1. Cook, Serve, Delicious 3: Part of why I've labeled this my best experiences, as mine here isn't replicable. I played this throughout the several months when it was in early access, during which the dev pretty reliably served up one "stop" of about 30 levels on the game's food truck grand tour per month. This leads to almost 400 levels in the final product - a hefty challenge to undertake in one sitting, but a banquet when parceled out over an extended period. Throughout 2020, I had this really satisfying, almost-subscription-like consistent delivery of a quality gaming experience from one of my favorite titles, where nearly every month I had a new stage to play in a game I loved, echoing the "road trip" theme of the game very well.
Cook, Serve, Delicious is the type of game where the subject matter (a food truck sim) makes it easy to overlook how good it is, how satisfying the gameplay is, how every aspect of production, from the sound effects to the appetizing art, really just hits the spot. It's a perfect blend of gameplay that demands fast, in-the-moment reflexes and long-term strategy. It's beautiful, accessible, friendly, and smart. Finishing the crown Grand Finale achievement 44-point menu on the final level on the first try without ever having touched Deluxe Poutine before was one of the best experiences of my gaming life.
2. World of Horror: This title became so ubiquitous upon its release that it might be tough to step back and appreciate how exceptionally polished aspects of this game are. The art style is nothing short of a triumph, leveraging the distinctive style of Mac adventures to represent Junji Ito while filing off his rougher edges. The writing, similarly, is expertly evocative yet eschews the over-the-top and obvious, showing just enough to disturb and maintaining an atmosphere of low-level dread to set up the big visual punches. The music is killer, leaning into the beeps and boops of early computers yet getting into a real J-horror, Japonesque groove - I mean, listen to this. Any one of these would be enough to distinguish a title on its own; combining all three makes for one of the most stylish total gaming packages I've experienced. This isn't even touching the gameplay - which is, I understand, adapted from a card game called Arkham Horror but which must be doing something right on its own, as it's inspired entire channels dedicated to analyzing updates and tackling self-made challenges. I've gone through the game about a dozen times, and the modular style of gameplay - tackling a collection of five mysteries out of fifteen or so - is designed to combat the overfamiliarity that sets in with run-based titles by including aspects that are enhanced with experience and reward experts who know the scenarios' individual traps and puzzles and how elements of various mysteries can interact with one another. Recent updates suggest the dev might be falling into the trap of designing new content for the most obsessed users instead of a general audience (and he's incorporating fan-made content that doesn't meet the extraordinary standards of his own work - considering how essential his talents have been to the experience, he would be well-advise to curate very closely). But even as it stands, in an allegedly "incomplete" build, World of Horror is one of the best gaming horror experiences in years.
3. Kamaitachi no Yoru: The game was a phenomenon in Japan, kicking off a wave of "sound novels" and cememting Chunsoft as a visual-novel powerhouse, and it's not hard to see why. First, it's a classic, just really well-written murder mystery - it feels like one of the all-time greats as you're playing through it. Second, unlike its predecessor Otogirisou, it recognizes the importance of the graphical element in the video game medium and turns one of its primary limitations - the Super Famicom's low capacity for depicting realistic visuals for an "adult," somewhat-grounded story - into a strength, populating photorealistic settings with silhouettes that illustrate character actions and humanize the proceedings yet imbue the cast with an appropriate air of opacity and menace, in the process creating a visual style that became iconic. (The soundtrack, likewise, is understated yet very strong in a J-horror-meets-Unsolved Mysteries vibe.) The very human reactions of the cast to the proceedings - everyone gets believably scared and makes panic-induced errors in judgment - make events more involving than many of the more lurid and convoluted scenarios that populate Chunsoft's modern-day titles. Also: it has a great sense of humor. It's obvious that the creators really loved what they were doing.
4. A Short Hike: A short, breezy, joyful game that captures the feel of day hiking - the discovery and exploration of picturesque natural sights in a homey, manageable walk, rendered in a charming style reminiscent of Animal Crossing but still its own. An odd but crucial detail: I like how the game smartly declines to frame its beauty, save, appropriately, for the showcase at the end; it never lingers on the best angles by which to enjoy its sights or signals them as something to behold. It trusts the player to have awareness and curiosity to note and enjoy the lovely vistas on their own.
But the game will help pique that: along the hike, it'll offer little ways to connect with the environment, ways to get you interacting or looking, small little sub-goals or minigames on the way to the top of the mountain. You can do all or none of it - the goal is simply to get to your destination, enjoying what strikes your fancy, and what nature offers, along the way. Unlike, say, Firewatch, this is a game made by people who love the outdoors, and it offers a perfect balance of eye-candy walking sim and (completely voluntary) game activities. It lasted as long as I wanted and was sweet all the way. Gaming could use more short, manageable experiences that exist just to have fun and deliver fun.
5. The Dark Pictures: Little Hope: This is by far the best Western attempt I've played at developing a Silent Hill game. It's skilled at visualizing the suppressed as the horrific literal, and it smartly examines and even evolves a couple components of its inspiration's framework. The tale stands on its own two feet, though, as one of the wiser narratives I've encountered in gaming: though it can, as others have noted, be a bit abrasive at first, it's a really smart and reflective story about not jumping to conclusions or believing the worst about people and trying to be our best selves. It also shrewdly iterates on Supermassive's QTE gameplay to take a more holistic account of your actions throughout the game, making consequences seem far more earned while maintaining in-the-moment excitement. The production is top-notch, too, from the visuals to the music to just the expensive look of the damn thing. I'm glad we've come so far in cinematic gaming experiences.
Neither Started Nor Finished in 2020, but Worthy of Note and Love:
High Hell is hilarious. It has almost no words, yet it tells a terrific long-form joke through a video game. Everything in the game is unbeatably cool and unbeatably goofy - the cel-shaded cartoon art, the ultra-saturated reds & pinks, the ragdoll physics of shooting stuff and watching demon executives and soda cans and monkeys with laser guns flop & tumble harmlessly everywhere, the environmental storytelling of crumpled photos of dashed luchadora-Beezelbub romance in the trashcans, the parachuting off devil skyscrapers, the stupid loading-screen activities of getting as much soda and basketballs and ragdoll demon-men as you can out of a vending machine. I keep mentioning the ragdoll, but it's great, used better than in any other game I've played. Kick or shoot anything in the environment; it'll just go happily everywhere. It just is so avuncular and happily stupid.
High Hell reminds me, weirdly, of Untitled Goose Game, in that you're causing stupid mayhem throughout your environment, but there are no real consequences (you're shooting, yes, but it's beams of light against avuncular, doofy devilmen), and it all encourages you to make this world your happy-horrible sandbox. And (again, like Goose Game) for all this stupidity, there's something really smart behind it: it looks really good, it plays really good, and the soundtrack is awesome, one of the best "get shit done" background gaming OSTs. I didn't start playing this in 2020, and the final stage asks for a level of WASD skill I don't think I'll ever summon, but I adore it. Consider this the Jury Prize.
With its grim determination to burn it all down in the service of an execrable character, Deadly Premonition 2 is a strong contender for this title, but it at least delivered some of the hallmarks of the original game's experience - the dialogue writing, the weird characters (to an extent), the York. That's more than one can say for Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon 2, a poorly-designed wreck of game design contrived only to spite the player. I was expecting the Curse of the Moon series to deliver modern-day stage-based Castlevania with stained-glass palettes, and instead, it wrecked itself on the rocks of joyless repetition and edgelord love for Haunted Castle, one of the worst games in Konami's landmark series. The music isn't even memorable. What a miserable experience and a waste of a franchise.
(Runners up after DP2 would have to be StarTropics and Little Briar Rose, for taking excellent aesthetics - island paradise meets the cosmos meets an all-American kid! a beautiful stained-glass environment! - and pairing them with horrible gameplay decisions - deliberately sluggish controls and cheap traps; permadeath adventure gaming. "Permadeath adventure gaming" is perhaps one of the single worst gaming concepts ever conceived.)
Sir Not Appearing in This List:
After not playing it for years, you'd think that Final Fantasy VII would merit more of a mention, but no one moment strikes me as that successful. The entirety of Midgar? That's too big for a moment, and you have the significant drawback of Honeybee Manor. Wandering through Sephiroth's Shinra massacre? Stupid random fights break the atmosphere. Aerith's death? The staging before and after was botched. The probable (intended) end of humanity? Ditto. The closest, I'd say, was Cloud heel turning to ascend with Sephiroth, but that didn't stick.
Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Daah Daah, Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Daah Daah, Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Da-Daah Daah Daaaaaaaah
I beat Super Mario Bros. for the first time in my gaming career. I saw Brad Shoemaker do it on Giant Bomb earlier, and it occurred to me, hey, I haven't done that, and, it being the Year of Mario and all, I took advantage of the Switch Online NES library to take care of that! I thought that double long jump in 8-1 with a single Mario's breadth of interstitial landing strip would have been the death of me, but no, that was rather easy; the real killer was the running jump off the pipe in 8-2, which I don't think I would have cleared without having seen Brad's run. Like Zelda's second quest, I'm glad to put this gaming milestone to bed.
This isn't a production trend, because the titles involved were created a few years ago and about twenty-five, but it certainly is a trend in what I'm playing: otherwise-charming adventure games that kill their gameplay with stupid gimmicks to make them more challenging but tank the time you've spent with them. With Twilight Syndrome, it's disabling saving during an episode, forcing you to play a chapter over and over and over until you get it perfect. With Little Briar Rose, it's introducing permadeath - yes, permadeath. In an adventure game - one with a dodgily-translated script and vague quest parameters that combine to make most of your grisly demises completely inadvertent. Yes, you have a lengthy pool of princes to subject to horrible fates, but I'd rather not deal with serial protagonist murder in your twee stained-glass fairyland, thanks.
This category is being hampered by the lack of single-video OSTs for these titles. For The first two, go to the right-click "Watch on YouTube" link for an OST playlist.
- Kamaitachi no Yoru:
- High Hell:
- World of Horror:
- Cook, Serve, Delicious! 3?!, "It's Dangerous to Go Alone," the hot hit of 2020:
- Beating the last level on my first try, fulfilling the ultra-hard achievement requirements without ever having touched one of the dishes before, in Cook, Serve, Delicious 3.
- Living the dream and beating your computer to death in World of Horror.
My first World of Horror victory, with the idol MC leading my girl group of a rifle-toting park ranger, a secretary, and a Dorito-shirted nosy neighbor through our pink-tinged 2-bit color scheme to destroy the tentacled horror Goizo. That's a weekend.
- The killer in Creeping Terror nailing a guard in the back with a shovel from dozens of feet away offscreen. (This looks better in motion.) I did not get the ending in which this happens myself - I saw it while YouTubing the other endings - but it was a memorable moment of shock and humor in a game bereft of either.
- I don't have an image of it, but: Barret in the northern wastelands thinking about how he'd strive to master his environment if raised in such harsh conditions but then acknowledging that this would make him no better than Shinra, coming to an understanding. A rare moment of the game getting both character and thematic insight right, and using each to strengthen the other.
- York's intro & big smile in Deadly Premonition 2 - a great start, no matter how it finished. Also, skateboarding in Deadly Premonition 2, which is just the kind of stupidity I wanted from the game.
- Zach's weary trek through the red woods, looking forward to death, a reunion with York, and being done with the world. It's a genuinely sad and great scene in an unfortunate story, one about the irreplaceability of someone who really understands you.
- The ending to the first mystery in Twilight Syndrome, which seems to be going in one perfectly-eerie direction and makes a swerve to another, also-eerie but unexpected yet logical and equally-satisfying resolution - one that remembers that while ghosts are scary, the short-sighted acts of the living are worse, and that ghost stories can be spooky but also touching, dang it.
Also, sending your friend on a ride on the Phantom Train. That's a good ending; I don't care what the game says.
- The murder that occurs at the climax of the "Survival Game" chapter in Kamaitachi no Yoru. Revealing the killer. Also, the banana trick would definitely be a ***CASINO*** moment were the game or its adaptation played more onstream.
Also, the experience of playing it during a snowbound winter day of my own really enhanced the atmosphere.
- Running from a giant fish walking on its hind fins, somehow, in Otogirisou. Also, the chocolate phone in the refrigerator that calls you and asks you to eat it. That's a something moment.
- Cruising through the first levels of Kid Icarus after them representing an insurmountable hurdle for so many years, and then, after a relatively trouble-free first runthrough, completing the best ending in a single pleasant evening.
- Beating Super Mario Bros. for the first time even in 35 years of console gaming. For that matter: beating The Legend of Zelda's second quest after 35 years.
- I'll include it anyhow: wandering through the broken city of Midgar, doomed and too far gone to save, where your characters are impotent and beyond salvation and the only victory is in a good death.
"Mmmm. It's *me.*"
A honeyed voice spoke through the phone.
"And who the HELL are you!?"
"Me. ...The. Phone."
"'Phone,' huh? ...And where the hell are you, Ms. 'Phone'?!"
"Oh, boy. ...I'M. THE. PHONE. The one you're holding in your hot little hand right now. The. Phone."
"I'm perfectly chilled right now! Go ahead and take a bite!"
I got a grip on the receiver and took a big chomp.
The phone was bittersweet chocolate.
In brief: the close of 2020: