Welcome to 2021, a year that I will set no expectations for because we all saw how well things turned out in 2020. But before we leave 2020 to rot in it’s rightful place in the universe’s dumpster, let’s bid one last farewell to the worst year I’ve ever experienced by celebrating the games that got me through it.
It took a long time and a lot of effort to get to a place where I could even list ten games I truly enjoyed this year, partly because nothing really stood out to me for most of 2020, and partly because the year itself was a debilitating nightmare that not even video games could distract me from.
HONORABLE MENTION: NBA 2K21
Every year I find myself dipping into the latest entry in the NBA 2K series and pour hundreds of hours into it, and NBA 2K21 is no exception. It’s like this nice bit of comfort food that I can just dip into and have a decent time with my favorite sport as I live out my wildest fantasy of making the New York Knicks a good team. I never participate in the more exploitative modes that try to milk you for money in order to boost your stats or wear a cool hat, but I still have a bunch of fun just running through a couple of years of the franchise mode, adjusting rotations and negotiating contracts and whatnot. There isn’t much else to say about the game otherwise. It’s a solid basketball simulation that manages to consume a lot of my free gaming time throughout the year, which is enough to make it onto this list in some capacity.
10 – RISK OF RAIN 2
Risk of Rain 2 opens up this list not just because I think it’s a good game worth sinking a couple dozen hours into, but because it was one of my favorite multiplayer experiences from this year. It’s one of those games that if I had played it on my own I’d be completely lost thanks to its large levels of inscrutability and ultimately back away from, but when I had some friends acting as my Risk of Rain 2 navigators, I found it to be an overwhelmingly good time.
The game itself is a tough as hell rogue-like shooter that is relentless in how much it throws at you. Eventually you reach a point where you’re inundated by items and abilities that don’t exactly explain themselves well, but thankfully I had people around me to help fill in the gaps. Aside from Risk of Rain 2 just being a really well made game that really shines when you play with friends, the soundtrack is amazing. It’s this incredible progressive-rock soundscape that washes over you while you play it and is quite well done. If nothing else, you should listen to the soundtrack.
9 – SPIRITFARER
When I think about the absolute misery that was 2020, it’s important to try and counteract the constant stream of negativity with the few moments of pleasantness I was able to find. Spiritfarer is a game that granted me some reprieve from the horrible world outside, by making me the shepherd of departed souls that’s been tasked with ferrying them to the other side. While that pitch sounds grim as hell, I assure you that the game itself is a heartwarming experience that provided an incredible story despite dragging in a couple of places.
The real thing that won me over in Spiritfarer was just how it looked. Everything about the presentation is warm and inviting, masking the reality of the task you have to take on as the titular Spiritfarer. You learn about the people you’re ferrying along and who they once were through talking to them and doing side missions on their behalf, most of which were really touching. It’s also got some farming simulation and management stuff in there to help break up the monotony with a different kind of monotony. But aside from some of the slower and less story relevant bits of the game, I think it is just a tremendous title that was well worth the time I put into it.
8 – HARDSPACE: SHIPBREAKER
As an unapologetic lover of games that “simulate” relatively mundane professions, Hardspace: Shipbreaker was a particularly exciting blend of that concept and my love of science fiction. In Hardspace: Shipbreaker, you’re just a person whose job it is to break down and salvage derelict spaceships. Armed with some cool laser beams and a recently added explosive charge, you can really destroy your frame rate with how granular you can get when dissecting these floating behemoths. But it isn’t without some challenge, because one wayward cut could result in a catastrophic explosion that will obliterate much of ship along with any salvageable materials.
What I really enjoy about Hardspace: Shipbreaker is how it takes this fantastical world of accessible space travel and decides to focus on this mundane concept of just being a scrapper rather than some fighter pilot. It reminds me of all of those Star Wars side stories that focused on like a Death Star janitor or something. It’s also just an intensely satisfying and meditative experience to just get in there and slice a ship apart piece by piece while listening to a podcast or something.
If it wasn’t for Fuser, I don’t think I would ever have discovered my secret ability to create true auditory hell-scapes, and that’s a newfound talent that I’m incredibly proud of. But Fuser isn’t just about making nightmarish song combinations, it turns out you can actually make unlikely mashups of classic and contemporary songs that sound really good. That’s the power of Fuser.
I’ve always been really keen on making music but never really had the understanding nor the desire to dip my toes into the world of being a live DJ. I don’t foresee myself ever buying turntables or any of the other required pieces of equipment to live out that particular fantasy, but Fuser allows me to dip into that world without much prior knowledge needed. It’s an incredibly accessible and instantly fun, albeit a fairly thin experience.
Fuser more of a game I can dip into a couple times a year and have a blast with as opposed to a game I’d spend consecutive days playing, but that’s honestly fine by me. It’s also just a really fun thing to pop on and show friends, although that particular party trick will have to wait until I can once again entertain people. But till that happens, I’m perfectly fine being a DJ for an audience of one.
6 – I AM DEAD
I don’t think many folks actually know about I Am Dead and its particular style of puzzle solving, but I would implore anyone who wants a fairly light and breezy puzzle game to check it out. Despite the overly morose title, I Am Dead is actually a really pleasant game with a heartwarming story. It isn’t overly difficult and doesn’t soak up too much time, clocking in at around 6 hours or so. I found the main puzzle mechanic of peeling back layers of the world to reveal hidden objects to be pretty satisfying without ever wearing out it’s welcome.
It’s also just a really pretty game to behold, with an overall aesthetic that can simply be described as colorful and endearing. It’s a delightful little game that I feel didn’t get its due when it released, something that I’d describe as criminal. I fear that going into more detail about the game would teeter on the edge of spoiler territory, so all I’ll say is that you should absolutely check out I Am Dead if you’re in dire need of a puzzle-based palette cleanser from this miserable year.
5- BALDUR’S GATE III
Baldur’s Gate III is still in early access and will probably remain that way for most of, if not the remainder of 2021, but it still deserves a spot on this list. The game itself launched in a pretty rocky state, but has only been improving as time has gone on. Many of the issues I had with Baldur’s Gate III when it launched into early access have been addressed or are at least on the list for tweaking, which is a great sign for someone like me who has no love for traditional CRPGs.
But therein lies the real reason why Baldur’s Gate III is on my list. See, up until it released towards the end of 2020, I very much wasn’t a fan of CRPGs and would even go as far as to say I had an aversion to them. But Baldur’s Gate III managed to capture my love for Dungeons & Dragons in a way that made me willing to give the genre one last shot. It turns out that all I needed to connect with this genre was a good entry point and Baldur’s Gate III gave me that. Now I’ve got like 4 other CRPGs in the backlog that I’m eager to dig into which might have been a little ambitious if I’m being honest, but it is what it is.
Aside from how Baldur’s Gate III basically opened up a world of new games to me, it’s just really fun even if it plays a little fast and loose with the rules of D&D. They recently patched in an update that fixed a lot of the graphical weirdness and camera issues that I had, but it also invalidated all save files from before the patch, so I’ve been putting off playing through the intro for a fourth time. But I truly think that when Baldur’s Gate III enters a 1.0 release, it will be a titan of a game. Even as is, the game shows so much potential both mechanically and in terms of it’s story. I just wonder how much time I want to put into it between now and then.
4 – CALL OF THE SEA
You awake in the middle of the night to the sound of your old timey telephone ringing. Since it’s like the 1930’s and there’s only one phone in your home, you throw on your nightgown and head into the room with the phone in it. You pick up the receiver and say “Hello?” That’s when you realize that on the other end of the call is no person, but the sea itself, calling to check in on you. Because the sea is in a different time zone they called you thinking it would be okay, but the sea realizes now that they’ve made a poor decision and are terribly sorry for disrupting your sleep.
So Call of the Sea is a really cool puzzle and adventure game that didn’t seem to get too much press, probably because it came out like two days before Cyberpunk 2077 did. But instead of playing that game, you should all play Call of the Sea instead. Call of the Sea is a narrative driven adventure game with some pretty challenging puzzles to solve, as well as a really intriguing mystery that unfolds and only gets wilder as you progress.
When I first launched the game I didn’t think I would end up spending too much time with it, but the story that kept unfolding around me was enough to keep me going to see it through to the end. I don’t really want to go in depth on where the story goes, but the setup is that you’re this woman who is heading to this mysterious island to find your husband and his expedition crew. They went in search of a cure for the mysterious disease that your character is afflicted with, but too much time has passed and your character is worried and decided to just find her partner on her own. Aside from the really captivating mystery of your missing husband and his crew, there’s a very touching love story that’s unfolding around you as your character recalls all the reasons why this man is so precious to her. It’s a very sweet subplot in a game that has a very haunting story, and I think it all comes together pretty flawlessly.
3 – ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS
By the time June rolled around I was pretty sure I hated Animal Crossing: New Horizons, something that came as a surprise to me considering that like the rest of the world, it dominated every free moment I had when it launched. I feel bad for Animal Crossing: New Horizons, because I think a lot of people had that same trajectory with it. The truth of the matter is that it released as one of the darkest moments in human history was unfurling around us, thus thrusting it into this position of being everyone’s go-to game for both escapism and social gatherings. The problem is that Animal Crossing: New Horizons isn’t meant to provide you with long gaming sessions, rather, it’s a thing that’s designed for you to check in with once every few days.
But the pandemic just started an the world entered lock down, leaving us with nothing but the newest and cutest game out there to keep our minds off of the misery outside as well as keeping us all connected. Animal Crossing: New Horizons was a lifeline for so many people, myself included. My partner and had a lot of date nights on our islands in lieu of being able to actually see each other in person, and I’m thankful as hell for that. Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a really good Animal Crossing game, but might actually be better described as the most important game of 2020, similar to how Pokemon GO! was the biggest cultural event of 2016.
Around November I eventually found my way back to my island much to the delight of my little virtual animal neighbors, and I started playing it the way it was intended. Once I got into that rhythm with Animal Crossing: New Horizons, I started remembering why I was so taken with this series in the first place. It’s pleasant and charming and never aims to stress you out. It truly is the best foil to 2020 that we could have asked for, and for that alone it deserves a spot on this list. But because of how well made it is, minus some quality of life improvements that Nintendo just refuses to make for some reason (doing anything that involves the internet), it would have been on this list regardless of a pandemic or not.
2 – TONY HAWK’S PRO SKATER 1+2
What isn’t to like about Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2? It’s a fantastic remaster of two of the most beloved games of all time that was able to make good on how I remember those titles looking and feeling. From the soundtrack to the levels and challenges, everything was pretty much just how I remembered it, although I did appreciate how they went ahead and aged up the skaters to reflect what they look like now. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is really just a celebration of two classic titles that despite the efforts of some later and more mediocre entries in the series, never were overshadowed or forgotten.
It only took an hour or so for my muscle memory to kick in, allowing me to pull off some insane lines and combos that I would inevitably fuck up because I tried to do one too many rotations in mid air. You wouldn’t believe it, but I miss that particular brand of frustration. I remember being a younger man and bashing my head against so many of these challenges while listening to the first two minutes of every song on the soundtrack. I usually try to catch myself when something is trying to play off of my nostalgia in such an explicit way, but I fully embraced what Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 did to me and I’m much happier for it.
1 – MARVEL’S SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES
And here we are, at the number one spot chilling with Spider-Man himself. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is the refined version of its 2018 predecessor, Marvel’s Spider-Man. That game was fantastic, but Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is even better. It’s story is emotional and moves along at fast enough pace that you don’t feel like you’re ever losing the plot. It also cuts out a lot of the bloated side content that existed in Marvel’s Spider-Man, but isn’t completely without some truly lame side missions. That just seems to be a pitfall of most open world games though.
But Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales wastes no time in letting you bounce around the city as a much more competent Spider-Man, circumventing the need to spend upgrade points on essential traversal abilities. From the jump you’ve got way more combat, stealth and traversal options at your disposal, and Miles has his own unique set of upgrades to work with that make him feel very different from 2018’s Peter Parker. The game as a whole manages to skirt the line of being a “Spider-Man living in the shadow of Spider-Man story”, by making it obvious that Miles is his own character and his struggles both as Miles and Spider-Man are just as important and impactful as anyone else’s.
I truly loved the time I spent with Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales and basically devoured it within the first few days of its release. Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a truly fantastic game that tells its story incredibly well and efficiently, is mechanically rewarding and engaging, and it doesn’t even cost as much as a full priced title. It’s a truly exquisite game that every Spider-Man fan should play. For all of those reasons and more, Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales is my game of the year for 2020.
Well that’s it I suppose, another year in the books. Thank goodness. I’d like to personally thank you all for sticking with me this year and reading the things I write, it truly means more to me than you could ever know. But that’s it y’all. I hope your 2021 is demonstrably better than 2020, although that can’t be too high of a bar to clear. Thanks again everyone.