The Top 50 Non-Art Indie Games
Once upon a time, respected movie critic Roger Ebert said that video games would never be art because their narrative didn’t explore the human condition. Video game critics wished above all else to one day be as respected as Ebert, so they took his statement as a personal rejection and made it their life’s mission to prove him wrong. They could have simply corrected Ebert by telling him that judging video games by their narrative is like comparing the card game “Bridge” to “Go Fish” based on the quality of the artwork on the cards. Sadly, the game critics instead went out in search of video games that explored the human condition with narrative!
Apparently the best they could find was a game called Passage. In it, you control an ugly pixelated dude and move him to the right until he dies. The only noteworthy thing about the game is how terrible it is in every respect. But the game’s website said it was inspired by colon cancer, and that was enough for the game critics. They showered Passage with universal undeserved praise.
Notoriety is money in the indie scene, so like mushrooms on a cow pat, amateurish, ugly, joyless games with a message began popping up everywhere to inevitable accolades from insecure game critics. I myself was mislead into paying money for Papers, Please, foolishly thinking that if EVERYONE was loving this game, including supposed curmudgeon Yahtzee, that it might actually be way more fun than it looks (Spoiler: it isn’t!) Thanks to gamergate, we now live in a brave new world where questioning why art games get preferential treatment by game critics is equivalent to gang-raping a woman in a porta-potty, so pretentious art house gaming is here to stay.
But fear not! There are still indie developers who make games that eschew narrative exploration of the human condition for gameplay that’s actually fun, and I’ve compiled a list of 50 of ‘em! Enjoy!
One Finger Death Punch
A cheap 2-button game of stick figure kung fu fighting with epic music and destructible scenery that’s way more entertaining than it has any right to be.
Better than the sum of its parts, this game mixes a little third person battlefield combat with a little space sim combat with a little “Risk” in space to create a surprisingly epic final product. You start out as a basic private in a four way space war, fighting and ranking up until you become the supreme leader of your faction, all the while new technologies make the battlefield more and more chaotic.
A comedy “Metroidvania” in which you play an asshole RPG gamer who finds himself mysteriously transported to an ancient castle of darkness whose only company is an evil shade who was unsuccessful in his attempt to possess your soul. The title is a bit of a misnomer because the castle is actually quite huge and your stats for character development expansive. The tiny puppety movement of the character and enemies reminds me of shareware titles from the 90s. Only recommended if you enjoy the game’s humor.
47. Sanctuary RPG
Like an ASCII-art fantasy version of FTL, this game is a never-ending gobstopper of tactically challenging one-on-one battles in a silly world. PROTIP: this game’s hot key layout is designed to be played on the keyboard with your left hand on the home position and your right hand on the numberpad.
46. Anomaly 2
This is the peak of the anomaly series of reverse tower defense games where you direct and upgrade a convoy of military vehicles as they travel through the streets of a city infested by alien turrets. Its one weakness is it lacks the randomly generated survival missions of the original game.
A visually pleasing Elite clone focused on stately real-time battles between capital ships, like the Starfleet Command games, but in 3D space. The controls take some serious getting used to, and there’s not much in the way of simulating a “living” world, but the spaceship and station designs are really inspired. It’s kind of a relaxing game.
Sounds more intimidating than it really is, in Spacechem you design subatomic factories in which you transform chemical compounds by snipping or attaching atomic bonds. Hair-pullingly difficult until you figure out the stage’s trick, then massively satisfying.
43. Nitronic Rush (Freeware)
One of the prettiest games to come out of Digipen, it’s a racing game with lovely Tron visuals in which you drive a wall-running rocket-powered car that can temporarily transform into a plane through a track/obstacle course of deadly traps. Woefully short, but I guess that’s why they’re making a spiritual sequel (that isn’t as pleasing to look at, in my opinion).
A bad ass vertical shoot ’em up that mixes the dual weapon-pod capturing of the PSX favorite Einhander with the unlimited short-range teleporting of Japanese indie darling Meglilo into an action-packed yet beginner-friendly shmup. Its one weakness is very amateurish production values.
Some of the best pixel art on the PC meets 3 wildly differing play styles in this mouse-WASD platformer. Watch out, this thing will put serious wear and tear on your mouse buttons.
40. Void Destroyer
An experimental game that mixes Newtonian physics-based dog fighting with Starpoint Gemini-style capital ship combat, and a Homeworld-style 3D RTS. The dog fighting seemed to me the strongest part of the gameplay. As interesting as the game is, its intentionally ugly aesthetic may make the learning curve too bitter a pill to swallow, as space has never looked so dingy.
39. Heavy Bullets
A first-person “rougelite” survival exploration game where you have to retrieve your indestructible bullets after firing them. It takes place in an artificial safari world with a heavy Atari 2600 aesthetic.
A 2D brawler taking place in small platform arenas reminiscent of Snow Bros, or Joust where you fight off blob monsters to prevent them from attacking magical whatzits and spenc XP on new powers between missions.
37. Space Run
A nifty twist on tower defense, you’re flying a space transport made up of hexagons which you occupy with cargo and ship systems as you fly through pirate-infested space. The challenge comes from trying to fit the best systems into the space you’re provided to keep the cargo from getting destroyed while adding enough engines soon enough to reach your delivery destination in time. I like it because while the actual variety of “towers” is low for this genre, none of them are ever rendered obsolete.
It may be hipster as fuck, but it’s a fun ride nonetheless as you parachute off absurdly high buildings and do tricks. I just wish the buildings used “grainier” textures to give the player more of a sense of speed.
This is by far one of the most achingly beautiful video games I’ve ever played, like a storybook come to life. The gameplay is pretty decent, a physics-based “Lost Vikings” that can get pretty challenging if you insist on collecting all the experience orbs.
34. Maldita Castilla (freeware)
A gruesome action platformer heavily influenced by Ghosts n Goblins taking place in dark age Spain.
33. Drox Operative
The latest and greatest of Soldak Entertainment’s ARPGs that take place in “living worlds.” Drox Operative has you playing a Bene Gesserit spy in a star system being colonized by rival AI-controlled species who are competing in a 4X game of conquest. Posing as an elite mercenary, you manipulate the sides in this war to make sure the dominant powers in this cluster are firmly under the thumb of the Drox, then take your leveled up character and do it again in a new randomly generated star system. It’s fun to be sneaky.
A shmup with great music taking place in an alternate history where the European powers never made it to the Americas and colonized planet Mars instead. Note that this game has 4 player co-op and is balanced just for that with its huge playfields. On the higher difficulties a single player using anything but the 360 degree rotating cannon ship will have a hell of a time.
31. Shovel Knight
A platformer with an intentional NES aesthetic and very catchy music that plays like a mix of Duck Tails, Mega Man, and Super Mario Bros 3.
Stylish 2D stealth platformer by the Shank guys where you play an insane ninja annihilating fortresses full of heavily armed soldiers by fighting dirty.
29. Rogue Legacy
If you like Castlevania you’ll love Rogue Legacy because it randomly produces an unlimited number of castles chock full of bone lobbing skeletons.
28. Legend of Princess (Freeware, direct link)
A short experiment by the Noitu Love guy that I actually like better than Noitu Love (easier on the mouse hand). A legend of Zelda tribute 2D platformer with great pixel art.
I think this is kind of the game we were expecting Watchdogs to be based on that E3 preview video. Gunpoint is a 2D stealth platformer that gives you the ability to rewire and reprogram electronic objects to navigate around the instakill guards that stand between you and your mission objective.
26. Race the Sun
A third person racing game where you control a solar-powered glider as it navigates through a randomly generated obstacle course with the movement of the sun toward the horizon acting as your timer. My one complaint is the game suffers from unlockable cancer: by the time you’ve accumulated enough achievements to unlock the game to a fully-functional state, you’ll probably be sick of it.
25. Hotline Miami
The first commercial game from super-prolific gamemaker master “Cactus.” It’s about as trippy and disturbing as you would expect as you use overhead mouse-WASD to maneuver a Halloween mask-wearing psychopath through environments filled with deadly white-suited Russian mobsters armed with insta-kill weaponry while an 80s-tastic soundtrack blares.
The Bastard lovechild of Rastan and Super Ghouls ‘n Ghosts, Volgarr is a punishing but fair action platformer that I’ve heard super players describe as one of the most meticulously crafted platformers of all time.
It’s basically the board game “Battleship” with a heavy dose of goofy anime SRPG flavor. Lots of fun, but it’s hard to tell when you’re supposed to grind money to develop new human tanks.
A 2D mech platformer heavily influenced by the SNES fan-favorite Cybernator where you pilot a highly mobile walking tank through a plot-heavy series of anime wartime action.
One of my favorite PC games from back in the day was The Incredible Machine, a game that tasked you with taking a variety of random objects and creating a convoluted Rube Goldberg apparatus to perform a simple task. Well the makers of that game created a modern sequel in everything but name! Yippee!
20. Defender’s Quest
The best Tower Defense game since Immortal Defense, that sadly is every bit as ugly as Immortal Defense. The game mixes SRPG with tower defense where each “tower” you can place is an individual character with custom stats who gains access to higher and higher tiers of spells as you boost them within the round. For example, you can create one character that pours all his points into passives and his Tier-1 attack so you can use him as a cheap level-1 stopgap when the situation demands.
19. Diadra Empty
So many great Japanese indie shmups have been localized to the states these past few years, a couple gems seem to have slipped through the cracks, like this title. Diadra Empty plays like Defender (or more specifically, Fantasy Zone) with a shop between each level to power up your dragon. This game has a great graphical style that makes good use of contextually enhanced creepiness because the early game enemies look like stuffed animals, making the late game bosses look positively nightmarish in comparison.
18. Unity of Command
An accessible WWII Eastern Front hex-based war game with heavy emphasis on breaking enemy supply lines.
Legend of Grimrock 2
This is the kind of game we dreamed of playing back in the 90s, rendering a huge land of mystery and adventure in gorgeous detail. Too bad they thought the awkward 90s interface needed to come along for the ride.
16. Gigantic Army
Another side-scrolling mech 2D platformer from Japan, this one doesn’t look as nice as Gunhound, but I think it plays better and doesn’t interrupt the action for plot moments.
15. Desktop Dungeons
Like the wonderful but sadly now abandonware Oasis, Desktop Dungeons takes the basic square-uncovering mechanics of Minesweeper and builds a whole other genre on top of the uncovered squares, in this case a math-heavy turn based RPG.
Definitely the prettiest shmup to ever come out of the Japanese indie scene, Astebreed has you piloting a flying sword-wielding robot against an army of aliens with a perspective constantly shifting from horizontal to vertical to behind-the-back. My only complaint with this game is all the anime yak-yak going on in the background while I’m trying to concentrate on the action exploding all around me.
13. Dustforce DX
A really fun speed-running ninja platformer where the ninjas are janitors and the enemies are household objects covered in demonic dust. It uses the ninja game mechanic where if you hit an enemy mid-air, your double jump is restored. My only complaint is that it doesn’t track your individual high scores on your own computer if you decline to log in.
Seriously underrated indie game where you control a steampunk helicopter with a ball and chain attached and smash things, which is all we ever really wanted out of a video game physics engine. This game is the reason to buy a trackball mouse. And yet, despite not needing it, the game has a meticulous back story and sumptuous world design. PROTIP #1: Do not trust the game’s mouse-speed detector, it’s way too slow. Manually set the slider to 100 or your swings will not have any power. PROTIP #2: If you have one save file that has unlocked aftergame content (like the arena) you can concurrently start a new save file and immediately access the aftergame content, which scales to your rank (so you can fight in the arena from rank 1-20)
Everyone owes it to themselves to try the Deadly Rooms of Death puzzle games, but ironically the best place for a beginner to start is part 4. The plot is a prequel to the events of the main series and the game teaches players the basic moves to properly herd the various enemy types, which will be invaluable when facing more complex puzzles, even in part 1.
The greatest, craziest, yet ugliest 4X strategy series ever programmed, you play a powerful monster who aspires to godhood. Basically a fantasy 4X about dueling Saurons. Some people say Dominions isn’t suited to single player, but I say the sheer amount of time you spend trying out different races, spells, items, random locations, and other assorted madness you will get more than your money’s worth. Battles play out with RPG-levels of detail, accounting for everything from weapon length advantage to the age of individual soldiers. The price is steep, but if you’ve ever dreamed of creating the ultimate vampire mage character in D&D and having him defeat an entire army single-handed, (something that would take days to calculate in pen ‘n paper form), this is the game that lets you realize that dream!
Not only the best Shadowrun video game of all time, but a serious contender for one of the best plot-heavy CRPGs of all time. It may not examine the human condition very deeply, but when the time comes to throw a moral decision at the player, it always throws a curve ball.
A mixture of Sonic the Hedgehog and Gunstar Heroes. Where Volgarr recreates Sega Genesis graphics at their worst, Freedom Planet is the Genesis at its best, and the music is amazing! Not only is the action fast and fun, but this game has one of the smoothest difficulty curves I’ve ever dealt with. The one weakness of the game is that it’s running on the Macromedia Fusion engine which is not up to rendering this game smoothly in full screen (your PC may be fast, but it lacks BLAST PROCESSING!) so you need to run in a window to avoid choppiness.
Directly influenced by the CRPG Addict’s analysis of old school western RPG mechanics, Lords of Xulima is an RPG of epic proportions mixing the best of Wizardry and Might and Magic with just a dash of Ultima. The world is huge and filled with puzzles complex enough they required me to jot down notes and occasional maps with pen and paper to solve. The combat is complex and dynamic, requiring serious tactical decisions from the player in every single encounter. The game really capitalizes on the sense of escalating power that is the bread and butter of CRPGs. It’s one of the best designed and realized CRPGs of all time. I just wish someone could take the fantastic gameplay of Xulima and combine it with the fantastic visuals of Grimrock 2.
6. Aces Wild
There is no greater proof that there is no god than the fact this game didn’t get the kind of attention Gone Home received. Aces Wild is a fast paced hybrid of God Hand and Bangai-O, as your cartoon kung fu dude dodges and megapunches his way through insane crowds of Ninjas, Robots, and Ninja Dogs to an infectiously peppy soundtrack. PROTIP: you MUST play this game with an analog pad.
What can I say that you haven’t already heard or probably played a million times before? No other game has delivered the experience of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan’s combat scenes better than FTL. Add to that a random encounter exploration game that plays like a better version of Weird Worlds and you have one of the best indie games of all time! Too bad they didn’t have an art team as talented as the Weird World guys, though…
Like Caltrops, TigSource was once a booming community devoted to gaming. The best part of TigSource in its prime was its contests where developers would be challenged to create games based on a theme and dozens of freeware products would emerge, the best of which ended up being turned into proper games. We’re waiting to see if Cyberganked proves to be the ultimate product of Caltrops and its humor, but Spelunky is definitely the ultimate product of tigsource. Its mechanics borrow from the best of the contest titles, especially Rescue: The Beagles. A zillion action rougelites come out every day, but Spelunky’s real community design keeps it at the top of the pack.
The best “Metroidvania” I’ve ever played, and I’m including Symphony of the Night in that analysis. I’ve never played a game that merged RPG and action so smoothly, it really never feels like the stats are interfering with the player’s skill. Taking place during an apocalyptic war of the Gods, the players find themselves trapped in a lost city at the bottom of the ocean searching for a means to save the human race from extinction. Combat involves complex combos and magic spells, boss fights are rated on a Devil May Cry-like style meter that rewards you with permanent stat boosts, and every weapon feels like you’re playing a different game. The length of the game is fairly short, but replay value is high with 4 playable characters and dozens of character builds to try. This is one of the most impressive indie games I’ve ever played.
In terms of straight up gameplay, Crimzon Clover is the best shmup to ever come out of the Japanese indie scene, created by a renowned arcade superplayer. It has a totally accessible beginner mode, but make no mistake, the challenge is the appeal of this game. This isn’t a game about watching pretty movies and being told you’re the world’s biggest badass because you hit “square” when prompted. This is a game about keeping your cool against seemingly impossible odds and being rewarded with absurd amounts of number confetti.
Ring Runner: Flight of the Sages
Star Control overhead Newtonian combat meets Armored Core customization to create the single best custom spaceship game ever created. You can tell it’s clearly a labor of love for the creators with the dizzying array of parts and hulls you have to work with and the significant effect they make on your ship’s handling. Throw onto that a positively ginormous mission-based campaign, dozens of aftergame deathmatch arenas, and several minigames. They even added a MOBA minigame where you can take your custom baby to war. My only real complaint is that this game shares Armored Core’s problem of requiring a huge amount of grinding before the game gives you enough parts to put together a competent ship build. More people should buy and play this goddamn game, it’s a work of
Want more indies? Check out my previous Top 100 indie game list written during the frontier age of indie gaming, before Kickstarter or Unity 3D. I think a few of the links still work!
Did I make an egregious omission? Recommend a bad game? You can’t believe I put THAT game ahead of THAT one? Come to the forums to set me straight!
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