But... what is indie?
That's the question, isn't it? "What is indie" in 2013? Technically, companies like Gearbox and Valve are indie, since they're not owned by a publisher and can, for the most part, do whatever they want, but we don't really consider them to be as independent as the likes of Team Meat--they're way too big. The same goes for Double Fine and Telltale, companies that, at one point, might have been indie, but have since ballooned to 150+ member studios who have worked on licensed games. Let's face it: when you're working on a Sesame Street game, you really aren't letting your indie flag fly. There are also instances like Journey, games that look and feel sort of indie, but are part of publishing deals with major companies.
Because of that, we're focusing on games by small studios that truly embody the indie spirit. Games like Minecraft, which were basically made by one guy. Games made by a skeleton crew, unattached to publishing partners, licenses, or anything else. They are, to us, the modern indie games, and we think it's time to discuss the best of the best.
You're going to see a lot of platformers on this list, as indie games thrive in that genre, but none of them will let you do the things Dustforce can do. Controlling one of four janitorial juggernauts each with different stats, we must rush through each level both trying to clean debris from the world and defeat dirty foes and make them clean. Seriously, one of these janitors is more Strider Hiryu than sweeper of floors. If only the janitors at our offices were this cool.
Aside from the cleaning, Dustforce sports one of the best soundtracks on this list, an retro electronic sound that we still have stuck in our heads. Take a listen to "Cider Time" or "It's Not Supposed To Be Snowing" and see what we mean. It's like turning on a rave every time we play; we love it.
24. Legend of Grimrock
Taking gameplay that hasnt been popular since the early '90s and prettying it up with Skyrim-level graphics, LoG managed to make the outdated FPS four-party dungeon quest feel brand new again. Journeying deeper into the dark depths of the prison/labyrinth that is Mount Grimrock, we were so enraptured by the games grid-based exploration that we felt more attached to our mute band of heroes than we do to most RPG leads.
The games amazing atmosphere makes you fear the poisonous bite of every giant spider, and youll feel like a genius when you discover your first secret chamber by clicking in an unassuming, discolored rock on the wall. LoG will be a treat for gamers old and new: veterans of PC classics like Dungeon Master and Eye of the Beholder will feel right at home, while younguns will get a dose of old-school roleplaying that they mightve never otherwise tried.
23. Anomaly 2
We've all heard of "tower defense" games, where we're charged with protecting a structure from waves of enemies. Some AAA titles have even tried to emulate the idea through mini-missions (looking at you, Assassin's Creed Revelations). Anomaly 2 takes the idea and turns it upside down, creating a "tower offense" game that's a ton of fun.
Instead of protecting our tower from enemies, we now control the waves of aggressors via a real-time strategy format, and we're able to upgrade and morph our units on the fly with the on-field Commander. Real-time strategy tower offense is quite a mouthful, but it's a ton a fun and there's nothing else like it on the market, so we'll just call it Anomaly 2.
22. The Binding of Isaac
We've always thought that the Bible could be a source for some great video games, but The Binding of Isaac isn't exactly what we had in mind. The story mirrors that of Abraham and Isaac from the Old Testament, only here Isaac is a crying naked child hiding from his mother in their basement, which is infested with monsters. Yeah.
If that's not enough to entice a playthrough, imagine if the dungeons in the original Legend of Zelda on NES were procedurally generated, changing every time you play. That's how The Binding of Isaac plays, in simple terms. Biblical themes, Zelda-like gameplay, and randomly-generated dungeons? What's not to love?
21. Castle Crashers
With Castle Crashers, The Behemoth took the 2D beat 'em up formula popularized by Final Fight, Turtles in Time, and Streets of Rage and turned it into...well, a behemoth. The gameplay is standard four-player beat 'em up, with online co-op available, but added elements like a RPG-esque leveling up system and a shop full of upgrades for sale put Castle Crashers on a whole other level.
What strikes us most about Castle Crashers, though, is the art style. The knights look cool, the worlds shine with vibrant color, and some of the bosses are just scary-looking. Look at the troll in the picture; would you want that thing chasing you around? If you can withstand the nightmares that some of the bosses may cause, Castle Crashers is definitely worth your time..
Every system needs a killer app to get the launch ball rolling; Xbox had Halo, the Nintendo 64 had Super Mario 64, and the Wii U is still waiting for one. Ouya, the little Android box that could, wasn't expected to produce one of these must-play exclusive games. It's just Android, after all, no different from a cell phone, right? Wrong. TowerFall is that game, and we're hooked.
TowerFall is Super Smash Brothers if every combatant had Link's bow and arrow. Up to four players will fight in different arenas, each with a limited number of arrows. The only way to reload is to pick up the previously used arrows strewn around the arena. It's fast, it's manic, and it's pure fun. Ouya has a lot of potential, some that hasn't been reached yet, but Towerfall has made an immediate impact.
19. World of Goo
2D Boys World of Goo is obsessed with two things: physics and sticky Goo. Your basic goal is to get blobs from one end of the map to the other by linking them together. You form blob bridges and towers, but have to make sure your sticky structure is stable enough to help your Goo boys reach their goal. It's simple, in theory, but makes for a great and addictive (if not complex) time.
Also: it's funny! The game, developed by ex-EA employees, features achievements called "Obsessive Completion Distinction Flags" and references to the Goo blobs being molded by the corporate machine. It's a delightfully meta experience that strikes the perfect balance between the lighthearted and the hardcore.
18. Don't Starve
Klei Entertainment can do no wrong, it seems. Shank and Mark of the Ninja were stellar 2D platformers, but they've outdone themselves with Don't Starve. This games requires us to just survive. That's it. We can build structures and gather items to help in this endeavor, but the main point of the game is to simply not die, whether by hostiles, insanity, or (surprise!) starvation.
The world is a giant sandbox of danger, one that we must conquer for as long as possible. If that becomes tiresome, there are adventure stages of increasing difficulty that will test our survival abilities in smaller chunks. A game where the only objective is to stay alive may not sound like a lot of fun, but we beg to differ; Klei makes it incredible with Don't Starve.
17. The Swapper
The Swapper makes you solve its many puzzles in the coolest way ever: clone yourself up to three times and "swap" control to each of the clones. Can you imagine how much easier life would be if we could clone ourselves? We could go to work, fix the leaky faucet, finally finish that game we've been putting off, AND catch up on Breaking Bad all the same time! We'd be unstoppable!
Seriously, clone swapping shines as one of the most unique mechanics we've ever seen. The Metroidvania format of the game, complete with backtracking through some areas and similar puzzles, makes it even cooler. Indie games have the power to be the most original games we'll ever play, and The Swapper is a prime example.
16. Gone Home
We've all been in this position: at the end of a long trip, when our plane finally lands, all we want to do is go home, see our families, and tell them all about our experiences. What happens, then, when the family we're so desperate to see is nowhere to be found? That's what Gone Home is all about.
With exploration gameplay that mimics the legendary Myst, Gone Home makes us players piece together the whereabouts of our missing family. There are items to collect, notes to read, and keys to use all over this giant house, and if we're going to figure out what happened here, we'll have to use them all. Very few games have kept us glued to a screen like Gone Home, but its impactful story and fantastic gameplay make it an instant hit.
Scrooge McDuck may think he's a top-notch treasure hunter, but he has nothing on the hero in Spelunky. Scrooge travels around the world, sure, but the environments he tackles never change; same enemies, same layouts, same everything. The spelunker here has to deal with a new set of obstacles every time he hunts, making preparation virtually impossible.
That's what makes Spelunky so amazing; sure the platforming aspect is top-notch, akin to games like Super Mario Bros, but the fact that no two playthroughs are the same gives the game unlimited replay value. You'll never know what the game is going to through at you, only that it'll be quite a challenge. Spelunky will never get old, and that makes it a real treasure.
14. Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien
Games like Runner 2 here are such a simple concept: keep running, avoid obstacles, and collect powerups to the rhythm of a hip soundtrack. It's the same concept employed in the dastardly hoverbike stages of Battletoads, only Battletoads replaced the music with rage-inducing difficulty. Even though the idea is simple, Runner 2 pulls it off so well, we can't stop playing.
Perhaps it's the gorgeous and colorful 2.5D world of Runner 2 that keeps us coming back. Maybe it's the soundtrack that we're running to that calls us back over and over again. Whatever it is, Runner 2 is endless running fun, and the music you'll hear will surely find its way onto your main playlist in no time. Seriously, listen to "Cloud Titans" sometime; the song is exquisite.
13. Path of Exile
Path of Exile is a massive free-to-play action RPG bearing a strong resemblance to Blizzard's Diablo franchise. However, unlike Blizzard and their massive development resources, Path of Exile comes from Grinding Gear Games, a small independent studio based in New Zealand. That a small team of developers could rival the Diablo juggernaut so well is astounding.
Path of Exile boasts six different classes, a slew of customization options, and a dark fantasy world filled with criminals and monsters to explore. Best of all, it's free to play, so we only have to put up as much money as we feel comfortable. Diablo may be the big name, but any fans of that franchise should consider a walk down the Path of Exile.
12. Hotline Miami
A man approaches the door, donning a letter jacket and chicken mask. He enters slowly, finds himself a weapon for protection, and proceeds to mercilessly kill every white-suited enemy he sees. Guns, clubs, crowbars, whatever he can find he'll use, and all of the action takes place to groovy electronic tunes. This is but one mission in the 80s-era world of Hotline Miami, and it barely scratches the surface..
Animal masks, massive firepower, over-the-top violence, and neon...we're not sure how else we can sum up Hotline Miami. It's one of those games that's better experienced than explained, because there's so much to take in no one could ever do it justice. From the crazy story to the incredible soundtrack, Hotline Miami is a bloody good time./p>
Viva Guacamelee! This lucha-libre adventure from Drinkbox Studios takes the Metroidvania formula and injects authentic Mexican folklore for a spicy good time. Playing as agave farmer-turn-pro wrestling superhero, players will smash their way through two worlds, the "Living World" and the "Dead World," trying to save the love of his life.
What makes Guacamelee so great is the blurred lines between action and platforming, as a lot of the moves Juan will use for combat will also allow him to progress through the platforming areas. Switching between dimensions on the fly is another plus, as some puzzles will require you to use both dimensions in your solution. We weren't sure what to make of Guacamelee at first, but after playing it we realized it was simply en fuego.
10. Dust: An Elysian Tail
Dust: An Elysian Tail combines the best parts of some of our favorite franchises and rolls them into one beautiful package. Take the 2D action of Ninja Gaiden, throw in Zelda's upgrade system and a leveling system standard to all RPGs, and set it among gorgeous hand-drawn backdrops, and you've got Dust. It's a game with something for everyone, which is hard to do.
The story involves a rabbit warrior names Dust with a sentient sword, known as the Blade of Ahrah, who must fulfill a prophecy to save the world. There's also a companion, a miniature dragon-type creature named Fidget, who aids the warrior with magic spells. Needless to say, there's a lot to take in, but it's all worth it. Dust is quite a tale, worthy of any gamer's time.
9. To The Moon
Do you have any regrets? Is there anything in your life you wish to change? If given the opportunity, would you change the way you remembered something? This is the premise of the excellent To The Moon, where a new technology allows scientists to enter the memories of someone on their deathbed and alter them to their liking.
The game plays like a point-and-click, looks like a classic SNES RPG, and tells one of the most tragic and beautiful stories in all of gaming. Aerith's death in Final Fantasy VII hasn't got diddly squat on the story of old man Johnny and the two doctors, Rosalene and Watts. Want to convince a non-gamer that the medium can evoke true emotion? Sit them in front of To The Moon.
Limbo is what happens when art direction and gameplay become one. The game's simple, with only the most basic controls and interactions, but its striking look and mysterious tone make it instantly compelling. As a little boy who awakens in a gloomy, monochromatic forest, your goals are simply to find your sister and escape the woods. Along the way, youll die many gruesome deaths, in a system of puzzle solving the developers aptly named trial and death.
Having pulled in $7.5 million for developer Playdead, Limbo is a true indie success story. The creators resisted the Mainstream it! advice from numerous investors and consultants, choosing to remain true to their original vision. The result was not only a commercial home run on XBLA, PSN and Steam, but won Playdead a slew of awards, including Best Visual Art from the Game Developers Choice Awards.
Fez isnt just another indie game - it flaunts the indie label with pride. Some others attempt to hide their small budgets behind layers of unnecessary polish and mainstream game elements, but Fez creator Phil Fish abandoned those ideas and took advantage of the publisher-less medium to create something unique.
From the adorable aesthetic to the cerebral game design (that is honestly, without exaggeration, something unlike weve ever seen), Fez is an absolutely impressive accomplishment. In the weeks and months following its launch, gamers talked on social media and through emails attempting to crack its codes, with some stumping even the cleverest gamers for weeks. But more than simply smart, the game is fun and rewarding, two elements that wrap the package together into an amazing experience.
6. FTL: Faster Than Light
We weren't expecting such a strong force...it came out of nowhere. Now half of our firepower isn't functioning, there's a breach in our hull, and half of our crew, also our best friends, are dead. How the hell are we supposed to continue? What are we supposed to do?
This is the beauty of the roguelike FTL: Faster than Light. No two games are exactly the same, pitting players against an always changing difficulty level. Throw in things like permanent character death and a bevy of different ship systems to maintain, like life support and piloting, and FTL soars. Just don't make the mistake of naming your crew after people close to you. If they die, they're not coming back, and you'll feel really bad about it.
From the moment Bastion boots up, and the narrator's voice begins to tell the story as it happens, one thing becomes clear: Bastion is different. The hack-and-slash features fairly typical gameplay--especially when compared to most other indie games--but its atmosphere, characters, and world make it an unforgettable experience. It's a game with a soul, and a heart beating out of its chest.
The presentation is simply astounding, from the wonderfully artistic visuals to the soundtrack (which we consider one of the greatest of all time). But what stands out most is the narrator, who gives the entire game a voice and breathes life and reason into the dying world. It sounds like a gimmick (and, truth be told, it just might be), but it's a damn good one, and that sets it apart from just about everything else.
4. Cave Story
Cave Story is a platformer thats so good, we gladly paid money for it after completing it numerous times for free. This Japanese-made Metroidvania shooter combined so many things we love: simple-but-rock-solid shooting, upgradeable weapons, multiple endings, lovable characters, and a bevy of secrets for those willing to explore the carefully-crafted levels. The fact that it was PC freeware, complete with fan-made language mods, made it all the sweeter, and it gained enough positive attention to warrant faithful ports to WiiWare and the 3DS.
The fact that the original was all designed by the one-man Studio Pixel (aka Daisuke Amaya) blows our minds--not only did he program some great run-n-gun stages, but he also drew sprites and composed music thatll take any fan of old classics straight to retro heaven. And well never forget the foibles of the oafish Balrog, whose hilarious facial expressions and cheery cries of Huzzah! speak volumes on their own.
3. Super Meat Boy
The twitch platformer to end all twitch platformers. The level designs that awaited our eponymous cube of raw protein were devilishly difficult--but new tries were so painlessly accessible that we became addicted to the natural high of finally completing the level that had killed us over 100 times. Each facet of the game, from the stage titles to the zany cinematics, is a nod to one retro game or another, and the unlockable cast of characters is a gathering of indie gamings greatest hits.
SMB even had humble beginnings befitting of any indie legend, as a flash game that didnt drum up all that much hype. But with its staggering sales on both Xbox and PC, its clear that carefully-crafted gameplay and perfectly-designed difficulty will pay big dividends, no matter how maddening it can sometimes be. If youve beaten the Dark World or Cotton Alley, you can consider yourself among the platforming elite.
Minecraft starts you off with nothing; no weapons, no items, and no idea what you're doing. You can run, you can jump, and you can punch--that's it. But slowly, through trial-and-error and exploration, the game's many layers begin to show themselves. At first, you might punch a tree to get some wood, affix rock onto the top to make a pickaxe, and dig a hole into the mountain to protect yourself from the horrors of the night--but before long, everything changes. Within a few days, you'll be building glass tree houses in the middle of a lake of lava, or creating a to-scale replica of the USS Enterprise, floating in the air.
Minecraft, which has sold over five million copies since it released (which isn't bad, considering its shoe-string budget and tiny development team), stands as a remarkable achievement--not just for indie games, but for games in general. From its humble origins to its explosive rise to the top, the game is a well-rounded gaming experience, and gives players the ability to experiment, explore freely, and reshape their environment to an almost ludicrous level. It's charming, imaginative, and one of the most unique experiences of this generation.
Whether you played it once or a dozen times, Braid is the kind of game that stays with you. From the ethereal story-telling to the brain-twisting chrono-puzzles introduced in each world, Tims heroic (or disturbing?) journey set the precedent for every puzzle platformer after it. The time manipulation mechanics felt like they were introducing us to undiscovered muscles in our brains--ones that were initially flimsy, but over time, strengthened to conquer the later stages mind-warping conundrums.
The plot alone gives the game indie cred, with multiple interpretations that actually make you think instead of spelling it all out for you. Is it all an allegory for nuclear weapons? Is Tim the alcoholic aggressor in an abusive relationship? Whatever your conclusion about the games ending, youll feel a supreme satisfaction for snagging every last puzzle piece and bending time to your will.
What do you think?
Without question, there are more than 25 amazing indie games. There are many, many more that completely broke the mold, changing their respecting genres forever--but, in the end, plenty had to be cut to make the final list. What do you think? What games would you put above the rest for the best indie games of all time?
And if you want to hear about other great games so good that we felt rambunctious enough to call them "the best," check out The 100 best games of all time and the best point-and-click adventure games.