X-List: The 18 best 2D games of the HD era

Posted on Sep 8 2013 - 9:00am by Jeffrey L. Wilson

X List X List: The 18 best 2D games of the HD era

Call of Duty, Madden, and other heavily-marketed titles often are crafted upon 3D graphics engines, but the video game industry was built upon the simplicity and charm of the 2D game. Pong? A 2D game. Super Mario Bros.? A 2D game. Street Fighter II? A 2D game. And the list goes on.

2D games took a massive blow during the original PlayStation era where polygonal characters worlds and character models were the hot item of the day. There were some bring spots during that period from the likes of SNK Playmore and a handful of other developers, but the writing was on the wall: 2D games were a relic of a bygone era. Or was it?

Retro gaming love and indie efforts (Battleheart, Danmaku Unlimited) led the 2D charge, but a handful of high-profile releases (Mega Man 9Mortal Kombat, The King of Fighters XIII) brought 2D games to a wide number of people across a variety of devices, from console games to smart phones. So if you love 2D games, check out our picks for the best 2D games of the modern era.

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BlazBlue Continuum Shift Extend
BlazBlue: Continuum Shift Extend is concentrated insanity. Underneath the inviting fluid animation and wild rock music beats the heart of a twisted, sick monster. This game is…ridiculous. It’s ridiculous how hard it is, how it takes so much time to learn all the intricacies and subtleties, and even when you do gain an understanding for most of them you’re still miles and miles away from “being any good.”

Each character has an extra quirk, an extra gauge added to the screen to wrap your head around, and you better know each character’s ins and outs because you’re never sure who you’ll be up against. The bar for admission is about yay high, across a lava-filled chasm and Guile is on the other side readying a Flash Kick to your face. Or, in BlazBlue‘s case, a little girl with the soul of a boy and a grown woman inside her riding a merry-go-round horse around. But BlazBlue wants you to understand it and has one of the best tutorials ever seen in a fighting game.

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Double Dragon Neon
Double Dragon Neon reboots the original classic as it reaches the quarter century mark. Instead of strictly adhering to the original game’s plot of Billy and Jimmy Lee retrieving a kidnapped Marion from the hands of street vermin in a post-apocalyptic metropolis, Double Dragon veers into the area of Day-Glo, synthesizer abuse, and big hair – and revels in its cheese. Marion’s once again gut-punched, but this is a decidedly different title altogether than the original and the game benefits from the change.

WayFoward has become the go-to team for retro-style gaming action. Between Contra 4, Aliens Infestation, and now Double Dragon Neon it’s easy to understand why. There’s a loving touch on display here, not just for the property, but for the era in which it was birthed. As such, there’s a good chance that gamers who didn’t grow up in the ’80s with Double Dragon may overlook this title, or miss its significance. Double Dragon Neon is an incredibly fun retro romp that should find a place with genre fans and, hopefully, those willing to expand their horizons.

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Dragon’s Crown
Dragon’s Crown is the best beat-em-up this generation — maybe ever. There’s been a resurgence of late — cycles come and go as they often do — and while Double Dragon Neon and Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game scratched the brawler itch, they were only only appetizers to Vanillaware’s Dragon’s Crown, a gorgeous ode to Disney, Frank Frazetta, and Capcom’s classic Dungeons & Dragons games. The large 2D graphics, typical of Kamitani’s exaggerated illustrations, flex, morph and stretch with an anime-meets-Renaissance style that must be seen in motion to truly appreciate. Each new animation, whether an explosive flame spell or a giant enemy’s death wail, is an impressive display of digital artistry.

None of that, however, would matter without a solid foundation underneath. Responsive combat, intuitive controls and interlocking systems — loot, skills, a cooking mini-game (!!!) — enhance what could have been an aesthetically pleasing if simple and derivative experience. Dragon’s Crown is an instant classic.

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Dyad
Everything about Dyad revolves around rhythm. The enemies swarm in patterns that allow you to keep a certain pace, every sound you make affects the music ala REZ, and even the colors of the menus change at a very specific pace. It’s this underlying rhythm that sets the pace for the entire game. It’s hard to notice at first, as the entire landscape is spinning around and colors are flashing, but once you slip into the groove, the entire game becomes hypnotic and has a trance-like effect.

Dyad’s gameplay is slick and refined, the visuals are impressive, and the music is great (if you like electronic music). This is the game to get if you either want to check yourself out for a few hours at a time (legally) or you want to get every high-score. It’s not the next REZ iteration, but it’s definitely worth the price of admission.

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Guacamelee! Gold Edition
This indie-made heavyweight borrows heavily from the gameplay mechanics of the Castlevania and Metroid franchises, but Guacamelee!‘s gameplay fluidity and spectacular graphics keeps gamers wanting more excruciating piledrivers. The recently released Gold Edition features skin creation tools exclusively for the PC and the El Infierno expansion pack, which adds several trial stages to the game’s campaign mode.

You play as Juan Aguacate, who’s a run-of-the-mill farmer in Mexico. Shortly after you’re introduced to him, El Presidente’s daughter is kidnapped by Carlos Calaca, an Evil Charro Skeleton, who intends on merging the words of the living in the dead. Juan begins his journey to rescue his beloved by becoming a luchador superhero.

Players can venture in a non-linear world map that gets bigger when you learn new abilities. Newer abilities will help players overcome environmental obstacles that keep them from accessing other areas. Completing certain areas and objectives will reward you with hidden treasure boxes, ability statues to break and pinatas to kick. DrinkBox graciously rewards players who invest the time to explore by making uncovered levels unpredictable and surprisingly elaborate thanks to the ability to cross dimensions between the world of the dead and the living.

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Hard Corps Uprising
Whatever you do, don’t call Konami’s side-scrolling run-and-gun shooter Contra. Hard Corps Uprising isn’t an officially entry into that classic 2D game series (despite some very strong allusions), but the Arc System Works-developed title is just as hard (if not harder!) than its “forefathers.”

Building on the usual 2D run-and-gun gameplay that typifies Contra, Hard Corps Uprising introduces a dedicated run button for actual running. This addition, the ability to dash, and dash mid-air, opens up a variety of potential maneuvers, unlockable in the game’s Rising mode. In that mode, players earn Corps Points to buy abilities like vaulting over obstacles, tackling into them to cause explosive chain reactions and dodging enemies altogether. Add those new moves to the established two-weapon arsenal, strafing, and aiming formula established since Contra III, and you have a well-rounded menu of mayhem.

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The King of Fighters XIII
SNK Playmore’s The King of Fighters XIII is an apology letter to every fight fan that felt that sinking feeling shortly after booting up The King of Fighters XII. The Atlus-published 2D fighter remedies nearly every problem that plagued its predecessor; the roster now packs 33 combatants (two of which, Billy Kane and Saiki, are unlockable), more stages, more music tracks, and best of all, vastly improved netcode that lets you mix it up online with a bare minimum of hiccups. Simply stated, King of Fighters XIII returns the long-running series to the heights of quality that is its legacy.

In a console generation that saw the wondrous return of the 2D fighter thanks to the smash success of Mortal Kombat, Ultimate Marvel vs Capcom 3, Super Street Fighter IV: Arcade Edition, and Persona 4: Arena, KOF XIII is addition to the new class of combatants. If you fancy yourself a fighting game fan, The King of Fighters XIII should be considered a must-have purchase as it’s one of the best fighting games available.

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Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony
Final Form Games’ Jamestown doesn’t detail John Smith’s and Sir Walter Raleigh’s adventures in a settlement that would evolve into Old Dominion. Instead, it details John Smith’s and Sir Walter Raleigh’s Martian adventures to hunt down a crazed Spanish conquistador in a delightful 2D steampunk world.

What?!?!

Jamestown features highly-detailed, well-animated sprites that harken back to SNK’s ’90s output. In fact, between the projectiles, enemy ships, and foot soldiers, it’s very easy to get lost in the visuals which drip in retro 2D love — it’s like a shmuppy Metal Slug. Orchestral music, scored by Francisco Cerda, adds to the thrilling sense of adventure with its energetic percussion, incredible choral arrangements, and moving strings. Jamestown supports four-player local simultaneous shooting action (including a sweet shield and chain system), so gather your  brethren and fight the good fight.

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Legend of Dungeon
Legend of Dungeon is an intense dungeon hack n’ slash rougelike that harkens back to the olden days of the dungeon crawl. It’s akin to Eye of the BeholderDungeon Master, and the more recent, The Legend of Grimrock mashed together with classic beat-em-ups like TMNT: The Arcade Game and Double Dragon.

Except LoD is so purely focused on hacking, slashing, and leveling up that it completely bypasses any attempt at story, which is actually incredibly refreshing. There is no need to sit through any complicated intro sequence with voice over talking about the generic fantasy world at your fingertips. It starts you off as a randomly designed character (though you’re able to choose gender, which only adds pixels in certain areas of your blocky avatar) and are plopped right into a whimsical, pixilated medieval tavern complete with burning torches and indiscriminate characters.

Amidst the chaos of modern high-definition / socially acceptable / grim story driven gaming world, Legend of Dungeon‘s definitely a refreshing reminder of a time when games only needed to focus on being fun.

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Limbo 
Limbo puts you in the role of boy who has a simple mission: find his missing sister. PlayDead Studios’ puzzle-platformer is a work of black-and-white art that seeks to destroy you in a most beautiful and creative way as you trek through dark forests, industrial zones, and other desolate areas.

There are brutal, in-you-face killings (such as stepping on an animal trap and having your head removed), but the most frightening and shocking deaths come from the more low-key butcherings. For example, there’s a section of the game where you appear to approach what looks like thin tree or bush branches, but the camera pulls back a hair, and those thin branches are revealed to be the spindly legs of monster-size spider–a spider that lives partially offscreen (which makes the battle extra frightening). You will fail (a lot), but Limbo‘s deaths are rarely frustrating; trial and error is a necessity in order to decipher the tricky puzzles.

Mark of the Ninja 2 X List: The 18 best 2D games of the HD era

Mark of the Ninja
Mark of the Ninja is a 2D, side-scrolling stealth-focused action title from Klei Entertainment, the wonderful development studio behind the Shank and Shank 2. While Mark of the Ninja shares the same comic book art style, crisp character animation, and side-scrolling progression as Shank, the similarities end there. Mark of the Ninja is a stealth game, through and through.

It encourages cunning and caution rather than brawling action and mayhem. Think Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, rather than Ninja GaidenMark of the Ninja features excellent level design — there’s no definitive way to get through a stage or its obstacles. There’s almost always a vent, crawl space, or series of platforms that players can utilize to access or avoid certain areas, as well as distraction items and abilities players can use to clear a path or set up kills. 2D stealth doesn’t get much better than Mark of the Ninja.

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Mortal Kombat
It’s quite fitting that NetherRealm Studios’ Mortal Kombat reboot is simply entitled Mortal Kombat, no subtitle, no number. It returns the franchise to its roots with hyper-violence, accessible gameplay, eerie atmosphere, and solid (if not the most technical) fighting. A solid roster, excellent graphics, tons of unlockables, and a mindblowing number of gameplay modes makes this the best Mortal Kombat since the beloved Mortal Kombat II — and the best in the series, period. 

Whether or not you’ll enjoy Mortal Kombat depends on how you like your fighting. If you loved Mortal Kombat II, this is the ultimate Mortal Kombat experience. If you prefer the Street Fighter style of play, the game won’t shine as brightly. That said, NetherRealm Studios deserves praise for breathing new life into the franchise, and making it even more fun (and brutal!) now than it was in the ’90s.

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Persona 4 Arena
Persona 4 Arena is an unexpected fighter from an unusual source material: A JRPG. Don’t let that steer you away. This is a fighter you will want to take the time to learn, and you’ll enjoy every second of it. From its simple to grasp, but difficult to master concepts (like the different bursts and counters), to its extremely diverse, interesting and balanced cast, Persona 4 Arena is the new fighting champ.

The fine-tuned mechanics at work here are salient to strategy. Do you use your burst early in the match to extend a punishing combo? Or do you save it and use it as a defensive tool? At first it might seem difficult to grasp, but with enough practice and patience it becomes second nature. Arc System Works has done an amazing job in making Persona 4 Arena an incredibly accessible fighter with a number of in-match indicators. If you’re a Persona fan, a fighting fan, or someone genuinely interested in learning a game, do yourself a favor and play this game.

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The Pinball Arcade
The Pinball Arcade may not have the smoky environments and greaser element, but it’s the best replication of the pinball experience to date. The Pinball Arcade is not only an incredibly addictive title, but an excellent digital archive that captures the tables’ essences and the magic of a bygone American staple.

Ball momentum is stellar. It’s a joy to watch the ball ping-pong between bumpers, rocket through loops, and bounce off flippers. This is the rare pinball game that will make you forget that you’re not playing the real thing. The biggest complement that one can give The Pinball Arcade’s four tables – Arabian Nights, Black Hole, Ripley’s Believe It Or Not!, and Theatre Magic – is that you can jump right into the flipper action.

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Resonance
Resonance weaves an engaging tale of four diverse characters — a scientist, journalist, detective, and doctor — who attempt to stop a mysterious worldwide catastrophe caused by a recent energy breakthrough. That’s the surface. Where Resonance succeeds, as does any quality adventure game, is in story. The protagonists each have their individual story arcs that overlap and eventually bring the four leads together. Resonance excels in capturing the small details, and displays a surprisingly amount of wit.

Resonance is one of the first games to come out of the now-hip Kickstarter movement. If this is any indication of what we can expect from small studios going the crowd-funding method, I’m all aboard that train. Resonance, along with the likes of The Walking Dead, has proven that point-and-click adventure titles have the chops to thrill contemporary gamers.

Scott Pilgrim vs the World X List: The 18 best 2D games of the HD era

Scott Pilgrim vs. The World : The Game
Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is about a Canadian 23-year-old named Scott Pilgrim who, along with his pals Kim Pine, Stephen Stills, and new girlfriend Ramona Flowers, must defeat Ramona’s seven evil ex-boyfriends before Scott can finally date her. A simple premise explained to us, if not by the absolute media overload of the past few weeks, then by the Marvel vs. Capcom 2-style attract demo that plays when the game boots up. Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game is a classic-style arcade game, calling back to Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles IV: Turtles in Time, The Simpsons Arcade Game, and other classic brawlers, particularly River City Ransom.

Scott Pilgrim vs. the World: The Game has a lot of passion and heart, backed up by impeccable art design, rousing Anamanaguchi music and simple and fun arcade brawling that should have you beating up bad guys long into the wee small hours. If you can get by the dopey glitches and friend-having requirements, by all means, take a Warp Pipe, dive into Scott’s wacky world and show those evil exes who’s boss.

Shank 2 X List: The 18 best 2D games of the HD era

Shank 2
Filled to the brim with decapitations, impalements, severed limbs, and bullet-ridden bodies, Klei Entertainment’s follow up to 2010’s Shank has more in common with Jon Woo movies than the grindhouse revenge flicks that inspired it. Shank 2 doesn’t revolutionize the beat ‘em up genre, but its new combo system, deliciously brutal counterattacks, and incredible visual style and animation make it one of the best action-platforming titles on the PC.

Klei Entertainment did a fine job of breaking up the repetitiveness inherent to the genre with non-brawling aspects. The enemies are more varied and feature a nice selection of attacks (though the bosses are simple-patterned as the first Shank). Just when you start to feel the weight of repetition, you’re tasked with mowing down baddies with a stationary gun or outrunning a huge boulder, Indy-style. You can interact with objects in the environment, too; shooting a hanging corpse onto an enemy often ends explosively, thus giving you additional options for clearing enemies from areas.

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Skullgirls
What happens when you take a well-respected fighting game community member and tournament player, and give him the freedom to make his own game? Skullgirls happens. Mike Zaimont (Mike Z) and the folks over at Reverge Labs have created a deep fighter (with an excellent tutorial) that genre fans will dig. Skullgirls follows eight female fighters and their quest to obtain the mystical Skull Heart that allows the possessor to ask for wishes, but at a disturbing cost. Each character’s fighting style is unique, yet those accustomed to fighters should find it easy to pick up any cast member.

You can air-dash cancel to continue combos like in the Guilty Gear series, mix and match your teammates like in Marvel Vs. Capcom, and even call in characters for assists. There are also launchers to set up characters for air combos. However, Mike Z and his team worked diligently to remove game-breaking infinite combos — pummelled players can perform one-button infinite breakers that allow them to escape the combo. The system works well and creates fair matches.


That’s a wrap. For now. But don’t forget to check out the Best 2D Fighting Games X-List!

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Jeffrey L. Wilson is the former Big Boss of 2D-X.com. Now retired, he spends his days as a man of leisure. Kinda.

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  • http://wingdamage.com mainfinger

    my personal favorite was Donkey Kong Country Returns. It actually ended up being better than the old games, and I really liked the old games.

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  • BarbedProng

    Mark of the Ninja anyone?

    • http://www.2D-X.com/ Jeffrey L. Wilson

      Agreed! We have something on that very topic coming…tonight!

  • Midori Inaba

    Oh, both Persona Arena and BlazBlue. Yes, Arc System Works makes BEAUTIFUL looking 2D sprites games. So fluent animations, such great detail, and all of that crowned with super fun fighting action done at its best!