So Let’s Talk About E3 2021…

Deep down, we all knew it had to happen.

Only a full E3 show would get me writing agai

Something had to give. Following on from a year without the traditional Los Angeles summer videogame hype extravaganza – a year peppered with spread-out morsels of tasty videogame announcement news carrying a considerably lower combined profile due to the all-consuming effects of a global pandemic – the Electronic Entertainment Expo returned in June 2021 more electronic than ever. This time, it was all-digital, all the way; and after so long for fans in the proverbial desert, the inevitable had to happen. Millions of gaming pundits lined up to sate their thirst, and plenty set their expectations into overdrive.

And who could blame them?

Like many things in life, the global pandemic rendered the gaming events of 2019 a distant memory. Way back then, we were wondering how relevant a trade show like E3 truly could remain in a world where major game publishers were growing increasingly confident following the example of the revered Nintendo Direct model, holding their own digital news events on their own time. Discourse was shifting steadily towards questioning its very existence; but fast-forward to 2021 and the benefits of a concentrated week of hype are now abundantly clear. Lots of eyes, lots of Twitter accounts, lots of people who want to want things, all looking in one place; in greater and more idle numbers than ever before.

Too Many Cooks

Not Enough Recipes

But the industry isn’t magically positioned as it was five years ago just because a legion of fans feel nostalgic for a bit of LA-flavoured normalcy. Understandably, not every big company was ready to march to the beat of the notoriously difficult ESA, E3’s governing body. Traditional E3 heavyweights Sony and EA decided their plans did not line up with a mid-June blowout – as they have for the last three years at least – and even a considerable pack of parched players was not enough to change that. But the opportunity was there, and so the ESA made the call to bolster the size of the event by widening its arms.

The ESA began to rope in the increasingly numerous satellite showcases from recent years with a history of capitalising on residual mid-June excitement, making them officially a part of the E3 lineup. And so the likes of the PC Gaming Show, Guerilla Collective showcase, Future Games Show, and yes, Devolver Digital all suddenly had pride of place on official E3 Twitch and YouTube feeds – complete with lead-ins by well-known games media voices on a souped-up soundstage. What’s more, without a traditional show floor to show off their typically limited wares, some familiar publisher names decided to add their clout to the ever-expanding roster and pivot to a conference/showcase format.

Whether or not they had anything new or noteworthy to show off.

CLICK FOR MORE E3 HOT TAKES

My New Favourite Marvel Movie Watch Order

At just about any given moment, as certain as death and taxes, someone in the world will decide that it’s time for another Marvel movie watch-through. And even though we are currently in the middle of our longest wait between MCU films since 2010, I’d wager that choice of activity is still outrageously popular thanks to a certain ongoing world event. Even though I did a reasonably comprehensive rewatch-and-ranking in 2018 (and my feelings on each film remain mostly the same), in the middle of last year I too succumbed to the itch thanks to all the lockdown business going on and my sister’s newfound interest in going back over what she’s missed / didn’t remember from the MCU.

However, much like with the Star Wars films for decades now (not to mention a metric ton of TV series), opinions are divided as to the best overall order in which to experience the MCU. Luckily the consensus seems relatively strong that if it is your first time through the movies, the original release order is probably still the best for you. Probably. But if you’ve seen more than half of the movies already, or even just the major Avengers ones? Different story. Google “MCU watch order” and you won’t run out of different options, each backed by its own set of perspectives and rationale. So here I am, adding to that pile with my own two cents – with mere days to go before the first Marvel Studios-branded canon TV show lands on Disney+ and reignites the debate over all the existing TV shows’ place in the experience.

Needless to say some experimentation was involved here; inspired heavily by a daring attempt at re-ordering the films by Studiobinder, a couple more salient points I found on articles I now seem unable to find again, and my own long-held issues with the timeline. Like virtually every musical playlist I’ve ever made, it was tweaked several times on the page; but the order you see here is the one we followed for this watch-through. The whole thing took a little over two weeks, with some days heavier on watch time than others. Even though I wasn’t present in the room for every movie this time, my brother often was for an additional perspective; and by this point I’m quite familiar with each and every MCU movie anyway. Feedback was readily available. The order is based on the chronological framework but packs some significant differences aimed at smoothing out thematic transitions and enhancing big moments.

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Best of 2020 Closer

Well now I guess we’re in 2021. While that isn’t magically going to solve all of 2020’s problems, it will reset the multiple arbitrary counters in my mind and allow me a little while to play/watch/listen to things that don’t absolutely have to go onto a pile for consideration towards the next annual countdowns. It sounds silly, but that feels like a massive load off at the moment. I hope the calendar reset has, in some small way, made you less stressed as well.

Anyway, here’s all the good stuff from last year:

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1. Top 10 Disappointments

2. Five Special Awards

3. Top 15 K-Pop Singles

4. Top 10 Movie Characters

5. Top 10 Game Consoles

6. Top 10 Movie Scenes

7. Top 10 Gaming Moments

8. Top 10 K-Pop Albums

9. Top 15 Games

10. Top 10 Movies

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Best of 2020: Top 10 Movies

Just one more day of 2020 left, so it’s perhaps fitting that this series of countdowns ends with the list most affected by the year’s defining pandemic. Finding good new movies in 2020 was a tall task throughout most of the year due to the ongoing game of film studio chicken going on overseas, but streaming services did just enough to hold us over with their own exclusive releases until the flurry of bigger-name films began to hit around mid-to-late October – only accelerating from there. For a long stretch of the year I was seriously considering reducing this list to a more casual top five, but in the end I was just about able to scrape together a full list.

A quick thing I realised while finalising this list: I saw way fewer movie trailers this year than any before it; and while that probably means I missed some movies I might’ve checked out otherwise, I really think it improved my actual watching experience for quite a few of them. Just a thought that came to mind as I was grabbing trailers for this page.

Anyway, it’s time to put 2020 behind us.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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10. Onward

It already feels like years since I watched Onward – 2020 will do that to ya – so all that really stands out to me about it when I look back is that amazing finale. But the rest of the movie is still worth checking out; it’s basically Pixar’s take on a road movie, and even if that well-worn comedy hi-jinks structure feels like a bit of a waste of a really cool fading-magic-world setup, Chris Pratt and Tom Holland give spirited vocal performances backed by Marvel chemistry to keep things engaging. The mythical supporting cast is also good fun to watch while the movie prepares its pile of emotional bricks. Whenever Pixar sets its sights on a family unit, you just have to watch your tear ducts.

9. Mank

This one feels weird to talk about, because I can’t really tell you much of what Mank is trying to say as a story, and I’m sure plenty of old-school Hollywood references soared right over my head; ultimately my enjoyment of David Fincher’s latest film comes down to every layer of production except the deepest ones. The shot composition and period-apt transitions are on-point; the first of two jazz-soaked December 2020 scores by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross (there’s an utterly weird bit of trivia) is just fabulous; and not only is every performance excellent, there’s proper variety in the work of each major player. Lily Collins and Tuppence Middleton steal scenes on opposite ends of the patience scale, Charles Dance commands the movie on the strength of his reaction shots alone, and of course Gary Oldman and Amanda Seyfried take turns making themselves at home within every frame. A case of style over substance that works for me.

Click here to bring the year home

Best of 2020: Top 15 Games

Ah, 2020 – you came, you saw, you reduced us all to the last shreds of our sanity. But my word; you sure gave us some incredible videogames to fill the time.

This past year brought the interactive goods like it was 2017 all over again: the genuine power behind Dreams’ boundless player expression; the frenetic flow of Doom Eternal; the absolute ton of new content in Persona 5 Royal; the revolutionary VR jaw-dropper Half Life Alyx; the shiny systems sandbox of Watch Dogs Legion; the viral push of Valorant; the unreal ambition of Microsoft Flight Simulator‘s return; the grand scale of Immortals: Fenyx Rising; the unlikely success of long-awaited sequels Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, Spelunky 2 and Streets of Rage 4.

We had gorgeous remakes like Resident Evil 3, Demons’ Souls and Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2. We had acclaimed games with laser-targeted niches and actual budgets, like Wasteland 3, Star Wars Squadrons and Nioh 2. We had strategic gems like XCOM Chimera Squad, Gears Tactics and Othercide; amazingly fresh indies like Spiritfarer, Carto, Paradise Killer, The Pathless, Bright Memory and Sakuna: Of Rice and Ruin; hugely successful spin-offs like Minecraft Dungeons and Hyrule Warriors: Age of Calamity. And of course, we had the one and only Cyberpunk 2077.

That’s just the stuff that didn’t make my list.

To qualify a game for this top fifteen I need to have played it for more than five hours and/or finished it, unless it’s multiplayer-focused. That disqualifies a lot of good stuff that I was enjoying but stopped playing early due to interruptions, such as plenty of the games I just mentioned but particularly Ikenfell and Sakura Wars. I also cannot use a 2020 re-release of an old game on a new platform unless I didn’t play the original release at all – This last point means some of the best games released this year (A Short Hike, Pikmin 3 Deluxe, Dragon Quest XI S – all of which you should definitely play) cannot count.

Without further ado, these are my fifteen favourite videogames from 2020. Parentheses indicate where I played each game.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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15. Animal Crossing: New Horizons (NS)

2020’s Animal Crossing: New Horizons really could have gone anywhere on this list; anyone who got involved in that initial two-month wave of communal playing could tell you that as long as it’s got new content to offer, this is less a game and more a daily life activity on roughly the same level of necessity as brushing your teeth. As a result some people will have this in their number one spot while others may forget to even think about it in the GOTY conversation – and so using it as an introduction of sorts to this list just feels right.

I’ve been playing the Animal Crossing games for almost two decades, so I’ve seen plenty of games in the series get away without adding much shiny new content. Though it’d be easy to see New Horizons as simply another addition to that legacy when looking at the right screenshots, the genius of this one is that it takes the opening moments of most Animal Crossing titles and essentially makes them the endgame of this one. You build up day-by-day from a desolate island with a mere campsite to a bustling remote town with a host of diverse facilities – all with the help of a clever new crafting system – and then eventually you get to terraform the island itself. The secret of Animal Crossing has always been about self-expression, but New Horizons takes the concept through the stratosphere.

14. Genshin Impact (PS4/Mob)

This is a weird one, because I played Genshin Impact for eight hours on its PS4 launch day (my laptop was being repaired at the time), then checked in daily over a couple of weeks for no more than the login bonuses, tried the mightily-impressive (sadly cross-save-incompatible) mobile version for an hour or so, then never went back to it. But I just can’t not have it on the main list; this game may be a confusing pitch blending the gacha mechanics of standard free-to-play mobile RPGs with a distinctly skin-deep Breath of the Wild approach to environment design, but in its moment-to-moment gameplay it is something else entirely. It plays more like an action RPG with on-the-fly elemental mixing mechanics that – bizarrely enough – remind me of Starlink: Battle for Atlas. Its cast of characters bring vastly different playstyles to the table and slot into the story interchangeably without consequence – or emotional investment. Genshin Impact somehow feels like both the shallowest and deepest game I played in 2020, and I’m still trying to reconcile that in my head.

Two down, thirteen to go – click here

Best of 2020: Top 10 K-Pop Albums

When you’re locked down at home or the studio, you can write some pretty good tunes. That’s the message the K-Pop industry (and its satellite subgenres) sent to album fans all over the world in 2020. It was an embarrassment of audio riches this year, and I don’t think it’s a stretch to say I listened to a higher percentage of it than in any previous year (thanks again to the great Stankpop community). But I think I’ve proved my point that the state of K-Pop album production is in a better place than it was half a decade ago, so I won’t open the floodgates for honorable mentions like I did last year. Music is of course intensely subjective, but know that every single record on this page comes with my enthusiastic recommendation.

And yes, this is where the SM boys ended up; thanks for asking.

1-3 tracks = N/A

4-7 tracks = mini album

8+ tracks = full album

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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MINI ALBUMS

5. Maria – Hwa Sa

The first MAMAMOO soloist to put out an EP I’ve enjoyed the whole way through, Hwa Sa’s big collaboration-heavy year unleashed Maria as its crown jewel. Brazenly self-reflective in a way not attempted by too many K-Pop group members, Hwa Sa uses her English name as a motif repeatedly throughout the seven tracks, letting in just one featuring artist – DPR Live – on penultimate Salsa-tinged track I’m bad too. The bounteous strings and piano on soaring spiritual closer LMM really sit with you after the mini album is done, feeling like an emphatic answer to the question posed by the diary entry of an introductory track; WHY is the big industrial centrepiece that helps get you there, though, and there’s more sardonic fun to be had within the shifting beats of the Zico-produced Kidding.

4. Jackpot – Elris

Shifting gears to something far fluffier and more energetic; Elris’ fourth mini album is a surprisingly great sugar hit with some serious crunch on hand to substantiate things. The introduction is a brilliantly-constructed 75-second build that might make you wonder why so few producers get their own intros so wrong – it slots right under the title track with ease and improves it out of sight. But the delightful carefree chorus of the headliner isn’t even close to the best thing on the EP, as the three ballad-free follow-ups absolutely fly by. This Is Me is a harmony-rich dose of old-school K-Pop energy that’s honestly just a better song overall (which someone behind the production must have realised, because there’s a well-produced dance video for it). But if the bass and vocals are the star there, Like I Do announces its intention to fill your headphones with delectable bell-chime treble from its first moment. Final track No Big Deal is the mini album’s secret weapon, letting the vapours of its celestial pre-chorus sprinkle over an aloof hook with minimal backing. Colour me mad-keen for the next Elris package.

Click here to let the tunes roll on

Best of 2020: Top 10 Gaming Moments

What a spicy year for videogames this was. I’ll get more into the sheer volume of good ones in a couple of days, but long story short I played a lot of games this year and finished a fraction of them. This gave me a monster of a shortlist for cool moments within those games, and they came in all sorts of flavours. The year brought us gameplay surprises, narrative shocks, and good-old fashioned feelings of accomplishment. Sadly 2020 was lacking in the ‘local multiplayer gathering’ kinds of moments that usually find their way onto this list most years, but we’ll just have to hope 2021 lets us bring more of those back.

Anyway, these are the ten gaming moments I feel like talking about the most this year.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

THERE ARE BIG VIDEOGAME SPOILERS ON THIS PAGE.

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10. Space Infomercials – Journey to the Savage Planet

Every time you return to your ship in the darkly funny commoditised exploration adventure Journey to the Savage Planet, a colourful screen buzzing with over-the-top energy and a yelling voice of some kind awaits you. Sometimes it will show a plot-focused recorded message from the CEO of Kindred Aerospace, the 4th-best interstellar exploration company in the galaxy. But whenever it doesn’t, there’s a randomly-chosen bizarre advertisement with daytime TV vibes to chew on – and I can’t pick just one for this list. Whether it’s the visceral horror of the animated waste Meat Buddy, the purple structure-changing food replacement goo known only as Grob, or the explosion-laden pitch for fictional game Moba Moba Moba Mobile VR v17 (where microtractions are the game), the main adventure always had to take a break whenever one of these came on during my playthrough.

9. Baby Shark… – Maneater

I didn’t exactly love Maneater, but it’s definitely quite a bit of fun at the start, and I wasn’t expecting the weirdly charming low-budget-aquatic-GTA shenanigans to turn so suddenly dark immediately after its extended tutorial. I had a physical reaction when the powerful, confident shark I’d been playing as fell into the clutches of happy-go-lucky villain Scaly Pete; the guy abruptly puts an end to your predatory avatar with one gruesome slash of his knife, revealing that you were pregnant the whole time. As a sneering act of cocky faux-pity, Pete throws the newborn shark into the river, simultaneously revealing that this shark is actually the game’s true protagonist. Then it’s back to the goofy attack-feed-upgrade loop.

Click here for more moments (with some spoilers)

Best of 2020: Top 10 Movie Scenes

We return to the movies, and to a list that’s always fun to write – even, as it turns out, when there aren’t all that many movies to choose from. Because I tried to widen my movie-watching scope to fit what was available this year (especially when it came to horror films and/or films with bad reviews), I feel like I was surprised by movie scenes more than usual; even if that’s all in my head, I definitely get to talk about some real corkers this year.

Quite a few of these scenes are more about execution than narrative surprise, but that doesn’t change the fact that this is always the most spoiler-heavy list of the year. Proceed with caution.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

THERE ARE HUGE MOVIE SPOILERS ON THIS PAGE.

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10. Demon Bear Battle – The New Mutants

Yes, this is a scene that actually happens in the otherwise low-energy, high-angst teen-fiction-esque The New Mutants. Right at the end there is a giant, multicoloured spirit-bear-thing that arrives to destroy absolutely everything – I’m pretty sure it makes slightly more sense in context. The bear immediately solves one of the main problems faced by our principal gang of super-powered misfits, creates a brand-new one straight afterwards, and then proceeds to save the movie. We finally get to see the young mutants act like a team and use their formerly-mysterious powers in tandem, shipping in some emotional payoff where there wasn’t much earlier.

9. The Mall – Wonder Woman 1984

The opening action set-piece of Wonder Woman 1984 is sprawling, dramatic and epic, but it almost plays like its own weirdly unrelated short film. The second one is really something else, though. Anyone who grew up watching live action comic book adaptations of any kind before the turn of the century will find something to cringe at here, from airborne launches that look like they don’t have the budget to cover up the wire work, to cartoony spins as baddies are left in a daze, to Wonder Woman’s centre-frame commercial-ready wink at a wide-eyed child. Oh yeah, and the establishing shots for the scuffle literally start by panning up from a pair of leg warmers, then moving through neon-saturated streets and corridors lined with garish ’80s shoulder pads and perms. WW84 is absolutely in on the joke and the gleeful nostalgia had me grinning in disbelief the whole time.

Click here for more spoilers

Best of 2020: Top 5 Game Consoles

So here we are once again, in the launch year of proper “next-gen” consoles. The gaming world is in a wildly different place than it was in 2013 – as anyone who tried to get a pre-order on one of the new consoles can attest – and while that would’ve been the case even without a pandemic, it’s hard to look anywhere online at the volume of overall console demand in 2020 and call it run-of-the-mill. It feels like the Switch spent the entirety of 2020 breaking sales records, and we seemed to get an apology from a different gaming CEO every month apologising for the lack of some form of hardware stock.

So a few more people have videogame consoles in 2020, but which one had the best feature upgrades and exclusive games this year? Which one felt the most like this was its year? Yep, it’s time for this merry-go-round once again; this is my opinion on the Top 5 Game Consoles of 2020.

No, PC and mobile are not consoles.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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5. Xbox Series X|S

LAST YEAR: N/A

Over the last month and a half I have not been shy about expressing how much I appreciate the new generation of Xbox consoles. They’re so fast to get anywhere or do anything; they’re compatible with mountains of games and accessories; they look sharp and modern; they love being connected to good screens and for the most part, they just work. However, right here at the starting line in 2020, it feels like the Xbox Series X and Series S can’t go anywhere on this list but at the bottom. I’ve always used two main factors to navigate console placement on the year-end list: fresh advances in the world of user features, and exclusive game releases. Microsoft has made both of those things quite irrelevant within the marketing pitch for their new consoles at this point in time, but more on that in a couple of paragraphs time.

I promise they’re great though. I had to pull myself away from playing my Xbox Series X to write this.

Click here for the other four

Best of 2020: Top 10 Movie Characters

2020 was not a great year for movies, or indeed movie-watching. As we’ve already covered this week, several studios spent the year buffing up 2021’s release slate instead. But as long as there are new films trickling out, there will be characters from those films that stick in the memories of those who watch them on a screen. If anything, lower-quality and/or lower-budget movies are more likely to have characters that stand out from their surroundings, so this list wasn’t as difficult to put together as I thought it might be.

A quick note: Here in Australia we get Soul and Wonder Woman 1984 today and tomorrow respectively, so they sadly won’t be able to count for this list if they are hiding a cool character or two.

Also there will be some unavoidable but minor plot spoilers in this one.

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VR BEST OF 2020 DISCLAIMER

This list represents my opinion only. I am not asserting any kind of superiority or self-importance by presenting it as I have. My opinion is not fact. To agree with me 100% is an utterly bizarre coincidence. Respectful disagreement is most welcome.

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10. Black Canary – Birds of Prey

Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) isn’t the ensemble movie that it could have been, which I say is to its detriment – but then again I’m not the world’s biggest Harley Quinn fan. The movie barely manages to tell two coherent DC stories in parallel, but the fact that it does get there is hugely down to the enthusiasm of its cast. On the non-Quinn side of the narrative is the Renee Montoya sick-of-this-shit police tale, which contrasts perfectly with the hilariously awkward wannabe-baddass Huntress (who almost made this list). But if not for the committed performance of Jurnee Smollet-Bell as Black Canary, it’d all fall apart. With a compelling set-up, a handful of cool action beats and one of the most novel approaches to a superhero arc I’ve seen in a film, it’s a shame she doesn’t get more of the spotlight throughout.

9. Roy – Palm Springs

I had absolutely no idea J.K. Simmons was in holiday-themed time loop caper Palm Springs before I caught it’s late digital release down here in Australia. So I was absolutely thrilled when he popped up in what I thought was a cameo, resplendent in full military camouflage paint. Then the movie reveals more of its central premise, and it turns out the versatile star has a whole lot more to do in his role as the gruff, vengeful Roy. A cameo this sure ain’t, as Roy needs to simultaneously sell a laundry list of outlandish visual jokes and one of the finale’s key theme-capping monologues.

Click here to read more