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

Best of 2020: Top 15 K-Pop Singles

Lockdowns, quarantines and shutdowns slowed a great many things to a halt in 2020, but they couldn’t quite stop the music, and across the ever-widening scope of Korean tunes crammed under the label of “K-Pop”, there was plenty to get excited about. A lot of the best tracks this year released without the slick music videos that would qualify them for the ninth edition of this list (!) – we will get to the album B-sides of 2020 in short order, fear not – but the headliners still provided just enough quality to make for a top fifteen that I really enjoy. You might too, particularly if you enjoy the kind of synth-heavy 1980s throwback sounds that the industry regularly utilised this year.

I must send my apologies to the boy group stans out there – this is the first time ever that the list hasn’t featured a single male voice in the top five. That’s probably a teensy bit tied to the fact that this is also the first K-Pop list I’ve ever written without a single entry from SM Entertainment – Oh how far we’ve come.

As always, a quick shout-out to the 2020 Korean releases that definitively slap but don’t qualify for the list’s criteria: ChungHa’s funky jam Dream of You (with R3HAB), Eden’s LEEZ team-up Paranoid, and BVNDIT’s  gloriously cheesy Cool are all exclusively in English (with the latter also breaking my one-song-per-act rule); THAMA & SOLE’s chilled masterclass Google Map does not have a music video (nor is it a B-side), putting it in technical no-man’s land; and the sensational K-RnB giga-collaboration Automatic Remix is over 15 minutes long so there’s no way I’m talking about it here.

Another massive shout-out to the community of This Week in K-Pop‘s Stankpop podcast, which just finished its first full year of shows under the new call-in format. Without their vast and illuminating tastes, this 2020 list would have been a complete shambles. Anyway, get your headphones on, crank up the volume and let’s get into it.

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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. I Can’t Stop Me – Twice

We start without wasting time – Here’s an immediate hit of that ’80s sound with which this past year seemed infatuated. Constructed by an eclectic mix of international producers, the synth-loving headliner to Twice’s excellent 2020 full album puts the light and breezy energy the group brings so consistently to use over a slamming stadium beat that only briefly gives way to the omnipresent industry trap sound. Can’t Stop Me‘s oddly thin vocal production isn’t the top-drawer stuff you often get with Twice (see the group’s recent collaboration with the League of Legends team) but the rest of the song’s parts more than make up for it.

14. Ohio – Crush

In this house we sure do enjoy a bit of experimental percussion, and Crush’s Ohio is ear-catching from moment one. Like a controlled tumble of wooden toys looping forever, the crunch of this beat is set in perfect contrast to some of the smoothest pipes in K-Pop – each half of the song enhances the effect of the other. The encroaching piano seals the two halves together, only dropping out twice to let some more acapella touches breathe over the beat. By the time the bass guitar swells underneath Crush’s falsetto for the final flourish, Ohio has established itself as one of the more successful spicy songs in Crush’s extensive discography.

Click here for more tunes

Best of 2020: Five Special Awards

Got the usual mixed bag here – the same three ultimately meaningless but fun-to-write awards I’ve been unable to fit into any other lists for a few years now, joined by two new ones – and I’m hoping one of the new two has the staying power to return next year. But we will see. Not much more to say on these ones, other than that they’re a bit wordier than they were last year. Here we go.

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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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Best Third-Party Game Publisher

Activision

Do not adjust your screens; they’ll still take your money any way they can (as will any of these companies) but due to the widespread delays and unique challenges of game development in a pandemic, the infamously small-output habits of the modern-day Activision did not come off quite as cynical in 2020 as they have in recent years. EA’s only decently-received new release of note was Star Wars Squadrons, although they did make a few unusually consumer-friendly moves by leading the pack on cross-platform play throughout the year and adding their services to Xbox Game Pass by year’s end. Bethesda had to make do with just Doom Eternal and an expansion for The Elder Scrolls Online before ending the year as a Microsoft first-party studio. Capcom essentially only had the Resident Evil 3 remake; Konami stayed disappointingly dormant; and Focus Home Interactive was understandably unable to back up their stellar 2019 efforts. Ditto for 505 Games, although Journey to the Savage Planet is rad.

That left five major third-party publishers in the running. 2K Games deserves a mention for at last giving people a decent mainstream golf game in PGA 2K21, as well as bringing almost the entirety of the Borderlands and Bioshock series to the Switch in fine fashion. XCOM Chimera Squad is excellent – as well as cheap – and the Mafia remake wasn’t awful, but the 2K challenge ends there. Sega cannot be discounted in a year where it released the absolutely wonderful Yakuza: Like a Dragon, Sakura Wars and Streets of Rage 4 – not to mention a sequel to Puyo Puyo Tetris – but alas, we move on. Ubisoft was sitting pretty in 2020 thanks to its decision to delay literally every big game in its holster out of 2019, prompted by the poor critical and commercial reception of Ghost Recon Breakpoint. As a result they were able to unleash huge open world adventures Watch Dogs Legion, Assassin’s Creed Valhalla and Immortals: Fenyx Rising in consecutive months despite the pandemic, right after re-launching their much-improved game client Ubisoft Connect. They also launched their own battle royale title Hyper Scape, though opinions differ on that one to be sure.

For me 2020 comes down to two publishers in the end. The crown could quite easily have gone to Square Enix on the strength of its Japanese contingent alone – the Trials of Mana remake gives the Japan-only 1995 SNES classic a properly impressive modern presentation, Kingdom Hearts: Melody of Memory surprised plenty of people with its content, and Final Fantasy VII Remake is a triumph on plenty of fronts. However, despite a thoroughly enjoyable campaign, Marvel’s Avengers has utterly failed to justify itself as an online experience, and the less said about the XIII remake the better. No, the most consistent game publisher of 2020 was somehow Activision-Blizzard. The extremely pretty Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War successfully evokes the variety and value of the first Black Ops title a decade ago; World of Warcraft: Shadowlands has recaptured a ton of lapsed players; and Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time proved that not only is there still an audience for the marsupial mascot in 2020, but you can still make a really good game for that audience. The clincher? Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater 1+2 is simply one of the very best videogame remakes I have ever played.

Runner-Up: Square Enix

Click here for more random awards

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.

Click here to see just how first-world things can get

Best of 2020 Intro

Well a year certainly did happen this year, didn’t it?

You’ve probably already seen, heard and read enough pithy lines about 2020 to form your own top ten list of sub-divided top ten lists, but luckily for you I’m really only interested in the good stuff that released throughout the year to entertain you. You know, if you could play it. Or watch it in one 90min-3hr sitting. Or listen to it. If it was Korean. That’s the stuff I’ll be spending the next ten days talking about on this site, anyway. I promise nine out of ten lists will focus on the positive. We just have to get the whiney stuff out of the way tomorrow, then its all good and straight on to 2021.

Join me for one list, some lists, all of the lists even, if you want. Have a great day.

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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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A Whole Lot of PS5 & Xbox Series Launch Impressions

2020 began with the promise that the next generation of mainstream videogame consoles (and by extension PC hardware) would at long last grace our homes by its end. At multiple points throughout this year, such a promise seemed about as far from reality as conceivably possible. The stop-start hype cycle, packed as it was with guesswork and noise, was nothing short of exhausting. Yet here we are. Despite two distinctly bitter flavours of worldwide preorder drama, the PS5 and the dual-threat Xbox Series exist in real life; they are out there in the wild and after almost two weeks spent with each, I’m here to talk about how they look out of the racing blocks. Strap yourselves in – this is a big one.

Seven years ago I posted a similar article comparing the PS4 and the original Xbox One. In many ways that feels like yesterday, but going back over it in preparation for this round I was struck by just how many shiny plates were spinning on both sides of the main home console divide in 2013. Gimmicks and talking points abounded: futuristic Kinect voice commands and hand gestures running on a tile-based solid-colour Windows 8 interface versus PS Vita remote play, the abandonment of Sony’s trusty “cross media bar” and Playstation’s most radical controller shake-up ever. Both consoles felt functionally fresh and experimental. They were missing key features their predecessors had taken for granted and neither one showed any interest in backwards compatibility with older-generation games, but at least in those first few months there was a sense that each cut had made way for something tangibly new.

Which is why that launch also feels like a hundred years ago. The still-young gaming industry has continued to change in many ways since 2013, and the feverish year of marketing and punditry behind us would have you believe there’s a growing ideological gulf between Microsoft and Sony. But the dawn of the ninth home console generation has a somewhat surprising streak of quiet confidence about it. Make no mistake: The PS5 and the Xbox Series X feel like marked leaps ahead for the home console experience, and they are quite different despite clearly learning lessons from one another during the last go-around. But neither Sony nor Microsoft has come off looking quite as insecure about it this time around.

Clash of the Titans

Let’s start by talking about the elephants in the room. It’s been well-documented (love an understatement) that 2020’s new boxes are a bit on the large side, but much like the pocket-friendliness of last year’s Nintendo Switch Lite didn’t hit home until I held it, the stature and weight of the Xbox Series X and PS5 feels like little more than a meme – until you actually have to try and fit them into your entertainment setup. I distinctly remember transitioning from PS3 to PS4 painlessly because they shared identical cabling and a similar stature, but the PS5 is so gargantuan that the tape measure had to come out more than once during the multi-hour entertainment unit reshuffle it demanded.

Visually the PS5 looks like it belongs firmly in the middle of the 2000s, right next to the lightly-toned, vertically-marketed day-one model Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii. Despite being larger than both combined, it would’ve fit right in among that semi-space-age design trend. It marks a huge departure from the last decade of flat, straight black lines that aim to draw attention away from the consoles they adorn, arriving instead with a weighty form factor wearing a brilliant white coat, collar popped like it was made by a company that just sold 100+ million PS4s. It doesn’t care that it needs a chunky (included) stand for stability; it wants to be the first thing anyone looks at in your living room.

CLICK HERE TO KEEP READING, BUT THERE’S A LOT.