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The Pop Culture Wing of Hot Corner Harbor

Sunday, January 7, 2018

My Favorite Indie Games of 2017

I’ve written a decent amount in 2017 about video games, but mostly about larger titles from bigger companies. It’s not necessarily bad, but it’s also not really indicative of a lot of what I played this year, either. And that’s kind of a shame, because a lot of smaller, indie titles rely on good word-of-mouth to get attention. So maybe I’ll write a full article about one or more of these games later, but in the meantime, I wanted to run down a list of the smaller titles that I enjoyed this year. Not all of them came out this year, necessarily, but part of the joy of smaller games is finding something you missed the first time. With that in mind, consider looking into one or more of these if they sound interesting.

Anarcute is a top-down beat-em-up that I stumbled upon about extremely cute animals fighting off the iron fist of a fascist police state. The discordant halves of that premise do a lot to elevate a solid set of mechanics and level design into a really interesting total package.

Battle Chef Brigade
This is one of my two favorite games on this list. Do you enjoy side-scrolling beat-‘em-ups, RPGs, and/or match-three puzzle games? Have you ever watched Lord of the Rings or played Legend of Zelda and wondered what their version of Chopped is like? If either of those questions is a yes (or even just intrigued bemusement), Battle Chef Brigade might be a game for you to try. Set in a fantasy kingdom overrun with monsters that has decided hunting them and cooking them into fancy dishes is the best way to handle the problem, you play as a young runaway looking to join the elite titular force. Matches involve juggling so many parts that it keeps you on your toes the whole time. Are you finding the right creatures? Are you getting the correct tastes? What’s the best combo you can build to combine flavors? How do you work around inedible taste gems? It’s incredibly fun.

Blossom Tales: The Sleeping King
Nintendo’s decision to keep innovating with their main titles is admirable, but it means a lot of rich set-ups, mechanics, and concepts get sidelined or discarded with plenty of room left to explorer. Indie games have done a great job in recent memory of building off of those idea, for example building the entire rapidly-mushrooming “Metroid-vania” genre while The Big N let the original, 2D-style Metroid game lay dormant.

Blossom Tales is something like that, but instead of 2D Metroid, it focuses on A Link to the Past-era Legend of Zelda. As someone who had ALttP serve as my introduction to the series (and it probably remains my favorite entry in the series), seeing someone else play around with this style and build it into something new is a lot of fun. I’m still early into this one (it came to Switch pretty late in the year), and I look forward to more of it going forward.

A first person puzzle game in the vein of Portal 1 and 2; you get a gun that shoots paint and locked rooms that can only be unlocked by splatting the walls with said paint. It’s a little lighter on the physics side of things than that series, but it sets out on its own complex-but-easy-to-understand mechanics that surprisingly hasn’t been used (to my knowledge). And that color-based idea at its core gives it a strong aesthetic sense that’s also right up my alley. It lives a little too much in Portal’s shadow at times, including a similar sense of humor and mid-game twist, but it carves out its own respectable niche.

This is the one title on the list that I actually did write about this year. It’s a tight little story-driven sci-fi thriller built on a fascinating central mechanic.

Fast RMX
What Blossom Tales does for 2D Legend of Zelda, Fast RMX does for F-Zero. Nintendo has let the fast-paced, low-gravity sci-fi racer lay dormant for years, seemingly deciding to focus on Mario Kart. It’s understandable, but I think the two were distinct enough to coexist. It’s understandable if Nintendo doesn’t want to devote time to both series, but it’s good to see someone else take their ideas and run with it.

A Hat in Time
My co-favorite title here, tied with Battle Chef Brigade. A Hat in Time is a throwback to the 3D platformers I grew up playing back on the N64 and Gamecube, a genre of long hoped would see a retro revival. There were a lot of entries in that category from the indie circuit this year, finally, and this one was the best. A Hat in Time is love letter to Super Mario 64 and Super Mario Sunshine that, like all great modern throwbacks, knows what parts are essential to capturing the essence of its genre and what parts would be better off being replaced with more modern elements. And the art direction and general design of everything is both richly designed and cartoonishly cute, and this all carries through to the strong-level design. Every location feels welcoming and detailed. Playable character Hat Girl stands among the best silent protagonists in video games. Everything about this game feels natural and perfect.

Kamiko is another game that clearly draws inspiration from earlier Legend of Zelda, but goes in a different direction. Instead of going expansive and deep in gameplay, it focuses instead on smaller, quicker bursts, making an almost arcade-like experience that’s ideal for replay and speedrunning. It definitely makes for an interesting point of comparison, although I wish it were a little longer.

Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime
A neon-psychedelic trip through the galaxy on a spaceship to save existence from “anti-love”, with just you and your friends to help you steer and man the guns against forces of evil. It’s as wild as it sounds, and a lot of fun as a co-op game (and the newer Switch version makes it super easy to play with friends on a couch and in front of a TV).

The Next Penelope
Does the idea of a Greek-myth-inspired, cyberpunk racing game sound exciting? Because I know all three of those things appeal to me. The Next Penelope is a tough-but-fun top down racer that I finally got around to trying once it came to Switch (Nintendo so far has done a great job of bringing a wide range of indie titles to the new system and highlighting them) late in the year. I really don’t know how to further talk this one up; that opening pitch I gave alone seems like a pretty hard sell, to me. If it’s that way to you as well, definitely check this out.

Snake Pass
Snake Pass is a fun and unique twist on the 3D platformer; in a genre that has basically been defined by Mario for the last two decades, Sumo Digital decided to instead create a game where the protagonist couldn’t jump (being a snake, of course). All vertical movement has to be done by slithering, twisting, and pulling yourself around bamboo poles and other structures littered around the courses. It’s an interesting concept, and makes the game feel a bit like a brainteaser. The mechanics get a little irritating at times, but they’re also fascinating and rewarding, so ultimately, I appreciate Sumo Digital’s decisions even when it gets tough.

I know this one took off more last year, but I was a little late to the party. Superhot is a shooter that taps into the puzzle genre, but goes in a very different direction than the Portal-like side of the genre. Rather than asking you to get from Point A to Point B of a level, Superhot is concerned with what you do in that level, dropping you in a room with a bunch of aggressive AIs and asking you to fight them all off. To give it more of a puzzle-game-feel, time only moves forward when you move. The end result basically makes you feel like a fight scene choreographer for an action movie, as you wind up single-handedly taking down hoards of attackers with complicated moves after you learn the patterns through iteration. There aren’t many other ways to get that feeling, and it’s really cool.

The Witness
Another 2016 release that I got around to a little late. There’s a lot about that frustrates me about The Witness, but I keep coming back to it. There’s something so calming about walking around the beautiful island setting and solving puzzles, and it feels so good when it all connects. I think the game loses something in its attempts to go entirely non-verbal, but again, I see where it’s coming from on that side of things and I respect the commitment.

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