Crackin' Packs is Crackin' Back!
Oh hey folks! I’m glad to see you here. This is my favorite thing to write every year, and I’m excited I get to share with you the best games the year had to offer! I work extremely hard every year trying to find new and exciting games that encapsulate the year as best as possible and then summarize the year, contextualizing it for the future. The final year in any console generation is often when we get games that push the limits of that console. However, 2020 was defined as an ‘unprecedented’ year and the games industry was largely defined by the failures of new games being delayed, yearly games being cancelled, and released games just being plain crappy. And while this sucked, it also pushed us all outward to find smaller games in places we would’ve never otherwise looked! Unsurprisingly, while AAA development floundered, a lot of these smaller development spaces flourished especially in burgeoning storefronts on the Nintendo Switch or on the Epic Games Store. So while we look back, I want to deny that the failures of 2020’s game development were caused by events that were especially unprecedented and actually declare that these failures are entirely ‘precedented’ by the unsustainable development cycle of game development in general.
It’s not just that they aren’t making games like they used to, it’s that many are stuck on open-world or annual release-based development that they can’t craft playful spaces and stories; it’s creatively and industrially stagnant. I fully expect 2021’s game offerings to be much like this year’s and maybe even worse as the new consoles are all out with very little planned for them within a packed ecosystem of storefronts almost entirely dedicated to selling games from years ago. The biggest factors on the failures of 2020 were 2019 problems, and 2018 problems, and 2017 problems. Will they be fixed? Well, I hope my list of the best games of 2020 can show you that if AAA companies continue failing to treat their workers with dignity (and unions), then Independent and small-team developed games will continue to eat their lunch like they did all year in 2020. The meteoric success of Among Us was not a fluke, it was a sign of what is to come if things stay the same, and that is honestly more exciting to me than anything that Big AAA have offered since Ubisoft squandered For Honor! Here’s 10 powerful games that drove 2020 to a conclusion we almost thought wouldn’t come.
10. Mad Rat Dead
This is such a weird game to recommend because, at a casual level Mad Rat Dead is a delightful game full of whimsy with a unique and captivating pop-art aesthetic. At high levels of play, it can be a sludgy and starchy mess that feels like it needed more time in the oven to fix some kind of deeper design flaw… and at the HIGHEST levels of play it is an extremely fun speedrunner’s dream that brilliantly blends platforming games to a sick beat that challenges you beyond your limits with its rigorous playstyle, interesting set pieces, and delightful character designs. I don’t think I’ve had a game that challenged me as a designer quite like Mad Rat Dead, because every time I pick it up and play it, I just want to ‘fix’ it, but I also keep coming back to it! Sorry, let me explain, I’ve already gotten ahead of myself and it’s only the first game of the list — Mad Rat Dead is one of these interesting ‘New IP’ experiments that have consistently been coming out from NIS between Disgaea releases where they challenge their storytelling, presentation, and game designs, and none have been more interesting than Mad Rat Dead! You play as a laboratory rat who has died and been resurrected for one single day by a malevolent Rat God and you’re going to use your last day of ascended life to get revenge on the scientist who killed you. To help, your heartbeat guides you through a series of platforming levels where you move to the beat of music. This is all blatantly inspired by Crypt of the Necrodancer’s mechanics and Undertale’s themes, but it uses those concepts as foundations for a game that is full of electro-swing, future bass, and cartoony gore. Mad Rat Dead balances those varying dark and light tones in exciting ways. Since this kind of game lives or dies based on its music, I can tell you it’s easily the most bangingest banger soundtracks of 2020, and that alone makes it worth checking out! I can’t promise if it’ll be your thing, and I’m not even sure if it’s my thing! But I keep coming back to it with more and more fascination, and every time I do it gives me more, which is something I can’t say for every other game I played in 2020.
9. Sludge Life
So, Niall messaged me a week ago and said, “Hey, you’d like Sludge Life. It seems like your type of game.” Three hours and a boatload of screenshots later, I’ll admit it. I was a little charmed! I originally saw this first-person street-tagging game at the Devolver booth when I went to The Last Convention Ever and I didn’t really know what to think of it. I saw some jumping and spray tagging, but I was looking for something more. So when I saw it was free on the Epic Games Store for like six months, I had an easy chance to finally get my hands on it far away from the big crowd. Fine, Niall was right… I was Extremely Fucking Charmed Out Of My Mind. It is a simple game about tagging your world and placing your mark right on the face of a sludge-producing mega-corporation. It’s full of little secrets and world-building details. Every time I’d thought I had Sludge Life figured out, I’d end up finding a new hack for the in-game computer or a new gadget that lets me teleport between platforms or a new spot to tag I hadn’t considered before. And before I knew it, suddenly, I was near 100% completion and the story that had been building around me made so much sense! I squeezed through pipes, sprayed tags with rivals-turned-friends, kissed slugs, and pissed off the top of the factory onto its labor-abusing owner below. If you want to be a small ghostly anti-corporate bastard for a few hours while earning the respect of the other anti-corporate taggers in the scene, Sludge Life is concisely built time extremely well spent.
8. Umurangi Generation
Umurangi Generation is pound-for-pound the most radical game that came out this year. With almost no words and about four hours of total playtime, it has an incredible amount to say about the world, photography, life, and the ends of all things. Umurangi Generation is a game about photography. No, it is THE game about photography. While other developers have tried to systematize how taking pictures controls and transforms the world around you, Umurangi Generation centers that feeling of embodying the photographer. That feeling of being mechanized to capture the world, but powerless to change it. Maybe you can find power in the absolution behind the lens, but this game only asks that you point your camera at the last organized remnants of the world. It is up to your own taste how those pictures look and feel. You aren’t a product photographer. You aren’t a photo-journalist. You aren’t in advertising or politics. Your camera isn’t a tool or a weapon, it’s your chosen way to pass the time. The last time anyone will ever have. You may be here for a gig and make some ‘money’, but this gig, the last gig, is only there to keep you motivated and unlock some new photo lenses while you watch the world end around you. Nobody has to do this, but everybody in this game is doing something at the end of it all, whether it’s to dance, cry, fight, game, hang out, or snap some pics, we are all embodying the last vestiges of who we are and the world we live in, and that’s what Umurangi is about. This is THE game about photography because it is the most invested and inspired I’ve ever seen a game embody the photography process, down to the jingle-jangle sounds that all photographers make when they climb to high areas and jump down to get lower again. There was the annoying zoom lens being too strong, the subtle effect of the f-stop and shutter speed settings, and maybe folks playing might not have recognized it immediately when playing, but there was a visceral feeling I had realizing that I, the photographer, am the shortest person in my group of friends. That’s the realest shit. To every short photographer out there, you are so fucking valid here. All of this is a raw attention to detail that comes from an inspired place that I’m jealous of. Umurangi Generation exudes talent, and I can easily excuse any minor shortcomings of the game’s systems and mechanics to instead focus on the incredibly in-depth soundtrack and rich world they’ve built. This is easily the most nuanced and beautiful game of 2020. One of those magical games that had no idea how prescient and important it would be within a year of needless suffering and pain.
7. Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Bound By Ash
YEAH BUT FUCK YOUR SUBTEXT, HOMIE. EXTREME MEATPUNKS FOREVER IS A VISUAL NOVEL FOR THE PEOPLE WHO NEED TO SCREAM RIGHT FUCKING NOW! THOSE OTHER GAMES DON’T SPIKE YOU SPINE-FIRST INTO A MEAT-MECH THAT MAKES YOU SCREAM !!BANG!! EVERY TIME YOU SMASH A FASCIST PIECE OF SHIT COP IN THEIR FUCKING FACE. Maybe you’ve noticed there’s a theme through my goty list so far, and yeah, all year I was in desperate need of retribution and justice. Sometimes it’s okay when that justice comes in the form of heroes overcoming the shackles of evil kings and gods, but once in a while a game comes out that says exactly what it means at maximum volume and I’M FUCKING HERE FOR IT. Extreme Meatpunks Forever: Bound By Ash is the sequel to the first Extreme Meatpunks Forever which you may have seen was added as part of the incredible Itch.io bundle for racial justice. It features combat mechanics designed by the makers of my previous GOTY winner: Lucah: Born of a Dream and it’s got more gay anime bluegrass from Josie Brechner whose work keeps popping up on my list this year because the breadth and depth of Josie’s work continues to be awe-inspiring. Keep an eye out for Josie these next few years.
Every act of this story has memorable moments of growth and development from each of the four main characters as the Meatpunks try not to get fucking smited by a malevolent sun that is being controlled by tech-fascists. Inside of this hard exterior is soft and delicate vulnerability and self-improvement even while the world is exploding outside, and that connected with me extremely hard. It’s been the absolute shits being unable to be with friends and while part of this game has helped surrogate in the meantime, it also provides for me so many different ways to self-assess and grow from my own insecurities. This isn’t the last time you’ll hear from me on Meatpunks either, because the themes throughout this game are so potent for the times we live in now and I’ve got so much more to say about specific parts of this game. In a fascist world, we must weaponize our softest, squishiest parts in ways that aren’t considered civil or polite, since it is clear by who’s allowed to kneel and who isn’t allowed to breathe. That ‘civility’ is what empowers the norms fascists use to rally against anything they consider the Other. We must become the punks who live and die by their own meat.
6. Paradise Killer
You think your friends are problematic… My friends are all immortal and exiled me for 3 Million Days because their cultist gods didn’t like how my cultist god sacrificed human life to satiate its bloodlust while summoning demons to infect more people. Those rascals. They’re funny like that. There’s a ton to talk about in this game from its [citypop/vaporwave/Night Vale/Friends at the Table/Suda51] stylings to the design’s flow switching effortlessly between various different modes of narrative delivery and traversing a concise open world. I could go on for pages about how the ‘scope’ of this game is expertly ‘deliverable’ and how that limits it in positive and negative ways, especially as it comes to the ending that kinda feels like a Phoenix Wright game with training wheels on. What if I just focused on the protagonist Lady Love Dies’ statuesque thighs or problematic malapropisms, like saying “Nani the hell?” every thirty minutes? I want to cut past any of that (crucial) surface stuff that every other review has hopefully already talked to death about and get right to the core:
I brought justice to the aristocratic political class by way of Gun.
I killed them all, each and every one of them. Not because it was right, not because it was just, but because it felt good. It felt so fucking good. Maybe I’m a sociopath? Maybe I’m just exhausted from being taken advantage of by hegemonic forces out of my control? Maybe I was just playing around to see what would happen? It doesn’t matter, the game doesn’t care, nobody cares what choices you make, it doesn’t even care or track if you have all the right information, and that’s the right call. Because the point of Paradise Killer isn’t about justice. If it were, you’d be allowed more options than just execution and incarceration, like some kind of caveman dirty harry bullet babe. It’s about the world. It’s about thoroughly understanding what systems brought that world to its end. Paradise Killer is about the end of the world never actually being the end because it’s always the continuation of a new world somewhere else. The Book of Revelations as written by a game designer. It’s about how Shinji was right: our histories will always be stained by cycles of slaughter as long as we let life be conditional to… ‘justice’.
BLAM BLAM BLAM BLAM.
5. Trials Of Mana
Seiken Densetsu 3 didn’t exist outside of Japan. An incredibly smart and well developed sequel to one of the greatest, and most successful SNES games ever made. Had it come out in the west, there is no doubt that the Mana series would’ve flourished way beyond anyone’s expectations because the original Seiken Densetsu 3 is the second best JRPG on the SNES only next to Terranigma. If you saw my video review earlier this year then you’d know that while most games have one central story, Trials of Mana has three dueling narratives centering around six characters, and those six characters each have four different class choices to build stats and abilities around. This allows for a combination set of hundreds of different ways to experience the game. It’s a massive game! And to remaster a game this large for a worldwide audience without any connection to it seems like a fool’s errand or another opportunity for Square Enix to make a quick buck. However, against all odds in 2020, we have a suitable modern version of Trials of Mana and this game not only holds up, it was able to go toe-to-toe releasing only a few weeks after Final Fantasy VII: Remake. Trials is a fun, spritely game inspired by the Tales Of series with full (and silly) voice acting, an entirely remastered soundtrack, and a combat design overhaul that proves how evergreen the original always was. It may have taken 25 years for Trials of Mana to get the treatment it deserves, but they really did it!
Relaxing. Calming. Meditative. Simple. Sublime. This little game does so much to enhance its simple concept with gorgeous visual presentation, building soundscapes, and user interface – all of which is transformable and moddable in easy ways. This is the game that Tetris Effect wishes it was, but as a AAA-product was always too cowardly to be. A single .gif can do a lot of justice to this game, but it doesn’t encapsulate how it feels to physically put Mixolumia in your hands. The most important thing that Mixolumia taught me is that going forward into 2021, I have to pay more attention to non-conventional maker spaces, especially Twitter and Itch.io, where amazing and creative things are coming from individual creators and I would never have been able to find a game like this otherwise.
After making my video about how Mixolumia brought me to a place of peace amidst a turbulent year, there were a few updates to the game, so I thought you might like to see how the game has changed over the year…
i felt compelled to make this soundpack pic.twitter.com/JwuaIdc3OV
— davemakes ✨🔶🎶 (@davemakes) November 8, 2020
okay maybe something a little more normal, here I’ve got a perfect one:
Ambient Mood, my music pack for
Mixolumia, is out now!! It features beautiful album art by @davemakes, and for the next 48 hours you can download it for free! You'll also get an mp3 of the soundtrack by donating at least $1: https://t.co/TbqgSy6wI3 pic.twitter.com/jsy5qJhk4e
— Laura Platt 🌈 (@LauraPlattMusic) November 4, 2020
Before the end of next year, I will find a way to make a Hypnospace Outlaw/Mixolumia crossover happen for the ultimate ~ V I B E S ~
I’ve got to have a falling blocks puzzle game on my game of the year list every year. But it’s actually not the only puzzle game on the list this year…
3. Pixel Puzzle Makeout League
It’s a dating sim-esque visual novel with a picross gimmick. That’s it. It’s just a little modest game made by a first-time team of devs, artists, and musicians who are cashing in on the expectation that you will underestimate them. This simple veneer belies unprecedented craft that is the absolute goal of literally every person who has ever made a game.
You are not prepared. On the surface, Pixel Puzzle Makeout League is a story of a plain looking girl who wears superhero spandex with the hopes of overcoming her villains, learning about her picross-based superpowers, and possibly meeting one of four vaguely romantic interest. There is no dating sim here. While PPML was happily teaching me what picross is with easy-to-use and approachable tools, it was also secretly showing off deft techniques in every possible spectrum from puzzle designs that always help tell the story, clean music transitions inspired by Nier Automata, and even a dialogue skip button that is one of the coolest I’ve ever seen in visual novels.
There’s this attention to these seemingly small details that reel you in to continue playing, meanwhile the story lampshades any of these extraordinary qualities to it by opening with comparatively pedestrian story beats. As “Pixel Girl” (no other name given??), you date a boy who white-knights you until you tell him to stop. You date a girl who can’t open up, except when she’s playing her little MMO game. You date a guy who is just an okay guy. You date an enigmatic anthropomorphic puzzle piece from a distant planet who wants to jump your bones, but before she can ravage you softly, she is locked in an eternal struggle with a mountain lion- I mean… uhh. Look, she’s more charming than you’d think. There’s these little hooks that kinda keep you tapping along on the touchscreen or on the controller (both feel incredibly smooth), and the thing is that just as you start to dismiss the story, they subvert the expectation the game expects you to have built. Maybe going on dates with nerds isn’t your thing (it more than likely isn’t), but picross is everyone’s thing and the story slowly burns on with that acknowledgment by using picross to punctuate each little story beat, set piece, and punchline. Suddenly, before you know it, you are many layers deep into an increasingly-surreal, post-apocalyptic mystery desperately solving pixel puzzles just to make sure the friends you’ve bonded with are going to be okay.
Are you okay? At one point, I realized that I’d gotten so good at solving picross that I had to slow down so that I could take more time to digest everything that was happening. The twists and turns at the climax of this story are bewilderingly entertaining, and the ultimate payoff is a glorious, emotional, and human climax that keeps pushing until the very final picross puzzle. One that I never wanted to finish. Pixel Puzzle Makeout League’s modest presentation succeeds by punching way above the modest weight class it wants you to think it is on. PPML is on a completely different level than anything else I played this year… and during quarantine it taught me an invaluable skill!
I’ve spent the last three months playing every picross game I possibly could, and I can tell you that Pixel Puzzle Makeout League is the best one to come out this year. It is easily one of the best picross games that goes beyond by giving you a real fun story with a strong message:
Take care of yourself. Take care of yourself.
2. Final Fantasy VII: Remake
“What could be said about Final Fantasy VII that hasn’t already been said?” A TON. LOADS OF THINGS. We cannot afford to stop talking about this game! FFVII deserves hundreds, thousands, and millions of more words about it. Every time it reaches a new generation it reflects the new values and new life of that generation. The core message inside the game’s first section around the potency of leftist, destructive, direct-action to transform our world towards justice was radical before 9/11, after 9/11, and now amidst a global wave of fascism, a viral pandemic, and a fight for the justice of all Black Lives across the entire planet; FFVII’s story takes on new life with an overwhelmingly high quality remake.
We asked everything out of this remake; after years of posterizing Final Fantasy VII as the greatest game ever made, and unbelievably the game delivered on that reputation and more. It still seems like an impossible game to have come out. After Kingdom Hearts 3 was less than stellar, I worried that Square Enix couldn’t deliver on their promise or that it would somehow become diluted. Instead, they doubled down on exploring radical anti-capitalist politics, organized activism, a representation of queer and sex-work analogous communities, and the myriad themes that surround those politics – also Hell House. HELL HOUSE! This remake was chock-filled with gorgeous cutscenes and lush music in a way that sets an unrealistically high standard for other AAA games to try and reach for. On top of it all, nobody expected the sudden changes that were made to hook people into the follow up releases that are in development. The final moments of FFVII:R were so shocking that people are speculating whether or not this remake will even be able to follow the plot of the original as it continues. The changes to the ending have made it even more important for people to continue replaying the original and not use this remake as a way to wholesale obsolesce the PS1’s greatest hit. None of these things are how games usually work. As a technology-based art medium in a neoliberal world, we are constantly looking to replace our history with a shinier, more updated, softer, and cleaner version. And while that can be great, FFVII:R’s main theme contends that the freedom (terrifying, boundless freedom) of the power to change things, comes with the heavy price of being responsible for it, especially when it comes to changing your own pre-written fate. Final Fantasy VII:R is a continuation of the greatest game ever made, and we cannot afford to stop talking about it since no other game has even tried to come close.
I don’t know how anyone managed to survive this year without Blaseball.
I really don’t. How did you get here?
There is an endless pursuit of all humans throughout history to create Gods. And for the entirety of all recorded human history, we have pursued a validation of idolatry through the practice of sports. This comes into conflict with our human nature to adapt and grow; as every new god is created it can come into a contested pantheon, meaning an older god may need to be destroyed. In 2020, we spent extraordinary effort as a species to tear apart our god, Michael Jordan, who either must be killed or must devour his own son like Saturn before LeBron James can ascend to take his place. Afterwards, King James will take the throne and in-turn await for his inevitable death. Blaseball is a simulation of sports, like a fantasy baseball league by way of idle games and ARGs like Cookie Clicker, Candy Box, or even Frog Fractions, except that an entire season takes place during one week’s time (all 99 simulated games), and most of the teams have plucky, modern names like The New York Millennials and Miami Dalé. It has been a fun and creative container for people to express themselves and, inevitably, the ‘splort’ of Blaseball has found itself on a radical cusp of emulating what all sports have always been about: Killing Gods.
At the end of Season One, Seattle Garages’ star pitcher and city mayor, Jaylen Hotdogfingers, was suddenly incinerated by what was implied to be a rogue umpire. Her last ominous words were, “We just gotta make it to the playoffs.” The fans voted at the end of the season to open The Book and with it unleashed the chaos of Rules onto the ‘splort’ of Blaseball. Because of this, the Seattle Garages spiraled downwards to being the worst team in Blaseball, anchored by their miserable pitcher and star-disappointment, Mike Townsend. (This identity is shared by the real life Seattle Mariners, the least successful team in all of professional sports.) Five seasons passed, when suddenly an opportunity arose and a glitch in Blaseball’s backend allowed for Jaylen Hotdogfingers to possibly return to life. All of the fans (we real-life people who are playing the game) in the league rallied around the sudden excitement for a chance at necromancy, and despite many beloved players at this point regularly being incinerated, Jaylen, the original victim, stood out as a fan favorite for resurrection. The aim was to spit in the face of the Gods (and the developers) whose Book explicitly said that incineration is “the only way out.”
However, before that could happen, the Seattle Garages, lead by the affable Mike Townsend (Pitching ability: 1 Star) were on a shocking tear through the league and not only went above a .500 win% for the season, but were allowed to enter the playoffs for the first time! Jaylen’s prophecy had somehow come true! Mike Townsend, despite having the worst pitching stats in the league, against-all-simulation, officially became a credit to the team by sweeping multiple playoff series and then ultimately made it all the way to the Internet League Championship game! (This is more playoff success for the city of Seattle than the Seattle Mariners have ever had in 53 years.) The entire league was rooting for this loveable loser who was living through a real-life redemption arc! Mike Townsend is more than some data in a spreadsheet. He became a local hero. In the end, they were defeated by the dominant Baltimore Crabs who had their own story going into that game. But this was an underdog story akin to The Mighty Ducks and Rudy except it was randomly simulated by a computer server that we spent a week interpreting. Do you want to know the end of that story though? Well, the vote was a success and we raised Jaylen from the dead. But that meant one pitcher for the Seattle Garages had to go… Mike Townsend knew what he had to do. That is where the story of Mike Townsend ended… (Or so we thought, but that’s a story for another time.)
This is one of hundreds of stories that came from this summer. Can I tell you about the Vampiric Mediocre Pitching Machine who churned the blood of so many players in one season that it became the best pitcher in the league? Maybe another time!
What Blaseball has done for me in 2020 and why it’s my Game Of The Year is that it gave me faith in other people, during a time when believing in others came in extremely short supply. I would not have made it through the summer if Scott hadn’t told me about this during our summer podcast together. There were many days that this was my reason for waking up that day, just to participate in a discord server and watch a webpage update. Knowing that there are not only people who care about one another, but also intensely care about building anti-capitalist, anarchistic worlds. Better, and more fair worlds, that reflect actual de-heirarchicalized communities. Worlds where anyone (and everyone) can be the team captain and anyone can write lore for their favorite player. A place that was okay with allowing me to idealize and experiment with a player becoming a semi-immortal vocaloid. A space where anyone (or anything) can be empowered to become a musician, a lawyer, and even a person. In the face of utter devastation: a place where gods constantly threaten to destroy your favorite players and teams, we build radical systems of play and community. I don’t want to be so bold to say that this is The Future of games (bleagh!!) but there is so much room in my life for more Living Games that can be inspired by Blaseball. Blaseball’s accessibility and simplicity is an endless font for inspiration in the face of a hyper-capitalist world. One that spent this entire year trying to build a throne for a game called “Cyberpunk 2077” that couldn’t possibly exist. Just another God killed under the strain of mass idolatry. You’re next, Roger Goodell, I hope to see you rest in violence. #ParkIt