Two thousand and eleven was a bittersweet year for Xbox Live Indie Games in many ways, featuring a ratings scandal that divided the community and several prominent developers leaving the platform for greener pastures and an ambition to actually make money for their hard work. Their successes are a validation of the innovative ideas that the community fosters and a testament to the potential that lies within the platform, even if it winds up as a breeding ground for talent. There were 728 Xbox Live Indie Games released this year. That’s a hell of a lot of games to sift through to find that talent, but once in a while you come across something that is not quite like anything else out there. Those unique games are what this list is about. You won’t find any spurious Minecraft rip-offs or something that is impressive merely because it’s like some other game, only not nearly as cool. This list represents everything that is distinctive about Xbox Live Indie games.
There are plenty of retro games out there on Xbox Live Indie Games, and indeed several on this list, but few attack the retro angle with the ingenuity of Escape Goat. It might look like it’s something that survived the 16-bit era, but it sure doesn’t play like anything I remember being fueled by Blast Processing. You play as a purple goat trapped in a series of labyrinths that would make David Bowie proud, and you have to break the correct blocks, find the correct pressure plates, and solve all the puzzles correctly to make your way to the exit, just for the pleasure of doing it all over again. It’s the kind of game where the answer is always right in front of your face, even if it takes a few frustrating failures to find it.
Anyone who follows our new release feature may be familiar with my savage thrashing of the twin-stick shooter of the week. Radiangames Ballistic is the reason for vindication for those harsh criticisms. Ballistic came out near the beginning of the year, and no other twin-stick shooter on the platform can even come close to matching its visual splendor, perfect controls, or candy-like addictive qualities. The game revolves around your ship’s Ballistic special ability, which vastly increases your firepower at the cost of reducing your speed to sloth-like proportions. It’s a fantastic mechanic that is showcased by the upgrade system that allows you to customize your ship to your play style. This is the only twin-stick-shooter you need to think about this year.
It’s kind of funny to label this is a retro version of Breakout since that game predates what we currently think of as being retro, so let’s just say that Wizorb is a delightful 16-bit version of the popular ball-and-paddle games that you’ve probably watched people play while waiting in line at the supermarket. The gorgeous sprites and fantastic chiptunes soundtrack sucked me in, but the light RPG elements special abilities, such as placing the ball wherever I wanted and blasting fire from the paddle, really kept me engaged. Oh, and bosses. Breakout apparently really needed boss monsters.
Blocks That Matter is a perfect mesh of platforming and puzzle solving that manages to feel completely different from anything else out there. You play as a tiny robot called the Tetrobot and are on a quest to save your two designers who have been mysteriously kidnapped. The really challenging, frustrating, innovative, and exciting element of the game is the adorable robot’s ability to collect materials by drilling through them and then reassembling them throughout the level. On its most basic level, you’ll collect blocks from one area, transport them to another and build a bridge that you’ll need to reach the next platform, but it evolves into a far more robust system as the different properties of each block are explored.
Did you know there was an RPG on the Xbox that lets you slaughter enemies by shredding guitar solos or hopping around on a dance pad? Yeah, I kind of figured not since only a handful of people bothered to play Sequence, but that’s what these lists are all about, right? Sequence is kind of like Puzzle Quest for rhythm games. It took my brain a little while to wrap around the notion of flipping through different screens with falling note charts, but it was immensely satisfying once I got the hang of it. Plus, it’s the perfect excuse to dust off those old guitar controllers. (Come on, you don’t really have a dance pad, do you?)
Dead Pixels is kind of like Double Dragon mixed with Resident Evil, mixed with a sleazy 70s grindhouse movie. In other words, it’s one of the most amazing things you will lay eyes on this year. The game opens with a cheesy 8-bit movie recreation and never loses its smile or charm throughout the romp through the infected city. You get to loot houses, sell goods, level up your character, and of course, shoot zombies in the face with pixelated shotguns. It’s easy to dismiss Dead Pixels as just another zombie game, but sometimes it’s just fun to grab a friend and light zombies on fire.
Lots of games introduce mechanics that feel tacked on and superfluous to the overall experience, but Antipole succeeds in integrating its gravity-swapping concept throughout the entire game. It’s more than just a 2D-side-scrolling shooter that just so happens to let you walk on the roof. This game was built around finding ways to allow you to use your gravity powers to affect the environment and enemies.
It’s really refreshing to see a 2D platformer that doesn’t just rest on the crutch of aping the style of games that came before it. Chester’s gameplay may be pretty familiar, but its visual style is so gorgeous and the mechanics are so solid that it’s hard to stop playing. Every level presents such a unique visual perspective that it feels as if you are practically playing a different game, and you can even swap the filters at will. There is also a whole stable of unlockable characters that each provide new abilities and can be swapped on the fly.
If there was a list of the hardest games to explain in one paragraph, Defy Gravity might float its way to the top. It’s basically a 2D puzzle-platformer where you have a gravity gun that allows you to create two kinds of gravity wells: one that sucks you toward it and one that repels you. Once I got the hang of the orb-spewing device, I was able to launch myself across huge gulfs and traverse the cosmic levels in a way that felt unlike anything I’ve ever played before. It’s definitely a platformer that graduated from the school of Super Meat Boy, so expect to be chopped into tiny pieces by purple lasers, but also expect to respawn four feet away from your corpse. Despite the unlimited lives, it was still exhilarating to bounce off a freshly placed orb and barely survive a leap across a deadly pit.
I think the full name of this game should have been Aban Hawkins & the 1000 Spikes of Fury Penetrating Your Softest, Most Delicate Spots. This game is relentless, and unapologetically difficult. To put it bluntly, it wants you dead. You start off with 1,000 lives, which might sound like a lot, but you’re going to need every single Aban Hawkins doppelganger you can get your hands on. Every step of each level introduces a new pit, spike, or fireball that wants to turn poor little Aban into a cadaver. But, there is something oddly compelling about the game’s brutal nature and the mocking death screen that quickly pops up. Every death restarts the entire level, but provides a lesson about what to expect in the future. After fifty or so deaths, I morphed into a Groundhog Day Bill Murray and was able to predict falling spikes before they could penetrate my squishy brain. Plus, it helps that you can skip levels if you notice the clumps of freshly-pulled hair are growing uncomfortably large.