Independent games have quickly become a pivotal part of the gaming industry; however, finding the very best indie games out there can be tricky. Because of this, I’ve compiled a list of some of the very best indie games, both small and big, worth checking out. This list is by no means complete, of course, but contains many of the essentials. Game on, indie enthusiasts!
Cave Story almost always gets mentioned whenever independent games are discussed, and for good reason: it’s an amazingly engrossing video game. Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya has paired finely tuned game mechanics with a sad but sweet tale involving an amnesiac robot soldier, a power-hungry mad scientist and a race of rabbit-like creatures called Mimigas. The graphics and music are decidedly retro, but serve the simple elegance of the game. Cave Story is a true classic that takes a beloved genre to a near-perfect excellence.
Knytt sets you in an alien landscape as the silent hero, seeking pieces of your broken spaceship so that you can return home. It is a lonely world, full of mysterious creatures and people whom you cannot interact with, forcing you to imagine what their lives are like, or what their purpose is. All of Nifflas’s games are imbued with an incredible atmosphere (and a certain longing), but this is arguably his strongest.
Before Machinarium there came a little adventure game called Samorost. Samorost and its sequel take place in a surreal world that is full of mystery and wonder. In Czech, the word Samorost means “driftwood,” and it’s an apt title, considering the organic and mysterious feel of the game and the unique graphical style, which combines collage with cartoon animation.
Limbo is unlike many puzzle games. Its story, as minimal as it may be, revolves around a young boy on his search for his missing sister. As the title implies, his search takes him to a black and white world of uncertainty: purgatory. It is a mysterious, uncertain experience that transcends most puzzle games being released today. Limbo is not for the faint of heart.
What we have here is a stellar physics engine, fast-paced platform action and slick, abstract graphics rolled up into a tight little package. In N, it can be as fun to die as it is to execute all the sweet moves that lead up to your death. The game also comes with a level editor, which has been used extensively by its fans. N won the Audience Award at IGF in 2005 and has already become a hit on the DS, PSP and XBox Live Arcade. Brutally difficult, but so, so addicting.
Super Meat Boy
In Super Meat Boy you are a sad little skinless creature. You’re girlfriend is a … I don’t know what, covered in bandages? Who’s been kidnapped by you’re arch nemesis … a fetus in a mechanical body and a suit (it’s hard enough keeping a straight face). This is classic arcade gaming at its best. Prepare to slip and slide your meaty self across some seriously treacherous terrain in order to rescue your beloved. Super Meat Boy is the very definition of easy-to-pick-up, hard-to-put-down.
The Endless Forest
The Endless Forest is a massively multiplayer online game where each player controls a stag with a human face (a la Princess Mononoke). There are no quests or goals in the game, only the endless, ethereal environments and the company of your fellow stags. Nor is there any way to communicate other than with body language and animal sounds. The graphics are lush, inspired in part by Hayao Miyazaki, and the peaceful nature of the game, devoid of violence or human communication, make this an unprecedented experience in gaming.
This colorful beat ’em up combines the best parts of Double Dragon with a certain grindhouse flair. Blood and guts fly as you dismember your opponents in ways that are both brutal yet slightly comical. If you love exploitation films or ultra violence then this one’s a keeper.
Don’t Look Back
Don’t Look Back is a Atari-style platformer designed by Terry Cavanagh. This game is a modern interpretation of the Orpheus and Eurydice Greek legend and does so with such gusto, it’s one of the best minimalist interpretations (in both story and graphics) out today. Don’t Look Back exposes Terry’s dark side, plunging the player into hell-like surroundings that are both ominious and bizarre.
Created by designer Edmund McMillen, programmer William Good and musician Justin Karpel, Time Fcuk is a fairly straightforward game to describe: it’s a block/switch/key puzzler with a twist of inter-dimensional-spatial-chronological tearing that rips you through layers of the same room you occupy. The game’s a trip, and one of the best Flash games out there.
Ignore for just a few minutes the fact that there’s an already admittedly excellent stripped down flash version of DICE’s Mirror’s Edge, because Canabalt – Experimental Gameplay entry from Fathom and Fixel creator Adam ‘Atomic’ Saltsman and musician DannyB – strips that down even further, and better. Minimalist post-apocalyptic story meets side-scrolling runner: the combination has never felt so good.
This time-twisting platformer is easily one of the best indie games ever made. Equal parts simple yet sublime, Braid puts gamers’ brains to the test with puzzles that are challenging to the point of being frustrating, but ultimately, rewarding.
Fathom toys with you constantly. It takes a hefty swig of the Cave Story juice, sharing controls, similar protagonists, distant scrolling backdrops, gorgeous levels composed of hundreds of tiles, a satisfying shmup-blaster, and bouncy, colourful pickups. There is no explanation for why you’re doing all of this, but surely there will be eventually, right? The first level is wonderfully constructed as a piece of gaming, with memorable geography and a scripted collapse sequence affectively conveying the your urgent escape from… somewhere or other. If you don’t know what that last part means, don’t worry about it. Just play.
From Amanita Design, the creators of the brilliant Samorost series, comes Machinarium, a game so well implemented it is, without a doubt, one of the best adventure games out there. The game is devoid of the stereotypical repetitiveness, confusing map layouts and too-hard-for-its-own-good puzzles. Not to say Machinarium isn’t difficult, but the compelling artwork and rewarding puzzles make up for the, at times, frustrating puzzles. It’s clear that everyone at Amanita Design poured their heart and soul into Machinarium. Whether it’s in the music, artwork, story or gameplay, Machinarium is one of those games you can’t help but love.
The premise is simple: a ship full of six funny-looking dudes named after colors starting with the letter V (Violet, Vermillion, etc) crash lands into an unknown dimension and accidentally separates. As the ship’s captain, Captain Viridian, it’s your job to find the rest of your crew and fix your ship. VVVVVV is a little bit mind-bendy, a little bit experimental, a little bit nonlinear and a lot-of-bit challenging. This game is one of Terry Cavanagh’s best platformers to date.
Castle Crashers is a humorous 1-to-4-player side-scrolling beat ’em up game inspired by Double Dragon and similar titles. Players choose from one of 4 knights and do battle using medieval weapons and magic (other characters can be unlocked by various means). While one of the more “mainstream” indie titles out today, Castle Crashers never loses its quality.
RunMan: Race Around the World
In RunMan take control of a small, star-shaped hero as he pelts his way through vibrant Microsoft Paint-esque worlds. Make sure nothing can stand in his way by bouncing off practically everything in sight. Then throw in a mixture of folk, blues and jazz music to give the whole experience just that little bit more excellence, and you’re on your way. Sonic, eat your heart out.
Born from Jenova Chen’s undergraduate thesis on dynamic difficulty adjustment (“DDA”) in video games, flOw is a landmark experiment in game development. Whereas most games rely on tension and forced challenges to keep you interested, flOw draws the player in by allowing them to adjust the challenge themselves through actions performed during the game. With crystalline graphics and soothing, ambient music, the result is an experience you can truly get lost in.
Spelunky is a cave exploration / treasure-hunting game inspired by classic platform games and roguelikes, where the goal is to grab as much treasure from the cave as possible. Every time you play the cave’s layout will be different, but always addictive. A simple basis and loads of possibilities: what more could you want?