The 2020 Manatees: Written Companion

So every year for Make Me A Gamer we do a podcast with our Game of the Year content, and every year I also do a write-up of my games of the year as a companion piece. This year we went over my top 5 of the year in the podcast itself, and here I’m gonna expand to my top 10 along with a few honorable mentions.

Nothing else to say, just good ol’ year-end summary of games content coming. Here we go!

Honorable Mention #1: Fuser

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Fuser is an amazing game that I just haven’t gotten to spend as much time with as I’d like. It brings together Harmonix’s signature talent and player creativity. Instead of recreating songs you enjoy through reflexes on plastic instruments and karaoke stylings, you get to mix and match songs as a stylish DJ. You just can’t stream it or else you’ll get DMCA’d.

That’s primarily why I haven’t played it as much as I wanted to – sharing my mixes and jamming out to freestyle sets was one of the main reasons I’ve wanted this game since I first played it in PAX East. It’s still a great game and it fills the void that Rock Band and Guitar Hero left after they disappeared. But one of the main reasons I enjoyed those games were the social aspect, and 2020 was not the year to have the ability to share my music online stripped away from me. It made me less willing to put time into the game even though I really, really enjoy the base mechanics of being a virtual DJ.

This probably would have been a surefire top 10 game if DMCA and social distancing didn’t get in the way. Alas.

Honorable Mention #2: Phoenix Point

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The time-honored tradition of a game releasing in December and me not getting enough time to dedicate to it rears its ugly head once again. Then again, Phoenix Point released on EGS in December 2019 and its year-long exclusivity ended in December 2020. So I guess it’s technically not a 2020 game either.

Phoenix Point is directed by the original XCOM creator and you can see a lot of the original XCOM in the way its designed, but it also takes a lot of key elements from the new Firaxis XCOMs as well. It adds interesting twists like a free-aim mode to add to your risk-reward shooting scenarios. AP and Will give you more flexibility during your turns beyond “move and ability” or “don’t move and use two abilities” that the Firaxis XCOMs give. It also has a few nice quality-of-life corrections like a unit stopping their movement if they see a new enemy without penalty, giving you a chance to course correct on the fly.

It hits the right spot for any fans of the new XCOM. It is stellar in some aspects but fails in others: for example the character customization front is limited and I don’t feel as attached to my troops as I normally do. I feel I’ll definitely enjoy it but I’ve barely scratched the surface so far and don’t know what the mid and endgame even look like, so I don’t feel right putting it anywhere in the top 10.

Honorable Mention #3: Ghost of Tsushima

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Ghost of Tsushima is a fantastic game. It has one of the best photo modes in recent memory, its visuals are stunning and beautiful, and the game’s combat feels perfect for the samurai setting once you get into its rhythm.

It’s also a large, open-world game with lots of little blips on the map, rumors to follow, and random birds to chase as you’re simply trying to get to the next actual objective and progress the story finally. But after you chase that bird you find a fox, and after you find a fox there’s a haiku to write. And so on, and so forth.

I really enjoyed the first act of Ghost of Tsushima and wanted to continue with the story. But when the first act was over and the map opened up to reveal a second, just as large section of map along with new quests that scattered over both sections of map, along with a third section still yet to be revealed I literally felt the weight of open-world exhaustion crushing me. At some point I’d like to go back and finish the game, as well as dive into the free added multiplayer. But I won’t before 2020 ends.

Okay, honorable mentions are over: let’s hit the top 10!

10. Panzer Paladin

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Panzer Paladin was a surprise. It came out of nowhere for me through a Nintendo Direct and I immediately grabbed it and fell in love. It’s like Blaster Master meets Mega Man with weapon degradation that actually works well with the gameplay. You play as Flame, who pilots a mech named Grit. There are distinct stages around the world, each with a boss based on local mythology (which I loved as an aspect of the game), and once you complete them all you go to a Wily Castle-esque final stage run before the final boss.

Grit uses all sorts of different weapons, from daggers to scythes to hammers, and can also cast magic abilities by destroying the weapon it’s holding. You upgrade Grit by combining weapons on the stage select screen, but each weapon is worth a specific amount of power. Rarer, powerful weapons are worth more, which makes you have to juggle using them (and degrading their power) versus keeping them pristine for upgrading later. Or do you use their very powerful magic spell and destroy them completely?

It’s a fairly standard melee platformer, but with all the little systems and tweaks it makes for a very fun, engaging experience. It’s also got a stellar retro sounding soundtrack (listen here and here for examples) if you’re into that kind of music. The only downside is the game doesn’t provide too much of a challenge if you have any experience in the genre, but that doesn’t detract from it overall.

9. The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope

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Supermassive Games have been riding off of Until Dawn’s success for half a decade now, and their latest entry is their best since that hit. They’ve refined the multiplayer aspects after Hidden Agenda and Man of Medan so that both playing a solo game and playing it co-op online makes sense. It also has one of the more engaging stories – while Man of Medan took a long time to get started and it didn’t feel like the plot kicked in until a third of the game was over, Little Hope starts off strong and keeps the pace going for the entire playthrough. The scares, enemies, and death-defying encounters are back-loaded as the first half is almost all set-up, but it works in this case because it makes you invested in the characters and mystery of Little Hope before shit gets real.

I don’t want to spoil too much about the game, but it also integrates a system that has been in every one of their games and makes it much more important to the story and saving everyone’s lives. I was extremely satisfied after playing this with a group of friends that watched and helped me with the decisions as we progressed through the story. In a year where we were looking to games for social escapes this provided a wholly unique experience that was enjoyable and shows that Supermassive has mastered their craft.

8. Spelunky 2

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I’m bad at Spelunky 2. My girlfriend gave me one of the most unintentional burns of the year when she came into the room while I was watching an expert Spelunker on Twitch and said “Oh, I haven’t seen this level before!” to which I had to reply, sadly, “It’s the second world.”

But that doesn’t make me enjoy the game any less. The original Spelunky was probably the first game in the overall roguelike genre I ever played, and I’m going to admit I probably didn’t understand it at the time. But now with more years and experience under my belt I do. Repetition, using your knowledge from your previous deaths, and figuring out how different mysteries and mechanics all link up – all of these things are important to the Spelunky formula. You can be a master at the game and then an unintended side effect of the physics sends a flaming corpse into you, blowing up your jetpack and destroying your perfect run before you can even process what happened.

It’s not only a fun game to play but it’s a fun game to watch. A top streamer can have a one second lapse of concentration and die, despite playing perfectly up until that point. It makes every run thrilling and sometimes the deaths are just too comedic to not enjoy. It’s a sequel that expands on the first game and has that addictive quality of “just one more try.”

7. XCOM: Chimera Squad

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The XCOM series is probably the series I champion for the most next to Mega Man, so when Chimera Squad was announced and dropped on Steam barely a week after its announcement I was overjoyed. It’s a reshuffling of the Firaxis XCOM formula; it’s much shorter and removes the global scale in favor of taking place in a single city. It also tries to focus more on the story element by giving you specific characters with unique abilities instead of generic troops that can be customized.

Like Phoenix Point, it takes the base framework of the games but changes the rules and adds new tweaks to the systems in an experiment to see what does and doesn’t work. The game adds “breaches” where the team gets a first surprise round as they enter a confrontation in a building. They also sacrifice the “we all move, they all move” turn system in favor of a specific character order that is always present. It makes the strategy feel different because you know which enemy is getting the next turn, giving you an opportunity to neutralize them first. Also for the first time in the XCOM series there are aliens on your side, so there are loads of new abilities and squad combos you can play with.

It comes together nicely as a spinoff for the XCOM franchise, but doesn’t reach the heights of its predecessor XCOM 2. It tried to focus on story and character moments but didn’t do enough with either of them to justify the concept. Still, it’s a very competent and fun strategy game with a jammin’ soundtrack (listen here and here for examples) – you could do a lot worse with $10.

6. Fall Guys

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Ever since Fortnite and PUBG made the battle royale scene explode, I’d always longed for a battle royale that didn’t involve shooting. And I’m a platformer gamer at heart. I grew up on the NES and SNES so my home and comfort is platforming. Mega Man, Castlevania, Mario, Kirby, those were the games I grew up on. So when a battle royale filled with multicolored beans platforming their little hearts out arrived on the scene, you better believe I was all over it.

I’m not the best at Fall Guys. But I’m also not bad at it. And it was really comforting to play a multiplayer game that I had some actual talent at. Yes, these silly beans have weird physics and sometimes gravity just ruins your day and sends you into the slime. Or sometimes you pressed that damn jump button but you didn’t jump so the twirling stick sends you flying off your platform you stupid game dammit I was so close to a crown that time. Oh well, let’s start another game.

It’s fun with friends, it’s fun by yourself, it’s just plain fun. I don’t mind losing because it’s such a joyous, stress-free experience to see the Fall Guys run around being their beany selves. Sometimes I grab people, sometimes I get grabbed. It’s how the world works in Fall Guys. And really, who would turn down a hug from a bean after 2020?

5. Spider-Man: Miles Morales

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Spider-Man: Miles Morales is a damn good game. I’m not as familiar with Miles’ comic stories as I am with Peter, so it was a breath of fresh air to get a Spider-Man story I wasn’t already familiar with. Miles is a fantastic protagonist and his supporting cast is just stellar. It also doesn’t try to recreate or emulate Into the Spider-Verse (other than having the suit as one of the options for Miles to wear), choosing instead to weave its own mythology around Miles.

It’s the same high quality that Insomniac gave the first Spider-Man game. The web-swinging is still the best open-world traversal I’ve ever used. Their version of NYC is still fun to explore and collect all the collectables in. Miles even has new powers that make combat a lot more fun – his stealth ability makes encounters much more bearable, allowing you to retreat and take stock if you make a mistake. It’s also a nice, smaller game that allows you to breathe and doesn’t bog you down with too much map or too many quests. 

All in all this is a solid addition to the franchise. I played it on PS4 and everything worked smoothly for me, and I’ve heard the graphics on PS5 are phenomenal. If you’re hankering for more Spider-Man, this is worth your while and only makes the wait for the next game even harder.

 

4. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

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Is there a 2020 Game of the Year list that doesn’t have Animal Crossing on it? I can’t imagine a world like that. This game came out at the perfect time and was the greatest escape anyone could have hoped for in the hellscape of 2020’s pandemic. It’s my most played Switch game by far (eclipsing both Slay the Spire and Fire Emblem) and even now I’m still checking in with my villagers as the new year approaches. I’d never been a fan of the series before this entry, but I’m a fan now.

There’s not much else I can say about this game other than it’s the most relaxing game I’ve ever played. I can reach a zen-like state and spend two hours picking weeds, chatting up my villagers, and finding some new task to do that I swore I didn’t ever need to do again. Every time I think I’ve got my island perfected, a new item shows up in the store that I have to display or I decide to move a house and rearrange a pathway. Or I just need some more blue flowers.

To Sherb, Nana, O’Hare, Bonbon, Rowan, Marshal, Sprinkle, Monty, Zucker, and Erik – my current villagers; to Renee and Tiffany and Spike and Midge – my villagers who have moved away to another wondrous island; to Tom Nook and Isabelle and Timmy and Tommy and Mabel and Flick and all the others who make my island a wonderful place to visit – thank you for being there, for always being happy to see me and always being positive in 2020. You may be pixels on a screen, but you’re my neighbors and you helped me get through this year as much as any real person did.

3. Yakuza: Like A Dragon

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Yakuza: Like a Dragon is the biggest surprise to me this year. I tried and failed to really get into Yakuza 0, despite hearing so many good things about the series. The sheer scale of having 6 more games of story after it was wildly intimidating. Also brawlers have never really been my favorite genre.

Then comes Like A Dragon, the JRPG of my dreams.

It’s a soft reset of the Yakuza story, introducing a new protagonist and completely changing the main genre of the game. The main character, Ichiban Kasuga, is a Dragon Quest fan and envisions himself as a hero. This is the framing device for why every menacing man you fight in the street morphs into a turn-based battle. And even though it doesn’t need to do that, the game makes it work. Just like it does everything else. Do you want heart-wrenching drama? This game’s got it. Do you want slapstick comedy? This game’s got it. Do you want go-kart racing? Or golfing? Or a business empire mini-game? Or random trivia quizzes? Or karaoke? This game’s got all that.

It also crams every RPG trope in there as well. Do you want a job system? Have a job system! Do you want social links to characterize your party members more? Yeah, have that too! Do you like heartwarming sidequests about a little girl trying to get donations for her little brother who needs surgery? Or do you want wacky sidequests where a giant robot vacuum terrorizes the city? This game has both! Do you want obscenely good battle music to accompany all of this? Hell yeah it has that too!

It’s hard to think of another game that is jampacked with as much diverse content as Yakuza: Like A Dragon. On top of that it’s an accepting, progressive game where the protagonist grew up around sex work and listens to people, no matter what their station in life is. If you’re looking for an entry point into this series it’s a great place to start. Yakuza: Like a Dragon is honestly one of the best games I’ve ever played, not even just this year, and yet somehow it’s just #3. That’s how good this year was for games.

2. Hades

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What can I say about Hades that hasn’t already been said by many other journalists across the last several months? It’s an engaging roguelike that winds the story into the restrictions of the genre and makes it so you want to do more runs just to see what happens next with the characters. Roguelikes a lot of the time are very light on the story because of the repetitive nature: Hades throws that out the window and changes everything about the genre.

Every time you finish a run – whether you beat the last boss or died on your way there – the characters back in the home base area have new things to say to you. You collect gifts to give them on your runs which unlock new abilities or story beats. You start to redecorate the halls more to your liking – you get new music to play while you’re running around chatting with everyone. Dying in Hades isn’t a game over – it’s progression. And while that’s true in most roguelikes, Hades is the game that makes you the most acutely aware of it.

And even if we weren’t talking about the fantastic characters or phenomenal artwork that draws you in, the mechanics and gameplay of the game itself are just top-shelf. With six different weapons and four variations on each weapon, you always have ways to switch up your runs at the beginning. Then unlocking heat levels lets you add as much or as little challenge as you want. And then finding those sweet, sweet boon combinations that let you terrorize the denizens of Elysium are the chef’s kiss on top of the cherry on top of the sundae. (Ares and Artemis, I love you for your Hunting Blades.)

Hades is a revolutionary game for the roguelike genre. As much as I love playing games like Spelunky and Dead Cells, now that I know characters and story can be wound into completing runs I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to go back. I’ve beaten it over 20 times now and still want to play more. (And of course the soundtrack is full of bangers like this and this because of COURSE it is.) Even if you’re not a fan of the genre, this is the game that will make you a fan. Believe it.

1. Final Fantasy 7 Remake

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I took 341 screenshots while playing Final Fantasy 7 Remake. And that was without a photo mode. (For comparison, I took 67 screenshots in Ghost of Tsushima and that was WITH a photo mode.)

I don’t know what exactly that says about me. But what was definitely going through my head was “oh my god, this is so beautiful” “oh my god, Aerith looks so good in hi-def” “oh my god Reno” “oh my god Midgar” “oh my god oh my god oh my god” and so on and so forth.

Final Fantasy 7, the original, got me to get a Playstation. I didn’t think about just how important it was to me until I realized how much FF7R was affecting me while I played it. From the musical remixes to seeing familiar scenes play out with actual characters and not blocky polygons – this game had my attention through all of it’s plot and fetch quest sidequests. The melding of turn-based and action-based combat was phenomenal and the way they used materia in the new gameplay was perfect.

But then on top of all that it did something extraordinary – it didn’t just retell Final Fantasy 7.

Yeah, sure, it expanded on Biggs, Wedge, Jessie, and Avalanche like everyone expected when we learned it was just going to take place in the Midgar portion of the game. But it also weaved a completely new narrative around the familiar story beats. And I’m not just talking about Chadley. It turned a well-known story completely on its head while allowing itself to continue to explore more familiar story elements in later entries. Or maybe branch off into a completely new story entirely.

I know it wasn’t what a lot of people expected or wanted from a Final Fantasy 7 Remake. It didn’t end up being a 1:1 translation of FF7 into HD. Instead it opened up a new world and created a new story that is wholly unique to video games. I’m hard-pressed to think of a medium that could do the same thing FF7R did that isn’t video games, to be quite honest. And that’s why this is my game of the year. It not only hit every nostalgia button I wanted it to, but it gave me something I didn’t even know I wanted.

In a world of remasters and rereleases, Final Fantasy 7 Remake didn’t just pretty up an old game for fans – it gave them something new. And I couldn’t be happier.