There’s everything else, and then there’s Hades.
So I didn’t do one of these last year, opting instead to again bite off more than I could chew thematically by doing a best of the decade thing, but it wasn’t for a lack of good games (for the record, my top 10 would have been Outer Wilds, Link’s Awakening HD, Control, Star Wars Fallen Order, Afterparty, The Outer Worlds, Void Bastards, Man of Medan, RICO, and Apex Legends).
Despite all the delays and cancellations and console launch dryness, this year still produced some gems of its own. Honorable Mention to Valorant, Maneater, Genshin Impact, Spelunky 2, Paper Mario: The Origami King. So we start with…
10. Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity (Omega Force)
I can’t earnestly recommend Age of Calamity (I’m not calling it AoC, for obvious reasons) to everyone. If you’re a fan of musou games, sure, it’s probably the most challenging and intricate fighting system they’ve ever made (which isn’t saying much). If you’re a Zelda lore nerd, absolutely. Despite taking place in (spoilers) an alternate timeline from the original game, there are a lot of fun revelations and actually mildly interesting story beats to dig into. Did you ever wonder if those ruins near Castle Town in Breath of the Wild were actually supposed to be Lon Lon Ranch? Well, wonder no longer. If you’re a fan of the sound design and assorted menu noises from BOTW? Yeah sure, play it. There are a lot of those, and they’re always fun to listen to.
If you’re a fan of all three, then you’re writing this paragraph right now and you already bought and finished this game in the 35 or so hours it took. Despite some performance issues and the constant, nagging reminders that you cannot actually go everywhere and climb on everything, Calamity is a solid enough stopgap for Zelda fans until we finally get some more news on that sequel.
9. Super Mega Baseball 3 (Metalhead Software Inc.)
With their third entry, Metalhead has fully settled into that wonderful middle ground between arcade and simulation that sports games simply don’t try for anymore. Everyone looks goofy and has names like Rip Dingers, Nacho Crisp and Keg Gutterson, while also having a fairly robust franchise, player creator and pitching system to fall back on. It’s easily the best baseball game ever released on the Xbox One, and fits so neatly into the NBA Street-shaped void in my heart. Shame that the impending release of MLB The Show on Microsoft’s big box might end up erasing this game and its predecessors from history, because they’re very good games.
8. The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope (Supermassive Games)
This is a very difficult game to describe. Sort of a choose-your-own-adventure horror, Little Hope is an anthology sequel to 2019’s Man of Medan, and if you played that, you know what you’re in for: a two-player visual novel-style game where the game actively tries to trick the players by showing them both different things (Medan famously can get one player to kill another by making them appear like a demonic ghost on the other player’s screen). Starring Midsommar’s Will Poulter, it works in ways it shouldn’t and doesn’t work in ways it should (optimization is a big problem for these games). Still, if you’ve got a good friend and three or four hours to kill, I highly recommend it.
7. Final Fantasy VII Remake (SquareEnix)
They actually did it! I was as down on this concept as anyone, I think, but the Final Fantasy VII Remake mostly captured the spirit of the original, and the added content, while sometimes tedious, mostly helps pad out what was originally a two-hour segment from the original game into a fully fledged, 30+ hour modern JRPG experience. I still miss the pure turn-based combat from the older games, but I understand that a modern audience simply isn’t going to accept a bunch of photorealistic, immaculately detailed 3D people standing in a line and attacking each other in turn.
I have some… concerns over where this particular version of the FF7 story is going to go from here, but as an experience, both mechanical and narrative, this game really came as close to the mood of the original as I ever could have imagined, while still having enough to differentiate itself as a new thing.
6. Streets of Rage 4 (Guard Crush / DotEmu / Lizardcube)
I have to imagine this game’s existence is a byproduct of Sonic Mania’s success. SEGA agreeing to hand the license to one of their biggest 90s franchises to a collective of small or independent studios is not something I could have imagined happening before Mania, but here we are, and wouldn’t you know it, we’re two for two. I always preferred the Rage games to their sidescrolling urban beat-em-up counterparts, and this long-belated fourth entry is, I think fairly easily, the best in the series.
Taking some of the weirder character and level designs from the later games and marrying it to the rock-solid base mechanics of the first two is an incredible blend of styles, while the hand-drawn animations and crowdsourced music lend a bespoke, personalized feeling to everything (and it looks incredible). It’s not the easiest game in the world, but it shouldn’t be, and it’s such a pure, simplified experience that picking it up for 45 minutes at a time once a week feels almost like what the designers themselves want you do to, and in an age where every game has to be 70 hours long and you can only get the proper ending after grinding for another 70 hours after that, it’s something I almost prefer. Terrific game.
5. Black Mesa – Xen (Crowbar Collective)
I’m cheating slightly here, as Black Mesa has existed in some playable form for eight entire years, but the Xen chapter was the most anticipated given how poorly received the original Half-Life‘s version was, and I have to say it mostly works. There’s still some pretty severe tonal whiplash in exploring an alien landscape after spending fifteen or so chapters in the dark corridors and tubed metal of the Black Mesa Facility, but I think this version of Xen fits better with the core game better than the original did, while still maintaining the truly alien and incomprehensible feeling they were looking for in 1998.
Generally I shy away from straight remakes or remasterings on these lists, even if I love them, because games — like all art forms — are products of their time, and what a game means in 1998 is usually leagues apart from what it would mean in 2020. However, the Black Mesa team have worked so hard for so long that this final, completed version of their game feels like an achievement worth celebrating. Plus, it’s distinct enough now from its source material that I feel it’s worth playing on its own (though I’m unsure it’s an entirely suitable replacement for that original game, which still holds up).
4. DOOM Eternal (id Software)
I’m of two minds on DOOM Eternal. On one hand, more DOOM! Rip and tear, rip and tear, guts, huge guts! On the other, I’m not sure I’ve ever played a major AAA release that has a more pronounced dislike for its player base than this one. I get that they were upset that so many people brute-forced their way through the DOOM reboot in 2016 with just the super shotgun, and I really like some of the ways they go about trying to enforce the “right way” of playing this game (weapon switching, weakness exploitation, constant movement), but there’s almost too much of it. Eternal oscillates wildly on that razor’s edge of challenge, swinging from too easy to mild-meltingly tedious seemingly from encounter to encounter, but when it hits the mark correctly, it’s still an unparalleled experience.
There’s also the question of how seriously this game takes itself. One of the best attributes of the 2016 game was how unseriously Doomguy himself seemed to take the plot, but now all that lore from the codex has forced itself in the player’s face in the form of long cutscenes and bellowing exposition. It feels more like Diablo than DOOM II at times, and while I love both those games, that is not the tone you really want to be aiming for. I still really enjoyed this game, and I will continue playing it. I think for the third entry, they should trim a solid 15% of the stuff you can do and try and focus more on pure level design, like in 2016. What this game ends up being is almost the Super Mario Odyssey of shooters, a purely maximalist exercise that is more exhausting than enthralling far too often for my taste.
3. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 HD (Vicarious Visions)
I don’t have very much to say here. Remember how good the Tony Hawk games used to be? Remember the Warehouse? Remember Marseille? Remember School II? SCHOOL II! It’s that, but it looks and plays better and there are more skaters and more music and it’s just generally going to be the most enriching thing you’ve played all year, during a year where you really needed something to feel good about. The feel is as close to perfect as I could have expected, and it’s just nice to see this legendarily good series, possibly the best sports or sport- adjacent series in the entire history of gaming, round back into form. I absolutely cannot wait for the THPS 3 remaster. I may call off work to play that one.
2. Kentucky Route Zero (Cardboard Computer)
So until now, I’ve been unsure how to handle early access games. Like Black Mesa, Kentucky Route Zero has not technically been “done” until its 2020 retail release. But unlike most everything else, parts of this game were released upwards of seven years ago, so it’s hard to really say on its face that it’s a game from 2020. Thankfully, there could not be a more 2020 game thematically than this one.
Succinctly describing this game is very hard to do. Mechanically, it’s sort of in the visual novel sub-genre. Stylistically, it’s more of a haunted house, where the house itself is America (or at least American iconography) and the ghosts therein are The American Dream, or The Way The World Used to Be, however you want to conceptualize it. It’s a game that is about what America perhaps could have been, before the runaway freight train of capitalism ran it over and left it to die on the side of a long deserted highway. It’s a game of long journeys, and brutal tragedy. Like all great art, it feels like it’s always been there, and yet also like it just arrived. It’s still going to feel this fresh in 2030, in 2050, and like all the cultural wreckage of the late 20th century, it’ll be just as poignant and delicate and ultimately perfect then as it is right now. It would take one hell of game to top KR0.
1. Hades (Supergiant Games)
I present to you one Hell of a game. Another early access darling, Hades is less a singular work than it is the final culmination of all of Supermassive’s work to this point. The precision of Transistor, the dreamlike wondermenet of Bastion, the characterization and whimsy of Pyre. And yet, something so much more. Casting players into the role of Zagreus, fictional son of the mythical and titular God of the Dead, your goal is simply to escape the unescapable underworld of Greek Mythology, the cthonic final resting place of all dead souls good, evil or in between, caught in a never-ending battle within a never-ending series of shape-shifting corridors and maze-like chambers.
The mechanical setup is simple: kill all the enemies in the room, collect your reward, and move on. It’s not dissimilar at all from Dead Cells or Rogue Legacy or Hollow Knight. Where it differs is that the story beats, the narrative inspirations, are just as enthralling as getting loot (boons from the Olympians in this case) or doing a frame-perfect no-damage boss encounter. It’s truly remarkable how well written this game is; I’m over 40 hours in and have yet to see a single repeated line of dialogue. The voice acting is absolutely tremendous, the character writing both incredibly charming and funny while also adhering to the actual mythos it’s born from better than any game or film that has ever adapted this stuff. Everyone just acts in exactly the way you expect them too, while also constantly surprising you.
It’s a game that so seamlessly transitions from storytelling to gameplay that you can often forget which is which. The random generation of boons and levels will keep you on your toes enough not to fall in a rut while still allowing for intentionality and purposeful builds. You’ll start a run with one specific idea for a build and can mold it into an entirely new idea within two encounters, and it will be just as satisfying. I’ve had successive runs where I dashed around every room, perfectly dodging and weaving in and out of fights while launching precise combos and avoiding damage like I was a Mario speedrunner, followed by runs where I just throw down a big orb and laugh as it melts everyone away, and those runs will be equally engaging and fun. It gives you a reason to play it, time after time. There’s a romance sim and an interior design sim and a fishing minigame and none of it ever feels overstuffed or underdeveloped. Best of all, this game was made without any kind of notable crunch or deliberate developer overload, which is certainly nice to hear in the age of Cyperbunk and Red Dead Redemption.
Even now, I’m barely even scratching the surface of Hades’ delights. It looks incredible, the soundtrack is terrific, the controls are incredibly precise and expressive. It’s funny, it’s heartwarming, it’s bewildering. It’s a game where just seeing someone else mention it makes me want to get a couple runs in. It may in fact be the game that the Nintendo Switch was put on this Earth to run. It’s Diablo 2 mixed with Symphony of the Night mixed with, like, Super Metroid?
I’ve been experimenting with new, simpler categories for what makes a game enjoyable to me, and I came up with three: games that are mechanically satisfying, games that are experientially satisfying, and games that are narratively satisfying, and Hades is such an obvious 100/100 in all three of those that there might honestly be a strong argument that it is the greatest game ever made. I’m probably overreacting a bit here, but this is assuredly one of my 25 favorite games of all time. I’m going to be playing it for the rest of my gaming life, I think. Darren Korb is a beatific figure. It’s only $25 brand new, please get it. Play Hades, I’m begging you.