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  1. Hailinel

    Game of the Year 2020: Justin's Picks

    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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.) 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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.
  2. Jonathan Higgins

    Game of the Year 2020: Jonathan's Picks

    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. 1) Ikenfell 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.