PC gaming is often associated with pricey rigs designed to make current-gen games like Bioshock Infinite, Tomb Raider, and Borderlands 2 sparkle with seemingly next-gen polish. Although the personal computer has the capability to push polygons at incredible levels, not all titles demand that amount of power. 2D games immediately come to mind.
2D games — both sprite based and polygonal titles that move on a simple X/Y axis — typically demand far less horsepower than the latest AAA big budget title and are usually priced accordingly. Instead of sprawling, epic affairs, these simpler games often rely on challenge, pattern recognition, and charming graphics to stand out from the pack. We’re focusing on modern 2D games — those created in the high-definition era — that we’ve reviewed or with which we’ve had extensive hands-on time. This X-List will change and expand over time as we play more HD 2D PC games.
Note: Although it’s incredibly simple to play damn near every 2D game ever made with the assistance of an emulator and ROMs, this best 2D PC games X-List will focus on games that you can purchase through legal means. Support developers who make quality products, y’all.
So, without further ado….
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
When it comes to the Scribblenauts franchise, developer 5th Cell is clearly onto something. The series, now in its fourth installment, has gone from a famously problematic Nintendo DS game to a major multi-platform release. True to its promise of family wide appeal, Scribblenauts Unlimited has now found a home on the one platform most families own: the personal computer. As it turns out, Scribblenauts Unlimited is the kind of unabashedly joyful game that will have whole families gathering around the desktop to solve puzzles, laugh together, and learn together.
When the game is at its best, it’s a sandbox for the kid at heart. Many puzzles accept a range of words as solutions and can be solved in multiple ways, allowing players to come up with solutions that are downright wacky. Want to sneak past a guard? Freeze him with a summoned freeze-ray, give him the adjective “blind,” or make yourself invisible. Or better yet, summon a purple, spotted minotaur to chase him away. The best puzzles are like video game versions of Mad Libs, capable of entertaining a group armed with suggestions or just one particularly silly individual.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
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.