I usually struggle to write the opening paragraph or two that sums up the year in order to lead into what I liked best, but... there is no “neatly summing up” 2020. As I write this, I’ve voluntarily reduced the hours I work to just 5 per week—I’m very much immunocompromised, and my grocery store job is far from the safest place I can be right now. I’m not struggling to put food on my table, and by the grace of a higher power I can even afford to pay my therapist.
But I’ve bought -- maybe -- three full priced retail games since April. And we’ll be several years into “the next generation” before I even think about being able to afford jumping in. Heck, it would be irresponsible to bring up some 2020 titles that do genuinely make me happy, like Streets of Rage 4 or Murder by Numbers... without also mentioning that how police are depicted in video games simply has to change. Black lives matter.
This year has done me... irreparable harm, to be frank. But I’m grateful to still be here near the end of it—so I’m going to talk about new-to-me titles that resonated the most during a very difficult time, whether they came out this year or not. And I’m not going to do so while closing my eyes to the turmoil around us, either.
Just days before the pandemic hit us all in full force, I was... at my best friend’s wedding, in Australia. I’m not really a Picross guy — numbers in excess kind of put me to sleep — but I was absolutely enthralled as we made our way through Murder by Numbers together during downtime. It’s a visual novel that definitely seeks to emulate the charm of the Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney series, and in my opinion it’s very successful. Instead of settling cases and advancing the plot in the courtroom, though, you play as a hovering robot named S.C.O.U.T. that pieces together evidence by means of Picross puzzles.
If Picross intimidates you as much as it does me, there’s an Easy Mode that essentially solves the puzzles for you, to just advance the plot. The strength of any visual novel relies on how well-developed its characters are and how sharp the writing is. I was definitely entertained. I do highly recommend it — but not without the caveat that it sticks to the status quo regarding how it portrays police work. It also goes without saying that I played through Murder by Numbers with one of my favorite people in the world, just days before everything went south & I was doomed to relative isolation and terror. It’s part of my most cherished memories from this year, so... maybe my glasses are a little rose-colored.
She sent me home with her copy of Fire Emblem: Three Houses, which currently sits in my top five most played software on Nintendo Switch. While it’s far from perfect, it’s absolutely the most satisfied I’ve been with the series since the one-two punch of Path of Radiance and Radiant Dawn. It kind of reminds me of Fire Emblem: Awakening in the sense that it’s tailored to both newcomers and series veterans alike. There are plenty of ways to make the experience as challenging or undemanding as you wish. Whether you’re in it for the strategic mechanics and cleverly moving your units around the battlefield like chess pieces in order to evolve as a tactician...or you’re just here to wander around the Church of Seiros and cry about the cute cats you can’t pet, or figure out what tea Dorothea likes best...there’s something there for everyone.
It was worth the more than 100 hours I put into just a single route of the three available, excluding DLC. The writing is poignant, particularly when you’re coming to terms with the fact that war and principles can and will turn former friends against each other, resulting in... ample murder. It’s not ashamed to make players feel the full weight of their violent choices, to say the least. And it doesn’t need an M rating or gratuitous blood splatters to do it, like that Final Fantasy XVI trailer.
Streets of Rage 2 is up there with games like Link’s Awakening and Sonic 3 & Knuckles that I call “cyclical” — I play it once a year, at least. Streets of Rage 4 evolves one of my favorites of all time in a way that gives me serious Sonic Mania vibes. The folks at DotEmu and Guard Crush knew exactly what they were doing when they set out to “revive one of the greats.” Rather than have me tell you how painstakingly the art direction tries to stick close to the ones that came before it while bringing the 90s visual philosophy into the modern era, this short video shows you. The music of Olivier Deriviere is eclectic, like something closer to Streets of Rage 3 than any of the others, but there’s the option to switch to a “retro soundtrack” too.
Far more important than presentation though in a genre like this, a beat ‘em up should be designed to have staying power. If it doesn’t feel right, the repetitive nature is going to cause most players to bounce quick. If you’re even mildly interested in the genre, I genuinely feel like you’ll keep coming back. Each new character you can play as feels unique — they all have strengths and weaknesses. Strong but very slow Floyd can handle himself much better than similar characters in the series: He just effortlessly picks up enemies when he walks up to them; he tosses multiple bodies around, clunking their heads together like we’re Looney Tunes. Since I’m a big fan of speed, I dreaded playing as him at first — but it didn’t take more than five minutes for him to grow into one of my favorites. As an added bonus, there are twelve old versions of characters you can play as too — like a pixel perfect version of Skate, plucked right out of Streets of Rage 2. He plays exactly like he does on the Genesis, emulating physics and special moves down to a tee.
You won’t be bored if you give Streets of Rage 4 a spin. But I’ll rephrase what I said about Murder by Numbers — playing it while George Floyd was in the news and there continues to be global protests against police brutality... made me uncomfortable. It’s something I’ll have to come to terms with every time I pick it, or anything Streets of Rage, up.
Before I get into what I consider to be my personal “Top 3”, I want to spend time talking about some honorable mentions. The Pokémon Shield Expansion Pass helped to breathe new life into an already great experience. Opinions will vary about the narrative, characters, and locales — but the reason it has staying power for me is due to this one character hanging out at the Battle Tower. His purpose is to take any Pokémon from any other “generation” going all the way back to the Game Boy Advance and make them able to participate in Ranked Battles. My fifteen year-old Pikachu can not only participate in official tournaments — but I can alter her stats with the use of Mints, change her innate ability to her Hidden one, give her exclusive moves without needing to hatch a brand new Pokémon from an egg... you understand. Thanks to the Expansion Pass and what was already available in the Galar region, no two of the same Pokémon will ever be inferior to each other if you’re willing to do the work.
The folks at HAL Laboratory have also kept me very entertained this year. Both Kirby Fighters 2 and Part Time UFO were “shadow-drops”, meaning they just... showed up out of the blue, typically right around the time I wondered what they were up to. I’ve already praised Part Time UFO’s mobile origins during a previous list, but — the Switch port is pretty phenomenal. They’ve added a co-op mode, four brand new levels, a “Hard Mode” that alters every single level, “Feats of Glory” that are basically achievements to make you approach certain tasks in certain ways, and even two brand new mini-games separate from the levels themselves that can add multiple hours onto your experience. It’s kind of the new gold standard of HAL ports, so I felt it deserves special recognition.
Last but not least — the big “Super Mario 35th” celebration has inspired me to play through every single “main” Mario title before March of next year. I’ve mashed everything in Super Mario All-Stars when they released it on the Nintendo Switch Online service, went back to the SNES and Super Mario Land era by way of my 3DS, gotten all 120 stars in everything on the Super Mario 3D All-Stars cart — the only ones I have left before Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury comes out are Super Mario Galaxy 2 and New Super Mario Bros. 2. While no traditional Mario title has really stood out this year, like Super Mario Odyssey in 2017 — Nintendo’s mascot has made for some good company during dark times.
Without further ado:
3) Animal Crossing: New Horizons & Spiritfarer
I’ve played Animal Crossing: New Horizons for “625 or more” hours since March, per my Switch Profile. Honestly though, I struggle to find its mechanical loop more satisfying than a game like Spiritfarer. Both of them are sort of “cozy town management sims”: you build a space into your own from nothing and run around completing tasks for cute characters (or yourself) like crafting items, altering clothes, or wishing on stars. Nothing’s timed; it’s all a super relaxed atmosphere. But Spiritfarer absolutely eclipses Animal Crossing in terms of how versatile the tasks themselves can be.
In Animal Crossing, you just wish on stars if they happen to show up on your island, then maybe find star fragments washed on your beach the next day. In Spiritfarer, you catch their essence in-hand as they blast down from the night sky with brilliant color, like fireworks. The former has iron and gold — the latter has over 10 different kinds of metals that you more or less earn by exploring the world around you. The villagers in Animal Crossing all tend to say the same things over and over — but Spiritfarer’s characters all contribute unique vignettes to an overall plot... that comes to an end.
That’s why Animal Crossing ultimately wins out over the two, to me. Spiritfarer has a very meaningful, very clear end-point. It impacted me emotionally in a way that few things have this year, because it forced me to confront mortality. That’s its message — imagine if you were saying goodbye to your cute New Horizons islander by sending them off to the afterlife because their spirit was finally at peace. It’s really all about letting go. Meanwhile — my adventures on the island of Dream Land have no defined end in sight. I keep coming back to it because it’s one of a few things I can have absolute control over, when reality is all but chaotic.
It’s something I can open up every single day for some much needed structure, during a time when even reporting to work regularly is kind of up in the air. It’s also been a means to interact with and see cherished friends I otherwise can’t. It’s done a lot to help cope with the isolation that comes with not leaving my apartment for reasons other than work. During any other year, I feel like I’d only be talking about only one of them here. Thunder Lotus should be applauded for managing to pry me away from my island for a while. But both of them deserve this spot, for how they’ve impacted me in different ways.
2) Chibi-Robo! Plug into Adventure
The news that Skip Ltd is essentially fading away inspired me to play through the entire Chibi-Robo! series, rather than just Zip-Lash where I started. While Park Patrol and Okaeri! Chibi-Robo! Happy Richie Ōsōji! (also known as Chibi-Robo! Clean Sweep) were super fun, especially relative to Zip-Lash — nothing quite holds a candle to the Nintendo GameCube original. It’s so difficult to describe why I found it so special — it’s like Chibi-Robo on GameCube has that “Nintendo magic.” I want you to picture the movie Toy Story, where the cast of characters are a bunch of quirky toys brought to life. But you have free reign to explore Andy’s whole house as you work to clean it, get to know the family that brought you home, make friends with the toys and learn their history with the family, and... in general, just try to make everyone around you happy.
It genuinely saddens me knowing that one of my personal favorites from this year is on the verge of being lost to time. Whether you buy a ridiculously expensive copy second-hand or you find other means to play it — it’s got to be one of my favorite things Nintendo has ever published, full stop. Skip Ltd — who also created things I still play like Art Style: PICTOBITS — is likely no more, but Chibi-Robo will absolutely stick with me. Happiness endures.
Ikenfell should be helpful for anyone who feels alienated by Harry Potter as of late. This is a story that “follows its big gay heart,” whose creators unabashedly believe that trans rights are human rights, that inclusivity and sensitivity are hugely important & can evolve any artistic work to its best form. You play as Maritte, an ordinary girl who stumbles into magical powers on her journey to Ikenfell, a magic school, looking for her sister Safina. Her quest to find her sister has her path cross with the most inclusive cast I’ve seen in an RPG in at least the past decade. A handful of playable characters are nonbinary, much of the cast are people of color, and all of their struggles (ones independent of gender or sexuality) and personal stories are given equal weight in the script. Ikenfell is, perhaps, one of the best examples for how much a sensitivity reader or diversity consultant can strengthen your work as a whole.
From start to finish, it absolutely oozes empathy. And I’m not just talking about the narrative or the presentation. Two of Ikenfell’s composers also scored Steven Universe, so I hesitate to just gloss over how great it all looks, sounds, and feels. But this is something that plays like Paper Mario: The Origami King, yet has options to specifically lessen the impact of timed commands in battle — or even skip battles entirely with an “Instant Victory” button. It includes the option to toggle content warnings in the script, which is an example all video games should follow. It’s not just about this being a game I thoroughly enjoyed, you know? Of everything I’ve played this year, Ikenfell feels the most like it should establish new paradigms both in the RPG genre and very much beyond it. Empathy must prevail.