My Top 10 Games of “2020”
By Brian • 14 April 2022
Let’s return to a worse time in our lives: the year 2020. Don’t worry—we won’t be here long, and we’re talking about something good: the ten best video games I played in 2020!
I intended to make this post at the beginning of 2021, on my other blog, That No Good Blog (currently on hiatus), but it never happened. I was struggling with burnout and a crisis of motivation or some such nonsense, so the entry never happened. But, I’ve been making these lists since 2016 and I didn’t want to miss a year, so I’m still doing it. Just really, really late.
Now, normally, I set myself a rule that games I’ve already played can’t appear on my annual “Best of” lists—they must be games new to me (except the honorable mention, which can be anything). Well, despite a lot of time quarantining and otherwise staying away from people, 2020 was a lean year for new games, so this list is chock full of games I’ve already played. I apparently leaned on comfort games in what was an otherwise bleak and life-upheaving year.
When I started these Top 10 lists, I also set myself a rule that I have to beat all the games appearing on the list, but that rule is sometimes ignored, as well, depending on circumstances. I think I actually beat all of these, but who knows?! 2020 was like five years ago, right? Can I remember anything about these games? Let’s get to it!
Honorable Mention: Spelunky 2 (PC, 2020)
Spelunky 2, while enjoyable, has not stolen away with my time like the original did. I had the first Spelunky on Xbox 360, and my playing habit got a little out of hand back in the summer of 2013 or whenever it was that I got it. I saw 2 or 3 in the morning a lot that summer, in search of Olmec’s legendary treasure. But Spelunky 2? I played it for six hours as part of my Extra Life 2020 marathon and haven’t touched it since! It seemed to have as much merit as the original, not to mention a bunch of secrets itching to be unearthed, but I have not returned.
I think part of me fears going back, knowing that I’ll devote an unhealthy number of hours to uncovering everything the game has to offer (and that I’m clever enough to figure out). If I could approach Spelunky 2 like a sane person and, say, play it once a day instead of obsessively and for hours at a time, maybe I can still enjoy it? As I’ve learned from games like the first Spelunky, Super Meat Boy, and Robotron 2084, playing deep into the night rarely results in that high score or game-winning run or 100% completion rate. Instead, I enter sleep deprivation and play the games in my dreams during the short hours I do rest—the double whammy of unhealthy obsession. Can I break the cycle with Spelunky 2?! I’d love to see it on a future Top 10, paired with a heartwarming anecdote about how much I enjoyed it without playing it six hours a day.
10. Armored Warriors (Arcade via Nintendo Switch, 1994)
Ah, beat ’em ups. I can always depend on them for some solid comfort gaming. Go straight ahead, beat wave after wave of thugs and hooligans to death with my fists en route to an over-the-top final boss encounter in the penthouse of a Miami high-rise, and topple the cartel. Okay, maybe that doesn’t describe every beat ’em up, but about eighty percent of them, and certainly what I would consider the best ones.
Armored Warriors, however, is one of those outliers. Instead of battling on foot and using your fists, you pilot a mech, and use your…well, oversized robot fists, to beat other mechs to bits en route to a final boss encounter with the enemy mother brain. Defeated mechs often drop their gun emplacements, tank treads, and other components, which you can then add to your mech, augmenting its firepower and movement. It’s a pretty cool feature, and who can resist giant robots beating the crap out of each other? It reminds me of a Sega Genesis game, Cyborg Justice—also a beat ’em up—where you could tear your opponents’ limbs off and add them to your own cyborg body.
Honestly, while the concept is really cool, I don’t find the game itself all that memorable. I played it with Craig over Nintendo Switch Online, as part of the Capcom Beat ’Em Up Bundle. I sat on the living room floor of a somewhat-destitute rental in Pittsburg, Kansas, where my family and I lived for about three months while we worked out buying a house. I do remember that it was fun, that I enjoyed the Vulcan mini-guns, and that we decimated some evil space empire’s mecha fleet in its entirety.
9. The King of Dragons (Arcade via Nintendo Switch, 1991)
Yep, another beat ’em up. Hey, you remember 2020 as well as I do. Gotta take out that frustration on as many bad guys as possible, in the most satisfying way possible: gruesome melee combat.
Also part of the Capcom Beat ’Em Up Bundle, The King of Dragons is something of a precursor to Capcom’s two Dungeons & Dragons-themed brawlers, Tower of Doom and Shadow Over Mystara, but more basic and without the D&D license. Players can choose between fighter, wizard, cleric, elf, and dwarf to battle a red dragon named Gildiss and his hordes of rampaging monsters.
Which, let’s talk about this for a minute. I like how “elf” and “dwarf” are character classes here. What does the elf do? Is he a warrior? A rogue? Give me some insight! It’s pretty obvious while playing the game, but delivering this info to you here, in the written word, “elf” and “dwarf” are pretty ambiguous, huh? (For the record, the elf is an archer, and the dwarf is an axe warrior.)
Anyway, one thing that I feel The King of Dragons has over the two D&D games is its simplicity. All the games have light RPG elements, like leveling up and weapon and armor upgrades. However, the D&D games get pretty complicated, giving you access to an inventory and the ability to switch magic spells and buy more items. While that’s a fairly intriguing and ambitious feature for an arcade game of its time, juggling all those spells and items from a handful of buttons confuses and flusters the heck out of me every time. I don’t have to worry about any of that with King of Dragons—walk forward, slay evil, level up, repeat. Depending on my mood, it’s the better, more straightforward option. I also love playing beat ’em ups in a fantasy setting—it’s the next best thing to the aforementioned mean streets of some drug-infested burg.
8. Rygar (NES via Nintendo Switch, 1987)
I’ve spoken ad nauseum over the years, as have most retro-gaming enthusiasts, about the debilitating obtuseness of some older games. I counted Rygar, the story of a dead warrior who must rise from his grave and use his powerful Diskarmor weapon to save the land of Argool from the evil Ligar, among them. An open world with no real indication of how to proceed can be intimidating, especially when I have (ugh, let’s be honest) hundreds of other more accessible games at my disposal. So, while Rygar was always a curiosity, I never gave it my best effort.
However, when the game was added to Nintendo Switch Online, I was compelled to give it another shot. But this time, I also downloaded a PDF of the instruction manual. While not every instruction manual is useful, Rygar’s manual is a treasure trove of vital information. It includes a dependable map of Argool, info on items and their uses and locations, and pretty much everything I needed to navigate the game with minimal frustration. It gave me just enough information to point me in the right direction without ruining the game or playing the game for me. Over the years, I’ve learned to seek out and read instruction manuals for these older games before getting started. It probably seems obvious, but they can answer a lot of questions that maybe cannot be addressed in-game, due to technological restraints, poor translations, or other obstacles of the time. I find that reading the manuals makes the experience more fulfilling than depending on GameFAQs or YouTube longplays to figure out the tricky parts. A good manual is a natural extension of the game itself.
That being said, Rygar is still a little rough around the edges. It’s one of Tecmo’s earliest NES games, after all. But, there’s a compelling adventure in here, with fun combat, generally good music, a big world to explore, and some pretty awesome backdrops of sunsets. I had a great time. Read the manual, and you’ll be fine.
7. Crystalis (NES via Nintendo Switch, 1990)
My earliest memory of Crystalis is from elementary school, when a friend called me at home (on a landline, which was the style at the time) to ask me for advice because he was stuck. Even at that early age, I was one of the “video game guys” in our class, so I would know, right? Sadly, I hadn’t played Crystalis, so I couldn’t help (although the music from the first cave, which I could hear over the phone in the background, is forever burned into my memory from that call). As it would turn out, I wouldn’t play Crystalis until it became available on Nintendo Switch Online, having never found the original, nor the Game Boy Color port, and I was too cheap to buy the SNK Anniversary Collection on which it appeared. I suppose I could have emulated it, but never did.
Upon finally playing Crystalis, I found it to be a great overhead action RPG. It doesn’t quite have the polish of something like The Legend of Zelda, as it struggles with some hit detection issues and clumsier combat, but it features a huge world and lots of exotic locales and characters with which to interact. I find it more akin to something like Willow than Zelda, in that regard. Again, I recommend reading the manual and keeping it handy as a reference—there is a sizable number of items, many of which are ambiguous in name or usage. I drew some of my own maps, too, as some of the later caves and dungeons proved to be pretty confusing, and even included some loops!
As a side note, the Japanese title of Crystalis is God Slayer: Sonata of the Far-Away Sky. Wow. On second thought, I’m not sure I’m actually Bad Enough to play Crystalis.
6. Diablo (PC, 1996) - Beaten Before
Let’s get one thing straight: I’ve beaten Diablo hundreds of times. Thousands! Okay, not that many, but this wasn’t my first campaign against the lord of terror. It was, however, my first time beating Diablo as a rogue. I’ve always been a warrior and sorcerer kind of guy (and there was that one time I played as a monk by way of the curious Hellfire expansion pack), but I felt that it was high time the rogue got my attention. I have come to appreciate archery in video games as I’ve grown older, whereas I was strictly bound to swords and shields (and some spells, too) as a young person. It was tricky, at times, but I felt I came into my own as a rogue by the late game, and I had a great time playing Diablo in a way I hadn’t experienced before. It did require a lot of hit-and-run, a lot of strategic use of doors and grates, and some patience, but hey, I was a rogue. They’re stealthy, they’re crafty. They take advantage of the situation. Why can’t I?
While Diablo II and III are raging behemoths of the hack and slash genre, do not discount the fun and addictive qualities of the original Diablo. The pace is a bit slower, yes, but the experience is no less compelling. The loot drops are scarcer, but I find them to be more manageable and meaningful, as well—while enemies explode into literal troves of gold and armaments at every turn in the newer installments, the right drop at the right time in the original Diablo can make the difference between struggling under the blows of increasingly difficult enemies, or crushing and driving them before you. The game still looks pretty good, and has an unsettling and atmospheric score that will creep its way into your subconscious before you know it.
5. Final Fantasy (Game Boy Advance, 2004) - Beaten Before
The Game Boy Advance version of the original Final Fantasy, from the Final Fantasy I & 2: Dawn of Souls collection, is my go-to, definitive version of the game. While it lacks the nostalgia of the NES version, it balances the character classes better (drastically improving the usefulness of the thief), removes “ineffective” attacks (characters attempting to attack enemies that have already been defeated), fixes some bugs in how character attributes affect their combat prowess, and, best of all, is portable! There are some changes I could do without, as well, such as updating the names of some enemies, items, and spells (which always throws me off, no matter how many times I play this version—I just can’t get used to it), and switching to a magic points system versus a limited number of casts from each level of spells in a spellcaster’s grimoire. But, those are minor nitpicks—it’s not a perfect remake, but it’s awfully close.
I have to go back and play the original Final Fantasy every two or three years. It’s not the most polished, deep, or well written entry in the series, but Final Fantasy was my first big console RPG, and has become quintessential comfort gaming over the course of my life. It’s a quick romp, no playthrough is exactly the same, and I’m always trying out new party and equipment configurations to keep things fresh. No, I have not yet played with a party of four white mages, but, as a masochist, I cannot rule out that eventuality.
4. Chasm (PC, 2018)
Chasm is a funny game. Well, not really; it’s an exploration sidescroller (or Metroidvania, if you will) about a knight investigating a mine that’s been shut down because a supernatural force has emerged from the mine and abducted the townspeople above. That’s not funny. What is funny about Chasm is that it has a rap for being something of an average game. As I recall, I was a bit underwhelmed by the loot and overall variety of arms and armor available. I would consider it to be a bit on the easy side, as well—I was able to handily overcome pretty much all the bosses with the occasional aid of a healing item or two, and rarely had issues with run-amuck enemies patrolling the tunnels. In other respects, I found Chasm to be very good, particularly in its environmental art, ranging from luminescent caves to elaborate catacombs and ruins. Other standouts included the music and some creative puzzles, including an especially memorable one that asks you to remember details from a huge mural on the back wall of a certain chamber.
Despite its reputation, I had a blast with Chasm. If memory serves, I believe I started playing right around or shortly after the start of the pandemic, so it hit at just the right time, when I was in need of an escape. Once I started, it was hard to put down, and I finished it pretty quickly—a rarity for games in this time of my life. I am a sucker for these Metroidvanias, though. I don’t think I would even notice if I was playing a bad one. It’s a formula that’s pretty hard to mess up, as far as I’m concerned. But don’t get me wrong, and don’t let its reputation fool you—Chasm is a good one.
I wouldn’t mind returning to Chasm someday, and since the game is procedurally generated, it will be a new experience, which adds a little incentive to another playthrough. I might try a little more experimentation with my equipment next time around, too. Maybe I was just missing something there? I feel like it deserves another look.
3. The Guardian Legend (NES, 1989) - Beaten Before
It’s a top-down action RPG. It’s a vertically scrolling shooter. What, really? It’s both? Is this the best game ever made? Well, probably not, but The Guardian Legend does merge these two great genres into a single amazing experience. My appreciation for this game dates all the way back to my elementary school days. I enjoyed it then, but I didn’t have any idea of what I was doing. Have I mentioned how much the instruction manual adds to the experience of these old games? Well, I didn’t have it back then, and I certainly could have used it!
While The Guardian Legend isn’t the best top-down action RPG, and it also isn’t the best vertically scrolling shooter, the overall adventure is better than the sum of its parts. The titular Guardian must infiltrate the planet Naju, an alien world hurtling towards Earth on a collision course. On foot, the Guardian traverses the surface of the planet, collecting items and solving puzzles to unlock the planet’s underground “corridors,” in which she transforms into her ship form to defeat giant alien bosses and enable the safety switches for Naju’s self-destruct mechanism. Once the switches are all enabled, the Guardian can activate the self-destruct and hightail it outta there. It’s complicated to describe, but great fun to experience.
I think the overall melancholy tone and story draw me to The Guardian Legend more than anything. While the generally upbeat music belies that sentiment (one of my favorite soundtracks on the NES, in fact), your objective is to not only eliminate the hostile aliens on this world, but eliminate the world itself so it doesn’t smash into Earth. Destroying an entire planet, teeming with life, for the purpose of self preservation is a deeply troubling predicament—there’s a sadness to this mission. It can’t be taken lightly. Not only that, the game delivers its story in messages left by a predecessor who also attempted to self-destruct Naju, but failed. The messages contain a lot of helpful clues and information to see the Guardian through her mission, but they’ve been left by somebody long dead. I know this is supposed to be brainless video game fun, but geez, how do you play and not get preoccupied by that? Such an uncharacteristic amount of emotion from an NES game! It’s great. Check it out.
2. The Messenger (Nintendo Switch, 2018)
The Messenger does a lot of things right. It has action. It has humor. It has memorable and interesting boss fights. It even has a score that’s so good, I sometimes listen to it during my work day to keep me energized.
The one thing it does best, however, far better than any of its other superb qualities, is player movement. Spectacular, yet functional player movement.
In its most basic form, the story of The Messenger is pretty simple: you play a ninja who needs to deliver a message from his village to the top of the Glacial Peak. Well, there are a lot of hazards between the messenger and that peak: forests, catacombs, caves, thorny marshes, craggy rocks, the underworld…also, bad guys. Plenty of those, too. This ninja needs a lot of moves to traverse all of those hostile environments and overcome those foes.
Luckily, he has them. There’s the Cloudstep, which allows the messenger to jump again in midair if he scores a hit while in the air. Master this move, and you can remain in the air indefinitely, as long as there are targets to hit. There are climbing claws, which allow climbing walls, a wingsuit that permits gliding, a rope dart that functions as a grapple, and more. Put all these techniques and equipment together, master their use, and the ninja can move with incredible grace and fluidity through just about any situation. My description here can’t do it justice—the movement in this game is so smooth and varied and fun. I don’t know that I could ask for a more technically sound action game.
That being said, the second half of the game proves a bit clunkier than the nearly perfect first half. This portion of The Messenger adds backtracking and exploration elements, not to mention a dose of time travel, and while I’ll never say no to a Metroidvania (especially one incorporating time travel), for some reason, in comparison to the first half, it just doesn’t seem to work as well as one might think. The contrast of play style between the two portions of the game proves overwhelming. The lightning-quick messenger, with an arsenal of movement-based tech at his disposal, is tailor-made for a pure action platformer. The need for exploration handicaps the overall movement and pace. It just doesn’t feel right. That’s not to say this portion of the game isn’t fun. I really enjoyed the challenge of tracking down and collecting all of the power seals, and I feel the developers handled the time travel smoothly and in an innovative way.
I haven’t played the free DLC, yet, so I can’t comment there. The rest of The Messenger is joy in video game form.
1. Ironsword: Wizards & Warriors II (NES, 1989)
Oh, boy. I have a lot to talk about here. Bear with me.
So Ironsword was a Christmas or birthday present back in 1991 or 1992, I think. Having enjoyed the original Wizards & Warriors, I dove right in. I don’t really remember the specifics of figuring the game out, but let’s just say it was a gradual process. Each area is split into two segments: a fetch quest, in which you must track down a golden item for the local animal king (such as a golden egg for the Eagle King, or a golden fly for the Frog King), and a segment in which you must track down a special magic spell to battle an elemental under the control of this jerk wizard named Malkil who won’t die and always causes problems. He’s also in the original Wizards & Warriors, and he comes back in the third game, too. Just get out of here already, Malkil! Ugh!
Anyway, I finally reached the end of the game around Christmastime, 1992. I remember a lengthy play session in our living room on Christmas Eve, trying to beat the final boss, a re-fight of all four elementals, simultaneously. I never finished the game—the final encounter was too much for me. A few months later, I elected to trade in Ironsword towards the acquisition of a Sega Genesis, and forgot about it for a long time. I just couldn’t finish it, so I didn’t really regret parting with it. Years later, after re-embracing the NES, I reacquired Ironsword and set forth to finish what I started that fateful Christmas Eve!
And…I won! Well, sort of. With the help of the internet, I figured out how to manipulate the game’s password system to give myself more lives for the last level. See, once you reach the last level, the game takes away all of your continues. If you get there with one life, you have one life to beat all the elementals. It’s unnecessary torture and misery, and I don’t know why the developers would do something like that. Artificial urgency, I suppose? Tougher to beat on a rental? It’s awful. My password for the last level only provided one life, so I changed the appropriate digit so I had three lives. Victory was mine.
But, it was tainted. I knew it. And I had to fix it. I decided to schedule Ironsword for my 2020 Extra Life marathon, knowing full well I hadn’t played it in years, and hadn’t legitimately defeated it. I was scared out of my mind. I made it to the end, and was again stymied by the final boss. It was Christmas Eve, 1992, all over again.
After my daughter got sick, my marathon ended up getting split into three segments on three separate days. I played Ironsword the second day, but then I revisited it on the final day, having consulted the internet for more final boss tips and tricks. No shame—it’s a hard game, and had I beaten it pre-internet, it wouldn’t have been without the help of Nintendo Power. With strategy in hand, and a non-manipulated password, I returned to the last level, and after another handful of narrow defeats, at last, I saw the demise of Malkil and his elementals. Victory was mine…for real, this time. Untainted, final victory.
It’s too bad I accidentally left myself on mute on Twitch when it happened. Oh well. Game of the Year.