You don't need to have your finger on the pulse of the games industry to have heard about the year's biggest games such as Call of Duty Black Ops Cold War, Watch Dogs Legion, and, of course, the lightning rod that has become Cyberpunk 2077. These games command the zeitgeist like few can.
A notch or two below those are the indie darlings that rose to moderate fame. Hits like Spiritfarer, Hades, and Fall Guys each took a bigger share of the attention pie than many would've predicted.
But what about the games that never really got their time in the sun but totally deserved it? We've been tracking several throughout the year and caught up with a few more. Here are a dozen of the best games you may have missed in 2020.
Platforms: PC, Switch
Every year Annapurna Interactive blows my mind by continuing their streak of never publishing a bad game. Like If Found below, I Am Dead is one of 2020's great games.
This quirky adventure game about being dead has you explore an afterlife with your dog, swirling through the memories of those the dead have left behind like a spoon in hot chocolate. Along the way, you learn who these people were and what kind of legacies they left behind. It's a lighter way to broach the subject than we usually see in games, and ultimately reminds you how we all touch the lives of others even if we don't always realize how.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch
Battle royale has proven to be more than a fad, in part because innovative studios keep rethinking what the genre may mean.
In one of the year's best examples, Spellbreak takes the last-player-standing mode and puts it in a world of spellcasting and elementals very much like Avatar: The Last Airbender. Even better, its first major update, which just launched on December 15, adds story missions to the game, so you'll be questing to uncover more lore in the middle of a battle royale match.
It's sort of uncharted territory even as others have tried to add context to their massive battles. Spellbreak is the battle royale for fantasy fans who'd prefer to trade in their M16 for a fireball.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia
2020 was the year we saw the dam holding back Breath of the Wild's influence on the games industry break. Games like Genshin Impact and Immortals Fenyx Rising borrowed major aspects of the beloved Zelda game and applied them to new contexts. But did you hear about Windbound?
On the surface, Windbound looks like another branch of the Zelda family tree, but it ends up playing quite differently, with a strong and enjoyable focus on survival elements like crafting your boat in every act. That boat soon becomes the symbol of your progress as an adventurer, going from a simple rowboat to a much grander wind-catching trophy of perseverance.
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Animal Crossing got all the glory, but it was actually Ooblets that pushed the farm sim genre forward more than anything in years. The extraordinarily silly game begins with a familiar premise — arrive in a new town and set off to make friends and grow out your farm — but it does everything with a conscious awareness of the casual violence these games normally include.
In Ooblets, turn-based fighting is now dance battling, while fishing is "sea-dangling" for crafting objects. None of the titular creatures are ever put in harm's way, and beneath the adorable language the game has built for itself lies a game with a strong point to make about living in harmony with the beauty around you.
Platforms: PC, Switch
If Found is one of the best kinds of games for your end-of-year backlog. It can be played in one sitting if you define a sitting as about two hours. Using the overarching metaphor of a space explorer, this drama focuses on the experiences of a trans individual as they reflect on what's come before and where they're going next.
It uses an inventive touchscreen mechanic that has players literally wipe away memories, making it a perfect fit for Switch. It's certainly not the lightest story on this list, so maybe it's not the sort of fare you're seeking for a holiday break, but in its brevity, it reveals a ton of heart and could bring forth an empathic response in even the skeptical players.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Stadia
More than the Zelda-likes listed before, the Soulslike genre is one that has already been going very strong for years. For a look at something different but still akin to the brutal tests seen in such games, try Unto The End.
Presented in a cinematic 2D, voiceless world where one man fights tooth and nail to get home to his family, Unto The End demands you master a harsh world of traps and unforgiving enemies at every step — seriously, watch your step! Using bonfires and crafting vital resources, it can feel just as exhilarating as the Souls games even in its new perspective.
Nobody was likely clamoring for a video game based on a decades-old allegory about the Russian Revolution, but Orwell's Animal Farm masterfully reimagines Orwell's classic in a video game context, giving players Reigns-like control over the animals and their titular farm after they overthrow their farmer. How will you lead? Will you head down the same tragic path of the book, find new ways to suffer, or perhaps rise above and deliver prosperity to the herds?
With multiple endings and an excellent audio mix of original music and the narration of Abubakar Salim (Assassin's Creed Origins), Orwell's Animal Farm is an unfortunately timely reimagining of the corrupting influence of power over those who seek to lead.
Speaking of politics, if reorganized classic literature about a farm in revolt isn't your thing, perhaps running your own nation will suffice. In Suzerain, you've just won the election of an imaginary country after decades of political turmoil. Running on a platform of your choosing, this adventure game asks you to balance promises made with the stark realities of politics. Quickly, it's shown just how delicate that balance is.
Suzerain isn't afraid to slow the game to a crawl, which will truly be fascinating for the right players. You literally start each day reading (or ignoring) briefings from departments around your administration. For those who want to simulate a true-to-life career in federal government, with all the highs and lows that may entail, I don't know of another game that captures the process as well as Suzerain.
Platforms: PC, Xbox One
Fans of Edith Finch need to make time for the new name in genre-defying adventure games. The Last Show of Mr. Chardish is about a woman who returns to a theater of great importance to say goodbye to an old friend. What begins in the real world with her exploring halls abandoned by the late playwright soon unfolds as flashbacks through ever-shifting worlds where memories and feelings collide in often beautiful displays.
Though these variable gameplay sections aren't as varied as Edith Finch, their overarching watercolory aesthetic is great and the story it tells in its two to three hours is worth seeing in one go if you've got a free evening.
Platforms: PC, iOS
On the list of games that are kind to their animals, Alba is just behind Ooblets for the best of the year. In this Apple Arcade and PC game, you play Alba, a young girl with a camera and a passion for nature. Exploring a seaside villa on a trip with your grandparents ends up more like a freeform — and even educational — Pokemon Snap.
Photograph the birds that fly by, look out for the elusive lynx, or just snap pictures of the townspeople living their lives. If you like photo modes or games that promote being a supportive citizen of the environment around us, Alba's little girl with a big heart storyline is a warm and fuzzy way to overcome some 2020 blues.
Platforms: PC, Xbox One, PS4, Switch
3D platformers have undergone something of a renaissance lately, with the resurgence of Crash Bandicoot, Spyro The Dragon, and more. One game that understandably didn't get the same love but totally deserves it is Pumpkin Jack.
Though it's best played at Halloween given its spooktacular visuals and setting, the gameplay is solid and fun enough that it's still a great game year-round. Plus, not to spoil anything, but playing it in December may prove timely too. If you long for the days of Banjo-Kazooie and games like it, the solo-developed Pumpkin Jack is 2020's greatest love letter to the era.
Platforms: PC, PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Mobile (iOS)
"How about Peggle but it's a dungeon crawler?" is something no one said until the three-person team at Wonderbelly Games did it. Roundguard is the Peggle 3 EA didn't want to make, and it carries the pinball-esque game forward more than Peggle 3 probably would've anyway.
Using roguelite elements, players bounce around levels very much like the PopCap favorite, only death means it's back to start. But fear not, you'll acquire some bonuses on the way to use game after game, while you see how high you can climb the leaderboards and with which of the game's three different classes. It's Peggle, but deeper, smarter, and often tougher. In short, it's Peggle but better.
Those are some of the best games you may have missed in 2020. Are there any games you think should have gotten more recognition this year but didn't? Let us know what they are in the comments below!