[Gamasutra is teaming up with game criticism weblog Critical Distance to present Christopher Hyde's round-up of the wealth of excellent games being produced outside the realm of 'AAA' titles in 2009, compiling his take on the best 99 free to download video games released this year.]
This past year will go down for me personally as the year in which my spending on video games plummeted, due to personal dissatisfaction with the costs in money and time demanded by most of the AAA products out there on the shelves.
To that end, I've since turned my eyes towards the burgeoning free games scene and to be honest what I've found is pretty darned spectacular. Creative talents all over the world are out there spinning out downloadable, browser, Flash and Unity games that you can while away enjoyable hours on without having it cost you one red cent.
Now sure, you do need a computer as a platform, and might also sometimes have to suffer through some ads to get to the games. And you may even want to donate a few bucks to a budding game designer who has put his or her sweat equity out there for you to play at no cost.
But otherwise, the sheer number and quality of the games available for nothing is a simple testament to just how broad and active the development community outside the corporate AAA space really is at present. This is a very, very good thing - for games, for players and ultimately for your very own wallet.
The following is a list of 99 free games (in no particular order) that I've enjoyed this calendar year, nearly all of which have been released in 2009 or very late in 2008. So why don't you take a break from big-budget games and see just what a feast there is out there in the wide world below the big ticket level? All you can lose, really, is just a little bit of time:
1. Fig. 8
Now here's something you don't see every day: a lovely riding-a-bike-thru-a-technical-drawing game and it's got a sweet soundtrack to go with it as well. Fig. 8 apparently got its start as an art exhibit by one of the designers and that sort of aesthetic pervades its philosophical approach. Turning takes a bit of getting used to, but once you've got the hang of it you're sure to find from Intuition Games' an enticing offering.
2. Minotaur China Shop
You know how you've always wanted a game where you play a clumsy mythical beast in a glass shop that occasionally flies into a rage and smashes things to pieces? Well, your wait is ove - so head out to Flashbang Studios and get a taste of the rubbery and imprecise control scheme that fits the hybrid lead character here just oh so well.
3. Guardian Rock
A colorful and engaging block puzzler that is probably not going to be the most innovative thing that you try this year but that still manages a take on classic gameplay that's well worth what you're going to lay out for it. With a design sense that echoes age old Nintendo while smoothing out some rougher edges and a relaxed approach that will keep you guessing, Guardian Rock makes for a brisk and fun little item for your gaming calendar.
Really not a whole lot of game here, but a very interesting experiment in lo-fi 3D tale telling nonetheless. Judith is apparently loosely based on/inspired by the Bartok opera "Duke's Bluebeard Castle", an intellectual bonafide that alone sets it right high in the rarefied air of the indie art game. It's very much more an exploration of story and character than anything else, and though flawed in some ways--the issue of player control, especially--the end result is thoughtful and pertinent.
A mind bending puzzle platformer by Sophie Houlden which is not at all recommended if you've got a headache. Rotate a mazelike cube that your androgynous avatar stands on and navigate to the exit. A greyscale venture that demonstrates a nice use of the (now free in itself) Unity 3d platform for game makers.
6. Evidence of Everything Exploding
Jason Nelson's art game for browsers takes cue from dada and surrealism as your arrow avatar navigates its way through mazes backed with historic documents such as pizza box patents and art flyers. The best intellectual deconstructivist flash game I've played this year.
It's back to the nineties in Harmony, a Doom tribute game that took its creator a stunning 8 years to complete. All that time has paid off in an outing that'll have you flashing back to playing FPSes like Wolfenstein and Hexen on your Pentium 90. The difficulty bar has been set way hard here and the game includes those outdated tropes such as key/door combo-ing and endless map wandering--but a lot of that stuff is half the nostalgic fun.
8. Aubergine Sky
Experimental game about an evening walk. No arrow keys, no button pushing, no mouse clicking. It's very calming for a change, given that games are so often frenetic and sort of stressful. Some neat ideas here.
9. Downhill Bowling
This one plays just like it's named--arcadey and enjoyable, in a we're-not-taking-this-too-seriously fashion. Just the thing to while away and idle quarter of an hour or so, rolling down hills and knocking down pins in the Unity engine.
10. Today I Die
Daniel Benmergui's playful rumination on games and language isn't perfect, but it forges ahead and treads where few games have gone before. Anytime that this developer puts up something for nothing you should run right over and check it out, and this time is certainly no exception to that general rule.
11. Miami Shark
You are a shark. A shark that leaps from the water and eats planes. This should be pretty much all that you need to know.
This sweet 2d platformer oozes charm even as you play as its evil protagonist. Developer Nitrome is a prime mover in the free games environment, consistently churning out candy colored puzzle games and 2d gaming done right on a regular basis.
13. Gravity Bone
Two level, fifteen minute adventure game built on id's Quake engine that's way more fun that the endless trudging many longform games make you suffer through. Gravity Bone left me wanting more, just like the old circus/vaudeville adage says entertainment is supposed to do.
14. Post I.T. Shooter
If you were to argue that there's not a lot of good gameplay in this Petri Purho toss off, I sure wouldn't disagree. There's not much in the way of actual play involved at all, to be honest. But dang, it's just so pretty. And it sounds so nice.
15. Don't Look Back
A super minimalist shooter with myth based storyline from brilliant indie game designer Terry Cavanaugh. Many of the games on this list seem to be about paring back the excesses inherent in the big budget games developed by huge teams and replacing their overdone graphics with simple gameplay presented in a straightforward, lo-fi manner. Don't Look Back does this all stylishly and with the sort of constant checkpointing tht allows even less skilled players (hello, self!) to enjoy the adventure.
16. Silent Conversation
Gregory Weir's jumping on text outing intersects videogames and reading in a thought provoking way. There certainly aren't too many games that frontload poetry the way this one does, and that by itself makes the game one that warrants a closer bit of inspection.
Created for Game Jolt's minimal compo in the fall, Saut is a one-button platformer that utilizes only the spacebar for jumping as a control scheme. Given that I personally consider the constant learning curve of ridiculous button presses to be one of the scourges of modern video games, any countertrend towards lessening that is OK by me. Since Saut also piles on some nicely shadowed graphics and a zippy jazz rock score, it stands as a great example of just how successful a bare bones effort can be.
18. You Only Live Once
Be real careful at the start in this seemingly unassuming platformer. You have been warned, because if you botch things early on you may well find further progress somewhat difficult. Conceptually, though, this game should be considered a real triumph.
While only the first six-level demo of this 2D puzzle platformer is available as a freebie, that's plenty when it comes to anything made by Nifflas--who has previously made the brilliant Knytt and Within a Dark Forest. This one is even a bit more polished than those previous efforts, and it ramps up the mechanics to create an interesting and enticing world that might have you laying out some cash for the full package.
Derek Yu's latest is a procedural platforming roguelike that it's very possible you may see pop up as the dark horse choice on some end of the year best of lists. It's polished, addictive, frustrating, and almost endlessly surprising, and unlike so many freebies it has almost no great flaws. A must play for anyone interested in the form.
Extremely inventive black and white puzzle platformer with a totally unique style. One of the very best games on this entire list--there's really nothing quite like it out there and I think that both developer Tyler Glaiel and lead artist Jon Schubbe are talents to keep an eye on.
22. Jetpack Basketball
From the mind of Messhof comes this insanely beautiful looking and sounding pickup hoops game for one or two players. Just like on the playground you compete to be the first to score 11 baskets, and though it's slightly unfortunate that you can't swipe the ball from your opponent there's enough going on visually that this isn't a huge flaw.
This game is eventually getting some sort of release that you'll need to pay for, but testing it out and just playing around in the blocky sandbox simply needs a java enabled browser. What's most fascinating is the lively community that's growing up around Minecraft, as users create all sorts of assets and areas for others to utilize and explore--one build goes so far as to render the Reichstag in all its pixelated glory.
24. Shy Dwarf
Cute and stylish quickie platformer by one of the Machinarium developers, which though a bit slight overall has a rare and tasty look that sets it apart from the free platformer pack.
25. Devil's Tuning Fork
Fascinating outing here from a student team at DePaul University, wherein you play first person as a comatose child that can only navigate via sound wave. Eerie dreamscape environments create a unique world that's very much unlike anything I've ever seen and the sonic gameplay mechanic is the sort of innovative work you hope to see from budding designers.
26. Bunni Game
A pick up 'n play island strategy game that's way deeper and more engaging than it looks at first glance. The flat graphics belie that at base this is actually a fairly comprehensive strategy game, and something that for a freebie offers a surprising amount of thoughtful gameplay.
27. Tower of Heaven
This super minimal, rule changing platformer was a bit more challenging than I can generally hack, but twitch skilled gameplayers should really love it. An excellent effort and a solid design.
28. Below the House
Anna Anthropy's cavern game for Ludum Dare 15. I'll play anything she makes--even if they're often too much for me to handle--and while this does not have the level of polish of many of her other projects as always there's a thoughful bit of consideration behind all of her design choices.
29. Tasty Static
This one's a new clone of some old PC game called Sky Roads that I've never played but that I'm sure has a great following out there. I'll admit that I am pretty terrible for the most part at this one, but it's really sharp looking overall and I even had fun while I died many, many times.
30. Star Guard
There's nine levels of 2D platformy shooter retrominimalism in this spiffy little number, and it all brims with a flair and verve that's lacking in many commercial ventures. Additionally, for a game with very little graphic power it succeeds quite well in creating a sense of dank ambiance to its surroundings. Mega-twitch gamers may find it a bit too forgiving, but it's right in the sweet spot for others.
Ragtime Games' Flash student project is a mindbender of a game, utilizing the arrangement of sliding tiles to solve the seemingly ubiquitous video game key/door puzzle combo. From the looks of this one it would seem ultimately destined for the mobile phone environment, where it certainly will put to shame much of the shovelware clogging up that particular platform.
32. Pizza City
Browser based, floaty driving game sort of in the Crazy Taxi mode as you bust ass around the city missing pedestrians and delivering 'za. Developer Pixeljam--who are also responsible for Mountain Maniac lower down in this list--have shown themselves to be among the best free developers active today in bringing classic styled but updated video games to a browser near you.
33. Turn Based Battle
A truly great JRPG parody that hilariously eviscerates the corpse of an utterly warmed over old genre. This is much, much better than actually playing your typical JRPG.
34. Johnny Two-Shoes
Solid browser game that combines a bit of management with top down driving as you build your heist team and try to make enough cash to retire. The interesting mechanics combine in a well thought out manner that entices the player to keep at it.
35. Walkie Tonky
Though a bit rough around the edges, this platformer's cool graphics and friendly gameplay make it worth taking a shot on. The art style is really polished and stylized, bringing a fresh graphical take to the genre.
This one is fantastic, a lo-fi old school platformer that's loaded with inventiveness and creativity. Most games that are difficult in this manner I just find plain annoying, but this particular outing is so special that I just kept trying.
37. This Is the Only Level
As the title says, there's really only one level. But what's utterly brilliant here is how the rules change each time so that guiding your immobile elephant to safety stays fresh every time and forces you to constantly and carefully consider the set of rules under which you are operating. John Cooney's absolutely genius Flash game is the sort of thing that makes it worthwhile to play games, and is easily one of the ten best games I played this year.
78641 is a totally and completely insane, hysterical and sometimes crude RPG that is so much more fun to mess around in than those 75 hour grindfests I stopped playing some time back. I really have zero idea just what the heck is going on in the heads of these developers, but that's a good thing. You can have your elves and orcs, I'll stick with this.
This one-button control scheme game has you dodging objects, running rooftops and scaring pigeons. Simple and sharp, with a great soundtrack. Resets also randomize, so you don't ever quite know what's coming. Excellent.
40. Where Is My Heart
This odd little platformer splits the screen into multiple panels and forces you to use combinations of your characters to suss out what needs to be done. Unpolished, but a promising start for developer Bernie Schulenburg.
A cartoony word game ostensibly set in Victorian London, this game tests both mental alacrity and typing skill as you attempt to form words to destroy spiders out to steal some sort of secrets. Letters that appear at the bottom of the screen open new cells if you use them all, and as things speed up it all gets pretty frenzied. Nicely put together.
An atmospheric little platformer made for Ludum Dare 15 where you need to follow a lit beacon to navigate thru some blackened caverns or you fall into the endless darkness. Dev ChevyRav really did yeoman's work with this little 48 hour gem--I'd love to see what he can do with more time to play with.
43. Scary Girl
This toylike action/puzzle/platformer is very pretty--in a sort of J. Otto Seibold/Henry Selick kind of way--and though there are some definite gameplay issues that many carped about upon its release, I personally found it engaging enough to put up with those flaws.
44. Use Boxmen
Awesomely animated 2D platformer by Greg Sergeant lets you multiply your character into doppelgangers that copy your actions to work your way through its 13 levels. Starts out deceptively simple before accelerating into a mind numbing difficulty.
45. Headspin: Storybook
This mirror puzzle visual alacrity game by developers State of Games is really just a wonder of gorgeous Flash animation. A casual change of pace from the hardcore gaming grind, the game is both beautiful and strangely addictive.
46. Nevermore 3
A Flash based adventure game that has some of the most unique art of any freebie I played this year. A wonderful attention to detail in the sound design also boosts this entrancing effort above the norm.
47. Mind Wall
Here's a simple idea put to good solid use: chop holes in a colorful block wall so you can fit your own blocks through it. Not much more to it than that, and in this case that's OK as the handful of levels offer a progressive challenge. The whole effort seems a little prototype-ish, but really: what do you want for nothin'?
48. Portal--The Flash Version
A great idea that should be done more often, this one deconstructs Valve's well known AAA entry into a 2d flash game. The video game remake reductionism genre seems to me to be ripe for lots of further exploration--with big time corporate games headed down the path of ever finer graphical detail, we'll hopefully be looking more and more for independent devs to outline the underlying mechanics and structures that are really what make these things work. [EDITOR'S NOTE: This title wasn't actually released in 2009, readers note, but we'll leave it in with that disclaimer, since it's still excellent.]
Six levels of frenetic and pretty shoot-em-up style madness here in this Flash based outing. Play as pilot Red Rage taking on advancing and colorful hordes of planes and choppers and resort to the psycho mode when things get to be a bit much for you. Captivating.
Another one from the Experimental Gameplay Projects minimalist competition, this one is like a browser based Flash version of futurist Paul Marinetti's typographic experiments. If there was more interactive fiction that combined that sort of thing with an odd soundtrack that sounds like a Balinese gamelan band gone haywire, I'd be much less likely to flee in terror when I see that phrase come up.
51/52. Waker & Woosh
A pair of prototypes from the ever interesting Singapore/MIT GAMBIT Game Lab designed to explain physics concepts to middle schoolers. One uses a narrative to get its points across, but the other is entirely abstract in nature. As you might expect, the gameplay is fairly simple, but these are efforts that might actually convince me that "edutainment" might have some use after all.
53. The Thing With 40 Eyes Girl
Ron Carmel of 2D Boy's entry for the EGP minimal games compo, The Thing With 40 Eyes Girl is a Michael Jackson tribute involving flashing blocks you try to follow with mouseplay. It's pretty disposably entertaining for a couple of playthroughs, but also a bit hard to follow at times. But for quickie minimalism with a beat, it's just fine and dandy.
54. Upgrade Complete!
Do you ever get sick of the video game trope that requires you to buy and add more equipment for your character to beat enemies and advance through its space? Well then, how about a metagame that pokes fun at that annoyance and requires you to buy everything - and I do mean everything - to reach the final screen? Antony's wonderful tossed off commentary on the often pointless side of gaming speaks volumes about the pastime that we all lavish so much time on.
55. The Mushroom Engine
An experimental Mario-type platformer that starts with the conceit of beginning at the end screen and progressing--or is it regressing?--from there. You need to un-collect coins and un-kill enemies to finish. Reversing the arrow of time forces you to rethink the way you approach some standard game situations.
56. Effing Hail
Meteorological time wasting in this little Flash game by Intuition Games where your one mouse button goal is to make bigger and bigger hailstones to crash into planes and buildings and the like. I'll echo the commenters' notion that a sandbox mode would welcome, but even the time limited levels have enough entertainment value to keep one occupied for a time.
Am I cheating on this one since it mostly came out in 2008 even though version 1.5 dropped in July of '09? You bet your ass I am, because far too few people played Swedish developer Daniel Remar's lightly philosophical platform shooter last year. The mechanics are fairly standard 3rd person platform shooting and the story a typical alien invasion thing, and yet...Remar's subtle and humorous ways of making you question the way you're playing will have you wondering just who is the enemy here. Don't miss.
58. Demolition City & Demolition City 2
Fun physics based demolition games that raise the question: why isn't there a AAA sim or at least PSN/Xbox Live game that uses this idea? You can't tell me that a console version of a game where you roleplay as a dynamite setting team that brings down buildings could possibly lose money. In any case, both of these are ideal little while-away-the-time outings that keep the player into the action with a steadily ramped up challenge utilizing a drop dead simple mechanic.
59. Rabbit Wants Cake
Wind up rabbit seeks tasty cake in record/playback button puzzle venture that requires you to record your actions with the arrow keys before hitting play to see if you've properly guided your mechanical lagomorph to over to the yummy dessert. In normal mode you can also adjust your actions with sliders above the field of play--which admittedly sometimes feels more like editing than gameplay. But the bunny is so happy when he gets his cake, so that makes it all worth it.
60. Warfare 1944
Sure, OK, war is not a game. But this resource management WWII RTS that allows you to play as Allies or as Axis really delivers the goods for a freebie. Challenging, well made and downright f-u-n.
61. Puzzle Bloom
A stylish puzzle game for the Unity web player that was made by students at DADIU in a single month, which makes the outcome especially impressive. The puzzles are well constructed and the whole outing has a really heartfelt manner to it that renders it likable and engaging. Can't wait to see what these people go onto in the future.
62. Nice Cave!
A Ludum Dare cavern entry that sports excellent blocky graphics and seems to be a bit of a Doom/key collectfest parody. I loved the amusing dialog and the style in general--but I'll admit that just like most FPS key hunting games, it made me a little motion sick and I eventually ended up running around yelling "where is the $#!?#%[email protected]
! orange key???". Still fun.
63. The Walls Are Not Cheese
Created for the "Caverns" compo at Ludum Dare, this awesomely named little number distills its gameplay down to some of the most basic structural elements that mark the essence of the medium. Play as a colored square, battling other differently colored squares in a mysterious land below the earth!
64. Let's Jump!
Flixel based platformer in which you jump from a plane and attempt to make it to the ground while avoiding all sorts of winged foes trying to do you in. The controls are wonky and a little tough to get a handle on, but the pure platformy goodness makes it worth a whirl.
Odd point and click platformer from Springtail Studios has interesting graphical style and a sonic landscape that combines minimal low key music with incidental sounds to great effect. Mainly about setting with not a lot to the dialogue, it's a pretty to look at puzzler that's intriguing for the time it takes.
66. Run, Elephant, Run
Yet another creation from the seemingly limitless mind of jmtb02 (aka John Cooney), this one is a bit more straight ahead than his meta-games (Achievement Unlocked, This Is the Only Level) but packs an entertaining wallop nonetheless. Get the ubiquitous elephant cross country to win in another lovingly crafted entry from one of today's best Flash game designers.
67. Left 4k Dead
This one's a true reductio ad absurdum that boils down a Valve classic even further than Hen Mazolski and Ido Tal's Flash Portal does. The zombie shoot 'em up is taken and crammed into a puny 4 kb, and though that limitation means it's not always that faithful an adaptation it remains an attention grabbing outing even so.
The free version of Jason Rohrer's tile and grid puzzler for the iPhone seems ridiculously simple at first but becomes more and more addictive and complex as time goes on. What I like most about this one is the lack of time limit in placing your colored tiles--it gives a leisurely and casual feel to a type of game that is generally more frenetic and stressful.
69. Fat Slice
An excellent diminutive Flash puzzler where you slice down shapes with your mouse without running into the bouncing ball inside it. The 16 or so levels available make for a nice quick lunchtime spin through.
70. I Love Traffic
Test your timing and wreak havoc on the roads in this auto mayhem crashfest. It's really as simple as that, and there are sure times that we all just need some basic arcadey action from this pastime.
A physics based browser game from Nitrome, Icebreaker utilizes a drag-your-mouse-to-cut mechanic which you then use to free Vikings from ice in an escalating series of challenges. A fairly straight ahead brainteaser but performed well--though I could have lived without the slight pseudo steel band/reggae soundtrack.
72. Ore no Ryomi 2
Along with the "deconstructed games" model evinced by things like Flash and ASCII Portal, another freeware trend that I'd like to see more of is something like this--a sequel to an older game whose development seems to have halted. (Hopefully someone out there is working on a freeware SSX or Rayman platformer). The game in question here is a Japanese restaurant/business sim for PlayStation that never got a domestic release. While Vertigo's graphics for this are pretty crude, the gameplay mechanic is action packed and engaging as you manage customers in a food service sim.
73. Chessmine + Chessmine II
While dev Event Cascade claims not to even like his own games, from this corner a repurposing of chess into a puzzle game that uses the set of rules you've already internalized for the historic game is quite damned brilliant. Though these efforts are short and a bit scattered, there's enough of a nugget of genius herein to make you wish he'd buckle down and give these games the attention they would seem to deserve.
74. Money Seize
The concept of this platformer breaks little new ground--your money grubbing character needs to collect coins while avoiding creatures that kill him when touched--but the execution is spot on enough to make the endeavor a blast. It's slightly unforgiving since a single mishap in a level will result in a coin spewing death, but the game's verve and humor will keep you reloading time after time.
75. Time Fcuk
Edmund McMillen's existential dystopian platformer is a thoughtful puzzlefest that has you playing as a robot able to manipulate dimensions who is also trapped in time and constantly texts you from the past/future (?).The difficulty ramps up a bit abruptly at times, but TF's a good solid freebie with a unique mise-en-scene. Add in the fact that the game allows for user generated content and you've got yourself a real winner.
76. The Company of Myself
Eli Polinen's clever platformer stars a lonely soul who states in an opening allegory that "I used to find joy in the company of others. Now I have only the company of myself". To that end, this hermit must navigate the world and overcome its obstacles by duplicating his own self, using the shadow runs that result to bootstrap himself past whatever comes his way. Clearly inspired by Braid, this quality piece nonetheless has its own charms--thoughtful puzzles, a fitting piano score and touching narrative among them.
77. How To Raise a Dragon
Greg Weir's lo-fi dragon raising RPG pares the genre down to the sparest elements possible but also brings his digital storytelling skills to the forefront. As the titular character, the choices you make through the tale's four chapters vary the narrative in different ways with everything unfolding with an affective and amusing air. Another success from a game designer whose every outing seemingly moves the medium forward.
78. Cursor Chaos
Ninjadoodle's pure, unadulterated arcade reflex challenge is made up of 42 rapid fire levels for the player as you race through attempting to garner the fastest time. The essence of a good, solid pickup and play lunchtime game.
79. Plants vs Zombies Flash Version
Now this here, THIS is like giving out free samples of crack to schoolkids. Popcap's evil genius surfaces again as the Flash version of their brilliantly balanced tower defense game draws you and leaves you needing more when you get cut off. We'll see if you have the willpower to resist the purchase version after you play through the 14 levels the company is giving away here.
80. Runman; Race Around the World
Tom Sennett and Matt Thorson's candy colored platformer is a wonder to behold, a no holds barred excursion into sidescrolling excitement. A simple, childlike art style and brilliant old Americana tune soundtrack backstop gameplay that allows any entrant to pick up and play but still gives the hardcore a means to prove their twitch-worthiness. Spectacular.
An Indiecade finalist that came out of a Digipen team's assignment to create an ASCII style game, Sowlar is a casualesque farming sim that hearkens back to the earlier days of computer games with its stripped down aesthetic. While Sowlar doesn't do anything remarkably unique, the attention paid to details like ease of use and interface design make this a fine take on the Harvest Moon style genre.
82. William and Sly
In many ways, the basic platformer is really my most favorite type of video game, and this one is a heartfelt and eminently playable piece about a man and his fox. It's all a bit twee, but its evergreen montane setting is note perfect and the attention paid to the sound design aids greatly in making the surroundings work.
83. Crush the Castle
A browser based trebuchet game that reminds me a fair bit of Demolition City, in that the levels are based on figuring out the physics of knocking down structures. The creators also allow players to build and upload their own castles, adding some user created fun into the mix.
A really unique chemistry based physics platformer that has you collecting gases while avoiding bonds and metals. The faux mouth harp soundtrack thing sure gets pretty old right quick (though it is mute-able), but the game itself is fresh and fun in its own little way.
Pure platforming goodness here from developer Jackson Lewis as he gives away the first 26 levels of this leisurely paced mail delivering game. High quality art spruces up the somewhat warmed over gameplay mechanics and helps make this intro to the game well worth taking a shot on.
86. Small Worlds
David Shute's entry into Casual Gameplay Competition #6 is an enthralling 15 minute minimal exploration game featuring beautifully blocky graphics, well paced wayfinding that draws you in and a fitting background soundtrack. The ending is a little problematic to my mind, but the rest features some of the most tempting exploration that I found in any game during this calendar year.
87. Gretel and Hansel
A fine example of interpreting public domain works into videogame form, this one takes the classic Grimm fairy tale and weaves it into a nice point and click adventure. The experience of the world is conveyed beautifully with foreboding, oboe-dominated music backstopping some lovely drab paletted artwork that echoes early cut-out animation in style. Altogether a great and interesting little package from developer Makopudding.
A light little platformer by Mateusz Skutnick where you are an avatar working your way through the usual jumping puzzles to get to the exit without dying. The main attraction here is the substitution of a word-as-the-thing-in-itself in representing the sorts of objects you are used to encountering in this type of venture.
89. Super Karoshi
Episode 5 in Jesse Venbrux' suicide series again has you acting as a salaryman out to impale himself on spikes thru 60 levels of business office hell. The design here strikes me as looking at games at much the same way as Cooney's This Is the Only Level--there's a constant assessment of the rules involved to pass a particular stage, and only sizing up the situation will allow you to die and move on. This is, of course, itself a complete and total subversion of the normal approach to advancing in video games--that alone recommends this one.
90. How My Grandfather Won the War
The beautiful cardboard cutout look and low key, two chord music belie just how tricky this "casual" game really is. Piloting a plane that can spew paint which turns treacherous ground to blue sky, you'll try to maneuver your craft through some of the most original videogame environments you're likely to see this year. Unfortunately, you'll also die. A lot.
91. Neverdaunt 8-bit
Now in beta, this amazing indie MMORPG has some issues but transcends with style and approach. Traipse around a boxy pixelated world building things and swordfighting with others, earning tokens by building out cells and learning how to perform actions like megajumping. It's all a bit confusing and not a little buggy (though it is
a beta, so this is to be expected), but even simply signing up just to take a stroll around the fantastically imagined world is well worth the cost in time.
While chances are this'll eventually be some sort of paid game, this entrant into a 2Bee games contest packs enough musical block puzzling in it to warrant a mention here. The gameplay involves selecting colored blocks to the dulcet tones of whatever music you choose and eliminating them before the screen fills up. Other obstacles are thrown at you along the way, and the end result is a nice puzzler to while away the time.
93. Underworld Trip
Extremely lo-fi platform browser trip to the Land of the Dead by Japan's Nekogames. The absurdly crude graphics end up quite charming and the game's funeral soundtrack adds the right touch of background for your stint in the land below the earth.
94. Little Wheel
A nice ten minute adventure game with a slick look to it. Very well executed and with a sense of honest simplicity that infuses the whole venture.
95. Umbrella Adventure
From HiVE, creators of the excellent free time management game Waxy's Sushi Party now comes this gigantic and beautifully hand drawn platformer. There are some gameplay issues--for one, I don't really want to engage in the sort of endless collectathon that got tiresome in platformers years ago--but the quality of art style and amount of free content on display here make it a game deserving of perusal.
96. Mountain Maniac
Here's a nice, relaxing retro flash game that acts largely as a sort of pixellated quincunx board. Your lumberjack avatar hammers out big rocks that then course down the side of a mountain pachinko-style, pancaking everything in its path. Players who want everything to be skill based may object to the general amount of luck involved in the outcome, but gamers willing to give a little control over to chance should find the destructive gameplay a diversionary enjoyment.
Indonesian dev Yohanes Suyanto brings us this well crafted ball-drop game, a casual pleasure in which you draw boxes with your mouse causing colored balls to drop on squares of the same hue. Surprisingly habit-forming for such a simple concept, the maker's creatively minimal score also helps to make Balbodro a chromatic pleasure.
98. A Mazing Monk
Though it's a pretty short venture, A Mazing Monk displays great thought and high quality animations throughout its short stint. Created by students at DADIU and a 2010 IGF Student entrant, the game is a smart puzzler in which you seek enlightenment by rotating a Rubik's cube-esque platform around to avoid obstacles and seek an exit.
99. The Black Forest
Pixelated's December 2009 experimental episodic game is an attempt to put together 4 weeks of games with differing mechanics to--in the developer's words--"create emotional experiences that are more personal and different from the ones traditional game design has to offer". It's happily tutorial-less, and though as I write this only the first two exploratory worlds have been released there's enough even there to allow for inclusion on this list.
Finally, if you liked the 99 games on the list above, here's a whole bunch of other spots that you should check out to keep up with what's coming for free:
Indie Games: The Weblog
Reasons Why Its Worth to Be a PC Gamer
Play This Thing!
Adventure Game Studio
Adult Swim Games
The Experimental Gameplay Project
Toronto Game Jam
The RPGDX forums