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.

8. Once and For All – Resident Evil 3

For better or worse, the Resident Evil 3 reimagining foregoes many of the more open-ended elements present in last year’s excellent RE2 in favour of a mostly straight-shot gameplay experience that puts Capcom’s famous Nemesis creation front and centre. And to the side. And behind you. You’re never playing this game for very long before the increasingly grotesque mutated monster Jill Valentine thought she killed a couple times already will show up looking for another fight. As Nemesis grows so do the weapons Jill has on hand to defeat it, so it’s fitting that the final battle – where Nemesis just about fills an entire room – sees her charging up a ludicrously gigantic railgun between attacks. When the final shot is ready, the game goes full-on 1980s-action-flick and a considerable amount of animation budget immediately unfolds onscreen – with cathartic results.

7. VS The Tinkerer – Spider-Man: Miles Morales

As a shorter, smaller-scale Spider-Man game than its direct predecessor, Miles Morales cannot give its title character a final fight as ridiculously emotional and climactic as Peter Parker had to contend with two years earlier. But that doesn’t mean the younger webslinger doesn’t crash head-on into the classic Spidey dilemna of sacrificing personal relationships for the sake of his duty: the game pulls some nice surprises with villain identities that work within the context of the story to test Miles’ fortitude. The way the inexperienced hero deals with these twists leads him straight into a tense battle with The Tinkerer; a fresh purple-streaked take on the villain that turns a decent HDR screen into a flashy firework dispenser during the length of this high-rise duel. Crackling orange “venom” lightning slams into dazzling violet waves and metallic mega-gears as the PS5’s controller threatens to jump out of your hands throughout the battle – but you’re likely holding it too tight from the thrill of it all.

6. Stomped – Ori and the Will of the Wisps

The only thing for which Ori and the Blind Forest is arguably more famous than its impeccably-tuned challenge and amazing orchestral score is its emotionally crushing opening – so when the sequel started in noticeably more subdued fashion I was honestly a little surprised. The introduction, growth, loss and triumphant retrieval of new character Ku – a young owl who earns the confidence to fly thanks to Ori – seems to serve as a satisfying arc to lend some gravitas to the sumptuous gameplay progression – then an unfortunate encounter leaves Ku separated from Ori just long enough to meet the embittered avian nightmare Shriek, who takes one look at Ku and – well suffice to say I had the wind knocked out of me after this scene, and had to end my session early that night.

5. Bobby Dies – Paper Mario and the Origami King

Yes you did in fact read that right: a cute character who spends a decent amount of time adventuring with you in a Mario game actually passes away roughly halfway through that game. Beyond one brief ghost-y reference shortly afterwards, there’s no fake-out or weird resurrection on hand either – this Bob-Omb without a fuse or memory retrieves one such fuse for the sole purpose of helping Mario get beyond a devious obstacle at immense cost to his continued existence – but not before bonding with the aloof paper plumber and his endearing heart-on-sleeve companion Olivia. Then he stays dead. For the entire rest of the game. The next plot point even involves lifting Olivia out of the ensuing emotional devastation. Origami King has already shown some inventive structural tricks by this point in the story; but from this point on it truly lifts its game and becomes that rare modern beast – a Paper Mario adventure worth finishing.

4. Ride to Fort Ito – Ghost of Tsushima

I won’t go so far as saying I played another July game wrong (after the mess that was Fire Emblem Three Houses last year), but I ended up so invested in the world Sucker Punch had built for Ghost of Tsushima that I spent a good 30 hours ensuring I uncovered as much of the first-island map as I could. I unearthed all kinds of stories, cleared a pile of enemy settlements, followed so many foxes, and learned the layout of the huge landmass inside-out. Gathering up support for the final castle assault that would free our protagonist Jin’s uncle Lord Shimura felt like it was building up to something special, and Jin basically has an entire character arc on the way. Then the assault/rescue happened, it was special – and then an entirely new island of almost the same size opened up, with some of my previous clearing work undone for good measure. After the largely humour-free exploration effort, I just didn’t feel up to the task. I felt drained. So I took two weeks off from the game.

When I returned to Tsushima, suddenly Shimura – who had only been talked about throughout my adventure thus far – was a real companion, ready to ride alongside Jin in a showy attack on the second island’s first castle. After 30 hours of reasonably diverse terrain, the muddy, storm-backed swamplands was an entirely new type of location. The enemies were now smarter, too. Riding across that mud with Shimura with arrows lining the sky felt like nothing less than the bombastic opening act of Ghost of Tsushima’s very own sequel. Instead of feeling like a forced invitation to clear more camps, it felt fresh; it felt amazing, and it ensured I would finish a game I was in danger of dropping.

3. Cut to Black – The Last of Us Part II

On the preliminary list of 30+ memorable gaming moments to which I’ve been adding options all year, eight of them come from The Last of Us Part II. Yes, eight. To be fair that’s probably mission accomplished for developers Naughty Dog, whose linear narrative-driven games are getting longer and more narratively ambitious with each passing release; they definitely want people to remember their stories. Examples include that white-knuckle snow-borne chase/clicker brawl near the beginning, the brutal forest moment from that teaser trailer all those years ago that introduces Lev and Yara, the Rat King boss fight, and of course that phenomenal dinosaur park flashback featuring Ellie’s astronaut fantasy. But this one moment at the game’s midpoint – this is it. This is the point where the game either lost you forever, or lost you before building you back up. With one shocking appearance of a character, one anguished line of dialogue, and a cliffhanging smash-cut to a black screen, Neil Druckmann and his team ensured The Last of Us Part II would be one of the most hotly-debated videogame sequels in history.

2. Hollow – Final Fantasy VII Remake

Final Fantasy VII Remake also features a host of worthy scenes – mostly in the form of dense love letters to fans of the original game and its universe. Think the full-fat rendering/voicework commitment to the stairs joke near the end, or, I dunno, the entirety of Chapter 9. It builds up a ton of player goodwill and reassurance that this development team cares about the original’s legacy – and then it cashes in on that goodwill at the very end, as earlier seeded hints grow fruit to ensure old players can look forward to the sequel with the same speculative hype as new ones. Some parts of the unexpected story deviation are foreshadowed heavier than others, but this development team can’t seem to resist a good old-fashioned surprise – I let out an audible gasp when an alternate-universe Zack Fair stood battered but very much alive at the end of his battle with Shinra soldiers.

He owns the last moments of the game’s story: while carrying a wiped-out pre-FF7 Cloud on his shoulders, Zack trudges forward across a vast plain – the same plain where our continuity version of Cloud walks in the opposite direction, party in tow. As Aerith passes alt-universe Zack, she seems to react ever-so-slightly, adding to the heap of enigmatic tells she has given throughout the story. Tells for what? Who knows, but while all this is happening we get the opening bars of the game’s only prominent new track Hollownow with vocals from Japanese frontman Yosh. The acoustic bones of the mournful tune begin to build and layer until it’s a full-on orchestral epic – with Nobuo Uematsu’s trademark electric guitar flourish in there for good measure. As I sat there gobsmacked during the elaborately-animated credits, Hollow washed over me in all its glory until Yosh’s pained roar of the title drop (around 4:29 in the link) made me immediately rush to line up another listen on my phone. Wow.

1. Attempt #30 – Hades

The Adamant Rail with Divine Strike, Delta Chamber, Explosive Fire, Blinding Flash, and a bunch more. First clear in a hair under 40 minutes. If you know, you know.

Play Hades.

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Honorable Mentions

–Final Stretch – Superliminal

Before its final half-hour, Superliminal largely makes the decision to let its fresh perspective-powered puzzles stand on their own, with only the loosest of contextual clues. It likely wants to avoid comparisons to stellar confined-room narratives such as Portal and The Stanley Parable, after all. But that final half-hour pulls out all the stops, reducing your relevant available actions down to the bare minimum and changing up environments with steadily-increasing pace to allow its Scottish narrator to deliver a wonderfully evergreen message with maximum effect.

–Counselling Session – Persona 5 Royal

This isn’t the first time I’ve included a moment from a game I didn’t physically play – my brother did, in this case, because I wasn’t going to put another triple-digit hour haul into a story I’ve mostly already experienced – but when I sat down to watch him negotiating a cutscene involving the expanded release’s two major new characters in a counselling room, he turned to me and unloaded a left-field sucker punch in the form of a massive avalanche of entirely-new story context. Then we watched the scene together – and I mean, wow. Atlus does not mess around with their twists.

–Bruce Drops in on Tony – Marvel’s Avengers

Far and away the best thing about Marvel’s Avengers is its campaign, and the best thing about that campaign is its motion capture performances – so suffice to say seeing an estranged pair of former superhero colleagues come together and yell at one another is a real treat when Tony Stark and Bruce Banner are played by Nolan North and Troy Baker respectively. The two actors even had somewhat of a falling-out in real life recently, which adds extra spice to the scene.

–Arcade Level #1 – Moving Out!

Terrible, terrible idea to play a level consisting of one single snaking path in a furniture-moving game with three people. Just awful.

–The Entire Easter Event – Animal Crossing: New Horizons

Well, if nothing else, it united us all with a common emotion.

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