Joel DeWitte’s Top Games of 2020

I’ll spare you a long preamble – This year sucked for mostly everyone, but in spite of many anticipated titles being pushed to 2021, it has been a great year for games  (especially if you like indies).  From the stuff I played this year, I can recommend this list of ten to nearly anyone.  

10. Jetlancer

Jetlancer is a frantically fast, controller gripping shoot-em-up dogfighting indie that could easily go unnoticed.  While unassuming on its face, each level is a white-knuckled game of aerial cat and mouse.  The waves of adversary fighter jets take an equal mix of not letting go of the throttle, a precise aim, and a mastery of the physics that give a natural gravitational pull when easing up on velocity.  Boss battles are diverse and challenging without being insurmountable.  The simple pixel art backdrops work perfectly by limiting distraction to the action.  This all comes together to make one of the most thrilling experiences I had all year.

9. The Dark Pictures: Little Hope

It’s well documented how much I love narrative-driven, choose your own actions and see how it affects story games.  While Telltale and Dontnod get much deserved praise for their critically acclaimed series, Supermassive games since Until Dawn has been quietly churning their The Dark Pictures anthology – a series of smaller, more contained horror stories in the mold of a B-tier horror flick.  Their latest, The Dark Pictures: Little Hope, takes a group of people stranded in a Silent Hill-like, spooky wooded small town while unraveling a larger supernatural mystery that feels right at home for your scary movie night.  The dialogue options and split second actions give a sense like you’re playing an active role in shaping the story and who lives or dies by the end, making this another solid entry in the series.

8. Superliminal

Superliminal is a first person puzzle game with an interesting twist – manipulate objects size by either expanding or shrinking them.  While that alone is an interesting hook, its the way it’s used to solve mind-bending puzzles that made it worth lifting up.  What starts as simple challenges like turning a tiny block into a big step to a higher platform evolves into matching item size with background patterns to match up and open a new space, or shrinking a block to slide it into a small crevice where a button is sitting.  It’s a game I avoid talking in detail about it because half of the fun is the satisfaction and surprise of solving a room.  This see it from a different perspective theme makes Superliminal a great break from reality.

7. Paper Mario: The Origami King

Paper Mario: The Origami King does a lot of what also made Super Mario Odyssey great, with its constant mining of Mario’s history to both pay homage to and subvert expectations in goals the entire stretch of the way.  The new battle system of sliding radial tiles to line up enemies and chain together attacks borrows tried and true mechanics from the series and turns each fight into a series of puzzles to solve.  The need to search for and find toads throughout the game leans into silly jokes and visual gags that makes finding each one a surprise.  The story is delightful, with clever writing and endearing characters that are easy to become attached to.  This more breezy entry into the Paper Mario series feels right at home while evolving into something greater.

6. Necrobarista

Necrobarista is something I played on a whim at the end of the year after much praise from both our host Alex Orona and friends from the Gaming Fyx podcast, and it ended up one of my favorite stories of the year.  It barely classifies as a game in its limited interactivity, but the story of a handful of people operating a coffee house that acts as a rest stop between the worlds of the living and dead is a fascinating backdrop for some really heavy, heady ideas.  The soundtrack is limited but fits the slow, cerebral mood like a glove.  The topics of grief, hanging on to something/someone too long, coping with death, and the nature of existence wrapped with a kind of millennial fatalism makes this one of the more relatable cast of characters and story than I could have hoped for.

5: Final Fantasy VII Remake

Much of my appreciation for Final Fantasy VII Remake is cribbed in my fondness for the Playstation One original.  An opportunity to revisit a part of the iconic story with a modern rendering of the Midgar slums, Shinra, and the original cast of characters have been not only been expanded upon, but reimagined to place a fresh new importance to side characters that were largely throw-away in the original and unexplored sections of the city.  A combat system that feels dynamic and a natural progression from both its turn-based battle roots and a refinement of more recent Final Fantasy mechanics raised the bar Square Enix has set for itself in future entries in the series.  The story alterations feel like natural inclusions and straddle the line between homage and callback to the original.  This start of a remake works great for devotees like myself, but it’s also likely a natural entry point for those who know Final Fantasy VII’s legacy status but want a more modern retelling.

4: Bugsnax

From its announcement, Bugsnax became a cultural touchstone in the gaming community with its fever dream trailer, catchy as all get-out theme song, and the hundreds of memes spawned from it.  This flash in the pan popularity actually does a disservice to the game where you catch food-like bugs in a word inhabited by them and a diverse cast of muppets who love to eat them.  Bugsnax range from adorable to threatening, and the different tools and variety of strategies needed to catch them made each capture incredibly fun.  Each cast member of the Snaxburg community is well fleshed out, relatable, and endearing, if flawed.  The story starts simple and leads to some wild turns and an unexpected twist or two.  Look past the memes and give Bugsnax its due as one of the best games of 2020.

3. Lonely Mountains: Downhill

If you could bottle tranquility and serenity in a video game, then the label on it would be Lonely Mountains: Downhill.  It’s simply a downhill racer, but environment and setting make it stand out with simple polygonal graphics that let you focus on the action and relaxing ambient sounds of nature and the wheels of your bike roaming through dirt paths.  The gameplay can be relaxing or challenging depending on what objectives are being tackled, but even the most difficult ones are a brief barrier to opening the next mountainous tracks.  This is easily the most peaceful game I’ve played this year.

2. Animal Crossing: New Horizons

What can be said about Animal Crossing: New Horizons that hasn’t been said already?  This entry in the series caught fire and captured widespread cultural notoriety beyond the gaming community, and spawned tons of celebrity interactions with both sharing their islands with fans and guest starring on late-night talk shows taking place on an in-game stage set.  While I fell off the wagon hard midway through the year, it was the all encompassing, all consuming game in my household this spring.  Buying and selling turnips was a daily event.  I got my frequent flyer miles taking the Dodo Airlines to visit friends.  It was also the first experience my family got to play a game all together.  It may not be as content complete as prior entries, but it does just enough to keep people who love the series engaged with new seasonal content.

1. Invisible, Inc

Everything old is new again, and 2015’s Invisible, Inc. made its way onto its best home on the Nintendo Switch.  The tactical RPG’s heavy stealth focus makes each level a chess match, with every move having implications for your future success.  The ability to rewind a handful of turns each level gives just enough chances to undo mistakes where minor errors don’t build to insurmountable failure.  And like any good roguelike, each play through feels like you’re making slow and steady progress in learning the ins and outs of the systems at play, ones that fit together like pieces to a puzzle.  I don’t suspect Invisible, Inc. is something I can recommend everyone play as it’s an acquired taste, but if well-thought out systems in a tactical strategy game with a focus on replayability and stealth sounds at all enticing, then you have to try it.  

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