It was designed to be the YouTube for games – and Microsoft’s Indie platform has delivered on that promise in spirit, if not in numbers. Powered by the stripped-back development framework XNA, the Indie Games menu on the 360 dash has been steadily filling up with homebrew since its launch in late 2008, and now has over 800 titles available. And, as with any trawl through YouTube, in among the oddball offerings – amid the clones, the cranks and the outright botches – you’ll find topical games, parody games and games built around internet memes.
You’ll also find a handful of genuine crackers. While the Indie Games store is in desperate need of intelligent curatorship, separating the service’s hidden gems from the ugly blunders and Avatar-powered cash-ins, there are now more than enough interesting titles on offer to justify a few hours’ mindless browsing. Certainly, at their worst, Indie Games are crash-prone messes with indecipherable controls, but at their best they can offer the kind of experiences you can’t easily squeeze through a traditional publishing deal: a singular vision; a mechanic or setting that pays no lip-service to the desires of the general marketplace.
Developers continue to complain of low sales, poor visibility and a healthy chunk of the profits going to the platform holder, but that hasn’t kept the best of them from their keyboards. And ultimately, although it’s far from perfect, Microsoft’s initiative has been genuinely revolutionary. Putting aside fertile niches like Sony’s Net Yaroze project, for the first time in 30 years of videogame history, amateur designers of all levels of ability have the opportunity to see their ideas flicker and fizz on consoles around the world. Here are 20 titles that deserve recognition.
One of the more mature and refined Indie Games seen so far, Fourkidsgames’ nautical turn-based strategy offering sees you exploring parchment seas and facing off against all manner of illustrated marine villainy as you trade precious commodities and engage in a series of pacy battles.
And beneath the beautiful cross-hatched surface lies an intelligent and fiercely tactical game, with generous map design and excellent combat options. Despite the attention that’s clearly been lavished on the title, there’s still a certain roughness to the interface at times, but that only goes to make the team’s overall achievement seem all the more unlikely – unlikelier still when you take into account the depth of the multiplayer options. An imaginative spin on an increasingly tired genre, Ancient Trader is ambitious, devious and surprisingly hard to fault.
Kodu Game Lab
Developer: MSR Kodu
Kodu Game Lab sees the XBLIG platform taking a welcome trip down the rabbit hole by means of a simple development kit that allows players to piece together their own games. Designed by a team of Microsoft employees, Kodu is a simple yet powerful suite of tools that encourages people with no programming background at all to have a go at creating everything from basic racing titles to full-blown RPGs.
Primarily aimed at children, it’s limited but intensely satisfying to use, swiftly guiding novices through the pleasures and pains of development as it introduces ideas as straightforward as the placement of in-game objects and as complex as the beginnings of AI behaviour construction. Tutorials are brief but very handy. Better yet, the inclusion of a range of example levels and designs is testament to the thoughtfulness with which the whole package has been built. At 400MP, Kodu Game Lab is nearly public service software.
I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1
Developer: James Silva
With over a quarter of a million copies sold, James Silva’s bubblegum twin-stick gorefest is the poster boy for Microsoft’s XBLIG service: the little game that could, the playful joke that almost everybody enjoys. And it’s a strange beast for a chart-topper, taking one of the most well-worn of videogame control mechanics as its basis before layering on a shifting, pulsating visual backdrop, flinging in some chunky power-ups and, best of all, setting the whole mess to the beat of a horribly catchy theme tune.
Z0mb1es is based on old ideas, then, but Silva’s given them a contemporary twist. This is the game as pop song: an idea that would be unthinkable – and unworkable – through any other delivery channel. On XBLIG, however, it’s found its perfect audience, and its success has propelled Silva into the top tier of the indie development hierarchy, landing him an XBLA contract in the process.
Developer: Blendo Games
Space Invaders by way of Stanley Kubrick, Flotilla manages to be stately, austere and vividly demented at the same time. Its 3D space battles move at a snail’s pace, but they’re a dream come true for armchair strategists who can delight in the intricacies of positioning, course-plotting and missile trajectories before unleashing a volley of slow-moving warheads – most of which will then miss their targets.
Bright migraine colours aside, it’s a believable take on the physics of cosmic warfare, which is why the plot, with its kooky bestiary and bizarre loot, provides such a perfect counterpoint. There’s a hint of sadness amid the pranks, however, as your ailing pilot heads out for one doomed interstellar ramble after the next. Blendo Games’ Brendon Chung has already made a name for himself with wilful titles such as Gravity Bone, but with Flotilla he’s hit the unlikeliest of sweet spots – a game as exacting as it is quirky, a stiff challenge beneath a sugar coating.
Coded by one-man micro-studio Matt James, Leave Home doesn’t just embody the bedroom workshop ideals of the Indie Games initiative: it presents a vivid, nerve-jangling art shooter that rivals the best of its kind on any platform. A fixed-duration score-run with levels that restitch themselves around the player depending on their own performance, this is an exquisite blend of the mechanical and the organic, throwing plastic squid, disco-ball amoebas and all manner of other glimmering, chintzy enemies against you as you take on your real rival – the high-score table.
The adaptive level design means that both memory and improvisation skills combine as the game’s micro-encounters shuffle themselves in and out of the pack, while the lone fixed point of the bullet-hell climax provides the perfect spur to drive you into your next replay. Brief but unforgettable, Leave Home represents the absolute pinnacle of Indie Game creativity.Text Zedventure
With so many bedroom coders burying their debut creations under avalanches of particle effects and greasy smears of bloom, Text Zedventure stands out as a far more controlled offering. A throwback to the days of Zork and Adventure, Matthew Reynolds’ debut is an interactive fiction title that sees you escaping from an infected city by reading through pithy little paragraphs of scene-setting text and making a series of quick tactical decisions.
Short but enviably sharp, with a streamlined interface and evocative visual design, Text Zedventure makes an ideal break from the twin-sticks and side-scrollers gumming up the Indie Games platform. It’s a relic, certainly, but a charming and very literate one. Built by a single designer who has no development background to speak of, it also offers a sensible template for anyone tempted to get stuck into XNA for themselves.
Platformance: Castle Pain
Developer: Magiko Gaming
Combining a simple agenda with toxically intricate geography, Platformance: Castle Pain is a kind of incremental platform game that sees you working your way through a vast and complex castle, stopping every few seconds to expire on the business end of an axe or be frightened to death by a flock of passing ghouls.
As the name suggests, this is a game to be mastered and then exploited for showboating purposes: a cruel process that requires an audience in order to truly shine. It’s brutally difficult, too, with queues of demanding jumps, throngs of roving enemies and plenty of other opportunities for instant death. As with the best of its kind, however, Castle Pain is fair (in its own way) and filled with more than enough humour and gimmickry to ensure that you’ll keep fighting through to the bitter end.
Mithra – Episode 1: The Calling
Developer: Afiction Games
Mithra: The Calling is one of the unlikelier games to have washed up on the shores of the XBLIG platform: a lavish – and often rather gaudy – 3D adventure title in which two alien freaks must fend off a devastating invasion in a classic point-and-click manner. The puzzles are mostly tart and precise, but it’s the production values and endless design ambition that really dazzle, as developer Afiction offers up quibble-free controls, an engrossing narrative and a suite of lovely environments filled with evocative detailing and the odd red herring.
Subsequent instalments have yet to turn up in the months since Episode 1’s release – suggesting, rather reassuringly, that the prospect of credible episodic gaming is as difficult for XNA developers as it is for everyone else. But despite the short running time and the open ending, The Calling is a quietly astonishing feat of indie programming.
Developer: My Owl Software
My Owl Software’s fruit-headed hero is an oddly grotesque creation, but that hasn’t put off players, who’ve kept Apple Jack in the Top Downloads section of the Indie Games menu since its release. A straightforward yet creative platformer that sees you exploring warped variations on the Home Counties, this is a slice of old-school design with a tilt towards the high-score table that lends it real replayablity.
Exploration and combat are nicely balanced as you rove around a series of small levels, finishing off the locals by picking them up and chucking them at one another. Once you’ve got into the game’s groove, a decent combo system encourages you to use enemies as resources, while trickier areas can only be reached after you’ve taken a lead from Metroid and transformed your protagonist into an apple small enough to roll under low ledges. With a generous clutch of environments to chew through, Apple Jack is rich and personable – a pleasingly British platformer that effortlessly evokes the glory days of ZX Spectrum-era game creation.
Arkedo Series 03 – Pixel!
Developer: Arkedo Games
The small team at Arkedo are leading figures in an emerging trend. The Paris-based studio has been stepping away from the world of professional development on piracy-ridden platforms in an attempt to make money with XNA titles instead. After boutique charmers such as Big Bang Mini and Nervous Brickdown on DS, Pixel! is the third – and most complete – of the outfit’s Indie Game offerings.
Guiding a luminous pixelated cat through a series of simple 2D levels is slick and enjoyable, particularly when the adventure opens out and each new level starts to throw in a handful of fresh ideas, ranging from moving platforms and increasingly dangerous enemies, through to the likes of puzzle-based set-pieces and micro-maze mini-games. It’s traditional stuff delivered with a cutting-edge aesthetic. It may seem almost unfair to see an established indie developer competing alongside the amateurs, but when the games in question are as warm and delightful as this, it’s hard to bear a grudge.Miner Dig Deep
Be careful: appearances can be deceptive, and Miner Dig Deep isn’t the simple Boulderdash clone it initially appears to be. Rather, it’s a bizarre blend of Rogue and Farmville as you explore a growing network of underground tunnels, searching for the resources you’ll need to upgrade your equipment and ultimately expand your excavations.
With no enemies and very few sources of overt danger, it makes for a hypnotic form of grinding. While uniformly basic graphics and little in the way of intelligent sound design suggest that you won’t be playing this for the aesthetic pleasures, as your subterranean network steadily spreads and your stockpile of goodies starts to build up, you may find it increasingly difficult to down tools and turn your attention to something more meaningful. A casual game dressed in retro mechanics, this is disconcertingly effective stuff: approach with caution.
Bailout!’s primitive stylings hide the fact that it’s the embodiment of a very modern idea: the videogame as a form of topical commentary – one that, on this occasion, takes the form of a simple score challenge based around the global financial crisis.
Collect the falling money and dodge the plummeting bankers: as satire it’s fairly blunt stuff, but as a tight little arcade game it’s genuinely satisfying to get to grips with as you navigate the small playing area, darting in and out of danger spots and struggling to reach the big payoffs. If the Indie Games platform really is to bring a touch of YouTube’s timeliness to the traditionally unresponsive world of console games on a regular basis, it would be heartening to think its games will all be as well-rounded and considered as this one.
A finalist in Microsoft’s Dream Build Play design contest back in 2008, Trino is a strangely thrilling action puzzler built around a mechanic that sees you capturing your enemies by constructing a triangular web around them. It’s a simple idea, but one that works well in the game’s pressurised levels as your nanotech foes swarm down from the sky, making evasion and forward planning as much of a necessity as quick fingers.
With a range of enemy types and a trio of nasty bosses to take on, Trino is the epitome of a tiny idea taken to clever extremes. A sparsely detailed game, this is possessed of a core that’s more than satisfying enough to make up for its general lack of frills.
Developer: Barkers Crest
There are plenty of Indie Games that include Avatar support – the Top Downloads charts tend to be clogged with them, in fact – but few manage to emerge as little more than an opportunistic novelty. Avatar Golf may not be a particularly groundbreaking offering, then, but it is a surprisingly accomplished and fully featured sports game, with responsive control, a wide range of environments and expansive online features that will see you designing and sharing custom courses as well as taking part in Xbox Live matches.
With co-op options, pleasantly solid visuals and a decent putting mode, this is a generous and competitive arcade sports title. You may find yourself swiftly silencing the placeholder Eurobeat soundtrack, but that’s surely a small price to pay for a game that allows you to tee off while decked out as a BioShock Big Daddy.
Developer: Mommy’s Best Games
From the developer behind early XBLIG darling Weapon Of Choice, Shoot 1UP is a vertical-scrolling shooter sufficiently creative to stand out on a platform that often seems to be gradually drowning in the genre.
Beneath the steady parade of self-consciously bizarre hand-drawn enemies, the game has some clever ideas to latch on to, the most immediate being the fact that any 1-ups you collect in the course of play kick in immediately, throwing a new ship on to the battlefield and allowing you to ramp up your offensive until you’re in charge of a shimmering armada of spacecraft.
Besides providing a leftfield palette-cleanser for genre veterans, this asymmetric take on bullet hell is also surprisingly accessible to newcomers. And if you find yourself stuck somewhere in between those camps, a fulsome range of options will allow you to tweak the game until it plays just the way you want it to.
Like Katamari Damacy, Solar initially seems to be a peaceful, friendly kind of game, until you realise that you’re cast in the role of a force of nature so devastating that most other developers would save you for the final crushing boss encounter. Casting you as a rogue sun rushing around a huge galaxy, busting up other star systems and forming a chain of planets, Murudai’s thoughtful offering is as much a science playset as it is a game, as you capture pieces of space rock and slowly build them into new worlds, fuelling their own burning cores with the detritus of passing civilisations.
A range of challenge missions bring some order to proceedings should you want it, but Solar works best as a pure galactic ball pit, ripe for experimentation and open-ended tinkering. With sleek, rather stylish presentation and the most playful use of accretion theory yet seen outside of the world of dubious PhD bids, Solar is also a testament to game design at its most poised, and its most mature.
Developer: Debreuil Digital
Loosely inspired by the Amiga game of the same name, Sleepwalker is a puzzle-platformer built around a deviously simple conceit: while you can change your cartoon somnambulist’s direction with the press of a button, you can’t stop him moving. What follows is an elegant lesson in escalation, as the designers layer in the gimmicks – ranging from switches and roving platforms to more complex pieces of machinery – seemingly without running out of inspiration.
Indirect control, as ever, makes for a tense game, as you find yourself circling your sleepwalker while you wait for the solution to a particularly taxing level to take shape. The puzzles yield deftly to logic, however, and while visually Sleepwalker is blandly consistent at best, its cold and calculating heart makes it one of the more satisfying XBLIG titles to see through to completion. Balancing frustration and enjoyment with real poise, this pyjama-clad brainteaser is both charming and astute.
Developer: Tech Arts 3D
Tech Arts 3D may be more familiar to fans of tacky grot like 3D Custom Girl, but with Madrism the Japanese developer has come up with something entirely out of character: a fast-paced architect ’em up that has players flinging together frantic floor plans before they run out of space, bolting on kitchens and toilets to complete designs, thus freeing up the room needed for the next rush of schematics.
Set against a graph-paper backdrop, Madrism has a quietly stylish appeal to balance out the intense speed of the game itself, and if you can overcome the bewildering pace of your first few rounds – and the near absence of much in the way of a tutorial – you’re likely to find a surprisingly imaginative puzzler just itching to get under your skin. Both modest and bafflingly strange at the same time, Madrism proves innovation and experimentation don’t always turn up daubed in bright colours.
Developer: Team Mango
If you wondered how Doom would play if its genes were spliced with Gauntlet’s, Dysnomia may contain your answer. A top-down sci-fi dungeon crawler with twin-stick controls and a range of pickups and weapons to scavenge, Team Mango’s arcade game dumps you on a grim alien world and asks you to join the dots in a simple mystery narrative, while blasting away at all manner of alien life and solving a range of simple geographical puzzles.
It’s ugly, but charmingly so: a throbbing botch of boulder browns and rust reds that almost seems to satirise the colour schemes of other, more complicated games. And the enemies, although bland while alive, are reassuringly willing to explode into large puddles of claret after a few bullets have been fired. As a shooter, this is hectic and fun, particularly in twoplayer co-op. As a blend of genres it’s both ambitious and intriguing.
Breath of Death VII
Breath Of Death VII isn’t as cloyingly ironic as its title and art style suggest. While Zeboyd Entertainment has set out to parody the earnest 16bit RPG genre, it’s managed to encapsulate most of the elements that made those games so appealing in the first place.
Playing as a skeletal protagonist, you’re thrown into a surprisingly roomy adventure filled with genre staples such as an overworld map, bone-rattling dungeons and NPC-clogged towns to explore. The levelling curve is brisk but enthralling, and combat, while presented in the simple Dragon Quest style, is deep and tactical. Random encounters are limited, dialogue and exposition are fairly charming, and there’s more adventuring to be had here than you might suspect.