As is often true in the independent games scene, the biggest problem with Xbox Live Indie Games for Xbox 360 is the obvious one: There are simply too many games for one or even multiple individuals to check out -- and not enough bandwidth for the press to give them detailed attention.
Even dedicated sites like XNPlay are having a lot of trouble keeping up with the sheer amount of releases for XBLIG, with a total of 980 available as of the time of writing this. (Remember that Microsoft has a pretty decent web-based browse/download structure for Xbox Live Indie Games on Xbox.com - here are the top-selling titles in the U.S. store.)
However, Microsoft's solution for this - rolling out user-given star ratings to all of its online content, including Xbox 360 demos, XBLA titles and Xbox Live Indie Games in 2009 - has helped significantly to cut through the clutter. Although you'll find the top-selling games led by a lot of avatar-based titles (some of which are fairly good!), you'll also find the XBLIG top-rated games list to be incredibly helpful in finding new/notable titles.
(One note on this - you can easily look through the complete chart of top-rated games on the Web via the previously-mentioned Xbox.com link. But if you're browsing from your Xbox 360, you won't find a 'more' link at the end of the Top 20 charts. To look at lower-rated titles, go to 'Browse' in the Indie Games section, select 'All', and you can then sort by highest-rated.)
So, given that we do believe many of these titles are significantly underexposed, here's a look at ten (relatively) recently-launched Xbox Live Indie Games that deserve at least a trial look, and are often extremely cheap to buy. Click through on the links to see their Xbox.com overview page, including screenshots, download links, etc:
- Mamotte Knight (Ancient, 240 Points)
It's only just debuted, but this RPG/Tower Defense-ish mashup is already much awaited, coming from Streets Of Rage composer Yuzo Koshiro's company Ancient. Here's the English-language info page for it.
Much like some other XBLIG titles, it looks most fun with local play-specific friends - it supports up to 4 players at once. But it's still bash-tastic single player, and hopefully the Japanese-only name on the Dashboard won't put people off.
- Flotilla (Brendon Chung, 400 Points)
From the creator of the oddly brilliant Gravity Bone, and released on PC (via Steam/Impulse) and XBLIG, the official site for this fascinating slo-mo ship combat simulator has plenty more information.
But basically, this is a turn-based 3D tactical conflict between warring space fleets, with randomly populated encounters every time, and a strangely serene Ender's Game-esque faux-reality to the geometrically complex battles. Recommended.
- Kaleidoscope (Morsel, 240 Points)
Conceptually cute, and with rather beautiful visuals, this 2D side-scrolling platformer has the player wandering through a level finding the 'lost colors' within, and gradually shifting the game's palette from black and white to glorious RGB.
There have been some mixed reviews for Kaleidoscope, partly because it's a little awkwarder than it could be to progress through and control. But at 240 Points, if you like the demo, there's no reason not to wade all the way in.
- radiangames JoyJoy (radiangames, 80 Points)
Former Volition dev Luke Schneider, recently interviewed by us, is taking the ex-mainstream dev one-man XBLIG route to indiedom, in a similar way to Mommy's Best Games' Nathan Fouts.
This just-debuted first radiangames title is, yes, very Geometry Wars-ish. Yet it has nice graduated levels, neat weapon-switching, and darn smooth gameplay to match - and it's only 80 Points!
- Breath Of Death VII (RainbowDespair, 80 Points)
Already fairly well-covered by other outlets, this parody JRPG has garnered excellent reviews due to a couple of things.
Firstly, it's a briefish 4-hour romp through a genre that's playable and recognizable. Secondly, it's well-written/funny in many places. (And, actually, it's in a genre which is under-represented overall on the Xbox 360's digital store right now.)
- Retrofit - Overload (Wam Games, 80 Points)
Another retro shooter? Well, yes, but this well-constructed title riffs off Galaga/Space Invaders in a high-score heavy kind of setup. It even manages to hack around lack of networked high scores, as documented in a recent interview, with a 'distributed scoreboard system'.
So if you like the Galaga Legions-style 'swooping enemies' attacks, two-player local co-op and can afford to shell out another 80 Points (again, hardly breaking the bank), this title ramps up the dot phosphor art direction and delivers. And here's a recent interview with the creators for more context.
- Soulcaster (Magical Time Bean, 240 Points)
This starts out looking like yet another of the retro-infused XBLIG games, at least from a visuals and saving point of view (yes, Soulcaster makes you write down and enter passwords, NES-style, to continue with 'saved' games).
But the clever gameplay has you summoning warriors to the field of battle to fight on your behalf, mashing up Tower Defense-ish gameplay with action-RPG tropes. And as enthusiastic reviews and a XBLIG store Top 20 rating indicate, the developers pretty much nail it.
- Arkedo Series - 03 Pixel! (Arkedo, 240 Points)
Cheating slightly, since this game debuted at the very end of 2009, and is the oldest in the countdown, but French development studio Arkedo's series of XBLIG titles (also including Jump! and Swap!) are some of the most beguiling on XBLIG.
The cheeky official description is simply: '"MORE BLUE" : Arkedo/Pastagames' answer to Avatar', but the game itself is a pixel-tastic 2D platformer starring a cat, and including a really clever zoom-in gameplay effect to complete levels. Twin that with a gloriously tuned control scheme, and it's carefree Francophile fun all the way.
- Zombie Estate (Jeremy Verchick, 80 Points)
Brand new on the store, and yes, it's _another_ zombie game, but the pixelated Zombie Estate stands apart from the multitudes by its neat '3D but using 2D art' approach to sprites, as well as using buildings and level geography to let you split up the evil zombie aggressors.
Again, local multiplayer wins out, with four-player co-op action - much like James Silva's I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES!!!1 - the order of the day. And overall, the game can be oddly calming and strikingly visceral all at once - I guess that's how big-ass pixels work?
- Shoot 1UP (Mommy's Best Games, 80 Points)
Finally, one of the original XBLIG pioneers, Nathan Fouts, whom we mentioned earlier and created unhinged Contra-like Weapon Of Choice, decided to make a swift, weird shooter while working on his next bigger title, Grapple Buggy.
But the title, which takes 'bullet hell' to a new extreme by adding an onscreen ship to your playable arsenal every time you get a '1UP', has ended up faring extremely well on the service. In fact, Nathan has a daily spreadsheet detailing trials and sales, and revealing a rather spectacular 32% conversion rate for the game, and 15,000 total sales. Sure, it's a niche 80 Point-er, but it's great that titles like this can garner those type of sales in just 3 months.
To end, here's some overall comments on how XBLIG might still be improved. For one, it's a shame that networked high-scores and online multiplayer aren't generally a part of the Xbox Live Indie Games experience right now - a number of the above titles would benefit significantly from them, hack-arounds notwithstanding.
In addition, for discovering new content, it'd help further to have some kind of date-based cut - either on Xbox.com or the Xbox 360 dashboard - to find the best new titles (say, 'Top 20 Highest Rated Titles released in the last month/2 months/3 months', etc), you can pick through it and get a good idea of what's striking a chord with the public.
Having comments associated with XBLIG ratings, a la the App Store, might also be helpful, although I'm not so convinced it's that helpful unless you go further and add a recommendation system for reviews ('X people liked this review'), which is a double layer of complication.
Finally, I'd recommend that keen XBLIG acolytes keep checking those unofficial sites reviewing Xbox Live Indie Games regularly - including XNPlay, XBLIG.co.uk, and XboxHornet. And, of course, keep checking out the Top 20s (or Top 50s via 'browse' on the Xbox 360 Dashboard) to get a good idea of what your peers are enjoying out there -- the uniqueness of the XBLIG offering (the ability to sit down on the sofa and buy/download inexpensive 'bedroom programmer'-style indie games on a console) is still underappreciated by many.