Are you mindlessly trudging through meaningless side quests in Final Fantasy VII Remake just to pass the time? Is Animal Crossing: New Horizons getting a little long in the tooth? We’ve all been spending a lot of time in front of the screen lately, wondering if we should dip into our backlog or shell out hard-earned money for a game that you’re not quite sure about. But then again, what else is there to play?
Well, dear couch potato, we have you covered. The Launcher staff has put our collective heads together to come up with one indie game recommendation for each day in May. This page will update each day and our game du jour will appear right at the top of the list. Of course, we don’t expect you to play all 31 games, but these suggestions are shorter experiences than your average Triple-A title, so bookmark this page and get ready to sample some of these indie gems.
Developer: Richard Hofmeier
Available on: Windows (Name your own price on itch.io)
Every detail of “Cart Life” is stifling. The game lets the player choose one of three characters, each of which juggles a dreary day job and overwhelming responsibilities and traumas to the pace of a relentless day-night cycle. I messed up one early playthrough because I forgot the instructions to get a coffee cart, which were described in a line of dialogue and then never again. Even when I figured out how to get the cart, a city bureaucracy moving at a snail’s pace and a looming custody hearing subverted my efforts to get my little coffee business off the ground.
It’s obvious what reaction these burdens and obstacles are meant to elicit from the player. The obviousness does not make it less effective.
“Empathy games" don’t always work, and sometimes that’s a fault of the game part of the equation. A well-worn but prominent example of this is “Spent,” a game created by an ad agency to simulate poverty and homelessness. A Psychology Today study found that even players who were sympathetic to the homeless walked away less so after playing. Some players simply budgeted their way out of trouble, and were left with the impression that the homeless and impoverished were suffering the consequences of their own, game-like choices. They had simply played the game wrong.
“Cart Life” side steps this trap. In fact, there’s no winning “Cart Life,” really. Even walkthroughs and GameFAQ guides that illuminate which steps to take do not make those steps easy or manageable or fun. One guide states: “In order to succeed, you only need to find one good way of making money. And once you have, the way to make enough of a living, is to ignore nearly everything else.” And yet, the game does not indulge in misery for misery’s sake. In removing choice, and simply documenting the malaise of work, the game makes a clear statement. People are not just a collection of choices, good or bad or in between. Humanity is worthy on its own merits. It’s tempting to say that the characters’ redemptive properties — one is a loving mother and sister; another has a tender and funny companionship with his cat — make up for their “bad” “choices.” But even that idea should be abandoned. Again: humanity is worthy on its own merits, even if the bureaucracies and systems and plain fact of 24 hours in a day stand up against it.
The game is grey — or, as one more generous article described it, “sharply noir.” Frankly, it’s exhausting to look at. It is maximalist in terms of content, with timers and windows and images and command prompts popping up all over the screen, rarely systematized. It is shocking to revisit this game in 2020, leering back at the aesthetics of 2010 from a future that may have been hard to anticipate a decade prior. In 2013, Apple abandoned skeuomorphism, or the design principle of making user interface elements resemble their real life counterpart. (Remember when the YouTube app icon was a TV?) Since then, we’ve seen the rise of smoothness: Smooth movies with excessive CGI; Smoothing Instagram filters; Smooth interior design and millennial branding. It’s a game worth playing just to be jolted into awareness of how much has changed in the past 10 years — and how much hasn’t.
In 2013, after the game picked up cult status , the game won the Independent Games Festival Awards’ Grand Prize, pitted against a nominees list that reads like the Who’s Who of early 2010′s indie highlights: Hotline Miami, Gone Home, Kentucky Route Zero, the Stanley Parable and many others. In late April, Richard Hofmeier, Cart Life’s developer, tweeted: “I just got evicted. Last summer, I slept in the local cemetery and will probably be doing so again starting Thursday night. ... I keep thinking that if I can’t pay rent then I should die. It’s an inescapable subtext.” ― Mikhail Klimentov
Publisher: Ocelot Society, Developer: Ocelot Society
Available on: Steam
“Event” is an exploration game unlike any other, due in no small part to its extraordinary use of artificial intelligence.
You play as a crew member on a spaceship in a world where humanity has achieved space travel much earlier than in reality. You are tasked to explore one of Jupiter’s moons, but your ship experiences a catastrophic failure; you are the only member of your crew to survive, just barely making it out in an escape pod. You eventually come across the Nautilus, a leisure spaceship built back in the ’80s that is seemingly abandoned — all except for the ship’s artificial intelligence, Kaizen-85.
It’s your job to discover what happened to this ship and get it fully functional again. Your tasks (and consequently, your only interactions throughout the game) are assigned to you by Kaizen-85, an A.I. that boasts more than two million lines of dialogue. You type messages to it as if you were communicating via a messaging app. Kaizen seems startlingly real, as lines of dialogue are rarely repeated, and it properly responds to a lot of your complex questions. Check out this incredibly informative video to further see how monumental an achievement this A.I. is.
While the story itself is admittedly a little lackluster, the experience of talking to an A.I. that seems like an actual human is enough of a unique experience to merit the few hours “Event” takes to complete. — Jhaan Elker
Publisher: Devolver Digital Developer: Askiisoft
Available on: Switch, PC, Mac
In “Katana Zero,” you’ll be replaying missions over and over as time rewinds, giving you a chance to reconsider your approach to assassination. But its repetitive nature is far from boring.
This colorful, side-scrolling platformer puts you in the shoes of a lightning-speed samurai who can bend time. You can deflect bullets and enter slow-motion to slice enemies apart in satisfying blows as you clear out rooms of enemies. If you fail, time resets and you start again. Every encounter feels like a puzzle, where you can lure foes into death traps or ambush them from behind. Every time you start a new level, your samurai puts on earbuds and rips through enemies to the beat of a fast-paced song, making his killing sprees rhythmic.
“Katana Zero” excels not just in its great gameplay, but also in its presentation. It has quieter moments in-between combat. Some of those take place in your beaten-up apartment, where a young neighbor visits. You’ll undergo sessions with a therapist. You can interact with these characters via dialogue options that enrich the experience. — Elise Favis
Available on: PC, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, iOS, Android
The comfort and tranquility of daily routines in “Stardew Valley” is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced in a video game. Every day has a to-do list and completing each task gives you a sense of accomplishment that will keep you motivated to find even more things to do.
At the start of the game, you are tasked with reviving your late grandfather’s derelict farm. Along the way, you connect with the charming denizens of Pelican Town. The concept of the game sounds simple on its face, but the depth of the experience is astonishing. Whether you’re farming, fishing, foraging, mining or tending to your livestock, there’s a blissful quality to gradually upgrading and expanding your land while unearthing the plethora of mysteries cleverly tucked in every nook and corner of the map. There’s so much to do but every last thing you accomplish has rewards that, in due time, will pay dividends.
You can also form meaningful relationships with the more than 30 quirky NPC townspeople. The game drip feeds you snippets of these characters’ backstories as you become more involved in their lives. These vignette slowly unfurl, revealing touching moments that make you feel invested in every inhabitant of the town.
It’s easy to get lost in this masterfully crafted game. The 16-bit art style and transcendent soundtrack gives “Stardew Valley” a level of polish that makes it a truly blissful, pastoral experience. Fire it up and the hours will melt away. — Joe Moore
Battle Chef Brigade
Publisher: Adult Swim Games, Developer: Trinket Studios
Available on: PC, Switch, PlayStation 4
“Battle Chef Brigade” is an inspired mashup of a 2D action platformer with a match-three puzzle game set within a Food Network-style cooking competition and served with a side of RPG progression. Take a moment to let that marinate.
You play as Mina, a chef at her family’s restaurant who runs away to compete in the prestigious Battle Chef Brigade tournament. The Brigade, of course, is an army of elite warrior-cooks that hunt monsters to both keep the kingdom safe and, more importantly, transform those beasts into gourmet meals that look like something you might see on “Iron Chef.” Though fictitious, the concoctions you create for competitions, like cheepchi egg tiramisu or braised dragon belly, are mouthwatering.
To cook a meal, you rotate (stir) the colored gems (flavors) with the goal of matching three colors, which enhances the value of the gems, thus creating a tastier dish. In order to have enough gems in your inventory (pantry), you must dash out of the kitchen and into the wilderness to kill monsters for new ingredients. Managing the brief time limit while juggling multiple dishes and foraging for ingredients is evocative of the frantic intensity that is so prevalent in Food Network competition shows.
Aside from its wildly imaginative concept, “Battle Chef Brigade” is layered puzzle game with combat that feels responsive and smooth. An illustrated, hand-drawn art style paired with fantastic voice acting rounds out the presentation beautifully, making it feel more like an animated movie than a game. — Joe Moore
Publisher: Landon Podbielski, Developer: Adult Swim Games
Available on: PC, Switch, PlayStation 4
“Duck Game” is an absurd 2D party game in which each player is dropped into an arena totally unarmed. You have just seconds to parse the layout of the stage, grab a weapon and kill all other players to win the round. Every attack is a one-hit kill, so most rounds are over within a matter of seconds. You have only a moment to collect yourself before you are dropped into a new stage. This cycle repeats until a player reaches 10 wins.
The unpredictability and frenzied pace make “Duck Game” an incredibly fun party game experience. This silliness is reminiscent of the WarioWare franchise; It moves forward at such a frenetic pace that you aren’t finished laughing before you are embroiled in the next round of chaotic combat. Every weapon has unique properties, and all of them are wildly unbalanced, making it essential to grab the best weapons before your opponents can get the jump on you. Some are harmless: A foam dart gun just nudges the opponent (off the edge of the stage, if you’re lucky). Others, like the bazooka, can clear a huge section of the screen with a wide area of splash damage.
The unpredictable explosions from errantly tossed grenades; the mad dash for a weapon crate only to discover that there’s a trumpet inside; these are the kinds of shenanigans that give “Duck Game” a charm not present in many other games of its type (see: “Towerfall” and “Samurai Gunn”). A highlight reel at the end of each game only further accentuates the hilarity and madcap tempo at which this game operates. — Joe Moore
My Friend Pedro
Publisher: Devolver Digital, Developer: DeadToast Entertainment
Available on: PC, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One, PlayStation 4
Slow-motion action has been a cinematographic staple since the days of Akira Kurosawa’s action films. It’s a chance to frame violence as beauty, action choreography as ballet.
It’s why I’m partial to games with slow-motion effects. It’s a chance for me, the audience, to appreciate the animation work, the lighting, particle effects and environment. Video games are a collaborative effort to bring electrifying, personalized action to the player, and slow-motion gives me the chance to take it all in. “My Friend Pedro” is a game all about taking it slow.
“Pedro” mixes John Woo-style action a la the “Max Payne” series, together with the bullet-hell shooter genre, in which you dodge an ocean of bullets. The controls also lift the twin-stick aiming of more modern bullet-hell shooters, making a bloody, goofy indie game that’s as accessible as it is tough to master.
It also adds in some puzzle platforming to mix it up, although some of these sequences run a bit too long. The game is short, and it feels like DeadToast Entertainment felt a bit insecure about its length. Don’t let its short length, or a few padded areas, steer you away. This game isn’t a modern-day loot shooter; It’s meant to be replayed like a classic arcade score attack challenge. Zip lining through the window alone isn’t enough. You need to land the subsequent half dozen head shots after.
Despite some weak areas, “Pedro” is perfect for those short bursts when you want to live out your “Matrix” daydreams. — Gene Park
Developer: Ludeon Studios
Available on: Linux, PC
Take the island building components of “Animal Crossing” and combine them with limited resource management in a survival horror game like “Resident Evil” and you get “RimWorld."
“RimWorld” strands you on a new planet with very few resources. You’re an overlord who commands your colonists to perform menial tasks (at first) to establish a new space colony. Each colonist has basic human needs — food, shelter, clothing and so on. Commanding your colonists, you slowly build a space settlement capable of providing for those needs. A good settlement will, in turn, attract more colonists, giving you more commands to dole out and ultimately leading to bigger and better settlements.
Here’s where the brutal brilliance of RimWorld comes in. Space is a harsh environment, and the game knows it; It’ll chuck randomly-generated disasters at you as you build your colony. These can range from rival colonists attempting to poach your supplies to harsh storms that destroy all your crops. On top of this, your colonists have their own physical and psychological states. If these are allowed to unravel, your colonists can die, severely hampering your ability to mitigate future disasters.
The game’s never-ending balancing act of survival versus settlement growth will give you a sims-like experience unlike any other. — Jhaan Elker
Enter the Gungeon
Publisher: Devolver Digital, Developer: Dodge Roll
Available on: Playstation 4, Switch, Xbox One, PC
“Enter the Gungeon” is a top-down, roguelike bullet hell game, in which you grind your way down into the dungeon, discovering progressively more difficult enemies and powerful weapons. But when you die, that’s it. You go all the way back to beginning of the game.
Because of this mechanic, the game can sometimes feel punishingly difficult. As you attempt to clear the screen of enemies while being inundated with bullets, it’s easy to feel hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned. But as you master the game’s dodge roll mechanic and start gaining momentum by acquiring absurdly powerful weapons, you start to feel in control — and “Enter the Gungeon” becomes a sublime gameplay experience.
With a well-polished presentation and a goofy, charming visual style, half the fun of this game is discovering the hundreds of inventive and hilarious weapons, including a barrel that shoots fish, a T-shirt cannon, a Mega Man-inspired buster cannon and a crown that fires bullets in all directions. Everything — from the enemies to the environments — is infused with firearm-related humor. A powerful, early-game weapon, for example, is a shotgun that blasts out other guns.
Even with the looming threat of permadeath, the discovery of the game’s wildly creative weapons will keep you thirsty for another run. You will die and return to the hub more often than you’d like, but you never fail to hop back in because of the brilliant balance of challenge and variety that makes the game so incredibly rewarding. — Joe Moore
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive, Developer: Sam Barlow
Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Mac, iOS
In “Telling Lies,” you’re not the author of the story, but you come close to it — threading the narrative together is entirely up to you.
Playing as a whistleblowing FBI agent, you obtain valuable information on a disc drive stolen from the NSA, and hope to upload its contents to make the evidence public. However, you’re not freely walking through a virtual world like most games allow. “Telling Lies” is unique in its presentation: it plants you in front of a virtual desktop computer, scrubbing through videos and inserting keywords from clues you find, which then lead you to another batch of videos. Using intuition is key, as all four characters appearing in these clips are lying and you may only hear one side of the conversation (these videos are recorded from each character’s laptop or phone). Explaining exactly what these characters are hiding, however, would spoil the experience.
Watching videos in search of clues is a similar mechanic to “Telling Lies’s” predecessor, “Her Story,” in which you watch grainy clips of a young woman being interrogated at a police station. While scrubbing through videos may sound cumbersome on paper, it’s far from it. “Telling Lies” has phenomenal acting from stars like Logan Marshall-Green and Angela Sarafyan, and its excellent execution makes the experience thrilling. —Elise Favis
Red Desert Render
Developer: Ian MacLarty
Available on: Windows, macOS, Linux (Available for free on itch.io)
A few months ago, my friends and I crowded around an Xbox to play Red Dead Redemption 2. The game does not organically accommodate multiple players, but we settled on an arrangement where we would play, die, then pass the controller to the next person. Our goal: kill Arthur Morgan in the dumbest way possible.
Eventually, we found a killing method that was both challenging to orchestrate (a must for backseat commentating) and highly amusing. We would get on a horse, attempt to steer the horse up to the highest cliff we could find, point the horse’s rump in the direction of the steepest incline, and punch. The horse would then kick back, sending Arthur flying over the edge of the cliff. The further the better.
Red Desert Render, available on a name-your-price basis on itch.io, is rooted in that same idea: Sometimes, there’s fun to be had in breaking with a game’s intention, and playing a different game entirely. Last year, a handful of game developers — the developer of Red Desert Render among them — broke out of the map boundaries in Red Dead Redemption 2 and stumbled upon a vast, semi-intentional landscape. The geometry and texturing of the ground shifted in unnatural ways, spiking up and down and cutting off entirely in places. Red Desert Render is inspired by that experience.
In the game, you are tasked with fulfilling a bizarre to-do list — which includes entries like “Roll 2km (without standing up)” and “take a hot bath” — while crossing an unnatural landscape brimming with jagged edges and textureless floating cubes. Many of these tasks require significant exploration (the map is massive and mostly empty) and experimentation to complete: lots of “what’s that weird cubic shape over the horizon” and “what’s going to happen if I run into the cube” and “what do I do now that the cube has vaulted me thousands of feet into the air?” Red Desert Render gives you the loosest parameters for success, and encourages you to make your own fun.
More than anything else, the game reminded me of modding old PC games, Star Wars Battlefront 2 in particular. The default, unmodified map, the blank canvas that all modders started with in that game, was a totally flat, green expanse, with four spawn points arranged in a square. There was nothing inherently fun about this map; in most ways, it was a pretty stupid place to spend time. Still, there was something interesting about being in this weird virtual space, so unlike the base game. Red Desert Render scratched that same itch for me. — Mikhail Klimentov
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine
Publisher: Good Shephard Entertainment, Developer: Dim Bulb Games, Serenity Forge
Available on: PC, Mac, Linux
Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is a narrative-driven adventure game that takes place in Depression-era America. You play as a skeleton, cursed to wander the land and collect the stories of its people after striking a deal with the devil.
You venture past old mills and farmhouses in vast fields of the countryside, as well as through the cobbled roads of cities like Chicago and New York City. Each place you visit comes with whispered stories, ranging from seemingly-insignificant (a boy bonding with his dog) to ominous (a camera that kills those it photographs).
But these stories, sometimes overheard by city folk or told around a campfire, grow as their rumors spread into valleys and cities. Like a game of broken telephone, the stories become wilder and less believable the more you hear them. Much of the fun in Where the Water Tastes Like Wine is seeing these stories blossom into something extraordinary.
In Where the Water Tastes Like Wine, storytelling becomes a game mechanic. Collecting these tales lets you use them as currency with other travelers, appearing like tarot cards that you can pick from a deck and place directly into a conversation. It’s one of the most imaginative uses of dialogue I’ve ever seen in a game, letting you steer the conversation towards stories that the traveler wants to hear. Some seek a horror story or a tale of hope, and strategically engaging with them helps them open up about the ups and downs of their own lives. — Elise Favis
Publisher: 11 bit studios, Developer: Digital Sun
Available on: Playstation 4, Switch, Xbox One, PC
The premise of Moonlighter is simple: raid dungeons at night, then work in your shop during the day to sell the hard-earned loot you acquired during the previous night’s run. As the owner of your store, you manually set the prices of your inventory, gauging customer interest ad adjusting accordingly to maximize profit and fund your next outing.
Unlike inventory management in most games, it is actually a joy to stuff your pockets full of loot, gradually learning the value of all the odds and ends you pick up while moonlighting as an adventurer. The shop mechanic has enough depth that discovering valuable items is a thrill and selling them to eager customers for exorbitant prices is an alluring incentive to go out for just one more run.
Character progression is handled entirely by the game’s economy. After selling your wares to customers, you use that hard-earned money across other stores in town, upgrading your gear so you can progress to more difficult dungeons and earn more valuable loot. The challenging, procedurally generated dungeons are only three floors deep before the boss encounter, making them the ideal length to keep feeding the addicting, rinse-and-repeat gameplay loop. — Joe Moore
Publisher: Wales Interactive, Kaigan Games; Developer: Kaigan Games
Available on: Mobile, Steam, Playstation 4
The best horror stories have a tinge of reality to them, and “Simulacra” is no exception. The game is an investigation that has you — literally you — searching through a missing person’s phone in order to piece together how precisely she disappeared. The missing person is Anna, and her phone mysteriously appeared on your doorstep. After unlocking the phone, you’ll be greeted by a creepy video message from Anna that implies her disappearance is more sinister than it seems.
“Simulacra” has one of the most innovative gameplay experiences out there. The game’s interface is literally that of a phone, and you play by going through Anna’s texts, emails, photos, Twitter-and-Tinder-equivalent apps to gather information about her disappearance. You can also communicate to other characters through texts, which will help you advance the story and further piece together the mystery. By seeing Anna’s photos, social media posts and interactions with other characters, like her ex-boyfriend Greg, you come to understand the type of person Anna was, making you all the more sympathetic and motivated to save her.
The horror of the game is admittedly hit or miss. “Simulacra’s" gameplay is startlingly similar to how people actually use their phones and social media, and the game is at its best when it’s subtly implying the dangers of such practices. The scariest moments of the game aren’t in-your-face, like a moment where the phone glitches and starts aggressively breaking the fourth wall. These moments make the occasional jump-scares all the more disappointing. The game doesn’t need them to be scary, and as a result they feel forced and cheap.
But the game’s selling point is its truly unique gameplay experience, which will have you feeling more like a detective and less like you’re playing a game. If you can, play this game on your phone for the best immersive experience. — Jhaan Elker
Publisher: Panic, Campo Santo; Developer: Campo Santo
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, PC, Mac
Taking place in the Wyoming wilderness in the late 1980s, you play as Henry, a middle-aged man who hopes to find direction in his messy life by taking a job as a fire lookout. You explore the woods with a handheld radio in hand, providing a direct line to your supervisor Delilah.
“Firewatch” is a narrative-heavy game about new beginnings, but it’s also about coming to terms with one’s past to make that possible. Henry and Delilah’s blossoming relationship is engrossing, not just because of its well-crafted, snappy flow, but also because they feel like real, flawed people. There’s authenticity in their shared anxieties and an ordinariness that makes them deeply relatable.
As you venture deeper into the wilderness, you notice something strange is afoot. Perhaps you see some large claw marks on a tree or a shadowy figure in the distance who may or may not be following you. Unraveling this mystery is engrossing, but “Firewatch” is most compelling in its story moments where you are glued to your walkie-talkie, conversing with Delilah about life in a way that is tinged with humor, sadness and regret. Getting to know Delilah and Henry, what makes them who they are and how they come to terms with their loneliness, elevates this short story-driven adventure towards something memorable and sincere. — Elise Favis
Publisher: 505 Games, Developer: Lab Zero Games
Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, PC
Indivisible is absolutely dripping with charm. Lavish, hand-drawn animations and an inventive combat system immediately separates the game from other JRPGs. The heart and soul of Indivisible, however, lies in its vibrant and unforgettable protagonists.
The main character is Ajna, a fearless, hot-headed teenager. As you travel around the huge, southeast Asian influenced fantasy world, you recruit 20 or so other playable heroes, each artfully imagined and beautifully rendered. Indivisible’s exquisite character designs aren’t limited to the playable characters and enemies, however. While traveling through the game’s several bustling towns and cities, you interact with dozens of NPCs and I found myself constantly wanting to learn more about an inconsequential NPC townie with two lines of dialogue just because they looked so outlandishly interesting.
Indivisible’s unique gameplay — action platforming fused with a real-time combat system — further distinguishes the game from its contemporaries. At its core, the game is a sidescroller that seamlessly morphs into turn-based combat when you engage an enemy. When you finish a bout, you instantly transition back to a 2D platforming POV. You attack by pressing a character’s assigned face button and if you are quick enough, all four party members can attack simultaneously. The pacing ramps up to such a degree that battles feel like a fighting game as you juggle enemies in the air, build up special moves and use other party members to chain together long strings of attacks.
Indivisible’s inventive combat system is fun to master, but the colorful characters and wildly creative world they inhabit makes this game truly memorable. — Joe Moore
Streets of Rage 4
Publisher: Dotemu, Developer: Dotemu, LizardCube, Guard Crush Games
Available on: Windows, Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One
“Streets of Rage 4” is like a video game time capsule from the ‘90s that punched its way out from the dirt.
Three indie studios, Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush Games, pitched the idea to Sega about how to resurrect the long-dormant brawler series. Sega has recently been very open to fan interpretations of classic properties (thanks to the success of “Sonic Mania”), and gave the green light. Series composer Yuzo Koshiro, legendary among the games and electronic dance scenes, didn’t sign on to the project until he played the game last summer. He was so convinced that the three indies nailed it, he signed on to contribute five new tracks.
What we have is probably the most confident and focused video game to come out in years. “Streets of Rage 4” comes amid a frenzy of remasters and remakes, as developers mine old properties for new audiences. “Final Fantasy VII Remake” garnered almost universal praise and attention for how it modernized the classic game.
“Streets of Rage 4” spits in the face of anything that meddles with a formula that was already perfect back in 1992. Of all of Sega’s games, “Streets of Rage 2” would send Nintendo fans into a jealous frenzy. The latest game is so confident in the original formula, the original 16-bit characters are not only unlockable, but their moves are unchanged from their first appearances. The game feels that old, and that good.
There are a few tweaks here and there. Combos are now possible, and high-skilled players can practice “juggling” enemies practically forever. The fighting now has a “high risk, high reward” mechanic of replenishing health by punching more, like “Bloodborne,” but that’s about it for changes.
“Streets of Rage 4” simply wants to be a game about walking (not running, that’s too modern) to the right of the screen, and punching everyone that gets in your way. This fixation on the past is a strength, and ensures that the game is not just one of the best fan projects to come out in years, it’s easily going to end 2020 as one of its greatest games. — Gene Park
Developer: Everest Pipkin
Available on: gift game website
On Tuesday, a game developer writing under the pseudonym Stuffed Wombat published a missive on his website titled “The Small Game.” In it, he outlined a series of qualities for games he wanted to make: accessibility, fleetness, sustainability and expressiveness, among several others. “The small game does not condemm [sic] other games,” he wrote. “People love sitcoms. People love numbers going up. People love Pizza [sic]. Thats ok.”
The author was not convinced that “small game” was a strong name for this genre of title, but the act of naming is important, even if the name itself is imperfect: Naming helps us classify, talk about and ultimately remember objects. There’s no sense pretending that the idea of “the small game” is a wholly new idea, or that small games have only just started to come out. But previous descriptors that seem like they might fit, including “indie,” have in some ways outlived their usefulness. Further still, I believe they have made it harder to talk about truly small games. Without a name, without the accompanying trend pieces, without a documentary (imagine: “Small Game: The Movie”), the incentive to talk about small games is lacking. Stuffed Wombat’s outline is a small step toward the categorization that leads to public consciousness.
“gift game,” the game I’d like to recommend today, is not really of a kind with the other “indie” titles on this list. Developed by Everest Pipkin, an artist and visiting faculty member at Carnegie Mellon University, it is an extraordinarily simple experience, something closer to a poem or manifesto with light interactive elements: It plays in any browser, and its main mode of interaction is little links that open up frames that show images, audio and text.
Pipkin’s preoccupation is with curation and categorization. In the text of the game, they imagine a new kind of Internet that’s more akin to a farmer’s market (as opposed to a supermarket), or kids chattering on a playground: You know exactly who you’re sharing with and you do so with intent. “I want to save a file for you,” writes Pipkin in the game. “It is perfect for you, and I know this because I know you.”
Very early in the game, Pipkin makes the point that in the history of humankind, an astounding number of objects have been made, and that efforts to classify them often obscure the objects themselves. They point to a website which facetiously organizes every object in the universe in a file system, in endlessly deep layers of folders: A folder titled “universe,” which contains objects that ultimately burrow down into smaller universes, is the joke. It obscures the vastness. For this reason, curation is important. The curator is gifting something they’ve found to the audience, plucking it out of the darkness so that we can recognize the object itself.
Perhaps lumping in “gift game” with “small games” is a disservice to its thesis. But with no name, I worry works like this will fade into obscurity: a folder, indexed deep inside the “universe" folder, with no name at all. — Mikhail Klimentov
Baba Is You
Publisher: Arvi Teikari, Developer: Arvi Teikari
Available on: Steam, Switch
“Baba is you.” It’s a simple sentence that means a ton more in programming language. When developing anything ranging from computers to apps to video games, programmers use simple sentences like this to construct the software that informs the computer/app/game how it should properly function. It’s a simplified way to tackle multiple changing — and often times complex — tasks.
That last sentence might be the best way to describe the mindbending puzzle experience that is “Baba is You.” This is a game about reconstructing sentences to change the rules of the game to allow yourself to reach the goal. At its essence, the game is a series of block puzzles. You start off playing as Baba the bunny. The game is based on a grid, with you being able to move up, left down or right into the other squares. Sometimes certain things occupy a square, and this can range from a flag, a river or a rock. Your goal is to get Baba to the “win” square, which at first is defined by the flag icon (see above photo for references).
In some squares you can find words like “Baba," “win," “wall,” “stop” and “is”. The words form sentences that dictate the rules of the current level you are playing, similar to how programming language works. In the above image example puzzle, you win by moving Baba to the flag, because the sentences “Baba is you” and “Win is Flag" is there, meaning you control Baba, and you win by going to the flag.
Where the genius of this game comes into play is that, like most objects in the game, you can actually interact with the words themselves too. Back to the above example — if you were to use Baba to push the words and rearrange the sentences into “Rock is Win" and “Flag is You,” then YOU will start controlling the flag, and you have to get it to the rock to win. If you rearrange the words into “Baba is Stop” and “Rock is Flag,” then if you tried to run into Baba, you’d be stopped. And all of the rocks would turn into flags.
Rearranging the sentences to create different rules will be necessary to complete the more advanced puzzles you’ll find later in the game. It’s this mechanic — making different sentences to alter the very functions of the game itself — that makes “Baba Is You” an incredibly innovative puzzle experience you’ll come back to again and again. — Jhaan Elker
Yoku’s Island Express
Publisher: Team 17, Developer: Villa Gorilla
Available on: PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Switch, PC
The premise is simple: A pinball game with metroidvania-style exploration. If that fusion of two seemingly incompatible genres isn’t enough to pique your interest, Yoku’s Island Express is layered with other qualities that make this truly unique experience well worth your time.
You control a dung beetle that washes up an a small island and is tasked with rebuilding the post office and relieving the resident postmaster. You flip and bump your way around the environmentally diverse map, unlocking new abilities that help you access previously unreachable areas and traverse the island more efficiently. A charming, hand-painted art style, colorful characters and an excellent soundtrack gives the game a polish that makes you want to explore every corner of the world.
The game moves and feels like a traditional action platformer, but you can’t jump. To travel around the island world, you move by rolling your ball and using pinball bumpers and flippers that are built into environment. The way that the game seamlessly combines exploratory, skill-based platforming with pinball mechanics is ingenious. Traversal around the huge map requires patience and precise timing but it feels surprisingly natural despite this unusual genre mashup. It is a one-of-a-kind experience. — Joe Moore
What Remains of Edith Finch
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive, Developer: Giant Sparrow
Available on: Playstation 4, Xbox One, Windows
Everyone dies, but when it comes to the Finch family, death looms over them like a curse.
“What Remains of Edith Finch” is a story-driven adventure game that takes place in protagonist Edith’s family home, years after they’ve all passed away, leaving her as the last living member. She wants to know how each of her forebears passed on, and the story of uncovering the truth is a careful balance of whimsical and ominous.
The house itself is a marvel to explore, but where the game shines is in how it tells its story. With every bedroom you enter, you experience a short vignette of how the room’s owner died. For example, one is told cleverly through a comic book that comes to life as you flip through it and, in one of the most powerful scenes, you’re transported to a tuna cannery where monotonous work is replaced by a fantasy world, through a character’s vivid imagination. The latter is a moment in interactive storytelling that feels at home only in a video game, a testament to the power of this medium.
“What Remains of Edith Finch” has a striking narrative, filled with poignant thematic moments and brilliant interactive storytelling mechanics. This is a game where you experience the finality, but also the strangeness, of death. It’s uncomfortable, mysterious and unusual, but these deceased characters and their final moments will stick with you for a long time. — Elise Favis
Publisher: Toby Fox, Developer: Toby Fox
Available on: Steam, Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4
Few indie games acquire the prestige that Undertale has — Sans, a key character in the game, is now in Smash! — with so small a development team. Almost all of the game’s assets, ranging from the game’s full-hearted script to the brilliant soundtrack, were created by developer savant Toby Fox, a 23-year old at the time who was personally invited to speak with Nintendo executives after they fell in love with his game. Fox is now producing soundtracks for Nintendo titles like Pokemon Sword and Shield.
Undertale is a wonderful homage to Nintendo’s Mother series that simultaneously celebrates and subverts typical RPG tropes. Its story is chock-full of heart, with three potential routes you can take depending on choices you make throughout the game, most of which revolve around one of the game’s defining features — the ability to avoid killing any enemy (which I highly recommend you try).
You play as a mute character who has fallen underground into the realm of monsters. The story is part Alice in Wonderland, part Wizard of Oz, as you travel through the realm in an attempt to return home. The battle system is more complex than the typical RPG interface would suggest. It uses bullet hell mechanics — millions of bullets that you have to avoid flooding the screen; think Galaga — that get trickier and more creative over time. But combat’s best feature is the “Act" option, which allows you to forgo attacking to instead investigate the monsters you are facing. Here is where the script’s wonderful sense of humor shines. Each enemy has its own quirky and endearing personality, which guilts you even further into not killing them.
The game’s ending sequence (keep playing after you see the credits!) is both mind-shattering and heartbreaking — a true testament to how great this game is despite its minimalist graphics and gameplay. — Jhaan Elker
Slay the Spire
Publisher: HumbleBundle, Developer: MegaCrit
Available on: Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4, Xbox One, Windows, MacOS, Linux
There are two ways to play Slay the Spire. The first is a bit like building a fortress. Slay the Spire is a collectible card game, which means that as you traverse a dungeon, you find cards to bolster your deck, along with useful items and loot to flesh out your strategy. More strategically-minded players will build carefully, ensuring that each card slots into an overarching strategy, brick by brick, terracing up. Even a carefully constructed deck will have some duds — just like most fortresses have wings that are unsightly or at least imperfectly realized. Over time, a fortress-building player will find a strategy that works, and run that strategy again and again, until, at last, it doesn’t work, at which point new cards are unlocked for future dungeon crawls.
I am not a forward-thinking player, so for me, Slay the Spire feels a lot like sprinting downhill, at an angle where each footfall lands with a wobble, and more ground passes under each stride than intended. The game becomes an exercise in maintaining momentum — leaning into the fact that the downhill sprint will at some point have to end, and ratcheting up the speed. Each hand is a new set of possibilities; there’s no resting on tried and true strategies, no spilling boiling sewage or throwing rocks over the fortress walls.
Slay the Spire accommodates both of these play styles with its Rogue-like format: Whenever you die, you restart from scratch, without the deck you had accumulated over the course of your last run. Instead, the pool of cards you could possibly obtain while trawling the dungeon expands, widening your strategic options. For fortress-builders, this means slight tweaks and alterations to a previous strategy. For others, new cards change the game in dynamic, unpredictable ways. Back to the drawing board. — Mikhail Klimentov
What the Golf?
Available on: PC, iOs
What the Golf? is an absurd, physics-based golf parody that is a running gag about how flexible its interpretation of “golf” really is.
Each level is usually only a few seconds long and rarely more than 15 seconds in length. The first two levels are meant to give you a feel for its simple, precise control scheme: pull back, aim and release. By the third level, you abandon the golf ball and fling your own body toward the hole. But the game quickly dials up the absurdity, always finding a new silly thing to apply golf mechanics to — you are an egg and you need to fling yourself into a frying pan or you guide a soccer ball through an obstacle course while pesky children try to kick you off the edge of the stage.
The true joy in this game is that you find yourself always looking forward to see what the game will throw at you next. Just as the gags keep coming at a snappy pace, the gameplay shifts with it. There are levels with 2D side-scrolling, first-person views and even rhythm game mechanics. It is chock-full of reverential references to other games like Flappy Bird, Portal, Superhot, Guitar Hero and even Metal Gear Solid. A charming overworld with mild puzzle elements ties this hilarious package together.
If What the Golf? can’t make you laugh, you might be dead. It never ceases to delight and is easily one of the most funny, clever games I’ve ever experienced. — Joe Moore
Sayonara Wild Hearts
Publisher: Annapurna Interactive, Developer: Simogo
Available on: Switch, iOS, PS4, Xbox One, Windows
Video games can be a power fantasy. Sayonara Wild Hearts gives you the power to get over heartache.
When you suffer personal loss, through family, friends or love, the whole world really does seem to fall apart doesn’t it? All the while, you feel the fool. In this game, you play as a woman nursing a broken heart, when suddenly you’re summoned into a parallel universe as a hero to save the very fabric of reality. And in the process, Sayonara Wild Hearts asks us to embrace and love The Fool we all are.
The game is an audio-visual experience narrated by none other than Queen Latifah. The concept is simple: You can move around to dodge, and when the game prompts you to press a button, you press it. The game handles the velocity and timing of it all, you just tell it when to go.
But it never forgets it’s a video game! Sayonara isn’t afraid to pull from gaming’s surreal and beautiful history of visuals and contextualizes them into this journey of self-discovery. After all, gaming is always about overcoming the odds. They can also be about conquering our insecurities and the demons inside our heads.
It’s a short game, just under two hours, if that. It’s also designed to be very easy and accessible. Think of it like a visual album. The graphics are drenched in cel-shaded glory, with heavily stylized female fashion inspired by the “teddy girls” scene of poor 1950s British neighborhoods. The music is dreamy synth pop, with classic themes about yearning and belonging.
If you’re not feeling OK, Sayonara Wild Hearts is a game that dares to tell you, “You will be.” — Gene Park
Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime
Developer: Asteroid Base
Available on: Steam, PlayStation 4, Nintendo Switch, Xbox One
When asked whether Lovers in a Dangerous Spacetime could be played online, developer Asteroid Base had this to say:
“Rather than offer a half-baked online experience, we chose to focus on delivering the most awesome 1- to 4-player couch co-op game we could.”
Thank God they chose that mentality, as Lovers is one of the tightest and most fun couch co-op experiences we’ve enjoyed in a while. The gameplay is an intelligent cross between Overcooked and Galaga. Players choose from a cast of furry characters before cooperatively manning a round spaceship that stays at the center of the screen. Each section of the ship has different controls — the middle may control the ship’s movement while the top and bottom control the guns — and only one character can man one control at a time. The game becomes a balancing act of communicating with your team and managing each of the ship’s functions as you fly through space battling enemies and rescuing other furry friends, who are trapped in cages protected by waves of enemies.
The game is divided into four campaigns with five levels each. The final level of each is a boss fight against a giant enemy not too dissimilar from what you’d find in a Zelda title. Each campaign will take around an hour to complete, but the game isn’t over once you’ve finished the campaigns. The maps to each level are randomly generated, ensuring that you and your couch buddies can have a different experience every time you boot up the game. — Jhaan Elker
To the Moon
Developer: Freebird Games
Available on: Switch, PC, Mac, iOS, Android
To the Moon, an indie gem from 2011, is all about fulfilling a dying man’s wish. You play as two doctors who seek to rewrite a man’s memories and let him die happy, thinking that he has accomplished his dream of going to the moon.
This emotionally compelling game has little gameplay, despite its aesthetic resemblance to classic Japanese role-playing games — Final Fantasy 6 in particular. Where it shines is in its narrative: To the Moon is a storytelling powerhouse about relationships and regret.
It’s a character-driven tale. As you journey through the old man’s memories, you learn about the highs and lows of his life, such as his turbulent relationship with his wife River. Little mysteries are sprinkled throughout. (Why is his home littered with origami rabbits?) Learning about this man — and why going to the moon is so important to him — is the key part of this incredible, heartfelt adventure. It left me in tears once the credits rolled. — Elise Favis
Publisher: Devolver Digital, Developer: JW, Kitty, Jukio and Dom
Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Steam, iOS, Android
The concept of Minit is simple. After finding an abandoned sword, you are afflicted with a curse that causes you to die every 60 seconds. There is no way to increase the timer or stop the clock. Without fail, without remorse, you will die when the timer hits zero. Immediately, a new run begins.
To get from point A to point B, you must learn the most time-efficient route while either avoiding enemies altogether or dispatching them in as little time as possible. If you stumble or take a wrong turn, you can press a button to kill yourself or spend the rest of your timer examining exactly where you went wrong, aiming to correct your mistake for the next run. Major changes to the world, such as item pickups and fast travel points, however, persist when the timer resets.
This isn’t just a game about speed. Because Minit is such a tightly designed experience — you can easily complete the game in less than 2 hours — there is an incentive to explore every nook of the world, which contains many hidden items and unlockable areas that are not requisites to complete the game.
The developers were not shy about their influences. The gameplay and aesthetics are glaringly reminiscent of the early Zelda games, most notably Link’s Awakening. So much so, that like its Game Boy predecessor, you begin the game by finding a sword on a beach. The art style is much more minimalist in Minit, however, as the game is completely devoid of color, rendering only in stark black and white.
Minit’s bite-sized gameplay loop is tremendously satisfying and those with even the shortest attention span can find a blissful balance between adrenaline-pumping panic and the soothing realization that when you eventually misstep, you’ll be back in less than 60 seconds. — Joe Moore
Democratic Socialism Simulator
Available on: Windows, Linux, MacOS, Android
It is hard to write about a game like Democratic Socialism Simulator without invoking The Way Things Are, and its cousin, What Could Have Been. The game, which tasks you with enacting policy, balancing the budget, building worker power and decarbonizing the economy as the first democratic socialist president of the United States, came out two days before the Nevada caucuses, which Bernie Sanders, then a candidate for the Democratic nomination, won convincingly. The game, for obvious reasons, plays very differently now than it did then.
But precisely because it is not a leftist power fantasy predicated on Sanders’s electoral success, the game is still worth checking out. Its core mechanic works roughly like Tinder: swipe right on policies and decisions you like, swipe left on those you don’t. Your choices change your budget, the makeup of Congress, the power of workers, and crucially, the willingness of voters to support you. Herein lies the game’s greatest achievement: the game eschews a strict left-right gradient in favor of displaying voters as actors motivated by issues, sometimes in contradictory and messy (but realistic) ways. Moreover, by adhering consistently to a single agenda, you can convince voters to drop their key issues — some of which are anathema to a democratic socialist vision — and support yours instead. Coalition building!
I don’t want to overpromise. This is not an accurate simulation from which to glean political insight. The game is mostly just fun. It’s challenging. It riffs on infamous headlines. It has a sense of humor, and also animal puns: Jacobin is Jackalbin, Fox News is staffed with, well, foxes. This is a game for unbearable too-online nerds and those who like politics — two mostly overlapping circles in a hypothetical venn diagram. Chances are, if you’re reading this, it’s for you.
What the game gives players is a sandbox where — win or lose — they can play through the ramifications of enacting certain policies, and iterate on those choices in quick, successive runs. This is a luxury that the left rarely enjoys in real life. After enough playthroughs, certain patterns become clear: there are some policy no-brainers (always legalize marijuana; I never saw a significant in-game penalty), while other choices cement their status as obvious pitfalls (never rubber stamp the Pentagon’s budget). For players tired of hearing that policies that poll very well are political non-starters, all while the nay-sayers and bad actors fail upward, shuffling from administration to administration, this game may be a welcome reprieve. — Mikhail Klimentov
The Stanley Parable
Publisher: Galactic Cafe, Developer: Davey Wreden
Available on: Steam
Among the first games that popularized the walking simulator, The Stanley Parable offers something quite different from the other games in this genre. Most walking simulators offer rich storytelling experiences with deep lore found through exploration and discovering little details of the world around you. Often times the stories these games tell are dramatic, depressing and (sometimes) horrifying.
The Stanley Parable eschews that entirely, instead taking a more comedic, meta approach similar to something you would see in a Deadpool movie. You play as Stanley, a silent protagonist whose mundane 9-5 desk job life gets uprooted when an offscreen British voice starts narrating his life. Players can choose to follow this narrator’s guidance or diverge from his commands entirely. Even the smallest choices you make throughout the game — some as simple as choosing whether to take the right door or the left — will give you wildly different endings.
The beauty of the game is in its simplicity. All you do is control which direction Stanley walks in, and which items to interact with. This allows the clever and frequently hilarious dialogue to truly shine. The story also provides an intriguing commentary on the frustration a game developer feels when creating a game that offers player choice and branching narratives. A single playthrough of the game will take no longer than 20 minutes, but the game is truly meant to be played through multiple times for the full experience, as there are 19 endings for you to discover. — Jhaan Elker
Publisher: Humble Bundle Developer: Blue Manchu
Available on: PS4, Xbox One, Switch, Steam
In Void Bastards, you play as a prisoner attempting to earn your freedom from an oppressive corporate entity. You do this by hopping aboard eerie, derelict spaceships in search of the items needed to repair your captor’s vessel. The fun twist with this roguelike, first-person shooter is that you start each run with a randomly generated “client” that has unique traits, both positive and negative. The prisoner on my very first run had a smoker’s cough, which would annoyingly alert enemies to my presence, instantly negating any kind of stealth strategy. When your prisoner dies, another steps forward and you take on the characteristics of the new prisoner.
In the spirit of this darkly comic game, you risk your life to acquire mundane items like a magnifying glass, duct tape or a mouse ball. After finding what you need to progress or upgrade your weapons, you often need to sprint to the escape pod before your oxygen expires or you are killed by the grumpy, foul-mouthed inhabitants of the ships.
The cel-shaded aesthetic coalesces beautifully with the gameplay. Shooting is accentuated by comic book-style sound effects that pop up the screen when you fire your weapon or hear enemies approach. While the artwork alone is a reason to check out this game, Void Bastards is easily recommendable because it keeps you moving forward and rewards you along the way, striking a nice balance between challenge and reward. — Joe Moore