2020

I have to be honest: I kept putting off writing my 2020 wrap-up post. As early as late November I thought about collecting my thoughts on last year’s games. It’s not that I didn’t want to write about all of the wonderful games I played in 2020. I love writing about video games more than almost anything. But 2020 was a weird year, as unsurprising as that may be for me to say. Though the year was filled with excellent and exciting games and gaming moments, the many global and national challenges facing most of us affected me, too, and impacted my gaming experiences and work more than I ever wanted to admit.

If I think about 2020 purely in gaming terms, what an amazing year. Although critical reception for it was tepid, I loved the Resident Evil 3 remake. It wasn’t quite as expansive as the remake for the second game, but I think both remakes were excellent renditions of their parent games. Capcom’s RE Engine produced beautiful graphics, I loved navigating the broken streets of Raccoon City once again, and I was ecstatic to get more time with Jill Valentine, my favorite Resident Evil character.

A new Animal Crossing game is always a welcome addition to any year, and New Horizons was released at perhaps the most welcoming time in history for any game. Everyone seemed to be playing it – Animal Crossing fans, celebrities, politicians, people who have never played a single AC game, and seemingly everyone on every social media platform. It made me happy to see the series get such love, especially since this was easily the entry with the most significant changes in both gameplay and presentation. With every single new AC game, I lamented the lack of new, exciting features. With older titles, Nintendo would add maybe one major new gimmick and a handful of minor tweaks, but I was always left wondering when a true, full sequel would come out. While New Horizons does retain some of the series’ core mechanics, it adds and expands on so many cool features, like crafting, travel, and multiplayer (even if it’s still imperfect). I had so much fun with New Horizons, and even when I sometimes feel sad for “abandoning” it, I still ended up putting over 300 hours into it. A point that I’ve heard repeatedly debated in conversations about the best games of the year is whether or not New Horizons would have been so popular or well-received if it weren’t for the global pandemic. I suppose the degree to which it would have been popular is debatable, but every mainline AC game has been popular without a mandatory quarantine to boost their prestige. Plus, I think people entertaining that idea are conveniently forgetting both the fact that a great many of us AC fans have been waiting years for this game and the persistent popularity of the Nintendo Switch means that the potential audience for this game was huge, regardless. The fact that many people were looking for a distraction from the pandemic may have notably nudged up hype for this game, but it’s a great game in its own right and surely would have found more success than its already-successful predecessors.

One of the things that made 2017 such a magical year in gaming for me was Persona 5, my long-anticipated introduction to the Persona series, which made 2020’s Persona 5 Royal an absolute day one purchase for me. I really wanted the Phantom Thieves special edition, and after finding it was sold out everywhere I was overjoyed to snag a pre-order from Best Buy. The problem? The release date was right when many non-essential stores went into lockdown from the pandemic. Not the most serious problem anyone’s had in these times, but I was worried the in-store pickup (the only option for pre-order) would be delayed or even canceled. Luckily it was not, and it was my first experience with a staple of pandemic consumer life: curbside pickup. Best Buy sent me an email instructing me to park in front of the store and call the customer service desk (later to become an automated process), and once they verified my order number, someone came outside and dropped the game in my backseat. It seemed like such a novel and bizarre process at that point in time, but I was excited to get home and unbox my new treasure. As with the base game, I absolutely loved my time with Royal, and got the platinum trophy for this entry, too.

Speaking of platinum trophies, I’ve been considering replaying Final Fantasy VII Remake to get the platinum trophy for that game, too, because I was so enamored with it but I feel like I could have spent more time with those characters. I was worried that it would slip from many critics’ minds when it came time for end-of-year award consideration, but it seems to have won a fair number of awards from various outlets. The game is beautiful, the music is so nostalgic and magical, and I really can’t wait to see what they do with the next installment, especially after that provocative ending.

I wasn’t quite as smitten with The Last of Us Part II, but part of that might have been the deafening discourse surrounding the game and its release. It seemed simultaneously the best game ever released and the most offensive artifact to soil consoles, and this was before it was even in most people’s hands. People seemed desperate to share their takes on social media, falling over themselves to take sides or point out some new observation. I specifically avoid hype for most games I play because I don’t want my experiences to be tainted by expectations shaded by the opinion of others, but in this case the hype was virtually unavoidable. I had a pre-order and had, once upon a time, been excited for the game, but I couldn’t get the ongoing conversations about the game out of my head as I played it. I got about fifteen hours in and just didn’t feel like finishing, so I quit. I’ve recently had the itch to go back to it, though, in part because I hate leaving games unfinished, so I installed it on my PS5 and will be starting it back up soon.

In almost an exact opposite situation, I had very little hype for Ghost of Tsushima and it ended up being one of my favorite games of the year, easily. The E3 2018 trailer looked beautiful, but the combat appeared to be in the vein of the Souls games, which didn’t seem up my alley. Tsushima was always on the fringes of my radar, and with little else to play mid-summer, I decided I’d give it a shot. If I didn’t like the combat, at least it had what looked like a beautiful open world I could explore. As it turns out, I really loved the combat. It allows for so many different approaches to battles, and I appreciated that switching stances wasn’t an absolute must to defeat most enemies. I also loved the beautiful open world. And the characters. And the acting and exploration and foxes and… well, you get the point.

I also had a great time with Star Wars Squadrons, which was a simple yet thrilling flight sim, and despite being a sloppy, buggy mess, I also had fun with Cyberpunk 2077.  I very recently wrote about my love of Spider-Man: Miles Morales and Phasmophobia, as well as my mostly-positive adventures in Assassin’s Creed Valhalla, and I also had a warm and tingly stroll down memory lane with Astro’s Playroom. Paper Mario: The Origami King was a humorous, adorable trip, and The Dark Pictures Anthology: Little Hope was sufficiently spooky. I also used my quarantine months to catch up on some non-2020 games like Days Gone, Gris, I am Setsuna, Luigi’s Mansion 3 and Yakuza 0, and of course I wrote maybe too much about my giddiness over the new consoles. While I wrote specifically about the PlayStation 5, I did also manage to get an Xbox Series X for myself for Xmas. I set it up and… well… that’s about it for now, but I was excited to unbox it and I can’t wait for games like the next Perfect Dark and that Indiana Jones games that was announced today.

So, well, I guess I did end up revisiting games I’ve played this year. But before I started actually writing, the only thing I could think about was the general, difficult-to-describe affect the pandemic has had on me. The few years leading up to 2019 were incredibly hard for me, in terms of my mental health. I had gotten to some very dark places. In early 2019, I took steps to navigate myself out of those dark places, and by the end of the year I began to feel like I had regained control of my life. Then, well, you know. 2020. Many people have had a much worse 2020 than I have, no doubt. But it was something of a precarious year for me. I remained determined to maintain my mental health. I got into a solid workout routine, I walked my cat every day when it was warm, I kept a daily journal, and I did a fair job of transitioning to online teaching, if I do say so myself. The problem was that I felt like my mental and emotional energy had a limit. I could dedicate only so much to staying healthy, and teaching, and participating in hobbies, and parsing all of the negativity that came with the pandemic and the historically toxic presidential election, that anything above and beyond that felt… impossible? Maybe that seems dramatic, but I don’t feel like I had much time post-recovery to enjoy decent mental health before I was expected to write my dissertation, maintain a healthy routine, become an online teacher, and just deal with the overwhelming, flaming flood that was 2020.

So my dissertation went by the wayside. And it felt okay at first. The general consensus about the pandemic’s effect on workflow seemed to be that it was normal and that everyone should give themselves a break. And I did. For a while. I still am, I suppose. But now that it’s been a year and I’ve made almost no progress, the self-doubt and reality of having to secure more funding or work to hopefully try and finish this thing in 2021 is inescapable. Institutions and professionals urged us to be kind and give ourselves more time, but in reality the expectations and deadlines never really changed. And because my dissertation is on games, looking back and thinking of my experience with gaming in 2020 was… complicated. I’ve played so many great games, and I’m excited for the future of gaming, but my place as a gaming scholar always feels like it’s on tremulous ground. I have moments where the field of games studies feels exclusive and some of the most notable names seem out of touch or, frankly, full of shit. Dr. Emma Vossen, a gaming scholar I admire, recently tweeted that she was publishing her final games studies article in academia, and was leaving ten years of work in the field behind her. Why? Because the field is so filled with scholars who don’t seem to understand games and gaming culture. They are academics first, and many of them seem to have gotten into the field because they saw an emergent trend that held lots of publishing potential. Dr. Vossen and others have expressed the notion that some of the best work on games and gaming culture has been done outside of academia, and I agree. But where does that leave me? I have no idea, to be honest. Confused? Angry? Do I push on, hoping to carve a niche for myself and change the culture? Or do I get out and try and get into a seemingly equally exclusive game coverage industry?

Sorry for the rant. For how terrible 2020 was in almost every other regard, it was a great year for gaming. My future in my field of choice may be murky, but I am still in love with video games, and there are some exciting titles coming out this year and in the near-ish future. Persona 5 Strikers, Resident Evil Village, Gotham Knights, Mass Effect Legendary Edition, Breath of the Wild 2, Horizon Forbidden West, and who knows what else is to come. What will the Switch Pro be like? When is the PS5’s next-gen virtual reality headset coming? Wherever life takes me this year, at least I’ll have some amazing games to play along the way.

Paper Mario (and More-io)

The dawn of the next generation of consoles is upon us. Last week, the PlayStation 5 preorders went up, this week it was the Xbox Series X/S. I was lucky enough to secure a PS5, but I haven’t had any luck getting a Series X. I was late in trying for that one, though. For the PS5, I suspected Sony would pull another “and preorders are open now” deal, like they did last generation, so after their Showcase Event I and several of my gaming scholar friends formed an alliance to scour the various retail sites for any sign of a preorder opportunity. After the event, Sony said that preorders would begin “tomorrow,” but having been present for a few modern console launches, I had my doubts, and when rumors emerged that some retailers would open preorders that day, the alliance went into action, refreshing page after page. About an hour after the event, I noticed Target’s PS5 landing page changed to a less marketing-oriented page to one where you could preorder PS5 games. I knew that meant something was about to happen, and my guess paid off. Within minutes the preorder link went up. As I was excitedly typing my payment information in, I used Siri to call one friend and tell them the link was live, then when I submitted my order, I sent a link to the rest of the alliance. All but one of us got one. It was an exciting victory. I only decided on a whim to get an Xbox Series X, so I was hours late in trying for one of those preorders. I ran into some of the widely reported issues where I was able to get one in my cart on the Best Buy site but then it would empty my cart and say “whoops,” basically. And Target almost let me get one as well, a few times. But alas, I have been refreshing all of the main sites every now and then since yesterday and have had no luck. It’s cool. It was going to be a Christmas present to myself, so as long as I can get one before then I’ll be fine.

Super Mario 3D All-Stars

As close as the next gen is, we won’t be there for another month and a half, so let me continue my periodic rambling about what I’m playing in the now. Did I just say “in the now”? Ugh. I want to punch myself in the face. Speaking of punching myself in the face, I recently got Super Mario 3D All-Stars and tried a bit of Super Mario 64 for the first time in… too many years. The last time I played it was probably around the time the game came out. Let’s not do the math because my birthday is coming up and I’m old. Keeping with the theme of feeling old, my experience with this port (which was surprisingly crisp and good looking) highlighted how kind the fuzzy filter of nostalgia is. In my memory, the controls in Mario 64 were so smooth, responsive, and precise. I remember feeling so amazed at tilting the joystick forward just slightly and Mario tiptoeing, or spinning it in circles and watching him respond in exactly the same motion.

Now, in my defense, at the time all of that was pretty groundbreaking. It felt precise and responsive compared to the few 3D games I’d played. Now? Oof. I mean, it’s not at all terrible. But between the less-than-perfect feeling movement and the terrible camera (which, again, what did we have to compare it to at the time?), it was kind of painful revisiting this gem. I can’t wait to play Super Mario Sunshine, because I loved that game when it came out and expect it to feel much better, but I think I’ll tuck Mario 64 back into the dusty, warm recesses of my memory and leave it at that.

Paper Mario: The Origami King

Speaking of Mario, I finally did the thing! I played a Paper Mario game at launch! I spent over 50 hours playing Paper Mario: The Origami King and I loved most of those hours. [some spoilers ahead] The biggest draws of the series for me have always been the bright, cute art style and character/environments, witty writing and humor, and generally just seeing familiar Mario characters in big narratives where they really get the chance to shine. Those elements were all here, even if there wasn’t as much papery Peach goodness as I’d have liked. Kamek was a standout in this entry and had some of the best lines, and I loved Bowser’s role in this one as well. Something I realized with this entry: Mario is the character given the least amount of personality in these games. The designers seem to get the chance to expand almost every other character’s personality, including minions like Bob-ombs. Mario is reduced to a silent protagonist, probably because of the series’ JRPG roots.

Much has been made of the combat system, and I have mixed feeling about it. Some people seem to love it, some people seem to hate it. I thought I liked it more than I’d expected to, until I encountered some of the more difficult combat puzzles later in the game. I was so excited when I got to the gameshow level… until I realized you essentially had to solve combat puzzles to win points. There were also some boss fights that had particularly frustrating aspects related to the puzzle grid. It wasn’t bad enough to ruin the game for me, and most encounters were either fun or just passable. I would just absolutely love a return to party-based, RPG-like combat. We won’t see another Paper Mario game for some time now, I guess, but I’ll have my fingers crossed anyway.

I am Setsuna

Another game I’ve recently spent a significant time with is I am Setsuna, a game that I’d heard several versions of “if you like Chrono Trigger, you’ll like this game” about. I’ve heard that before, many times, and I’ve almost always been let down. I am Setsuna is not so close that you’d mistake it for a cousin, but it’s definitely the most Chrono Trigger­-y RPG I’ve played, from the active-time battle system to the mysterious scythe-wielding enemy/friend, to the dual and triple tech-likes, and more. One of the things I really liked about this game was how simple and direct it was. Areas were small and contained, you could virtually never get lost, yet with the inclusion of an overworld it felt like you were traveling over vast distances, like the JRPGs of old. I didn’t have to think very much while playing this game, and while that might be a complaint for some other RPGs, I welcomed it here. This felt like a short(ish), simple(ish), straightforward old school RPG. A proverbial cup of hot cocoa with whipped cream and marshmallows. A sweet reminder of simpler times.

Hi, Amy!

Things that were not so sweet, though: the archaic save system. Yes, okay, I get it: there was a real dedication to being old school here. But when you spend two hours grinding and unwittingly wander into a new enemy that wipes you out in two turns, and you’ve lost two hours of your life because of that dedication to old school design, you begin to see why autosaves are actually pretty great. I also did not love the character models. The character designs were great (in their avatars), and I absolutely loved the environment art. Some sections literally looked like paintings. But then to contrast that with chibi-like characters with oversized heads and hands and absolutely no feet? Blech. Hrk. Other gagging sounds. It was something I hated about the original Final Fantasy VII, and while it’s not quite as bad here, it still made my skin crawl. You may be Setsuna but you need to put Some-shoes-on your feet. Wait, that didn’t work. If you say it out loud it works better. Except they don’t have feet to put the shoes on… you know what? Let’s move on.

Return of the Obra Dinn

I have been so excited to get this game since I saw the first trailer. The art style, reminiscent of very old school PC games, is so unique and cool that I was almost all-in for that reason alone. When you add the premise – that you are an investigator tasked with exploring a ghost ship to determine the identity and cause of death of every former passenger – I was sold. I’ve played about eight hours at this point but I think I’m going to put it aside. It’s not that I don’t like it. I think it’s rad and it definitely allows you to do the detective work without holding your hand or giving you much help. That means that it requires patience, though, which I don’t have much of at the moment. When you come across a new corpse (or some indicator of a former corpse), you get to see a 3D model/flashback of that character’s death. From this snapshot and any other clues you might have gathered, you have to determine the person’s name, cause of death, and (if applicable) killer. It’s rarely obvious, and in most cases you have to recall the smallest of details that were in no way highlighted in a different memory you may have viewed hours ago. If you’re looking for a challenge and the reward that comes with truly solving some mysteries on your own, that complicated process is really cool. When you have a stack of games that you’re trying to catch up on before the next generation of consoles lands, it can be a bit anxiety inducing. So I would definitely recommend it to people, and I will almost certainly go back to it someday, but for now I think I’m going to move on to some spooky games (like Days Gone and some classic Castlevania games) to celebrate the upcoming Halloween season.