The Top 7... Best indie crossovers

Get by with a little help from their friends

Welcome, one and all, to GamesRadar's Indie Week! This is the most wonderful time of the year--a time to appreciate the figurative little guys in the shark-infested, big-budget waters of the video game industry. The developers who make indie games may not bathe in tubs full of money or scarf caviar for dinner every night, but without corporate pressures or fat cat execs to appease, they're free to take all the risks they want. Whether these brave men and women create for profit or expression, they hold the keys to the medium's evolution.

And they're not in it alone. Indie studios have this heartwarming habit of looking out for each other, always encouraging their peers with a we're-in-this-together mentality. The most glorious form of indie teamwork is the crossover: one studio's character appearing in another studio's game, with no fear of infringing on complex copyrights and red tape. These are the seven greatest cross-promotions in the indie world--a list that doubles as a series of recommendations, because each and every one of the following is an indie gem.

7. The Unfinished Swan

Unfinished Swan is all about minimalism, dropping you into a stark, blank-canvas environment and asking you to chuck paint at your surroundings to find your way. So it's fitting that it includes a shout-out to another PS3-exclusive indie that used a minimalist style in communication rather than setting: Journey. As Easter eggs go, it's fairly easy to stumble upon, but that doesn't make finding it any less satisfying. And it's food for thought: Could The Unfinished Swan and Journey be set in the same fantastical universe?

While paintballing your way around a tall tower in Swan, you're liable to notice some broken yellow ladders dangling just out of reach. Luckily, your level-shifting paint powers can whip up some stepping stones in a jiffy, so you can ascend to the dizzying heights of the tower. At the top, a lone telescope invites you to peer inside--and if you zoom all the way in, you'll spot two very familiar scarf-people gazing into a mountain of light. You're pretty much looking at the full payoff in the above screenshot--but sometimes, it's the Journey, not the destination, that counts.

6. Super Crate Box

Vlambeer's knack for creating wildly addicting indie games was established long before Ridiculous Fishing. Super Crate Box has the same kind of elegant simplicity as Pac-Man: keep moving, or you're going to die. Instead of munching power pellets, you need to collect randomly spawning crates one-by-one, each endowing you with a new weapon. Said weapon will be used to mercilessly slaughter an endless horde of animate skulls, and you'll need to adapt to their various properties on the fly. It's a hoot--a frenzied hoot, at that.

As you play, you gain access to even more devastating artillery, alongside a host of unlockable characters. These guys and gals aren't functionally distinct from one another, but their appearances are quite varied, given how they occupy a tiny amount of pixel real estate. They also mark the perfect opportunity to toss in some indie game shoutouts by way of cameos. You'll find the leads from Super Meat Boy, Canabalt, and Spelunky, as well as the far more obscure Star Guard and Psychosomnium. If you recognized them all on sight, you're nothing short of an indie connoisseur.

5. Dust: An Elysian Tail

Dust is one of the finest Metroidvania games from recent years, offering just as many secrets and upgrades as Shadow Complex and fluid animation that looks like a Vanillaware game with a Western style. It was far-and-away the best thing to come from the admittedly lackluster Summer of Arcade 2012, saving the annual Xbox Live event from being a total wash. Dust also pays loving tribute to some of the 360's all-time greatest indies by way of adorable cameos.

As you explore the myriad nooks and crannies of the realm of Falana, you're bound to stumble across some mysterious locked crates. Once you've gathered enough keys, you can free whoever's imprisoned inside--which, with no explanation whatsoever, could very well be The Kid from Bastion. Other of Dust's friends include Tim (Braid), Meat Boy and Bandange Girl (Super Meat Boy), Gomez (Fez), The Dishwasher and Yuki (The Dishwasher), Spelunker and Damsel (Spelunky), and the Maw (The Maw). Even better: when you return to your home base of Sanctuary, you'll find your 12 buddies jamming in an indie dance party.

4. Guacamelee

At one point during Guacamelee's development, someone at Drinkbox Studios probably stopped and said "Hey. Let's just have fun with our game's backdrops." With that, the art team went wild, peppering Guacamelee's towns and temples with a wealth of video game references and Mexicanified versions of the iconic Internet memes. Chozo statues presenting you with new power-ups? Check. Strong Bad (Fuerto Malo!) on a poster, just because? Check. Insanity Wolf tequila, Me Gusta guavas, and Gentlemen Spy churros? You better believe all three are checked off.

The meme references have a 50-50 chance of eliciting a chuckle or a groan, but the nods to video games new and old are uniformly awesome. Luchador versions of Meat Boy and the N+ ninja, a bar named after Minecraft's Nether Portal, and a Donkey Kong totem are but a few of the many, many references. Our personal favorite is also one of the cheekiest: at the top of a church steeple, you'll find some unmistakable glyphs from the secret language in Fez. The translation, for those who managed to crack this enigmatic cipher? "Be sure to drink your Ovaltine."

3. Ilomilo

Here's another quirky indie in need of a little more mainstream appreciation. Ilomilo tasks you with uniting two adorable creatures, as they navigate through a series of increasingly complicated block mazes. You can think of it as the modern-day analog to Hudson Soft's Binary Land (if only to satisfy our obsession with referencing old, obscure games). And speaking of obscure references, Ilomilo gets major brownie points for including a woefully unsung hero among its quartet of indie cameos.

We're talking, of course, about Victor Neff, the troubled Claymation protagonist of cerebral point-and-click adventure The Dream Machine (which, wouldn't ya know it, is available on Steam right now). We'd estimate that less than 5% of the people playing Ilomilo knew who this guy was, provided they could even find the mischievous Safka creature that led to his level in the first place. The other cameos are much more recognizable; Goo Balls from World of Goo, Meat Boy from Super Meat Boy, and Josef from Machinarium all made the jump to 3D to hang out in Ilomilo's secret stages.

2. Runner 2

Gaijin Games was ahead of the curve when it comes to indie crossovers. As early as May 2010, Meat Boy could be spotted in one of Bit.Trip Runner's psychedelic backgrounds. But Bit.Trip Presents Runner 2: Future Legend of Rhythm Alien took things to a whole new level of indie appreciation with its Good Friends DLC. It's as if Gaijin peered into our heart of hearts and discovered our most secret indie cameo desires: Quote from Cave Story and Raz from Psychonauts.

Joining them are Spelunker from Spelunky, stubby robot Atlas from Portal 2 co-op, and equally stubby robot Josef from Machinarium. And since Meat Boy typically gets all the cameo love, Runner 2 flips the script by including Dr. Fetus riding a bloody saw blade like a unicycle. Though these indie guests play exactly the same as Commander Video and his ilk, it's their animations that make the difference. Josef contracts his torso instead of ducking; Raz summons a psychic orange shield instead of blocking; Spelunker whips before the start of each sprint. And the Charles Martinet-narrated cutscenes explaining their arrival in the Welkin Wonderland are utterly delightful--see for yourself.

1. Super Meat Boy

This hardcore 2D platformer is immaculate when you play as the titular cube of meat--but Team Meat knows that variety is the spice of life, so they added a massive lineup of indie guest stars. All of them feel completely distinct from one another, many moving with new mechanics that perfectly mimic their game of origin. And secret Warp Zones tied to character unlocks feel like part tutorial, part homage with their brilliant presentation that simulates the source material. Some picks go deep into the indie well--heroes like Ogmo (Jumper), Flywrench (Flywrench), and Jill (Mighty Jill Off) could all be considered Original Gangstas of the indie gaming scene.

As if these inclusions weren't impressive enough, Team Meat included even more cameos when SMB was ported to PC, swapping in familiar PC-centric faces like Minecraft's Mr. Steve, Aquaria mermaid Naija, and the iconic Half-Life Headcrab. Oh, and we haven't even covered Flash cameos like Mr. Karoshi, Newgrounds' Pico, and Time Fcuk's Steven. As far as we can tell, Team Meat was the first to unite this many indie heroes under one digital roof, paving the way for a generation of indie crossovers.

Don't hate; collaborate

We've got lots more indie appreciation coming up this week, so be sure to check back. Know of any awesome indie crossovers we might've missed? Give them the love they deserve in the comments section!

And if you're looking for more Top 7 goodness, check out The Top 7... Best Nolan North roles in gaming and The Top 7... Reasons video game sex will always be weird.