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Gamasutra's Best Of 2009: Top 10 Indie Games
Gamasutra's Best Of 2009: Top 10 Indie Games
December 18, 2009 | By Tim W., Michael Rose

December 18, 2009 | By Tim W., Michael Rose
More: Console/PC

[Continuing Gamasutra's 2009 retrospective, Tim W. and Mike Rose of sister weblog examine this year's top 10 independent games from their unique micro-indie perspective. Previously: Top 5 Biz Trends, Top 5 iPhone Games, Top 5 Controversies, Top 5 PC Games, Top 5 Handheld Games Of 2009, Top 5 Console Downloadable Games, Top 5 Major Industry Events and Top 5 Developers.]

It's been an incredible year for fans of indie games. The 2010 Independent Games Festival recorded a 35 percent increase in submissions, indie games have gained more prominence and recognition in the mainstream industry, and quite a few of them even turned out to be decent commercial successes for their developers.

To celebrate the achievements of these up-and-coming game designers, we thought it'd be a great idea to list out some of our favorite independent video games from the past twelve months.

Bear in mind that for every game mentioned here, there are twenty more that are dear to us which got left out, so we'd like to apologize in advance if your picks didn't make an appearance in this article.

Here are our picks for the top ten independent games of this year:

10. Enviro-Bear 2000: Operation: Hibernation (Justin Smith) [Windows, freeware - paid iPhone version available]

Created for the TIGSource Cockpit Competition - and, rightly so, the winner of the competition - Enviro-Bear 2000: Operation: Hibernation is what you might call 'downright genius.' Taking control of a bear just as winter is approaching, the task is to gobble down enough fish and berries and then find a place to hibernate before the snow starts to fall. All this takes place in a car. Obviously.

This is where the hilarity begins, as - and prepare for the bleeding obvious - our bear isn't the world's best driver. In fact, he's only able to grab one part of the car's controls at a time. Cue trying to accelerate with your paw, then frantically grabbing the wheel and dodging around that pine-cone tree, or that angry looking badger, or even the other bears who are, of course, driving their cars around looking for food too. Feeling clever? Jam a rock on top of the acceleration pedal and away you go - let's just hope you can stop in time. Failing at a game has never been such incredible fun, and by the time your car is brimful of leaves, stones, bees and badgers, there will be tears of laughter in your eyes. Magical.

9. Meat Boy (Edmund McMillen, Jonathan McEntee) [Flash, freeware]

A fruitful year for Edmund indeed. Spewer and Time Fcuk were great platform games, but Meat Boy is definitely the prime cut here. They've even made a map pack for it, yet fans apparently couldn't get enough of our hero and his quest to save Bandage Girl. Count on Mr. McMillen to capitalize on the popularity of his creation, as he has teamed up with Tommy Refenes to produce Super Meat Boy (the enhanced version created from the ground up) for release on WiiWare and Steam sometime next year.

SMB will be a tricky game any way you look at it, and we'd recommend putting a few hours into the original Flash build first.

8. Cogs (Lazy 8 Studios) [Windows, paid, free demo]

I'm a big fan of puzzle games, and it's easy to recognize one in any community - hand them any version of Tetris, and it would keep them entertained for hours. It is from this simple concept that Lazy 8 Studios' Rob Jagnow built the solid foundation of Cogs. All you have to do in this game is to move the tiles around a surface until the level objective is achieved, which is usually connecting one end of an object to another with a set of cogs or pipes. Sounds like Pipe Dream, yes? Even better.

The sheer satisfaction of solving a puzzle on your own was one of the things that Jonathan Blow wanted players to experience when playing Braid, and it is that same exact feeling you get in Cogs when the tiles click into place and contraptions whir to life. Sure, you can find the solutions online, but where's the fun in that?

Cogs is a game that everyone should try, regardless of whether they're fond of puzzle games - simply because it's one of the best puzzlers of its kind to be released in the past few years. The grandmaster of puzzle games Alexey Pajitnov has played Cogs at E3 recently, and even he couldn't bring himself to stop playing it. That is Lazy 8 Studio's bullet point, right there.

7. AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard For Gravity (Dejobaan Games) [Windows, paid, demo available]

Dejobaan Games' basejumper takes the idea behind the extreme sport and turns it into one of the best arcade games of the year. Players duck, dodge and dive their way over and under floating obstacles, waving to their fans and flipping off the rest. What makes Aaaaa! so worth your time is the feeling of speed players can experience from the comfort of their living room. As scenery zooms by, the rush is simply staggering.

The game is balanced to perfection, allowing casual gamers to pick it up and enjoy that rush of streaking past buildings and deploying the parachute at the last minute, whilst also giving the hardcore players more of a challenge, with perfect paths set out in the sky for maximizing score and achieving those 5 star honors. There's also a vein of ridiculous humor running throughout which cuts the action up nicely, with relaxation videos and special announcements made at random intervals.

6. Journey to the Center of the Earth (Dot Zo Games) [Windows, freeware]

Dot Zo Games' Journey to the Center of the Earth received a whopping 75 comments on the Indie Games Blog, most of them involving the word 'wow' - and with good reason! Players guide their little explorer down into the depths of the Earth's crust, grabbing treasure, opening locked doors and fending off beasts. A treasure map gives a hint as to where each chest lies, and each area has its own unique atmosphere.

Of course, where would an explorer be without his unlimited supply of bombs to destroy enemies and provide himself with an little extra jumping power. The depth of this game (quite literally) is phenomenal, and since there is no save function, it's an experience you really need to sit down and focus on for a good, long while. Clever puzzles continuously block your way, and only the most skilled explorers will make it out safe and sound with their plunder. Platforming at its best.

5. RunMan: Race Around the World (Tom Sennett and Matt Thorson) [Windows, donationware]

The premise is simple - take control of a small, star-shaped hero as he pelts his way through worlds which appear to have been designed via Microsoft Paint. Make sure nothing can stand in his way - every wall can be bounced off, every brick and bad guy smashed and every hole can simply be jumped back out of. Then throw in a mixture of folk, blues and jazz music to give the whole experience just that little bit more excellence, and you're away!

Many claimed that RunMan was the Sonic the Hedgehog game they'd been longing for since the blue streak turned 3D, and it's really not hard to see why - this game wants you to run really, really fast and it does everything in its power to help you achieve this goal. Our starry friend can't die, he leaves a trail of fire in his speedy wake and he shouts 'ROCK ON' as he powers along. And yet, even though it was all fairly easy - it's always going to be if the matter of death is taken away - it took really determination and skill to collect gold medals on each level. A masterclass in platforming.

4. Star Guard (Sparky) [Windows/Mac, freeware]

A platform game for people who have fond memories of classic platformers. The developer chose to use CGA-like colors for this production, and we're delighted to report that his decision to limit the palette for graphics has paid off handsomely. It looks great, controls smoothly, and there is never a period where you would not be shooting at enemies or avoiding the carefully-laid traps in every area.

Star Guard also features a checkpoint system and an infinite number of lives, making it a very accessible game to players of all skill levels. A hard mode is also included, and I've tried to speed run this platform game as a personal challenge more times than I cared to count - hours spent trying to beat the nine stages in the quickest time possible, and without a single life lost. For that alone it surely deserves a mention in our picks, and we'll be looking forward to future retro creations from this up and coming developer.

3. Canabalt (Adam Atomic, Daniel Baranowsky) [Flash, freeware - paid iPhone version available]

The rate at which Adam Atomic's Canabalt got around the internet on its release was staggering, but not at all surprising. Here was a game that was pretty much impossible not to like, and forums and message boards went berserk with people trying to best each other's runs. What makes Canabalt such an achievement is its control scheme, which goes as follows - press X to jump.

Simple as that, yet as an experience it's so frantic, so tense... so incredible. Our hero is escaping along rooftops as the buildings around him are falling to the ground, and it's the players job to get him safely from one rooftop to the next, and repeat. Other obstacles attempt to foil his escape plans - like huge missiles falling from the sky - and there is such a glorious atmosphere to it all. Such questions as 'Who is he running from?' and 'Why is the world falling down around him?' get lost in the sheer astounding intensity - part of the tension due to your knowledge that the only end is his demise... but how far can you get before that happens? That question is one which has kept the game alive long after its release, which high score tables for the iPhone edition still being fought over. A prime example of how one-button games should be done.

2. VVVVVV (Terry Cavanagh) [Flash, paid]

Terry Cavanagh has made quite a few gems lately, and while Don't Look Back, Bullet Time and Bullfist were fantastic games, VVVVVV is definitely the jewel in his crown. A simple gameplay element is introduced early on, but things quickly become challenging as each room has its own set of traps or devices that will turn everything you've learned topsy-turvy (figuratively and literally speaking). Rescuing your crew members in this retro-looking platformer might not be such an easy task after all.

VVVVVV is currently only available to play via a small donation to the developer. People who have experienced the game firsthand can attest to how good it is, and judging by the recent postings on the developer's site there are many who couldn't wait to get their hands on it too.

1. Machinarium (Amanita Design) [Windows, paid, free Flash demo available]

This is such a gorgeous, gorgeous game, we just had to use the same word twice to describe it. Amanita Design made its name with the Samorost series and could have repeated that commercial success by making another sequel, yet Jakub Dvorsky (leader of the team) chose to take a risk by creating a brand new game that had no connections with anything they've done in the past. Turns out that risk was one worth taking, as every reviewer and journalist who got their hands on Machinarium had only positive things to say about it.

The game is a true work of art, and by the end of the adventure you couldn't help wanting more. So much thought and love went into the development of the game, and thanks to Machinarium the bar has now been set very high for commercial Flash games. We can only sing praises for this one, so here's hoping we don't have to wait another two long years before Amanita Design resurfaces with their next project.

Honorable mentions:
Pathways (Terry Cavanagh) [Windows, freeware]- Such simple graphics, such a moving message.
And Yet It Moves (Broken Rules) [Windows, paid, free demo, WiiWare version soon] - Platformer with a literal twist.
Osmos (Hemisphere Games) [Windows/Mac, paid, free demo] - Relaxing puzzler which requires complete concentration.
Minecraft (Markus Persson) [Browser, paid, free previews] - Wonderful sandbox-style world builder.
Blueberry Garden (Erik Svedang) [Windows, paid, free demo] - Very experimental, very atmospheric.
Time Gentlemen, Please! (Zombie Cow) [Windows, paid, free demo] - One of the best adventure games I've played. Ever

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Pierre Baillargeon
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I'm dismayed by Machinarium getting such high praise. It does have very stylish graphics, but as far as game play goes... the first part is top notch, with puzzles involving the capabilities of the little robot... but once you get pass the first quarter or so, almost all the remaining puzzles are peg jumping and the like. Completely lazy, arbitrary non-story related puzzle design.

To me, it was the let down game of the year. Promising demo, then mini-game fillers.

Alexander Bruce
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I've played most of the things that are mentioned on indie games throughout the year, and had played a bunch of things listed here... but I decided to try out Meat Boy as I'd not played that yet. It was very fun, though it had some wonky controls at times. I didn't feel like I was dying because I had done something wrong, I felt like I had died because I tapped a button for a fraction of a second too long. Hopefully things like this are fixed up in Super Meat Boy. Great game otherwise.

Nicolas Barriga
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I miss XBLIG games in this list, like platypus, I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1, or miner dig deep.

Gregory Kinneman
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Pathways certainly caught my eye. I'm glad it got honorable mention here.

Also, I agree with Pierre that while Machinarium was very pretty, it really lacked depth.

I was sad to see my favorite indie game of 2009, Windosill, absent from the list. As beautiful as any game here, and with far more compelling puzzles than Machinarium, I feel it deserved top honors.

Brandon Sheffield
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I will defend machinarium's position on this list - I thought the sequence getting instruments for the musicians was great, and the plant growing, etc. It compelled me and a hoard of people at PAX all the way through to completion.

Michel McBride-Charpentier
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You forgot Spelunky.

Jonathon Walsh
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And Continuity!

A great list though and I wouldn't really feel dismayed if your favorite indie game isn't on the list. The fact that there are so many top notch indie games to try and cram into a top ten list is a good thing for everyone.

Chris Remo
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I'm glad to see AaaaaAAaaaAAAaaAAAAaAAAAA!!!: A Reckless Disregard For Gravity make the list (it was an honorable mention on my Top 5 PC Games list for this site, and I gave Dejobaan an honorable mention in Top 5 Developers). I've rarely played a game that felt so exuberant and off-the-cuff, while simultaneously being so playable and polished.

zed zeek
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Wow I truly am shocked how bad these games were (I only tried 6or7 though so perhaps I missed a gem)

Im not talking about the graphics/presentation but originality they're all just rehashes of the same tired themes, maybe Im just getting old and jaded.

Though I must confess my stuff is just as bad

Ichiro Lambe
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Man. I am so very psyched. A big thanks to Chris R. Tim W., and Michael R. for featuring Dejobaan and Aaaaa!! :D

Tyler Glaiel
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Wasn't Meat Boy 2008?

Adam Bishop
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I'm curious what was used to determine if the games listed were "indie" games. I would consider Plants vs Zombies and Torchlight to be from independent developers (ie not attached to a major publisher), and those were two of the better games I played all year. It seems like "indie" is being used as a synonym for "small team with a tiny budget".

Whiskey Jack
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I don't understand Gamasutra's guidelines either.

Including Torchlight what about games like Solium Infernum (albeit barely 2009) and AI War (a refreshing take on the RTS genre with the best gaming AI I've ever interacted with in any game)?

The only games that I can see deserving some place on that list is Aaaah! and Machinarium.

Tyler Shogren
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This sniffs of "Indie Friends of Gamasutra Staff Writers, 2009". Isn't Indie supposed to be the one place where new ideas can flourish, away from the crushing, unfeeling walls of the corporate publisher bureaucracy? "Grabbing treasure, opening locked doors and fending off beasts"? Really? "I've tried to speed run this platform game as a personal challenge... for that alone it surely deserves a mention in our picks." What criteria?

Simon Carless
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Just a note to Adam and others, since this came up last year - these are the picks of the editors, and they tend to concentrate on particular style - or 'flavor' - of independent games. We do and will honor some of the other games and developers you are mentioning in other lists - Torchlight devs have already been mentioned, and we had a console downloadable chart as well. We try to be inclusive, and I think a big site like Gamasutra honoring so many small games is probably a good thing overall. Feel free to disagree with the game picks, of course!

Adam Bishop
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That's cool with me, I don't have a problem with the list and I enjoy the work that the guys at do. I was just saying that I would have included some of the "bigger" indie games if it had been my list, and I was curious if they were kept out because they were more professional/larger productions.