It’s a monumental effort to make a video game. The accomplishment is all the more impressive when it’s done by a handful of people with nothing but a shoestring budget and a dream. Despite the hurdles, we’ve been in a golden age of independent game development for several years. Here are twenty-five of the best indie games ever made.
A quick note about terminology. For our purposes, we’re classifying “indie” as a game made by a small team without any funding from a publisher. This means you won’t find the (admittedly excellent) works by Valve or Double Fine, and there’s nary a Journey to be seen. But what you will find are 25 unique and special creations that show just how much indie game devs can do with just their own brains and brilliance.
25. Legend of Grimrock
Formats: PC, iOS
Release date: 2012
Many indie projects lean on the classics for their inspiration. Legend of Grimrock revisits the dungeon-crawling experience of the Might and Magic series, but does so with plenty of its own style. Your silent quartet of heroes sojourns through the labyrinth that is Mount Grimrock, and even though they never speak, you get deeply attached to the crew.
It could be the claustrophobia talking, but Legend of Grimrock creates a strong sense of place. You dread running into those poisonous spiders, and you can triumph when you figure out your first hidden door switch. The combination of that atmosphere and the well-executed gameplay edge LoG into a spot on the list.
Formats: PC, Xbox One
Release date: 2016
Making a first-person shooter is an enterprise usually only done by the massive giants of triple-A game development. So it’s all the more exciting that one of the most innovative FPS games we’ve seen was the work of such a small, independent crew. The idea for Superhot, a game where time only moves when you move, came out of a game jam. The premise is brilliant, the art is striking, and the experience is both immediate, strategic, and totally original.
23. The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth
Formats: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, iOS, Wii U, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch
Release date: 2014
While the Bible has so much potential as a source of video game inspiration, The Binding of Isaac isn’t quite what we would’ve pictured. The story mirrors that of Abraham and Isaac from the Old Testament, except in the game, Isaac is a crying naked child hiding from his mother in their monster-infested basement. So…yes.
Initially a Flash game released on Steam and OSX, fortunately for us the deliciously disturbing roguelike dungeon-crawler game got a second life in a remake dubbed The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth. The new version added more features and brought the game to a whole new audience on consoles.
22. TowerFall / TowerFall Ascension
Formats: PC, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch
Release date: 2013
This game began its life as the killer app for the Ouya (alas, we barely knew ye, strange little Android console). But the game has fortunately blossomed to cult favorite status multiplayer hit on many other platforms. Imagine if you were playing Super Smash Bros, but instead of punches, everyone used bows and it played out a bit like a 2D Quake 3 Arena. Up to four players can fight at once in the fast-paced, deceptively tactical matches. Things get hairy quickly because the only way to reload is to pick up the previously used arrows lying around the arena. Without getting shot yourself, of course.
21. Cave Story
Formats: PC, Wii, Nintendo 3DS, Nintendo Switch
Release date: 2004
Cave Story is a platform-adventure combining so many things we love: simple-but-rock-solid shooting, upgradeable weapons, Metroid-style exploration, multiple endings, lovable characters, and a bevy of secrets for those willing to explore the carefully-crafted levels. The game was originally made as PC freeware, complete with fan-made language mods. Over time, 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) makes this game all the more impressive. Not only did he program some great run ‘n’ gun stages, he also drew sprites and composed music that’ll take any fan of old classics straight to retro heaven. And we’ll never forget the foibles of the oafish Balrog, whose hilarious facial expressions and cheery cries of “Huzzah!” speak volumes on their own.
Formats: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC
Release date: 2016
Walking around the park and chatting with your boss on a walkie talkie hardly seems like fodder for a touching and deeply suspenseful story. Yet one of our favorite games of 2016 is just that. An effort to get away from a difficult life has brought your character into the wilderness, helping monitor forest fires for a summer. But there’s something strange afoot going on besides sparks among the trees. Who, or what, is out there in the park? The game’s ability to create tension verges on Hitchcockian, and you’ll be riveted through to the very last moments of the incredible tale.
19. The Swapper
Formats: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox One, PC, Wii U
Release date: 2013
The Swapper’s (literally) killer central concept has you creating multiple, expendable clones of yourself, switching between the bodies to solve puzzles and dodge pitfalls. In theory, that’s really cool. You can access power cores in remote areas, or open and close doors from across the room.
But as you keep playing, you’ll find that in some cases, you (increasingly) need to sacrifice your clones to keep progressing. Suddenly, the puzzles become unnerving, as you repeatedly leap from body to body, letting your previous forms fall dispassionately to their deaths was you get further and further from your original self. The Swapper is one of the most uniquely affecting sci-fi games out there, its smart puzzles complimented by a quietly unsettling meditation on identity that makes for an unforgettable experience.
18. Gone Home
Formats: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
Release date: 2013
They say you can never go home again. When you arrive at your family house in the Pacific Northwest on a stormy night and are greeted by a locked door, it seems the adage might be correct. But a little sleuthing gets you inside and starts you on a story to learn about your sister. You roam through the empty house, and all you need to do is explore and absorb the (excellently delivered) story as it unfolds around you. The game has an impeccable sense of place and time, and if you were a teenager in the mid-’90s, prepare yourself for a wonderfully realized stroll down memory lane.
Formats: PlayStation 4, PlayStation 3, PlayStation Vita, Xbox 360, PC
Release date: 2008
Nathan Drake may think he's a top-notch treasure hunter, but he has nothing on the hero in Spelunky. Nate travels around the world, sure, but the environments he tackles never change; same enemies, same layouts, same scripted set-piece spectacle, same everything. The spelunker here has to deal with a new, dynamically generated 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, 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 throw at you, only that it'll be quite the challenge - and an occasionally infuriating hoot - each and every time.
Formats: PC, Xbox One, Xbox 360, PlayStation 4, PlayStation Vita, iOS
Release date: 2011
From the moment the game boots up, and the narrator's voice begins to share the story, one thing becomes clear: Bastion is different. The action-RPG gameplay might be fairly typical, but there’s more to merit a spot on this list. The atmosphere, characters, and world pushed boundaries at release and continue to impress today. Bastion is a game with a soul, and a heart beating out of its chest.
The presentation is simply fantastic, from the wonderfully characterful visuals to the soundtrack (which we consider one of the ). 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. Maybe it is a gimmick. But it's a damn good one, and we can’t help but fall for it.
Click 'Next Page' to see titles 16-6 in our countdown of the best indie games.