2020 sucked, and that’s about all the introduction that it deserves. Let’s get straight into ten games I played last year that are worth talking about and may have even been worth celebrating, if perhaps I had only played them during a year that was less notably shitty.
Just two quick things to note; firstly, this list is not in any order, because I planned lists similar to this for the last two years and then never got around to finishing them because I got stuck in internal debates over whether Return of the Obra Dinn was better than WarioWare Gold, which I always find difficult when I enjoy two games a similar amount, but they do completely different things. Second, as I do most of my gaming on Steam, and I only really got into the hobby in the mid-2000s, very few of the games listed here will have actually come out in 2020, and since my best friend got me a Genesis Mini and an NES Mini for my birthday and Christmas, that probably won’t be coming to an end any time soon. On the bright side, I finally beat Ninja Gaiden without cheating.
So before we get into the list, here are some honourable mentions, and since I have an unnatural skill for turning even the most basic of sentences into a long-winded ramble, I’ll be trying to limit myself to just a sentence or two each. Here we go!
This would have absolutely made the Top 10 if it wasn’t so good that I’ve half-convinced myself that I’m going to write a full article on it, which is also why Deleveled, Keen: One Girl Army and Jenny LeClue: Detectivu aren’t on here. Reminds me a lot of Animal Crossing, but with a defined beginning, middle and end that conclusively tells a whole story, in contrast to Nintendo’s philosophy of “Play until you slowly get bored enough that you don’t want to play anymore.”
LocoRoco, but explicitly anticapitalist. 10/10.
Ah, back when retro-stylized pixel art frustratingly-difficult platformers weren’t quite so common. Whilst not groundbreaking, 1001 Spikes is still one of the best and comes highly recommended.
What if The Witness… was good? Really fun and beautiful puzzle-maze game where you’re a figure on a road sign, travelling through other road signs, posters and post-it notes on a memorable journey through a variety of gorgeous environments.
Speed Dating For Ghosts
Charming, adorable, hilarious. I made one of my friends play and then asked them who was their least-favourite ghost, and they immediately saw through my trick question because they are all amazing.
Assemble With Care
Reminds me of The Room – the fantastic series of puzzle-box solving adventures from Fireproof Games, not the Tommy Wiseau disasterpiece – but with a cute, happy art style and the story from a Saturday morning cartoon.
The Gardens Between
Fun time-manipulation puzzle game reminiscent of Braid or The Misadventures of P.B. Winterbottom about two friends exploring beautiful 3D islands showcasing their friendship by moving on mostly-linear paths featuring key spots where you can interact with items and find a way forwards by changing the world around you.
And now, in no particular order except for the last two, here are the ten best games I played in 2020.
The St Christopher’s School Lockdown
It feels really cheap that I specifically didn’t put Mutazione on this list because I’m planning to write a whole article about it, and then I go and put The St Christopher’s School Lockdown on this list specifically because I did write a whole article about it, but to be completely honest in the most unsurprising way, 2020 generally made me feel depressed, deflated, and demotivated. And yet, within half an hour of playing Classroom Graffiti Productions’ story of a young woman accidentally caught up in a private school protest, I knew I had to write something about it, and unlike most other titles I played last year that made me feel like that, it had such an effect on me that I persevered through my inconceivable laziness and actually did it.
The depiction of class division through the eyes of the black sheep, Kayleigh, who is emphatically not a student, but joins the protest to keep a low profile (and hopefully grab something valuable before she can escape) is hilarious, irreverent, and genuine. The other students in the game managed to be friendly, condescending, completely ill-prepared, unintentionally elitist and wholeheartedly sympathetic all at the same time, helped by the great voice-acting and the phenomenal writing. It might be a little bit janky, even by indie point-and-click standards, but The St Christopher’s School Lockdown is truly one of the best games I’ve played all year, and while it may be a little too late for it to get the attention it deserves, I still hold out hope for an eccentric lottery-winner (preferably me) to fund the sequel.
The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap
Last year, The Legend of Zelda: Spirit Tracks would have been on my best list, and The Minish Cap makes it on here for a very similar reason. Neither of them is particularly fantastic by Zelda standards; I would even go as far as to say that they are both completely average entries in the franchise.
But a completely average Zelda game is still, like… an easy 8 or 9 out of 10.
The Minish Cap is a great example of just how good the average game in the Zelda franchise still is. Original, interesting and challenging dungeons, which bring back traditional items like the bow, bombs, and Pegasus boots, while also introducing new ones like the Gust Jar and Cane of Pacci. Kinstone pieces, which function similarly to the treasure maps in The Wind Waker, adding an extra step in the process of finding your treasure, but this time instead of scouring the seven seas, you just have to traverse the world talking to people, and you’re going to want to keep exploring because the more experience you have, the more likely you are to spot all of the places where Link can use the titular Minish Cap to shrink down and find new secrets. A figurine quest that’s actually possible and relatively easy to complete. A villain who isn’t hijacked by Ganondorf at the last moment.
This was also the last handheld Zelda game before A Link Between Worlds where you could find Heart Pieces, and not just very rare Heart Containers, so you have more of an incentive to go searching in every dungeon and listen to the concerns of every citizen you come across, because you never know just how important the reward could be. Ocarina of Time had its Golden Skulltulas, Twilight Princess had the ghostly Poes and The Wind Waker had that whole Picto Box quest, but it’s only ever the handheld Zelda games (and, oddly enough, Skyward Sword) that keep me engaged long enough to actually finish them to 100% completion.
So The Minish Cap makes it on the list not by being a phenomenal game in a good series, but a good game in a phenomenal series.
Electronic Super Joy II
True story; I got half an hour into this game and had to DM a friend on Twitter to ask them if it was part of that ‘Frog Fractions’ series they’ve told me about. Don’t worry if you don’t understand that, I don’t either.
Electronic Super Joy is a fantastic game. It’s a fairly standard retro pixel-art platformer, but with imaginatively-designed levels, bizarre snippets of humour, and a soundtrack that makes ‘Rave On’ from Killer7 sound like ‘Twinkle Twinkle Little Star’. It was followed by some DLC packs that were also great, and a standalone side-game with the subtitle Groove City, but it never quite recaptured the unique mixture of charm, challenge, cheese and creativity that made the original package so appealing. Completely intentional innuendo right there, as the checkpoint/respawn noises in both games are the satisfied moans of men and women.
Then Electronic Super Joy II came out, and the magic was back! I’m not sure I can phrase things better than the store page; “Enjoy 4 brutally difficult Boss Fights, including stealing Mega-Satan’s Butt, earning Slime-Daddy’s love and murdering Santa Claus (he’s gone insane & is eating all the reindeer).” The Slime-Daddy thing was especially memorable, because in the first level with him, you’re chasing him down to prevent him from reaching your mother, but then when you make it to the end, it turns out that Slime-Daddy and your mother are in a completely consensual relationship, and Slime-Daddy becomes your Dad, and in the next level, you’re still chasing him down, but now he’s throwing baseballs at you which you have to catch, and when you catch them, his hand pops up somewhere and you have to rush to it and give him a high-five while he says things like “Put ‘er there, slugger!” and “That’s my little champ!” and it’s actually quite wholesome that you’re… really putting in the effort to… because he makes your mom happy, so… what the fuck am I talking about?
You know what? That’s the perfect way to sum up the Electronic Super Joy experience. What the fuck am I talking about? If you want to know, go play it yourself, because the sequel is free (although you can pay for a ‘Gold Edition’ if you’d like to support the dev, which you should,) and there’s also a whole series of levels that are literally just DOOM but with Electronic Super Joy sprites. It’s wonderful. Go play it.
If The Minish Cap was my 2020 replacement for 2019’s Spirit Tracks, then Banjo Kazooie was a replacement for Donkey Kong 64, which, unfortunately for the titular bird and bear combo, was probably the superior of the two games. But Banjo Kazooie still marks a high point of Rare’s utter dominance of 3D collectathon platformers from the late 90s; a high point that landed the duo in Super Smash Bros more than 11 years after their most recent game was released, which I thought was really impressive, until I remembered that there hasn’t been a new F-Zero game since 2004.
I was reluctant to start Donkey Kong 64 and Banjo Kazooie for the longest time, and my reasoning may sound stupid, but that’s only because it absolutely is. I’d watched speedruns of them both at Games Done Quick events, and while I was impressed with both the games and the runners, they left me thinking “Whoa! Look at all those crazy hidden objects they’re finding, and seemingly random objectives they’ve got to complete! I’d never figure out where to find those!” Years later, I discovered that miraculously, these games were actually designed to take longer than an hour and a half to complete, and that there are actually, like, visual cues and things that help you find what you’re looking for without getting confused or lost. Throughout the entire game, the only Jiggy that I needed a walkthrough to find was the trapped dolphin in Rusty Bucket Bay, and even that was more of a “D’oh!” moment than something the game should’ve done more to point out.
It may not have ever reached the dizzying heights of Lanky Kong playing the trombone in order to trick King K.Rool into running onto a banana peel, but Banjo Kazooie is still a thoroughly enjoyable and well-made adventure that sends wave after wave of serotonin coursing through my 100% completion-addicted brain with every Jinjo, Jiggy or Eekum Bokum I collect. That’ll do, bear. That’ll do.
If The Minish Cap was 2020’s Spirit Tracks, and Banjo Kazooie was 2020’s Donkey Kong 64, then the 2019 game that DARQ would just barely fail to live up to would be Little Nightmares, which was just amazing from start to finish, 10/10, one of my new favourite horror games, and I swear this is going to be the last spot where I introduce the game like this. I’m hesitant to explain one of the coolest things about this game, which is that Wlad Marhulets, the solo developer behind DARQ, was approached by Epic Games with a lucrative offer to make this title another Epic Store Exclusive, and in spite of standing to make a very sizeable profit, he turned them down because he had already promised supporters that they would be able to buy it on Steam. The reason I’m hesitant to say that is because DARQ doesn’t deserve to just be known as ‘that game made by that cool guy who turned down Epic Games to avoid breaking a promise to his fans’, but deserves to be known as a genuinely exceptional game on its own merits.
DARQ is pretty light on story, by which I mean that unless you read the supplementary material, you won’t even know that the protagonist is named Lloyd. Lloyd is asleep and trapped in a lucid nightmare filled with a series of surreal horrors which he must venture through. Fortunately for Lloyd, he’s a massive fan of Inception, and as such he can kind of… rotate gravity at his will. If he comes across an unobstructed wall, he can just step straight onto it, and that wall will become the floor, until he needs to walk somewhere else.
For a game filled to the brim with horror, it doesn’t have a lot of jump-scares, preferring instead to intimidate you through its bleak atmosphere, leaving you in constant fear of being alone, and then wishing that you could go back to being alone as soon as you see a shambling corpse, or a mannequin-lady with a lampshade for a head, or a wheelchair-bound man whose entire upper torso appears to be a tuba. It’s that kind of game. With terrifying levels and little story but tons of imagery open to your interpretation, DARQ is a game that deserves to succeed solely on the merits of it being an extremely good game. Also, the developer felt that it should’ve been longer, so he’s added two completely free levels as DLC too.
Sonic 3 & Knuckles
In spite of having finished, by the beginning of this year, Sonic the Hedgehog, Sonic Adventure 1 & 2, Sonic Advance 1, 2 and 3, Sonic Rivals 1 & 2, Sonic Rush, Sonic Rush Adventure, Sonic Heroes, Sonic Colours and one full and entire game of Sonic Shuffle, I still didn’t consider myself to have played many Sonic games, and I think that’s because I never finished the original trilogy. I beat the first game as part of Sonic Mega Collection, but the lack of a save function and the constant fear that the Chaos Emerald I’d just missed was important had prevented me from getting into them. But this year, I got a Genesis Mini for my birthday, so I finally found the key I’d been missing that unlocked the whole series for me.
I am, of course, talking about Dr. Robotnik’s Mean Bean Machine.
Ok, so I’m not, but I genuinely did beat that game too and it was pretty fun. But Sonic 3 & Knuckles is the game that finally made the old trilogy click for me. With the simple addition of a save file, and the ability to replay levels once you had beaten the game, with the added bonus that you didn’t need to finish a level with fifty rings for a chance at finding a Chaos Emerald – you just had to find one of the hidden Giant Rings which were generously sprinkled throughout every level – then I was free to finally play a Sonic game without worrying that I was missing anything. And it turns out that when you’re not worrying about not fulfilling the criteria to face the real final boss, the levels are really fun to play through, with multiple branching paths to explore, each with their own bonuses, challenges and secrets.
The soundtrack is also one of the strongest in the series and on the Genesis in general, although I might be biased on that front because I’ve had the theme to Ice Cap Zone stuck in my head for about four months now, ever since I finished playing it. And now it’s stuck in your head too. Sorry!
Ever since my friend recommended Technobabylon to me and I loved it, I’ve been working my way steadily through the entire Wadjet Eye Games library, filled with incredible point-and-click games that they have either developed or published. This year I played Gemini Rue – very Blade Runner-y – and A Golden Wake – very… estate agent-y – and enjoyed them both, but the real milestone was finishing the Blackwell… quintilogy? I don’t think that’s a real… I played the final game in the five-game series, alright?
The Blackwell series follows Rosangela Blackwell, a spirit medium who had no idea that she was a spirit medium until she met her new… let’s say ‘business partner’, Joey Malone, the sassy ghost of a 1930s New Yorker. Together, they seek out spirits who refuse to pass on, usually because they have unfinished business and they’re also mostly unaware that they’re actually dead, and help them come to terms with what has happened and then peacefully move on with their… well, afterlife, I guess. Throw in a bunch of witty dialogue, some traditional point and click shenanigans, and puzzles that require the abilities of both Rosa and Joey, who is incapable of interacting with anything else on the mortal plane – beyond gently blowing on it – but is wholly capable of passing through locked doors and overhearing important conversations.
The impressive thing about the Blackwell series is that each instalment manages to feel like an improvement, even though since the very first game – The Blackwell Legacy – they’ve already been very well-made and enjoyable. Honestly, there isn’t any specific feature or moment that I can point to in Blackwell Epiphany to justify why I’ve chosen this specific game, but rather it makes the list as a representative of a series that I wholeheartedly enjoyed and would recommend.
Although now that I think about it, Blackwell Deception starts with Rosa and Joey crashing and sinking a boat, so maybe that should’ve been on here instead.
Metroid: Zero Mission
In spite of absolutely loving the deluge of Metroidvania games the indie scene never seems to run out of, I’ve always favoured the Castlevania side more than the Metroid, which is weird, because the influence of the latter is far greater, what with the mapping and overworld and the multiple routes that you can only explore once you’ve unlocked the required ability and all that. In contrast, all Castlevania brings to the table is… whips, I guess, and a few cool boss fights.
But I’d never been that fond of Metroid – admittedly having only played the original, SNES and Gameboy games in the series – so when I went on a Gameboy Advance binge earlier this year, I figured I’d try Zero Mission and Fusion, starting with Zero Mission because I thought would most likely prefer Fusion and I wanted to save the best for last. Fusion, while a great game, is not on this list by the way.
Metroid: Zero Mission is a lot like Sonic 3 & Knuckles in that it removes absolutely everything I could have found negative about the original games, which left me free to fall in love with what was left. Mapping? Taken care of. Passwords? Nope, you can save now, which means no more grinding for fifteen minutes at the start of every session because you need to regain all of your health. Secrets? Still plentiful, but now there are just enough hints dotted around that you’re guaranteed not to miss anything too important. I came away from so many areas in this game feeling like an absolute genius because I’d found so many missiles and bombs and energy tanks that I was sure I had found them all, and then I looked up a guide at the end of the game and found out that I was still missing about half of everything.
And speaking of the end of the game, Metroid: Zero Mission adds an exciting new ending sequence to the original title it’s remaking, in which Samus has to sneak through an elaborate enemy spaceship with just her wits and an ineffective stun gun, which makes it all the more satisfying when she recovers her fully-upgraded suit and blasts everything to pieces on her way out. Metroid: Zero Mission is a culmination of all of the greatest qualities of 2D Metroid games, and it will always be one of the best titles in the genre.
I just want to be clear about this; as mentioned before, this list is in no particular order, because trying to figure out whether Sonic 3 & Knuckles is better at what it does than Metroid: Zero Mission is the kind of thing that keeps me up at night, but regardless of that, these final two games would have absolutely been the top two if I had forced myself to order this list in terms of quality. I am begging you to add these two to your wishlist and support the developers in any way you can.
Dry Drowning is hard to pin down. It’s a successful cyberpunk game in 2020, making it something of a rarity, and it plays like a mixture of the Ace Attorney series with a hint of Telltale Games in there. The atmosphere is dark, serious, and often surprisingly funny, and the characters are likeable but flawed enough to have room to grow, but that’s just the Ace Attorney side of things. You know how in every Telltale Games ‘X will remember that’ adventure then they would always make a big deal about how the story was tailored to the choices you made? And how every time, it was mostly rubbish, because whatever choice you made would have a minimal impact, and even if you saved someone’s life, they would die shortly afterwards with no impact on the plot, because the game wasn’t designed to incorporate your choices into the overarching narrative?
Dry Drowning is what happens when a developer tries to do that, but understands from the beginning that this is going to require a Herculean effort on their part to write dozens of different versions of scenarios, accounting for important characters being present or not, who you’re aligned with, the goals you’re working towards, etc. And it’s what happens when they actually put in that effort to create an incredible story that genuinely is tailored to the choices you make.
It’s clever, it’s intriguing, it has some excellent themes and a great soundtrack to match, and three endings that go in completely different directions. The only negative I could hypothetically point to is that the game is only three cases long, but I enjoyed that because it let me replay the cases and see the alternate paths available without having to sink hours of time into solving mysteries that I already knew the answers to. You shouldn’t just play Dry Drowning if you like Phoenix Wright or The Walking Dead; you should play Dry Drowning if you like video games. Full stop.
Yoku’s Island Express
If you had told me at the beginning of 2020 that my favourite game of the year was going to be a pinball-based Metroidvania, I would have said “What? Who cares about that? Did we get COVID under control? Ah, shit. Well, did we at least get rid of Boris? Fuck! Well, at least Cyberpunk 2077 came out. What? But… No!” and yet, here I am at the beginning of 2021 proclaiming that Yoku’s Island Express is not only the best thing I played all year, but it’s not even a remotely close contest.
I’ve always loved games that can just be summed up as pure, unfiltered, unadulterated joy. LocoRoco is a great example, and Rayman Origins and Legends both fit the bill well enough, but I don’t think I’ve ever played something that feels so much like the concept of happiness itself, as Yoku’s Island Express, which for the record, I only ended up playing because I mistook the title for ‘Yoshi’s Island Express’ for a second while finishing up my 2019 Christmas shopping. I was curious enough to look it up, and it was 75% off on Steam, so I gave it a try, and here it is at the top of my list.
Yoku’s Island Express is the story of a dung beetle named Yoku who arrives at Mokumana Island – no relation to the Danganronpa bear – with the arduous task of assuming the role of postmaster. Yoku spends his life attached by a short length of unbreakable string to a ball, which is fortunate for him, as Mokumana Island is filled entirely with pinball paddles and creative tables that can reward you with items, fruit (the in-game currency) or just progress forwards. I’ve never been that big on pinball games, because no matter how much progress you make, as soon as you make a mistake, it’s all over. If you make a mistake in Yoku’s Island Express, you fall into some spikes and lose a token amount of fruits, and then you can hop right back into the action with no delay.
Everything about this game – the beautifully-designed areas with a gorgeous array of colours, the relaxing soundtrack, the friendliness of every NPC you meet – combines to create one of the most fun games I’ve ever played. I think the moment that perfectly sums up the game is early on, when you meet a character who offers you a bigger wallet in return for one hundred fruit. I said I wanted to trade even though I didn’t have enough fruit, and they promptly said “You know what? Just take the wallet now and come back and pay me whenever you can, okay?” The entire game is designed with that attitude; not in the sense that there are no challenges, which there are, but in the sense that the game truly just wants you to have a good time playing it, and is doing everything in its power to ensure that happens.
In a year that was so bleak and miserable and joyless, it’s no surprise that my favourite game was the ridiculous, silly and thoroughly charming world of Yoku’s Island Express. It is the best game I played in 2020.
So, that just about wraps things up here; let me know what you thought of my questionable choices, and let me know what some of your favourite games were that helped distract you from the mind-numbing hellscape that was 2020. Here’s hoping we find plenty more to keep us occupied during 2021!