Without further ado, I officially give to you… my top five games of 2020.
When Allan told us that we didn’t have to include exclusively 2020 releases on these Game of the Year lists, the gears in my head started turning. I knew that I hadn’t played many new games this year, because I had started a list at the beginning of 2020 and, well, it’s small, to say the least. I’m not proud of my output regarding new games this year, and to make matters seemingly worse, nearly half of them are mobile games. But, when I went back to this tiny list to pick out a top five, I came away with easy choices and didn’t even need to dip into the old backlog catch-up. 2020 was a year that will go down in history for many reasons, and one of those reasons is its game releases. There were some truly stellar video games this year, and I’ve yet to touch most of them! So no, you won’t find The Last of Us Part II or Miles Morales on my list. On the contrary, you’ll find some smaller titles you might not even know about! But if you stuck with me through this crazy year, you’ll know I have sung their praises from the nosebleeds. So without further ado, I officially give to you… my top five games of 2020.
Fuser is the underdog of 2020, and if you have no clue what I mean by that, well, just sit down. Harmonix has been one of the nearest and dearest developers to me since my childhood. From FreQuency to DropMix, I’ve followed their career of rhythm-based releases for two whole decades, spanning countless Rock Bands and Dance Centrals, and even a Fantasia sprinkled in there for flavor. But Harmonix’s 2020 project, Fuser, was one of the most ambitious games I’ve seen in a while. Based on the formula set in motion by their board-game-esque product, DropMix, Fuser tasks the player with sampling multiple different music tracks – from drumlines and guitar riffs to synthesizers and horns – to create DJ sets meant to blow the virtual audience away.
I say Fuser is ambitious because it’s without a doubt the most musician-oriented Harmonix game to date. Not just anyone can pick up this game and play it like you could a plastic guitar at a drunken dorm party. On the contrary, Fuser uses multiple rhythm gimmicks simultaneously in order to maintain the flow of the mix, and while this can be confusing, it can make a musician feel right at home. I found myself just getting lost in the gameplay, and the songs on rotation are varied and catchy enough to keep the entertainment going for prolonged sessions. I don’t know if I would say I picked up any genuine DJ skills from Fuser, but it certainly left a lasting impression on me and further solidified Harmonix as rhythm game gods. Even more impressive was the fact this was the first game played on an Xbox Series X, and my god, the loading screens were nearly nonexistent! The colors popped off the screen, the animations were fluid, and everything just felt as if it were on another level of quality. Fuser is one I will go back to again and again, that’s for sure.
If you’ve followed me across the numerous podcasts this year – and even our Snapchat – you’ll know I was a fan of Ghostrunner from the moment I laid eyes on it. I first played this game at PAX East back in February, before the entire world went to hell in a handbasket. Ghostrunner supplied me with some much-needed hype, as its frantic skill-based gameplay and cyberpunk environments caused me to turn a 10-minute demo into nearly a half hour. I sucked at the game, yes, but I couldn’t help yearning for more as days went by. Thankfully, September saw the full release of Ghostrunner, and although it eventually found its way to every console, I preordered the PC version to prove my dedication to the game’s roots. It should come as no surprise why this game ended up on my Best of 2020 list, but let’s just say… it did not disappoint. All that time spent longing to have this game in my presence was made worth it as scenes of fast-paced sword swinging flashed before my face.
Ghostrunner makes you work hard for progress, and it can be painful at times. You’ll find yourself playing segments over and over just to get everything right, like a Rube Goldberg contraption of blood and viscera. As frustrating as it can be, the entertainment and satisfaction derived from passing every checkpoint make Ghostrunner one of the best games of the year. Even if you’re not a fan of the Dark Souls-esque “this game wants you to die” style of play, Ghostrunner is so rewarding – and breathtaking to watch – that it’s really worth a try from every type of gamer. For visuals alone, this game is something everyone should consume at least once. I came away from Ghostrunner thankful for not only the developers who worked tirelessly all year to make this happen, but also thankful to live in a world with games like this.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
I feel a lot of 2020’s Game of the Year lists will include Animal Crossing: New Horizons, albeit not in a very sincere way. You’ll probably find people mentioning how it was the only game to play at the start of the year, and although we did have Doom Eternal alongside it, New Horizons helped us all through the pandemic as we tried to stay connected to each other and entertained while shut up in our homes. This is undoubtedly the reason Animal Crossing rose to prominence this year – as well as the influx of Nintendo Switch sales – however, New Horizons certainly has the wherewithal to stand on its own amongst the pantheon of 2020 video games. I talked about it a lot in my co-op review of New Horizons with Josh, but as a series veteran myself, I found this installment to be chock-full of quite a few new features that help it stand apart from the crowd.
Starting from scratch, the player moves to an island at the behest of Tom Nook, who quickly teaches them the ropes of leading their own community. As time goes on, players recruit new neighbors, open buildings, craft countless items for furnishing houses, and reorganize the island’s layout to create the perfect floating utopia. Not only is life on the island packed with things to do, but the inclusion of visiting procedurally generated islands – giving players the ability to recruit new animal friends and find rare fruits and resources – makes gameplay feel even richer and satisfying. Animal Crossing: New Horizons welcomes new players to the franchise, as it gives back what you put in. If you play the game for hours at a time, every day, the progress shows in big ways, and that’s the most rewarding aspect of these games. New Horizons is colorful, adorable, soothing, and complex – the perfect formula for a handheld game in a global pandemic.
Tell Me Why
Here’s a little bit of a blindside: I’ve been stating for months now that Tell Me Why would be my Game of the Year, but now it finds itself in second place! This is true for no reason other than… I thought of a game I liked even more. Tell Me Why is in no way a bad game, and honestly, it might be tied for first place. This was the only new release this year that grabbed a hold of my emotions from the very beginning. It’s not easy to just fall in love with new characters right off the bat, but Tell Me Why delivers these twins – Alyson and Tyler – in a way that’s reminiscent of Dontnod’s world-building in Life is Strange – so you get it now, right? To drive the point home even further, I still haven’t gone past the first hour or so of The Last of Us Part II, simply because it didn’t grab me, in the same way, Tell Me Why did. Even if this wasn’t released episodically, I probably would’ve consumed it as an 8-hour experience based on adrenaline alone!
I love mysteries, and mysteries based on family secrets really get my blood pumping. So when Tell Me Why put me in the shoes of two siblings trying to uncover their mom’s troubled past, I was sold from the get-go. The story is thrilling, the puzzles are original, and the graphics are absolutely breathtaking. Tell Me Why is an epic like no other. I would be remiss if I didn’t talk about the progressive nature of this game a bit. Tell Me Why features a transgender character, and I must say, I learned a lot from this game regarding the struggles of transgender people. Tyler’s character is so deep and relatable that you can’t help but feel what he’s going through and want to know more. I’m thankful this game came into my life, and I’m grateful for the information I walked away from it with.
Looking back on this crazy year of amazing games with varied genres and plots, I kept coming back to one of the simplest, shortest ones I’d encountered in 2020. Beyond Blue is the story of a deep-sea diver whose love of whales finds her breaking from her typical days of wildlife live-streaming to investigate the cause of the whales’ disappearance in the region. As I streamed this entire game myself over the course of about five hours, I was blown away by every single aspect of it. Not only was the story compelling and eye-opening, it genuinely made me laugh and made me cry at times. On top of this, the game looks gorgeous and provides a calming nature I haven’t felt since the days of Endless Ocean on the Nintendo Wii. The acting is brilliant, the music is fantastic, the gameplay mechanics are simple but never feel tedious; Beyond Blue delivered on every promise it made.
This is no surprise, seeing as E-Line Media has become one of my favorite indie developers in recent years. With their previous release, Never Alone, my sister and I received a co-op experience that tugged at our heartstrings and kept us puzzled by every puzzle we encountered. Beyond Blue trades those brain busters in for teachable lessons, with every set piece brimming with facts about undersea life and the destruction mankind has caused to our world. Beyond Blue’s message may be sad, but it leaves the player filled with hope for a better future, and if everyone could see the love and care pumped into this tiny game, they’d feel that same sentiment. While it’s been quite a few months since I put the controller down and rolled credits on this masterpiece, I can still recall how mesmerized I was by such a little game. Months of waiting and development diaries led me to this finished product, which impacted this crappy year for the better.
As we look to the future in hopes of a brighter tomorrow, 2021 seems to offer up some amazing games on the horizon. With better graphics and faster frame rates, the next generation of consoles promises some of the most exciting experiences the world has ever seen. I know we all can’t wait to see what this year has in store, so I hope you’ll stick with VGU as we discover the next game of the year together! Thanks for reading.