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Fez is one of the most mind-expanding games I have ever played, a hybrid of platformer and puzzler in which you play a little dude living in a two-dimensional world who suddenly gains the ability to see in three dimensions. As a player, this means you have the ability to, with a tap of the shoulder button, rotate the world on its axis; when viewed from a different angle, platforms that once seemed out of reach are an easy jump away, and hidden doors are revealed around the back side of a tree trunk. You set off on a quest to explore your new, wider world—and to save it—and you’ll need to use your new abilities to their fullest if you want to figure out how to do it. There are no enemies to defeat, only interlocking levels to navigate and traverse between, and a handful of nigh-impossible puzzles to solve. There’s even an alien language you can learn to decode (or, if you value your sanity, you can just look up hints online). Also, the music totally slaps.
The gorgeous rhythm game-slash-interactive music video plays like a dream (because, conceptual spoiler alert, it kinda is one): You play a young woman chasing (or running from) a bunch of stylish baddies across forests and cityscapes, training your reflexes and tapping buttons at just the right moment in time to the synth pop soundtrack, which sounds like a whole album’s worth of Chvrches B-sides. If you just want to race through it, you can finish it in about two hours, but the gameplay and the tunes are so addictive you’ll be coming back again and again, stretching for that high score.
Like Shovel Knight, The Messenger takes one of the best games of the ‘80s and betters it by fixing everything that was broken or frustrating about it. This time, the original model being iterated upon is Ninja Gaiden, a classic NES platform in which you play as a ninja fighting to avenge the death of his father but jumping flipping, climbing walls, and stabbing a countless number of infinitely generating enemies. It was one of my favorite games as a kid (I was so into the story I even read the novelization), but I was never good enough to beat it, even with the help of a Game Genie, because it’s fiendishly difficult. The Messenger offers basically the same gameplay, but with helpful additions like more frequent save points and the ability to enhance your armor and weapons. Sure, it’s easier, but it’s hardly easy—and the kooky storyline, rife with self-aware humor commenting on the inherent absurdity of gaming in general, only makes it better.
If you love Zelda-likes, Death’s Door is one of my favorites, and was one of the best games of 2021. In this isometric adventure, you play as a soul-collecting crow in the employ of death himself. When your latest reaping goes wrong, you become an unwitting investigator into a vast conspiracy that spans life and death as you make your way through three dungeons to collect enough soul power to open “death’s door.” The game offers a marvelous mix of exploration and combat—perhaps a bit too much of the latter; unless you’re a lot better than I am, you’ll need to grind your way through scores of regular baddies to upgrade your spells, defenses, and weapons until you are strong enough to take on the big bosses. But the oddball humor, quirky characters, and melancholy atmosphere will make doing so a pleasure.
Celeste is a breathless platformer in which you play a young woman facing fears both literal and metaphorical as she climbs to the summit of a mystical mountain. There’s not much more to the story than that, yet this award-winning game has one of the most affecting narratives I’ve ever experience, probably because making my way to the emotional ending involved powering my way through some of the well-designed, punishingly difficult, yet somehow never frustrating platforming I’ve ever experienced. The game is built on a single, deceiving simple mechanic—your character’s ability to string together multiple jumps before your stamina drops and forces you to touch solid ground again—that you’ll have to master with precision if you hope to make it to the summit. Best of all, if you ever gets stuck, the game allows you to access a deep menu of accessibility options that can help you across a rough patch. (Though I found finally clearing a screen after dozens of deaths or more—my total death count for the entire game was in the thousands—so satisfying, I never turned them on.)
This is tops on every list of the best indie games of the past decade, and with good reason. You play as Zagreus, a child of Hades (yes, that one), on a hopeless quest to fight off the endless hordes of hell, escape the underworld, and reunite with your mother on Earth. And when I say hopeless, I mean it: By design, you’re going to die a lot playing this game (repeated failure being a hallmark of the “rogue lite” genre; each time you die, you’ll carry over some of your strength, loot, and experience to the next run). While a game designed to kill you over and over and over and over might sound like a slog, Hades makes it fun as, each time you set out to be slaughtered, you’ll suck a little less, and progress a little farther. And that’s not even taking into account the fantastic story, which develops slowly over time as you talk with (and occasionally slaughter) your fellow citizens of hell; the narrative is unparalleled for the genre, presented with pitch-perfect voice acting and memorable character designs.
If Hades didn’t turn you into a glutton for punishment, Cuphead will finish the job. It’s a “run and gun” shooter in which you play as a guy with a cup for a head. (Just go with it—the game’s old time-y cartoon visuals and humor are half of the fun, and even spawned an animated Netflix series). You’ve accidentally sold your soul to the devil, and you have to work for him as a bounty hunter if you want to get it back. This entails taking 16 bosses (90% of the game is boss fights), each more frenetic than the last. As you progress, you can upgrade your weapons and gain more health, and you’ll probably need it: Claiming each boss’s soul requires quick reflexes, a good memory for patterns, and a lot of determination—before I hit a wall after a dozen or so victories, I’d died something like 300 times. It’s the hardest game I’ve ever played.
Price: $19.99 (0r $24.99 with the Delicious Last Course DLC)
If you prefer a puzzle game that will put you in a zen state (or maybe activate your OCD), this recent release is a winner. Each of its many puzzles presents you with a scene of objects in disarray—a messy toolbox, or an overcrowded bookshelf. It’s up to you to decide how to put them back in order. How you go about it will depend on how your brain works, and what says “organized” to you; every puzzle has multiple solutions, and finding one that works is like scratching an itch—entirely satisfying, until it triggers another itch a little to the left.
I don’t know how to describe this game, and watching the video above is probably only marginally helpful. But basically, you are an undead demon assassin guy and you have to make your way through hundreds of precariously designed levels as quickly as possible by using the powers granted to you by a mountain of weapons, which you activate by burning through a deck of playing cards, in the hopes of winning a place in heaven. Sacrificing a particular gun/card will grant you a special move, from an extra jump to a burst of smashing speed, to help you traverse the hazardous terrain. The point is to finish as fast as you can. No, I don’t understand it either, and I’ve already played it. But once you’ve oriented yourself, it’s a good time—and the story is fun too.
A chill RPG built around golf was not exactly on my list of must-haves when I got my Switch, and yet here we are. You play a determined golfer who has one last shot at living out their dreams of glory on the greens—but doing so will mean exploring, traversing, and conquering eight unique courses that mimic the sort of lands you’d venture through on a traditional fantasy adventure. It’s just that this time, instead of battle monsters and summoning demons to fight battles for you, you’re teeing off and perfecting your putt—in-between side quests you can take on to help out the weird characters you meet along the way. Because while you might not expect much in the way of plot from an ostensible sports game, this one isn’t kidding about the word “Story” in the title. This one is packed with funky humor and otherworldly vibes that will appeal to Earthbound fans.
OK, fine. I’ll mention this one too; Stardew Valley is ostensibly a farming sim, but it’s so much deeper than that. It’s a game you can basically play forever. As Brendan Hesse put it on this site:
Players sew and grow crops, mine for ore, fish, and even battle monsters in the surrounding wilderness, then sell their harvests to upgrade their homes and tools. Along with the farming sim and light action-RPG gameplay, you also venture into town to mingle with the townsfolk, taking on errands and side-quests for them. You can even date and marry several of the characters.
Developed by just one guy, who goes by the moniker ConcernedApe, this game has made its creator something like $30 million, and he deserves every penny of it.
Don’t let Cave Story’s super simple graphics fool you—this game is no relic of the 8-bit era, but a loving tribute to (and arguable improvement upon) old school adventure platformers like Metroid and Castlevania—and it was developed and programmed over five years by a single game designer, Daisuke Amaya. You play as a robot that has lost his memory, and you must travel through an underground landscape seeking an escape, and to solve the mystery of your origins along the way. Controls that seem stiff at first eventually reveal themselves to be perfectly calibrated as you upgrade your weapons and obtain new equipment that will soon have you zipping your way back through areas that kicked your ass the first time through.
A “choose your own path” interactive narrative in which you play as a 1930s actress whose star is fading—a passenger on a cruise ship a few hours out of port in New York City whose husband suddenly goes missing, because you pushed him overboard during the night. It’s up to you to navigate the ship, and your conversations with your fellow passengers, such that your crime remains undetected until you disembark. With an arch sense of humor and a branching narrative that allows multiple paths to victory, it’s the cozy interactive mystery you didn’t know you were missing.
In this game, you play as a curious goose with a penchant for creating havoc in an around a formerly idyllic village community. As you waddle around from place to place, you are given a checklists of random tasks to complete, from collecting an entire place setting from an outdoor restaurant to locking a hapless gardener out of his yard. Figuring out how to complete them requires creativity and a grasp of cause-and-effect logic bordering on the absurd. And when that gets too frustrating, you can take a breather and run around honking at children and stealing a shopkeeper’s wares. It’s pure chaos with feathers.