Monday, December 21, 2020

The Best Games I Played in 2020


Like many people, I found myself spending a lot more time at home this year. As the Coronavirus pandemic gathered steam in the spring, I started working from home, limiting travel, and looking for ways to occupy the many anxiety-riddled hours each day. Between reading Agatha Christie novels at an alarming rate and making a dent in the ever-growing list of films I've been meaning to watch (which I'll do another post on), I leaned on video games for comfort and escape, broadening my horizons a little by trying genres that I've previously been skeptical of, and ever so slightly reducing the backlog of games I've bought in sales over the years but never had the time to actually play (then buying more games in subsequent sales, thereby perpetuating the cycle). The games listed below (and ranked in no order other than chronological) were the ones that proved especially meaningful, and made the long stretches of worry and isolation a little more bearable. 

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)

One of my favourite games of the last few years, and possibly of all time, was Hollow Knight, the gorgeously sad indie game from Team Cherry that really made me appreciate how much the exploration-plus-combat-plus-obtuse lore subgenre commonly known as Metroidvania has grown over the last few years. It also made me acutely aware that, for as much as I love some of its progeny and aspirants, I'd never played the game that really kickstarted the genre. So when I saw that Symphony of the Night was going cheap, I decided to enter Dracula's Castle and find out if man is, in fact, a miserable pile of secrets. Playing through the game felt a bit like homework at times - the combat is stodgier than I would like and some of the progression elements of the game, such as having to find new skills to uncover new areas, require so much backtracking that decent chunks of the game end up feeling like a slog - but you can't fault the ambition, the evocative Gothic style and ambience (aided by a wicked score), and the palpable sense that the team at Konami were defining a genre as they went along. Like watching old movies, it's both a joy on its own terms, and fascinating as a blueprint for what others would go on to do.

Super Mario Galaxy (2007)

Despite being an inveterate Nintendo hack for most of my life, I skipped the Wii and the WiiU entirely since they both came out during a period in my life when I wasn't really playing games (outside of drunken sessions of Rock Band), and as such missed out on a ton of games that have since been given new life on the Switch. Galaxy, being one of the only major 3D Mario games I'd never played, was my semi-joking white whale for years, and when it finally got a release as part of the (admittedly quite shitty and slapdash) Mario All-Stars package, I finally got to experience the dynamic, disorientating pleasures of Mario's journey through space. While the game has aged horribly in some respects - forcing the player to leave every level after collecting a star and using extra lives both feel positively paleolithic after Mario Odyssey dropped them - and the, ahem, switch from the Wii's motion controls to the weird compromise of using the touchscreen for handheld play is largely a wash, the breadth of imagination on display in the level design, boss fights and puzzles is undeniable. As with the best Nintendo games, there is a joy in merely existing in their worlds, in getting to wander around and see what new thing they have for you, and even when those "new" things are over a decade old, there's still a lot of wonder in discovering them for the first time. I eagerly await Nintendo finally putting out the second one so I can be overcharged for buying that as well.

Persona 4: Dancing All Night (2015)

I've never been particularly good at rhythm games, and before this year my knowledge of the Persona series of RPGs was pretty minimal, and was solely derived from watching the Giant Bomb Endurance Run of the fourth game. However, that exposure was enough to tell me that I really liked the music from that game, and when the rhythm game spinoffs of Persona 3, 4 and 5 went on sale earlier this year I thought it was worth a punt. I played through all three games in the space of a week, and while they're all really fun to play and they make fantastic use of the series' music and settings, Dancing All Night made the most impact on me thanks to its ridiculously in-depth story mode, which finds the group of inquisitive teens from Persona 4 going to Tokyo to perform at a concert, and winding up in a nightmare version of the collective unconscious in which they have to dance for their lives and ultimately save the world. The long stretches of the game that don't involve dancing, and instead feature characters talking at length about their fears and insecurities, make for a surprisingly soulful and moving experience, and adds unexpected weight to the dance sequences. The non-story modes that let you tackle different difficulties and rack up high scores give the game a huge amount of replayability, but that story and the characters are what really stand out.

Pac-Man Championship Edition 2 (2016)

Like Tetris, Pac-Man is such a foundational game that it's hard to imagine anyone improving on the basic concept. As with the euphoric joy of Tetris Effect, though, this update of the arcade classic takes the core ideas - you're still an incomplete pizza eating pellets and dodging ghosts - and adds layers that enhance the experience without needlessly complicating it. The relentless speed of the game, which finds you trying to complete as many mazes as possible in a short time and trying to rack up big combos by eating pellets and ghosts without dying - make it incredibly challenging to begin with, but also makes it intensely replayable as you try to squeeze in a few more pellets and add a few more points on each run. This was an invaluable stress reliever during the early days of the pandemic.

Persona 5 (2016)

I've always struggled with JRPGs, and I usually struggle with them in the exact same way; I get swept along for the first 10-15 hours or so, really enjoy getting to know the characters and discovering the mechanics, before falling off once the story loses momentum or it becomes a prolonged session of grinding and leveling up. Persona 5 avoids pretty much every pitfall I've encountered with other JRPGs by keeping that period of discovery going for about 30 hours, constantly introducing new mechanics, characters and locations so that it never feels like the game is settling into a rut, and by having a pretty relentless pace to its story. Your party - a group of teens who have the ability to enter the minds of criminals and evildoers, represented by Palaces that take the form of their targets' darkest desires - are always working to tight deadlines, so you have to complete each Palace and, in doing, induce a change of heart in the target, by a certain date on the calendar or risk utter failure. That keeps the game moving and provides a strong spine for all the other stuff that you get to do with your team, like study for exams, or work in a restaurant, or help a disgraced politician redeem himself and mount a comeback. The contrast between the mundanity of everyday life for the characters and the imaginative worlds they break into makes for a really compelling dynamic, yet the game makes both halves so distinctly and consistently fun and challenging that I never felt like I was wasting time by doing the normal stuff; it all felt like a necessary step on the journey. Also, in a year where so much of the world ground to a halt, it was always nice to have the opportunity to wander aimlessly around Tokyo in the rain, if only for a little bit.

Uncharted: The Lost Legacy (2017)

The Uncharted series has long been a blind spot for me, so when Sony put the first three games out for free at the start of the pandemic I took the opportunity to catch up on this touchstone series. Those first three remain pretty fun, with the second one being a particular highlight, but they also showed their age and the mix of Nathan Drake solving puzzles between murder sprees got a little tired after a while. I then immediately rolled into Uncharted 4: A Thief's End, which felt like a huge leap up in terms of its combat, stealth and story, but also wore out its welcome with its fairly glacial pace, which stretches the kind of fleet-footed adventure romp that would work perfectly as a two hour film to around twelve hours. This spinoff to the series, built on the same engine as Uncharted 4 but focusing on supporting characters Chloe Frazer and Nadine Ross, feels like the best of all possible worlds; the combat, puzzles and stealth are all as fine-tuned as they were in the previous game - I spent a pretty significant chunk of time trying to take out enemies without being seen when I could probably have blasted through it much more quickly just because it was so much fun to sneak around and choke out mercenaries - but it takes roughly a third of the time to finish, making for the sort of sharp, focused storytelling that fits the pulpy material. The pseudo-open world sequence that makes up the middle section of the game, in which Chloe and Nadine tear around in a jeep solving different puzzles in any order you like, is almost certainly the best thing the series ever achieved.

Return of the Obra Dinn (2019)

Lucas Pope is the absolute king of making games that sound unplayable on paper, but are totally riveting in reality. His previous game, Papers, Please, found you having to take on the role of an immigration official who has to determine who gets to enter a fictional Eastern Bloc country, while Return of the Obra Dinn has you play a nineteenth-century claims adjuster for the East India Company tasked with trying to figure out how exactly everyone on the titular ship disappeared. It's a dry concept, but thrilling in execution, because the way that you investigate is by using a magic compass to witness the moment when any given character dies, allowing you to wander around and investigate various morbid and macabre tableaux as you try to piece together the identities of the people on the ship, what happened to them, and why. It's a great, involving exercise in deductive reasoning that rewards careful observation, with each successful solution feeling like a real triumph given how shrewdly the game doles out information. The monochrome pointillist visual style and excellent score also help make Return of the Obra Dinn a thoroughly unique experience.

Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition (2020)

I first heard about Kentucky Route Zero in 2015 when I watched an old episode of the Besties in which they talked about it being one of the best games of 2013, but they also mentioned that at the time only two episodes and two interludes had been released, with five total full episodes planned. As someone who likes to play games in their entirety, I thought I'd wait until the whole thing was out, which surely would be soon. Five years later, the complete edition of the game finally came out and it was worth the wait. A surreal, unsettling, yet deeply felt game about people wandering a world they don't understand, it's the closest I've seen a video game get to the playful, humane sci-fi of Kurt Vonnegut, or the banal weirdness of Paul Auster. Directing the characters through the game's minimalist vision of America, engaging in conversations that never go how you'd expect, and which are often weird while still feeling true, makes for a wonderful, odd and unique experience.

Tony Hawk's Pro Skater 1+2 (2020)

I don't really have much nostalgia for the old Tony Hawk skateboarding games. The only iteration I ever put any time into was the Game Boy Advance version of the second game, which ruled, but wasn't exactly indicative of the overall experience of the series. Despite all that, when the remake of the first two games came out back in August, I found myself becoming mildly obsessed with watching people playing it online, until I couldn't resist buying it myself and putting hours and hours into completing every objective and getting the best high scores I could. As with Persona 5, I think at least part of that fascination comes from it being a game in which you can "go outside" and "do things" in a way that I avoided as much as possible for the majority of the year, but that undersells how rock solid the core elements of the Tony Hawk series are, and how well this spruced up version of the first two games showcases them. There is something so lizard brain pleasurable about picking up the game for the first time, eating absolute shit on your first attempt at the Warehouse as you learn the controls and figure out where everything is, then doing slightly better on the second attempt, and on every subsequent attempt, until you're racking up combos that run into seven or eight figures. That palpable sense of improvement is hard to beat as a motivator to keep playing a game. (Only my white-hot hatred of Downhill Jam, the worst level in either game, which I completed every objective on out of pure spite, surpasses it.)

Hades (2020)

I obviously didn't play enough games that came out this year to justify putting together a real game of the year list, but if I had, Hades would be number one with a bullet (or an arrow, or a sword, or a spear, depending on your preference). Set in the Underworld of Greek mythology, you play as Zagreus, son of Hades, as he tries to battle his way to the surface in order to find his long-lost mother, Persephone. It's a very simple loop: Zagreus enters a room, defeats all the enemies that appear, moves on to the next room, eventually fights some bosses, and if he dies at any point, he gets kicked back to the House of Hades and starts all over again. It's a straightforward run-based game, and while the mechanics of it alone would warrant its placement on this list - it is such a pleasure figuring out the patterns of the enemies, learning the best way to use the different weapons, and progressing closer and closer to the end - what cements it as a future classic is the writing. The exhaustive number of conversations that Zagreus has with the various Gods and denizens of the Underworld make developing relationships and learning about the lives of the other characters as much a driving force of playing Hades as hacking and slashing your way through Hell, and I certainly wouldn't have kept going back and completing dozens upon dozens of runs after beating the main core of the game if I wasn't so invested in figuring out how to reunite Orpheus and Eurydice, or romancing Thanatos. And that's without even getting into the artwork and design of the game, which is gorgeous and distinctive, and really brings Hades and its environs to vivid life.

Spider-Man: Miles Morales (2020)

As with Lost Legacy, Miles Morales feels like a refinement of its predecessor more than a revolution. Building on the scope and freedom of 2018's Spider-Man, this installment finds Peter Parker taking a much needed vacation and leaving New York in the (mostly) capable hands of his protegee, Miles Morales. As with the previous game, swinging around New York remains an indelible pleasure, even more so when it's covered in snow and Christmas decorations, and I spent so much of my time with the game just...hanging out, seeing what was up, occasionally stopping crimes and advancing the story whenever the mood took me. As with the first game, it's got some of the best bullshit in games: all the little side-quests, scavenger hunts and combat trials are really fun, and even when they aren't that compelling, you still get to swing around Manhattan and revel in the dynamism and movement of Miles as he comes into his own as a hero. Beyond that, this leaner spinoff cuts out some of the mission types that slowed down Spider-Man's momentum (namely the stealth missions where you had to play as Mary Jane or a pre-powers Miles) in favour of focusing on combat, stealth missions that actually let you take out enemies, and an engrossing story that feels like Spider-Man, while being distinctly different than the infinite number of Peter Parker stories we've seen over the years. New, yet familiar, is a tough balance to pull off but Miles Morales does it with style.