Welcome back to the Indie GOTY 2018 Roundup, a DIY shelter away from the hollow fists of the AAA game industry that forcibly reign down upon us. A list devised by this here site to spotlight passion projects from those who merely love video games and have realized their own visions of what can be accomplished through them. The ten games listed total (five presented here, five presented prior by Sam) are a mere glimpse of what determined independent auteurs offered to the art form this year, but are all titles we unabashedly recommend you play.
Old School Musical
Old School Musical is a love-letter to its own medium, an odyssey through video game iconography framed through the lens of nostalgia. The simple rhythm game mechanics allow players to directly interact with an integral facet of retro games, the bit-crushed music! Fifty original chiptune tracks are provided by a variety of composers, directly invoking specific video games in step with its visual design. There’s a balance of enamor and irreverence translated across Old School Musical’s deployment of nostalgic cues. This is helped by the snarky duo of Rob & Tib, the protagonists making their way through a gauntlet of glitched-out game environments and malicious chicken empires.
The reimagining of every property from Outrun to The Last of Us approaches parody, but understands their respective frameworks and pays homage to the details in a heartfelt manner. There is an undeniable degree of care directing Old School Musical’s design from top-to-bottom, making its gameplay rewarding even beyond the dependable joy of rhythm play. Old School Musical is unafraid to offer up a bit of a challenge on higher difficulties and even contains multiple campaigns (with separate soundtracks), making it a must-purchase for rhythm game fans and retro culture acolytes alike.
Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
Bloodstained could not be more anachronistic if it physically ran on the NES, which is the foundation of the game’s excellence. Under the blessings of franchise producer/programmer Koji Igarashi, Bloodstained is an unerring monument to the lore and gameplay of Castlevania. Levels remain open to exploration and grounded by gargantuan boss battles, all manageable with fast enough reflexes and shrewd strategizing, albeit sometimes just barely. The game offers a towering challenge in spades and retains most every other essential quality of the earliest Castlevania titles.
Movement controls are perfectly fine-tuned to the looseness of the originals (only oxymoronic if you haven’t played them). The visuals look the part while introducing newer, more surreal character designs. Bloodstained is arguably a tribute first but introduces enough new characteristics to be more than a mere retread. Regardless, it’s a breath of fresh air as Castlevania plays catch-up with gaming tropes. There’s furious playability present in the gameplay running concurrently with its deceptive simplicity. The reward of outmaneuvering demons and striking them down with a few swift attacks proves eternal, as much as the gothic corridors you journey through.
Pig Eat Ball
Amidst the technical landmarks and storytelling breakthroughs of the year, it would be dishonest not to admit that one of the simplest releases of the year is what perhaps consumed the most of my time. Pig Eat Ball is an extensive arrangement of item collectathons partitioned into bite-sized pursuits that constantly fit its gameplay into new molds. Pig Eat Ball chokes down Pac-Man’s mechanics, spits them back out, and gives them a new demented arrangement where pellet consumption is always a compromise. The pellet collection that ties every level together also increases the size of your character and decreases their speed, both of which have to be accounted for by temporarily throwing your pellets back up. This leads to a winningly chaotic cycle of consuming, releasing, and having to consume again as items bounce across your environment in defiance.
The game is remarkably insistent on contorting its own level design as it progresses forward, making room for Arkanoid tributes, tennis volleys that players must interrupt, and other destructive endeavors. Better yet, the surprisingly prominent variety in-game directly translates over to its level maker, opening up endless opportunity to produce concise challenges to blitz through. Pig Eat Ball cleverly turns the tried-and-true Pac-Man play mechanics into an exciting twitch puzzler that I could not get enough of. If playing the platonic ideal of Pacxon appeals to you, you owe it a try.
Return of the Obra Dinn
No other game this year felt as unprecedented as Return of the Obra Dinn; a logic puzzler dropping you directly in the midst of a ravaged merchant ship and crew, forcing you to live through an inverse timeline of the events to discern what possibly could have happened. Bearing witness to murder, disease, and general atrocity, you must identify the victims of these cruel fates (often victims to each other) and the connections between them. The tandem visual aesthetic is dour but eye-catching, greyscale stills that players alone move around as if they have found themselves a part of a sketchbook.
Return of the Obra Dinn design thrives on paradox. It’s a slow burner that constantly shocks as fates turn crueler. Its minimalist color scheme belies environment detail integral to player revelations. Details are withheld from players requiring their inference to take precedent, but it never feels obtuse and this ambiguity frees players up to experiment with their observations. The game never outpaces your understanding of events (only progressing when you have successfully pinned down three identities at a point in the timeline) and makes every successful lead a moment of catharsis. The seas may be sorrowful, but Obra Dinn rewards you for taking the plunge with an experience that defies comparison.
The Missing: J.J. Macfield and the Island of Memories
Few experiences are more rewarding than playing a game whose mechanics directly interact with its narrative. Games where neither component takes a backseat to the other and each only fully comes into focus due to the presence of the other. The Missing is about self-harm on the face of it (and ultimately much more as you play through it), and is an intricate character study that develops alongside player discovery. It’s a puzzle-platformer whose landscapes are presented like a diorama, a shrine to damaged Americana (abandoned diners and bowling alleys) engulfed by sprawling forestation. J.J. Macfield is alone and seized with anguish, immediately chalked up to a missing partner but given increased context as players collect donuts (maybe the only truly quaint imagery in the game).
The internal battle truly tearing Macfield apart is made apparent through text conversations appearing in her phone as players solve reaching each collectable. These collectables and the tandem exposition are wholly optional, merely expanding the depth of an already resonant story told through the primary gameplay. Traversal puzzles are the crux of The Missing’s gameplay, redefined by the necessity for Macfield to tear herself apart limb from limb in order to travel further. This mechanic impacts gameplay and narrative alike with stunning poignancy, removed from the mere shock value its presence would imply.
The Missing is a disturbing title, in its reflection of isolation and uncanny symbolism, bolstered by innovative gameplay mechanics that double as a catalyst for satisfying progression. By the time it fully unveils its focus on speaking to marginalized groups (kept cryptic here for the sake of avoiding spoilers), The Missing has revealed itself as an experience that offers something special in every facet, even as it puts to use influence from Limbo and Twin Peaks alike. No game struck a chord with me in 2018 from top-to-bottom like The Missing did, and it along with the other games listed here deserve whatever attention you can give them.
Enjoys paying less than 20 dollars for a game, especially when it is one people have forgotten about. Wants to be a character in the next Jet Set Radio and hopes you enjoy the site. Has a pet rabbit he nurtures and takes photos of. Still pushing for a Stuntman Ignition remaster 11 years later. Still hasn’t played Fortnite.