Best of 2020: Top 10 Disappointments

Take a number, get in line.

Tired jokes aside, 2020 was certainly packed with negative news, and that gave me plenty of time to think about this list. Some of the truly heinous things that went on in the world of entertainment media this year made my usual first-world vents seem truly pathetic. But at the same time, the word “disappointment” feels like it’s nowhere near strong enough to describe them. So I ran with that; I tried to think about the whiniest things that specifically pissed me off about entertainment media in 2020, just to make it clear as day how what kind of pettiness this list is all about. This is the result.

In other words, it’s only slightly different from the normal annual list. Now let’s purge the negativity so we can move on.

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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. The Impossible Game Delay

No, I’m not talking about Cyberpunk 2077 – delays have become an expected part of CD Projekt Red’s games even in years without pandemics going on. And because there was, in fact, a pandemic going on this year, I’m also going to give a break to the two games that continue to frustrate me with their ongoing lack of release news, Roller Champions and Samurai Gunn 2. Nope, the only game with a significant enough delay to qualify for this list is none other than Halo Infinite.

If you were lucky enough to get your hands on an Xbox Series X this year, you would have noticed the giant Infinite artwork splashed across the back of the box. You might even have seen some merchandise around the place – mugs, action figures, Nerf guns – all emblazoned with the Master Chief and some even including DLC codes for the game. Delaying Halo Infinite from its position at the centre of the Series X launch lineup was supposed to be impossible, yet the mad lads did it anyway. It was the right call, which is why it’s at the bottom of this list; the game’s July gameplay debut undershot expectations so much it became a meme. But boy, did it take the wind right out of Xbox’s sails.

9. Good Ninjas Hide From Players

Remember Ninjala? The free-to-play Switch game that looked like a Splatoon spin-off with charming ninja-themed character designs? Oh it’s still going, don’t worry – it’s even got itself a devoted community. But if this is the first you’ve thought about the game since its disastrous late May launch, that would make two of us.

The stage was set for Ninjala to take over the lives of many a Switch player. Nintendo, as a Japanese company, was feeling the effects of the pandemic more than most companies in the gaming space at the time, and had almost no first-party game releases announced for the rest of the year. A colourful free-to-play title with that Nintendo-style polished looked was just the ticket for quarantine. But actually playing the game was easier said than done. I had no success getting into any of the scheduled beta sessions, and reactions on Twitter soon turned merciless. This was mere days before the Borderlands, Bioshock and Xenoblade avalanche, mind you, so it wasn’t long before there were plenty of things to play instead. I haven’t seen any of my Switch friends online playing Ninjala since.

8. The Melancholy Mystery of March 31st

For all we know, this will all make sense to us when the fateful day actually arrives; for now, though, Nintendo’s decision to put a handful of games and services up for limited sale until March 31st 2021 is utterly baffling. At the time of writing, you can buy yourself the Super Mario 3D All-Stars collection and the first-time-officially-localised OG Fire Emblem: Shadow Dragon & the Blade of Light, then hop into the Nintendo Switch Online app and play some Super Mario 35 against a bunch of other players. In roughly three months time, you won’t be able to do any of that anymore – and for good measure the servers for the first Super Mario Maker are going down on the same day.

One of these enforced limitations would have been mighty strange (especially the digital sales part) and would seem to indicate an unprecedented push towards artificial inflation of demand. However, the weight of all of them together suggests bigger, more mysterious plans. Yet even if those plans come together, it will be hard to wash away the sour taste of this deliberate, no-doubt-profitable confusion.

7. Crystal Clear as Mud

One of the most promising re-releases from the suddenly rather nostalgic Square Enix was going to be Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles – the formerly Gamecube-locked local multiplayer gem that was slated to release with extensive cross-platform support to give players console and mobile alike proper access to its wonderfully innovative features after almost two decades in obscurity. Other ports of older Final Fantasy games had turned out (mostly) well, so there was reason for hope.

After a delay out of 2019, the game hit in August of this year – without local co-op support of any kind, region-locked online multiplayer, a needlessly convoluted game set-up process, and countless crashes reported all over the world. For far too long the game was literally unplayable down here in Australia. The very idea that you still need a Gamecube, four Game Boy Advances and four proprietary cables to get the best FFCC experience in one room at the time of writing is more than a bit ridiculous, but is it too much to ask for an experience half as good? Apparently so.

6. Direct Division

Hindsight is 20-20, and 2020 was a weird time for online Nintendo Direct presentations. The beginning of the year brought with it the now-expected tradition of feverish Direct speculation, but when January and February came and went without any sign of a proper presentation, it was clear something was up. Then the pandemic hit and the expectations understandably evaporated for a while, but you can’t ever truly hold down the sizable online Nintendo fanbase. Despite the difficulties Japanese game development was facing, the demand came crawling back as Switch players stuck at home wondered what was next. Nintendo eventually obliged with a pretty solid late March Direct – albeit a “Mini” one. Then things got weird.

Though the crisp Indie World presentations throughout the year stayed strong – and the mid-September edition was arguably an all-time great – Nintendo decided that all its first-party announcements for the rest of the year would be standalone Twitter announcements. This left major third party developers to their own kinda-monthly “Partner Showcases”, and the first two in July and August were extremely short at best, rough and blind to their audience at worst. This did not set a good precedent for the later showcases, which did get meatier but lacked the hype and buzz they arguably could have enjoyed if they were combined with those hacked-up Nintendo game news drops. I know I’m not alone in hoping this was a year of experimentation and nothing more.

5. Mulan’s Misfire

There weren’t all that many new movies to be disappointed about in 2020, but Disney wasn’t about to let another live-action cinematic remake slip too far beyond its original marketing slot this year, so we had a reliable candidate to chew on after all.

Now don’t get me wrong – a disappointment is only a disappointment if you have expectations, and unlike a fair few (much smarter) friends of mine I was fully ready to buy into the significant changes this remake was bringing to the decades-old animated Mulan. I didn’t want another Lion King – which hadn’t changed nearly enough from the source material – and the new characters / altered origin story made me hope for a fun reimagining of the original folk legend. But alas, what I got was a worse version of the Aladdin problem; an indecisive blur with some cool moments and almost no confidence in what animated moments to remake versus which to cut. A film in two minds will usually just end up feeling heavily diluted, and Mulan is no exception. Meh.

4. The World’s Most Violent Embargo

Way back in June, as hype for the long-awaited sequel to the superlative The Last of Us kicked into its final phase, something seemed unusually flat about the whole event. Reviewers and enthusiasts were only allowed to talk about the gameplay, the audiovisual presentation, and our protagonist Ellie’s early moments in the story. As a result, I have never seen so many reviews saying so many of the exact same things, and the vibe I was getting was of a straightforward revenge story made noteworthy only by its sickening violence and the technical fidelity of its visuals. Right in the middle of 2020, it was hard to imagine a less appealing pitch. One or two frustrated podcast comments about the unprecedented strictness of the embargo were my only hints that anything else was worth discussing. I almost didn’t play the game.

There are other things adjacent to this game that could have qualified for this list all on their own – the entire game leaking online a fair way out from launch comes to mind. The Last of Us Part II is carried by its story, so that could not have been easy for the huge team behind the project to swallow. But I don’t think an ironclad grip on discussing anything beyond the game’s front cover was the way to respond. Sure, I got to experience the full force of the story’s risky twists and turns, but plenty of others didn’t – at least not until they’d heard an out-of-context spoiler or two floating around, or better yet a completely incorrect assumption that was only allowed to spread because no-one who’d actually played the game was allowed to refute it. The embargo unwittingly helped to poison the discourse around one of the most fascinating sequels in the history of videogames, and discussing videogames is like, my favourite thing to do. But we’ll come back to this one before the year is over, don’t worry.

3. Chief Can’t Master PC

Oh hi again Halo.

I made the decision early on in 2020 to devote a large chunk of my writing time and energy to a year-long retrospective of Halo campaigns. If you’ve stopped by this site at any time this year, that situation would’ve been hard to miss. With Infinite on the (originally much closer) horizon, the gradual release of Halo games on PC – most of them for the first time ever – throughout the year seemed like my best chance to change my relationship with the series from multiplayer-only to full-on fan. After getting through Halo Reach, I decided it’d be cool to play the rest of the campaigns in two-player online co-op with an interstate mate.

From that day on, there was barely a single session we played together without some sort of issue getting in our way. Sudden surprise patches that took hours to install. Volume issues that refused to make sense. Regular and inexplicable stuttering that swapped players every time we restarted. In the case of Halo 2, we literally could not link up and play together until I switched from the Windows Store version of the game to the (full-priced) Steam version – though the smaller issues persisted afterwards. Towards the end of the year, it became increasingly difficult for us to line up our schedules for a session, yet some nights we just had to abandon the idea altogether on the back of technical issues alone. Sometimes the strangely compelling inconvenience of troubleshooting on PC is just plain frustrating.  

2. Sony’s Broken Telephone

I’ve already gone into needlessly granular detail about some of the ways that the Playstation 5 has fallen short of expectations at and around its launch, and after that giant post went live I’ve continued to run into bugs and issues that keep me on my toes. But to some extent, these are to be expected; this is a new console looking to start from scratch after years of relative PS4 stability, and making it to market in 2020 would have been plenty challenging no matter how you look at it.

But the messaging! Throughout 2020 the way the Playstation PR team went about revealing PS5 details was incredibly irritating – especially to a lover of speculation like myself. The original reveal of the console’s existence in a pre-COVID Wired interview was more of a harbinger than the weird aberration we initially thought it was. That infamous Mark Cerny presentation from early this year may have been a wealth of fascinating conceptual info, but it was dry, relatively inaccessible to the average viewer, deliberately vague about hardware specs, and the only dose of PS5 info we had for a long time.

When we did eventually start getting to the meaty stuff, the details that trickled out from Sony were almost always later and less clear than those from its primary competitor. Microsoft was first with box imagery, tech specs, price, launch lineup documentation, preorder info, and two separate rounds of hands-on press coverage; each morsel came accompanied with graphs and/or FAQs to boot, and the Xbox social media team was landing triple-backflips the whole time. Meanwhile Sony let us all freak out unnecessarily over the limits of the PS5’s backwards compatibility for months, dropped a PS4 remote play app without warning the week of the console launch, stealth-dropped the online preorders for the console and didn’t tell us Demon’s Souls was a launch title in its final trailer presentation.

Some of these moments of prolonged silence may have been due to the relative inferiority of the PS5 compared to its competition in certain areas (e.g. its HDMI 2.1 limitations, lack of current VRR features or support for 1440p output). But plenty of the things we didn’t hear about are perfectly fine or even really cool, such as that PS4 remote play app. Challenging year or not, I can’t help but think the Playstation team made some of these communication decisions just to get people talking, or even just because they knew their market share lead in the PS4 era was so large they can afford to let Microsoft take the opening spotlight for the majority of a calendar year. Time will tell how much this stance will or will not hurt them in the long run, but my memory is long enough that the idea of a cocky Sony does not fill me with joy.

1. Tenet Terrifies Hollywood

What a strange, strange year for movies this has been. When the March tide washed over the world and theatres began to shut down, the reactions from different Hollywood studios were diverse, chaotic and quite panicked. Some moved their digital distribution plans forward a bit; some opted to act early and add movies to digital platforms at cinema-like high prices; most, however, made a beeline for the “Delay All” button. Throughout the year, we saw experiments like the Premium Access model for Mulan on top of the Disney+ streaming subscription, but one director with decidedly old-school sensibilities stuck true to his convictions about the essential power of the big screen.

Christopher Nolan insisted that his next big feature Tenet would go big or not go at all. Warner Bros obliged; it would release the film in as many cinemas as it could get away with, and there was a sense that if it could attract people back to the cinema in August, the likes of Wonder Woman 1984, No Time to Die, and Black Widow would soon follow. It did release, and while it performed pretty well considering how rampant the pandemic was in its major markets, it fell well short of the expectations of the studio. Because of course it did – there were legitimate health concerns at every screening. And so everything was delayed again. Except The New Mutants – Fox just wanted to see the back of that one.

The videogame-themed lists you will see on this site over the next ten days were pared down from mountains of options; the same goes for the K-Pop ones that seemingly continue to get views from everyone except my friends. But Hollywood’s collective way of thinking this year has left the movie column rather thin, held together with scraps. Streaming services have stepped up somewhat to fill the void with a few gems and perhaps even saved 2020, but I can’t help seeing this year in film as the worst since I started this blog.

Did I mention this list would be petty?

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Honorable Mentions

–Riot Makes Me Sick

This one’s entirely personal, and it’s been coming for a while. After a few years of dipping my toes into first-person shooters using mouse and keyboard on PC – and never feeling great afterwards – I made it mere minutes into the tutorial of Riot Games’ highly-anticipated Valorant before feeling like my insides were the wrong way around. Turns out after all these years I do in fact get motion sick from mouse and keyboard controls, and it’s only getting worse. Guess I can never be a real gamer, fam.

–Dongkiz go generic

Groups changing their conceptual identity after a couple of releases is hardly unusual in K-Pop, but seeing the most promising rookies of 2019 completely drop their irrepressibly weird energy and trade it in for a suite of stock-standard static gazes into the camera was a cynical gut punch all the same. I get chasing that sweet mainstream audience, but there are just way too many groups out there doing the same thing. It was fun while it lasted.

–No, maybe don’t fire Sakurai

You didn’t think I’d let this annual list go by without complaining about a part of the Nintendo fanbase did you? Yes, believe it or not, Byleth from Fire Emblem Three Houses did actually release as a Smash Bros DLC character (very early) this year, and that was not a popular choice to put it lightly. But the way you’d see some of those comments and videos carry on, you’d think game director Masahiro Sakurai had just murdered thousands of families. Come on, people.

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