best of 2020

The Best Video Games of the Year (So Far)

Photo-Illustration: Vulture, Square Enix Games, Media Molecule, Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games Cardboard Computer, Nintendo,

Unlike the movie or live performance or … nearly every other … business, the video game industry has made it through the first few months of 2020 with its output only mildly impacted by the coronavirus pandemic. That’s partly due to coincidence — there’s a new generation of PlayStation and Xbox consoles scheduled to launch this holiday season, and that typically means a fallow first half of the year. But while it’s anyone’s guess what happens over the next few months, the last few have already brought plenty to enjoy. Here are some of the most interesting games to arrive in this highly unusual time. Hopefully they bring you some pleasure in a bad season.

The communal video game experience of the year, Animal Crossing: New Horizons was uniquely primed to be a hit. It had been seven years since the last game in the franchise — 2013’s New Leaf for the Nintendo 3DS. It was the first entry on the wildly popular Nintendo Switch. And it arrived just before the nation entered lockdown in response to a viral pandemic. As a low-stakes game about building, and then living in, your own community of friendly anthropomorphic animals, the game was quickly positioned as a balm for trying times. But it was also the first Animal Crossing where sharing your experience via social media was possible, making it more than just a game, but another place where culture can happen on a large scale.

Dreams (PlayStation 4)
$32

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.

A game that begins as a faithful recreation before slowly becoming something more ostentatious, Final Fantasy VII Remake takes a seminal role-playing game from 1997 and turns it into a rumination on fandom. Re-telling a story about eco-terrorist thrust into a conflict larger than they imagined while introducing a new mystery, Final Fantasy VII Remake is at times confounding but always provocative. It rounds this out with wonderfully complex combat, brainy but action-packed, a dense way of fighting for a dense story full of twists. Final Fantasy VII Remake could have just played the hits, and instead tried to do something stranger.

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.

Video games as a medium are poorly suited for immediacy — development is too long a process, and far too labor-intensive, to react to current events. Kentucky Route Zero, however,  has always felt of the moment. A surreal, Twin Peaks-esque narrative game about Conway, a delivery man trying to drop off a package via a secret highway, Kentucky Route Zero was released sporadically in parts beginning in 2011 before concluding in January of this year. Every part of Conway’s journey, old parts and new, feel specifically suited for right now. This is a game where characters learn that someone invented “a new kind of debt,” where a whiskey distillery ages its spirit in coffins, where everything seems off in a way that’s likely bad but no one can really do anything about it. There is no game quite like Kentucky Route Zero, and we will be contemplating its story for a long time.

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.

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.

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 Best Video Games of the Year (So Far)