Dive into caves, get slightly further than you did last time, and die hilariously: that’s the Spelunky loop, and it’s compelling. With its rideable turkeys, spilling lava and omnipresent hazards, Derek Yu’s subterranean world is entropic but thrillingly conquerable. It might not do much that the first Spelunky didn’t, 10 years ago – but the original is a perfect game, and it is so good to have it back.
What we said: “Every new thing is useful, perilous, versatile. Exploring these possibilities is the new game. The bits that didn’t need fixing are left untouched.”
Your friends are on a spaceship with you, but one is a saboteur. Who is it? Accusations have consequences as suspects are jettisoned through the airlock – even if they turn out to be innocent. The ultimate party game of our paranoid times, Among Us runs on a magic mix of an intriguing scenario and good old human deviousness.
What we said: “In this age of widespread home working, Among Us simulates the only part of office life that most of us secretly miss: gossip and in-fighting.”
A game about helping departed souls find peace and move on might seem a bit much for 2020, but Spiritfarer makes it all feel so warm and sweet. It’s about death being inevitable, but also natural. Ghibli-inspired and beautiful to look at, the game has a magical-realist flavour as you upgrade your barge of lost souls with vegetable gardens and odd bedrooms.
A queer coming-of-age story set in 1990s Ireland, played by wiping out the pages of a diary as its author slowly comes undone. It ends on an uplifting note, though, and its themes of self-discovery and beautifully drawn young friendships conjure powerful nostalgia that transcends its very specific place and time.
What we said: “The sense of place, strength of writing, evocative art and elegant interactions make If Found… a moving drama.”
Spider-Man: Miles Morales
It might not stretch itself out over tens of hours, but this Spider-Man game is all the better for it. A web-slinging caper that turns New York into an adventure playground, freshening things up by switching us away from Peter Parker and exploring young Miles’ world instead.
What we said: “The message is that self-belief is infectious and that individual actions can reignite whole communities: perhaps not something we might expect from a combat-focused superhero adventure.”
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
Another breakout hit, Fall Guys is a madcap cartoon gameshow replete with slime, giant footballs and fake doors, and it’s joyous and silly enough to keep you coming back for another shot at its ludicrous arenas. Turns out that light competition, camaraderie and physical comedy was just what we needed to cheer us up this year.
What we said: “It is lovely to see a game like this – so aware of its own silliness and so aware that it is exactly what we need right now.”
Sometimes, you just gotta shoot things, and if you gotta shoot things, Doom Eternal is the best video game in a very long time. From minute one you’re guiltlessly eviscerating demons with shotguns and plasma rifles while heavy-metal guitars scream in the background. It is a violent spectacle underpinned by very smart design and movement, like a gore-soaked ballet.
What we said: “It’s a real delight to be the Doom Slayer: to put everything else aside and focus on just the problem in front of you. Especially if that problem is a swarm of angry demons.”
Yakuza: Like a Dragon
An over-the-top Japanese gangster game about male friendship and vulnerability. A fresh start for a long-running series, Like a Dragon has a relatable and down-to-earth star in 40-something Ichiban Kasuga, a washed-up yakuza trying to get back on his feet. You can sing karaoke, punch goons or hit the arcades in this virtual Yokohama, but Ichiban’s good deeds are what you’ll remember.
What we said: “This is such a refreshing depiction of middle-aged manhood, but also of the influence of video games. It is kind of beautiful that the lesson Ichiban took from Dragon Quest all those years ago wasn’t that heroes kill monsters. It was that heroes keep a band of close friends around them at all times.”
Microsoft Flight Simulator
In a year where travel became an impossibility, Microsoft Flight Simulator showed us the world. A showcase for Microsoft’s extraordinary cloud technology, it had us soaring over a digital re-creation of the entire planet. Whether you’re going full pilot mode or just picking up a controller and hitting the skies with elegantly simplified flight controls, it’s a true escape from the confines of our surroundings.
What we said: “One day, you may catch early morning sun beams rising along the Alps like searchlights, on another, you’ll see New York transform into a constellation of pin-prick stars as dusk drops and office lights take over; every flight, a kind of holiday.”
Kentucky Route Zero
Over nine years and five chapters, the three-person studio Cardboard Computer has created one of the most important and impactful games of our times, a magical-realist, minimalist masterwork of gothic Americana. Inspired by Pynchon, Matisse and 2008’s great recession, Kentucky Route Zero veers from text adventure to virtual play, ghost story to parable. It is unmissable.
What we said: “This is a powerful treatise on the slow-motion plummet toward hardship experienced by those either unwilling or unable to adapt to the tectonic shifts of capitalism.”
Ori and the Will of the Wisps
A stunningly beautiful game. This vaguely Nordic fairytale about a light spirit and an owlet lost in a forest feels incredible to play; every leap, run and swipe lands just right: precise and graceful. It’s also no pushover – veterans of 90s platform games will delight in the challenge.
What we said: “Its impressive aesthetics are matched by a gripping storyline, bewitching characters and a fully immersive environment in which every nook and cranny pulses with life.”
An exceptional work of horror fantasy, reborn on the PlayStation 5. Plunged into a decaying realm where pretty much everything has long since died, you must face hideous demons, undead knights and plagued creatures, foes that will send shivers up you (and are capable of killing you in seconds). Fighting for survival in this world feels so intense, so physical, that it can make your hands shake. And that’s not even mentioning the black phantoms that can invade your world and assassinate you. When it all gets too much, you can fall back on your fellow players, asking for help or summoning them to your world to help you through a tough spot.
The Last of Us Part II
An uncompromising, confronting and sometimes upsetting game about revenge and the awful things that humans can do to each other. Superbly acted by its cast, The Last of Us Part II challenges the video game convention that because we’re in control, we’re the good guy. One of the greatest horror works in any medium.
What we said: “The Last of Us Part II is another story that could only work as a game, the kind of challenging, groundbreaking work that comes along two or three times a decade.”
Zagreus, son of Hades, must escape his father’s miserable underworld palace – so here you are shooting, scything and punching hordes of nightmare Greek creatures, stepping into Tartarus over and over until you finally make it to the surface. And flirting with a bunch of Greek gods on the way. The combat is fantastic but it’s Hades’ unconventional approach to storytelling that will prove most influential: it has a play loop that repeats itself but dialogue that doesn’t.
What we said: “Interesting things happen all the time, in conversations and chance encounters as well as in battles, and no matter how long I spend with Hades I feel like I am only just getting acquainted with it.”
Animal Crossing: New Horizons
The star game of lockdown, the deserted-island alternate-life simulator that provided an outlet for millions of players’ creativity, let us all hang out with our friends, and birthed a thousand memes. Animal Crossing has always been good but this version arrived at just the right time, offering us a soothing escape from a real world that was becoming scary and unpredictable. For many, 2020 will be remembered as the Animal Crossing year as much as the pandemic year.
What we said: “The absence of noise and urgency on my little island has made it a vital sanctuary, and it looks as if it will be greatly needed in the weeks and months to come.”