Top Ten Retro Themed Games of 2020
Man, this has been a year. Anyone who's still sane enough to twiddle their thumbs has been desperate for both quarantine-friendly activities and simple, raw distraction from the state of things. It is no surprise, then, that a great many of us have leaned into
Man, this has been a year. Anyone who’s still sane enough to twiddle their thumbs has been desperate for both quarantine-friendly activities and simple, raw distraction from the state of things. It is no surprise, then, that a great many of us have leaned into video gaming like a plant leans toward the sun… with great need in our hearts. Sure, in a tiny way that might be depressing, but we’re trying to survive here. We do what we can. We do what we must.
We play video games. Don’t bug us about it.
As per the yearly protocol, our fearless leader has given us our marching orders and asked us to furnish our usual top-ten lists. I have done my best to compile for you a list of the best retro-themed games from this year. There weren’t a metric ton of titles released in that vein in 2020, but it was certainly quality over quantity. This spread was gathered from Steam, the Epic store, consoles, etc. in as broad a swathe as possible. If the graphics, play style, or just the feel qualified as retro, it went in the pile to be sorted. If you feel I’ve misplaced a game in the order, feel free to email me and bury a battle-axe in my buttocks, but it was hard to put the ten titles that survived the cut into an hierarchy, because any one of them could have been numero uno on this list. All ten are worth playing if you haven’t. Here goes!
Special thanks to Shini, Eric, and my other friends who helped me gather data on short notice out of the goodness of their hearts. I haven’t been on top of industry news (or my NRW email) this year because of everything else that’s been going on, so it was a blessing to be able to call on you for help. You answered it, and I am deeply thankful.
#10 Star Renegades
Developer: Massive Damage
This one is only so low on the list because its play style may not be for everyone, but it’s an amazing game and should not be overlooked. SR blends real-time strategy, traditional RPG, and roguelike elements into a cutting-edge yet retro-as-hell cocktail. The game is so pretty, and I also enjoy the mechanics for combat. While there is a storyline, many elements are procedurally generated as in a roguelike, so the replay value is insane. The only thing keeping this title from more mainstream popularity is its relative involvement level and complexity, as well as considerable difficulty. You could play it casually, but it’s “not for casuals.”
Developer: Arsi Patala
This game does two things right for a retro-FPS title. First off, it pays homage to its ancestors left and right without just being a clone or copy. Second, it completely kicks ass. Ultrakill is violent, colorful, action-packed, and just complex enough to provide some variance to the one thing you showed up for: VIOLENCE. The visual style, at its core, reminds me immediately of Quake II, and there isn’t a thing wrong with that because it travels in its own unique direction. Combine this with creative gameplay elements (you bathe in your enemies’ blood to regain health!) and a veritable crucible of clever FPS challenges throughout, and you have something the younguns and the greybeards like me can all appreciate. Ultrakill is a love letter to its own lineage, and it’s the most heartfelt, blood-soaked love letter one could hope for.
#8 Rogue Legacy 2
Developer: Cellar Door Games
The sequel to an already-amazing game, RL2 improves upon what its predecessor did and further blends the hardcore nature of the roguelike with dynamic gameplay to appeal to a wider audience of gamers. It has a cute look to it, a good balance of complexity and simplicity in its RPG-esque elements, enough randomization to spice things up, and an engaging platform-style base mechanic that is approachable without being too easy. You can tell a lot of love went into RL2, and it’s not just standing on its prequel’s head to look taller… it’s a wonderful game and it’s worth looking at in its own right. I especially enjoy how the sense of pervasive danger combines with the cartoonish art.
Developer: Polygon Treehouse
Röki puts a strong focus on adventure, exploration, and puzzle-solving… but it is also such a fucking pretty game to look at. There is also a strong emphasis on story, which is conveyed through lovingly-animated and delightfully well-written cinematic sequences. Impatient gamers may think it moves too slowly, but Röki’s distantly related to those LucasArts story-games that so many of us adore. I risk sounding pretentious by saying this is a game for people who enjoy a little thinking. Beyond that, it has a distinct style and a very meaningful story to tell. If you’re looking for a change from the more prevalent smash-cut style of adventure game, Röki is essential for you.
#6 Streets of Rage 4
Developers: DotEmu, Lizard Cube, Guard Crush
We all remember the classic series of beat em up games Sega released for the Genesis. Colorful, exciting, and full of brawling action. This fourth installment is an appreciative and respectful revival of everything you loved about the original SoR series. The graphics are far more comic book than video game, but they are lovely and the animation is just as splendid. Blaze and Axel return along with some new friends to once again take the fight to the garishly-garbed punkers and miscreants wandering the city. Tiny elements of other classic fist-and-foot 90s gold finds its way in (for instance, you can get points for beating the shit out of a junked car, a shout to SFII’s bonus rounds). While SoR4 isn’t a truly new idea, it’s a very valuable and enjoyable re-imagining of a franchise we all hoped would eventually show itself again. It has not failed to impress.
Developer: Easy Trigger Games
This brutal indie action game will have you believing you’re playing it on a Sega Genesis. Gritty yet popping with color and flash, Huntdown places you in a dark near-future chock full of neon and blood. The pixel-based art is exquisite and the gameplay is like if NARC or the RoboCop video games were actually fun to play. I must comment on one striking element: the amazing voicework and sound effects seem to converge with the game’s lower-tech visual feel instead of clashing with it. Throw in a simple but very entertaining storyline along with well-placed cinematic storytelling transitions, and you have a game that will appeal to any diehard fan of run-and-gun scrollers.
#4 Spelunky 2
Developers: Mossmouth, Blitworks
The sequel to an equally wonderful platform adventure game, Spelunky 2 hands the story over to the next generation of explorers as they explore the Moon’s interior on the hunt for their lost kin. There is a ton of variety, and not just because of procedural generation. You’ll find yourself consistently intrigued and challenged by new and weird environments, as well as tested by various threats along the way. I also like any game that features non-annoying tutorials, and I must say that Spelunky 2’s is just what it should be. Plus you get pets! I’m all about that.
Developer: Phobia Game Studio
This shit is my jam. Reverse-horror is a genre I could stand to see more of, no matter how much we already have of it. Carrion knocks it out of the park. Immense detail and a slew of wise design choices make this game difficult not to enjoy. It’s even fun to watch, because it’s almost framed like a horror/sci fi film. There is no escaping Carrion’s atmosphere, and crawling around eating terrified humans as a sentient bio-waste monster never really gets stale. This one’s another example where the sound is higher-fidelity than the pixel graphics, again to excellent effect. So little needs explanation, despite the concept being an unusual one in so many ways. Carrion is wrapped in a neat, blood-stained package for you to pick up and discover your inner monster.
#2 Death and Taxes
Developers: Placeholder Gameworks, Pineapple Works
An incredible, unique story in the form of a game, Death and Taxes features an incredible narrative told with an irreverent but gentle sense of humor. In this puzzle/simulation title, you are Death, the Grim Reaper. As it turns out, your job is more of an office grind than a constant scythe-toting hunt for souls, and the lives and deaths you govern form your paperwork. In Death and Taxes, your decisions directly affect the rest of the story in such a complex fashion that the game has at least 30 possible endings. Its image-by-image style speaks to the oldschool story games that were popular on the PC-98 and Sharp x68000 computers in the 1990s. What’s different is the amazing artwork style and the fluidity created by the nuanced story design. Along with Röki, This is one for the thinkers… but it’s also lovely if you just like games that bother to tell a story.
Developer: Thunder Lotus Games
“Spiritfarer is a cozy management game about death.”
Not my words. That is how the developer describes this fucking unspeakable work of high art. And they’re not being cute or edgy. In Spiritfarer, you play the skipper of a ferry that takes the souls of the dead to the hereafter. The art and visuals for this game are matched by its lovely dialogue and engaging management-based activities. You feel very much like you’re part of the meaningful story being told, and yet the game’s focus is mostly on its themes and message, not you. You’re a cast member, not necessarily the star, and you won’t mind at all because Spiritfarer isn’t just a game. It’s high art. Play this and get lost in it.
2020 has been a son of a bitch. Here’s hoping 2021 is brighter and better. I am proud of all of us for making it through, and I sincerely hope all of you NRW readers have a delightful holiday season full of love and merriment.
Oh, and stay retro!