I’ve already gone through and sorted the top 25 retail games of this generation according to importance and influence within this current generation’s industry. But one of the most important trends that has really found traction this generation is the existence of games on the downloadable space.
Yes, it could be argued that this gen belongs to the indie developer. So many of the games released on networks such as Steam, the PlayStation Network, and XBLA have innovative conventions that have not only inspired elements of other games, but have found an important place for themselves in gaming history. In an effort to pay them their proper respects, join me as I take a look at the top 25 downloadable games of this generation.
#25: Dungeon Defenders
There’s nothing quite like a good tower defense game. There’s a certain amount of tension inherent in a good one, where you’re always minding your surroundings and upgrading materials and troops in order to successfully defend your keep. Most tower defense games, however, are presented in the same top-down isometric view that allows you to see the entire expanse from a Godlike perspective. Not so with Dungeon Defenders, which allowed you to actually be in the fort as you try to defend it. Not only was the game a fresh new take on the genre, it also allowed for players on multiple platforms to join in a game simultaneously, making it one of the most ambitious and unique tower defense games seen this generation.
#24: Dear Esther
Dear Esther is a Myst-style adventure game more about exploration and appreciation than anything else. Set on a lonely island, the player is tasked with exploring and uncovering the story behind the place bit by bit, finding items and hearing narration as you travel throughout the game’s many areas. While it’s less of a game in the familiar, conventional means as we know them, Dear Esther is no less a stunning and unique experience that must be had to completely understood.
#23: Costume Quest
Ever the masters of the quirky and the novel, Double Fine created an RPG gem in Costume Quest that has since become one of the studio’s standout titles. After taking the role of one of fraternal twins Wren and Reynold, Costume Quest tasks you with hunting down the monsters that kidnapped your sibling on Halloween Night. Multiple collectibles, interesting quests, fluid turn-based combat, and fun humor all make the game lighthearted and entertaining game, no matter the time of year.
#22: Scott Pilgrim vs. The World
Being one of the few movie tie-in games to achieve more than mediocrity, Scott Pilgrim is a great beat ‘em up brawler available on online networks. Featuring great music, a neat art style, and cooperative play, it’s a game worthy of a place on the list of best downloadables due to its smooth presentation and overall pure fun factor.
#21: Battlefield 1943
The release of Battlefield 1943 saw a bar being raised for game quality on the downloadable space. Before 1943, downloadable games were seen as more of cute pet projects created by small-time enthusiasts, never amounting to be much more than 2D sidescrollers. Not so with 1943, a game that nearly rivaled retail shooters in size and quality. Using impressive graphical fidelity, depth unparalleled by other games at the time, and seamless multiplayer allowing for up to 24 players in one game, Battlefield 1943 truly ushered in a new era of downloadable games that have since risen to meet the same level of quality and take away from the expression “That’s pretty good…for a downloadable game.”
A side-scrolling action platformer, Trine takes place in a very fantasy-based setting, following the story of several of the game’s key characters. Featuring a long and deeply-woven narrative, impressive graphics, responsive physics, and an overall quality rivaling that of retail games, Trine is truly a treat to play, and an important part of the history of this generation.
#19: Mega Man 10
Building on the Classic Mega Man series, Capcom treated fans to Mega Man 10, a true-to-form action platformer starring the Blue Bomber in all his pixelated glory. Featuring the same Robot Masters stages, classic Mega Man characters both old and new, and new powers and abilities, Mega Man 10 is one of the strongest games in the Classic franchise, an a great step in maintaining the epic legacy of one of Capcom’s most beloved characters.
PopCap is no stranger to fantastic puzzle games. And Peggle is no exception. Making an appearance on virtually every platform available, I’d happily argue that the best versions of Peggle are on the console, due to its tighter control and wider display. Using elements of the Japanese gambling game Pachinko, Peggle tasks players with clearing multi-colored pegs off of a board using a pinball and launcher and various power-ups unlocked throughout the game’s many stages. It masters the appeal of easy to learn; difficult to master, and has a certain addictive quality to its smooth gameplay and presentation, making it one of the best and most well-designed puzzle games on the downloadable space.
#17: Pinball FX
With a unique eye for detail in re-creating actual pinball tables, Pinball FX takes things to a new level by adding new elements to tables only achieved through video games. Animations, actions, RPG elements, and other varied abilities make the different boards interesting and engaging, and because of this, Pinball FX is arguably one of the best pinball games released in years.
One of the most visually and technically striking games of our current generation, Thatgamecompany’s Journey is a marvel that combines fluid gameplay, a stunning art style, and seamless multiplayer integration to create one of the most impressive and engrossing games seen on consoles in years.
#15: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
While it was originally available on the PS One, Symphony of the Night continues to be a game that will stand the test of time. As such, it’s an absolute must-play game for any generation, and happens to be available on downloadable spaces today. Being one of the most well-developed and impressive Castlevania games ever made, Symphony of the Night is a necessary experience to be had for the eclectic gamers who appreciate all forms of our interactive medium.
#14: Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light
While it’s got the cliched “stop the ancient evil” premise inherent in so many action/adventure games, Lara Croft and the Guardian of Light is one of the legendary tomb raider’s most impressive games to date. Featuring a new isometric overhead perspective and both local and mutliplayer co-op, the game is made up of fun and satisfying combat, clever environmental puzzles, collectibles, and great presentation. It’s a must-play for both fans and newcomers of the Tomb Raider series.
#13: Geometry Wars
There’s something special about a “pretty” game. Working especially well in the twin stick shooter genre, satisfying graphics and impressively fluid gameplay help make Geometry Wars a near counterpart to Super Stardust and one of the most impressive and addictive games available on XBLA.
#12: Mark of the Ninja
Much like its namesake, Mark of the Ninja is a downloadable gem that snuck up on us from out of nowhere. Coupling the unique art style of Shank and challenging stealth mechanics, Mark of the Ninja is not only one of the best downloadable games to come out in years, it’s also one of the best ninja games to come along in a long, long time.
The brainchild of Phil Fish, Fez is a near-throwback game looking to build on the conventions of retro gaming and put them in a modern context. After finding a magic fez that allows him to traverse the world in a 3D plane, players help take the hero Gomez through multiple levels laid out in an impressive game reeking of the glory days of gaming in nearly every way, from its use of sound to its pixel-influenced art style. Fez’s proverbial cherry on top, of course, is its airy and relaxing soundtrack layered over the challenging and technically impressive game that make it a classic of this generation.
#10: Super Stardust HD
One of the strongest games on the PSN, Super Stardust is a twin stick shooter using impressive visuals and an intense soundtrack to create a unique experience the likes of which has only been paralleled by Geometry Wars. After various versions and iterations being ported to several major Sony platforms (including handhelds), Super Stardust is a standout title in the PlayStation downloadable space that deserves a high spot on this list of must-play games.
#9: Castle Crashers
Since their glory days in the arcade, brawlers have struggled to find the same footing they once had, falling victim to repetitive and uninteresting gameplay time and time again. Not so with Castle Crashers, however, a unique brawler allowing four-player co-op and all the cartoon enemies you can kill. With upgrades, new moves, and challenges, the game is a beacon for other brawlers to follow in the footsteps in if they hope for the genre to survive in future generations.
#8: Super Meat Boy
Taking a page from the retro gaming book of insane difficulty, Super Meat Boy is a quirky platformer tasking players with helping Meat Boy rescue his kidnapped girlfriend. Throughout the game, you’ll be faced with jumping past dangerous obstacles and challenges throughout the game’s multiple stages. It’s the game’s unique personality and nostalgic nod at difficulty, though that make it an absolute must-play.
Braid manages to do a host of interesting and amazing things with its execution. It tells a unique and interesting story with one of the most dramatic twists seen in a long, long, time, features a lovely art style fitting to the game’s personality, and the time rewind mechanic is one that hasn’t been explored in many games before. It’s because of what Braid managed to achieve as a game that it becomes something of a standard to live up to in the downloadable space.
Made by a handful of developers in a living room, Bastion is an action RPG set in a colorful, gradually-unfolding world featuring interesting gameplay and a narrator who’s not afraid to talk about everything you’re doing. It’s an impressive accomplishment of a game and has managed to make it to several major platforms, including XBLA, PC, and more recently, iOS. So why is it high on this list? Saying it’s unique doesn’t quite do it justice, because Bastion is a treat to play in nearly every sense; it’s visually striking, the game’s overall presentation is interesting and different, and the combat and gameplay itself are fluid and well-designed. There’s no denying it’s one of the most impressive and important games released in the last few years.
#5: Trials Evolution
Few games warrant a rage quit on the same level as Trials Evolution. Using hyper-realistic physics and insane challenges, the stunt bike game is both addicting in a fun way and runs the risk of forcing players to rip clumps of hair out after inevitably failing to master a level. It has a uniquely masochistic, hurts-so-good vibe that keeps players coming back despite the difficulty, making it easily one of the most unique and interesting games we’ve seen in years.
#4: Shadow Complex
Many games love to throw around the phrase “Metroidvania-style”, but few have ever managed to capitalize on the classic design like Chair’s Shadow Complex. Set in an alt-history Orwellian world, Shadow Complex tasks players with helping the main hero rescue his girlfriend while moving through this complicated, dangerous complex where she’s being held. As you explore, you’ll find new weapons and abilities used to help you on your mission and unlock new areas. Using the Unreal Engine 3, graphics are impressive and convey a great sense of depth, the story is interesting and engaging, gameplay is amazing, and Nolan North is in it. What more could you possibly want?
#3: The Walking Dead
Telltale’s gritty, hard-hitting adventure series is a serious departure from their past works. And it’s amazing. Using some of the most grisly and compelling storytelling seen in games in years, The Walking Dead manages to make a uniquely engaging game out of stellar writing. Mechanics such as timed dialogue and actions help to ramp up the sheer dump of adrenaline felt when faced with a zombie or other dangerous foes in the wasteland, and moral ambiguity forces players to make difficult decisions that affect the game’s overall story arc. It’s not only one of the most impressive games to come out in years; it’s a master course in video game storytelling that can only truly be appreciated by experiencing it firsthand.
Not enough can be said about how impressive Limbo is. Using virtually no story, no tutorial, no HUD, and staying away from many of the other classic conventions we’re familiar with in games, Limbo tells the grim story of a boy looking for his sister in Limbo, the perceived half-world between death and the afterlife. Probably the most recognizable part of Limbo is its use of atmosphere and unique art style that convey the overall desolate feel inherent in the game’s universe. There’s barely any sounds other than those around him in the world, giving it the eerie, haunting feel necessary to capture the game’s personality. On top of that, controls are simplified, the game’s rules and standards are learned in a trial-and-error fashion, and puzzles are satisfying and intuitive in the way only great puzzle game design can be. Since its release, many games have looked to Limbo to borrow elements of the game’s grim feel and inject it into their own. Few have managed to capture it to the same effect, though, making Limbo one of the most important games developed for download in a long, long time.
Wth millions of downloads worldwide, merchandise, albums of impressive photos and creations made in the game, and a model that has made Notch a game design genius in our modern day, Minecraft is without a doubt the most important and influential downloadable games ever made. The pixel-style sandbox game takes the idea of building and survival and employs it in one of the most innovative ways imaginable; tasking players with surviving in a monster-ridden world, all while allowing for the procuring of valuable items and the open creation of whatever you want to build. The sky is literally the limit in Minecraft, and it’s this same open-ended gameplay that has allowed for players to make their own stories and create their own worlds they can escape to and explore. What’s not to love about that? After all, video games are the ultimate form of escapism, and Minecraft has managed to take that idea to an unprecedented new level.