X-List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

Posted on Dec 1 2013 - 9:00am by Jeffrey L. Wilson

X List X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

My love for indie games knows no bounds. My video game library is packed to the brim with great independent efforts such as  Divekick and the Broforce “brototype,” and many others — something that wouldn’t have happened in years past.

I became enamored with indie games after visiting the Indie Megabooth at this year’s PAX East. I will admit with no shame that my initial indie game love was birthed from the refreshingly positive interactions that the team and I experienced with game developers. There were no PR people safeguarding information. No bullshit. We got real answers to our questions. The in-depth conversations about video game development were immensely enlightening.

Then I played the likes of Shovel Knight and Super Time Force, titles with throwback, 2D gameplay laced with contemporary design sensibilities. The former featured hop-and-bop 8-bit-like action; the other let gamers manipulate time to your advantage in a decidedly Contra-like game. They’re fun, outside-the-box titles that changed my perception of the indie game scene.

So as I dabbled in the indie scene, I discovered that there are tons of excellent indie titles that can be purchased for dirt cheap — or for free! AAA developers don’t have the lock on fun, folks. If you’re looking to expand your horizons a bit, check out these 10 cool indie video games.

1 Erica and John Van 1024x576 X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller
Have you ever become so immersed in an episode of CSI or Law & Order that you’ve fantasized about being in the detectives’ shoes? Well, stop here and buy Phoenix Online Studios’ Cognition: An Erica Reed Thriller. The point-and-click adventure-mystery game puts you in the shoes of Boston FBI’s very own Erica Reed who’s tasked, along with her doughnut-eating partner John, with tracking down a potential serial killer.

But what sets this redhead Boston native apart from the other detectives is her ability to tap into psychic powers she’s had for as long as she can remember. Her powers, however, are not as childish as Matilda or as heinous as Carrie. Erica can sense certain objects and visualize their previous movements — an ability that grows stronger and evolves as the game progresses. This assists her in solving crimes in this intriguing episodic adventure game series.

Minecraft X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

You cannot talk indie games without mentioning the almighty Minecraft. Marcus “Notch” Perrson struck video game gold with with this sandbox game that combines Lego’s world-building with the flexibility and challenge that video games deliver.

Technically, one doesn’t have to meet any specific goals;  gamers can opt to construct houses, bridges, and other items in the procedurally generated game environment. These items are plucked from the game world, but do so during daylight hours. Once the night sets in, Creepers and all manner of ghoulies stalk the landscape in want of your character’s pixelated blood.

Minecraft‘s popularity is so strong that it has branched off from the PC (the game’s original platform) to home video game consoles and smart phones.

Jamestown X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony
Final Form Games’ Jamestown doesn’t detail John Smith’s and Sir Walter Raleigh’s adventures in the 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.


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.

Legend of Dungeon X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

Legend of Dungeon
Legend of Dungeon is an intense dungeon hack n’ slash rouge-like that harkens back to the olden days of the dungeon crawl. It’s akin to Eye of the Beholder, Dungeon 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 Legend of Dungeon 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, pixelated 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.

guacamelee 4 X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

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 Inferno 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 and 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.

Mark of the Ninja 2 X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

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 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 and not brawling action and mayhem. Think Tenchu: Stealth Assassins, instead of Ninja Gaiden. Mark 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 use 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 better than Mark of the Ninja.

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Mercenary Kings
Mercenary Kings, developed by Tribute Games (the development team behind Wizorb), is the 2D run-and-gun successor to SNK Playmore’s Metal Slug. It’s slated for a PC and PlayStation 4 release in Q3/Q4, but if you’re eager to dig in, you can purchase a Steam Early Access version now for $14.99. Yes, the game is currently in an unfinished form (those who buy the game are essentially beta testers), but it’s highly playable; there are 60 missions (the final version will have 100), online multiplayer, and a ton of weapons with which you can ventilate villains. The final version will have additional cutscenes, tweaked balance, and more sound effects.

Australian pixel-master Paul Robertson collaborates with Tribute Games for a second time (their first project was Wizorb) to produce a 2D beauty. Although Mercenary Kings as a whole isn’t as hyper-animated as Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game — a project that also saw Robertson handling the animation duties — it’s still a beautiful game. The super-deformed characters feature an impressive level of detail as they run, fly, and fight. The 2D sprite work is especially impressive when you land a headshot; the resulting bloody explosion features animation that rivals Scott Pilgrim vs. The World: The Game‘s fluid character motions.

Mercenary Kings, even in its unfinished state, is a quality run-and-gun title that should find an audience among genre fans. Attractive visuals, solid platforming, and deeply satisfying gun crafting makes it one of the better $14.99 titles in the Steam catalog. And the devs are listening to player feedback, so the game will continue to evolve over time.

Papers Please X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

Papers, Please
Papers, Please is Lucas Pope’s puzzle-simulator that puts you in the role of an immigrant inspector working in a fictional communist country. Your responsibilities are to inspect the entrant’s documentation and either approve them to enter the country, deny them, or have them arrested for false documentations, contraband, and so forth. At the end of the first in-game day, Papers, Please reveals that you have a family — a wife, son, mother-in-law, and uncle — all of which are living with you. The number of entrants you handle at work before quitting time is relative to the amount of money you get at the end of the day. The pay is always measly– and it all go towards the rent of a crummy apartment, food, heat, and medicine –which is used by your family. If you owe the country money even by five bucks, or if a family member dies, it’s game over.

Papers, Please, likewisehas also received high praise from critics and consumers alike for emotional reaction it invokes in gamers who must make extremely difficult moral decisions. Even just writing about this game made Community Manager Isaac Rouse feel all feverish in anticipation to fire it up once again. It, like The Walking Dead, was made for relative pennies when compared with million dollar AAA titles such as Fallout and the Mass Effect series. It proves yet again that it doesn’t take well over a million dollars to create an immersive and critically acclaimed title that folks will adore.

Rogue Legacy 1024x576 X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

Rogue Legacy X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now
Cellar Door Games took the roguelike genre and gave it mainstream accessibility with Rogue Legacy, a $14.99 PC indie-action game. Well, kinda. As with any roguelike, Rogue Legacy will kill you — a lot — but death is an integral part of the gameplay experience.

Each time you bite it, Rogue Legacy randomly generates a heir from the proceeding heroic character who will continue the family quest to rid a Castlevania-like castle from dark forces. Each son or daughter has his or her own special traits, which is fitting because each time you enter the castle, the layout’s randomly generated (you can lock it into place if you must by coughing up some valuable gold pieces).

If you like unpredictable action, consider Rogue Legacy an essential pick up.

Shank 2 X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

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 breaks 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.

skull girls gamescom parasoul screens 08 X List: The 11 best indie games you should play right now

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.

Want some more X-List goodness? Don’t forget to check out out Best 2D PC Games and Best 2D Fighting Games X-Lists!

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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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3 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Noob December 10, 2013 at 9:09 AM - Reply

    how is it that you didnt add Trine, meat boy, Path of exile, Fez. so many more that are way better then this list taht they could make there on list, wich makes this list useless. Redo and do it right.

    • Jeffrey L. Wilson December 10, 2013 at 9:33 AM - Reply

      My indie games are better than your indie games. Let’s get into a hipster nerd fight.

    • stephanie burdo December 10, 2013 at 7:20 PM - Reply

      Did you watch Indie Game the Movie and consider those the only options for indie gaming? Boo.

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