You don’t need me to pander to you about how awful of a year 2020 was, just like you won’t need me to also say how bad 2021 is going; but that may give you some indication as to why I’m posting a top five games of 2020 in October of 2021. So far, 2021 has been a pretty lacklustre year for big releases, and so I looked back at how great 2020 was for games and thought why not now.
- Astro’s Playroom
Astro’s Playroom is undoubtedly the biggest surprise of the year for me. In no world would I expect a tech demo bundled with a console to outshine almost every other launch game.
Astro’s Playroom is a platformer created to show off the capabilities of the new Dualsense controller for the PS5, and they knocked it out of the park. This game is the most “next gen” feeling game of the launch line-up through its use of the controller alone. I could spend a long time talking about this, but it would not do the experience justice.
The other main draw of Astro outside of the controller is the reverence it pays to PlayStation history. The game acts as a PlayStation Museum of sorts, with each of the game’s four worlds being based on an aspect of the new PS5’s architecture – as well as a PlayStation of the past. For example, the Memory Meadow stage is based on the RAM of the PS5, as well as the history of the PS1. The main collectables in the game are ‘artefacts’ – pieces of PlayStation hardware – from things like the original DualShock or the PSVR headset to the more esoteric pieces of PlayStation history like the Pocketstation and the PSP GPS add on.
It’s incredibly cool to see all of this hardware modelled in the game, especially considering that it’s all interactive. The moment this game cemented itself as one of my favourites of the year was when I walked up to the PS2 and punched the logo to see if it would turn – which it does.
The other main piece of nostalgia is all of the Astrobot cameos in the levels. You will find bots dressed up as characters tied to PlayStation history, like Solid Snake or Dante from Devil May Cry to games I never expected them to acknowledge, like Vib Ribbon. These cameos were a joy to come across, albeit a sombre reminder of how many great series Sony is just sitting on.
I understand that not everyone will get as much out of Astro’s Playroom as I did. As someone whose first console was a PS1 and owned every PlayStation since, Astro’s Playroom felt like a walk through my history with games. For as cheesy as it sounds, Astro’s Playroom was an incredibly special experience for me.
I’ll be the first to admit that – for the longest time – I absolutely didn’t understand the cult surrounding Supergiant Games. I played Bastion and thought it was cool, albeit nothing mind blowing, and I appreciated Pyre but didn’t really enjoy it. The same could be said for Hades when I first booted it up. I saw the acclaim from nearly everywhere, but for the first few hours or so I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about. I don’t know where in my 50-hour playtime it clicked for me that Hades was a masterpiece, but I feel dumb for not noticing it sooner.
Hades is a roguelike, pitting you in the role of Zagreus – son of Hades – as he attempts to escape the underworld and reach his family on Mount Olympus. What makes Hades stand out in the roguelike genre is its emphasis on story, which isn’t to say roguelikes having a story is anything new. It’s the way Hades undertakes the task of having to craft an ongoing narrative around a game that is designed to be played countless times which makes it so impressive. In the 50 hours I have played, I have yet to see any major cases of repeated dialogue; even more impressive when you take into consideration that the game is fully voice acted.
Supergiant’s interpretation of the Greek gods and mythology, ground that is well trodden in games, manages to stick out as one of the games’ greatest strengths, bolstered by amazing character design and voice work. While the overarching plot of the game is well written and engaging, Hades thrives with its interpersonal moments between the characters. From Zag’s rapport with Charon the silent boatman to the game’s interpretation of tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, it’s the focus on these smaller moments that pushes Hades’ plot to being something incredible.
Even on top of all of that, Hades’ music manages to be the star of the show for me. Darren Korb’s incredible soundtrack perfectly captures the atmosphere and pace of each encounter. However, it’s the vocal themes that stand out above the rest. Ashley Barrett’s vocal performance as Eurydice stopped me dead in my tracks the first time I entered the room and heard ‘Good Riddance,’ and had the same effect again when performed by Orpheus in the house after a particularly daunting run.
Hades is probably the most universally acclaimed game of 2020, and I would be hard pressed to disagree with anyone calling it the best game of the year. While not my number one, Hades is the game of 2020 that I would recommend that absolutely everyone play.
- Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
If you know anything about me, you know my favourite games are ones that push the player to really go in-depth with the mechanics and promote player expression: games like Devil May Cry and Bayonetta with their intricate combo systems, or systems-heavy open world games like Metal Gear Solid V, Hitman or Breath of the Wild. Tony Hawk Pro Skater is a perfect example of this type of game. Much like Devil May Cry, it would be so easy for a player to progress with the bare minimum, but it’s that push to master the mechanics as well as the combo system that really pushes it to legendary status.
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t really have much nostalgia tied to the original Tony Hawk Pro Skater games. My experience with them was playing the multiplayer sometimes at my cousin’s house and not really getting it. I later played the Underground games and American Wasteland during the PS2 days, and while I liked those, I never really viewed the series as anything special. I honestly didn’t really get why the originals were regarded as some of the best games ever made. That was until I played 1-3 years later as an adult.
I can say with some certainty that Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is the best Tony Hawk game. In the last few years Activision have been focusing on remaking PS1 classics. Starting with Crash Bandicoot N Sane Trilogy by Vicarious Visions in 2017, followed by Spyro Reignited a year later and Beenox’s fantastic remake of Crash Team Racing in 2019, and finally the PS1 Pro Skater games in 2020. These four remakes exhibit two different styles of remake. Crash Bandicoot and Spyro are both faithful remakes with the main changes being mainly cosmetic, which is a completely fine way to approach a remake. Especially with classic platformers like those, it is risky to make too many changes. However, Crash Team Racing and Pro Skater both take the original games, improve upon them, and add so much content that it may as well be an entirely new game.
It would be easy for Vicarious Visions to have just ported over the THPS 1 and 2 mechanics and remake those levels 1:1 and call it a day. Instead of this, they took all the great mechanics introduced in later games – like reverts and wall plants – and completely integrated them into the original maps (as well as giving the Pro Skater 1 levels extra goals to maintain parity with the levels from 2). This change alone makes Pro Skater 1+2 the definitive way to play these games.
It would have been so easy to mess this up. Activision have tried to remake these games before, and it went so poorly. Not to mention the god-awful state that the Tony Hawk franchise has been in since around 2008. However, this is not a case of poor expectations making the product look better than it is. Pro Skater 1+2 is a special game, and a game I have returned to more than any other in 2020.
- Persona 5 Royal
I am not a fan of JRPGS, especially turn-based ones. Persona 4 Golden was the first one I really got into; then Persona 5 arrived, and I absolutely adored it. When Persona 5 Royal was announced, the first thing I said was, “this looks cool, but I really don’t want to play a 100-hour RPG again.
I played a 100-hour RPG again.
Persona 5 Royal takes everything that was so good in Persona 5 and improves it tenfold, adding new story content, new party members, as well as new and remixed dungeons. The biggest change is how streamlined they made the gameplay. My original Persona 5 save had a playtime of 110 hours; my Royal save had 116. This may not seem like much of a change, but when you consider how much new story content there is, it’s a huge factor in making the act of replaying the game so painless.
Persona 5 Royal tells the same tale of the Phantom Thieves, changing the hearts of twisted adults to make them pay for their heinous acts. However, perfectly woven into the story is the introduction of two new characters pivotal to the Royal experience.
Kasumi Yoshikawa, a first-year student and gymnastics protégé who soon becomes friends with Joker and the crew along the way, and Takuto Maruki, a councillor brought in to help the students after the events of the first arc of the game. Anyone who has played Persona 4 Golden will know the risks in injecting characters into a story like this- however, neither of these characters end up being as ‘Scrappy Doo’ feeling as Marie was. Maruki is my favourite new character in the game. His counselling sessions with the main party offer a window into their personalities that you never got to see as deeply in the original game. Meanwhile, Kasumi’s arc is woven so naturally across the entire game that it feels natural, as well as setting up the new third semester storyline perfectly.
The third semester is so incredibly strong that it ranks as some of the best story content in the game. I won’t spoil it here, but all I will say is it made playing through all the content again worth it.
- Yakuza Like A Dragon
In the absence of Metal Gear Solid for the back half of this decade, I’ve needed a series to fill that void. In 2017, along came Yakuza 0, which captured exactly the sort of tone I loved so much in Metal Gear. One thing video games do better than any other medium that deserves to be applauded – but is taken for granted – is the ability for a game to take itself dead serious whilst simultaneously doing some of the goofiest stuff possible. It would be incredibly jarring for something like The Godfather to have a scene spliced in where a mafia boss is dressed like a giant baby and instructs his underlings to “pacify this bitch,” but for whatever reason, Yakuza manages to pull this off seamlessly.
If you know anything about me, you will know one of my favourite genres is the Beat ‘Em’ Up genre, and as mentioned before, one of my least favourites is the Turn Based RPG genre. So you can imagine how I felt when I learned that pretty much the sole remaining beat ‘em up series was being converted into an RPG for the latest instalment. To me, Like A Dragon looked like a step back for the franchise, and I figured it would be a huge let-down.
I don’t think I’ve ever been this wrong about a game before.
Yakuza Like A Dragon ditches series protagonist Kazuma Kiryu in favour of new hero Ichiban Kasuga. Where Kiryu is a stoic and at times emotionless hero, Kasuga is a hot blooded, emotional hero who always wears his heart on his sleeve. For as much as I adore Kiryu, I feel no hesitation In saying not only is Kasuga now my favourite character in the series, but he’s also become one of my favourite video game characters of all time.
The entire main cast in Like a Dragon is one of the best ensembles in a game. Each of them has a compelling story arc and bring something vital to the table. I can easily see this cast of characters carrying the series for a long time; considering the shoes they had to fill, this is no easy feat.
While all of the performances in Like a Dragon are fantastic, once again Kasuga is the strongest part of the game as Kaiji Tang’s performance is one of the strongest I’ve ever seen in a video game.
I could go on forever about just how good Yakuza Like a Dragon is – I haven’t even touched upon the incredible soundtrack, the best summon system in any RPG, the litany of side missions or the addicting business management simulator in it.
All I know is that while I was playing Yakuza, any moment I wasn’t playing it I was just waiting until I could play it. I was obsessed with this game in a way I haven’t been with anything else this year; so much so that I delayed the thought of even writing of this list until I had finished it.
Yakuza Like a Dragon is a game about hope, a game about how you are not defined by where you come from or your upbringing. The game I needed after a year like 2020.