Josh Tolentino’s personal picks for Game of the Year 2020

AKA The Anime Awards

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Here’s a blast from the past: I began my 2019 Game of the Year rundown with the following phrase: “2019 sure was a year, and if I do say so myself, it felt like a pretty strong one for games.”

Oof. If 2019 was a year, then 2020. Was. A. Goddamn. Year. 

It was also a pretty strong year for games, which proved themselves surprisingly important as most people stayed home when they could, and games proved an accessible escape and a tool to connect. 

Anime could’ve played the same role for some, though for me it, once again, largely came down to rewatches of shows best suited to getting to the next day. That’s not to say there weren’t any standouts! On the contrary, the anime of 2020 provided the kind of angry cyberpunk energy some of 2020’s biggest games failed to harness.

So without further ado, my usual silly awards for the best games and anime of 2020. 

Into The Backlog Award for Best Game/Anime I Haven’t Gotten To Yet

Game: Hardspace: Shipbreaker

This year’s backlog award could well be called the “Didn’t know I wanted something like this award” because both of the things that won it could not have leapt into my mind as workable concepts.

First up: Hardspace: Shipbreaker, a game about cutting up derelict spaceships for salvage. It’s almost fitting that the game comes from the team at Blackbird Interactive, who also gave me a game I didn’t expect I’d ever be interested in: Deserts of Kharak, a prequel to Homeworld (one of my favorite games of all time) that was based on the ground of all things. But it worked, and this seems to as well, judging by what I’ve seen.

One day I’ll have a chance to take up the laser cutter myself and put a few old starships out of their misery, but until then, it’s at the top of my to-do list.

Anime: Somali and the Forest Spirit

A great-looking fantasy show with a cheery (but ever so slightly dark) vibe and gorgeous backgrounds? What’s not to get interested in? Perhaps it’s the same outwardly soft and cutesy energy it and Made in Abyss shared that kept it out of my immediate queue, but with the buzz coming in about its true qualities, I’ll soon be ready to give Somali and the Forest Spirit a real look. 

Honorable Mentions: Yakuza: Like A Dragon and BNA (Brand New Animal)

The reason the new Yakuza isn’t up here on my list is I planned to play it on PS5, but like many, the desperate stock situation surrounding the launch of the new consoles has scuppered that plan. Besides, I haven’t finished playing my own full replays of Yakuza‘s 2 through 6, either.

I also slept on Studio Trigger’s new furry anime because, after Beastars and Animal Crossing, I thought I had had my fill of animal friends. That might prove to be a mistake, as the thing seems to be a real feast for the senses. Maybe someday!

Out of the Backlog Award for Best 2019 Game/Anime of 2020

Game: Baldr Sky

Baldr Sky is a bit of a cheat as it was a late 2019 release. The time visual novels demand usually means people not assigned to review them play them on and off for weeks or even months, like a big, thick book. Baldr Sky isn’t just a book, though, because it’s also part 2D mecha shooter, and easily up on my big list of truly enjoyable genre sci-fi (alongside things like Steins;Gate, Legend of the Galactic Heroes, and a game I’ll mention later in the list). 

Anime: Lord El-Melloi II Case Files: Rail Zeppelin Grace Note

Last year I bent my usual anime inclusion rule (“must have ended a run within the year”) to include the year’s big Fate show, Fate/Grand Order: Absolute Demonic Front Babylonia, but Lord El-Melloi II Case Files was seated smack in the middle of the year, and well worth a comfy inclusion. Most Fate shows are big action extravaganzas, full of massive fights and epic moments. Case Files is at heart a detective story, starring the nerdiest man in the Fate multiverse, Waver Velvet.

Honorable Mentions: Death Stranding and Sword Art Online: Alicization

This also might be the first year I actually cleared a game I’ve previously mentioned. In this case, I told y’all I wasn’t done yet watching the latest Sword Art Online arc or putting one foot in front of the other to unite a divided nation, but this year I actually did it, and it was largely worth the effort. Death Stranding definitely didn’t disappoint, though I have to say the conclusion of Sword Art Online and its Alicization adventures, as well as the way the Alicization Lycoris game adaptation largely sidestepped its developments, left me wondering just how much the games and anime have left out from the original novels.

Most Cyber, Most Punk Award for Cyber and/or Punk Games/Anime

Game: Umurangi Generation

Given that I was never particularly a Dreamcast or Xbox kid growing up, I don’t have the connection to Jet Grind Radio and Jet Set Radio Future some other folks my age do. All the same, I felt that energy, that weird, rebellious streak coming through in Umurangi Generation‘s little photography challenges. I’m no shutterbug, and I can’t be bothered to mess with the photo modes in most games, but Umurangi Generation had me like the Shrek with a Camera meme.

Anime: Deca-Dence

The twist in Deca-Dence is the sort of plot turn that a lesser show would hinge its entire run on, and it’s opened up before even an hour’s passed. That’s because what would be a climactic drop of info almost anywhere else is just the beginning for a show that initially presents itself as an entertaining steampunk fantasy romp. In other words, there’s a confidence to Deca-Dence that I wish I would see a lot more of in everything else I watch or play.

Honorable Mentions: Cyberpunk 2077 and Akudama Drive

More of a dubious mention for the biggest implosion of the year. Honestly, how much more can be said about it that hasn’t already been tweeted out a thousand times over? Despite everything – busted technical state, shady manipulation of the review system to bury negative media coverage, and the shitty, sub-GTA edgelord streak to its marketing –  I’m having a decent enough time with CD Projekt’s big new thing. Does it justify any of what’s happened around it? Not really, but it is definitely cyber-looking and so “punk” that it runs against the prevalent culture of trying to release a game that works. 

As for Akudama Drive, I reacted to the initial viewings like I did to the less personally appealing aspects of 2077‘s hype train. I’m glad I stuck around, though, because the latest from some of the creative galaxy brains behind Danganronpa put up a real riot of a show.

Laid Back Camp Award for Comfiest Game and Anime of 2020

Game: Sakura Wars

What’s comfier than warm nostalgia for a game you loved in your high school days? The electric excitement of knowing on some level that the thing you’re nostalgic about is back, baby.

Well, sort of. I’ll be honest, Sakura Wars on PS4 isn’t the best game or even the best Sakura Wars game. But it’s here! And it’s decent! And despite it being not entirely complete (they kind of had to close out some of the loose ends in a follow-up TV anime), it did well enough to make me confident it’s not going to go away again. 

Anime: My Next Life As A Villainess: All Roads Lead to Doom!

When a girl reincarnates into the role of her favorite dating sim’s mean-girl villainess, she decides to avoid the fate of fictional villains everywhere (death and/or exile) by doing everything she can to live well. It’s a simple, even naive message (be good and good things will come), but it can still be so powerful and comforting as a power fantasy, where a girl who does nothing but be the best, kindest version of herself can effectively blunder out of an accursed destiny and become the hero of a story she’s supposed to be a side character in. 

Honorable Mentions: Sakura Revolution and Bofuri: I Don’t Want to Get Hurt, so I’ll Max Out My Defense 

It’s sort of weird to take comfort in a gacha game, which is like taking comfort in losing money at the craps tables, but at the moment, I’m playing the Japanese release of Sakura Revolution, a mobile Sakura Wars spinoff from Delightworks, the people that made Fate/Grand Order. And it’s good! It’s quite pretty, and the story is alright, jumping forward into the far future-present of the game’s weird steampunk alt-history and casting the girls of the Imperial Combat Revue as rebels against a cartoonishly evil government. With a more thoughtful, positioning-based battle system and 300% more forgiving gacha rates (3% for an SSR versus FGO’s 1%), its’ been a nice, casual romp so far.

Meanwhile, the gamer anime Bofuri is all about a silly virtual MMO player who accidentally stumbles on a ridiculously effective character build, one that’s all about not dying or even really taking damage through maxing out defense. Much of the story is about how she and her companions work their way around the inherent limitations of that stupid build (her agility is so low she can’t even run) and barrel their way through a host of tough, pro-level rival gamers through combinations of outside-the-box progression and a lot of dumb luck. Like Villainess earlier in the list, it’s a comforting show thanks to the underlying subtext that just being your weird self can and will lead to happiness and success.

Actual Best of 2020

Game: 13 Sentinels: Aegis Rim

I love Vanillaware’s games, but until this year, nothing they’d made has ever topped their first well-known release: Odin Sphere. 13 Sentinels finally did the deed and did so by being one of the most interesting stories ever launched into the medium, in the middle of a year full of prestige titles and in front of a willing audience with nothing better to do than pick it apart. Even in a year with a decent Sakura Wars and the most powerful nostalgia-bait game ever made, nothing captured me like 13 Sentinels did, which is why it’s my actual best game of 2020.

Anime: Keep Your Hands of Eizouken!

This might not be a surprise coming from someone who has Shirobako as one of his favorite anime of all time, but where the 2017 masterpiece presented creative work as a sort of messy tension between the workaday reality of commercial anime production and the “let your spirit soar” ideals, Eizouken celebrates the work and imagination that goes into making anime, through the lens of a student project taken up by three girls who love animation (or two girls who love animation and their extremely capable producer). Led by Masaaki Yuasa, one of the greatest living creators in anime today, Eizouken‘s a lively, visually stunning celebration of the creative process, and you owe it to yourself to give it a watch if you’re interested in anime as a medium at all.

Honorable Mentions: Final Fantasy VII Remake and Great Pretender

You’d expect Final Fantasy VII Remake to be a nostalgia bomb to top even the most ’90s recreation of Sakura Wars, but it’s frankly shocking how much of this long-in-the-making project feels utterly new. And yet, the fact that it remains in constant, almost obnoxious dialog with its earlier iteration makes me feel like the whole thing wasn’t a waste, but indeed a triumph. I just hope the next installment doesn’t take another decade to make.

As for Great Pretender, it’s another show I didn’t expect could ever work, or at least not in a way that could localize in a watchable way. But it did, and now we have a real good series about no less than a bunch of sleazy grifters. 

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Josh Tolentino
Contributor - When not posting about Japanese games or Star Trek, Josh served as Managing Editor for Japanator. Now he mostly writes for Destructoid's buddies at Siliconera, but pops back in on occasion.