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Best Of 2011: Top 10 Indie Games

[Continuing Gamasutra’s 2011 roundup is our top 10 indie game selections — picked by editors at sister site — which cover a wide range of genres, platforms and business models, reflecting the immense variety and talent of the indie community.]

We don’t need to tell you that the gaming industry is currently experiencing an ‘indie boom’ — the evidence has been piling up throughout 2011, with numerous developers at AAA studios leaving their jobs behind to work on exactly the kind of games they want to make.

You only have to look at the Independent Games Festival record number of entries to know indies mean business this year. This time around, nearly 570 games were entered into the competition, marking an increase of more than 45 percent compared to the previous year.

We say this every year, but we genuinely mean it — having to choose just ten titles from the incredible batch of indie titles this year was not only next-to-impossible, but also excruciatingly heart-breaking, as we had to knock favorite after favorite off until there were only ten remaining.

But never fear, as a good number of those titles that we close, but just missed out on a top spot, have been compiled below the main list as honorable mentions.

Here are our picks for the top ten indie games of this year:

10. Atom Zombie Smasher (Blendo Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

Will Blendo Games ever release a bad game? The studio’s clean sheet was kept intact this year, as Atom Zombie Shooter showed us exactly how zombie games are supposed to be done — top-down, filled with purple squares, and with gameplay that is, for the most part, completely out of our hands. There’s a zombie outbreak in Neuvos Aires, and you’ve been put in charge of commanding the army, saving the population, and destroying as many of the undead as possible, real-time strategy style.

For each mission, you’re presented with a section of city, and a selection of units. Each unit must be placed strategically on the map for maximum zombie-killing exposure, and then it’s time to hit ‘play’ and watch the hordes swarm in from every direction. Some units can be given orders, while others are simply left to think for themselves, as your helicopter flies in and tries to rescue as many survivors as possible before they are turned into the walking dead. The entire time you’re playing Atom Zombie Shooter, you’re fighting a hopeless losing battle which will inevitably end in your country being over-run — the question is, how many people can you save before that happens?

9. Dig-N-Rig (DigiPen) [Windows, freeware]

From the school that birthed the students who created Portal comes Dig-N-Rig, an amazing little DigiPen student project game that puts you in control of a mining robot named Diggit 6400. Diggit’s task is to dig all the way to the center of the earth, mining and collecting minerals along the way so that better equipment can be purchased from the lab back on the surface. To achieve its objective, a series of scoopers and conveyor belts must be built to transport the minerals back to your base of operations, where there are then processed and turned into rare elements for research and upgrade purposes.

If your robot is ever destroyed while en route to the core, fear not: it’ll cost you a small amount of minerals to construct a new bot as a replacement. There are fourteen layers of earth to dig, and anyone who wishes to mine the moon can do so as well. Dig-N-Rig is a brilliant game that deserves more attention from the public, especially seeing how many people are playing sandbox and construction games in recent months.

8. Jamestown: Legend of the Lost Colony (Final Form Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

Just when you thought that the shmup scene had run out of ideas and there wasn’t really anything that exciting when it came to vertically scrolling shooters anymore, Jamestown came out of nowhere and exploded into a gorgeous display of retro pixels and fast-paced gameplay. Jamestown is a homage to shmups gone by, with plenty of oomph to grab the attention of both veteran blasters and those new to the shmup front. With a tongue-in-cheek storyline and plenty of levels to play through, this is easily one of the best shooters to appear in years.

There are multiple modes to play through, and various ships with different abilities, allowing each player to find the control scheme that gels with them the best. Jamestown might be great for all players, but it’s far from a pushover, and only the fastest fingers will manage to see it through to the end, beating all of the available challenges. Once you’ve exhausted all the single player options, there’s up to four player co-op too — alas, it’s local play only, but if you can get three friends around your computer with Xbox controllers, you’re laughing.

7. Bastion (Supergiant Games) [Windows/Xbox Live, paid]

Whether you’ve given Bastion a play or not, you’ll no doubt be aware of the main character ‘The Kid’, thanks to the smooth, spine-chillingly cool narrator who chronicles the player’s every move. The city of Caelondia has fallen apart, and only The Kid can fight off the Calamity and put it all back together again. Using the Bastion as his central hub, and an old wise man called Rucks as his guide, The Kid must find the Cores that power the world, and bring them all back together again.

While the narrator’s voice is one of the outstanding features of the game, bringing incredible life to the simpliest of situations, that’s not all there is to love about Bastion. The world is stunning, and builds itself around The Kid as he explores. The story is genuinely enthralling, and you’ll no doubt want to see it through to the end. The gameplay straddles the line between hack ‘n’ slash and run ‘n’ gun remarkably. This is a very complete package that deserves to be played.

6. Dungeons of Dredmor (Gaslamp Games) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

Take the classic roguelike formula, spice it up with a dash of wit and parody, and out pops Dungeons of Dredmor, baked to perfection. This comic-like dungeon crawler features all the elements you’d expect from a roguelike, from randomly generated dungeons to monsters and traps galore, and asks you to make your way deeper and deeper into the ground, looting chests and enemy corpses at every turn. The action is turn-based, with both the player and the various blobs, vampire bats and skeletons getting a good old swipe every time you click.

Dungeons of Dredmor is a roguelike veteran’s dream, with an interface that allows for multiple weapons, potions and armors to be carried and worn, and UI windows that can be positioned away from the main action, and glanced at whenever needed. While Dungeons of Dredmor is a magnificent feat in itself, its even more impressive when you consider that it is only the first release from Canada-based Gaslamp Games.

5. Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP (Superbrothers, Capybara Games) [iOS, paid]

Did 2011 see any video game more stylish, more beautiful, more atmospheric than Superbrothers: Sword & Sworcery EP for iPad and iPhone? We think not. The game follows the Scythian warrior, who is on a quest to discover a mysterious power hidden in the Caucasus Mountains. Sword & Sworcery focuses on intriguing exploration and tricky puzzles, with short sword battles from time-to-time.

As the player explores, there are items to be found and characters to converse with, although the game prefers to tell its story through visuals and gorgeous music most of the time, with such immersive, captivating presentation. It’s incredibly easy to find yourself lost in the world of Sword & Sworcery, simply happy to wander around with a vague underlying goal and taking in the majesty that it provides. Hopefully 2012 will see this most unforgettable of experiences making its way to other mobile platforms too.

4. Frozen Synapse (Mode 7) [Windows/Mac/Linux (iPad soon), paid]

If you follow indie games, or even dabble a little every once in a while, you’ll no doubt be aware of simultaneous turn-based strategy shooter Frozen Synapse, with its neon blue visuals and satisfyingly tactical gameplay. Players take to randomly-generated scenarios to do battle, giving soldiers moving and firing orders, and then hitting ‘go’ and waiting for their opponent to do the same. Once both players are ready, the action unfolds, and lives are most likely lost.

Described by many as ‘Chess meets Counter Strike’, Frozen Synapse takes real skill and understanding to better your opponent, as you attempt to guess where they are going to move on their next go, and counter their plans accordingly. The asynchronous play means matches can go on for days as each player makes their move in their spare time, or two really focused opponents can spend an evening trying to get the upperhand on each other again and again. Easily one of the most unique and challenging experiences of the year.

3. Terraria ( Re-Logic) [Windows, paid]

With the success of Minecraft spurring on multiple block-building clones in 2011, and even inspiring the next upcoming game from a big AAA studio, it was only a matter of time before one of these clones got it right. Terraria took Mojang’s hit title, compressed it onto a single, 2D plane, threw in Castlevania-like elements, and came away with something that was completely its own experience. Players band together online, create small houses to store their gear and keep out the enemy, then dig deep in search of treasure and wealth.

The beauty of Terraria is that you can play for dozens of hours, and still not have seen whole main elements of the game. While the underground houses plenty of secrets to be found, from materials for making stronger weapons and armor, to streams of lava and enemies that will surround and destroy you, the overground is also teeming with life, as mucus blobs attack in the day, and hordes of goblins invade your humble abode at night. Grab some friends, and you can easily play Terraria for weeks on end.

2. The Binding of Isaac (Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl) [Windows/Mac/Linux, paid]

When Edmund McMillen of Gish and Super Meat Boy fame sat down to work on a small-scale game over his summer holiday, who could have guessed that it would evolve into something so addictive and replayable, and would go on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. The Binding of Isaac is a semi-roguelike that follows a young boy who flees to the basement, avoiding his murderous mother, with very thin and vague religious connotations.

Players guide Isaac through randomly-generated rooms, killing enemies, gaining power-ups and battling hideous bosses, before coming up against his mother. There are dozens of upgrades to find, and even after tens of hours of play, you’ll still be finding items and secrets you’ve never seen before. Get killed, and it’s right back to the start for you — there is no concept of ‘lives’ here, as the roguelike status suggests. The Binding of Isaac oozes that ‘one more go’ mentality, and has been delighting hardcore roguelike players and more casual gamers alike.

1. SpaceChem (Zachtronics Industries) [Windows/Mac/Linux/iPad, paid]

SpaceChem is “the leading chemical synthesizer for frontier colonies,” and you are a reactor engineer — a cog in the company’s rather volatile goings-on. Your job is to build reactors that can take atoms and molecules, and turn them into someone of value for customers, using ‘waldos’ and a great deal of bonding. As molecules loop around in your reactors, you’ll need to make sure no unauthorized collisions occur, and that the stock is being called up and transported to the next reactor in a timely manner.

SpaceChem is also one of the most challenging, ingenious and downright rewarding gaming experiences of 2011. No prior understanding of chemistry or chemical reactions is needed — in fact, the game bends the truth when it comes to molecule bonding every now and again — and you will no doubt come away from each session with a few more brain cells than you had before play. With wonderfully unique gameplay that not only provides fun, but also makes you feel clever at the same time, SpaceChem is unlike anything else you can play this year.

Honorable mentions:
Minecraft (Mojang) – note: already appeared in last year’s top 10 while in alpha form
Gemini Rue (Joshua Nuernberger)
Explodemon (Curve Studios)
English Country Tune (Increpare)
Blackwell Deception (Wadjet Eye Games)
Scoregasm (Charlie’s Games)
Viriax (Locomalito)
Really Big Sky (Boss Baddie)
Soul Brother (Superflat Games)
Capsized (Alientrap Games)
Serious Sam: The Random Encounter (Vlambeer)
Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet (Shadow Planet Productions)
Nitronic Rush (DigiPen)
BloodyCheckers (BigCorporation)

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