For all the deserved anger and frustration directed at 2020, it was, at least, a year full of great videogames—delivering both some welcome distractions from the real world, and some thoughtful reflections on it. From Final Fantasy VII Remake turning a masterpiece out of a concept that seemed doomed to fail to Umurangi Generation embodying the unheard cries of a generation, from the soothing nature of Animal Crossing: New Horizons to the excitement of a new generation of console, 2020 had something for everyone.
From all those, here are the 40 games that, in my view, are the best of what last year had to offer. A few housekeeping rules before we get underway: I’ve excluded any remasters or late ports of games released in previous years for other platforms, but remakes get the green light, being that they are, by definition, a complete rebuild rather than just an enhanced re-release. There’s also a lot of games that probably deserve a spot on this list, but aren’t there simply because I haven’t had the chance to play them yet.
Without any further ado, here are Shindig’s top 40 games of 2020.
40. Giraffe and Annika
“Giraffe and Annika is full of heart and charm, a timely reminder that a game doesn’t have to be constantly pushing new boundaries or ultra-polished to be captivating, enjoyable, and worth your time. This is a whimsical, heartwarming adventure that doesn’t ask a lot of you, but gives you a poignant story to discover and a fun way to spend a few hours.”
39. WRC 9 FIA World Rally Championship
“WRC 9: FIA World Rally Championship is a solid rally game, one that’s aimed squarely at diehard World Rally Championship fans but that still has plenty to offer for the more casual fan. But more than that, it’s one of the best showcases in the PlayStation 5 launch line-up for what the DualSense controller can achieve, beyond “immersion”. WRC 9‘s use of haptic feedback and adaptive triggers convey crucial driving information in a quick, intuitive way is impressive, to the point that it can make an almost-competent rally driver even out of me.”
“Röki is something beautiful. It’s a tale of grand adventure through a stunning Scandinavian wilderness home to trolls and giants, but also an intimate, personal story of coping with grief. It’s an enchanting original fairy tale that wouldn’t feel at all out of place alongside the works of Hans Christian Andersen, and a heartfelt look at the lengths people will go to to protect those they care about—for better and for worse.”
37. Pokemon Mystery Dungeon Rescue Team DX
“You could almost forget that Pokemon Mystery Dungeon: Rescue Team DX is a remake; it looks, feels, and plays like a brand new entry in the series. It’s full of updates to a pair of games that are more than 15 years old now, and it’s clear that thought’s gone into every improvement to ensure the soul of the originals remains intact. That makes this a perfect place to jump into the world of Mystery Dungeon, and for fans of the original games, a wonderful way to experience them again.”
36. Shantae and the Seven Sirens
“Shantae and the Seven Sirens is classic Shantae, full of charming characters, humour, a colourful world, and a sense of exploration. There are some welcome tweaks and new ideas to the basic formula, but after Half-Genie Hero‘s very different take, Seven Sirens is exactly the return to form I was hoping for.”
35. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla
Assassin’s Creed has felt like it’s been going through a bit of an identity crisis in the last few years. I personally loved the new direction that Origins and Odyssey took, but they’re divisive games among longtime series fans. Assassin’s Creed Valhalla is a refinement of that approach that doesn’t quite revert to the classic Assassin’s Creed style, but draws on them to carry the series forward in a more meaningful way. It’s full of plenty of fresh ideas, too, that help smooth out the bloat that typically comes with open-world games, along with a gripping story and fascinating delve into history.
34. A Fold Apart
“A Fold Apart is an emotional, honest look at the challenges that come with being in a long-distance relationship. It’ll break your heart, but sometimes that’s exactly what you need—and the beautiful ending makes all the heartache worthwhile.”
33. Super Mega Baseball 3
“Super Mega Baseball 3 is the best of both worlds—a wonderfully silly game in art style and presentation, but with an authentic emulation of a rather complex sport to go with it. Super Mega Baseball 3 may not have the lure of an MLB license, but baseball games don’t get much better than this.”
32. Across the Grooves
“Across the Grooves really pulls everything together beautifully: story, interactivity, art, and music all coalesce in perfect unity. High Fidelity with a dose of time travel and occult mystery sure makes a curious elevator pitch, and while Across the Grooves lives up to that idea, there’s so much more to it. This is a beautiful, thoughtful story that cleverly blurs the lines between different forms of media to ask that most human of questions: ‘What if?’ “
31. Trials of Mana
“I’m sure there’ll be some diehard purists who think Trials of Mana goes too far, or changes too much; that it should have stuck to a top-down camera and left the battle system unchanged (despite how well that worked out for Secret of Mana). Luckily for them, the original remains readily available and accessible through Collection of Mana. For everyone else, Trials of Mana is exactly what you’d want from a remake: a game that sticks as closely as possible to the source, while modernising those things that haven’t aged so well. I can’t think of a better way to celebrate the legacy of Seiken Densetsu 3 than that.”
30. Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Mega Mix
It was only a matter of time until Hatsune Miku made her Nintendo Switch debut, and Hatsune Miku: Project DIVA Mega Mix sure is a way to make a splash onto a new console. With an impressive selection of songs both new and old, a few different console schemes tailored to the Switch’s various input mechanisms—including a surprisingly effective motion control mode—hundreds of different customisation items, and even a T-shirt editor, this is the best Hatsune Miku videogame yet.
29. Wide Ocean Big Jacket
Wide Ocean Big Jacket is a simple concept: a game about a family camping trip, which mostly revolves around everyday camping activities—set up a tent, cook hot dogs over a fire, tell ghost stories. It’s intentionally mundane, compared to the bombast of a typical videogame, but within that there’s a poignant exploration of relationships, both romantic and familial, and a deliberate rejection of the “rules” of game design that pushes the boundaries of what the medium can be and what sorts of stories it can tell.
28. Taiko no Tatsujin Rhythmic Adventure Pack
“Taiko no Tatsujin is a delightful series in general, and one that’s finally getting the localisation attention from Bandai Namco that it deserves. Taiko no Tatsujin: Rhythmic Adventure Pack brings another two Taiko games to the western world, and with it, the rhythm-RPG fun that’s been a staple of Taiko’s console ports for a long time. The RPG side of things probably won’t make a convert out of anyone with no interest in rhythm games whatsoever, but for anyone who’s at least a little bit curious, the Rhythmic Adventure Pack is a wonderful introduction to the world of Taiko.”
27. Pixel Puzzle Makeout League
“There’s a wealth of great pixel puzzle games on Switch, but Pixel Puzzle Makeout League easily finds itself among the best of them. It has a great assortment of puzzles, but it’s the way it blends those with funny, charming story dating sim elements that really makes this one stand out. Pixel Puzzle Makeout League delivers laugh after puzzle-themed laugh, with plenty of super-cute romance and some genuinely heartwarming moments.”
26. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity
“What Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity sets out to do, it achieves wonderfully. Between these Divine Beast battles and the little Breath of the Wild flourishes in the core combat loop, it manages to find its own little niche, both as a Warriors game and as a Legend of Zelda tie-in. The influences from both are clear and abundant, but they’re combined in a way that makes Age of Calamity still feel like its own thing, with plenty of its own new ideas to bring to the table. Most of all, it’s a Zelda game that puts Zelda herself at the centre in a way that few other games have, and after years of her being mostly relegated to a princess patiently awaiting her rescue, that’s a welcome new direction.”
25. Immortals Fenyx Rising
Open-world games work best when they don’t take themselves too seriously; when you can just turn your brain off, get lost in a beautiful world, and enjoy a dose of relaxing, mindless fun. Immortals Fenyx Rising leans into that with a comical riff on Greek mythology that’s always ready to laugh at itself, coupled with a bright, vibrant world to explore and an assortment of playful abilities to help make that exploration as enjoyable as possible.
24. Boomerang Fu
“It’s rare to find a game that’s so able to balance depth with approachability, strategy with not leaving new players out to dry, and a lively competitive energy that doesn’t end up with players getting too serious about the whole thing. Boomerang Fu hits all those notes perfectly.”
23. When The Past Was Around
“All the pieces come together to make When The Past Was Around a beautiful, deeply moving game. It’s a bittersweet exploration of love, loss, and grief—not uncommon themes, especially among indie games, but delivered in a particularly effective way through a wordless story and an emotive approach to point-and-click puzzles. Eda and The Owl’s bittersweet journey is one that will sit with me for a long time to come.”
22. Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town
“This is a game that doesn’t ask a lot of you in terms of mental or emotional investment, but it gives a lot back in exchange. It’s soothing in a way that so few other games are, with adorable character designs and presentation and cheerful soundtrack to really drive that home. When you’re sick of the bombast of capital-V Video Games, Story of Seasons: Friends of Mineral Town offers up the medium’s equivalent of quietly, peacefully pottering around in the garden on a sunny autumn day.”
21. Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit
“Mario Kart Live: Home Circuit is one of the best case studies in augmented reality I’ve seen yet, at least as far as pure entertainment is concerned. It’s the Mario Kart you know and love, but with your home as the course—something that could have easily fallen flat or come across as a shallow gimmick, but instead manages to hit every note near-flawlessly. There’s nothing quite like racing around your own living room, throwing shells every which way and hitting those boost pads while weaving through your furniture and trying to dodge the cat that keeps trying to catch your kart.”
20. void tRrLM(); // Void Terrarium
“But what truly makes Void Terrarium stand apart is how the roguelike setup feeds into those themes that have become quintessential to Furuya’s work: of finding hope in the face of hopelessness, and staying strong no matter how bleak the world around you. It’s a game that turns dungeon crawling into an exercise caring for a helpless child and protecting them from a hostile world, and that might make it Furuya’s most hopeful work yet.”
19. A Summer’s End: Hong Kong 1986
A Summer’s End: Hong Kong 1986 is part queer romance, part coming out story, part cultural exploration, and part reflection on Hong Kong’s transfer from British to Chinese administration. Through sharp writing and stunning artwork, it effortlessly weaves these threads together, resulting in a visual novel that’s romantic, funny, sexy, thought-provoking, and deeply moving.
18. In Other Waters
“In Other Waters is something special. It’s the sort of game that takes a seemingly simple idea—in this case, an underwater exploration driven entirely through a minimalist user interface—and delivers on that to perfection. It’s a game where you’ll never set eyes on the place you’re exploring, other than through the abstraction of a topographical map, and yet its world is one of the most beautiful you’ll encounter in a videogame. It’s a game that’ll introduce you to all manner of weird and wonderful alien life, made all the more weird and wonderful for the fact that the most you’ll see of said life is a biologist’s sketches. It’s a commentary on humanity’s relationship to the natural world, made all the more impactful the abstraction through which you experience it.”
17. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2
“Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1 + 2 is the real deal. It’s everything that a remake of THPS and THPS2 needed to be—something that recognises and celebrates the legacy of those games and manages to capture, in 2020, what it felt like to play the originals 20 years ago. It’s both meticulous in its attention to detail and innovative where it needs to be, resulting in something that’s completely faithful to what it’s remaking but never feels stuck in the past.”
16. Spider-Man: Miles Morales
“Marvel’s Spider-Man: Miles Morales‘ shorter form lets it avoid the common pitfalls of the genre, instead opting for a more impactful focused adventure with optional objectives that are more closely tied to the main themes of the game and don’t overstay their welcome. A story centered on Miles Morales, a Black / Latino kid from Brooklyn who’s now living in Harlem, doesn’t squander the opportunity to explore that identity and challenge the gentrification that’s been plaguing Harlem for decades.”
15. Yakuza: Like a Dragon
“What if we took the eccentricities of Yakuza to even greater extremes and turned it into a full-blown Dragon Quest-inspired turn-based RPG?” I can’t imagine any other crime drama videogame being able to pull off such a concept, but Yakuza isn’t your typical crime drama. With an absolutely wonderful new protagonist in the brash, excitable Ichiban Kasuga, Yakuza‘s trademark blend of heartfelt storytelling, edge-of-your-seat action, and complete absurdity, and a creative homage to Dragon Quest, Yakuza: Like a Dragon is an utter delight.
“I’ve played around with a fair few different “game development games” and pieces of software that promise game development with no need for writing lines of code, but few show as much potential as what I see in Dreams. It’s easy to use and to learn, while also having an impressive amount of depth for the people who really want to push its limits. The Dreamiverse ensures a ready audience for as long as Dreams has a community around it, and blurs the line between ‘audience’ and ‘creator’. Even now that it’s out in the wild, we still don’t really know what Dreams is—because, by its very nature, it’s going to be a thing that constantly grows and evolves with the community around it. That’s a wonderful thing.”
13. Paradise Killer
“Paradise Killer has one of the most unique, mesmerising world concepts I’ve encountered in a videogame. The whole game takes place in “Paradise”, an alternate reality created by the psychic energy of alien gods, overseen by a Syndicate of immortal beings, and with its very existence maintained by the prayers of people kidnapped from the real world and forced into servitude and worship. There’s a lot going on, in other words. But as outlandish as it may in that summary you just read, it works. Every facet of Paradise Killer, from its environmental design to the fundamental ways players interact with the game, works to create a believable fiction out of an unbelievable premise.”
12. The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV
“The Legend of Heroes: Trails of Cold Steel IV is the dramatic conclusion to a grand epic that’s been almost a decade in the making. It’s another chance to spend time with a bunch of characters that have become like family across three prior games, and the culmination of a nuanced exploration of the many faces of war. Most of all, it’s the sort of payoff that only hundreds of hours of meticulous, thoughtful worldbuilding can lead up to.”
11. Demon’s Souls
“There are plenty of ways a remake of Demon’s Souls could have completely missed what made the original game the surprise hit it was in the first place. I know I was concerned, in the lead-up to its launch, that Bluepoint Games might have polished away the soul of the game—and I say that as someone without any particular attachment to the original. Instead, they used this opportunity to breath new life into a true classic: Demon’s Souls on PS5 takes all the oppressive atmosphere of the original to a new level, while avoiding any desire to “fix” what isn’t broken.”
10. Animal Crossing: New Horizons
“If there’s one message in Animal Crossing: New Horizons, it’s this: slow the hell down. In a time when trying to rush through a game and see everything it has to offer as quickly as possible—not least of all because there’s a million other games queued up to play afterwards—here’s one that says ‘No. We’re not going to let you do that. You’re going to take it slow and enjoy being in the moment, rather than rushing headlong from goal to goal.’ … Once you start playing New Horizons on its own terms, and realise that it isn’t a game about ‘doing’ so much as one about just existing in your own little slice of the world, that slow pace and deliberately laboured progression become liberating.”
9. Best Friend Forever
“Date cute people and raise cute dogs” is a clear winner for a game concept, so Best Friend Forever already started off on the right foot. But it’s real strength is in how well it delivers in this concept, with a clever mash-up of dating sim and pet-raising elements that sees both sides of the game being closely intertwined instead of just running alongside one another. Top that off with sharp writing, plenty of humour, a chill soundtrack, and extremely attractive love interests, and you’ve got a particularly delightful game.
8. Astro’s Playroom
“Astro’s Playroom is an excellent showcase for what the DualSense controller can do and a rock-solid platformer that’s surprisingly substantial for a free pack-in game, but it’s the journey through PlayStation history that really makes Astro’s Playroom stand out. There’s a lot of great stuff in the PlayStation 5 launch line-up, but the game that comes pre-installed on every console might just be the best of the lot.”
“Haven is something truly special. Videogames seem to struggle with meaningful depictions of romance anywhere outside of the otome and dating sim niche—and as much as I love otome games, romance is something that should be far more universal, and there’s a lot of untapped potential in approaching romance through different styles of play. So to have a game like Haven that tells a genuinely romantic, heartfelt, beautiful tale through the familiar structure of an RPG is truly welcome.”
6. Final Fantasy VII Remake
“Square Enix could have played it safe [with Final Fantasy VII Remake] and re-created the original game as closely as possible, but instead they chose to put a fresh spin on one of the most beloved, influential games of all time, all while staying true to the vision that made it so memorable in the first place. It doesn’t exist to replace Final Fantasy VII so much as complement it, and both games are better for the existence of one another. I can’t wait to see what the next part(s?) have in store. Final Fantasy VII Remake had everything stacked against it—not least of all the legacy of what came before—but Square Enix took that impossible task and delivered a masterpiece.”
5. Umurangi Generation
Umurangi Generation might just be the game of 2020, not necessarily in a “best game of the year” (though it’s up there), but in terms of its ability to capture the mood of a moment in time. Through the lens of a game about taking photos in a post-apocalyptic New Zealand, it achieves a biting criticism of colonialism, racism, policing, and inequality. A couple of hours’ worth of taking photos, with so much as a spoken word of dialogue, manages better than any other game to embody the cries and frustrations of a generation that society seems content to leave behind.
4. Nioh 2
“But that little complaint does little to dull the love I have for Nioh 2. I liked the first game a lot, but that was tempered by the love/hate relationship I have with soulslikes in general. But with Nioh 2, and its finely-tuned difficulty curve, I finally understand the appeal of the genre. Nioh 2 can be brutal, but success is always on the horizon, urging you forward and making your eventual victory that much sweeter. That’s something that, for me, every other soulslike has been missing.”
3. Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise
“Deadly Premonition 2: A Blessing in Disguise is a lot of things. It’s a surreal murder mystery that’s unlike any other detective story you’ve played, read, or watched. It’s a hilarious delve into the mind of a wonderfully odd FBI agent. It’s a subversive rejection of a lot of the assumed rules about what makes a game “good”. It’s a janky, clumsy game whose ‘flaws’ add so much to the atmosphere of the game—not ‘so bad it’s good’, but good in a way that challenges assumptions about what ‘bad’ actually means.”
With Hades, Supergiant Games figured out how to make roguelikes appeal to people who hate them. The fluid action and gorgeous art style are part of that, but mostly, it’s in the way Hades makes the repeated death inherent in a roguelike into a crucial piece of the narrative—it’s not the first to do this, but no game before it has been so effective. Victory or death, every run helps to drive a rich story of vengeful gods, fractured families, love, and people trying to figure out their place in the world. A successful run is obviously the most desirable, but an early death is almost as satisfying for the story beats that come with it—not a failure so much as a different kind of success.
And Shindig’s Game of the Year is…
1. Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin
“Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin is utterly sublime. A game about the cultural and historical importance of rice, as seen through a comical twist on Japanese mythology, delivered by a mash-up of farming life sim and action platformer might sound like an odd concept, but Sakuna takes this wholly unique premise and delivers on it to perfection.”