It’s that time of year again, where we subjectively list what we think are the best video games of 2020, then you lot get mad at us for being “objectively” wrong.
It sort of feels like 2020 has been a bumper year for video games, doesn’t it? The pandemic – and, therefore, the amount of time people spent playing games – probably helped on that score, but the final year of a console generation often is bumper, isn’t it? Just look at the roster from 2013, the year the PS4 and Xbox One originally released, and you’ll see the same thing.
And so, it falls to the team at Thumbsticks to pick the 20 best video games of 2020. Why? Because people like lists, we suppose.
As usual, here’s the Q&A/disclaimer before we begin:
- Why did you pick 20 games? Because it’s 2020. We did 19 last year and we’ll do 21 next year. Yes, it will get really unwieldy in 50 years time, but Dan and Tom don’t plan to be alive that long.
- What criteria does a game have to meet to be eligible? Well, it has to have released in 2020, for one thing. (So Baldur’s Gate 3, which launched in Early Access in 2020, doesn’t count, but Hades, which launched in Early Access in 2018 then released proper in 2020, does.)
- Anything else? It has to be a “new” game, in the general sense of the word. So a ground-up remake of a game is eligible, but a port, re-release or remaster isn’t.
- How did you select the games? Everyone who’s a regular contributor to the site at the time of putting the GOTY list together gets one free pick. Literally whatever they want.
- What about the rest? Well, we had a bit of a chat about other possible inclusions and everyone’s suggestions were taken into account, but the editors had the final say.
- Why are they in that order? Well, it’s alphabetical, isn’t it? It’s bad enough picking 20, nevermind putting them in order of preference.
- What are the honourable mentions? These are games that are noteworthy 2020 releases but didn’t make the GOTY list for one reason or another. That might be because they were great but ineligible, for reasons explained above, or it might be more of a dishonourable mention and… yeah. They ended up there, instead.
- Why did you pick this game over that game? Because criticism of any form of art, media, or entertainment is highly subjective! Anyone who tells you a “review should be objective” is an idiot, and GOTY lists are no different.
- But I’m really upset! Who do I complain to? Just write your complaint down on a slip of paper and pop it into our suggestion box.
- And where’s that? Any rubbish bin or trash can will do. If it’s meant to be, your complaint will find its way to us, we promise.
The 20 best video games of 2020
A Monster’s Expedition
Do you like sumptuously simple puzzle games like Stephen’s Sausage Roll or A Good Snowman is Hard to Build? Games with an economy of design and a purity that’s rare in the oft-cluttered space of puzzle designers trying to prove how clever they are?
Well, friend, you will very much enjoy A Monster’s Expedition.
From the same designer as A Good Snowman – and featuring the same adorable, monstrous protagonist – the titular expedition is through a sort of open-world environment, where the puzzles, the gloriously to-the-point puzzles, involve traversing islands to explore the world. On your way through those islands, you’ll uncover the game’s narrative through “archaeological exhibits” from the monster’s point of view, of a hubris-filled society that might just seem familiar. In 2020. Teetering on the brink of Brexit oblivion.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons – Dan’s pick
The consensus is that Animal Crossing: New Horizons was the right game at the right time. And it was, but throughout 2020 it’s also proved to be much more than that. When most days pass by as an indistinguishable lockdown blur, Animal Crossing is an anchor to the real world we’ve missed. The changing seasons, for example, mark the passing of time more effectively than the view from my window. The limited but stress-free online experience provides a place to meet and reconnect with friends while real-life socialising remains off-limits. In a year when I’ve been separated from loved ones by border closures, it’s been an essential alternative to interminable Zoom calls.
Animal Crossing is the world in which we’d like to live. The game is not free of drudgery or hard work, but in this crappy year of years, it’s an experience free of cynicism and idiocy. Friendship, humour, community – and a lot of debt – make this world go round. A world in which if you gift a face mask to a villager, they will happily wear it without protest. And most likely give you a tank-top in return.
Animal Crossing: New Horizons is the right game, all the time.
For all of the talk of the hardware grunt of the new console generation – including blistering-fast solid-state drives and real-time ray tracing – the biggest “new” innovation has been the PS5 DualSense controller’s Adaptive Triggers. It’s a sort of extreme haptic feedback that allows the player to feel the tension of in-game actions.
And the game that showcases that new tech the best? It’s actually Astro’s Playroom, the free pack-in title that Sony gives away with every PlayStation 5. It’s the closest thing to 2006’s Wii Sports, and that’s a big compliment.
Crusader Kings 3 – Callum’s pick
Watching on as a Spanish nudist colony eviscerated my cities while my bubonic plague-ridden son blackmailed me for cheating on his mother with her sister, I figured I must have created the wackiest save file possible within Crusader Kings 3. But then I looked online and realised that absolutely everybody who played Paradox’ newest strategy game had an equally bizarre but wholly unique anecdote to share.
In short, Crusader Kings 3 is easily one of the most memorable and engrossing strategy games in years. Its gameplay loop is almost endlessly replayable due to the sheer number of stories its innovative systems can tell, while it strips back the overwhelming design of its predecessors for one far more approachable. Yet, it’s never the technical prowess of Crusader Kings 3 that makes it exceptional. It’s the way it ditches the impersonal nature of the strategy genre and puts characters at the forefront, forcing players to consider the human aspects of leadership rather than how many faceless civilizations they can conquer.
Fall Guys: Ultimate Knockout
When we played Fall Guys at E3 2019 – god, do you remember in-person events? – we knew it was going to be a hit. There’s just something so universally accessible about its premise, presentation, and playability. Then when it was given away for free with PS Plus, that cemented its place as an enormous success.
Also, Mediatonic capitalised on the massive popularity of Fall Guys – and the brands wanting a slice of its social media-friendly success – to raise a whopping sum of money for gaming accessibility charity Special Effect. Fall Guys are Good Guys, it would seem.
Final Fantasy VII Remake – Tom’s pick
There are unenviable tasks, and there are unenviable tasks. And then there’s remaking Final Fantasy VII, one of the most beloved games ever created. On paper, the best you can hope for is to not absolutely ruin people’s memories of the original, and everything flows downhill from there. Honestly, I can think of few things more daunting.
Luckily, Tetsuya Nomura – whilst also simultaneously trying to tie up 18 billion loose ends in Kingdom Hearts 3, the fearless thrill-seeker – didn’t find it daunting. Or maybe he did and he simply didn’t care. But for the longest time, we were labouring under the apprehension that it would be terrible. Then we saw a bit more of it and we allowed ourselves to think it might not be the worst. Then we played a bit at E3 and, to all of our surprise, it was actually looking quite good?
Then the Final Fantasy VII Remake released and it was everything it could have been, and nothing we dared dream it might, all at once. Yes, this selection is drenched with nostalgia, but after getting the opportunity to spend the worst part of a truly terrible year with those old friends – Cloud, Tifa, Barret, Aerith, Red XIII, and the Avalanche dorks – I couldn’t not pick it.
Unlike so many of the games in our “honourable mentions” section that narrowly missed out on technicalities, Hades manages to scrape into this year’s GOTY list for the opposite reason. Originally launched in Early Access in 2018, Hades was ineligible for the list that year, brilliant as it was. But in 2020 it received its “full” release and is, therefore, now allowed to take its rightful place.
And when we say “scrape” we mean in relation to the rules of our Game of the Year lists. Hades is not scraping into the list by any other metric – it’s flipping brilliant. Just go and play it. You’ll see.
I Am Dead
If Disc Room (see below) couldn’t slice its way onto this list because it is too stressful, I Am Dead finds itself here almost entirely by accident for the opposite reason: because it is just so chill.
It’s a hidden objects game with a difference; you play a ghost who can “slice” inside objects to find their mysteries. It’s also very sweet and wholesome and kind, which is fast becoming what we need from games at the moment. Read the inimitable Donlan’s review of it over on Eurogamer for definitive words on why it is so exquisite.
Lair of the Clockwork God
Lair of the Clockwork God is one of the cleverest games in years, but not in a nasty, adversarial way, that way that puzzle game creators defy you to best them. It’s pleasant, kind, and allows you to gently catch on to its brilliance as you work your way through an ingenious mashup of point-and-click and platforming. It’s also somehow flown under the radar, so you should amend that post-haste, thanks.
If not for Tom’s borderline unhealthy adoration for Final Fantasy VII, Lair of the Clockwork God would absolutely have been his pick for 2020. It’s that good.
The Last of Us Part II – Andrew’s pick
Games have been pulling the “you were actually the bad guy all along” trick for decades, but none have put their money where their mouth is quite like The Last of Us Part 2. Devoting equal amounts of time to the characters on either side of its vengeance story, TLOU2 is a structurally innovative and emotionally powerful piece of storytelling.
That dual focus means that the game feels a little overlong on an initial playthrough, sure. But Naughty Dog’s commitment to the bit means that we come to view both characters as right and very wrong in their own ways, and The Last of Us Part 2 is one of the few AAA games that rewards this kind of analysis.
In the weeks and months following its release, The Last of Us Part 2 has often been dismissed as “misery porn” by its detractors; a game whose sole message was “murder bad.” Those criticisms aren’t supported by the game itself. The Last of Us Part 2 does have real problems, specifically in the ways it handles race – with legitimately well-written Black characters becoming grist for the mill of its white heroes’ stories, and the cast’s sole Latino character, Manny, falling into some pretty tired racial tropes – but the game ultimately tells an unpredictable story about the murkiness of our enduring love for the people in our lives, people who have loved us, and hurt us.
The Longing – Henry’s pick
Nothing perhaps better epitomises 2020 than this solo indie project with its atmosphere of overwhelming isolation. Any fear at the prospect of 400 real-time days stuck within an underground, labyrinthine cave system soon gives way to the feeling that this is one of the most original puzzle games in recent years. The exploration involved in guiding The Longing’s goblinesque creature is more rewarding than any open-world game thanks to its wholly unique mechanical approach to time and the sheer rush involved in uncovering its secrets.
If you can tolerate one of the slowest walking speeds in all of gaming and puzzles that can be taxing without leaning on community guides, you’ll find a game as excellent as it is without easy parallel.
Microsoft Flight Simulator
Microsoft Flight Simulator (2020) is not your dad’s Microsoft Flight Simulator (1986). It’s still a hyper-serious simulation of flight and something of a tech demo for publisher Microsoft, but the 2020 version of Flight Sim uses Microsoft’s cloud tech for a realistic, 1:1 representation of the world, which is accurate right down to the time-synchronised, real-world weather.
In a year of ambitious games that have missed the mark in one form or another, Microsoft Flight Simulator has hit every schedule it aimed for. It’s remarkable.
Murder By Numbers
Everyone’s fawning over Fall Guys, but it’s not the only memorable Mediatonic game released in 2020. Murder By Numbers, designed, written and directed by Ed Fear, is the other Mediatonic game you should definitely be aware of.
Like the aforementioned Lair of the Clockwork God, Murder By Numbers is a mash-up of two genres – in this instance, it’s Picross meets the detective visual novel – that’s better than the sum of its parts. Also, like Clockwork God, it’s a kind and gentle game in a year of bad news and terrible discourse. And like Clockwork God, Murder By Numbers has also flown under the radar for some reason. You should fix that.
Speaking of unique murder mysteries, here’s Paradise Killer!
Far from the linear narrative structure of most video game sleuth-em-ups, Paradise Killer is a free-form, open-world murder mystery, where the player can unravel the mass murder they’ve been summoned to solve in whatever way they seem fit.
We won’t go into too much detail, lest we spoil any of the weirdness that awaits, but to quote the youth of today: Paradise Killer slaps.
Paper Mario: The Origami King
In a year full to the brim with engaging and shocking video game narratives, it’s a credit to Paper Mario: The Origami King that the story of Bobby the Bob-omb punctured our hearts so memorably. We don’t mind admitting that Bobby’s plight led to us shedding more than a few tears.
Thankfully, tears of laughter were also in abundance. Origami King’s script is an absolute hoot, combining fan-service with the Nintendo Treehouse’s trademark warmth and wit. The battle mechanics, free of the input gimmicks found in Color Splash and Sticker Star, are, in fact, the secret best puzzle game of the year. Each fight requires planning, strategy, and no small amount of pluck to overcome some genuinely tough challenges.
Paper Mario: The Origami King might not be the traditional RPG game some fans wanted, but it’s a brave, exquisitely crafted adventure, and a minor Nintendo classic.
It’s more Spelunky. Need we say more?
Spiritfarer is another game that captured our hearts during E3 2019. You play as Stella, the ferry person to the afterlife, helping spirits to cross into the beyond. You’ll do that by helping them resolve outstanding concerns from the land of the living, which is presented as a chill builder/management sim on Stella’s barge across the river Styx.
It’s not perfect, however. Spiritfarer did come under criticism for some inadvertently ableist language which developer Thunder Lotus apologised for and promised to fix, but the game is undoubtedly well-intentioned, beautiful and poignant.
Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2
Like Hades, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 falls on the right side of the rules for inclusion in our GOTY 2020 list, but only just. Why? Because it’s a remake, not a remaster, so it’s technically a new game, released for the first time in 2020.
To be fair, it is almost a shot-for-shot remake of the first two Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater games, so we’re treading that line, but it’s the decision to age up the original roster of skaters that tips the scales in its favour. Also, the soundtrack, with original tunes bolstered by a new generation of bands, is still an absolute banger. Also also, it’s ruddy good.
Umurangi Generation, with its Metal Gear Solid logo font and cyberpunk (lower-case ‘c’) visuals, probably isn’t the game you’re expecting it to be. Set in a “shitty future” New Zealand, you play as a Māori photographer, completing photography assignments for bounties. And that’s it. You take photos, you develop your style, you progress through the game.
It’s a sort of Pokémon Snap meets Jet Set Radio, which is a frankly brilliant idea anyway. It sounds – and it totally is – a super-chill, lo-fi, first-person photography experience. But it’s also unashamedly anti-fascist in its ideology and the unsettling way its narrative unfolds.
In 2020, Umurangi Generation is the video game we need.
Wide Ocean, Big Jacket
In 2020, Wide Ocean, Big Jacket is also the video game we need, but for different reasons.
Did you ever play an adventure or narrative game that you really loved, but wish there were places it didn’t go? You enjoyed Night in the Woods for its characterisation of drifting, shiftless pre-adulthood, but could’ve done without the human sacrifice and whatnot? Or you loved Firewatch, for its landscapes and odd-jobbing and its sharp interplay between Henry and Delilah, but wish you could’ve just been a park ranger with none of the mystery stalker stuff?
Then, friend, Wide Ocean, Big Jacket, a game made entirely of small moments, is the game for you.
- Among Us – Unquestionably the success story of the year during the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s technically a 2018 game. (Sorry. Rules are rules!)
- Assassin’s Creed Valhalla – It’s more 7/10 Assassin’s Creed fare. Not noteworthy enough for inclusion in the main list, sure, but still worth mentioning as a very good open-world adventure/RPG hybrid.
- Baldur’s Gate 3 – Larian’s sequel to the venerable Sword Coast series is brilliant, but it’s not finished yet so, no award for you.
- Battletoads – A surprisingly faithful reboot of a series nobody realised they wanted back.
- BioShock: The Collection – A Nintendo Switch port, not a new game. Rules are rules.
- Borderlands Legendary Collection – Ditto.
- Burnout Paradise Remastered – A remaster, not a remake. Same result.
- Bugsnax – Undoubtedly brilliant tune and seemed like an adorable concept at first, but it’s actually a horrific body horror dressed up as a cute creature collection game. (Because it ate several cute creature collection games, presumably.)
- Call of Duty: Black Ops – Cold War – Doing war crimes for Ronnie Reagan, what’s not to love?
- Cloudpunk – A genuinely interesting cyberpunk game that was marred by a very poor Nintendo Switch port later in the year.
- Crash 4 – Nostalgic? Sure. Showing the series’ age? Maybe a little. But enjoyable nonetheless.
- Cyberpunk 2077 – Hmm. Nope. Nuh-uh. We’re not touching this one with yours, mate.
- Demon’s Souls – This is, by all accounts, a brilliant remake by Bluepoint. Also, it’s a remake and not a remaster, so that’s not why it’s not included. No, it’s not included because we don’t like the impact From Software games have on the discourse. (And we can only assume people aren’t losing their minds over this one is because they’re too busy losing their minds over Cyberpunk 2077.)
- Desperados III – The tactical, hardcore stealth genre is back, and it’s good, actually?
- Disc Room – In any other year, Disc Room would probably have ended up in the list proper. But in 2020, The Year Of All The Stress™? It is just too much additional stress. Sorry!
- Doom Eternal – With every passing day, the three stars we gave this dismal sequel seems more and more generous. (Merry Christmas, Bethesda! That review score was your gift!)
- Dragon Quest XI S Definitive Edition – Another brilliant reissue that can’t be included because the game released in 2017.
- Dreams – Dreams is a remarkable thing where, far above the usually simple console fare of Mario Maker, “players” can produce entirely original games, without the learning curve (or cost) of professional tools. It didn’t make the main list because there are still questions over its walled garden ecosystem, however.
- Ghost of Tsushima – This might be a fantastic open world, but there are lots of things wrong with this one, as good a game as it is. Its “Kurosawa” Mode, for instance, feels like a cheap facsimile of classic Japanese cinema. Its Haiku system, meanwhile, doesn’t actually make very good Haiku. And its take on Japanese history and culture is facile.
- Half-Life: Alyx – The Half-Life sequel could very well be the best video game released this year, but to platform-lock it behind expensive, high-end PC VR hardware is practically class warfare. (Also, we’re still salty about In the Valley of Gods being put on hold.)
- The Last Campfire – Hello Games proves it’s more than No Man’s Sky with a compact and surprisingly touching puzzler.
- Lonely Mountains Downhill – Yet another stellar Switch port that isn’t technically a 2020 game. Sorry.
- Kentucky Route Zero: TV Edition – Only one-fifth of this came out in 2020; the rest came in the preceding decade, so we struggled to include it, as much as we wanted to. But as a whole, it is one of the most singular narrative visions we’ve seen in a video game.
- The Mafia Trilogy – One of these is a remake, one is a remaster, and one’s just… already out? A confusing bundle, and only one-third of it would be eligible.
- Maneater – Some games can never really be quite as good as their pre-release buzz and, while the SharkPG is fun, Maneater is one such game.
- No Man’s Sky – This one just keeps getting better with age. It’s not a new game, but while they keep releasing amazing expansions, it will keep being an honourable mention.
- Ori and the Will of the Wisps – Simply sumptuous stuff, again.
- The Outer Worlds – Great game, terrible Nintendo Switch port.
- The Pedestrian – An extremely clever puzzle game with a unique perspective. (See also: Superliminal.)
- Persona 5 Royal – Not a Nintendo Switch port this time – this one’s PS4 – but still not a new game for 2020, brilliant as it may be.
- Pikmin 3 Deluxe – Again, not a new game but a remaster, as much as we love it.
- Pure Pool – We gave Pure Pool’s Nintendo Switch port five stars, but it’s a re-release of a 2014 game, so it’s not eligible for inclusion.
- Resident Evil 3 Remake – This is a really good remake, but it’s such a good remake that it even accurately recreates the slight feeling of disappointment from playing it after Resident Evil 2 (Remake), which is quite the achievement.
- Rogue – Rogue, as in, the original game that the entire Rogue-like genre is named after, was re-released after 40 years. In a confusing case of the snake eating its own tail, it has been categorised as “Rogue-like” on storefronts.
- Röki – It was honestly a toss-up between Röki and Spiritfarer for inclusion in the main list. Both of them are magical, thoroughly modern adventure games, filled with heart, and both are worth your time.
- Sackboy: A Big Adventure – Lovely stuff, but there are better, more important PS5 exclusives on this list already.
- Sludge Life – I, er… sorry, what? No idea what’s going on here, but it’s ace.
- Spider-Man: Miles Morales – It’s more Marvel’s Spider-Man, but with fan favourite Miles Morales in the lead role. That’s it. That’s the hook.
- Star Wars: Squadrons – A fine return to the golden era of Star Wars video games, X-Wing and Tie Fighter, but with just a little too much focus on multiplayer.
- Streets of Rage 4 – Streets of Rage from Dot Emu and Lizardcube, just like Sega used to make.
- Super Mario 3D All-Stars – Not only are these not new games, so we couldn’t include them anyway, but Nintendo has also made them artificially scarce, too. (Not cool, Nintendo. Not cool. They are good, though.)
- Superliminal – The perspective-bending puzzle game so nearly made the main list.
- Wasteland 3 – A fantastic C-RPG in the original mould, but maybe a little grim and cynical in 2020, the year of the actual apocalypse?
- Watch Dogs Legion – While the game itself might be a bit vacuous and half-baked, we love its play-as-anyone idea all the same. (Plus extra points for Clint Hocking refusing to toe the Ubisoft “our games aren’t political” line.)
- XIII – Awful, terrible, no good at all remake. (Which is a shame, because people were excited for this one.)
- Yakuza: Like A Dragon – OK, this one genuinely looks brilliant and we’re sorry it’s not included, but none of us has actually had time to play it yet.