high itself on a “worst years of the Gregorian calendar” list. But improbably — albeit entirely logically — 2020 was one of the best years for gaming in recent memory. Games offered us everything we were looking for but couldn’t have: Worlds to dive into to escape this one, experiences we could share with friends who we could no longer see, battles that were in our power to win (and ones we could always restart until they worked out our way).
As I looked back on the games that had the greatest impact on me this year, the experiences that stuck with me most reflected those offerings. Not all of the games on my list were new this year — in fact, one just celebrated its 10th anniversary — but they all found new relevance. I can’t think of a better way to lower the curtain on 2020 than by shouting out the games that helped me wade through it. And hopefully, when it becomes time to do my best of 2021 list, it will come out in a world that is at least slowly limping in the direction of normal — whatever normal may mean. Who knows! Everything is meaningless! Onto the list!
Note: Instead of ranking games from 10 to 1, I decided to make up an arbitrary list of awards to give out, based on the role these games filled. Enjoy!
MOST SOCIAL LIVES SAVED: ONLINE CO-OP GAMING — JOINT WINNERS, FALL GUYS: ULTIMATE KNOCKOUT AND AMONG US
The online hangout went from being a novelty to a necessity this year, as pandemic restrictions drove us inside and kept us apart. Online gaming is nothing new, and many of the games that shined most weren’t new either — I logged more hours on League of Legends this year than I would ever care to admit in polite society. But what was new? The way that these games became the way we socially gathered in 2020. Whether it was hopping into a group chat with some friends to play Fortnite late into the night, or jumping onto Twitch with 400,000 people to watch Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez go on a murder spree on a spaceship, online gaming was a core part of how we spent time together this year. I decided to highlight two games in particular that rose to dizzying heights this year.
Fall Guys and Among Us have much in common: They both feature an array of colorful, gummi-like characters. Both are also capable of inspiring massive bursts of rage. But let’s be real: There is something “Only in 2020” about the most popular mobile game of the year being one where you and your friends run around stabbing each other in the face then blatantly lying about it.
GAME SINGLE-HANDEDLY KEEPING ME FROM KEELING OVER DEAD AT AGE 35: RING FIT ADVENTURE
I’ll be the first to admit that when Ring Fit Adventure was all the rage in 2019, I was far behind the hype. Of course, then I was an active New Yorker, walking 30 miles a day and pole vaulting over speeding taxis with the greatest of ease. What business did a fitness video game have with me? Then two big things changed in 2020: The outside world became poison, and a very mean doctor told me that, actually, I somehow wasn’t in perfect physical condition. A Ring Fit very quickly ended up in my shopping cart. Ring Fit’s blending of fantasy and fitness is an easy access point for people like me whose hackles start to raise when they get too close to someone using the word “burpee” in casual conversation. Out of all the games I put hours into this year, Ring Fit was by far the most rewarding. Mainly because it, you know, actually rewarded me. With, like, endorphins and weight loss. Take note, Bethesda.
MOST TIME SPENT QUIETLY GIGGLING TO SELF: WHAT THE GOLF?
These days, more and more games dare to ask big questions. What do we do when those we love most are the ones who threaten us? Is there such a thing as moral righteousness in a dystopian society? How far would you go to prove your independence to a father who fights you every step of the way?
But only one game was bold enough to ask the most important question of all: What if golf balls hit you? What the Golf, which has been putting around since 2019 but came out on the Switch this year, takes a simple yet clever concept (What weird ways can you make someone play a hole of golf?) and blows it out into dozens of goofy levels. By the time you’re teeing eggs into a frying pan or tossing whole houses across the course, you’ve been sucked in. And while there were games that made me feel more deeply than this one, there were few that made me laugh as hard.
GAME MOST LIKELY TO GIVE MY DOG A HEART ATTACK: MARIO KART LIVE: HOME CIRCUIT
Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit must have been in development well before 2020 rolled around, but there was no better-timed release this year. Right as we were all becoming deeply sick of looking around our homes — the sameness, the repetition, the day-in-day-out-ness of it all — Nintendo came through with an augmented reality game dedicated to making us see the nooks and crannies of our house in a whole new light. Home Circuit let us transform our homes into miniature Mario Kart courses, complete with our own real-life (but sadly not real-size) Mario Kart to drive around.
It wasn’t a perfect game, and it quickly became clear why most Mario Kart levels are set in twisting jungles and towering mountains and not, say, a very small New York apartment. But its magic was in making our quarantine quarters feel fresh again. And in convincing my dog that the Devil exists, and he has taken the form of a cheery Italian plumber.
(Read our full review here!)
MOST SUCCESSFUL GAME AT MAKING ME FORGET I WAS ESSENTIALLY DOING VIRTUAL YARD WORK: ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS
Speaking of well-timed releases, no one at Nintendo could have predicted the world that Animal Crossing: New Horizons would emerge into when they originally announced its March 2020 release date. What would have been a quietly beloved addition to a touchstone Nintendo franchise instead became the poster child for pandemic gaming. We gathered as a society, escaping to our virtual private island getaways to… Fish in the crystal clear waters! Build your dream home and decorate it! Slowly descend into a capitalist nightmare as you are slowly crushed under the weight of hundreds of thousands of Bells worth of debt! New Horizons continues to grow with the seasons, releasing new content as the year goes on. But nothing will compare to the feeling it produced upon its arrival — the sense that thousands of us who had been holding our breath for weeks suddenly found a momentary reprieve to exhale.
(Read our full review here!)
GAME THAT HAD NO RIGHT TO BE AS FUN AS IT WAS: ASTRO’S PLAYROOM
I don’t mean to be rude, but I went into Astro’s Playroom with very low expectations. Like, to-the-floor expectations. I mean, it’s a glorified tutorial, for goodness sake! It ships with the PlayStation 5 for free, and it is just there to teach you how the controller works! Come on!! Oh, how delightfully wrong I was. Astro’s Playroom is a free launch title, yes, and it is meant to give your fancy new controller a workout. But it’s also a joyous platformer and celebration of the history of the PlayStation. It’s a romp through lively and vibrant worlds filled with references to classic Playstation titles, hidden pieces of retro PlayStation technology, and — if that’s not enough — clever and compelling gameplay as well. Astro’s Playroom is a game that serves its purpose by outgrowing it, leaving you thinking, “If this is what the starter game is like, I can’t wait to see what might come next.”
GAME I SPENT MOST TIME FRANTICALLY TRYING TO EXPLAIN TO ANYONE WHO WOULD LISTEN: BLASEBALL
Where were you when the Peanut descended? When the Microphone shattered the multiverse over the fields of Los Angeli? When Dominic Marijuana killed God? If you can’t answer those questions — or, more likely, if you have no clue what I’m talking about — then you certainly weren’t participating in the cultural event known as Blaseball. Blaseball sprang into existence this summer as a self-described “online browser baseball simulation horror game.” Baseball and horror might seem incongruous (unless you’re a Pirates fan! Heyo!) but Blaseball quickly followed through on its promise, letting players vote once a week on a series of decrees and blessings that would rapidly change the game and its players. Rogue umpires began incinerating players. Giant peanuts fell to Earth, trapping players inside. But quickly, and magically, the fans of Blaseball realized that the curse of these selections could be fought with coordination and teamwork. What unfurled next was a riveting back and forth between a game’s community and its constantly innovating development team. Fans would do their best to break the game, and the developers would make them pay for their insolence. It’s too much to explain here — or really anywhere — although narrative designer and writer Cat Manning does great work doing so. But Blaseball started as a curiosity for me, but it quickly became my most-anticipated web visit of the day all summer. I can’t wait for what comes next.
GAME THAT SOMEHOW MADE ME MISS THE PLACE I CURRENTLY AM: SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES
Insomniac Game’s first Spider-Man title, which was a Hall of Fame game for the PS4, was notable not only for its gameplay and story, but also for the lovingly crafted New York City that players swung through as Peter Parker. Everything from the re-created skyline to the way that the people of the city interacted with you on the street felt so distinctly “New York.” But while Peter Parker was a Spider-Man in New York City, Miles Morales is a Spider-Man of New York City — and the difference drives Miles Morales to brand new heights. I had to move out of New York City in July when my lease ended, and I’ve pined for it ever since. Watching Miles ripping trick shots as he soars through the city to help a bodega owner find his cat, watching the way the people of Harlem claim him as their own and how they stand up for and protect each other — it’s the quintessential realization of Spider-Man as the people’s hero, and New York City as a city of heroes all on its own. It made me emotional, it made me miss New York City, and it made me long for the day when I can walk the city’s streets again. Plus, you get a cat in a backpack.
GAME WHERE I SPENT THE MOST TIME DOING THINGS OTHER THAN, Y’KNOW, PLAYING THE GAME: PERSONA 5 ROYAL
There are two ways to look at Persona 5 Royal. You could either call it a Japanese role-playing game (JPRG) centered around high schoolers who are granted mysterious powers that allow them to steal the corruption out of the hearts of adults who have lost their way in the world… or you could call it the world’s most complex darts simulator. And who am I to judge which one you choose? I earnestly loved Persona 5 Royal. The characters are charming and immensely likeable, the storyline is completely engrossing, and the gameplay and combat systems are rewarding and challenging. But where the game really shines is in its sheer depth. You can legitimately spend hours around the main missions of the game exploring the game’s version of Tokyo, forging bonds with the game’s characters, hitting the batting cages, or, yes, playing a game of darts. I put 120 hours into Persona, and it felt like a breeze. Like all of the best pieces of entertainment, I felt legitimately sad when the game ended. It might have been a world threatened by vengeful forces hellbent on destroying humanity, but what can I say? It was a world I never wanted to leave.
STEAMIEST “INTRO TO GREEK MYTHOLOGY” LESSON: HADES
Alright, honesty time: if this were a boring, regular-old ranked top ten list — which it’s not! — Hades would still be sitting here at the end/the top. Supergiant Games, which is on just an absolutely killer streak, completely outdid themselves with this one. Hades manages to be effortlessly cool while simultaneously so indicative of the sheer amount of effort and care that went into making it, a feat that is way easier said than done. The game’s method of incremental progression, of slowly reaching further and, in turn, unraveling the stories of the gods, mortals, and creatures that stand between your character Zagreus and his freedom, creates a puzzle box that never stops enticing you to make one more twist to see if you might unlock something new. And the combat is so buttery-smooth. And the character designs, the artwork, the music — Hades is a masterpiece, hands down. And if the quality of the game isn’t enough, the reporting on the positive culture at the studio, should clinch it: Hades is what the future of games deserves to be. Now we just have to earn that future. Onward to 2021!