The 2020 Gameological Not Just Game of the Year Awards

Following up on the tradition we started last year, the Unofficial Gameological Discord group has put together another year end list! Looking back on the blog, I only published one post this year, so even though I played a whole lot of games this year, I’ll let that say all I have to say about what kinda year 2020 was.

Games were a consistent escape from the endless reign of terror, and it felt great to finally check off a few backlog games, and explore something new ones. So, in no particular order (except the last one), featuring games both released this year and twenty years ago, here are my 2020 Gameological Not Just Game of the Year Awards:

Best Singleplayer Game

The best game I played alone.

Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2

I thought the Tony Hawk Pro Skater 1 + 2 remakes would be a fun bit of nostalgia for me, who grew up playing THPS2 and THUG more times than I can count. What I didn’t expect was to 100% both games that came with the remake.

The gameplay for THPS is just superb. As a kid, all I wanted to do was skate around and collect all of the trinkets in each level. As an adult, I can finally see the brilliance of the combo system. Chaining tricks with reverts, manuals, grinds, and specials was so addicting that I was disappointed when I cleared a level and didn’t have anything left to do. Lifting the code from the original games was a smart move that let me build on muscle memory to create some amazing combos and really dig into the nooks and crannies of each level. And yes, the soundtrack still slaps.

I didn’t expect to love this game so much, but I felt myself coming back to play no matter my mood. It was the perfect game to play when I just needed to blow off some steam, didn’t want to play something too intense, or wanted a challenge. It filled a great skateboard-shaped hole in my heart that I didn’t know was there, and I miss the game already.

I hope they continue this trend and release 3 and 4 together in the future.

I need more.

Backlog Game of the Year

The game I finally got around to playing.

Yakuza 0

I played Yakuza 0 immediately after Final Fantasy VII Remake and it was the perfect way to ease myself out of Midgar. The game shares many mechanics as Remake, from the vending machines that dispense healing items, to fun NPC banter in the streets, to the tone that varies from serious character drama to absolute goofiness at the turn of a dime. It was just a ton of fun all the way through, featuring some great minigames, sidequests, and cathartic character moments that kept me hooked to the main quest.

I was afraid the combat wouldn’t click for me, since I find beat-em-ups really aren’t my thing. It’s definitely still my least favorite part of the game, which is why I’m excited the new one shifts to a typical JRPG setup, but it worked for what it was. I miss the characters of Yakuza 0, and I can’t wait to go back to spend more time with them in the subsequent entries.

Favorite Ongoing Game

The game that keeps on giving.

Final Fantasy XIV

I had played a good bit of Final Fantasy XIV last year (and wrote a whole lot about my experience beating A Realm Reborn), but 2020 was the year the game really clicked for me. As one of my birthday gifts to my friend, I transferred Dagda to their server so we could run dungeons and play together.

What a word of difference playing with a friend makes.

We were kids again, running dungeons, checking strategies, learning skills together, queuing for daily roulettes to level up. We would schedule hangouts whenever one of us was ready to run a new dungeon, and excitedly tell each other about what was coming up to get one another pumped. Playing FFXIV this way completely changed how I felt about the game. I was no longer on my own grinding content with strangers I’d never see again. I was running it with a friend, and then their friends, feeling more a part of the world and the game than before.

It was the perfect way to share an experience together while being miles apart and provided a much needed escape for 2020. I always look forward to jumping in no matter how long or short the session. I’m thankful for every minute we’ve played together and looking forward to many hours more.

Didn’t Click for Me

The game I wanted to like, but didn’t do it for me.

Last of Us Part II

Ah, The Last of Us: Part II. Truly, the Last Jedi of video games, a game so tainted by the toxic discourse around it that saying “I didn’t like The Last of Us: Part II” has to be followed up with an essay explaining your logical reasoning why, lest someone think you just hate that Abby is too muscular or whatever.

Gone is the tight, smaller vignette storytelling of the first game. Instead, the game focused on two sides of the same coin – revenge – a trope that like its famous dish, has gone cold on me. I just flatly did not care about the character journeys here, and once the game revealed its “trick,” it felt manipulative and hollow. It wasn’t enough to keep me interested as I slogged through screen after screen of enemies that never seemed to end. I hit a point where eventually I was just trying to run through interactions to get by. If the goal was to make a point about the numbness of committing acts of violence over and over again, they shot that a mile wide. The only thing I felt was boredom.

There’s a version of The Last of Us: Part II I might have liked. Most of my gripes with the game are the way it was split and its iron grip on trying to dictate your emotions. Interweaving the two stories and culminating in the same finale might have kept things fresh, although I don’t think it would have helped me not shrug at the ending, which felt preordained from the minute I knew what the game was doing. I did really enjoy the first half of the game, like the hub based level the game opens with and then never brings back again. Hell, I even really liked the last level, which introduced some more interesting mechanics that made combat fresh and interesting.

Ultimately though, Part II was a miss for me, not landing the “just one more chapter” pace of the original, and not shaking up the gameplay enough to keep me, like Ellie, from being utterly done with this shit by the end.

Hindsight is 2020

The game where opinions changed upon reflection.

Super Mario Sunshine

Maybe I burned myself out on the Pachinko Machine level too early. Maybe the remaster in the Super Mario 3D All Stars release had some wonky controls not present in the original. Maybe I just never had the benefit of playing it as a youth and didn’t have rosy glasses to look at Super Mario Sunshine with.

The game just did not click for me. I found the movement fun, but many of the levels just didn’t work for me in a way that made me excited to get the shines. I found myself glad that I got a shine so I’d never have to do a particular section again more often than I looked back on a level and said “yeah, that was fun, can’t wait to go back and replay that.” Even friends that I know love Sunshine admitted more often than not that a level I hated was also one that they hated. Multiple times! I didn’t have this issue with Super Mario 64, which is a game I played for the first time in adulthood and loved.

Shown: not fun

Upon further reflection, I think a large part of my issues with the game is the life system, especially for the secret levels. It would be a pain to get to the secret level to begin with, then losing life after life to a tough as nails platforming section with the stress of knowing I’d have to just get to the secret level again caused more sweaty controllers than the platforming itself. Sure, a lot of those have a secret 1UP you can find, but I wish it was just removed altogether so I could focus on mastering the challenge of the level, and not worry about retreading a half hour of work.

Still, Sunshine looms large in my head. It’s cozy, the movement makes the levels a blast to explore even if I hated the specific objectives themselves, and I love all the little bizarre things it does. Even the conceit of “Mario goes on vacation” is strong enough to make me think back fondly on what the game tries to do. I can see why, if you’re a kid with nothing better to do, Sunshine offered a large, bizarre, fun world to explore where losing lives meant you just got to play the game even more. Sometimes, I find myself tempted to boot the game up and collect some more shines.

“I did play that, didn’t I?”

The forgettable one.

Paper Mario: The Origami King

A common refrain for this category, I forgot about The Origami King almost the moment that I put the controller down. It wasn’t until a month later when another friend mentioned it that the memories of sliding puzzles, smashing Toads, and lack of true companions came flooding back to me all at once.

I don’t think The Origami King is a bad game, necessarily. The music is great, the areas are charming, and discovering Toads is genuinely fun and funny. However nothing in the game particularly stands out as memorable in the same way I’ll always be thinking back upon the Fargo sequence of the original, or the way the companions deepened and improved the world. The Origami King had promise, but the repetitive battle system and tedious open world levels made it more of a nuisance I was glad to finish than something I’ll fondly look back on.

Unexpected Joy

The game I got immense joy from when I least expected it.

Final Fantasy XIII

I’d heard it all about Final Fantasy XIII. I’ve heard the takes that it ruined the franchise. That it was one big, meaningless hallway. That the plot makes no sense. That even self professed Final Fantasy stans admitted that although they liked XIII for what it was, they knew it was certainly nowhere near the best the series had to offer.

Thus, it was with great trepidation that I told my girlfriend a few hours into the game:

I kinda love Final Fantasy XIII.

Me, sheepishly

XIII survives based on the strength of its combat system alone. All of the game’s criticisms are valid and true, but it’s a testament to the Paradigm system that I just could not put the damn game down. Even when the game was literally shoving me down a single straight hallway for two hours, I couldn’t wait for the next combat encounter to see what combination of enemies they would throw at me and how I’d have to rethink my strategy. It was bizarre playing a Final Fantasy game where I was looking forward to the boss fights not because of some interesting story beat, but because I relished the thought of putting my paradigm chops to the test.

And my girlfriend and I are still together. Relationships are all about communication and compromise.

Best Music

You know what “Best Music” means.

Final Fantasy VII: Remake

Over twenty years since it’s original release, I thought I had heard every possible permutation of Final Fantasy VII music there could ever be.

Boy was I wrong.

Remake is absolutely brimming with fresh takes on classic tunes that made me feel like I was experiencing the track for the first time, again and again. The remixes blend songs in surprising ways, the diegetic jukebox tunes slap, and the dynamic boss music never failed to get my blood pumping. The Remake OST is perfect in every way.

Watch this and tell me the Airbuster isn’t the best game track released this year:

Favorite Game Encounter

A thrilling gameplay moment that still sticks out to me.

Meeting Jeff: Half Life Alyx

I thought that my Half Life: Alyx entry was going to be the first time I fought the Combine in the game. In VR, wielding a pistol in one hand and slinging ammo with the gravity glove in my other, fighting combine enemies in Half Life: Alyx was absolutely unreal. I had never experienced anything like it.

Then I met Jeff.

It makes sense to me when I was reading up on the sequence later that this is actually what the developers started with when they began development. It’s the perfect VR chapter, combining stealth, frantic action, and more survival horror tropes than you can shake a crowbar at. Plus, it got me to live through the game’s equivalent of locking a velociraptor in a refrigerator like Jurassic Park.

A top notch gaming experience that sold me on the experiences that VR can offer that I won’t stop talking about for a long time. Now I just need more people to play it.

Most Accessible Game

The game that made it easiest to play and enjoy.

Hades

Yes, I admit, I was one of those people that only played Hades because I heard it was “the rogue-like for people who hate rogue-likes”.

And you know what? They were right.

Hades sucked me in and kept me playing for hours until I made my first clear. The progression systems makes it feel like you’re making real progress with each run, letting you set mini objectives for yourself other than “make it out.” The writing and art are both top notch, and the gameplay is addicting as hell, making me say “just one more run” more times than I’d like to admit. This is all to say nothing about “God mode,” crossaves, and other quality of life stuff that makes the game so damn easy to play how you’d like.

Pessimistic about rogue-likes? Believe the hype – Hades is the one to play.

Waiting for Game-dot

The game I’ll get around to soon, I swear.

Persona 4 Golden

As if my roommate begging me to play the game wasn’t enough, I’m now being double teamed by my girlfriend who purchased the game for me for Christmas so I can finally tackle my first ever Persona game. I know I’ll love it, but this year I was occupied by no fewer than five Final Fantasy titles that the thought of sinking another hundred hours into a different JRPG was too daunting. It’s on the docket for early 2021.

I promise.

Best Multiplayer Game

The game that was better with friends.

Paper Mario

“Th-that’s impossible!” you’re probably sputtering right about now. “Paper Mario is assuredly a single player game! And it didn’t even come out this year!”

And you know what? You’re right. Traditionally, Paper Mario is definitely not a single player game. But something I’ve learned this year is that games, even single player ones, are just more dang fun with other people. The original Paper Mario has been a wishlist item that two individual good friends of mine have wanted me to play for years, and 2020 finally presented the time. What better way to play it than to invite both of them to watch along as I streamed?

The result was one of the most fun gaming experiences I had all year. My friends got the satisfaction of hearing me squeal in delight when I realized one point of the game was riffing on Fargo, and I got to smirk at their cries when I would continuously push my luck on a boss fight, scraping by and surviving by the skin of a single well-timed block. Time and time again.

Paper Mario is brilliant. Its RPG mechanics are simple, but addictive. The writing is positively delightful, surprising, and fun. The characters are some of the series’ best. I’m sorry I waited so long to play it, but I’m eternally grateful I got to play it alongside two friends who were reliving their childhood memories while I built new ones.

Wildcard: The Perfect 2020 Game

The category created so I didn’t feel bad about leaving Animal Crossing out.

Animal Crossing

I had no interest in Animal Crossing. It sounded boring, more like work than play, and I couldn’t see why anyone would spend hours collecting and selling fruit to win Landlord Simulator 2020.

But a few months up to release, even before the pandemic took hold, I found myself getting excited at the prospect of playing it based on the buzz in the Gameological discord channel. It sounded much more like a communal effort than grinding for bells alone led me to believe the game was. I was along for the ride with them.

I fell in love with the game. It was quickly one of the coziest places we could all hang when we couldn’t leave our living rooms. While I didn’t get into the game as much as others (I still haven’t paid off my last loan), I played the game for way longer than I thought I would, and still boot it up on occasion to check out the new content.

This is a special game that came out at the perfect time, bringing together friends of mine who played games and even those who didn’t. It’s unlikely we’ll see such a profound release like this come again, and I’m thankful I was a part of it.

Game of the Year

The big one.

Final Fantasy VII: Remake

What more could I write about Final Fantasy VII: Remake? I whole heartedly love this game, quirks and all. It’s a love letter not just to Final Fantasy VII, but the entire series. Its politics are spot on and never misses, finding more relevancy in 2020 during a pandemic than it did in 1997. Its gameplay is a perfect marriage of old turn based mechanics and the newer, flashier action fare of recent titles. Its world is deep and rich, the music both pulse pounding and nostalgic, the characters more fully realized than any of the spinoffs hinted at.

It’s a game I have not stopped thinking about since I stopped playing it. I relived the experience not too long ago when my girlfriend played it for the first time, and watching her squeal and yell and jump at some of the best moments of the game (“Nailed it, I know. Thank you. Moving on.”) was just as exciting as playing it for the first time.

I came to Remake fairly apathetic about the original game. It was the first Final Fantasy game I played as a fifteen year old, and while I liked it enough, it didn’t stick with me in any meaningful way other than being the pop culture thing all kids liked.

Remake is different. It made me care about Midgar by showing me our own world and correctly identifying the problems we need to fix. Avalanche radicalized and inspired me to take further direct action and not back down from hard conversations. The characters showed me how to have fun, even when everything else has gone utterly to shit.

I can’t think of a game in the last decade that’s been more influential on me. I’m completely on board for the rest of this series, wherever it goes from here. No matter where the unknown journey continues, Remake will never cease to be one of the most important games I’ve ever played.

Bring on 2021.

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