In a year where so many things went wrong, video games stood out as one of the few highlights of 2020.
They were more important than ever, providing new ways for people to connect and creating a much-needed distraction from everything else happening in the world. We saw that when millions socialized via Animal Crossing, or started watching Fall Guys competitions on Twitch. The ability to spend hours disappearing into a beautiful world like those in Ghost of Tsushima or Hades was a welcome respite.
As always, narrowing down the best games of the year is not an easy thing to do. But after plenty of voting — and a few arguments — The Verge staff has narrowed a year’s worth of releases down to nine titles that helped make 2020 a little more bearable.
For me, Animal Crossing: New Horizons is a game about pottering. I always have a vague idea about something I’d like to do, like some bit of my island it’d be nice to touch up, or maybe a fish that’s available to catch this month. But New Horizons is a game filled with little distractions that mean you can play for hours without ever getting around to it. There’s always a fossil to dig up, an interesting-looking bug to catch, or a balloon overhead to shoot down.
But what elevated New Horizons to become one of my favorite games of the year was the cultural moment it had. I had group chats and Slack channels ablaze with Dodo codes after obscure friends of friends of colleagues found themselves with good prices for Turnips, or just tips for how to catch the bugs available in a given month. New Horizons is a game that frequently feels like a chore to navigate. But that’s by design. It means you’re never able to lose sight of the game’s smaller details, which is where its best moments are to be found. — Jon Porter
Battle royale games are everywhere. The genre pioneered by PUBG now includes the expansive metaverse of Fortnite, the fast-paced action of Call of Duty: Warzone, and the sci-fi battles of Apex Legends. As different as they can be, these games all have one thing in common: shooting. Fall Guys, one of 2020’s most pleasant surprises, took the genre in a different direction.
Instead of a violent battleground, it tasked players with competing through a series of game show-like competitions, racing to survive amidst obstacles that felt ripped out of American Gladiators. It’s bright and colorful, with goofy controls and physics that guarantee you’re going to fall over and look silly. And that’s the entire point: Fall Guys is as fun to watch as it is to play, and it shows how much room there is to grow in the “last person standing” genre.—Andrew Webster
Final Fantasy VII Remake could have been a disaster. Square Enix hasn’t had the greatest track record over the last decade, letting many of its projects become bogged down by years of overwrought production until the end product feels like a nostalgia-filled compromise. That’s not what happened with FFVII Remake. It’s a modern-day masterpiece, combining what fans loved about the original with a deep and engaging battle system, surprising character depth, incredible music, and a completely out-of-left-field final stretch that promises to shake up the sequels in a big way.
It wasn’t perfect. The game encompassed just a small fraction of the original, inevitably leading to shoddy pacing, tedious side quests, and an overly linear structure. But FFVII Remake succeeded in spite of all of that by nailing every high point it could — the Honeybee Inn sequence stands vivid in my memory — and staying true to the Final Fantasy series by giving us an experience we’ll love looking back on years from now, when its flaws are more easily forgiven and forgotten. The only thing more impressive at this point would be if the sequels are even remotely as good. —Nick Statt
I didn’t expect to like Ghost of Tsushima as much as I did. In a year full of blockbusters like Animal Crossing and Final Fantasy, it seemed that there was no way that it could match up to those other heavyweights. Maybe that lack of expectation is what allowed me to fall so hard.
I thought Ghost of Tsushima’s landscapes were stunning. The game’s musical score is one of my favorites of the year. Writing haikus was genuinely peaceful and meditative. (I wrote one about strife that ended with the phrase “shattered, but alive,” which remains my mantra for 2020.) The action was great, too. Jin Sakai’s huge toolkit of skills made taking on hordes of enemies thrilling. The one-on-one sword fighting duels were epic clashes of strategy and skill, made all the more impactful when facing off against characters I once called allies.
I was hooked on Ghost of Tsushima all the way to its extremely satisfying ending. And thinking about it while writing this makes me want to hop on my horse again and ride through the game’s picturesque world — or maybe even just write another haiku.—Jay Peters
It took about 15 minutes for me to fall in love with Hades. The opening was jarring; the game throws you directly into an escape from Hell with little explanation. By the time I’d reached the game’s first boss, the husky voiced Fury Meg, I’d barely begun to chip away at the systems and story. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the first conversation between Meg and the game’s intrepid prince, Zagreus: a few quips, an acknowledgement of some deep history, and then a fight. I died. And then I fell in love.
Super Giant’s roguelike is one of its best yet — an irresistible package of excellent voice acting, beautiful visuals, and gameplay that scratches just the right itch for punishment. I’ve played through dozens of runs and deaths, and still I bounce back each time eager for more. Each failure is its own kind of reward, through new conversations, or weapons, or personal accomplishment for having gotten a little further than last time. I’m consistently shocked to find there is still more story to unravel and new tricks to be learned. Hades’ world of the dead is special because it feels so alive.—Megan Farokhmanesh
It has become a tradition for me to do ridiculous things to play the latest Half-Life game. I sold my soft-modded Xbox console for $50 just to buy Half-Life 2 on the PC back in 2004. I remember driving an hour out of town to snag a copy of The Orange Box on Xbox 360. And for Half-Life: Alyx, the VR-only prequel to HL2 released in March, I topped myself by dumping $300 (in addition to the game’s cost) on a VR headset during a pandemic — and it was worth it.
All of the familiar pieces of a Half-Life game are here: brilliant level design, physics-based puzzles, great narrative pacing, meticulous attention to detail, and stellar voice acting. The only difference is that your body is put in the middle of it all, and that makes the formula feel new again. I may have logged more time this year with games like Hades and Animal Crossing, but I’m a huge sucker for physics playgrounds. Most objects in the game can be lassoed with the gravity gloves, requiring a swift flick of the wrist. That never stops feeling magical.—Cameron Faulkner
I am a huge fan of The Last of Us, so when a sequel was announced I knew I had to play it. But the first time I beat The Last of Us Part II, I was disappointed. For years I had my own theories of what I imagined the sequel to one of my favorite games would be, and it wasn’t this. Then I decided to play it again to get the Platinum trophy, and experiencing the game with a different perspective and different expectations allowed me to see how truly great The Last of Us Part II is. My original expectations were not only unfair but unrealistic.
The Last of Us Part II is a painfully beautiful game, and the more I play it the more I realize just how much love Naughty Dog put into this title. The gameplay is more robust and enjoyable, even if it was a lot more gruesome and violent. But this helped make its world more believable and allowed me to fully immerse myself in this story of revenge and the consequences that come with it.
For me, it all comes down to what can I take away from the game — and there was a lot I took away after multiple playthroughs. Despite some rough patches and pacing issues, it’s a beautiful story. It even inspired me to learn how to play the guitar.—Taylor Lyles
When it comes to how it looks and plays, Spider-Man: Miles Morales is nearly identical to the original PS4 web-slinging game. It adds a few new abilities, and new baddies to fight, but mechanically there isn’t much separating the two. But that doesn’t mean the games are the same — a shift in focus to budding hero Miles Morales makes a big difference.
The sequel tells a story that’s purposefully smaller and more intimate, and it’s better for it. Watching as Miles grows into his newfound responsibilities, while also forming a deep connection with his Harlem neighborhood, is almost as thrilling as swinging across New York City. The fact that it’s also a great technical showcase for the PlayStation 5 is just an added bonus.—Andrew Webster
If Star Wars: Squadrons had just been the best realization of what it’s like to fly an X-Wing starfighter, that would have been enough. Motive Studio’s flight simulator feels like a love-letter to the iconic dogfights of the movies, with soaring starfighters and thrilling chases around and through giant space stations and asteroid fields.
But Squadrons isn’t just great for its design or it’s incredible, game-wide VR option: it’s also a fun class-based multiplayer game, one that rewards squadding up with friends and coordinating different classes and abilities. When everything clicks, it comes together as a Star Wars experience like nothing else.—Chaim Gartenberg