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Aaron’s Top Games of 2020

I don’t want to comment on the year 2020 was. Instead, I’ll say that we needed video games and it delivered some of the best. It was a year where I stepped away from the usual shooters in favor of virtually everything else, because I needed the diversity this time around.

So, let’s not keep futzing around: here are the best 2020 had to offer in my book:

HADES

I am full-on fascinated by Hades. It has a simple premise: escape the Underworld without dying, and thanks to a brilliantly designed gameplay loop that’s a task far more bearable than it sounds. Because here, death isn’t the end but instead treated as another layer of its core design and story – you’re supposed to die to get the most out of it. There’s my fascination with it: Hades is a rogue-like for people who hate rogue-likes, one that rides a fine balance between exceedingly difficult and excessively rewarding, where death is an opportunity for growth both as a player and as a character with Zagreus. It’s a game that doesn’t demean your skills – in fact, it’s strangely empowering: it teaches you the virtues of trial and error and encourages you to keep trying until you get it right at your own pace.

Don’t get me wrong: Hades is freakin’ tough, but it cleverly hides the sting of failure by serving you more story, more lore, more weapons and more interactions with its charming cast of characters between deaths, aka resources that are never stripped away from you, a novel concept for the genre.

Favorite Moment: Killing Megaera for the first time and then feeling lousy about it immediately afterwards – she’s my best friend now, after all.

STAR WARS SQUADRONS

Star Wars Squadrons was the bulk of my exposure to virtual reality this year, and it’s probably one of my favorite VR experiences ever, strictly for immersion. In tandem with a flight stick, it’s the only way I’ve grown to play, and it’s been a pure blast. Seated inside the compartments of the most iconic starships in media, each rich with details from the sliders to the tiniest knobs, was a genuine thrill for me personally. The combat is incredibly tight, too: multiplayer with friends was at its strongest when we integrated and called our shots. It’s a sheer fantasy trip and one that impresses me every time I jump back into it.

EA Motive delivered something remarkable with Squadrons: a complete campaign, thrilling competitive multiplayer modes with cross-play support, an all-encompassing VR experience, and a polished game that simply works.

Favorite Moment: Coordinating with friends in multiplayer and dominating entire squadrons with high k/drs.

ANIMAL CROSSING: NEW HORIZONS

I didn’t plan on picking up Animal Crossing at launch. Truth be told, it was never a series that appealed to me for several reasons. But after a few friends convinced me to play it, I’ve come to a few revelations about myself. Turns out chores aren’t so bad and that hanging out with people in a virtual space can still be a fun time, even if we’re not shooting each other in the face or chucking grenades at each other’s feet. Animal Crossing is unity on another level. It’s a game that connected me with friends on Twitter that I rarely associated with, and it’s one that kept my partner and me both busy when the world was seemingly falling apart.

Here’s another truth: I haven’t touched the game in months, but there’s no denying the hours I sunk into it meant something. I had a terrific time building my island and home, both of which I populated with many fun secrets. I loved making art and designing my own clothes and then showing off my work. I loved visiting friends and family during a time when real-life visits weren’t possible. Like, I just have so much love for it. New Horizons might be yesterday’s news now, but I appreciate all that it gave us in and outside of it. From gut-busting memes to informative how-to videos, to communal multiplayer experiences kept us together when we needed it most, Animal Crossing was a phenomenon unlike any other and a key staple of our survival in 2020.

Favorite moment: Buying my partner a new Switch and a copy of New Horizons for her birthday and watching her sink countless hours into fixing up her island and catching bugs.

ASTRO’S PLAYROOM

When PlayStation announced that a sequel to Astro Bot: Rescue Mission was coming to PlayStation 5, I was instantly all-in. Truth be told, I was expecting a more traditional “remake” of the original game on PlayStation VR. The result, however, was much grander than I expected: a complete platformer wholly evocative of the genre’s early years, one that also doubles as a love letter to the history of PlayStation – of which I’m a huge fanboy. Straight up: Astro’s Playroom was a game created for me.

From extraordinary tributes to consoles of yesteryear to iconic references of games from the last two decades, Astro’s Playroom is an enjoyable nostalgia trip that honors a rich history and an underappreciated legacy. The best twist to all of this, though, is that it’s more than an interactive museum; it’s a competent platformer provided absolutely for free PlayStation 5 owners right out of the box. Sony Japan Studios doesn’t hold back with Astro’s Playroom – I would’ve paid a premium price for this, so it being free just makes me respect it that much more.

Favorite Moment: All the game-specific callbacks scattered around every level. My favorites were the ones for Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper, inFamous, and of course Ratchet and Clank!

THE LAST CAMPFIRE

I didn’t know what to expect from Hello Games’ small indie project, but it happily surprised me. Unlike No Man’s Sky, The Last Campfire doesn’t exhibit big budgets or high production values, nor does it set out to prove anything about the dev team’s grander AAA-level ambitions. Instead, it calls back to the company’s roots: it’s a game produced by a bite-sized team with a clear passion for game development.

The Last Campfire is full of heart. It entirely leaves its story to interpretation, but it does a superb job setting up its story beats from beginning to end thanks to an incredible narration throughout. Above all, it’s an alluring little game with puzzles that are challenging enough to make them satisfying to complete, but aren’t overly complex or discouraging that you’ll want to drop it.

Favorite Moment: The ending reminded me of The Good Place and that makes me sad.

Immortals Fenyx Rising

Look, it’s no mystery that Immortals Fenyx Rising proudly wears its influences on its sleeve. It’s Ubisoft’s take on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and it does a pretty solid job. To my surprise, I found it better in some respects. But I’ll be candid: There was a lot about its marketing that didn’t appeal to me and its initial reveal didn’t grab me and maybe that’s why I like it as much as I do.

As a complete package, Immortals offers a colorful open-world to explore with tons to do: discover new locations, defeat enormous monsters, solve Shrine puzzles, unlock new equipment, complete challenges, and more. But as I said earlier, I think it does a few things better, such as combat and traversal. With a collection of skills and abilities to unlock, combat is surprisingly enjoyable, especially when going toe-to-toe with larger foes. Running through its world also feels a little more freeing and well-paced, so going from point A to B isn’t a complete nightmare. Those two aspects alone were enough to power me through its strange story- presented with a very Saturday-Morning-Cartoon style delivery that’s often hit or miss.

It may not reach the levels of Breath of the Wild to some, but I think Immortals is a superb spin on it and worth your time if you’re willing to check your cynicism at the door.

Best Moment: Something about Hermes and his “dirty” clothes.

CRASH BANDICOOT 4: IT’S ABOUT TIME

Look, I can give you the complete song and dance about how much I loved Crash Bandicoot growing up, and I can also tell you about how I regularly ran through those original games before I even knew speedrunning was a thing. In Crash Bandicoot, I was fast – really fast. So, when Activision announced a sequel, I was pretty thrilled about doing all of that again.

Crash Bandicoot 4 is a rippin’ great time and a proper follow up for the series in the modern era. Crash 4 certainly adopts the “bigger is better” philosophy, one that I’m not a huge fan of normally, but it does such an outstanding job with that approach and takes advantage of current tech in impressive ways that I’ve let it slide. In Crash 4, worlds are larger and rich with detail, secrets are at every turn, the new characters and masks offer a unique spin (pun intended?) on the tried-and-true Crash gameplay, and overall it’s a delight to have a canonical sequel to the originals after all these years.

Ultimately, Crash 4 is a testament to how fantastic the original games are. It’s familiar in the best ways, but also it leans into the series’ status as a “hard game” more than it has in the past. No joke, though: About Time is hard as hell and it hurts my pride a little to admit it, but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t appreciate the challenge. As someone who zipped through those original games so quickly and flawlessly, it’s awesome to not only have more Crash Bandicoot to play again but also to challenge me in ways that it hasn’t in over two decades.

Favorite Moment: The N-Gin boss fight is a big ‘ol homage to Guitar Hero.

SPIDER-MAN: MILES MORALES

I love Spider-Man and I love Insomniac Games. None of these are secrets and I’m sure Miles Morales’ inclusion to this list comes as a surprise to absolutely no one. When PlayStation announced that a sequel to the original game on PlayStation 4 was coming to PS5, I made sure, in any capacity that one could, that I copped a console on launch day (without paying for one at an inflated price). As you may already know, buying a PlayStation 5 was and is a real pain in the ass — but Miles Morales was absolutely worth waiting through every soul-sucking queue imaginable.

Insomniac Games has a penchant for making great games and that’s no different here. Miles Morales is fun, thrilling, and magnificent on PlayStation 5, with fast combat and traversal that feels tight at every level and visuals that wholly deliver on next-generation promises. This solo adventure might be a shorter experience when compared to Spider-Man PS4, but it feels much grander thanks to the new PlayStation hardware. Here, Insomniac’s approach to game design is at an equilibrium with its cinematic ambitions, delivering over-the-top action and thrilling set pieces that are as exciting to play as they are to watch.

And I’m just happy that Marvel is going all-in with Miles Morales and giving this character more life on screen. Insomniac’s contribution to his story is exceptional and heartfelt, and I hope (and I’m certain) they’ll continue to invest in him moving forward.

Favorite moment: “He’s our Spider-Man.”

FINAL FANTASY VII: REMAKE

I’ll admit, I didn’t grow up playing Final Fantasy and I could never get into the series despite my past efforts. I’m also not much for turn-based RPGs, so when you give me a series deeply rooted in that, you’ve almost lost me. To my surprise, however, Final Fantasy VII: Remake accomplishes what the series couldn’t before – make an entire weekend fly by in the blink of an eye.

Final Fantasy VII: Remake is such a good time. Here, combat is the star of the show. It blends the turn-based aspects of the series with some of the most invigorating real-time battle mechanics I’ve ever played in a game like this. Top it all off with a great soundtrack, a beautifully rendered world, and a roster of great characters, and you have one of the best experiences of the year. It’s over-the-top, goofy, and insanely fun. Like, Final Fantasy VII just revels in being a game – and that’s why I love it.

And if your response to this is “wow, you should play more rpgs….” You’re absolutely right, I will. Final Fantasy VII: Remake is my gateway to a genre I’ve long denied, but I’m ready to go all-in, baby.

Favorite Moment: Defeating the Airbuster on my second attempt despite everyone telling me I would fail it repeatedly.

THE LAST OF US PART II

I’ll keep this one very simple: The Last of Us: Part II is incredible. It is unapologetically bold. It indulges in immense discomfort. It defies expectations. It is exhilarating. It loves showing the stakes and it isn’t afraid to break hearts. It’s straight up grounded.

But that’s not to say there’s no heart here. The Last of Us: Part II is a story about coping with love and its side effects. Bubbling violently beneath its long stretches of overgrown surfaces is a narrative about a daughter in mourning, an immeasurable loss, an unamendable heartache, and an attempt to fix an unrectifiable problem. In The Last of Us: Part II, Ellie is a volatile entity who is absent in her decision-making because of blackout rage and present for the consequences after it’s all been said and done. Everything she does is because of love and her losses: flashbacks tell the complete story and are at the core of her motivations. These are the effects of trauma, and as a piece of entertainment it’s extraordinary.

However, on paper I should hate The Last of Us: Part II on a personal level. It made me relive some of the worst memories of my life and told me there wasn’t any hope for me. It invalidated my ambitions and it frequently made me feel small. It never apologizes for any of it. Instead, it told me to move on but didn’t offer any advice. Despite all of that though, it made me feel seen. It validated my feelings of despair and told me what I already knew: that this is just how it is. Ultimately, Part II isn’t here to lift your head in the clouds; it’s here to keep your feet on the ground – and that’s why I love it.

And that’s only the story. The Last of Us: Part II is equally fantastic in its combat, offering incredible opportunities for emergent gameplay moments. Part II is at its best when plans fall apart, forcing you to act on pure instinct – to run or hide is up to you, but there’s no denying the thrill. These are the moments when its gameplay showcases its versatility and shines in ways you couldn’t possibly expect.

The Last of Us: Part II is one hell of a game that delivers on all fronts. Here’s to hoping we get Factions multiplayer soon!

Favorite Moment: Reliving the past, down to the last revelation.

#1 [Insert Your Favorite Game of 2020 Here]

[Game] is the [ADJECTIVE] work of art of all-time. There’s no other way to explain it: [Game] delivered some of the best [FEATURE] that I have ever seen in my [NUMBER] years of life. It should be a straight crime to not have played [GAME], the [ADJECTIVE] game [CARDINAL DIRECTION] of the [LARGE BODY OF WATER]. There’s truly been nothing like [GAME] and there will be nothing like it again.

Scientists will [VERB] it for ages and wonder how [GAME] brought immense [EMOTION] to [COLLECTIVE NOUN] around the world. [GAME PUBLISHER] will copy its formula and make millions off it for the next decade. [FAMOUS GAME DEV] sleeps with a copy of [GAME] under their pillow every night. [GAME] is so arousing, it put Viagra makers out of business.

Last night, I [PAST VERB] [GAME] in [LOCATION] for hours and it felt [ADJECTIVE].

Favorite moment: When [GAME] really made you feel like [PROPER NOUN].

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