What modern indie game is right for you?
We all love the deep catalogs of vintage games that fill our Raspberry Pi's, but we should all appreciate the current renaissance of indie games that take inspiration from classic gaming DNA. The games below are all modern games that you can pick up on your current gen system or PC and enjoy the amazing fusion of nostalgia and new tech in these labors of love.
Before we dig into the retro inspired games, I wanted to mention a few indie heavyweights that are excellent, but do not have obvious retro roots. Games like Hollow Knight, Super Meat Boy and Celeste are excellent games that everyone should check out, regardless of their inspiration. There are more than enough articles written on these three games and they have won their fair share of awards for their excellent design. Aside from my choices below, feedback from Discord members has yielded recommendations like
Hotline Miami, Timbleweed Park and Ion Maiden.
Inspired by: Castlevania Symphony of the Night, Dark Souls, Blazblue, Guilty Gear X Available On: Everything, Free on Xbox Gamepass Metacritic User Score: 89 Genre: Action/Platformer Rougelite Dead Cells was one of the first games I downloaded for my Nintendo Switch and I still go back to it when I have 20 minutes to kill. You play as a prisoner who re-spawns back in his cell whenever he dies. That's about as much of the story that you get when you start off. Honestly the game is so fun and satisfying that the story is pretty irrelevant, and that’s from a guy who appreciates a good story in my games. Dead Cells does feature some witty writing that breaks up the bloodshed nicely. Getting into the game play of Dead Cells, each level is "procedural generated" which means you will never play the exact level twice. With this, each level takes place in a set “biome” that feels very consistent from run to run. There are a seemingly endless selection of weapons and upgrades that you unlock as you progress through the game. When you inevitably die, these weapons will go into a pool that you have a chance to start out with. Because of the unique feel, you will quickly gravitate to a style of weapon that you hope to start out with, or obtain along the way. Not all weapons are created equal and what you start out with can influence how far you go in a run. The gameplay is silky smooth and for being a game set in a dark dingy world, the colors explode off the screen. If you have not played this one yet, add this to the top of your list. The developer has confirmed how much of an inspiration Symphony of the Night was for this game, and it really shows. The mechanic of starting out with a different weapon set each run is a subtle addition, but one that has you coming back for more. You itch to find yourself with a great weapon combo for that perfect run. I low key suck at video games, even though I love them, so I have never beaten Dead Cells. For what it’s worth, I can say that I have sunk more hours into this game than others that I have finished. I don’t think I will ever get tired of this game.
Inspired by: Harvest Moon, Zelda, Rune Factory, Available On: Everything Metacritic User Score: 89 Genre: Farming sim RPG, Dungeon Crawler Stardew Valley is one of those games that just sucks you in almost immediately and does not let you come up for air. Before you know it, you have sunk 100 hours into it. You play as the grandchild of a farmer who leaves you his dilapidated farm to care for. Of course like any good farming sim/RPG you are drawn into the local town and quickly become a member of the community that really feels like a living, breathing society. The main focus is obviously farming, and that aspect of Stardew Valley would be enough to keep you entertained for a long time. There are whole YouTube channels and sub reddits dedicated to amazing farm layouts and how to grow the best crops. It is way more engaging than you would think. The kicker that puts Stardew Valley over the edge is everything else that comes with your Grandpa’s farm. There are two dungeon crawling areas that provide you with valuable ore and minerals for forging needed items, but they are protected by enemies that clearly take inspiration from our favorite retro games. Stardew Valley is one of those games that just does everything right. The art style hearkens back to the glory days of 16-bit, but is not held back by the limitations of 90’s hardware. There are modern touches like beautiful weather and foliage effects, fantastic music, and so many dialog options with almost everyone in the town. That said, because of this, you will start avoiding people who annoy you like you would in real life. One great relief is that relationships are never forced. You do not have to marry a character, or make a new best friend to advance the game along. The game allows you to be a local celebrity or a total hermit and still reach the endgame. All of the achievements of Stardew Valley are made even more impressive when you consider that the entire game was created by one guy who was not a game developer by trade. I don’t usually think so highly of my opinion that I would tell someone to play a game that they typically would not be into, but if you have space in your backlog, you should give this game a shot.
Inspired by: Contra III: Alien War, Metal Slug Available On: Everything, Free on Xbox Gamepass Metacritic User Score: 79 Genre: Action/Platformer, Shooter Blazing Chrome serves a healthy dose of Contra and Metal Slug mixed together like a perfect Jack and Coke. The game play is fast, but a steady pace helps prevent you from feeling like you are unfairly swarmed by enemies with no hope of survival. There are enough weapons upgrades to ensure slaying enemies doesn’t feel repetitive as with many run and gun style games. Where I feel the game really shines is in its boss battles. These are some throwbacks to the classic 16 bit era bosses that would fill half of your CRT screen while you were trying to figure out the exact pattern needed to defeat them. Blazing Chrome does add new elements which help deviate the experience from the games it was inspired by.
This game feels like a closer representation of what would be possible on a retro system at the time. Something other modern indie games find themselves unable to capture. The game does not give into temptations to smooth out pixels, or add graphics that imitates retro art, but quickly outpaces our notion of what was possible at the time. This is a fun run and gun game that is worth a pickup if you enjoy Contra or Metal Slug and are looking for something to scratch that itch.
Inspired by: ActRaiser, Castlevania, Ghouls and Ghosts Available On: Everything Metacritic User Score: 69 Genre: Platformer A Hole New World is a great example of a developer not going overboard with modern tech in retro game design, but certainly doesn’t overlook tight controls and great visuals. The game also has one of the more creative game mechanics that changes the traditional pit of death (from every retro platformer) into a portal to a dark world that has the player control the character upside down. This can be a really satisfying aspect of the game, or a frustrating one. When it's used sparingly it's a fun mechanic that adds to the silky smooth flow of the game. Imagine Mario jumping into a pit to avoid a Goomba and popping up on the other side of a few pipes further down the level. When you have to spend the majority of the level in the upside down world, it's irritating and generates those dreaded feelings of “is it over yet?”. The boss battles are one of the best aspects of A Hole New World. The bosses are smartly designed, challenging, but defeatable with your arsenal of potions that all use different elements to damage enemies and unlock different areas of the levels. The game has one of the lower metacritic scores on this list, but I don’t feel that it is warranted. This is a game that plays like an NES/SNES experience. Gamers in 2020 are used to easier games that forgo the concept of “keep dying until you figure out how to beat it” for “just make an attempt and you can stumble through it”. A Hole New World is a game that is for those of us who want a new game that plays like an old one. If you pay attention to deals on whatever system you have, you can find this one for super cheap on the right sale.
Inspired by: Blades of Steel, Ice Hockey (NES) Available On: Everything Metacritic User Score: 87 Genre: Sports (Hockey) This may be one of the most overall fun games on this list, and for sure the best game to play with friends. Super Blood Hockey looks very similar to “Ice Hockey” on NES, mixed with some “Blades of Steel” . The great thing about Super Blood Hockey is that they add in a feature of modern sports games with a franchise mode. This mode allows you to play as the head coach/owner of a team in a hockey league mired in a dystopian future. The league is made up of roided out convicts who can be killed during the course of a game. The first objective of franchise mode is to make sure that your team has enough money to continue to operate and put a full squad on the ice. If you fail to earn enough money from winning games, its game over in a rather sudden, dark way. The title gives away one of its main gimmicks, the blood. There are multiple settings for you preferred bloodiness from mild to down right slasher flick. This is one of those games that your non-gamer friends will have a blast playing and one of those games that will you will be happy to pick up and play. If I would criticize it for anything, it would be the very simple AI. Your computer controlled teammates do not move where you would expect them to be. They move more like a little kids soccer team, swarming around the puck vs sliding up to the opposite circle to setup a play. The goalies also seem to know where you will be shooting the puck and pretty much the only way you are able to score is setting up a one timer or rebound play to bury the puck. This complaint goes away pretty quick when you are playing with others. This should be your go to game when you want to drink a few beers and hang out with your friends.
Inspired by: Castlevania, Mega Man, ActRaiser Available On: Everything Metacritic User Score: 87 Genre: Sports (Hockey) Chances are you have heard of or seen Shovel Knight before. This SNES inspired indie game was one of the first Kickstarter success stories and the team behind Shovel Knight has gone on to make a ton of Shovel Knight games that have all been well received. They are unique in that they have taken the franchise and expanded from excellent platformers to fighting games and even a card battle game. The original Game “Shovel Knight: Specter of Torment” is where I would recommend you start your Shovel Knight Adventure. The game plays similar to “A Hole New World'', but controls even better and has a deeper story. Shovel Knight should be on everyone’s list of Indie games to try. This is one of those games you could almost put up there with Celeste and Hollow Knight so I don’t feel like I need to go on and on about this one. If you are into classic SNES platformers then this is a no brainer. If you want to throw yourself fully into the Shovel Knight universe, you can buy the complete package called the Shovel Knight Treasure Trove, which comes with all 5 Shovel Knight titles.
Inspired by: 80’s pop culture, Samurai Gunn, The Matrix, John Wick, Hotline Miami Available On: Steam and Switch Metacritic User Score: 86 Genre: Action Platformer Katana Zero is a rare game that I actually finished. My gaming ADD usually prevents me from playing a game to the end, but Katana Zero was pretty difficult to put down. You play as an ex-military assassin with his trusty katana, and an addiction to a special drug that allows you to manipulate time. The main feature of Katana Zero is the ability to slow down time similar to Neo in The Matrix. The difference is that you are not really going through the levels in real time, you are playing through the level in your head to see if your plan of attack will work. Since you have the luxury of controlling time, you can be killed as many times as it takes to navigate through each screen of baddies. After you complete the level, you have the pleasure of watching your “run” over again on the grainy security camera that captured it all. The “bullet time” works fantastically to make busting into a crowded room more survivable, and even allows you to dodge or redirect bullets back at your foes. The game play and controls are the best part of Katana Zero, but the story, music and art style are a close second. Everything in the game seems well thought out and intentional. The developer of Katana Zero has admitted to not playing many games growing up, and taking much more inspiration from film. There are dialog trees that go surprisingly deep, and actually affects how the game progresses as you uncover more about your own mysterious past. The story is drip fed to you at the end of each level when you talk with your boss/psychologist who is the one who injects you with your bullet time juice. After your therapy sessions and injections, you return to your dingy apartment. A place where you develop relationships with your neighbors and are treated to more of the main plot before you go to sleep and get ready for the next blood bath. Katana Zero should be an example for other Indie devs to follow. Its most common criticism is that it is too short, but I would personally rather be left wishing there was more of a great game, than getting bored with a longer mediocre game. This game does not have the direct retro roots of say Shovel Knight, but it does take inspiration from the era as a whole, which is executed very well. This is worth a pickup if you have a Steam account or a Nintendo Switch`.
Inspired by: Outrun, Crusin (USA, World, Exocita), Available On: Everything Metacritic User Score: 83 Genre: Arcade Racer A lot of people’s first memory of their N64 involves Goldeneye or Mario 64 on Christmas morning. Mine however, was of the arcade racing port of Crusin USA. I can picture the “Ferrari” on the cover and the bikini clad girl to start the races. Horizon Chase Turbo captures those vibes while presenting a blistering fast, cell shaded racer that is far from Forza or Gran Turismo, but wildly fun. There is a pretty in depth career mode that sends you around the world to compete in races that are never too long but just long enough to challenge you to learn the course. Meaning, well enough to grab the necessary fuel power ups to finish the race. It's a nice throw back to the days of having to hit check points of the classic arcade racing games. Horizon Chase Turbo boasts an impressive selection of cars that in true retro arcade racer style are all pretty close to real world cars, but far from licensed models. The method that you unlock your fleet of race cars is oddly addicting, with using points earned from races to unlock the various race cars. The most impactful aspect of Horizon Chase Turbo is how fast the game feels. It makes no effort to simulate what it is like to have to turn a car in real life so you are given almost like slot car like steering. The incredible speed at which you can take corners will slowly bait you into pushing the limits more and more until you inevitably lose control and crash. This is a great game for those of us who grew up enjoying arcade racers and wanting to get that fix.
Inspired by: Contra, Every action movie hero ever, Available On: Everything, Free on PC only Gamepass Metacritic User Score: 86 Genre: Action Platformer, Shooter Broforce is not the best game on the list if you look at things like art design, story or even controls. However it is one of the most fun games that will get you excited to see what ridiculous character you unlock next. The way Broforce works is that you start a level out as one knock off action heroes and you rescue another “Bro” to continue the level as him. Picture a game that you start off as Rambo and finish as the Terminator, and with specialized weapons to match their movie character. Again like with Horizon Chase Turbo, none of these are the real deal, just homages if you will. This is a Contra style over the top action shooter that if you catch on sale is worth a look. I have not beaten this one, but I have gotten pretty far and have enjoyed my time with it.
Inspired by: Advance Wars, XCOM, Final Fantasy Tactics , Fire Emblem Available On: Everything, Free on Xbox Gamepass Metacritic User Score: 84 Genre: Turn based tactic Wargroove is a love letter to the classic turn based tactics games. The obvious inspiration is Advance Wars on the GBA, but any fan of classic turn based tactics games will feel right at home playing Wargroove. The game has more features than what you would typically expect from an indie game, even from an established developer like Cuttlefish. Those features include online battles, cross platform play that allows you to leave off and pick up games whenever you like. Depending on the battle, you may not have hours to devote to a massive tactical campaign. Instead you can send your moves over and then come back to it whenever you get more time. Another feature that will probably take most of your time and attention is the campaign/map creator. Not only can you edit the terrain and cities/resources on your custom map, but you can add mission objectives and conditions of victory for the players. This is all in addition to an excellent campaign that features a good story, lots of unique characters, and creative units to command. Most notable about the campaign is a playable general who is a dog and is awesome. The campaign starts off pretty easy, but the difficulty quickly picks up, leading to the inescapable frustration that comes with this genre of games. You know, putting a lot of time into a battle only to lose it in the last few turns. There is a good amount of difficulty options for you to try out to find just the right amount of challenge. If you like classic tactical games then this is a must play for you.
Inspired by: Metroid, Starship Troopers, Mega Man Available On: Everything Metacritic User Score: 68 Genre: Action platformer, Shooter, Tactics This is a bonus addition to the list because it is not a well known title, but it should be. Hive Jump follows a crew of soldiers as they battle an alien force on a foreign planet. They are all equipped with jet packs to traverse the alien terrain. Each have upgradeable weapons with different strengths and weaknesses against the bad guys. The game also has a small tactics element to it that has you choose which alien base to attack in a turn based style battle after each level. The gameplay is fun by yourself, but gets much more fun when you are playing with three of your friends. The levels are well designed, big enough to invoke memories of Super Metroid, but not too large where you will be hopelessly lost for hours. The enemies are tough, but consistent in their approach so you know what you are getting into when you go into a battle. The boss battles are probably Hive Jump’s best aspect. They are grand, well fleshed out segments that really take all of your retro gaming skills to overcome. Hive Jump is a callback to Super Metroid that does not disappoint fans of the series.
There are countless Indie games out there for you to enjoy and it can be overwhelming to pick a gem out of a sea of shovelware. I like to cruise the various sub reddits to spot great deals on indie games and try to get an understanding of how much I will enjoy a game. If you have an indie game that you would recommend, head over to the Emulate This discord and let us know what we should be playing!