When the pandemic hit, we all said goodbye to seeing friends, attending concerts, touring museums, eating at restaurants, sitting in movie theaters, and everything else beyond the walls of our apartments and homes that can’t accommodate CDC guidelines.
With the outside world lost, we collectively looked for a world inside. And there, as if purposefully constructed as an answer to this question we found ourselves asking, sat Animal Crossing. Millions of people who’d dabbled in games on their phones remembered what it was like to sit on a couch and play games on a television. With infinite time and few distractions, they ordered a Nintendo Switch. They began to play games again, not as a workday distraction but as an after-work hobby.
For our 2020 guide to the best entertainment of the year, Polygon is counting down our top 10 with a collection of essays along with our full Top 50 list. Throughout the month, we’ll be looking back on the year with special videos, essays, and surprises!
2020 didn’t make games normal; that process has been happening over the past decades. Games filled prime-time television, with Call of Duty commercials running during the NBA playoffs, and CBS sitcoms making references to World of Warcraft. Millions of people who would never identify as “gamers” began playing idle games for hours each day. Then came Fortnite, tying together mobile free-to-play games and blockbuster quality, and the die was cast.
This year simply cemented that normalcy status. It’s like when prestige TV filled cable channels; suddenly, “I don’t even watch TV” transitioned from a brag to an embarrassment. Now, everybody’s expected to care at least a little about games, lest they be mistaken for pop culture troglodytes.
By the summer of this year, it was evident that Animal Crossing had become a gateway. Anecdotally speaking, this year we at Polygon saw our nongaming friends spread across the medium. Literary pals took a trip on Kentucky Route Zero. Theater friends experimented with virtual reality via The Under Presents. Mario Kart, Mario Odyssey, and Mario Party reminded people why they loved the medium back in the day, and Hades had other folks asking why they’d even fallen off this habit. Then came the new consoles, and the corresponding marketing strike teams, vacuuming all these new potential players into the hype cycle. In a year of bad news, it felt good to look forward to anything — even if it was just a slightly better box to put beneath our TVs.
Some newcomers will return to old hobbies, but I believe most folks will keep games in their lives. In turn, the games community must evolve so that newcomers want to stay. So that they feel welcome.
Some gamers still express a defensiveness about the medium: that games aren’t taken seriously, that they’re not perceived as high art, not shown the respect of books or music or film. They see games like Cyberpunk 2077 and The Last of Us Part 2 as “real” video games that will pull the form closer to respectability, and that mobile and free-to-play games, games with color and joy, will propel the medium into a cultural ghetto. Of course, they’re wrong.
Video games are too many things to be confined by some notion of universal relevance. Games can be adventures and puzzles and release valves for our anxiety and frustration. They can be tools for communication and experimental spaces for self-discovery. They can be sports. They can be dangerous, encouraging you to gamble away your paycheck and consume every millisecond of your free time. Or, you know, just provide a five-minute break from the night shift. They can be art; they can be fart.
Video games are the medium that combines all other mediums, blending art and film and music and everything else into one impossible-to-summarize concoction. Not just a creative medium, but a creative unifier. And for the video game space to keep growing, we as audience and creators must be the same, welcoming everybody under the tent, whether they prefer raising animals in Dwarf Fortress or FarmVille, to create something undefinable.
—Chris Plante, editor-in-chief of Polygon
How the Polygon top 50 list works
Over the past month, the Polygon staff voted, debated, and resigned itself to the series of compromises that is our top 50 games of 2020. Any video games that were released in 2020, updated in 2020, or achieved renewed cultural relevance in 2020 are eligible for this list. You may notice one major absence: We did not have enough time with Cyberpunk 2077 before assembling this list. It will be eligible for our 2021 top 50.
Kind of bugs and kind of ’snax! When I first was tasked with playing Bugsnax, I thought, OK, sure. These things are kind of cute, and I do like games that involve collecting critters and characters. Not even 20 minutes into the game, I became obsessed. While it’s not the technological achievement for next-gen consoles that people may have been expecting with its PlayStation 5 launch-day release, it’s just good fun.
The characters are enjoyable, the music is great, and the story is actually pretty thrilling. I love Bugsnax, and I genuinely hope people can make the time to play this short creature-catcher.
49. No Man’s Sky
No Man’s Sky has been a success story of online games since 2018, when Hello Games launched the enormous overhaul known as Next. The universe has kept evolving since, and this year, the studio added abandoned space freighters and Origins, a massive update that tosses storms, new worlds, sandworms, and more diversity into the game.
The space exploration game is in fantastic shape, and sets a vibrant backdrop for one of the most enthusiastic communities in gaming. Players can build a space base, learn alien languages, explore an endless array of stunning worlds, run a freighter business, work as a trader, pick up mercenary jobs, and snap photos of alien vistas. No Man’s Sky abandons the hard science of other space sims, and has grown into an extraordinary experience.
Helltaker only takes about an hour to play, but it’s a worthwhile hour of your life if you like cute demon girls or puzzle games.
The free Steam game offers several challenges presented in the style of a simple block-pushing puzzle, with some twists thrown in. You’ll have to collect demon girls as you descend through hell, winning over their hearts while also solving the brain-rattling puzzles. The puzzles themselves aren’t too hard, but they are just hard enough to make you squint and furrow your brow.
The art style is delicious and so are the French crepes featured in this game. If a larger version of Helltaker drops in the future, I’ll be first in line, offering my wallet.
47. Doom Eternal
Doom took top honors in our 2016 game of the year deathmatch with an incredibly confident reimagining of the classic shooter franchise that started it all. And after some delays, its sequel, Doom Eternal, finally made its way to players on March 20, just a week into when most of us began quarantining. And while another March 20 release came to define much of our collective quarantine — that would be Animal Crossing: New Horizons — Doom Eternal offered players something besides tranquility and the allure of an island escape: It let you blast demons into chunks and also, in between that, jump around a murder playground.
Whether or not those interstitial murder playgrounds were successful seems to be the litmus test for whether or not you enjoyed Doom Eternal or really loved Doom Eternal. For me, it was a welcome release valve from the misery of 2020. Except the Marauder fight. Screw that dude.
46. Super Mega Baseball 3
Super Mega Baseball feels like the little video game franchise that could, chugging along over the past six years to become one of the best stories in the sports genre. And with the new franchise mode in this year’s Super Mega Baseball 3, developer Metalhead Software put the spotlight on the stories of its beloved baseball bozos. I got to know my entire roster intimately over the course of my inaugural season running the Sawteeth, and I felt heartbroken at having to make the tough choices required to put the team in a position to win the championship. Who knew that a goofy-looking indie sports game with players featuring names like Grease Veterano and Pex Flext would turn the emotional screws like this?
The Super Mega Baseball series has always been bursting with charm, and the franchise mode smartly honors and capitalizes on that emotional connection. It’s a terrific addition to what is now one of the finest sports gaming franchises around.
45. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit
I could easily run off a long list of ways Mario Kart Live fails its legacy. Things we’ve taken for granted for almost 30 years, like the camera placement, or the collision when you run into or drive through other racers. And it’s not the most practical experience — it doesn’t work outside, or on thick carpet, or in small rooms. And multiplayer gets expensive fast.
But when everything works the way it’s supposed to, there’s magic here, seeing the kart change speeds and drift, and the visuals react as you play. It’s confusing, really, how well developer Velan Studios fuses augmented reality footage with racing that feels so familiar. It may all be somewhat unwieldy and impractical — and it’s really more of a toy than a game — but the excitement of that first moment when it works is hard to beat.
Available for Nintendo Switch
I treasure every Amanita Design game I play because each one is a dazzling work of imagination, crafted in painstaking, loving detail. The Czech studio’s adventure games are full of 2D artwork so evocative as to transport you into their bizarre worlds, and Amanita’s latest one, the puzzle game Creaks, is no different.
Creaks unfolds in a massive subterranean structure hewn out of colossal stalagmites, a mansion whose every room tells the story of the eldritch beings that occupy it. You play as an anxious everyman exploring this mystifying place, trying to get to the bottom of the forces that are terrorizing its inhabitants. Each room is its own puzzle box, and light is your only ally as you try to use the mechanical monsters to your advantage in making your way through.
Amanita generates a remarkable variety of puzzles from a few simple concepts, rules, and interactions. And although there’s no hint system, the unorthodox original score from Scottish musician Joe Acheson (aka Hidden Orchestra) provides musical clues that let you know you’re on the right track. The incredible synthesis of artwork, sound, puzzle design, and animation in Creaks conveys the game’s story without a single line of dialogue or text. Don’t miss it.
43. Call of Duty: Warzone
Call of Duty always seemed like it would be ripe for free-to-play success, and when the battle royale genre first caught fire in 2017, it all seemed like a perfect fit. So on the one hand, it’s a little surprising that it took Activision until 2020 to make it happen. On the other hand, the quality of Warzone made it well worth the wait. Blackout, Call of Duty’s earlier stab at a battle royale mode, proved that players won’t stick with a game they aren’t interested in, no matter what series name is attached. But Infinity Ward’s take, Warzone, shines.
After a rough first couple of months, the developer turned Warzone into one of the most fun, fast-paced, and interesting battle royale shooters. The game’s unique money system, which lets players purchase upgrades or their own custom loadouts, helps give each match its own mini objectives outside of just killing opponents, and the fantastic base of Infinity Ward’s Modern Warfare 2019 gunplay and mechanics keeps every shootout fun.
The future of Warzone, unlike that of most games on this list, is up in the air. After eight months of impressive updates and improvements from Infinity Ward, this week the game will begin adding content from Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War. If the transition is a success, it will set up both Warzone and the Call of Duty franchise for years of success as one of the premier battle royale and multiplayer games. If not, well … there’s always next year?
42. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
Yakuza: Like a Dragon reinvents the Yakuza series. The long-running franchise ditches its main character and combat style after more than a decade, but it manages to keep its perfect blend of stupidity and heart.
Like a Dragon dances between a heartfelt need for family and a realistic setting with silly Japanese role-playing abilities. Sure, Ichiban Kasuga goes through the emotional wringer with his longtime Yakuza family at the start of the game, but he also pulls a bat from the concrete like it’s the sword in the stone — something the game recognizes with silly Dragon Quest-like music and knowing comments from his allies.
It’s that goofiness that propels me forward in Like a Dragon. I’ve encountered toughs that spend their days doing diaper role-play — and now I can summon them in battle. I’ve watched my homeless party member, Nanba, deliver a beautiful speech about what it means to be homeless in his world and how he got there. And moments later, I watched Nanba use a special ability where he scatters bird seed on a group of enemies, summoning pigeons to attack them. That’s what Yakuza: Like a Dragon does — it reels you in with its outlandish stupidity, and before you know it, you find yourself really caring what happens to Ichiban and his band of miscreants.
41. In Other Waters
At first glance, In Other Waters looks like the slick map UI from some open-world blockbuster, except that the map interface is basically the entire game. As an AI of mysterious provenance stuck in the diving suit of an interstellar explorer, you help guide your human partner through a verdant alien ocean world. You use the map UI to navigate her through unique ecologies as she catalogs each organism’s particular characteristics. You won’t be able to actually see any of these aliens yourself, however: The closest you’ll get is her rough field-biologist sketches, and even then, only as a reward for extensively studying each individual organism.
Instead, you must rely on her descriptions, and luckily, they are exquisite. You’ll not only get a vivid description of the organisms’ appearance and behavior, but the way in which they fit into the broader ecosystem. Imagination is In Other Waters’ most powerful mechanic. On the map interface you might see a bunch of little orange dots zipping through wafting yellow chains, but you know these are really towering kelplike forests, teeming with strange, alien life. The synthy soundtrack certainly helps lull you into a state of relaxed contemplation as you analyze a discarded shell and wonder what creature left it behind. Eventually, the deliberate cataloging of species makes way for a grander story of ecological disaster and human hubris that’s as affecting as it is relevant.
Available for macOS, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC
40. Wide Ocean, Big Jacket
Developed by indie game studio Turnfollow, Wide Ocean, Big Jacket plays like a short story — a contained collection of moments that fills out a few hours of playtime. It’s a real delight, dropping into this stranger’s world; when I wrote about it in March, I said that the campground where it all takes place feels like a snow globe. Of course, there is no snow here. Wide Ocean, Big Jacket is a summer adventure, an ordinary camping trip between four quirky, well-realized characters.
The story Turnfollow tells is one that hits many different emotional notes in a way that feels succinct and perfected; there’s warmth and awkward hilarity, with heartbreaking sadness and relief.
39. League of Legends
It may seem surprising to see a game originally released in 2009 on a list of 2020’s best, but it’s true. League of Legends has been a competitive powerhouse and one of the most popular games in the world for years now, and 2020 may have been its best season ever.
For those who may not have kept track, League of Legends is a competitive multiplayer online battle arena game, and developer Riot Games releases a patch every two weeks. This means that the meta of what’s good and bad in the game changes constantly. And 2020 was a standout in that nearly every balance decision Riot made helped make the game more fun. During the entire season, you could play any one of the game’s 140 champions — including a few fantastic new ones — and no one on your team would bat an eye. Matches were fun without being too long or short, each of the game’s five roles felt like it mattered, and the professional esports scene was as exciting and competitive as it’s ever been.
A game managing to even be played 11 years after its release is impressive, but League finding the best version of itself this year is truly something special.
Available for macOS and Windows PC
After playing dozens of mobile RPGs with gacha elements over the years, Arknights is the one that has locked me in with its gameplay, music, story, and character design. The mobile tower defense game tosses an occasional brain-twisting challenge while letting me fawn over the cool animal-eared characters decked out in techwear.
I won’t sugarcoat it. It is a gacha game, which means you’ll have to roll the dice when you want new characters. But Arknights is fairly generous with varying methods to obtain them, and from playing the story and occasional events, you’ll earn a strong roster quickly. The game doesn’t require a constant grind to progress, and there isn’t much locked behind gacha-gated characters. Just push your brain cells together and figure out which characters you need to place down to win.
37. Desperados 3
“Tactical stealth” isn’t exactly a booming genre, but developer Mimimi seems to have the format perfectly dialed in. After the success of Shadow Tactics in 2016, the team took those same design tenets — small squads of specialized units tackling armies of soldiers with precision and quick-saving — to the Wild West with Desperados 3.
Desperados 3 changes very little about what made Shadow Tactics great. It’s still an isometric stealth game filled with vision cones and seemingly impossible odds. But small tweaks, like being able to cue up your entire squad’s next actions to all play out at the same time, make it a much more satisfying experience than its predecessor.
The adventure is made up of stellar levels that look more like dioramas brought to life, each filled with charm and detail, from the rainy streets of New Orleans to the dusty byways of a sun-beaten desert town. Picking these levels apart, piece by piece, using each of your squad members’ specialized abilities, is tremendously satisfying, like a sudoku puzzle with more knife throwing. Fans of the classic Commandos series will feel right at home here.
36. Paradise Killer
Paradise Killer is a welcome onslaught of swagger and style. Set on a getaway island full of immortal hot deities, the open-world murder mystery asks you to enact justice however you see fit. Question suspects, inspect clues, go over alibis, and maybe start a fling or two — all in the name of truth. Even if you walk away unsure of the final verdict, the bangin’ city pop and jazz-inspired soundtrack makes turning over every rock on the island a genuine joy.
Available for macOS, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC
35. Dirt 5
When Microsoft and Sony launch new consoles, they usually have first-party motorsports titles alongside them to showcase the hardware’s visual fidelity and processing firepower. But in 2020, that task fell to Dirt 5, a third-party arcade-style racer full of last-second dive bombs into the corners of fantasy race courses, and very light on driving clean laps or museumlike presentation.
Dirt 5 is the perfect racer for new consoles. Gorgeous, muddy, aggressive, and fast as hell, it quite literally explodes into action, with ultra-fast loading times that have you blowing through the career mode like it’s a bag of potato chips. Nolan North and Troy Baker star as elite foes in a fictitious racing series that takes place on a frozen-over East River in New York City one day and underneath the arches of a Roman aqueduct the next. But the real heroes are the cars, whose handling especially reaches a new understanding through the haptics of the PS5’s DualSense controller.
Dirt 5 is the third chapter of a rally racing series that has embraced form (the procedurally generated courses of 2017’s Dirt 4), function (2019’s demanding, technical Dirt Rally 2.0), and now, flat-out muscle. Unlike other iterative racing or sports titles, it doesn’t overwrite the success of its predecessors; it makes the racing fan appreciate and return to them as distinct experiences. The Xbox Series X may have launched without a new Forza, and the PS5 doesn’t have a Gran Turismo yet, but Codemasters was more than up to the job for both consoles.
34. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 and 2
The game’s been out for three months, and I still can’t quite believe they actually pulled it off.
The first few Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater titles are rightfully remembered as kicking off a cultural phenomenon at the turn of the millennium. Vicarious Visions’ remake manages to capture the rebellious spirit of those seminal games — thanks in large part to their punk/ska soundtracks — and, more importantly, the feel of how they played. My thumbs have lost some dexterity over the past two decades, and the left one seems to develop calluses more quickly from furious D-pad action, but the ol’ muscle memory still survives 20 years later (even though I’m surely not coming close to my old high scores).
It’s a joy to see faithful re-creations of classic levels like Warehouse and School II in glorious 4K HDR. And it’s a ton of fun to tear them up with middle-aged versions of Tony Hawk, Rodney Mullen, Eric Koston, Elissa Steamer, and the other skaters I remember from my teenage years (plus some diverse newcomers). Somehow, Vicarious Visions walked the tightrope of reinvigorating these classics without losing what made them special: the brilliant level design, the responsive controls, and the thrill of landing one more trick to extend your combo past the two-minute timer.
33. Paper Mario: The Origami King
I had never played a Paper Mario game before Paper Mario: The Origami King. I had always preferred the aesthetic of Yoshi’s Woolly World and Yoshi’s Crafted World, islands filled with knitted and crocheted characters that very closely aligned with my personal hobbies. I’d never really been a paper craft kind of gal, until this year, and now The Origami King also perfectly aligns with my aesthetic. Either way, I’m glad I picked it up, because it’s a pure, paper delight. All the details feel perfect — the way stickers peel off, the jagged edges of torn paper, the sounds of paper ruffling.
Though I found the battle system frustrating at times, it was never too agonizing to make me want to stop playing. The Origami King is both hilarious and sad, and everything I wanted to feel in a Mario world.
Available for Nintendo Switch
32. The Solitaire Conspiracy
From Thomas Was Alone and Volume studio Bithell Games, The Solitaire Conspiracy reimagines a repetitive, thankless game into a set of puzzling challenges that feels like one-player chess. Built off the Streets and Alleys version of the card game (versus the version you used to play for free on Windows), The Solitaire Conspiracy rewards contemplation and patience as you restock decks using suit-based abilities. There’s no ticking clock, and only a move count if you choose, but the absence of an “undo” function makes every choice count, maximizing pressure in any mode.
There’s an overarching spy plot that strings along the gameplay, putting the player in the thick of a Mission: Impossible-like scenario with Kinda Funny’s Greg Miller as the ultimate adversary. It’s … not the good part of the game. The bliss of The Solitaire Conspiracy is that it’s perfect solitary play, at a moment when sprawling words, connectivity, and relentless competition seem to be everything. Bithell has challenged players to compete against the AI, and then against their own limitations. And it’s grander than a brainless mobile title; a sleek design and a score by Jon Everist that’s worthy of Hans Zimmer become paramount to building tension. Every second, you hope to God you’re 10 moves ahead, and that the next card flip puts you on the path to success. When it inevitably does not, starting over and diving back in is, vitally, just as fun.
Available for macOS and Windows PC
31. Ghost of Tsushima
The story of Ghost of Tsushima takes the idea of the honor-bound samurai trope and lets the player explore the limits of the archetype. It isn’t long until the narrative tests the foundations and forms cracks in its design. Becoming the titular ghost that ultimately saves Tsushima is a haunting and necessary evil that slowly erodes the identity of the main character and the necessity of the samurai code.
Jin Sakai’s transformation is a slow one, the effects of which ricochet off everyone on the island he’s trying to save. The consequences of becoming a specter that haunts his enemies also instill fears into the very people he’s trying to save. The final moments of the game don’t let the player revel in a job well done, but rather question whether the cost of succeeding was worth the path to victory.
Available for PlayStation 4
30. Ori and the Will of the Wisps
2015’s Ori and the Blind Forest was a beautifully animated 2D platformer that managed to match its sumptuous visuals with great mechanics and a deep, often difficult campaign, so expectations were understandably high for this year’s sequel. And after five years in development, Moon Studios returned with Ori and the Will of the Wisps, another beautifully animated 2D platformer that manages to match its sumptuous visuals with great mechanics and a deep, often difficult campaign.
That familiarity is both a comfort and a cost for Ori’s latest outing. Moon’s standard of excellence is no longer a surprise, and the competitive landscape for beautifully animated Metroidvanias has changed substantially. But while all of that changes the context into which the game was received, it doesn’t (or at least, it shouldn’t) diminish the quality of the work on display here. Which is, in case this wasn’t clear already, excellent. And sure, while the core of the game remains terrific, and largely familiar, there is something new here: a surprisingly moving story that I will admit now, at the end of this blurb, made me cry.
29. Murder by Numbers
Murder mystery picross game. Murder mystery picross game!! Murder mystery picross game that’s also a visual novel in 1980s Hollywood?! On its surface, Murder by Numbers is obviously made for me, but still I was worried — I had never done picross before.
The puzzle game involves filling in a certain number of squares in a grid to create a facsimile of an image. Each row and column tells you the number of squares that can be filled in. I’m not a terribly numbers-oriented person, and when my number-panicked brain looked at this board, I saw sudoku, even though picross doesn’t require math, just counting. I was worried I wouldn’t have The Stuff to solve these puzzles. But Murder by Numbers built up my confidence, and before I knew it, I was playing in normal mode, and only checking for errors … well, sometimes.
Picross expert and Polygon comics editor Susana Polo also enjoyed the game, but said that for picross veterans it’s missing a couple quality-of-life features, like displaying a count of squares as you’re highlighting them.
The conceit of the game is that a broken, amnesiac robot named Scout wakes up in a junkyard, and goes looking for someone to help him figure out his mysterious past. He lands on Honor Mizrahi, an actress who stars in the TV show Murder Miss Terri — not in the titular Miss Terri role. Scout can scan an environment for clues and reconstruct them in his visual database — which means, I get to do that via picross. I gotta say, the visual novel parts of the game are delightful and all, but nothing is as fun as when I discover a new puzzle and settle in for a thrilling round.
—Simone de Rochefort
Available for Nintendo Switch and Windows PC
28. Destiny 2: Beyond Light
Every year, Destiny 2 reminds the world that it still has the best gameplay of any shooter out there. This year, Bungie continued its seasonal model with ups and downs ranging from barren periods like Season of the Worthy to more engaging ones like Season of Arrivals. But as always, Destiny 2’s new expansion is what has players buzzing again.
Beyond Light added what feels like the biggest destination to date; a new raid; a bunch of new weapons; and Stasis, a whole new brand of superpowers. This is Bungie’s first real attempt at adding a new element to the game: ice. And while Stasis certainly came with some frustrations — most notably, in the game’s multiplayer mode — it’s undeniable that Stasis feels like a completely new toolset in Destiny.
Destiny 2 also went through a transformation this year, with Bungie removing a good chunk of its content. But as much as it stings, that too made the old franchise feel fresh again. With Bungie ramping up how quickly it tackles issues — releasing numerous patches in only a few short weeks — Destiny 2 feels like it’s in a new era. And with two more expansions already announced, Destiny fans have a lot to look forward to in the future.
27. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
It’s rare that I’m caught off guard by Nintendo. The company tends not to tuck valuable narrative details in places I’m not expecting to look. It’s fair to assume that necessary canon won’t be found in games where beloved Nintendo characters might be romping around with raving Rabbids or in the anything-goes world of a new Smash Bros. title. However, with the Breath of the Wild storyline, I’m not sure where Nintendo is going to surprise me next.
I wasn’t expecting a rare sequel to a Zelda game to get announced last year during E3, and I definitely wasn’t prepared for a pseudo-prequel in this year’s Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. The hack-and-slash formula adopted from Koei Tecmo’s usual brawler titles is an unexpected backdrop for key details in the Breath of the Wild backstory. It’s an odd place for narrative nuggets to exist, as I imagine many players might dismiss the game as a simple spinoff. But Age of Calamity has been one of my favorite and most surprising games of the year. Not only did I really enjoy the Koei Tecmo formula with a Hyrulian twist, but the story that came along with it was as grand as I would expect from any standard Zelda title.
Available for Nintendo Switch
26. Streets of Rage 4
The brawler — once a staple of arcades — has largely fallen out of favor, it’s fair to say. And so perhaps it’s fitting that this return to form is the latest entry in one of the genre’s biggest franchises. The Streets of Rage series was instrumental in defining the Sega Genesis as a more mature console, with a cartoonish vision of ’90s urban violence and a soundtrack straight out of a dance club. Over the course of three installments, the series seared its way into our collective memories and then … disappeared. For 26 years. Which is, when you stop to think about it, actually wild.
So all eyes were on the trio of development studios working on this numbered sequel. And they didn’t make a great first impression — when the game first popped up, the character sprites looked big and chunky, the new hand-drawn aesthetic took some time to get used to, and the music in the first trailer, well … it didn’t inspire confidence. So imagine my surprise when I learned that Streets of Rage 4 is really it. The music stands up to the best in the series; the gameplay has been modernized just enough to keep it interesting, while not overcomplicating the simplicity of the format; and those hand-drawn graphics? They’re perfect. I honestly don’t know what I was thinking.
Sometimes change is hard, but it’s a testament to the work of developers Dotemu, Lizardcube, and Guard Crush Games that they managed to dust off Streets of Rage after 26 years and still make it look easy.
25. Hardspace: Shipbreaker
It’s not hard to find a science fiction video game that focuses on stories of war or discovery. So instead of centering Hardspace: Shipbreaker on rugged heroes or new frontiers, Blackbird Interactive made a game about what technological progress left behind: old, decaying spaceships and the “cutters” who take them apart, piece by piece. It’s a thankless job: Just getting into space incurs an astronomical amount of debt that you’ll spend the rest of the game paying off by salvaging as many valuable ship parts as you can, as quickly as possible.
You’ll do that with your handy cutter tool, which allows you to slice most any piece of a spaceship in two. Then you can use your grapple to grab the pieces and nudge them toward the furnace (in zero gravity, a little push goes a long way). Though you’re aiming to work fast, you also need to be extraordinarily careful: one wrong cut, and you’ll nick a fuel line. If you’re unlucky, that can start a chain reaction that blows up the engines, or even starts a core meltdown. But just because you’ve been incinerated doesn’t mean the game is over. You’ll quickly be cloned, and charged for the convenience — another day older and deeper in debt.
Available for Windows PC
On the surface, Spiritfarer is a resource management game. You have limited space on your ferry, and you’ve got to find a place for your flour mill and ore refinery among all the houses. The rotating cast of boat guests each have their own desires, from craving fried chicken to confronting a giant sea dragon that haunts their dreams. And it’s up to you to feed them and hug them and keep them happy! It’s very rewarding to get to know them and become invested in their happiness.
Which is where Spiritfarer really gets you. It’s a relaxing game, and finding new ingredients or harvesting wool is never stressful. But that doesn’t mean the game is without intensity. All of the fetch quests and conversations are building to you helping a friend find peace and pass into the afterlife. It’s devastating! You might not get emotionally attached to every character, but when you do (I’m actively tearing up thinking about Alice the hedgehog), letting them go to their final rest is a deeply moving experience. It’s sad, but in an emotionally cleansing way, like watching a familiar movie that you know makes you bawl.
Available for Google Stadia, Linux, macOS, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Windows PC, and Xbox One
23. Demon’s Souls remake
Demon’s Souls was the demo tape that launched FromSoftware to stardom with spiritual sequels like Dark Souls and Bloodborne. As such, it’s a little rough around the edges, but Bluepoint Games’ PlayStation 5 remake of the 2009 game smoothes those edges down, sharply increasing the fidelity but not sacrificing the soul.
The new Demon’s Souls plays mostly like the original — same brutal challenge, but now with the kind of quality-of-life improvements players have come to expect over the past decade. Demon’s Souls’ incredible atmosphere has been carefully rebuilt by Bluepoint, while the game’s quirks and groundbreaking systems remain intact. It’s an impressive accomplishment to both satisfy the hardcore Demon’s Souls audience, one that’s been part of the Souls community since day one, and also deliver something that plays like a true next-gen console experience.
Demon’s Souls is a fitting tribute to the scrappy original, and a great showpiece for PS5. I’m thrilled that an all-new audience is discovering it for the first time.
Available for PlayStation 5
22. Star Wars: Squadrons
Last year, everyone seemed to agree that the X-Wing series was dead and buried. Its successors — games like Elite: Dangerous, Star Citizen, and Eve: Valkyrie — had all had their time in the sun. No one expected Star Wars: Squadrons, and yet here we are ranking it among the top games of 2020.
Personally, I’d like to see it ranked even higher. I feel that the team so perfectly nailed the look and feel of the Star Wars universe that it transcends the games that came before. Those classic LucasArts titles were good, but Squadrons feels even better. It’s too bad it doesn’t have a meatier single-player campaign.
Additionally, the game’s implementation of virtual reality is so ambitious — and ultimately so successful — that I think it’s a shame we weren’t able to include it in our top 10. Sadly, it’s those same over-the-top visual and simulation gameplay elements that put many players off. Flying an airplane is hard, and flying a starfighter is sometimes even harder.
21. Genshin Impact
Genshin Impact is an absolute mess of genres. It’s an open-world, free-to-play, role-playing, online, crafting action game with gacha elements. And yet it all comes together in a fantastic fantasy experience that broke into the mainstream.
Gacha games — those that make you pay money to spin the roulette of available characters — are inherently predatory, and Genshin Impact is no different. Every time I got a new character, I hated myself for the in-game currency or real-life money it took to get there. But the game offered so much else for free that I let myself enjoy my purchases rather than resent them — like the embarrassing vault of real-money skins I’ve acquired over the years in League of Legends.
Genshin Impact succeeds because everything outside its monetization nurses that “one more activity” feeling without being predatory. Every day, when I logged in, I felt like I was able to make some amount of progress as I explored the game’s giant, beautiful world, or delved into a deeper combat puzzle. Every day, I felt like I discovered a new secret in a quest or found a new tell on a boss I’d defeated a hundred times before. And that combination of skill and progress kept me logging in for weeks.
Available for Android, iOS, PlayStation 4, and Windows PC
20. The Jackbox Party Pack 7
Whenever a new Jackbox comes out, there is typically a game in the pack that doesn’t get much attention. The Jackbox Party Pack 7 does not have this problem.
Between the kind of co-op The Devils and the Details, the faux powerpoint-making Talking Points, and the fighter drawing Champ’d Up, there is no lull when playing the latest entry in the series. And that’s still leaving out the classic Quiplash and the fun word association game Blather Round. Whether you like to draw, you’re a good public speaker, or you just want to shout constantly over your friends, there’s something for everyone in this pack.
I should not have to tell you that Jackbox games are good, but I will tell you that this is hands-down the best one released in a long time.
19. The Last of Us Part 2
The Last of Us Part 2 puts you in a bad mood, and that’s what I like about it.
It’s been a gloomy year for everyone. And from its initial gut punch to its bittersweet ending, The Last of Us Part 2 asks you to suffer along with it, rather than take you from tragedy to celebration. From open to close, it’s almost all downhill. From one miserable moment to the next, I explored collapsed residential areas, and built machines of pain to inflict hate upon people I didn’t know — and occasionally those I did. Most games would buckle under the weight of awfulness in the world of The Last of Us Part 2.
But the joy of The Last of Us Part 2 is its most unexpected feature, and its saving grace. A tender memory of exploration with a loved one, a knowing look with a friend turned partner, building a makeshift family out of the ashes. Those moments hit hard not only because of Naughty Dog’s practiced storytelling skills, but because everything else around the characters is so horrible. I needed something like that this year, to help me wallow in my own despair and to appreciate the light when it peeks through.
Available for PlayStation 4
18. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is big. It’s big and weighty, just like the main character Eivor’s ax, and somehow, it justifies that size. Released in November, Ubisoft’s open-world role-playing game sprawls from Norway to England and back again — even touching the shores of North America. Each of these places is gorgeous in its own right, a true testament to the pure technical prowess of a game like this. Sure, there are bugs, but none deterred me from wanting to experience more of the world.
At first, when playing for review, I thought, Maybe this game is too long. But as I’ve continued playing, long after finishing the story and most objectives, I am enjoying the world’s size — how everything feels intertwined yet so far away. It’s the kind of game that I could spend months in, seeking out secrets and side stories to fill out the world’s lore.
17. Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout takes the competitive thrill of a battle royale game and combines it with a sugary-sweet pastel party game, where 60 players run through a variety platter of minigames and obstacle courses. At the end, only one jelly bean avatar can seize the crown and win the game.
Each round is a constant and steady stream of chaos, as contestants race up ramps slick with slime, bounce giant soccer balls with their faces, and fling themselves into massive hammers. When we sit down to play, my friends and I alternate between hollering at our opponents — “Hey! Hey, that bean’s trying to block the final ramp on Slime Climb!” — to laughing at our own inevitable failures.
While Fall Guys is a competitive game, it’s just luck-based enough to take the sting out of a loss. Watching a score of little beans wobble and fumble their way through some devilishly designed challenges is pure, simple joy.
Available for PlayStation 4 and Windows PC
16. Astro’s Playroom
Astro’s Playroom is a shocking delight. It hooks you immediately, and doesn’t let go until it has taken your four-plus hours.
I’m not a morning person, but in a bout of Saturday insomnia, I found myself up at 4 a.m. I sat down to play Astro’s Playroom for the first time with a cup of coffee alone in my living room, the rest of the house still sleeping. I intended to play for just an hour or so and then move on to a bigger game, like Spider-Man: Miles Morales. But as my coffee got colder, I went from “I’ll play one more level” to “I guess I’ll finish the game” and “oh look, now I have another platinum trophy.” For the rest of the morning, my eyes dashed from my new console to the stairs, waiting desperately for my wife to descend so I could show her this adorable new toy.
Astro’s Playroom is a showpiece, and it knows it. The DualSense controller features feel amped up and the PlayStation nostalgia is everywhere. Those things make it delightful — activating the chemicals in your brain that make you feel good about your new $500 machine. But Astro’s Playroom succeeds because it’s a tight platformer and a good video game before it’s a showpiece, like Wii Sports before it. When Astro’s Playroom ended, I found that I could’ve played it for twice as long. And that mix of joy at what I’d experienced and longing for more was the perfect mood-setter for the start of a new generation.
Available for PlayStation 5
15. 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim
13 Sentinels answers the question “what if somebody made the perfect spiritual video game adaptation of Lost and nobody noticed?”
You haven’t heard of 13 Sentinels? I get it. I can’t blame the majority of the English-speaking gaming community for overlooking the latest gem from Vanillaware. The studio releases roughly one masterpiece a generation, with Odin Sphere on PlayStation 2, Muramasa: The Demon Blade on Wii, and Dragon’s Crown on PlayStation 3. Each game received reviews spanning the full critical spectrum, and none achieved mainstream success in the U.S.
Vanillaware exclusively makes imperfect games, creative larks that reach beyond the studio’s comparably modest resources and the technological capabilities of the time, while succumbing to tacky fan service and narratological whimsies. But those flaws are a byproduct of an ambition rarely seen in the medium. I’m willing to compromise when the results are so refreshing.
Because unlike so many of their big-budget contemporaries, the creators of 13 Sentinels have something to say: about the impact of Western media on Japanese culture, about the empty strength of global superpowers in the face of unfettered corporate growth, about the endgame of capitalism, about the meaning of life and death.
So what does this have to do with Lost? 13 Sentinels tells a complex story in an episodic fashion, spanning multiple timelines and over a dozen co-protagonists. In 10- to 15-minute nuggets, you can catch up on the teenage detective looking for her best friend, the high school tough caught in a Groundhog Day time loop, or the nerdy athlete trying to get her alien robot friend a home.
Yes, it borrows liberally from nearly every sci-fi story ever told, but without spoiling the magic, that’s part of the point. And yes, I haven’t told you this game is half visual novel/half real-time strategy game, because I’m worried the genres will scare you away. They nearly put me off, too! And yes, I used the Lost comparison to steal your attention.
But overlooking this game would be a mistake, just as it was a mistake to overlook Vanillaware’s other creations. In a sea of sameness, I’m so glad we have people taking these risks — even if they can only ship something new every half-decade.
Available for PlayStation 4
14. Umurangi Generation
Umurangi Generation is a first-person shooter, but not in the way you probably expect. Instead of a gun, the player shoots photos “in the shitty future” with a camera. This shitty future is actually a catastrophic end-of-the-world scenario that’s played out in scenes in different levels of the game.
Created by a single developer, Naphtali Faulkner, Umurangi Generation, despite being set in a futuristic cyberpunk New Zealand, feels widely relevant to 2020, too. Its themes of unrelenting hopefulness and action between sights of impending doom are poignant, observed in these largely still worlds and told through posters, newspapers, and a shifting landscape. It’s a game that surprised me; it feels so simple when it begins. Find and take a photo of a seagull. Take a photo of some markers. Find a roll of film. But those objectives — the photos you need to take — add up to so much more.
There’s no dialogue in Umurangi Generation, but the game doesn’t need it. Everything is already in the Māori sci-fi world.
Available for Windows PC
Building a game from the ground up to be a hardcore competitive shooter is generally a recipe for disaster. Even Rainbow Six Siege, the best-case scenario for games that aren’t named Counter-Strike, took years to get good. So despite its sterling track record, Riot Games releasing something as immediately good and popular as Valorant was still a surprise.
With Valorant, Riot created a game with rock-solid shooting mechanics and a roster of characters that manages to make every match feel different, making for one of the most fun competitive multiplayer games released in years. Over the six months the game has been out, Riot has also proven that Valorant is built to last, translating the effective patch cadence, content updates, and open communication that has helped League thrive for over a decade. It’s rare that you play a game and instantly know that it will be an important part of gaming for the foreseeable future, but with Valorant, that’s exactly what happened.
Available for Windows PC
12. If Found…
If Found… is a quiet game that makes a good case for playing with the Switch docked to the TV. It’s a visual novel where the cursor is an eraser. The only way to progress is to wipe away the beautiful illustrations and notes in the main character Kasio’s journal, which recounts a trip home to Achill Island, the isolated place where she grew up.
Erasing Kasio’s life story — good memories and bad alike — is a very personal experience. Nicole Carpenter wrote about it in her review:
I’ve wondered how other people might approach erasure: Are they quick and eager to erase some of these memories, as I am with the more painful ones? What part of the page are others erasing first? […] Are players lingering in the same spots as me?
And so it would be reasonable to assume that If Found… is a perfect handheld game for players on Switch. Instead, I blasted it onto a 55-inch TV and fell into its gorgeous details. I love the rough edges of my eraser, and the slight animations on some of the illustrations. I love the contrast of the simpler pencil sketches with the glittering planets and stars of the game’s outer space B-plot, and I love wiping away one background to reveal a brighter one, swallowing up my living room. If Found… is a little game that deserves to be appreciated on a big canvas.
—Simone de Rochefort
Available for macOS, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC
11. Spelunky 2
I spent an astonishing number of hours playing Spelunky HD, easily several hundred. Even though it’s seven years old at this point, I can go back and pick it up like riding a bike. I thought, Bah, Spelunky 2 will be a breeze, right?
Turns out someone (ahem, Derek Yu) thought it would be a great idea to make Spelunky 2 even more punishing than its predecessor. And yet, there’s something far more welcoming about this sequel, and far more ambitious.
Thanks to its emphasis on exploration (with multiple pathways through the main game and a hidden background layer to delve into), I’m still stumbling upon wild secrets and incredible surprises in Spelunky 2. I’m more than happy to throw myself into the wood chipper if I feel like there’s a chance I can see something new each time I play.
As for “beating” the game? Nope, the true ending still eludes me. But, as they say, it’s about the journey.
Available for PlayStation 4 and Windows PC
10. Among Us
Among Us is an incredibly simple game, yet no two rounds are the same. Up to 10 players all head into space, where a band of beans serving as crewmates on a station or ship have to work together to complete a variety of tiny tasks. The problem is that one to three of those crewmates are hidden impostors, who have the ability to sabotage the station and murder their comrades. When a player discovers a body or hits an emergency meeting button, everyone gathers together to try and uncover the truth, and it inevitably goes wrong.
Every round is a slow burn, as the crewmates are slowly eliminated by sneaky impostors, who then turn around and try to frame the innocent crew. Players fling accusations back and forth, proclaim their innocence, and launch suspects into space.
Despite launching in 2018, Among Us rose to prominence on Twitch during the 2020 quarantine after the developers released two new maps. Since then, the tiny indie game has become a household name, even being used as a public outreach tool by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Canadian New Democratic Party leader Jagmeet Singh.
Available for Android, iOS, and Windows PC
I am one of the many who have never particularly gotten into watching sports. I participated in athletics when I was younger, but it was never the team-based stuff people enjoy watching and talking about. My introduction to Blaseball was my friend messaging me on Steam asking, “What Blaseball team did you pick?” as if I was supposed to know what that meant, with no context. I hastily logged into the provided link and picked the Baltimore Crabs, as that’s my local team. (I’m also a Cancer, so …) From there, things spun out of control very quickly.
I became addicted to Blaseball, and not even the gambling aspect of it. I was addicted to the absurdity. I forced all my friends to play Blaseball and pick teams, and we’d spend the day smack-talking each other and talking about the games. For the first time in my life, I was talking about sports. “That sucks that York Silk got trapped in a giant peanut shell,” I’d say to my friend, as if that’s a completely normal thing to say out loud.
Blaseball created a sports environment for just about everyone to enjoy, and the surprises and interesting storylines just kept coming. We went from, “Wow, one of the weather options is now ‘peanuts.’ That’s wild!” to, “Yes, so we fought a giant god and then a squid god appeared and apologized for missing the party.” Thanks, The Game Band, for giving me and my friends something to discuss for weeks on end.
Available for browsers
8. Crusader Kings 3
Terrible kings, vengeful cousins, and medieval kingdoms — Crusader Kings 3 is a wonderfully dense game that rewards patient players. A player selects a kingdom, duchy, or region around the world during the medieval era. From there, they take control of that region’s ruler, and begin the complicated business of running a kingdom.
Setting taxes, choosing advisers, and controlling armies can be satisfying, but the real lure of Crusader Kings 3 is the elaborate interpersonal drama the game creates. The player manages their ruler’s relationship, and eventually takes the role of their heir. Every member of your court, every adviser, is an NPC liable to generate chaotic narratives that threaten your reign.
It’s like a feudal version of The Sims, with seduction, coups, assassinations, childhood bullies, and affairs. The game is also flexible, allowing a custom character creator and the ability for players to switch the historical norms on issues like sexuality and religion, which adds an extra layer of intrigue for people who want to craft their own stories.
Available for Windows PC
7. Half Life: Alyx
Half Life: Alyx makes me frustrated. No, it’s not because it’s a virtual reality game. In fact, the VR implementation is done exquisitely. From the accommodating movement styles to the wide range of compatible headsets, I was rarely ever frustrated while playing (or wanting to play) Alyx. It’s also definitely not the gameplay: The physics system is a joy to interact with, and the firefights are some of the most intense action sequences I’ve played this year. I wasn’t even annoyed that the game was a prequel, and not just because your co-pilot Russell is one of Valve’s most endearingly written and acted characters.
No, I’m frustrated because it’s a reminder of how long it’s been since we’ve experienced a proper Valve-developed video game. Half Life: Alyx is a master class in narrative level design. It’s constantly teaching the player new concepts without them realizing they’re being taught something new. Every potential player path is considered, every vignette of environmental storytelling caringly crafted, and every puzzle designed to make the player feel like a super genius.
Combat encounters against just a few enemies feel daunting at first, but the intensity ramps up so gradually that by the end of the game, you’re practically looking forward to fighting Combine forces and Antlions at the same time. Even though the game is thoroughly linear, numerous side routes, hidden rooms, and vertical paths make the world feel both wide open and interconnected. Past Valve games may have been more revolutionary, but the craftsmanship of Half Life: Alyx is nearly incomparable. Here’s hoping we don’t have to wait another nine years for a follow-up.
Available for Windows PC via HTC Vive, Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift, Valve Index, and all Windows Mixed Reality headsets
6. Spider-Man: Miles Morales
Spider-Man: Miles Morales marked the first time I understood why the web-slinger is often called “your friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.”
2018’s Spider-Man was great, but it failed to establish Peter Parker’s role in the fabric of the city. Miles Morales, on the other hand, is Spanish Harlem. His story, identity, and reason for putting on the mask are all in service of the neighborhood he represents. His roots tie him to a time and place that need his version of the hero to hold it together. Throughout Spider-Man: Miles Morales, we get to see him grow into a defender who doesn’t save New York City as the hero of some sort of monolithic location, but as the hero of a specific ZIP code.
He gains the trust of his neighbors, eats empanadas and pasteles from a nearby restaurant, and desperately struggles to save his local bodega’s cat. His acts may feel small compared to the world-shattering events the Avengers might be mixed up in, but to the folks he shares a block with, these problems are their entire world. Miles is not only defending his neighborhood, but also the lives and histories that have become intertwined with the bricks and asphalt that surround them. That’s what makes him the true friendly neighborhood Spider-Man.
5. Kentucky Route Zero
Kentucky Route Zero’s final chapter came out in January 2020, but Cardboard Computer’s haunting point-and-click adventure is not exactly a 2020 video game. Kentucky Route Zero has five acts, the first of which was released in January 2013. So much has changed between 2013 and 2020, and Kentucky Route Zero’s snapshots of human life serve as a surreal record of the economic strife that has beset the working class in the United States since the 2008 economic recession.
The game meanders through its strange and supernatural tale of a truck driver trying to make a final mysterious delivery. According to video game logic, the delivery should be the endgame, the whole point of the journey. But as the game goes on, it becomes clear that this is not a story about ticking off quest markers. It is about failure, about the ghosts we leave behind, and the tortured projects that we begin and never manage to complete.
Playing through Kentucky Route Zero feels like writing a poem, groping to find the words, and leaving with the sad, weird feeling that it’s still not quite right but it’ll just have to do. It’s not like anything else.
4. Final Fantasy 7 Remake
I didn’t get my hopes up watching the trailers for Final Fantasy 7 Remake. It had been so many years since I last played the original game … so many years since I watched my Blu-ray copy of Advent Children Complete, a film that I stubbornly maintain “is good.” Could this shiny new game really have anything to add?
WELL. In a word, yes. FF7 Remake isn’t just a fresh coat of paint on a nostalgic property. Each area of Midgar is so thoughtfully detailed and designed; the architecture tells me clearly what living in each sector is like. And the massive plate that looms over Sector 7! It’s one thing to know it’s there, another to see it. It’s got dangling wires, and crumbling edges where Shinra has given up on maintenance. After the plate fell, I looked up from Sector 5 and saw the slice of dirty sky where the Sector 7 plate used to be. Owie!
FF7 Remake is quirky and funny, too. It didn’t matter that I had seen it memed to death; I shrieked with delight when Cloud had a dance-off against Andrea Rhodea at the Honey Bee Inn. It’s one of many welcome updates, for me at least, that makes Remake more comforting to come back to than the original game.
—Simone de Rochefort
Available for PlayStation 4
3. Microsoft Flight Simulator
Of all the fanciful destinations that video games let you explore, planet Earth was one I didn’t expect to come in near the top of my 2020 list. But in a godforsaken year during which a once-in-a-century pandemic prevented us all from traveling, of course that would be the case.
Having said that, virtual tourism isn’t even my favorite element of Microsoft Flight Simulator, and calling it a “video game” feels reductive. It’s a mind-boggling technological gestalt, bringing together a set of cutting-edge tools, techniques, and disciplines in re-creating every square mile of the planet as flyover country for your aerial adventures — and in, y’know, simulating the flight of airplanes, which are some of the most complex machines humankind has ever built.
Microsoft Flight Simulator relies on a staggering amount of artificial intelligence and data, whether it’s in the photogrammetry process used to generate photorealistic cities from 3D Bing Maps data; the AI technology used to generate the rest of the planet from 2D imagery; the real-time flight and weather information used to populate the game world; or Microsoft’s cloud computing platform, Azure, which processes all of this data and streams it to your gaming PC over the internet. It’s an incredible piece of software that likely wouldn’t have been possible even five years ago.
And yet, none of the words in that paragraph I just wrote can convey the capacity of Microsoft Flight Simulator to bring all of that technology to bear in the most breathtaking ways. Game developer Rami Ismail took a trans-Atlantic trip from Montreal to Amsterdam while flying that same route in the game; his simulated flight landed about four minutes ahead of his real-life one, and the weather, the stars in the sky, and the sunrise all matched. I nearly brought my wife to tears by pausing a flight over Tokyo and positioning the drone camera to match the view from the hotel we stayed in during our fall 2019 honeymoon. No one knows when international travel will be a thing again, but until then, I’m grateful that it still exists in Microsoft Flight Simulator.
Available for Windows PC
2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
Animal Crossing: New Horizons exploded after it launched in March. Thanks to the disturbingly good release timing, people were looking for ways to distract themselves from the grim realities of the coronavirus pandemic as well as ways to digitally gather. New Horizons provided both of those.
Whether it was fishing up big catches with your friends, perfecting your tarantula farming technique, or playing the turnip stalk market, it seemed like the game had something for everyone. People who had never played video games before were picking up New Horizons to bond with their friends and family, and they were finding enjoyment in something new and refreshing.
Being honest, at one point, New Horizons was the main drive for me to get out of bed in the morning. I wanted to grab my Switch and check in on my island to see what had changed overnight. Maybe I had a special visitor, or maybe my shop had some new furniture I was looking for. Though a hefty chunk of New Horizons players have now burned out, it’s undeniable that the game provided an immense sense of joy and belonging during a pretty bad time.
Available for Nintendo Switch
Hades is a classic coming-of-age story drenched in Greek mythology. The game tells the tale of Zagreus, son of Hades, who is making a break from the depths of hell in an attempt to reach the surface. Zagreus will end up dying dozens of times over your quest through the game, so you get used to the agony of murder real quick.
But despite the constant death and dunking by Zagreus’ rude dad, Hades pulls off the fantastic feat of being kind, cozy, and welcoming. Sure, I got my face blasted off by the bone hydra and I’m still mad about the butterfly balls of Elysium, but I always had a soft place to land. The game removes the traditional barriers of a roguelike, easily giving the thrill of the genre to new players.
With a big cast of characters, most of whom are family, it’s no surprise that things get increasingly complicated as you die, talk to your friends back home, buy a precious upgrade, and then die again. Up in the wilds of hell, you master new weapons and perfect your technique against impossible odds. When you get back home, you try to make things a little better for your friends and family. The two paths seamlessly mix together, creating an unforgettable campaign of struggle, despair, triumph, and satisfaction.
Available for macOS, Nintendo Switch, and Windows PC