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Game of the Year 2020: Justin's Picks


Hailinel

Well.

2020 sure has been a year. With the pandemic having turned literally everything sideways, and so many awful, stressful other events of the past twelve months, I can definitely say that I have never been more eager for a calendar year to just end, already. 

I’m fortunate that, in this year of lockdowns and quarantines, video games have done a good job of keeping me occupied and entertained even at times when the entire world was seemingly on fire and there’s been little I could do but hold on for the ride.

And certainly, this year has left a mark on the games I played, and what I chose to put on my top ten list.

 

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10.  Jump Rope Challenge

In truth, I’ve only ever booted Jump Rope Challenge a couple of times since its surprise release on the Switch eShop this past summer, but it really did its job. A simple app that simulates jumping rope with Joy-Con controllers, I found out very quickly just how out of shape I was from spending several months doing little but staying in my own home. At a time when Ring Fit Adventure was constantly out of stock (and to be frank, I don’t have the space to play it regardless), Jump Rope Challenge provided some quick motivation to search for ways to keep in shape for the long haul of this year.

So even though there’s not much to the game, it had a much bigger, definite impact on me in a physical sense than any other game on this list.

 

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9.  Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae

Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae is, to be fair, not a 2020 game. It originally released back in 2014, but I only played it at length this year. However, if The Game Awards can give the 2018 game Among Us accolades in 2020, a year in which the concept of time has lost all meaning, then I don’t think it’s unfair to give Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae some credit of its own.

A breezy, independently-produced action game, MKH can be cleared in from start to finish in about an hour, with stages that are no more than wave upon wave of increasingly difficult enemy encounters, each punctuated with a boss. Character upgrades, including new attacks, techniques, and stat boosts can also be purchased with points in between levels. It’s a very straight-forward action game in its intent, with only the barest bones of a story, but it does remarkably well with what little there is to it.

 

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8.  Code Vein/Nioh 2

The Soulslike action subgenre is one I’ve always respected but have historically had a hard time getting into. I bounced off of From Software’s original Demon’s Souls, and bounced even harder off of Bloodborne. Though in the past year, I’ve come to realize that maybe it’s just the case that From Software’s Souls games and the specifics of their gameplay and concepts just don’t gel with me.

Both Code Vein and Nioh 2 are games that I tried in the early part of this year, and had the world been a different place, I might have had the energy to stay with longer. But the time that I did put into them, I greatly enjoyed. Code Vein stands out as the first Soulslike that caught me in its hooks enough that I could put up with its punishing aspects and learn my way around it, while Nioh 2’s feudal Japan setting and polished gameplay kept me at it in a similar fashion.

If I had to give one game or the other the edge, it might end up being Code Vein today, or Nioh 2 tomorrow. Either way, it’s a coin flip, but both sides are a winner.

 

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7.  Sakura Wars

As awful as 2020 has been, it did finally bring us the first Sega-published localization of a Sakura Wars title! It’s also a very different game from any previous entry, serving as a soft reboot that follows a new Sakura and trades away the turn-based strategy combat mechanics for hack-and-slash action reminiscent of a Musou title.

Those admittedly stark differences aside, the new Sakura Wars is very much worthy of the name. Part mecha action, part romance visual novel, the game puts players in the role of Seijuro Kamiyama, the newly appointed captain of the Imperial Combat Revue’s Flower Division, tasked with rebuilding it from near scratch with the aid of the earnest Sakura Amamiya. The cast of colorful and eclectic performers lift the presentation, and with a premise that looks to a new future for the series while fully embracing its past.

 

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6.  Super Mario Bros. 35

If Tetris 99 were the realization of the once-joke idea of Tetris becoming a battle royale, Super Mario Bros. 35 is a reprise of the same notion. Take a game that’s very much not a battle royale, and turn it into a quality multiplayer experience of genre chaos in which dozens of players battle against each other, and in which only one is left standing.

For a couple of reasons, Super Mario Bros. 35 is more my speed than Tetris 99, or Fortnite, or any of the other BR titles that have released in the past several years. The first is that my record is simply better. While I have yet to win a single round of Tetris 99 against armies of Tetris masters, and I only ever eked out one win in Fortnite by sheer dumb luck, I have a respectable number of wins in Super Mario Bros. 35 that I always feel can grow larger. The skill floor remains accessible even months after launch, when in the same time span Fall Guys both launched and became competitively impenetrable within the span of a few weeks.

Super Mario Bros. 35 makes perfect sense in practice, as it follows the same basic rules of Tetris 99. Enemies you kill are sent to the games of other players, populating the levels in ways that can surprise and confound them. And of course, the other players can do the same thing to you. In all my years of playing the original Super Mario Bros., I have never seen such surreal chaos as a gauntlet of multiple Bowsers guarding the path to the actual Bowser encounter at the end of a castle, or being assaulted by a dozen Lakitus at once, all raining Spiney hell down on me. It’s good, chaotic fun.

(Fall Guys is a terrible game living off a zeitgeist. Thank you for coming to my TED Talk.)

 

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5.  Hatsune Miku:  Project Diva Mega Mix

Mega Mix serves the distinction of being the first Project Diva on a Nintendo console, and it remains as fun as ever! With a new cel-shaded art style, the classic song videos have received a fresh coat of cel-shaded paint, and the collection of tracks, while not nearly the total of what Future Tone brought to the PS4, is still a fantastic package.

Had 2020 not gone the way it has, I’d have attended a Miku Expo concert this year. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be, as the concert was delayed, and ultimately cancelled. But Project Diva Mega Mix has been a wonderful dosage of Miku to sate me for the year. And, just as Miku Expo will continue next year in a new digital concert form, hopefully there will be more Project Diva in the future.

 

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4.  Xenoblade Chronicles:  Definitive Edition

It’s kind of hard to believe at this point, but once upon a time, North American RPG fans had to essentially beg in tearful supplication for Nintendo of America to release the original Xenoblade Chronicles in their region. To this day, I have no idea what it was that made NOA so remarkably hesitant to publish the game, even after its European localization, but it’s safe to say that those days of recalcitrance are over. Not only has the original Xenoblade Chronicles been followed by two new games released worldwide without drama, but it has now been released on both the 3DS and, as of this year, the Switch.

Definitive Edition is, from a visual perspective, everything I could have really wanted from a remaster or remake. While the original Wii title is well regarded for its sprawling landscapes and fantastic art direction, the technical side of the graphics were held back. This new release brings the graphics to a level on par with Xenoblade Choronicles 2, in addition to touch-ups to the gameplay and music. The only thing it’s really missing from past releases is the amiibo functionality of Xenoblade Chronicles 3D, though that was so limited it’s hard to really miss that much.

The biggest addition to the game, the Future Connected epilogue, isn’t what I would call essential. It provides some nice closure for threads that were left hanging at the end of the original release, but otherwise doesn’t flow as strongly or feel as realized as the original, main game. But being inessential doesn’t mean bad, and the lower points of Future Connected are easy to overlook when the rest of the package is made up of a modern classic given a new polish.

 

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3.  Hyrule Warriors:  Age of Calamity

A release that caught a lot of people by surprise, Hyrule Warriors:  Age of Calamity takes the gameplay of the original Hyrule Warriors and, instead of focusing the story on a thinly plotted, festival-style crossover of Zelda characters and content, it centers specifically on the world of Breath of the Wild. Set during the era that ultimately gave rise to Calamity Ganon, it gives new attention to characters and events that only received brief screen time in Breath of the Wild due to its flashback method of storytelling.

A refinement of everything that the original Hyrule Warriors introduced with some BotW-themed twists, Age of Calamity plays similarly to its predecessor, but stands out on its own. It takes the challenges of the original game’s Adventure Mode and merges them with the story mode, resulting in a game loaded with content that doesn’t feel segmented off. The game even lets you pilot the Divine Beasts in stages tailored to them, annihilating bokoblins and moblins by the hundreds with single attacks.

And that’s without getting into the plot twists that make Age of Calamity more than just a prequel with an inevitably tragic end.

 

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2.  Final Fantasy VII Remake

The mad lads at Square Enix did it. They actually did it!

The first chapter in what is intended to be a multi-game series, Final Fantay VII Remake is, as the title would suggest, a remake of the original Final Fantasy VII. Or more specifically, a full-length RPG that reimagines the first eight hours of the original game set in the city of Midgar. The remake sets out to tackle the challenge of giving long-time fans what they want while also challenging those same fans with the presentation of something new and different.

Remake takes what existed before, and fleshes those early hours of Final Fantasy VII out, giving life and color to characters and locales that were briefly only glimpsed. The Avalanche members Biggs, Wedge, and Jessie all have larger roles to play, and they all feel like proper characters this time around, as opposed to extras that are there to serve as a plot device. Locations like the Sector 7 slums feel like proper explorable towns rather than small, sparsely populated maps, giving off a better sense of scale to the city of Midgar. And the core cast of Cloud, Tifa, Aerith, and Barret all shine bright, staying true to their original selves while showing new, entertaining sides afforded by the more in-depth storytelling and top-notch voice acting.

For me, Remake’s best moments are later in the game, in Wall Market. What appeared in the original game as a quirky, peculiar story quest with the goal of disguising Cloud as a woman to infiltrate the mansion of Don Corneo has become a lavish spectacle of colorful characters, sidequests, and events, with some variations that differ depending on dialogue choices made and actions taken (or not taken) throughout the game to that point. It even manages to insert one of the original Final Fantasy VII’s more abstract, absurd enemy encounters, the Hell House, as a showpiece story boss that’s also a surprising challenge. And the payoff for this entire sequence of events is chef’s-kiss fantastic.

The only disappointment I really feel is the knowledge that it will be years before Remake Part 2 is released.

 

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1.  Animal Crossing:  New Horizons

If there is one game above all others that will define 2020 for me, it is Animal Crossing: New Horizons. Released by sheer coincidence at the same time as the pandemic began the worst of its initial spread and lockdowns came into effect around the world, New Horizons is an escape. The world outside may be a hellscape that defies the laws of space-time, but the world Tom Nook and Isabelle is a constant, welcoming presence.

And it doesn’t hurt at all that New Horizons may be the best Animal Crossing in the series thus far. No, it doesn’t have all of the furniture that appeared in New Leaf, and the Nooklings’ shop only has one upgrade at present. But the game offers the freedom to design the island you want, from the placement of villager houses and pathways to the layout of rivers and mountains. While there’s a limited selection of initial island landscapes to choose from, no two islands will ever be alike in the end.

As the pandemic raged and it made it difficult to see my friends in person, New Horizons was there to pick up the slack.  We’ve celebrated holidays and fireworks, commiserated at the scourge of Zipper and those damned eggs, and even celebrated a birthday with an elaborate and stylish party! We’ve screwed around with beach balls, given the side-eye to Redd, planted flowers everywhere, and marveled at Sherb.

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SHERB!

Animal Crossing:  New Horizons is the game that I needed this year, and it arrived at just the right time.  It’s provided me with new routines when all of my old ones were thrown into disarray. It’s given me a chance to see an island grow from nothing into a bustling village in a year when I’ve only been able to see my friends face to face a handful of times. And finally, FINALLY, I have played an Animal Crossing where I managed to collect ever single fossil there is.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, RNG.

While I don’t play New Horizons as fervently or at length as I did earlier in the year, I still manage to clock in a little time every day. There will likely come a time when I put it aside, but until that day comes, the villagers of my island remain a part of my life, and continue to keep me sane in the waning days of this nonsense garbage year that we all can’t wait to leave behind. 2021 may be around the corner, but Animal Crossing:  New Horizons is without a doubt my game of 2020.

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