I am, from top to bottom, an indie snob, the type that doesn’t get excited about any game with mainstream popularity. It’s been a boom time for independent developers in the world of electronic entertainment, but also a very challenging one.
The biggest hurdle for indie devs is discovery — they depend on the press to get noticed at all. That’s why it saddens me to see so many “best of” lists featuring the same mega-sellers over and over again. Seriously, Stardew Valley doesn’t need the boost.
Today, I’m presenting eight underappreciated titles. Some of these are genuinely obscure, others have done pretty well but still don’t get the media love they deserve. The main thing they have in common is that I like them and I think they should be more popular than they are.
So keep these games in mind when the next Steam sale rolls along. Most of these are under $20 even before discounts are factored in, so you’re not risking much and you can even give a much-needed hand to a small dev team.
Developer: Question — Year: 2015 — Price: $19.99
Some games struggle because their design is just too unorthodox to explain in a brief marketing blurb. The Magic Circle — which I could best describe as an open-world adventure game, a strange beast if ever there was one — definitely falls into that category.
The Magic Circle puts the player in the role of an error in the system. The story centers around a fictional game (also called The Magic Circle — another bit of epistolary postmodernism) that has been caught in development hell for decades. The fault lies with the game’s auteur developer (voiced by James “Dr. Venture” Urbaniak), who can be heard bickering with his long-suffering team members throughout the game. But there are secrets aplenty both within the game-within-a-game and in the characters surrounding it, and the player will ultimately decide the fate of this doomed game.
The objective in The Magic Circle is a simple one: Reach a walled-off part of the game that’s on the other side of a chasm and a pack of angry enemies. Lacking any means of self-defense (let alone flight), the player is instead gifted with the ability to create magical traps. By snaring characters in the game, the player can manipulate their attributes — turning friends into foes, taking attributes from one creature and giving them to another, and so forth. There is a ready means to solve all of the game’s puzzles, but the player also has the tools to seek out new and creative solutions.
It’s on this list because… It’s an absolute shame that a game this polished with such a novel concept didn’t do better.
Developer: Dan & Gary Games — Year: 2018 — Price: $19.99
I have a soft spot for the odd, and this one qualifies in spades. Super Daryl Deluxe is a Metroidvania platformer-RPG that stands out for its wonderfully bizarre visuals and story.
That story puts the player in the loafers of Daryl Whitelaw, the undisputed lord of the dorks. He’s a transfer student to Water Falls, a high school best known for producing two students who caused the world’s most mundane apocalypse. He shows up on a day commemorating said apocalypse, and it’s immediately obvious that something isn’t right. Most of the student body is missing, many of the classrooms have turned into sprawling pocket dimensions, and the way that the teachers’ eyes are glowing is a bit disconcerting.
Daryl’s goal is just to get from one day to the next, which isn’t so easy when every room is full of history’s greatest monsters brought to life. To defend himself, Daryl obtains a range of offensive powers by trading in textbooks — a rare and precious good in Water Falls. Daryl’s powers are a diverse lot, and while the early stages of the game can be completed simply by spamming a few basic attacks, the later enemies and bosses will require more tactical use of Daryl’s more exotic gifts.
It’s on this list because… The developers threw in everything they could think of to make this awesome. Honestly, it’s probably my favorite title on the list.
Developer: Team Kryll — Year: 2015 — Price: $4.99
If ever there was a game that deserved more love, it’s this one. Below Kryll is one of those games that seems like it should have enjoyed a bigger response, but sadly fell between the cracks. But maybe we can fix that?
Below Kryll has a story, but it’s kind of beside the point. The player controls a ninja who levels up as he completes levels, gaining an assortment of typical ninja talents — melee and ranged attacks, jumping abilities, and a short-range sprint/teleport. Using these abilities, the player is tasked with navigating a vast network of subterranean chambers, collecting golden shuriken, and hunting for hidden shrines.
Ah, but here’s the best part: Nearly all of these levels are user-created. After playing for a while and collecting in-game currency, any player can stake out a piece of the world and create their own stage. The stage creator is simple, but the world of Below Kryll is a testament to how people use it — creating complex puzzles, intriguing story arcs across multiple rooms, even sprawling art rooms with images painstakingly recreated in pixel art. You might even find a few levels by yours truly buried down there.
It’s on this list because… Builder games with user-generated content are extremely popular, so there’s no reason that this game shouldn’t be bigger.
Developer: Snowcastle Games — Year: 2018 — Price: $29.99
It’s possible that some of you are familiar with an earlier iteration of this game, titled Earthlock: Festival of Magic. Earthlock (sans subtitle) is a rerelease and upgrade that significantly improves the experience in many ways — reinserting a mountain of cut content, balancing the characters, and making the story…well, present.
Earthlock is a throwback JRPG set in a world where the world doesn’t spin and the days and nights are fixed, hence the title. The story follows your typical ragtag RPG crew who go on an adventure and blunder into a secret plan by the big bad…you’ve seen it before. It’s a vintage story that harkens back to RPGs of the sixth generation (i.e. shortly before “RPG” came to refer to shooters with stats), and indeed the game’s aesthetics and design hearken back to the days of the PS2.
Where Earthlock really stands out is in its mechanics. While sticking to classic turn-based combat, the game adds a number of twists — including switchable stances with different move sets and an experience system that rewards the player for tackling more technically challenging fights — that make it feel much more tactical. Add in the detailed graphic design, and you have something that should appeal to any aficionado of 2000s-era RPGs.
It’s on this list because… Indie RPGs are a mixed bag, and — for its faults — this is easily one of the best ones I’ve played.
Developer: DYA Games — Year: 2016 — Price: $9.99
I could easily fill this list with all the great twin-stick and gallery shooters I’ve found, but in the name of keeping things simple, I’ll limit myself to just one — the most polished of the bunch.
Bot Vice is the product of DYA Games, a studio specializing in games that imitate the look and feel of classic arcade titles, especially the Neo-Geo games. This one sees protagonist Erin Saver blasting her way through armies of robots and voice acting so bad that I assume it’s intentional. She has a pretty expansive tool kit to achieve that goal — along with the obligatory firearm and powerups, she also has a variety of defensive measures, including a dodge roll and a bullet-deflecting blade.
Aesthetically, Bot Vice is simply nicer to look at than most pixel art games, with more attention paid to the palettes and animations than you usually saw from games released in this period. Add that to its surprising replay value — with lots of bonus stages and challenges for people with arcade-caliber skills — and you have something that’s well worth its small price.
It’s on this list because… It’s a lot of fun, and there’s nothing wrong with a game just being fun.
Developer: Squidlit Ink — Year: 2018 — Price: $1.99
In this age of neo-retro games, there are plenty of people out there making pretend NES, GBA, and MSX games. The number of people trying to emulate titles on the original Game Boy is much smaller. You have to give credit to the creators of Squidlit for putting so much effort into making it feel real.
Of all the games on this list, Squidlit is the easiest one to summarize: You’re a land squid. Go out and save the land. You have a double jump that doubles as your attack, a simple mechanic that is surprisingly versatile while also being satisfying to use. The world of Squidlit is very bite-sized, but even within that tiny package are little Easter eggs.
But to repeat, it is the aesthetic that makes Squidlit shine. While there have been a few games that tried to capture the look of the GB, I’ve never seen one do it so faithfully. This is a real nostalgia trip for a 90’s squid, and while it’s certainly short, it also comes at a budget price that won’t leave any regrets.
It’s on this list because… It’s cute and it’s cheap, and the world might be a little sunnier if there were more things with that description.
Developer: Paper Castle Games — Year: 2018 — Price: $14.99
I’ve often wondered if Underhero suffered from being mixed up with that other game featuring that other rabidly zealous and not-at-all disturbing fanbase. Let’s clear up the confusion, shall we?
Underhero places the player in the role of a cannon fodder bad guy — a Masked Kid, one of many meant to serve as speed bumps for the hero. But everything changes when this particular Masked Kid accidentally kills the hero and claims his magical talking shapeshifting weapon. Sensing an opportunity to take over the show, the Masked Kid’s boss, one Mr. Stitches, sends his peon on a quest to defeat all of the other bosses. Needless to say, though, there’s more than meets the eye here.
At heart, Underhero is a game that idolizes the Paper Mario games, with a similar gameplay style and stylized, cartoon-like graphics. It is a platformer with RPG combat, but everything is action-driven — no grinding for success here, winning fights means learning how to read an enemy’s behavior, dodge or counter their attacks and then retaliate with the best weapon for the job. The combat system is easy but engaging and just about anyone should be able to get a handle on it.
It’s on this list because… There are a few places where it beats Paper Mario at its own game.
Evoland 2 (Legendary Edition)
Developer: Shiro Games — Year: 2015 — Price: $19.99
I feel like the original Evoland — Ludum Dare darling turned full-length game — is fairly well known, but the far more substantial sequel is a little more lost. Of course, if the whole series is new to you, then you’re in luck because both are now available in a single package for the same price as the sequel by itself. What a deal!
The original Evoland was an interesting exploration of action-adventure and RPG mechanics’ past, but it was ultimately more of an interactive museum exhibit than a game. Evoland 2 takes that concept, adds a proper narrative, and carries it on an adventure across time and space. Taking control of an amnesiac time-hopping mystery man, the player must gather a typically ragtag assortment of allies on a journey to figure out why the protagonist was sent through time in the first place.
As a series, Evoland is known for switching its genre at will, paying homage to famous titles with loving mockery. In the first game, the main subjects were The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy. In the follow-up? The list has gotten slightly longer. Street Fighter. 1942. Bomberman. Advance Wars. Professor Layton. Chrono Trigger. Puzzle Fighter. Dance Dance Revolution. Double Dragon. While the game is not overly difficult, the diversity in the gameplay can nevertheless be a real test of skill — and surprisingly, it never feels unfocused. The transition from genre to genre actually feels natural to the story.
It’s on this list because… I was really anticipating this game when I heard about it — usually a recipe for disappointment, but this game was exactly what I wanted.
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