Independent games are to AAA games as cement is to a city. Cement is in our streets, our sidewalks, and our buildings. Everything from the greatest of cities to the smallest of towns likely uses cement in some capacity. It’s a fundamental building block of a city that is often looked over in every-day life. The only difference is that cement never won awards for how great it is.
Much like construction workers with cement, developers of higher-end, AAA titles in the gaming industry infuse (whether consciously or unconsciously) indie games into their work. Some of the concepts in games that we consider the most integral and rudimentary these days largely came from smaller companies looking to break into development. AAAs have drawn from indies to the point that we can’t even recognize it anymore; it’s become a part of game development and culture.
2017 serves as a victory cry for independent games. In our voting for 2017, we put games like Cuphead, A Hat in Time, and What Remains of Edith Finch ahead of The Evil Within 2 and Pokémon Ultra Sun and Ultra Moon. This year saw a revitalization of independent games unlike any other year, and it did so off the heals of a competitive 2016 year. Through the last decade, this year stands out for small studios and developers; during the decade, no year prior nor following would be as impressive in its small titles.
10. Dead Cells
“Dead Cells is the most difficult game I’ve played. I haven’t mastered it quite yet, and I may not, but I still enjoy every new run. Sure, it’d be satisfying to finally win at the game, but the rewards and gameplay itself are enough to keep me playing the game. Dead Cells starts off cute but quickly evolves into a soul-crushing monster set on taking you out. But it’s so much fun.” – Nathanael Hueso
“Despite missing the massive surge in roguelike popularity created by titles like The Binding of Isaac, Dead Cells manages to be interesting enough to stand on its own two feet.
“This is because of its tactile combat, tough-to-deal-with enemies, and weapon variety. Every part of Dead Cells is air-tight, and each item you get can complement another perfectly. There’s a sense of progression too despite its increasingly challenging stages via permanent stat upgrades and item unlocks that stay with you across runs.” – Lewis Mackin
9. Hollow Knight
“Hand-drawn video games come along every once in a while, and I always look forward to them. Hollow Knight is so much more than something pretty to gawk at, it’s a game at its core; this game wants you to pay attention and remember where you’ve been. Hollow Knight is all about how you traverse the menacing environment. Areas may look pretty, but they’re full of all sorts of barriers to get around. Just don’t forget where you’ve been and how to get there. Hollow Knight is super quirky, and although it may not help you get over your fear of spiders, it makes insects look so freakin’ cute.” – Nathanael Hueso
“Hollow Knight contains pretty much everything I want in a game. The disquieting atmosphere of the abandoned kingdom you explore is composed excellently through a combination of morose-looking NPCs and the wonderfully placed sound design.
“Hollow Knight relays a loneliness that makes you appreciate when you have the sound of rainfall for company. Each kill you execute is weighty and comes with a sense of sadness. The game doesn’t stop you so you can watch the characters talk at you for minutes on end either. The narrative exists within the beautifully drawn backgrounds and brutally punishing boss encounters.” – Lewis Mackin
8. Sonic Mania
“I mostly stay away from Sonic games, if I’m going to be honest. I don’t think Sonic translates well into the 3D space, which is where most recent games go. Sonic Mania felt truer to what made the Sonic of the ‘90s work than the dozens of sad attempts we’d been getting. Even though some of the content is reused from the original Sega Genesis games, there’s new life breathed into them. This is the Sonic I remember, so make more of this, and I’ll play it happily.” – Nathanael Hueso
“Just like Hollow Knight and Cuphead, Sonic Mania is a game that just throws you in with no bullshit to interrupt its fast-paced gameplay. It’s not just the return to the classic 2D style that everyone was craving for either; Sonic Mania is superior to its predecessors in pretty much every way.
“The controls are tighter than ever before and each stage is sprawling with alternate paths and bouncy colors that pop out of the screen. The music is remixed to fit with the remixed stages, all of which improve upon their base designs tenfold. Sonic, Tails, and Knuckles all feel uniquely different to play as, having their own smaller areas to explore, which shoots Sonic Mania’s replay value through the roof. You don’t have to like older Sonic titles to love this game, you just have to like having fun.” – Lewis Mackin
7. Horizon Zero Dawn
“I remember when Horizon Zero Dawn was first announced; I was immediately sold on the concept. Who doesn’t want to hunt down robotic dinosaurs in an open-world game? And although the action is what originally sold me on the game, the narrative ended up being much more captivating than I had expected. I have some nit-picks about climbing and some wonky facial animations, but everything else immerses you like few other games do. There’s a fully realized world in Horizon, and I can’t wait to go back.” – Nathanael Hueso
“Horizon Zero Dawn is a shining example of how Sony’s first-party studios are capable of leaving behind what they are good at and known for and going out on a limb to create one of the most iconic games of this past generation. Guerilla Games isn’t done with that series yet, and I’m excited to see what they bring with the anticipated sequel.” – David Fraley
6. What Remains of Edith Finch
“What Remains of Edith Finch is one of my favorite experiences, even outside of gaming. It takes the best elements of what makes a mystery narrative succeed with the characters at the forefront. Don’t look at the game and dismiss it as a walking simulator, because it’s so much more than that. It’s a deep dive into our humanity and how life and death affect us. It’s one of those games I’d recommend to anyone, even non-gamers. This game made me grow as a person.” – Nathanael Hueso
5. Resident Evil 7: Biohazard
“Resident Evil 7 was the fresh coat of paint that the survival horror series had needed for a while. The first-person perspective being a series first made fans skeptical, but a lot of people (including myself) aren’t afraid to include RE7 among some of their favorites in the series.
“This time around, the threat you face is that of the Baker family, each of who will hunt you individually in their respective portion of the game. Not being able to permanently kill the people hunting you adds to RE7’s tension, but more importantly, it forces you to play the game like no other in the series. Conserving ammo was always important, but now even if you do want to pump all of your bullets into one of the Bakers, all you’ll end up with is an empty inventory and a skull filled with an alarming amount of shovel.” – Lewis Mackin
4. Nier: Automata
“It’s not every year you get to play through a vision so sprawling it has 26 endings. In this regard and many more, Nier: Automata outpaces the ambitions of even its precursor while improving gameplay tenfold. It remains contemplative in its narrative and blindingly vast in its world design but now boasts a combat system devised by Platinum Games to make the game as fulfilling to play as it is to ponder. Nier: Automata is such a singular vision that it threatens to become indulgent, but it is so generous in its gameplay variety and character nuances that its philosophizing is earned as well as stoked in the player. Nier: Automata in fact spins a story that can only be told by its medium, using mechanics as rudimentary as its checkpoints and save systems to affect the player’s larger interpretation of the story. No design choice in Nier: Automata is perfunctory, it all forms a greater whole that is top-to-bottom unparalleled.” – Zack Kauz
“The best thing about Nier: Automata is how much it takes advantage of games as a medium. This is done through its cleverly-told narrative which takes place over the course of multiple playthroughs and perspectives. Each side quest drip-feeds you information that’s important to the main narrative. The themes of humanity and existentialism are beautifully explored as you watch robots do things like fall in love and find religion.
“Nier: Automata has to have one of the most moving soundtracks I’ve ever heard. The intoxicating purity of the vocals is a treat to the ears and ties together a variety of tracks that can come in the form of a fast-paced electronic boss theme or a slow melancholic piece intended to create atmosphere.” – Lewis Mackin
“Cuphead’s large appeal comes from its impossible-to-ignore visual style. Despite the American cartoons of the 1930s, Cuphead is based on being in black and white, the side-scrolling shooter has a vibrant color pallet. The fact that games very rarely take inspiration from this period of time played a large part in putting Cuphead on the map for even the more casual gamer.
“The no-nonsense, fast-paced boss fights that make up most of Cuphead’s levels are a joy to take part in, be it alone or with a co-op partner taking control of Mugman. Each battle challenges you to truly learn your opponent’s move set, with the game cleverly showing you how far you got through the encounter whenever you happen to bite the dust.” – Lewis Mackin
2. Super Mario Odyssey
“Super Mario Odyssey is my favorite Mario game. Period. It’s like a fresh breath of air on top of another fresher breath. Odyssey is platforming at peak performance with chunks of levels dedicated to Mario’s form changing. Like, honestly, who comes up with these ideas? They’re so bizarre but make so much sense. They just work. Odyssey elicits a similar feeling of freedom that Breath of the Wild does. You feel like you can do anything with no one to stop you.” – Nathanael Hueso
“3D Mario games built their success on a simple collect-a-thon premise compounded by unique qualities that only Mario can provide. 64 had you exploring all sorts of environments by jumping through paintings and had a number of power-ups you could unlock by exploring the castle, Sunshine gave you the FLUDD which unlocked all sorts of tricks, Galaxy brought all sorts of new power-ups and gravity puzzles, and Odyssey introduced Cappy. Cappy’s most well-known for allowing Mario to take control of enemies, allowing him brief control over new mechanics with which to traverse the world, but Cappy also gives Mario his most impressive platforming move set yet, giving him so many new moves players have used him to beat the game without incrementing the jump counter or walking. Throughout Odyssey, you’ll see multiple paths to the same objectives: a simple path anyone can take and more complex paths that require deeper experience with the mechanics. Combined with its collect-a-thon nature, even young players can beat the game, but veterans and completionists can still get a fantastic challenge.” – Max Broggi-Sumner
“Believe the hype; Mario Odyssey is every bit as good as it looks.
Mario’s sense of mobility and control has never been sharper, and the freedom the game gives you in exploring its wondrous kingdoms is a real breath of fresh air. Its central capture mechanic is just inspired, making for some hugely entertaining and upbeat gameplay since everything from controlling a leaping frog to driving Mario on a motorbike is just pure joy. Its greatest success lies in its ability to respect what came before it and then building on it rather than simply cashing in on nostalgia. Mario Odyssey is a gorgeous, sprawling adventure that kept a smile on my face.” – Theo Durrant
“Super Mario Odyssey revitalized the Mario franchise in the best way possible. Odyssey finally minimized linear level design in favor of a more open-ended structure akin to Super Mario Sunshine. Nintendo brought back their creative environmental designs, removing the stereotypical biome aesthetic the franchise has struggled to experiment with in the past few years. Mario’s maneuverability opens the potential for intuitive shortcuts the developers secretly implemented. Super Mario Odyssey is the most refined Mario game Nintendo has made, and I hope we get a sequel soon.” – Peter Finaldi
“Super Mario: Odyssey doesn’t do anything particularly bold with everyone’s favorite plumber, but you’ll have a hard time playing this one and not appreciating the refined platforming and fun possession mechanic.
“Each enemy you can take over with Cappy provides a fresh perspective on each stage, helping each world retain a sense of wonder and mystery. Every time I encountered a new bad guy, I was anxious to take control of them and see what they can do.” – Lewis Mackin
1. The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild
“I’d been used to the 3D Zelda formula since the Ocarina of Time days. Every release, up until Skyward Sword, didn’t really try too many new things. Breath of the Wild is almost unrecognizable as a Zelda game but still manages to capture the same spirit of the franchise. You’re going to feel like you’re never going to run out of things to do in this game. Just look online and you’ll see players are still finding out new ways to experiment with Breath of the Wild. The combat is satisfying, the puzzles challenging, but the most significant feature is the actual freedom of choice you possess as a player.” – Nathanael Hueso
“Breath of the Wild is what the past decades of the series were leading to. It samples everything: the puzzles of the early games, the relationship between Link and Zelda of Skyward Sword, the vast world of Wind Waker, the diverse landscape of Ocarina of Time. Even with that, Breath of the Wild still feels unique and special with the complete and total freedom given to the player. Throughout the hours-long game, the question “can I do that?” will cross your mind accompanied by all sorts of unlikely ideas, and the answer will almost always be yes, whether you’re planning an angle of attack on an enemy base, devising a new battle strategy, or trying to rush Ganon’s castle immediately after leaving the tutorial. Link has the tools to do anything, and the game has no plan to stop him. Add in a beautiful aesthetic and a criminally underrated soundtrack, and Breath of the Wild can keep you playing forever.” – Max Broggi-Sumner
A Hat in Time
Brandon is a young writer who loves going deep into games to explore meaning, purpose, and life. He believes that there’s nothing better than getting lost in a world full of characters to love and lessons to learn. He has a special place in his heart for single player games such as Mass Effect and Life Is Strange, but he also blows off some steam playing some of his favorite multiplayer games, like Paladins.