The best free games from across the web
October 24, 2012 9:24 AM   Subscribe

For about three years, the A.V. Club ran Sawbuck Gamer, a regular column reviewing the week's most notable free and cheap games across all platforms, from web games to handhelds to console downloadables. It's a treasure trove of content, especially since more literary sister site The Gameological Society took the helm, and it's publicized great desktop projects like the luscious platformer Frogatto (previously), feature-rich Super Mario Bros. X (previously), the evocative faux-web Digital: A Love Story (previously), interactive fiction gem Rover's Day Off, and the hyperkinetic RunMan: Race Around the World (previously). But if you're in the mood for something more immediate, why not start with a list of all the original column's free A-rated online titles?

[All descriptions are excerpts from Sawbuck Gamer reviews]

When Pigs Fly...: After your poor little piggy falls down a hill, she sprouts wings and attempts to navigate its craggy innards. If your impressive wingspan so much as brushes any surface, you’ll plummet to your death while a dusting of feathers peacefully drifts down and an annoyingly hilarious squeal serves as your death rattle. Get used to that sound—you’ll be lucky to scrape by with only 500 “accidents” after one addictive play-through of this ingratiating exercise in frustration.
Wonder Bounce: Never has a terrifying out-of-body experience been so adorable. Darthlupi’s Wonder Bounce puts you in the ghostly shoes of “Ishmoo the sweeper,” who stumbles on a sacred book that casts his soul “to the land of the damned to train in the art of wonder bounce.” That's all a fancy way of saying that you play a spooky janitor who must hop on wave after wave of lost souls to prevent them from commandeering your vacant body at the bottom of the screen.
Labyrinth Hero: Hero’s 10 dungeons all follow the same pattern (every floor has two enemies, a treasure chest, a switch, and a hidden staircase to delve deeper), but it rejuvenates these conventions by limiting your view to what you can see immediately around you with a conveniently aimed spotlight.
Guardian Rock: It lets you control an angry block of stone (like Mario’s Thwomps) that must eradicate the invading fedora-wearing explorers from your temple. It isn’t as easy as it might sound: Chess-like strategy and patience must be employed, as the temple’s traps can harm your blocks in addition to the marauding archaeologists. Since you move like a rook, you must plan ahead for your next three moves at a bare minimum.
Time Fcuk (previously): You’re greeted at the outset by yourself from 20 minutes in the future. Your future self is a rude sort, shoving you into a bottomless box where the normal rules of physics cease to apply. In each level, you shift back and forth between 2-D universes layered atop each other, and as if that weren’t enough, Time Fcuk introduces further complications at an aggressive rate. What really sets the game apart from forbears like Braid, though, is a muted visual and aural palette that lends it an eerie, oppressive feel.
Canabalt: Imagine Mirror’s Edge as a 2-D NES game with your control stick stuck, forcing you always to dash to the right over city rooftops. That’s Canabalt. There’s little margin for error—let a single stray office chair or anything else trip you up, and you probably won’t be able to properly time your next jump. The widescreen, black-and-white presentation gives Canabalt a striking cinematic quality, and since it only allows you to decide when to jump, and makes you surrender all other control, you’re forced to be completely in the moment and just react to the unfolding rooftops ahead of you, trying to lengthen the survival time before you inevitably splatter against some unyielding surface.
Icycle (previously): As a naked bald man in search of some company on glaciated post-apocalyptic earth, you pedal your squeaky bicycle through vistas that are tricky to navigate, but never unfair. Frozen soap bubbles from a mysterious source hint at the one ideal path through each stage. The game draws visual inspiration from diverse sources, including Soviet propaganda and Japanese woodblock prints, yet it all works together, united by a sense of lonely fatalism: You can never go back, but at least you can go forward.
Sweaty Boy: This puzzle game asks you to navigate a shivering pale kid over to a warming fire and keep him there for three seconds. He can’t move on his own. Instead, you use gravity and moving blocks to navigate him over to the goal. Clicking on a white object makes it disappear, so if your guy is on a white rectangle hovering over a ramp, clicking on the rectangle sends him tumbling down. Running into enemies, like a snowflake cannon, forces you to start the level over. While all this is going on, the background flashes shades of orange, and the creepy, slowed-down house/trance hybrid music pulsates. [...] Everything operates in harmony, from the scribble-like drawings to the sound of the raging fire underneath the musical score, casting a melancholy shadow over this inventive puzzle game.
Closure: Using the arrow keys and spacebar, your simple figure carries only tiny, light-shedding orbs in a mysterious black-and-white world where objects are only solid when illuminated, and cease to exist in the dark. Achieving each stage’s single objective—reaching a door, sometimes shuttling a key along—requires creative use of this shadowplay. Leave the guiding light behind or place it in a traveling sconce to pass through a solid wall, but if you end up alone in the dark, you’ll fall through nothingness to your death. Solutions always feel like they’re just outside the range of your little sphere, a mesmerizing effect that grows as the nine stages increase in complexity. [The heart is a loading bar, btw]
Miami Shark (previously): You’re a shark, and you’re hungry. That’s the premise of Miami Shark, a sidescroller where players control a pissed-off great white wreaking havoc on Miami’s coast. You gain points by diving into the water and leaping up to crush boats and chomp on planes, which you can drag out of the sky to produce huge destructive explosions. These in turn blow up more stuff, with people pouring out of the wrecked vehicles. Chase swimmers down for snacks, and they leave behind bloody stains on the water, which is the only real hint of gore the game provides. Otherwise it’s just hilarious and addictive as your victims freak out, screaming "OMG!" and "Shark!"
Hell Is Other People: Hell Is Other People is haunted. That is, it’s a straightforward top-down shooter with a novel twist: The enemies you face in dogfights are previous human contestants. Their bobbing and weaving and bursts of gunfire have nothing to do with you—it was their turn in a prior life. The longer you endure your mysterious opponents’ maneuvers, the more ghosts emerge. Hell Is Other People starts off simple, with a battle against just one enemy ship, but it gets downright insane when 15 or more ghosts fill the screen.
Cuboy: Back To The Cubeture 1: With his every move backed by an a capella soundtrack (which is 90 percent less annoying than you’d expect such a thing to be), Cuboy chases an evil cat back in time to the Wild West, where he tries to stop him from traveling through time—and fails, obviously. This adventure and its simple puzzles are a nice diversion, even if the controls can feel a little muddy, but for once the highlight of a game is the huge dialogue trees.
Small Worlds (previously): At the outset, Small Worlds looks like little more than a clichéd pixel-art lightshow, with huge blocks of color dominating the screen. As you maneuver your 1-by-3-pixel protagonist through his surroundings, though, the camera pulls back and the details fill in. You’re in a bubble. The bubble connects to an underground facility. The facility has suffered serious damage. The joy of Small Worlds comes in painting the scenery yourself through exploration, so it’s hard to say much more without ruining the experience. The game ought to be savored—it offers patient players more poignancy than the modest setting would suggest.
The Fantasy of the Sord: The game itself plays out like a combination of The Legend Of Zelda 2 and the original Metroid: Your pixelated character (chosen from a few purely aesthetic options, like a rock monster or a tree guy) makes his way through a handful of platformer-type levels, slashing enemies with pointy weapons he finds along the way. Each new one is more powerful than the last, and you pick up spells from killing bosses—early ones heal you, later ones provide abilities like invisibility and the ever-helpful teleport. Because there are multiple ways to get to each new area, the game lacks a linear progression. But that’s part of the fun: When you start over by slaying the final boss, you get a second chance to collect what you didn’t before.
Full Moon: Each level features a sparse screen where the centerpiece is a wide-eyed bunny longing for something to eat. The colors are stark: a white moon on a deep blue sky above black grasses, trees, and occasional unlit light bulbs or brooding owls. Players must figure out what to click on, drag, or drop to help the rabbit find his snack. It’s the best sort of challenge, where experimentation eventually unlocks the right answer, though you might need to restart a level to undo mistakes you’ve made.
Cat Got Lost: The feisty feline’s position changes along a plus-sign-shaped track with randomly generated but strategically placed colored doors and keys in 20 levels. Move too fast and you’ll wind up accidentally squandering a key when you didn’t mean to, leaving the poor puss to grow sadder and sadder in its newfound freedom. The reward for retrieving your kitty is an adorable mewling noise and a strangely fragmented musing on why he keeps absconding (“My cat gets lost some more,” and “Why do you run away, cat?”), suggesting a tragic subtext that maybe your cat doesn’t want to be rescued.
Continuity: A mix of n+ and a devious logic puzzle, with minimal Swedish design and a tinkling score that recalls Danny Elfman’s quieter work for Tim Burton, Continuity combines familiar ingredients, but gets unusual results. At its base, Continuity is the simplest sort of puzzle-platformer. Find the stark red key standing out from the gray and black of the game’s backgrounds, then get to the door. This becomes more difficult as the game goes on, of course, but it’s tricky from the start, since Continuity’s levels are broken into multiple windows. These windows can be rearranged at any time, creating a new path to the goal for your tiny stick figure.
Sushi Cat (previously): You drop the titular cat over segmented, single-screen stages that have happy sushi pieces spread between a variety of ramps and obstacles. Your cat bounces about, gobbling raw fish to fill its belly (signified by a stretching Long Cat lining the left side of the screen) and get high scores. Sushi Cat is score-attack pachinko with cartoon cats and a reggae-pentatonic fusion soundtrack. It’s delicious.
The Adventures of One-Button Bob (previously): You control an extremely pixilated Ranger Smith-looking guy as he marches from the left side of the screen to the right—how you control him is a mystery. The only sure thing is that the left mouse button does something. In some levels, clicking lets you jump. In others, you’ll climb ladders or merely hold still. As other games are getting more convoluted, it’s refreshing to be restricted—it makes you pay that much more attention.
Hoosegow: Tossed in a Wild West county lockup after a botched train heist, you’re joined by a dull-witted sidekick, a deranged preacher, and an assortment of inventory items that seem useless at first yet (surprise!) prove handy in breaking you out of the joint. Yes, MacGyvering your way out of a locked room is the oldest trope in the text-game playbook. With a tight prose style that’s half Buffalo Bill and half Oscar Wilde, though, the old standards don’t seem so bad.
Dual Transform: You’re trying to escape a subconscious realm that shifts in appearance in response to your conceptualization of simple forces: heat, electricity, etc. Sounds wonky, and it is, at first. But the idea gels around the second transformation or so, and the tale’s straightforward elegance comes to the fore. With almost no tedious inventory management—you only have one item, which can transform with the surroundings—Dual Transform sidesteps the trial-and-error dynamic of most interactive fiction, and lets players focus on the ideas behind its puzzles
Don't Shit Your Pants: A Survival Horror Game (previously): Don't Shit Your Pants opens with a bald man standing in his undershirt and pajama bottoms outside a closed door. The opening line, "You really need to take a shit…," joins Zork's classic "west of a white house" line in the pantheon of gaming's great first lines. Via typed instructions—for example, "remove pants"—various crap-related achievements can be discovered. The charm of the production comes from the 8-bit era graphics, MIDI keyboard soundtrack, and the ineffable poetry found in lines like, "You couldn't hold it anymore, you just shit your pants! Game over!"
Synopsis Quest Deluxe (previously): Every annoying convention of early RPGs—endless dialog boxes, lobotomized villagers parroting their one line over and over, item-fetching missions—is present in Synopsis Quest Deluxe, and those design crutches are the source of its wit. Over the course of 25 mini-quests, the game pokes fun at the creaky genre's old habits and twists them in tricky ways.
Mushroom Madness 2: The first Mushroom Madness was a reasonably cute browser game where players tried to protect mushroom patches from marauding animals by smacking them with a spatula, or occasionally gaining temporary guns for more satisfying splatter. Mushroom Madness 2 is bigger and better in all ways: It piles on more adversaries, achievements, weapons, goals, upgrades, modes, and mini-games. It also keeps Mushroom Madness' flexible play system: You can move freely through “adventure mode” even if you eke through each level with mere bare survival, or you can achieve side-goals to unlock additional levels in tower-defense and shooting-gallery modes. Finding a level too hard? Play mini-games or replay levels and upgrade weapons and powers. Finding a level too easy? Frantically smash trees in your spare time for extra cash. Either way, it's a fast-paced, appealingly designed, colorfully cartoony game, and there's a lot of it to unlock and discover as well.
Daymare Town 3: In Mateusz Skutnik's third warped merging of Edward Gorey, Dr. Seuss, and Myst, you awaken after an ill-fated hot-air-balloon outing to find yourself in a strange town with stranger inhabitants. They're more scared of you than you are of them, and not without reason: As you click around the alternately charming and eerie hamlet, you'll have the chance to drug, steal from, trade with—and yes, perhaps kill—some of the misfits holding the keys to the game's myriad puzzles and your eventual escape.
SteamBirds (previously): On a fatigue-green topographical map, you plot the attack course for your fleet of fighter planes, selecting a flight path that intersects with enemy planes. Your ships automatically fire, provided they're in range of baddies. You are awarded stars based on your performance, allowing you to progress through the stages and increase your rank. SteamBirds is deceptively simple, as bringing down even one plane can prove trickier than you first suspect. As the game advances, adding more abilities to your fleet and throwing cagier enemies at you, it becomes an exercise in delicious strategy.
Super Mario Bros. Crossover (previously): This browser-based game is a re-imagining of the original Super Mario Bros. in which you can play as Mario or one of five other characters: Link, Samus, Mega Man, Simon, or Bill R. from Contra. Each has his/her own set of skills, some of which upgrade as you pick up mushrooms and fire flowers. Samus, for example, goes from short-range cannon to long-range to wave cannon—while the whole time, she can roll into a ball and drop bombs. Of course, each character also has drawbacks: Link has a sword and a boomerang, but lacks size and easy maneuverability. So you have to choose the best character to face each level (especially given that power-ups stay with them as they swap out), and the Super Mario Bros. strategy becomes richer, more nostalgia-laden, and packed with unexpected mystery.
Enough Plumbers: Every time your anonymous mustachioed Italian plumber collects a coin in this game, he spawns a duplicate of himself. In the first few levels, this means little more than the fun spectacle of watching an army of squat little dudes hop across the screen chirping “It’s-a me!” In short order, though, those clones become more useful as you enlist them to solve the game’s increasingly elaborate puzzles.
BigTree Defense: BigTree Defense takes the tower-defense game to a weird place: Your towers are flowers, which you place on a tree seedling in order to fend off space bugs that are invading the stricken, polluted earth. Wait, don’t insects and flowers normally get along? Well, never mind. Point is, BigTree Defense adds a few nifty organic wrinkles to tower defense. For one thing, you choose how to construct your tree. Killing insects gains you water, which can be used to heal your tree or upgrade it with more branches. Branches can also be upgraded to permit more flowers, or more sub-branches. And branches can be manually angled outward for layered defense, or inward to pick off those pesky insects as they concentrate on your trunk. As a result, you can wind up with a slim, upright tree or a huge bushy one, depending on your design choices.
Viricide: Ever since Portal, the idea of a crazy yet funny female-voiced computer has been all over indie games. Call it homage or rip-off, depending on whether you actually like any of those games, but either way, give credit to 2DArray’s Eli Piilonen for taking it a step further with Viricide, a visually simple retro shooter in which you’re helping one such crazy computer debug herself, so that she becomes increasingly self-aware—and increasingly morose about it. The story is melancholy and creepy at the same time, but it succeeds more on the basis of the game, in which you zip around the screen shooting glowing geometric viruses, collecting the bits that result when you destroy one, and using the bits to fund upgrades.
Clockwords (previously): Word nerds who thrive under pressure should addict themselves to Clockwords, a browser-based game that applies the word-making mechanic of Scrabble to a tower-defense-style combat game. The player constructs words using letters of unequal value: R and S are small-bore, while a Q does serious damage. You can use any word in the dictionary—for extra points, you can use the word of the day—but you'll have to think fast to stop a series of steampunk spiders from invading your base; your carefully crafted "remunerate" and "callipygous" shrink to a stream of "toe"s and "not"s as the enemy creeps closer.
Kill Me!: The game stars Invincible Man, a masked superhero who is weary of eternal life and wants only to experience what he calls in his suicide note the "sweet relief" of death. It's up to you to guide him to his demise. The goal is to penetrate a top-secret government lab in search of X-12, a poison that will put Invincible Man down for good. Each level requires you to hurl Invincible Man onto spikes or from great heights—go ahead, he asked for it—and then to use the corpses left behind as stepping stones to reach the exit.
Larry And The Gnomes: The once-peaceful, cute gnomes have gone berserk, and it's up to the chosen one, Larry, to stop them. His quest in Larry And The Gnomes involves a spectacular amount of carnage, as he culls mobs of the little forest folk using anything from swords, hammers, and axes to the heads of his fallen foes. The comically gory game has excellent voice acting and absurd humor from characters like the clueless king and the patronizing wizard who sends Larry on his journey. It also provides a solid balance in difficulty.
Fault Line (previously): The protagonist—a curious little metal man—is lost in a maze of twisting passageways occasionally interrupted by spiny things or death-lasers. Naturally, he has to navigate his way to an exit point in each level. The wrinkle that makes the game work involves just how the hero finds his way out—making new paths by folding together pre-selected points within the passages, as if they were Mad magazine back-cover fold-ins. Threats disappear, new platforms and passages appear, and the mazes tangle further or detangle completely.
60 Seconds To Save The Queen: Using the arrow keys and space bar, you navigate a pixelated king through the halls of his castle as the walls collapse around him. Each room is exited through a looming black door, and if you fail—by falling in a pit, say, or getting pierced by a spear-toting guard—you give that room another shot. But you have to finish the game once through (in spite of occasionally wonky controls) to realize the title is mercilessly accurate: If you’re even one second past 60, you fail. Then it’s back at it again, blindly bouncing past obstacles, surrendering to sheer momentum.
Halo 2600 (previously): Former Microsoft executive Ed Fries has transplanted the soul of the Halo series into an Atari 2600 game whose code occupies 4 kilobytes, or 0.000045 percent of a modern Xbox 360 disc. This is no slapdash hack job. If Fries’ game had been released in 1978, it almost surely would have been a system-seller for Atari, just as the modern Halo series has been for Microsoft. As a sort of Cro-Magnon Master Chief, players soldier through a world that’s four zones deep, peppered with equipment upgrades, and populated by low-res but recognizable Covenant enemies. Much of the game’s excitement comes from the screen-by-screen exploration that was standard in games of that era. (Think Adventure.) When you walk off the edge of the screen, you have no idea what’s on the other side.
Gravity Hook HD: The original Gravity Hook predates Canabalt and has now been overhauled and enhanced in this pretty update. What hasn’t been touched is the punishing difficulty, sure to aggravate those not patient enough to tackle the learning curve of swinging your robot’s grappling-hook arm from floating buoy to floating buoy. You’ll have to harness both centripetal and centrifugal force early on, as many of the higher-up buoys are land mines that explode if you touch them. In other words, it’s as frustrating as Canabalt, but much more skill-based—and another example of why the world needs many more grappling-hook-based games.
Achievement Unlocked 2 (previously): It’s a meta-gaming riff on piddling awards doled out for ultra-trivial accomplishments, and includes such gems as “Mission Accepted” for starting the game, “Silence is Golden” for pushing the mute button, and “BILLY MAYS” for enabling caps lock. Instead of the original’s 100 nigh-random tasks and its single room full of lifts and death traps—themselves required to access medals like “Impaler” and “Multideath”—this installment stretches the running gag across 250 achievements and five floors, most of which are only accessible after you exchange your elephant’s easily earned cash for ineptly “marketed” expansion packs.
Tower Of Heaven: The protagonist is a tiny ragdoll of a man who longs to reach the top of a tower. The tower’s owner sets out a variety of rules he must not disobey (all in the “Thou shalt not” format), but our hero plunges forward nonetheless, as the rules get more and more ludicrous and the master’s wrath grows ever more vengeful. By the time the game insists the little man may no longer run left, lest he be smote, while a giant saw blade bears down on him immediately from the right, it reaches a level of ultra-difficult insanity that few browser games achieve.
Robot Wants Ice Cream: The boxy unicycle robot, alongside his mostly useless brown puppy, flits around a tropical grassland to build up his strength (with gradual upgrades) and conquer the flying saucer that hovers ominously overhead. The quest is dotted with small boss fights that are unlikely to test anybody’s patience, thanks to a generous respawn system (think BioShock’s Vita-Chambers, but twitchier). The bosses do offer variety, though, and Robot isn’t so much about challenge anyway: It’s about basking in the game’s unabashed cuteness.
Electric Box 2: As in the first game, Electric Box 2 asks players to connect a power source to the target using a Rube Goldberg-ian system of transmitters. A tea kettle pours water into the turbine, which powers an electric fan that sends a burst of air into a set of wind chimes, which make the music-loving hamster spin his wheel—and so on. The puzzles are all excellent, and the ambiance really brings the game home.
Pixel Purge: Using the arrow keys to maneuver and the mouse to aim and shoot, players must weather an unending barrage of monstrous invaders floating through space. The game starts out with simple peons who move in a straight line and are only a threat if they crash into you. As you level up, the combat gets significantly harder, as new types of invaders fill the board with explosive mines, split into other invaders upon death, or spawn tiny monsters that zoom in on your ship. Leveling up also grants skill points that can be used to upgrade your craft. The game is enhanced by solid music and ominous thunder-and-lightning effects that show silhouettes of monsters yet to come.
The Room: The Game (previously): In paying homage to their favorite poorly acted, poorly plotted would-be Skinemax film, the creators of The Room: The Game breathe new life into the already vibrant, lumpy “film.” (Here’s more about The Room’s glory.) The game is a point-and-click RPG, spinning the characters, the city of San Francisco, and even the ridiculous soundtrack in 8-bit. You guide hero/household-provider Johnny through the events of the film, and always from his perspective. Johnny actually goes to buy the red dress for Lisa, and actually carts Chris-R to the police. The tiniest details make the cut: When Johnny and Denny play catch on the roof (a mini-game of sorts), they only toss the ball back and forth once, as per the film. There are also plenty of Easter eggs for longtime fans of writer-director-producer-star Tommy Wiseau and his vast mythology—like the poster from Citizen Kane in the hallway—as well as those who’ve speculated about this film for far too long.
Warlight (previously): Warlight is Risk-lite, online—at least in concept, as the execution is far more engrossing than a simple port. The rules remain roughly the same: Using an ever-growing army, conquer the world and vanquish your opponents via a battle simulator (dice in the board game, a simple algorithm in this version). There are cards to collect, just like in the board game, but that’s where the similarities end. The online version includes gameplay enhancers like fog (you can only see territories right next to you) and a savvy simulator that mixes enemy actions with your own for dynamic, unpredictable battles. Of course, board games can’t be played alone, and Warlight comes equipped with an AI, proving a worthy opponent when friends aren’t around.
Give Up Robot 2: The original’s slick presentation has been made warmer with an earth-tone color palette, and the tight grappling-hook play for navigating the game’s single-room obstacle courses has been complicated and improved with more moving parts. Smiling blocks carry you once you’ve grappled on, other blocks must be dragged down to open doors, rockets must be ridden to open new paths—it’s a whole new game.
Reachin’ Pichin: Your little avatar shoots up into the sky, and you use the mouse pointer to guide him onto platforms to bounce ever higher. After each failure, you upgrade your character and make another—hopefully loftier—attempt to reach the stratosphere. Kurechii Interactive, unlike their predecessors, have managed to gussy up the type with impressive and satisfying depth. Pichin, a flying blob, has five basic stats (launch speed, max speed, bounce speed, strength, and luck) that can upgraded. Additional stat-augmenting items can be created in the lab using objects and experience acquired during launch attempts stages. Up to five items can be equipped, provided your experience is high enough. Pichin himself can be evolved into four new versions, going from infant to tween to mature to champion. Taking a run at one of the game’s stages to earn quick points and level up is consistently joyful, in spite of the grating giddy tunes.
Mother Robot: You’re in a cave illuminated by only a single light source. There’s a lone robot with a beam attached to its head, capable of pointing in any of the 360 degrees. After some trial and error, players can determine how to cast light farther down the cave. Suddenly, there are two robots. As players proceed deeper into the world, a third joins, then a fourth. Soon the puzzles become too complicated; a robot slips into the darkness, only to instantly fizzle along with his brothers. The robots work together, digging down into nothingness, praying their light isn’t extinguished by a careless slip-up.
Tag Attack: With all the hubbub about touchscreens, Kinects, and Wii-motes, it’s easy to forget that the computer mouse was the first great motion controller. Players get a nice reminder with Tag Attack, a Galaga-style shooter controlled entirely by pointing the mouse at targets. The shift in focus from shooting toward aiming has a subtle soothing effect. It doesn’t hurt that Tag Attack is gorgeous to look at and listen to, with great sound effects and delightful firework explosions with each alien ship destroyed.
Fotonica: It’s a minimalist browser game whose black-and-white vector look adheres to both schools and uses negative space, sound, and fast play to elicit visceral responses in players. There are two stages, Cairoli and Cardona, the first with a “broken bridges in the woods” theme and the second a ruined highway. Both are also available in “Pure” modes, where the loose aesthetics are tossed aside in favor of unadorned abstraction. You hold a single button to run forward and release it to jump between sections of track, managing speed to clear gaps, and collecting orbs that increase your velocity. The speed, the stages, and the clicking electronica soundtrack all cohere into a beautiful package.
The Great Gatsby (previously): Nick Carraway is the high-jumpin’, hat-slingin’ hero, battling his way through butlers, flappers, boxcar hobos, and gangsters as the story of The Great Gatsby unfolds. Daisy and other characters appear, as does the giant pair of spectacles, as a boss fight. Everything in Gatsby services its 8-bit inspiration: The screen is laid out like Ninja Gaiden, graphics are charmingly simple, the music recreates frantic ragtime in retro tones. It all works—so well, in fact, that it’s disappointing when the game ends after only four levels.
Jorinapeka: The goal of Jorinapeka is to clear all the colored circles on the board by clicking the colorless circles. Each time you click one of the discs, it sets off in the direction indicated by its arrow, gobbling up other pieces and changing direction according to their arrows. Early levels can be solved by clicking the first move you see to clear a colored circle. To beat higher levels, you’ll need to plot your moves carefully, trying to clear away as much of the board as possible with a single move.
The Man With The Invisible Trousers: The first surprise in The Man With The Invisible Trousers occurs when your character takes his first step—or whatever word you’d use to describe a floating upper body moving forward an incremental amount. It's amazing how much of a cognitive tizzy it is to guide a gliding torso, especially when navigating the puzzling levels, which require jumping, running up walls, and dodging inconveniently placed spikes to find an exit. Invisible Trousers subverts its novelty premise, demanding players to constantly question the mechanics of how the character leaps and squeezes through tiny holes—or what even constitutes a hole when platforms are viewed at unexpected angles.
Sushi Cat 2: How do you improve upon perfection? Such is the dilemma facing Armor Games when creating a second sequel to Sushi Cat, a game whose praises we were singing just a year ago. (We missed covering the interim game, Sushi Cat: The Honeymoon, which continues the story.) The solution? Put Sushi Cat in a goddamn ninja costume. Sushi Cat 2 is the Platonic form of a great sequel: It’s a bigger and better version of the pachinko-based, excessively cute fat-cat adventure where the solution to romantic difficulties is to overeat.
Test Subject Blue: You star as the blue enzyme, enemy of all things orange, and wielder of a big-ass gun that lets you destroy the different varieties of blob (regular, shield-carrying, dodging) and trigger switches that temporarily dismantle the game’s ubiquitous transporters. The same task lies before you at the beginning of every stage: Reach the keycard that opens the way to a tasty pill. The variety of obstacles you’ll face in order to reach that pill keeps the game’s 25 levels fresh, with some relying more on fancy footwork and bullet-dodging, and some calling for a bit more gray matter.
The Legend Of The Golden Robot: Armed with a weapon and a shovel, your vaguely Homer Simpson-looking explorer heads out to one of many grids. On each grid, there are enemies to fight and levels to gain (bolstering the usual stats), but the focus is on digging up treasure until the break-o’-dawn. Players are guided by numbers in each square that indicate how many treasures are in adjacent squares, à la Minesweeper. And as with that free Windows productivity-killer, there’s a certain thrill in being a completist—leaving levels completely free of treasure. The game matures as you play: Different shovels are ideal for digging into different surfaces, so shovel selection plays a part in effective time management. In addition, certain treasures are usable in battle, and the most powerful ones are must-haves when facing the ever-stronger enemies.
Monster Castle: Monster Castle flips the script by requiring players to protect an evil queen from invading do-gooder heroes, but that little inversion wouldn’t mean bupkis if the game weren’t so fulfilling. Tough even from the first round, Monster Castle calls for careful positioning of spitting flowers, skeleton knights, and passively powerful, movement-slowing blobs. There are a variety of humans to plan for: suicidal saboteurs, fleet-footed Hermeses, and tough-as-nails heavies. It takes some trial and error to capitalize on some of the game’s imbalances, like the overpowered ranged plants. Once the somewhat simple mechanics are mastered, however, it’s intoxicating to watch your lines of defenses swell, level up, and take on new sprites and abilities.
Gemcraft Labyrinth: Gemcraft Labyrinth at core is a basic tower-defense game: earn mana over time, convert it to gemstones that produce various attacks, place them in towers to eliminate waves of creeps. But players can choose a wide variety of play styles, due to a complex range of options. The many, many strategies include using traps instead of towers, merging the gems in various combinations, and rejiggering upgrade points between levels. The result is an intimidating amount of choice and replayability, particularly given the extensive map of unlockable levels, a bunch of new battle options, and the ability to customize levels with more or tougher or different monsters for additional XP.
Silly Sausage: Silly Sausage fits right into a late-’80s/early-’90s mentality, but also feels new. It has traces of classics like Bubble Bobble and Snake without seeming like a facsimile of any one game. The star of Silly Sausage is a sausage dog with a Stretch Armstrong-esque ability to extend his torso to ridiculous lengths. Anchored to the wall, the dog can twist around corners to collect gems and snap back to normal size in a hurry to avoid enemies. The presentation is cute yet not cutesy, and the cartoonish humor of the impossibly rubbery dog doesn’t get old.
Samegame Fighter (previously): An intriguing mixture of turn-based combat mashed up into puzzles, Samegame Fighter has you face down nefarious enemies like goblins and giant spiders by carefully selecting icons like axes, swords, shields, and potions from a Columns-like grid. There is no correct order of attack; it’s a matter of maintaining your offense and defense depending on the enemy’s tactics. Axes are more aggressive, and therefore are more likely to miss; swords are more reliable but deal less damage. It sounds simple, and while the guiding concept is straightforward, Samegame Fighter is anything but.
The Adventures Of Red: Poor Red. The strange yellow creature just wants the free muffin he was promised, but to get it, he has to navigate a vast, puzzle-filled castle. Solving the point-and-click riddles gives you color-coordinated keys to unlock more rooms. The first challenge is often figuring out how you’re supposed to proceed when, say, you’re shown a tapestry of dots and lines, or you’re staring at two pictures accompanied by the line “Five is a lucky number.” At other times, it’s easy to intuit that you need to light all the torches or move rings around, but actually figuring out the steps is tricky. The riddles are challenging, but rarely exasperating.
58 Works: Works isn’t a single game, but a growing compendium of small puzzle-based adventures, a creative box of infuriating chocolates that can take hours to unpack. The small creations that make up 58 Works are escape games, in which players make their way out of a room by uncovering cryptic clues amid seemingly innocuous surroundings. In Escraft, an easy claymation escape, the goal is to collect five colored balls and feed them to a monster in front of the door in the correct order. Others, like Snowing, are more complex. Though the difficulty fluctuates, all the escapes are strange.
Snailiad (previously): Unlike Metroid’s Samus Aran, the hero of Snailiad can slide up walls and receive advice from fellow snails to guide his quest, which is simply to take out the mysterious Moon Snail. Weapons come in only a few varieties, but each becomes more frantic with the addition of add-ons that increase your firing rate. Snailiad isn’t so difficult until the end—the final boss is impossible. But then Act II begins; the worlds now contain hidden shells that when collected, power up your final weapon, and it’s time to forge on through a second time.
Curvy: The coolly involving Curvy is a basic puzzle game, yet it’s so easy to pick up and play that it makes for the perfect occasional diversion. Players are asked how many rows and columns (which can extend to the infinite in the browser version, though anything more than 10 is not recommended) they would like in their puzzle, as well as whether they would like one or two colors of lines in that puzzle. The game then generates said puzzle, which is a field of hexagons, decorated with colored lines that dip and curve toward and away from each other. The player rotates the hexagons to hook the lines up so there are no loose ends anywhere, eventually ending up with long, curving snakes of completed lines, often ending in oblong loops.
Superfighters: Life in the state of Superfighters is solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short. It’s also thrillingly fast-paced and as barbarically stupid or cunningly strategic as you make it. As many as eight combatants—working solo or in teams—trade buckshot, bombs, or bare-knuckle punches over toxic pools and vertiginous drops. Each arena comes equipped with weapon caches, breakaway glass, and floating platforms galore, which gives the game’s simple, River City Ransom-lite mechanics room to mutate from match to match.
Alight (in dreams): The game cold-opens on an abandoned house that’s been torn to shreds. You play an unnamed boy attracted to smoke, and walking to the billowing pillars reveals a bit more of the story each time. The boy is a student of astronomy, you learn, and all his life he dreamed of soaring through the great unknown. Soon he sprouts wings, exploring the world by leaping and gliding between platforms. Life is peachy until you’re confronted with a choice: Pick up a candle, a feather, or an alarm clock. It doesn’t matter at first—each one turns the world suddenly dark, and you’re forced to navigate your way back to home while avoiding shadowy walls à la the old helicopter game. Returning the item to where you started makes the world pleasant again, for a spell. Later, the choice of items becomes more important, as each one leads you down a different dimly lit path. And as the story unfolds, it becomes clear that the boy is running from something deep inside himself, and seeking respite, whenever he can, in the heavens.
Intruded: Intruded uses its security-cam views to make an entire game out of the interface problems that plagued early 3-D games. The tank-style 3-D character controls in the original Tomb Raider and Resident Evil games, where the movement controls don’t reorient themselves to follow the camera’s direction comprise the game’s central aesthetic. You play as a nameless woman navigating hazard-laden corridors, and you must accommodate wild shifts in perspective. It’s easy to time your crossing over a retracting walkway if it’s directly ahead, but when its presented from the angle of a security camera moving right to left, even a straight line becomes difficult to navigate.
Kingdom Rush: The increasing popularity of the simple, potentially deep tower-defense genre has led to some clever revolutions in how the genre is played. Kingdom Rush isn’t one of those revolutions. It’s a Platonic form of the tower defense game, doing nothing surprising. The game is set in a fantasy world, with four different types of towers, each of which can be upgraded between missions. Instead of changing the form, Kingdom Rush just does everything really well. The towers are sufficiently different, upgrades are notable, and the levels are interesting. Most important, the difficulty and balance are almost perfect.
Wonderputt (previously): Completing all 18 holes unlocks wonder. This is the promise made by Wonderputt, and navigating its compact world not only fills players with wonder, but also with deep satisfaction. Wonderputt is a single-screen miniature-golf game, and the course is an evolving, neon-and-pastel-colored series of dips, cliffs, and traps. You putt the ball by aiming a power meter and clicking. Completing a hole usually causes an enjoyable chain reaction that reveals the next one. And there are more delights after you complete the game.
CycloManiacs2 (previously): CycloManiacs2 developer Turbo Nuke threw everything against the wall for this bike-racing game, and here’s what stuck: 50 riders, a dozen or so tracks, hidden mini-games, customizable upgrades, and unlockable trophies that effect a bizarre, unexpected story. The art is squiggly and the controls are fussy. In fact, every aspect of the game falls a little short of greatness, but the complete product has an irresistible go-for-broke attitude.
Experimental Shooter: Experimental Shooter consists of a square playing field with a tank in the center, amid a swarm of white spheres. The point of the game is to shoot down the bouncing balls, but the question is how you shoot them down. It’s different for each of the 21 levels. In one stage, you’ll have to use the tank as a pool cue, and in another, you’re invited to play freeze-tag. The combination of puzzle-solving and smart level design turns what would just be a simple Asteroids clone into an ingenious little game.
Frantic Frigates: Frantic Frigates’ control scheme makes it a wildly different experience from platform to platform. You control a small ship that sails around wildly autofiring at the nearest target—attacking sharks, enemy ships, treasure chests—and collecting gold to buy upgrades. But rather than controlling the ship itself, you use the cursor to indicate where it should go next. This is nearly impossible on a touchscreen, since your fingers tend to cover your ship and the cannon fire it’s trying to dodge. It’s a little clunky but manageable on a laptop touchpad, much smoother with a mouse, and downright liquid via the iPhone’s tilt controls. And on any platform, it’s a well-executed game, with bright, cartoony design, challenging bosses, and a structure that lets you increase your starting game-cash between play sessions in order to buy upgrades earlier and get a little farther each time.
Bla Bla: It’s a charming set of simple games, divided into chapters, using similar aesthetics. Click on the screen, and something entertaining will happen. Click on the right things, and the chapter progresses. The joy of Bla Bla comes from seeing just what happens, like when a click creates multiple little men, who wander over to one another and start talking or hugging. Bla Bla doesn’t do much, but it helps create the joy of discovery by playing it, and that's more than enough.
Encyclopedia Fuckme And The Case Of The Vanishing Entree: Encyclopedia Fuckme And The Case Of The Vanishing Entree is a juicy work of interactive fiction billed as a “lesbian dating sim.” But that somewhat-innocuous warning doesn’t do this choose-your-own adventure justice—the trigger warning for this violent BDSM fantasy would be longer than A Song Of Ice And Fire. Anthropy’s second-person prose binds readers into the role of a voracious submissive paying a visit to the sex kitchen of a dom named Anni. Things quickly go awry, and readers wind up trussed, vulnerable, and doomed to die.
Mushroom Madness 3: You’re still protecting your mushroom patches from marauding animals, but now there are more weapons, more play modes, bigger upgrades, more new goals, and more critters—each of which pose specific challenges. This is essentially a gussied-up take on whack-a-mole (and perhaps in recognition, the moles are the most annoying opponents in the game), but it features an impressive amount of gussying, with tower-defense levels, “adventure” levels, a survival mode, different flavors of pure whacking mode, side goals, and more. It’s also professionally slick-looking and smooth, with a well-balanced difficulty system that still lets players charge ahead if they’re enjoying themselves, or drop back to earn upgrades to make things easier if they aren’t.
Gyossait: Genuinely unsettling at times, thanks to a mixture of excellent sound design and chunky, impressionistic pixel graphics, Gyossait is an Orpheus story. It’s a platformer about descending into the underworld to rescue someone you love, and the difficult decisions that descent entails. The play is simple: Beneath the gnarled visuals are eminently familiar platforms, pits, and enemies that are fulfilling and difficult, but the best part is halfway through, when the game gives you the option to do violence. It doesn’t explicitly spell out some overwrought moral choice, it merely gives you the option to defend yourself or become aggressive, a fitting embodiment of the choice to give up your humanity for what you want. Saying more would mean giving up Gyossait’s admirable ghosts.
Bullet Bill 3: If the high speed and higher difficulty of these levels wasn’t enough to get players gritting their teeth, the blaring remixes of iconic Mario tunes should do the trick. (Some are obnoxious, some are awesome. The dubstep twist on Desert Land’s theme should be especially polarizing.) In Bullet Bill 3, unlockable characters bring their own unique stats and special powers to the fight, and a level-editor extends play beyond the standard eight worlds. Polished and punchy, BB3 is a potent time-suck, even though moving the cursor outside the play area still results in a quick, cheap death.
Verge: In order to successfully navigate your inkblot-faced hero from one door to the next, you must kill him and move forward in the upside-down underworld. While the main world isn’t exactly the jolliest of fields, there are still plenty of fire-breathing dragons to stomp on. By contrast, the underworld is nightmarish and barely visible, populated by specters that sneak out of every corner to steal your soul. As you run in fear through the life and death worlds, killing yourself becomes not a chore, but something gleeful—an everyday ritual that loses any sense of the macabre. Soon, the barriers between life and death are reduced to nothing, and your little guy has taken on the form of his own executioner.
The Ocean Around Me: Week One and Week Two: Behind the low production values of The Ocean Around Me is a multifaceted game that keeps players on their toes by operating like Myst one moment and a platformer the next. Ocean’s stick-figure protagonist wakes up on a very small desert island with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Scrounging for food is a first priority—the game provides entertaining (and sometimes challenging) mini-games involving coconuts and fish—but soon, players are knee-deep into figuring out the island’s mysteries. The game is cut up into episodes that last seven days, and each day has its own obstacles and revelations, making the passage of time a thematic part of play.
All That Matters: The goal of each level is to get all family members—represented by rolling circles with faces—to a portal. Each character behaves differently. When you’re controlling Walter, his wife, Sydney, will move the opposite way. Switch control to Sydney, however, and Walter will mimic her movements. Baby Toby can’t jump, but he can roll around with reckless abandon, while teenage son Billy can double-jump, and grandpa’s delirium allows him to float. Each level explores a specific rapport or event, such as bringing everyone together for dinner, or the brothers helping each other reach the goal without their parents’ aid. The piano piece playing in the background adds a nostalgic flavor, while the characters’ cute monosyllabic utterances paint a vivid portrait of the family.
Cuboy: Back To The Cubeture—Era 2: For this long-awaited sequel, Cuboy journeys back to the Classical era (“Cubathens,” to be specific) in his quest to recover a cardboard time machine from an unpleasant cat. As the creators openly admit, Cubeture 2 isn’t terribly hard, but the game’s merely average craftiness is secondary to its wit.
Chuck The Sheep: At first, the game looks straightforward—you control Chuck as he launches himself to freedom, dodging mines and wayward birds—but plane upgrades and achievements change the dynamic entirely. Upgrades are fashioned out of collectible materials like water, oil, and iron. Chuck can get water by catching floating droplets, but to gather wood or oil, he has to crash his plane into trees and silos on the ground. Crashing damages the ship, so the trick is figuring out where and when to gather certain materials—likewise for pursuing achievements, some of which directly contradict others.
Memohuntress: You play as a young runaway trying to earn the money to return home by finding people’s lost items. The poignant, well-acted story takes you through gorgeous, lively scenes filled with bizarre characters and creatures. Hints are available as often as you want them, so the later levels’ difficulty doesn't need to get in the way of enjoying the story.
posted by Rhaomi (20 comments total) 157 users marked this as a favorite
I don't know how Endeavor did not make this list. Probably my favorite flash game of all time (though there is a place in my heart for Caravaneer 2 as well). Here's a synopsis from the creator:
Endeavor is a game about a dwarf trying to uncover an ancient secret. Or maybe it's about exploring, climbing, and swimming. Or perhaps it's about collecting powerups and treasure. Or possibly it's just about killing things.
With multiple endings, quests, interactive npcs and ambient critters, it's my most involving game yet! It features many original musical tracks, several upgrades, and an engaging climbing and endurance scheme.
posted by onalark at 9:45 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thank you for putting together such a cool list. Will definitely try some of these games.
posted by meadowlark lime at 9:58 AM on October 24, 2012

Canabalt is three years old? Jesus.
posted by griphus at 9:58 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

(Also: killer post, yet again, Rhaomi.)
posted by griphus at 9:59 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

It's... it's like you're trying to get me fired.
posted by yellowbinder at 10:02 AM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

It's going to take me months to read this post.. and by read I mean.. play!

Thanks Rhaomi! Brilliant work! I'll let my project manager know that we might not be on good terms the next few months :D
posted by channey at 10:05 AM on October 24, 2012

ATTENTION Rhaomi and Blasdelb: please be advised that there is no best post contest this month.
posted by Midnight Rambler at 10:13 AM on October 24, 2012 [3 favorites]

This is just an exhibition match to prove Rhaomi hasn't gone soft in the off-season.
posted by griphus at 10:15 AM on October 24, 2012

Great post. Two questions though ...
1. Let's say I only have time to play three of these games and don't want to just randomly choose them. What would you suggest?
2. Let's say I want to show three to my six year old boy. What would you suggest?

posted by TheShadowKnows at 10:23 AM on October 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

Why did Sawbuck Gamer stop running?
posted by Nomyte at 10:38 AM on October 24, 2012

Just played through Sushi Cat again. For like the 10th time at this point. Because it's so fun.
posted by deezil at 11:03 AM on October 24, 2012

Oh, so Gameological Society is where the AV Club game reviews went. How did I not know that?
posted by octothorpe at 11:33 AM on October 24, 2012

posted by Theta States at 11:35 AM on October 24, 2012 [5 favorites]

Incidentally, Frogatto has a killer level editor inspired by Bret Victor's talks (previously).
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 11:41 AM on October 24, 2012

Here's the official Kingdom Rush page. The one linked says fan page, but maybe they're just interested in the traffic.
posted by kewlito at 8:56 AM on October 25, 2012

This post is not a rabbit hole I can likely ever afford to go down, but I just wanted to stop by to not that I really admire the clever use of blockquote to visually seperate the games. It works super well.
posted by Blasdelb at 12:02 AM on October 26, 2012 [2 favorites]

1. Let's say I only have time to play three of these games and don't want to just randomly choose them. What would you suggest?

I've only played a fraction, but I'd recommend checking out Canabalt (for the addictive replayability), Small Worlds (for the serene exploration), and Fault Line (for the brain-bending puzzles).

2. Let's say I want to show three to my six year old boy. What would you suggest?

Canabalt and Small Worlds (again) have simple enough control schemes that a six year old could probably grasp them. Apart from those: Wonderputt, the cartoonishly charming RunMan, and Bla Bla, which is more free-form art than game.

This post is not a rabbit hole I can likely ever afford to go down, but I just wanted to stop by to not that I really admire the clever use of blockquote to visually seperate the games. It works super well.

Thanks! It was definitely way too wall-of-text at first.
posted by Rhaomi at 12:37 AM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

I found out about this game Reprisal from Kotaku a while back. It's a throwback to Populous, a great, addictive God like game. You control followers and have them do your bidding as well as terraform the land to allow them to grow, go to other lands, bridge land, etc. Really addictive and an awesome game for this year.

posted by packfan88c at 9:21 AM on October 26, 2012

Let's say I want to show three to my six year old boy. What would you suggest?

When my young'un is six, we'll hop on over to Orisinal.
posted by a snickering nuthatch at 6:29 PM on October 26, 2012 [1 favorite]

Wonder Putt is just amazing.

And Kingdom Rush is my favourite tower defense game out there. WANT MORE PLEASE.
posted by Theta States at 8:15 PM on October 26, 2012

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