[Special thanks to Callabrantus, Patrick Bartholamew, GameScribbler and Aimee L.C. for their contributions to the creation of this feature.]
This, was difficult. Selecting ten games from the plethora of independent comers in a watershed year for the indie gaming community was made even more difficult because of our desire to showcase those creative and adventurous minds that are helping to break molds and old patterns and often we have to separate the developer from the game and base our decision on the game itself – its playability, narrative, ease of use, originality, execution and not the potential of its creators.
You will notice some very obvious popular choices are also absent from this list; we were very meticulous about ensuring that any games on the following list were in full release as opposed to alpha or beta or demo stages within 2010. For this reason titles like Bit.Trip.Beat and Minecraft are not included.
Finally, we wanted to cover as wide a range of genres as possible, so although The Ball was an extraordinary indie effort, we felt Amnesia managed to do something even more innovative with the FPS genre. Here we will likely run into controversy over the omission of 2010 darling Super Meat Boy – a very polished, rich platformer – however, we felt that with the indie world over-inundated with platformers, we should look further for titles that may have been overshadowed due to lack of advertising budgets or love from the press and yet merited attention.
So our top ten list is one that endeavors to represent as wide a variety of genres as possible, to highlight how eclectic the indie platform truly can be.
But innovation and overshadowing are not enough to merit a spot in our list – we aren’t trying to play hipper-than-thou by favorings the underdogs…in fact we always look for titles that get all the basics right: intuitive controls, emotional engagement, replay value, sound and graphic design, and of course a little audaciousness.
Phew. With all that said, we humbly present our top picks for 2010’s best independent video game title releases.
Here’s to an amazing 2011!
Indie Game Reviewer’s Top Ten Indie Games of 2010
10. Galcon Fusion
Release Date: Feb. 11, 2010
Galcon Fusion is the so-called “HD” re-imagining of an old statistic-heavy ASCII game dating back two decades. This is not to say that it is a reboot so much as a very clean and nicely realized graphical front end to an AI system that has been refined over the course of twenty years. And it shows.
Enormously addictive, over-the-top swarms of enemy ships duke it out for control of a group of planets. As engaging within Steam as it is on iOS, Galcon Fusion also features excellent multi-player modes with in-game chat, and really cool option to toggle on the ASCII underpinnings in realtime by hitting the F10 key. Couldn’t get enough, couldn’t find anything wrong with it. In fact, we loved it a whole lot.
Release Date: October 2010
Developer: Cipher Prime
Slick, explosive and wickedly addictive. Fractal brings together the best parts of Hexic and Lumines, and then blows them both to itty-bitty pieces.
In the words of IGR’s GameScribbler:
“You’ll forget to shower. You will sit in front of your computer for nine hours. You will forget to eat. You’ll lose weight. You’ll die. This game is sweet.”
Shelling out a bursting cornucopia of choices to puzzle fans, and all wrapped it up in a pulse-pounding soundtrack, this game is one solid offering. Even after falling one move shy of reaching checkpoints in Campaign Mode, we were immediately going in to start afresh, eager to try a new approach. Hell, even the credits are a stylishly-crafted affair.
Release Date: June 14th, 2010
Developer: Alexander Ocias
Developed by Alexander Ocias, an Australian hyphenate artist and programmer whose other works include interactive eBoy-styled pixelart and Flash-based art installations, Loved opens with an eerie ambient drone and asks the question: “Are you a MAN or WOMAN” and then replies “Wrong, you are a girl.”
“I wanted to build something confrontational,” says Ocias, “That would engage players to give thought to what they are doing both in and out of game. The result is Loved – a short story in the form of a flash platformer.”
There have been a slew of games we encountered this year that played with the idea of an unreliable narrator, but none quite so eloquently as Loved, which rewards action independent of the narrator in such a delightfully creative, organic feeling manner.
Loved comes on like a slutty n+ fever dream, whose narrator is a domineering but forgiving bondage mistress.
7. Recettear: An Item Shop’s Tale
Release Date: Sept. 10, 2010
Developer: EasyGameStation / Carpe Fulgur
Genres: Simulation / Action / RPG / Anime
Despite some frustratingly non-intuitive keyboard controls and exasperatingly slow, drawn out tutorial, Recettear introduced a very novel point of view to the traditional and somewhat stagnant Dungeon crawler and Time Management genres respectively.
A Japanese import that combines casual shopkeeping with classic Zelda-like adventure and manages to come off as a fresh take on both. Add to this potent combination some wonderfully drawn and quirkily written characters and you have a highly popular and immensely fun game. Sit down and play for half an hour if you like, but don’t be surprised if you’re still at it many hours later.
Release Date: Oct. 9, 2010
Developer: Kairosoft Co., LTD
Genres: Simulation / Time Management
Choosing the independent video game Game Dev Story, which is in itself an independent video game about writing, developing, releasing and reviewing independent video games, is so post-modern meta that it’s a wooden Russian doll set begging to neutered by Hipster haters.
Except that this time management sim for iOS 4 is so instantly addictive that on first play I ran the batteries from fully charged to self-power-down when I couldn’t put it down to find a charging station. Yes, I played it for like seven hours straight without blinking. Angry Birds be damned.
Fun, sufficiently varied, insightful, intuitive, awesome. An easy pick for this year’s top ten.
Release Date: May 12, 2010
“I had to turn a corner with Eschalon: Book 2 before really enjoying it. At first, I found it frustrating and unnerving. The learning curve is steep, and there is very little to encourage players who might be unfamiliar with this type of RPG to continue playing through the rough patches. Yet, after a while, I found a rhythm, and really started to enjoy the complexities of the game. Even after feeling I had played enough to review the game, I know I’ll be going right back in to play more. This is one of the few games that can lock me into the “just 5 more minutes” habit until I find that hours have passed, and I’m still playing. The prospect of going back with a wholly different character class is also deeply intriguing.
Visually appealing (if not stunning), and wildly challenging, Eschalon: Book 2 is also highly rewarding. Fans of RPGs will pick up the subtle nuances of the game sooner than those new to the genre, but any player willing to stick out the lean beginnings will find a deep game with a wide array of choices, paths and play-styles.”
Developers: QCF Design
Genres: Rogue-like, puzzle game
Desktop Dungeons is neither a Roguelike nor a puzzle game but it relies heavily on both to achieve something greater than the sum of its parts – a form of emergent complexity and gameplay that has the player, once confident in their savvy, suddenly opening their skull and rooting around for the switch that will hep them turn the light on and solve the damned thing.
With procedurally generated maps (and some very nice mods for reskinning available) the game will never be “cracked” or “learned” like the reflexive muscle training required for Pac Man or Donkey Kong, or by watching a playthrough on YouTube. Nope, Desktop Dungeons is like a pigeon – you think it’s right there at your feet, easy to catch, but every time you take a step towards it, it somehow is still one step ahead of you.
Fortunately there are “ideas” about what may or may not serve one better in going through the game (which offers the equally habit-forming allure of unlockable characters and seemingly more powerful character classes) but there is no shortcut that will help you climb to the top any more than the dude sitting next to you. This one takes real cunning, strategy, patience and thought.
And did we mention it is a massively time-suckingly addictive? Here’s what we said when we first reviewed it:
“I haven’t been so instantly cracked out on a game since I first played Bard’s Tale on my Commodore Amiga back in the mid 80′s. I thought I was going to just check out a little Roguelike dungeon crawl – I mean it’s even called a Ten Minute Dungeon Crawl – CUT TO: six and half hours later when I remember that blood should probably be flowing through my legs which are at that point completely numb.”
Remember – bio breaks good.
Release Date: July 21, 2010
Genres: Platformer / Puzzle
Exploding onto the indie game scene to ubiquitous adulation, Limbo submerged gamers into the German Expressionism influenced nightmare of an unidentified winsome boy working his way towards some sort of salvation from a world of creepy crawlies as seen through the lens of a foggy Bell & Howell. A simple control scheme leaves it up to the player to work out the often head-scratching but never-too-difficult puzzles that prey on poor assumptions and the pervasive sense that misinterpreting the lay of the land will lead to yet another gory demise.
Top shelf execution, gorgeous graphic treatment, meticulous sound design and smooth gameplay made this a clear choice for our best of 2010 and set a new benchmark for XBOX’s Live Arcade comers.
Release Date: Sept. 8, 2010
Developer: Frictional Games
Genres: First Person Shooter / Adventure / Horror
If we had to pick just one first-person “shooter” from the indie lot this year, or any other year, for that matter, Amnesia stood out as the clear choice. Ironically, the player has nothing to shoot with; they are effectively weaponless and attempting to thwart impending dementia as the truly hair-raising spectres of the haunted mansion within which they are trapped make their presence known.
With exemplary sound design (a major character in the game) and highly effective use of lighting, Amnesia turns the genre on its ear and induces a new level of immersive gameplay. Amnesia is a must, if you have the stones to handle it. Play it in the dark, and wear headphones.
Release Date: April 16, 2010
Developer: Jason Rohrer
Created as a commission for the Art History of Games Conference, Sleep is Death was never meant to be a pre-fabricated blockbuster experience. It is a toy chest overloaded with simple, but well-loved toys: Police badges, Indian headdresses, magnifying glasses, and an array of disguises.
Sleep is Death does away with the notion that game must be shipped in a complete state. Extensive Q and A sessions aren’t required. Each game requires two players; one to create the game, and one to take the created world for a spin. The player has 30 seconds to make an action happen, either by speaking, or interacting with an object on screen. The ball is then tossed back to the creator, who has 30 seconds to accommodate or ignore the words or deeds of the player. The results can be awkward, hilarious, and quite often brilliant.
Via text box entry, you have the freedom to make your character say whatever you want, and you’ll never be met with a “does not compute” response from a canned AI. Anything you choose to say or do is conveyed to the creator, and it is up to him to decide what to do with your choices. That, by itself, is a liberating notion.
Any of your creations can be uploaded to be shared with what is quickly becoming a thriving community fan-base supported by mods (including a 16-bit version), premade stories and much more in the same way the the Linerider community developed and flourished.
S.i.D. has had its flaws – sometimes figuring out how to patch in with a buddy remotely is more challenging than solving Desktop Dungeons, and there is definitely a learning curve when first encountering the interface, but stick out and the headaches go away soon enough. Besides this little beaut even comes with its own built-in 8-bit multitrack musical score generator (an element which didn’t help in our internal argument that S.i.D. isn’t so much a game as a platform. But noodles to that.)
Sleep is Death is revolutionary in that it is allowing an interactive storytelling experience much like paper and dice Dungeons and Dragons did between the Dungeon Master and player character and also in a way that Sims creator Will Wright always wished and encouraged of his Sims community but it is doing it very differently. By permitting almost any variable, object, setting or scenario, making it something that is not only recordable but portable, Sleep is Death serves also as a legitimate idea generation tool that whose utility extends beyond similar games; even the Sims, with its many expansion packs, somehow always feels like it is locked inside its own universe and its many conditions for survival and success restrict the possibilities for truly imaginative variation.
And that, dear friends, is what we came here to talk about.
Top Indie Games 2010 – Honorable Mentions
Developers: Dan Remar, Erik Sjöstrand
Dan Remar is some kind of indie game development savant. With two games on our year end list, Man Enough is a game quite unlike any other; four separate games are affected simultaneously by one action on the keyboard, forcing the player the player to contend with the consequences of their decision four different ways. Even more impressive is that the game was part of a competition with limited development time. One of our favorite little finds this year. Are you Man Enough to handle it?
Release Date: June 2010
Developer: Lunar Giant Studios
Genres: Turn-based Strategy
Delve Deeper harkens back to a time when simple graphics and good gameplay were enough to keep us occupied. It reminds us of why side-scrolling puzzle games like Lemmings and Lost Vikings were so much fun.
This is the kind of game that will quickly become the one you pickup when you’re bored and have a half hour to kill. If looks could kill, Delve Deeper has enough charm to slay a hundred gelatinous cubes.
Release Date: June 4, 2010
An impressively rich side-scrolling shooter that seemed to do everything right. Freely downloadable, Hydorah will have you covered, if the genre is your bag. It was cool that we could run it on our Atom powered netbook too.
Release Date: June 12th, 2010
Developers: Remar Games
Genres: Action/Adventure, Shooter
Hero Core plays like a classic SHMUP stripped down to the bare essentials. In the place of flashy graphics and sound effects there are two-tone sprites and insanely catchy 8-bit music. At its best, it feels like the classic game Adventure was fused with Metroid, with a generous helping of CAVE shooters firing thick volleys of warning shots.
Release Date: July 2010
Developers: Logan Ames
Genres: Experimental, Platformer
An impressive remake of a less-than-stellar NES title bearing the same name, Illuminator is a great achievement as an indie title based solely on the mood it manages to convey using so little. Beyond that, it’s also a thrill to play: simple controls, simple design, excellent execution. This is one side-scrolling game that does the recent trend of 8-bit inspired titles proud.
Release Date: Jan. 10, 2010
Ahh, and here we come to Terry Cavanagh’s beloved and oftentimes throw-something-at-wall-level frustrating platformer. VVVVVV seemed to be on everyone’s mind at the end of the year. We liked it too, but we had other corners of the room we wanted to illuminate.
Release Date: October 2010
Genres: Platformer /Adventure
An excellent, eerie, albeit somewhat brief platformer that introduced some unorthodox twists for the adventuring hero including flying around and hacking at angels as this character, fallen from grace, attempts to work his way out of Hades by way of cleverness and quirky power-ups. Did we mention it’s free.
A House In California
Release Date: Nov 2010
Developer: Cardboard Computer
Genres: Point and click
Reminiscent of Daniel Benmergui’s Moon Stories, A House In California narrowly escaped being included in our top ten for 2010. An 8-bit point and click that operates on dreamlike revelations an unexpected twists, this freeware title showcased the best traits of creative independent gaming for the cerebral set.
Developer: Dinofarm Games and Fusion Reactions
Genres: RPG / Graphic Roguelike
A solid procedurally generated dungeon crawler whose focus is on scoring high within one gameplay session, as opposed to multiple saves, 100 Rogues is a tribute to both Zelda and roguelikes that afforded one of the better RPG options on the iOS this year.
Release Date: April 1, 2010
Developer: Secret Exit
One of the best looking little indies to come out this year on the PC or iOS, Zen Bound 2 will make you relax or else. The game involves wrapping a piece of rope around a increasingly challenging series of wooden objects into which a nail has been driven. A gorgeous score and smooth gameplay round out and complement the package perfectly. Now go forth and chill out.
Release Date: Oct 25th, 2010
Developer: Klei Entertainment
Genres: Platformer, Action
Exploitation films have made a comeback recently and so have old-school 2D Platform games. The good people at Klei Entertainment asked, why not blend the two? Why not, indeed. Shank is certainly a strange breed, but it got the best features of both parents. Be forewarned though, the best parts of exploitation film is NOT under any circumstances meant for children.
Release Date: 26 Oct, 2010
Developer: Teotl Studios
Genres: 1st Person, Puzzle
The First-Person puzzle game where you must drag, slide, push, and otherwise move a mysterious Aztec sphere deeper and deeper into the depths of the long forgotten ruins you are trapped in. Are you stopping the strange monsters you find from invading the world, or are you inadvertently returning the power source they need? 5-7 hours of playtime may seem short, but The Ball is so well done that you can’t help but give it a big thumbs up. Happy ancient alien-zombie-monster squishing!
Winner of two IndieCade awards, A Slow Year is a work of art, and we don’t just mean that in a complimentary sense. Our reviewer couldn’t understand what he was seeing when he spotted the demo from across the room. As he approached, his jaw slackened until my mouth hung open. There, in all its venerable glory, was an Atari 2600, the grandfather of game systems.
“It was a beautiful juxtapose, seeing that 30-year-old machine sitting humbly on a table not 10 feet from a Playstation 3 just one exhibit away. Developed by Ian Bogost in classic Atari cartridge format”
We could not include this in our top ten because beyond the display demo, we didn’t get a chance to play it through, and chances are good, neither did you. But you can. From the website:
“A Slow Year is available in two editions, as a paperback book of poetry with software for PC and Mac in a custom Atari emulator, and for Atari as a numbered, signed, boxed limited edition with cartridge and leatherbound hardcover book.”
Release Date: Sept. 18, 2010
Genres: Card Game / Casual
Representing for the casual gamers out there, Faerie Solitaire is not really Solitaire at all but rather a Solitaire-like puzzle card game sometimes involving specific objectives or time based-challenges, wherein a narrative unfolds involving a guy called upon by the Royal Society for the Protection of Magical Creatures to journey to distant lands to free all the captive faeries. Along the way he finds eggs that hatch into evolving pet friends, he can spend the money he earns from winning in specific ways to spend on power ups and all other manner of modifiers that affect the play.
With a solid voice performance and legitimately well done ambient soundtrack Faerie Solitaire is one of 2010 little indie sleepers deserving of a second look.
What were your favorite indie games this year?
With apologies to Edmund McMillen. We really do love ya’.