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Best Indie Games of 2011: Editors’ Top Picks

It’s that time of year. Once again, as everybody gets prepared for the new year, we’ve been slaving away over a massive pile of indie games that got released in 2011 in order to bring you our very best. And what a year it was!

But make no mistake, like last year’s Best of 2010 article, this is no mere “top 10” post. There is simply no way that we, as indie game writers, could whittle down a list to a hard number. It would have been impossible, especially given that as editors of this fine site, each of us has a different opinion.

Instead, what you’ll find below is an amalgamation of picks from each of us. Myself, Dominic, Erik, Mazen, Rowan and Arsen each picked our top five to ten games of the year and we’ve thrown them into one big pile. So how does it work? Simple!

Each game that gets a single mention by one of us is given an “Honorable Mention” for the year. As games get chosen by more editor’s they move up the tier. The game that has the most picks is awarded “Indie Game of the Year.”

So, without further ado, here are our top picks starting with the Honorable Mentions:

HONORABLE MENTIONS (One Mention)

Atom Zombie Smasher

It may not get the love it deserves having released so early in the year, but there’s not a doubt in my mind Atom Zombie Smasher is one of the best games to come out in 2011. What I can only describe as a top-down extract/bombard ‘em up, AZS has a new piece of brilliance and hilarity lying around every corner of both plot and gameplay. Leave it to Blendo Games to come up with another bizarre, unique, and addicting as hell effort–Brendon Chung had become a master at all that it seems.
-Erik Johnson

Battleheart

Mika Mobile’s Battleheart is, without a doubt, the best iOS game I played all year. I spent countless hours on it, attempting to perfect my strategies and level up my characters in order to traverse its challenging stages. It was a mix of tower defense and adventure/RPG, and holy hell did it eat up my iPhone’s battery life. I recommend Battleheart to every single gamer on iOS, and I’ll be damn surprised if anyone hates or even doesn’t like it.
-Arsen Nazaryan

Brutal Doom

In terms of sheer time invested, Brutal Doom wins out by far as my mod of the year. Recently given the Gameplay Mod of The Year award by the Doom community, it’s easy to see why – it makes one of the best games ever made better. It’s loud, messy and utterly dumb… except that it isn’t. Dumb, that is. While this mod does shamelessly add rivers of gore, Mortal Kombat-esque fatalities and a button dedicated purely to extending your middle finger at your enemies, the weapons have all been redesigned and rebalanced to be more flexible and satisfying to use, and the enemies are faster, more aggressive and more capable than ever before. It’s compatible with almost every classic Doom level pack in existence, too. If you’ve ever enjoyed Doom, or any classic FPS for that matter, this is an absolute must-play.
-Dominic Tarason

Cursed Loot

The funnest game I played this year. I could not stop playing it, honestly. Cursed Loot was formerly Epic Dungeon, but it is both epic and cursed. Cursed because you can’t fucking stop playing it. Epic because that’s just how it is. I wish an overarching story was also present but I’ll take what I can get: a game I paid a dollar for and often play in favor of Skyrim when I just feel like hitting a dungeon without the bells and whistles.
-Arsen Nazaryan

Dungeons of Dredmor

A fantastically deep roguelike, with some dungeon crawling fun that immediately brought me back to my time with Torchlight (and Diablo prior to that.) Gaslamp Games has really put some options and variety into this game, it’s replay value is through the roof. Some may argue it’s because you die all the time (which is part of the soul-crushing fun anyway), but even if you swept through the game undying, you’d still want to play again with so many different play-styles to choose from.
-Erik Johnson

Gundemonium Collection

Perhaps this is cheating a little – I first played these games years ago – but the English-language Steam relaunch of this trio of little-known Japanese indie shmups is the first experience that most folks have had with them. Amateurish art and goofy subject matter might put some folks off, but in terms of raw gameplay, these three are bullet heaven for the bullet hell fans. Two horizontally scrolling and one vertical, there’s a ton of unlockables, extra characters, difficulty modes and alternative playmodes in this package. The localization brought in a ton of Steamworks-related features and a fantastic remixed soundtrack, too.
-Dominic Tarason

Nightsky

Nifflas’ games have always been soothing wonderful affairs but I think Nightsky is my favorite so far. It was so quiet, calm and minimal in its graphical style. It simply captivated me, there’s no other way to describe it. Of course, the gameplay was genuinely fun as well, and I loved navigating the ball through puzzles which were challenging but never frustrating.
-Mazen Abdallah

Pix’n Love Rush

Honestly, what’s not to love in Pix’n Love Rush? It’s in the name! Pix’n Love Rush was fun for me because of its simple yet addictive gameplay, its colorful retro aesthetic and its addictive soundtrack. I just picked it up and instantly had a blast. Collect the +, avoid the – and shoot the baddies while protecting the goodies. Simple, stylish and well executed.
-Mazen Abdallah

Project Stormos

I got into Project Stormos after reading about its Kickstarter, and I was intrigued when I first saw it. A platformer…with no platforms? It looked so liberating and fun to fly around the levels and when I finally got my copy I found it to be just that. I especially loved dashing through long sequences of orbs and falling, only to strike some generously placed orbs that would give me a boost and save me from impending doom.
-Mazen Abdallah

Really Big Sky

Really Big Sky was one of the shmups I found myself really remembering this year, and that’s saying something considering how many of them I go through. I got it in the Indie Royale ‘Really Big’ Bundle’ and started playing when I was blown away by the graphical style. I also loved the system of holding fire to charge up and unleash massive streams, as well as drilling through asteroids. I had quite a bit of fun with its procedurally generated levels. Overall though, I have to emphasize how great it looks.
-Mazen Abdallah

SpaceChem

This year opened with a bang: The sound of my head violently exploding after trying the demo of this amazing freeform techno-alchemical spatial programming puzzle. It wasn’t until a few months later that I finally drummed up the courage to buy the full game and proceed further, and each and every puzzle presented made me feel like a helpless moron. Perseverance pays off in this game, though, and idiocy turns to genius as you figure out your own brilliant solution again and again. The game has only gotten better since launch, with expanded tutorials, a built-in level editor and a developer-recommended shortlist of the best fan-made puzzles every week. The game looks to have a bright future, too, with it now being available for free to schools on request.
-Dominic Tarason

Starfarer

Technically Starfarer is still in alpha, with $10 getting you a preorder and access to the current playable build, which is far more fleshed out and stable than you’d expect of anything this early in development. While the game plans to expand later into a freeform space exploration, combat and strategy game of fleet management and mercenary warfare, the current alpha is just a game about space combat, and a damn fine one at that. While directly in control of your fleet’s flagship in 2D shooter-style, you are only partially in command of your fleet, and for once, that’s okay! You’re an admiral, not a nanny – you tell your captains what points need to be captured and what ships need to be sunk, and they’ll do it with surprising levels of intelligence, coordination and a visible sense of self-preservation. The game already boasts a small but talented mod scene, adding new missions to the scenarios included, as well as a range of new ship types to play around with.
-Dominic Tarason

Streets Of Rage Remake

Simultaneously one of the greatest triumphs and tragedies in the history of fan-projects, the amazing Streets of Rage Remake is far bigger than the title suggests. Rather than being a straight remake, it’s an updated, remixed combination of the entire classic Genesis/Megadrive trilogy with another full game’s worth of face-punching thrown in, just for fun. The end result is greater than the sum of its parts, and one of the best scrolling brawlers ever created. Despite the project originally having Sega’s blessing, this agreement was revoked by the corporation just days after release, supposedly in order to protect the release of a (frankly underwhelming) iPhone port of the original Streets of Rage. Fortunately, the game is still out there in the wild, and easy to find – even on some rather major sites.
-Dominic Tarason

Thundergut

 

 

Thundergut is one of those really straightforward action games you find yourself really enjoying. I read about Thundergut somewhere and started playing and pretty soon I was slamming into enemies over and over again. It’s such a basic concept to allow you to launch yourself into an enemy and then launch again in mid-air, but it made the game really enjoyable and I had plenty of fun with it.
-Mazen Abdallah

To the Moon

Very few games manage as much of an emotional impact as Freebird Games’ wonderful mind traveler, To the Moon. My favourite game of the year by quite a margin, it excelled in the poignancy of its storytelling without ever becoming too cutesy. It had fun with its gaming roots, laughed at its own subject matter and ultimately engaged the player in a way that was both original and exciting. In addition to all this – and despite providing little in terms of challenge or traditional gameplay – it’s the only game in recent memory whose questions lingered in my mind for days after the final cutscene faded.
-Rowan Davies

Trauma

I knew Trauma was a hit when I first played it at the 2010 IndieCade festival. The whole game may be a short experience, but it is so poignantly executed that I dare any open-minded gamer not to appreciate its methodology. It took a long, long time to come out, but the wait was worth it. Indeed, Trauma is a rather unconventional game not likely to be enjoyed by everyone, but it made the list for me the second I clicked on my last photograph.
-Arsen Nazaryan

Trine 2

Frozenbyte wowed us with the original Trine and there was very little doubt in my mind that the sequel would live up to the standards set by that first game. Besides being the most attractive title I’ve encountered all year – and it is beautiful – the gameplay here is as charming and inventive as ever. The physics puzzles are still the main foe, but encourage the player to fabricate their own solutions, using magic, grappling hooks or brute force to progress. On top of this the coop capabilities create a whole other dimension of fun.
-Rowan Davies

THE BRONZE MEDAL (Two Mentions)

Bastion

Bastion was a superbly enjoyable title. Its Morgan Freeman-like narration may have become a joke of sorts, but how its delicate narrative made me feel — alone and empty — is something I’ve yet to feel recreated in the same way by a game with as much beautiful color.
-Arsen Nazaryan

They might be called Supergiant, but Bastion was a game that was exactly the size it had to be. A tightly woven, story-driven and continually narrated isometric hack n’ slash adventure, this one is practically drowning in charm. Absolutely beautiful art, one of the best soundtracks I’ve heard in years. It’s the narrator that absolutely steals the show, though – his vocal presence extending far beyond the game itself and making it really feel like you’re being told a story that just happens to synch up perfectly with the action as you make it unfold. It seems almost certain that many games are going to try to copy this particular trick in the coming months, but it’ll take a great degree of skill to pull it off.
-Dominic Tarason

DLC Quest

Probably one of the funnest XBLIG indies I have ever played. It oozes fun at every turn and its parody of overused cliches provides a good laugh every now and again. DLC Quest was one of the most surprising games of the year for me.
-Arsen Nazaryan

Honestly, when I played this game a few months ago I didn’t think that it would be a “Top Pick” fopr me, nor did I believe that I would enjoy it so much. Despite its relative shortness, DLC Quest made me, literally, laugh out loud at times. Combine that with its tongue in cheek humor and constant berating of the DLC industry, DLC Quest easily became one of my favorites of 2011.
-Geoff Gibson

Minecraft

Since it officially released this year, it would be stupid not to include Minecraft as a contender. Minecraft changed a lot of things for the indie gaming scene, and it brought massive amounts of attention to struggling developers worldwide, a resurgence into an indie uprising. Notch’s story is one to look up to, he is now the equivalent of a rock star in our world and rightly so. But even without its explosive popularity, Minecraft is simply one of the best indie games of all time. It enables us to be creative and think outside the block.
-Arsen Nazaryan

While the game hit its popularity last year and was playable throughout much of it, it was only recently that Minecraft was given a 1.0 release. As such, given how much it has affected my own gaming habits and its affect on the indie game industry at large I would say it’s only fair that it be included. More so than that, though, Minecraft is, quite simply, a great game that pushes you to expand your creative side and that’s something I think all of us can get something out of.
-Geoff Gibson

Nitronic Rush

It seems that every year, the Digipen student showcase has something spectacular for us. This year, it’s Nitronic Rush, a game that I’d be telling you all to rush out and buy if it weren’t already free. A time-attack stunt driving game with a Tron-esque aesthetic, Nitronic Rush is unbelievably pretty, ridiculously fast and offers an amazing amount of control over your vehicle both on-road or airborne, thanks to a series of maneuvering thrusters bolted to the chassis and a pair of retractable wings for those really big jumps. An Xbox 360 controller is highly recommended if you want the full, intended analogue control over the car, but not really required unless you’re digging into the (extremely complex) challenge stages – there’s plenty of meat on these neon bones if you’re willing to play beyond the short-but-sweet story mode.
-Dominic Tarason

When I first saw Nitronic Rush, I couldn’t believe that it was a free title by a student group. When I downloaded it, I expected to play some buggy, half-finished clunker. Instead I got a racing game that reminded me why I used to love driving in car games. Driving in the game was smooth and satisfying, and the added jumping, boosting and even flying made for a wild ride.
-Mazen Abdallah

Superbrothers: Swords & Sworcery EP

Superbrothers is a fantastic art game. I say “art” game because that’s how I see it… even though it has made huge waves and brought about debates as to what constitutes an art game and whether Superbrothers is pretentious or truly special. However, given its look, its thematic concept, its music, and its gameplay, the game is a strong contender for iOS title of the year, so I will go with “truly special”.
-Arsen Nazaryan

The prettiest, most quality sounding game on the iPhone. Need I say more? Well if I must, it also brings a sense of gaming nostalgia with it that has thoughts bubbling up of the Zelda series. It’s adventure gaming on iOS perfected, with wondeful artwork and some of the best music/sound effects I’ve encountered on any platform. It really goes above and beyond as a game in a mobile department.
-Erik Johnson

Where is My Heart?

Where is My Heart? was one of the best PSN indies of the year. It was cute and quirky, but most importantly: it offered a different perspective… in more ways than one, really. Where is My Heart? calmed and soothed the soul, and it rarely ever wanted to frustrate you (although, realistically, it sometimes did).
-Arsen Nazaryan

Where is my Heart amazed me the first time I saw it. It was love at first screenshot! When I got the game, I was simply entranced by it. Interestingly, it had no soundtrack, only the quiet noises of the forest. That made it so much more serene for me. The characters were adorable and the settings were vivid, and I became immersed in the world. Although the level mixing made me dizzy, I still found the gameplay concept to be innovative, and I found myself questioning every step.
-Mazen Abdallah

THE SILVER MEDAL (Three Mentions)

Orcs Must Die!

Tower defense is a genre I’m mostly burnt out on. There’s been some impressive hybrid offerings this year, such as the number-crunching Sanctum and the precariously stacked titan that is Dungeon Defenders, but it’s Orcs Must Die that really clicked for me. It says a lot when a game can hold my attention for seven hours start to finish, only for me to jump straight back in on the next difficulty setting up. It seems wrong to even call the game ‘Tower Defense’. For starters, there’s no towers (of the buildable variety). The gameplay has far more in common with The Horde (1994) and Tecmo’s Deception (1996) than anything, giving a far more hands-on, arcadey physics-driven feel to the proceedings. Mazing and number-inflation out, mass cruelty to bouncing, grumbling cartoon orcs in.
-Dominic Tarason

I’ll start this by saying I’m not a huge tower defense fan. Honestly most of them bore me. Orcs Must Die!, however, was quite different and, at no time, did I really feel the game was a tower defense game. Perhaps it had to do with the third person action perspective but I had a lot of fun running around the very intelligently designed maps and layng down all of my various traps and towers.
-Geoff Gibson

I’m not a huge fan of tower defence, but if a game is handled well enough I believe it can appeal to everyone, regardless of genre. Orcs Must Die! is that game. It hooks you in with its promise of physics-based cartoon killing and doesn’t let up until you’re orchestrating grand symphonies of death and destruction without a second thought. OMD! perfectly handles the balance between challenge and reward. Often you’ll feel massively overwhelmed, but that time-out is just around the corner and, following that, those Orcs are really going to get what’s coming to them.
-Rowan Davies

Terraria

While Minecraft may have started the recent block-building trend, I found Terraria’s 2D formula an incredibly worthy and different take on the genre. Terraria is just so charming and well done, it really deserves a spot on this year’s list. The adventures it offers are compelling and light-hearted, and it is difficult to imagine any Minecraft lover dissing the game.
-Arsen Nazaryan

This was the big surprise of the year for me. A tiny two-man studio come out of nowhere with a game to challenge the indie titan that is Mojang. The game is currently almost as popular as Modern Warfare 3 on Steam, and has sold well in excess of a million copies. Combining the familiar block-harvesting and building elements of the 3D giant, but giving just as much focus to the adventuring and combat. Terraria feels like a hybrid of Minecraft and the more recent Castlevania games, with loot, level and money playing as much a role as your ability to efficiently extract resources from the earth, Terraria really caught the attention of many who thought that Minecraft was possibly a little too ‘sandbox’ in nature. Better still, the game recently got an enormous free expansion update, literally doubling the length of the game from start to defeating the largest, toughest boss, and providing a stern challenge to all but the most dedicated and hardcore of players.
-Dominic Tarason

As with Minecraft, Terraria deserves a special mention just for it’s ability to tap into that creative part of us. More than that, however, it was the first game I would classify as a “Minecraft-like” that didn’t immediately attempt to be a carbon copy of Minecraft. The side scrolling, platforming feel with a greater emphasis on building and finding unique weapons is something that, even to this day, Minecraft does not offer.
-Geoff Gibson

RUNNER-UP

Frozen Synapse

If SpaceChem has the near-mystical ability to transmute blank-faced idocy into gleeful genius, then Frozen Synapse works the other way. Each and every turn of this incredibly tightly designed tactical combat game has you planning out your moves over and over again, meticulously refining your assault, and always settling for what seems like a foolproof, unstoppable maneuver that nobody could counter. And then you click the ‘submit’ button, and it matches your plan up with the other guy. No plan survives its first encounter with the enemy. Your sniper will be distracted by a fast-moving shotgunner. Your grenadier will fire into entirely the wrong building. Your rifleman will look ten degrees too far to the left and get flanked. And it never stops being hideously compelling, either against the AI or less predictable human opposition.
-Dominic Tarason

This year’s definition of a unique indie experience, Frozen Synapse came on with a roar as it exited a strong community-supported beta into an amazing launch. The core multiplayer goodness had me trading plays back and forth simultaneously with several opponents for days on end. The single-player campaign was hard as hell, but had a really compelling story that made you want to push through and discover more of the intrigue.
-Erik Johnson

A turn-based strategy game? I approached this with trepidation when I got the Humble Frozen Bundle (admittedly I had purchased it for the Frozenbyte games), as turn-based combat isn’t my thing. But what I found with Frozen Synapse was a very accessible, frantic game that was amazing for hours of fun that you could have while doing other things in the background. Add to that its neon effects and its smooth soundtrack and I was hooked.
-Mazen Abdallah

Almost a spiritual successor to turn-based squad shooter Laser Squad Nemesis, Frozen Synapse allows us once more to vanquish randoms on the internet in back-and-forth bloody combat. The interface is clean, the graphics are electroshock awesome and nailing a guy at fifty feet before he can knock out another on your team is something to be cherished. Each turn comes down to precision management of time and resources and every failure is compounded by lack of foresight. In short, it’s brilliant and we need to do all we can to keep its servers busy.
-Rowan Davies

INDIE GAME OF THE YEAR

The Binding of Isaac

Perhaps the eeriest of the bunch for me, The Binding of Isaac was the most surprising. I had no idea what to expect, and what I received… I’m still not too certain about it. It is a challenging and haunting experience but it delivers an all-around package that games ten times its price point fail to deliver all too often. Also, even more superb music by Danny B.
-Arsen Nazaryan

Who knew the follow-up to last year’s Indie of the Year would be even more fun? (At least for my tastes.) Edmund McMillan has again put together a game that’s extremely addicting, frustrating as hell, and full of WTF moments. Only this time instead of a tough-as-nails platformer it’s a dungeon-diving, permadeath-dealing roguelike that pits a sad, doomed little boy against his possessed mother and all the other horrors lying between his basement and Hell itself. There’s no saving (love), and each session guarantees to be different than the last. The sheer amount of breadth the title offers is also astounding. Everything including, items, boss monsters, standard enemies, endings, pills, rocks, and so forth. If it exists in the game there seems to be multiple variations of it–a lot of which are only discovered after being unlocked and subsequently encountered. On top of all that, it single handedly wrecked my Thanksgiving. So it gets my IOTY vote for 2011.
-Erik Johnson

How do you describe the Binding of Isaac in a single paragraph? I honestly don’t know. However, the Zelda-like game was, if nothing else, incredibly memorable. From its interesting demon monsters/bosses to the main character and story line, there hasn’t been a single game released this year that I would say brings about stronger visual memories. Wrap all that in a package of great, solid gameplay and you’ve easily got a game of the year contestant.
-Geoff Gibson

I’m a huge fan of Edmund McMillen and Binding of Isaac was wonderful because it bore his trademark artistic style, in possibly one of its most grisly incarnations. The characters horrified and delighted me. The game was so dark and yet so comical in its bizarreness (at least to me). And Isaac was a worthy McMillen protagonist. As with Meat Boy, I began to feel protective of the little guy and pity his plight while admiring his bravery. Of course, Edmund’s design and the Zelda-esque gameplay were half the equation, while Danny Baranowsky’s formidable soundtrack was the other half.
-Mazen Abdallah

This is something which I’m sure will make most people’s ‘best of’ lists for 2011, whether exclusively indie or not. The Binding of Isaac is the go-to game for a quick blast of action: always new, always unexpected, always fittingly grotesque. Edward McMillen and Florian Himsl have created something almost infinitely replayable here, with its extraordinary variety matched only by its excessive difficulty. Without McMillen’s trademark humour it may have suffered, but instead it still manages to remain funny and fresh fifty plays in.
-Rowan Davies

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