It’s not easy being indie. Even when you finally get a publisher to look your way, pull you out of the deep recesses of the Xbox menu, and put you up with the big boys; you never get the recognition you really need. Don’t get me wrong. Games like Bastion and Stacking fully deserve their time in the arcade spotlight. I’m talking about the games that slide out into the schedule that you never hear about or see for one reason or another. Like the proverbial redheaded step-child, they are often overlooked and under-appreciated. You often get new clothes with holes and stains on them. (And just for the record, I’m not a redhead.)
This all came about when working up the Best of the Year nominations. When the Downloadable Category came up, the phrase “I know no one played this, but it’s really an amazing game…” seem to popup again and again. In the sands of XBLA, hidden gems await for you to find them. This list focuses on smaller titles that might have slipped through the cracks or need to be brought back to light. I can guarantee that you’ll find at least one or two amazing games on this list that you never knew existed. Maybe sometime soon, you can tell someone, “I know no one played this, but it’s really an amazing game.”
Developer: SouthEnd Interactive
Bright colors, cheerful music, puzzle elements – just hear me out before you return to your face murder simulators. Ilomilo lets you play at the two title protagonists, Ilo and Milo, as you try to find each other. I’m not talking about in the emotional sense either. Each of the 49 levels keeps you busy trying to traverse cushioned blocks as you move, pull, push buttons, and do whatever you need to do to meet your mate. Sure, it sounds as simple as a half-finished Tyra Bank’s coloring book, but there’s more to these puzzles than you would expect. Collectibles and hidden items lie in wait as you stretch your spatial reasoning skills to the limit. Play with a friend or play by yourself. You’ll find out how hardcore something covered in pink cotton can get.
The game reminds me a lot of Sissy’s Magical Ponycorn Adventure - Soft on the outside; completely hard on the inside. Making a game cute doesn’t mean that you have to make it brain-dead easy. One of the pieces that I really love about this game is finding the little memories as you pick up the collectible items. Not to spoil anything, but you find that there’s a sinister undertone to the game filled with sunshine and smiling faces. Think of this as the gateway drug for your special non-gamer. Once they get a taste of something this sweet, you may never get them off the Xbox.
Fun fact: lemmings don’t actually run off cliffs. The idea came from a variety of sources but was really set into the human psyche with the Disney movie White Wilderness where lemmings were filmed falling off a cliff. In fact, the people filming the movie threw the lemmings off the cliff. Now that we got that out of the way, Leedmees is like Lemmings, the game, not the rodent that people throw off cliffs. As with the old school PC title, you’ll need to move a number of these mindless munchkins from the entrance to the exit. Along the way, they will need to pick up starts scattered throughout the level to help you get the best score. And you accomplish all of this with your body. LeedMees is a Kinect enabled game where you become the major source of transportation for these little guys. In this single-screen 2D world, you control a giant stick figure that can bend, move, and articulate much like you. What you can’t physically pick up any of these little guys, you can act as a bridge, stop them from hitting spikes, or push buttons to open doors for them.
LeedMees does was few other Kinect games can do – actually work. Moving and bending with the character on the screen quickly gives you a sense of how you fit in the play area. This one-to-one relation fits perfectly with the puzzles since they’re more about slow and deliberate movements. Even playing in the two player co-op games worked surprising well. In the section I played, the exit would randomly appear on either player, forcing each player to works together to move the little LeedMees from one person to the other. After just a couple of stages, it’s easy to see why this game made it to the Tokyo Game Show’s Sense of Wonder Night 2011.
Developer: Ska Studios
If I wrote the blurb on the Xbox website describing the game, it would say, “Kill Bill meets Girl, Interrupted with the sensibilities of Ninja Gaiden.” It’s that kind of crazy. Yuki, the step sister of the original Dishwasher Ninja, awakes in a hospital bed after facing defeat at the hands of her brother in the first game. We flash back and forth between the asylum and moon prison as Yuki seeks revenge on those who set her up in the first game. Splashes of red blood color the black and white world you find yourself fighting through. Battles push you to the limit as health items come with a price and you’re often outmatched by ninjas, CIA agents, cyborgs, cyborg ninjas, and the occasional giant moth with a sword. By the end of the first level, you lose an arm to have it replaced by a chainsaw. There’s a maddening genius behind this game that few other games dare to touch.
James Silva and the rest of the rest of Ska Studios should be congratulated for creating a game with so much creativity, blood, and utter joy of pitting the player against the impossible. Even when the imagery has pushed past the limits, it’s the solid combat mechanics that keep this game grounded. Juggling enemies in the air or breaking out of an animation with the simple touch of a button gives players the kind of the control they need to feel like they have some sort of control of the chaos on screen. Start to learn the timing of moves and you can pull of some amazing combos. Vampire Smile lets you take on the story as the original Dishwasher as well, play with a second player, or take on just a horde of enemies in the arcade mode. Few games are willing to lead you down the rabbit hole. This one pulls you through kicking and screaming.
Developer: Smudged Cat Games
You play as a bat that doesn’t play and you collect green gems. That’s it, the whole game from beginning to end - except there’s one room that you have to rotate to get all the gems. There’s another room that repeats your actions every minute, but you can’t run into yourself or other images. One room requires you to use a grappling hook to move gears and another just requires you to avoid enemies. Though 100 different levels, Shuggy makes sure that you’re never doing quite the same thing twice. The game builds on previous rooms to keep the action moving forward.
Simple yet always changing, Shuggy makes the objective obvious in every room but requires you to quickly change your strategy with every twist and gameplay tangle. Much like ilomilo, Shuggy slowly ramps up the difficulty allowing to easy access for both beginners and pros alike. Levels take only a couple of minutes for that often-satisfying feel of accomplishing something without having to spend the time to do it. Think of this as mental Oreos. When you need a quick snack, you can eat just one. Find yourself after a tough day at the office and you can go though a dozen of them in the blink of an eye. Not that I would ever go through a whole bag of Oreos after a bad day. Don’t judge me.
Developer: Starfire Studio
Much like an open airlock, Fusion: Genesis sucks you in and won’t let you go. After narrowly avoiding certain destruction, you are thrown into spotlight of this space opera as five factions vie for your attention and your eager need to accomplish quests. Every mission rewards you with a little money to buy new ships and a little XP to open up new abilities. Even the mundane work of mining turns into something useful when the ore you collect can go towards upgrading your sentient little robot buddy. Characters help to move the story along as you switch between the main factions. After a couple of minutes of exploration, you’ll quickly find that this is not your average twin stick shooter.
What’s most impressive about Fusion is the breadth and scope that the game reaches as only a downloadable title. What you need to understand is that not all the ships you see sailing through space are AI controlled. Human minds guide those ships and will often help you in your time of need. If playing nice just isn’t your thing, there’s also a PVP mode to take on some of these massive ships. Players looking for a little more Sci-Fi than Skyrim or if you remember the golden years of space exploration games, then this will get your engines online.