best of 2020

The 10 Best Video Games of the Year

New classics, new takes on old classics, and New Horizons arrived when we needed them.

Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Publishers
Photo-Illustration: Vulture and Publishers

This year, the video-game industry bore its share of drastic restructuring due to the pandemic and still managed to impress, with small games and blockbusters alike. Whether you’re new to the medium or as engaged as ever, the variety of games that came out was remarkable: We saw the rerelease of a classic nearly lost to time, a game that created community amid quarantine, and the arrival of a new sport, played exclusively on the internet. Together, they offered a steady source of entertainment and connectivity for an isolated world.

10. Blaseball (available online)

Photo: The Game Band

Blaseball isn’t a video game in the traditional sense. Described as “an absurdist fantasy baseball league” by the Paris Review, it requires no consoles or controllers, just an internet connection and a proclivity for immersive theater. Blaseball’s made-up players and increasingly arcane rules are all relayed through statistics and updates made on the official site and on social media. You never actually see gameplay — instead, you “play” by placing bets on the outcome of games (with Blaseball-only currency; there’s no way to spend real money here) or by partaking in what most of us do with any pro sport: talking about it. And Blaseball gives you so much to talk about. In just a few short months, the pretend players have undergone supernatural transformations, gods have been summoned, and a bit of old internet magic has been reborn in the form of a game that replicates the experience of joining a wild Web 1.0 forum. Blaseball may seem impenetrable to casual observers, but it’s a miracle of spontaneous community and online play — the sort of thing we once thought the internet would be full of and now only appears in rare instances.

9. Star Wars: Squadrons (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

The Star Wars abundance in film and television has been accompanied by a strange drought in Star Wars video games — something that Star Wars: Squadrons brings into stark relief. Focused purely on the pleasure of dogfighting in some of the most famous starfighters in pop culture, Squadrons recalls classic Star Wars games like X-Wing and TIE Fighter: It puts players in familiar cockpits and lets them loose. While Squadrons is accompanied by a lean story for easing you into the action, the main appeal is taking your New Republic or Imperial online to challenge others, letting your squad mates know you’ve got someone new in your sights.

8. Yakuza: Like a Dragon (PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Xbox Series X/S)

The Yakuza games are exercises in excess. Each one is part sprawling gangster soap opera, part arcade-style brawler, and part goofy short-story collection. The series is seven games deep, which could be daunting for all but the most committed. Like a Dragon is a soft reboot with a new protagonist in a new town: Ichiban Kasuga, a loyal foot soldier who was left for dead by his crime family. After an 18-year prison stint, he’s forced to work his way back up from the gutter. In a very funny twist, he’s also someone who has played a lot of video games — Like a Dragon’s excuse for changing the game from button-mashy brawler to a turn-based strategy game, simply because that’s how Ichiban imagines them. Like a Dragon walks an unsteady line between comedy and melodrama; it doesn’t always land, but the game ultimately charms, thanks to a genuine warmth and a surprising focus on those who live on a city’s margins.

7. I Am Dead (Nintendo Switch, PC)

In I Am Dead, you play as Morris Lupton, who is, in fact, dead. Being noncorporeal has its perks — mainly a sort of X-ray vision, which allows you to peer inside objects and people’s minds, seeing where those objects have been and what those people are thinking about. As Lupton, you’ll use this power to locate other ghosts. You need them for a job, but that job is beside the point; this game is about getting to know people through what they leave behind, the objects they touched, and the memories of them that others cherish. A warm and humane work of art, I Am Dead blends the empathetic worldview of It’s A Wonderful Life with the macabre whimsy of some of the most endearing game developers working today.

6. Spiritfarer (Google Stadia, macOS, Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

Like The Sims by way of Coco, Spiritfarer has you play a young woman who takes over for Charon, Greek mythology’s ferryman to the afterlife. In your new job, you must find souls and help them get ready to move on before taking them to whatever’s next. You do this by making your boat more livable: You can build a garden, a kitchen, a loom, some rooms. You make your guests comfortable and get to know them. Perhaps in time they’ll tell you about something difficult that happened in their lives, something they don’t quite consider settled. You can help them as you know how, but it’s ultimately up to them to know when they’ve done enough. This is what makes Spiritfarer a wonderful bit of video-game magic: It’s a pure expression of care, through tending to people who are facing what they never imagined — released in a year when it couldn’t be easier to relate.

5. Moon (Nintendo Switch)

Originally released in Japan in 1997, Moon: Remix RPG Adventure was never translated for international audiences. More than 20 years later, Moon has arrived on the Nintendo Switch as a strange artifact from the past that still feels subversive today. In it, you witness a classic fantasy adventure from the perspective of a side character: Your job is to clean up the mess left behind when the so-called Hero comes to town in search of glory. Hero is a loud, clanging brute who leaves monster corpses and a razed landscape everywhere he goes, and the player does what they can to mend, amassing “love” from the souls of dead monsters as they go. A sharp criticism of video-game tropes delivered via loving parody, Moon swaps violence for affection.

4. Kentucky Route Zero (MacOS, Nintendo Switch, PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One)

The tumult of this year did not come without warning. There have been other crises, other flashpoints, and a creeping feeling that here in America, just living has become steadily more terrible. “They invented a new kind of debt,” a character tells you in Kentucky Route Zero, a surrealist adventure whose five parts have been steadily released over the past nine years. You play as Conway, a trucker trying to make a simple delivery that effectively ruins his life. Conway’s journey leads him to a secret circular highway only available to those who know how to find it, taking the player on a uniquely American journey of magical decay. Kentucky Route Zero is a game of deep affection for those just trying to get by, and of deeper sorrow, the kind you feel when your story ends just as it’s getting started.

3. Final Fantasy VII Remake (PlayStation 4)

Final Fantasy VII Remake took what would’ve been a surefire hit anyway — a modern remake of one of the most beloved role-playing games ever made — and decided to do something stranger. Twenty-three years after it was first released, a sci-fi epic about ecoterrorists thrust into an existential battle for the planet has become a meditation on fandom and nostalgia, as the game’s gaze slowly turns toward the player. Throughout, characters seem to recognize this plot has played out before, pausing to ask, “Does it really have to be this way?” Both a loving remake and a bold deconstruction, FFVII Remake gave its players what they wanted and more, concluding with a ballsy promise: There’s more to come — you haven’t seen anything yet.

2. Hades (Nintendo Switch, PC, MacOS)

Hades is the video game equivalent of Madeline Miller’s novel Song of Achilles, a shockingly new take on Greek myth. It reworks the familiar button-mashy action and live-die-repeat rhythms of old-school games, creating a world where failure is expected, not punished. You play as Zagreus, the prince of the underworld, stubbornly determined to escape your father’s realm and learn why your mother, Persephone, left shortly after your birth. Every time you fail (and you will, dozens of times), you learn a bit more about your family and its history. Hades slowly weaves a tale of one family’s dysfunction in a way that makes this feel immediate and fresh.

1. Animal Crossing: New Horizons (Nintendo Switch)

“The game of the pandemic” is probably not the distinction its creators were hoping for, but Animal Crossing: New Horizons quickly became inseparable from the circumstances under which it arrived. Like the spontaneous Instagram Live concerts that began to crop up as many of us self-isolated, Animal Crossing became a surprise place to host and visit friends, an alternate expression of gentle community-building. In New Horizons, every player starts at the same place: on a desert island, full of friendly anthropomorphic animals, with all the time in the world to shape it into an ideal small town. The end goal is goodwill and good vibes, both for the game’s animal villagers and the real-world friends you invite to share your slice of paradise.

Other 2020 Video Game Highlights

Throughout 2020, our critic maintained a “Best Video Games of the Year (So Far)” list. Many of those selections appear above. Here are the rest of the games that stood out to him this year:

A beautiful experiment, Dreams asks players what they want to see in a video game, and then gives them the tools to bring it to life. Versatile for creatives and meme-makers without being intimidating, Dreams boasts an impressive range — shooters, adventure games, puzzles, platformers, they’re all possible. Don’t know where to begin? Games made and recommended by the developers at Media Molecule will show you what’s possible. Don’t want to make? That’s fine — you’ll never run out of things to play.

The summer’s surprise hit, Fall Guys takes its cues from game shows like Wipeout or American Ninja Warrior, except even more ridiculous. Dress up your plump little Fall Guy (think Minions but less obnoxious) and connect to the internet to compete in a “show” comprising several mini-games chosen at random. Some are races that involve navigating absurd obstacle courses, others are competitions that have you outlasting or screwing over another team of Fall Guys. All are very silly and, ingeniously, fun to watch if you aren’t even playing. Which can happen at any moment — every round, losing players are knocked out and the stakes are raised. Fall Guys feels like a party for goofballs, and in a year that feels short on parties and goofballs, it’s an absolute winner.

I did not expect one of my favorite games this year to be a comedy about nepotism. In Good Job!, you play the boss’s kid, given a hard hat and told to work your way up to the top of a nondescript office building. As you advance through the floors, you are given tasks to complete … badly. Plug in a projector and create chaos running the cable through the office. Demolish a wall like the Kool-Aid man while trying to round-up employees late for a meeting. Move shipping containers across a warehouse while destroying everything else. Good Job! Made me laugh harder than a video game has in a long time by figuring out how to turn The Office into a killer puzzle game.

If you’ve ever played a Picross game, then you know about the pleasure of nonograms: a puzzle where a blank grid is notated with clues that tell you how many cells should be colored or blank in a given row. Complete one, and it forms a picture. Nonograms are among the most soothing logic puzzles you can play, and Murder By Numbers pairs them with a self-aware story about actors on corny detective show having to solve … a real murder mystery. Cheesy in all the right ways, Murder By Numbers is a perfect entry point into the vast selection of nonogram games. Finish it, and you might not even need the excuse of a story to start your next one.

Nioh 2 (PlayStation 4)

There’s a Bruce Lee quote about being like water — formless, shapeless, something that fills the space it’s put in. Nioh 2 is a game where fighting monsters feels like being water. An action game set in a fantasy version of Japan’s Sengoku Era that casts players as a demon hunter caught in a struggle between warlords, Nioh 2 throws you in the deep end and challenges you to dazzle your way out of it. There’s an overwhelming array of weapons and skills to specialize in, but as you begin to get more familiar with your tools, you also become more expressive. Nioh 2 is difficult in a way that rewards creativity, making it one of the most satisfying games to master.

Ori is an adorable little forest spirit who’s made a new friend: Ku, an Owl. When the two are separated by a storm, an adventure begins. Gorgeously animated, Ori and the Will of the Wisps takes an earnest, heart-on-its-sleeve approach to the Metroid-style exploration game. As Ori, players will slowly explore a sprawling map, gaining new powers that allow Ori to go places he couldn’t before, and confront frightening new foes hiding within. Ori doesn’t bring much new to its well-worn genre, but there is pleasure in its sure-footed design, and its beautiful world.

The Paper Mario series is heavily invested in the inner lives of characters you spend other Mario games stomping. What are Goombas like? Do Bob-Ombs have feelings? Is Bowser just misunderstood? The Origami King is no exception, a friendly, puzzle-filled adventure that’s always to surprise you with strange, paper-themed gags. A sudden musical-theater performance, an abandoned shogun theme park, an evil box of colored pencils — half the joy is seeing what’s next. The other half is a steady stream of puns and gentle existential horror, as two-dimensional characters made of paper contemplate the nature of their existence and literal lack of depth. Like a cartoon light enough for children and clever enough for adults, Paper Mario: The Origami King is perfect, all-ages leisure, always charming and eager to please.

Photo: Mossmouth/BlitWorks

Sometimes the best way to make a sequel is by finding new ways to be a complete jerk to everyone who loved you the first time around. Spelunky 2 is functionally the same game as its predecessor, a simple game where you run and jump through caves (this time, they’re on the moon) in an effort to find what lies at the bottom. What made the first Spelunky compelling was that this journey was nearly impossible, failure came fast and often — but success always felt achievable. Spelunky 2 replicates that feeling, but with a completely new set of booby-trapped dominoes that threaten to cascade and cause your demise at any moment. Failure in Spelunky 2 is often surprising and hilarious, the latest in a series of gags to see how the game will pull one over on you this time. Unless, of course, you win.

Beat-em-up arcade games are mostly a relic of the past, a reminder of an era when games were designed to be fun, but also to separate you from your quarters. Outside of nostalgia, there’s little reason to revisit the genre, but Streets of Rage 4 is a pretty good argument against abandoning it altogether. Impressive in its purist approach — you will find few of the trappings of modern video games here — Streets of Rage 4 is just a finely tuned game about being a rad cartoon character that hits a lot of other cartoon characters. Its action feels great, and a simple-but-versatile arsenal of moves give you a perfect idea of how you can navigate and control the space around your character. In keeping with the arcade experience, Streets of Rage 4 is best experienced with a friend, online or right next to you.

The most relatable game on this list, Tokyo Mirage Sessions #FE is about trying to be a pop star by day and a demon slayer by night. A re-release of an obscure title from the little-loved Wii U’s catalog, 2020 brings Tokyo Mirage Sessions to a stage big enough to appreciate it properly. It’s an earnest story about Tsubasa Oribe, a girl who enters an American Idol-esque competition, only to find that it was co-opted by demons called Mirages, and that her innate talent lets her transform, Power Rangers-style, into a warrior that can defeat them. Completely ridiculous and equally committed, Tokyo Mirage Sessions merges bubblegum pop and satisfying strategy for one of the most tonally unique games you’ll play this year.

The 10 Best Video Games of the Year