Volgarr the Viking: 2013 Game of the Year
Oniken: 2012 Game of the Year
Check out our Best of 2013 awards show, where we discuss all of
the best 2D video games of 2013 and give out meaningful awards!

Braid

A game by Jonathan Blow for PC, Mac, Linux, PS3, and Xbox 360, originally released in 2008.
To discuss Braid is to discuss the very rise of indie game development and the resurgence of 2D gaming. Prior to its release in 2008, game distribution was very much a gatekeeper-driven system, with major publishers dictating which products would eventually end up in the retail space. Indie developers who wanted to get their games into players’ hands could do so via numerous Flash portals or via their own websites – often for free – but they didn’t have many dedicated platforms from which to sell their games and make a living.


However, with the advent of digital distribution services like the App Store, Steam, and Xbox Live Arcade, having space on a store shelf was no longer a prerequisite for selling a game. These new services gave indie developers the ability to sell games across a variety of platforms without the risks involved in manufacturing, and often without the need of a publisher.

Closure

A game by Eyebrow Interactive for PC, Mac, Linux, and PS3, originally released in 2012.
Closure is a puzzle platformer about light and darkness. However, the light does more than merely reveal your surroundings; it affects what exists in the world and what does not. Each level in Closure is built around the manipulation of light sources to reveal pathways that eventually lead to an exit door, but when the light is removed from a solid object, it disappears entirely, allowing the player character to pass right through it… and potentially fall to his death if he isn’t careful.


As the game begins, your character is revealed to be some sort of multi-legged creature with horns and a hollow face. This creature is able to pass through doorways that lead to different realms where it puts on masks to take on human form. After completing an introductory training area, three doorways become available, each leading to a different themed area.

Jet Gunner

A game by Sinclair Strange for PC, originally released in 2014.
Jet Gunner, also known as Jet Force, is a game inspired by 8-bit NES games, so much so that it even includes sprite flicker and some of the edge-of-the-screen oddities caused by the hardware restrictions of the day. In addition to run and gun shooters like Contra, the game is also heavily influenced by the design of Shatterhand with the ability to activate a number of helper robots that float above and behind the protagonist, each offering its own weapon type.

In the year 19XX, the major cities of the world have come under attack from the Master Brain that controls all of the robots, as it has apparently gone insane. Per genre conventions – and taking a note from Metroid – the Master Brain is actually a giant brain in a jar that acts as the game’s final boss. Also per conventions, you play the lone human soldier who is able to put a stop to the brain and its army of robots, and save the world in the process.

Gigantic Army

A game by Astro Port for PC and Linux, released in the US in 2014.
The mech-based action shooter genre is a small one, but it has had a number of standout titles over the years, including the likes of Target Earth and Cybernator (both part of the greater Assault Suits series), as well as Metal Warriors. These games feature large slow-moving mechs with multidirectional aiming and heavy firepower, slogging their way through an array of robots and other mechanized baddies. Gigantic Army is built upon this core design philosophy, and offers a few new touches of its own.


As is typical of the genre, the mech in Gigantic Army moves slowly and clanks around noisily as it walks. There are numerous small touches that are meant to lend scale to the otherwise small character sprite, including buildings and cars that are dwarfed by its size, a spray of spent shells as the mech fires, and large fiery explosions from every destroyed enemy. In the backgrounds of the outdoor environments, war rages on, with distant ships flying over a parallax-scrolling landscape and firing their weapons, offering additional depth to the scale of the campaign.

You Have to Win the Game

A game by Pirate Hearts and Minor Key Games for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2012.
You Have to Win the Game is a short metroidvania platformer made up of a series of interconnected single-screen environments with the room titles on the bottom of the screen, offering a basic structure similar to that of VVVVVV, but without the gravity-flipping elements.


One of the things that sets this game apart from VVVVVV or other games in the genre is its lack of a map, which requires that the player commit the layout of the complex game world to memory. However, the game can be played from start to finish in a single sitting (although you’ll have to work a bit harder if you’re going for 100% completion), allowing players to keep the layout fresh in their minds.

Super Win the Game

A game by Minor Key Games for PC, Mac, and Linux, originally released in 2014.
Super Win the Game is the sequel to the 2012 freeware title, You Have to Win the Game. While the original game hearkened back to the days of 1980’s computer games – complete with limited color CGA and EGA display modes – Super Win the Game offers up an NES-style aesthetic with an expanded color palette, a larger world, and a wider variety of themed locales. The game also features multidirectional scrolling rather than the interconnected single-screen rooms found in the original game.


Rather than presenting a single contiguous underground world, Super Win the Game offers individual towns and dungeons, with an overworld map to connect them all. Similar to the presentation in Zelda II, the world map is top-down with icons representing town and dungeon locations, and entering these areas reveals sidescrolling platforming environments.

Life of Pixel

A game by Super Icon for PC, Mac, and Playstation Mobile, originally released in 2013.
Life of Pixel is a fairly straightforward platformer, but more than that, it is a history lesson. The game features more than a dozen real-world game systems – most of them from the 8-bit era – with levels built around the basic aesthetics of the games on those systems, and some themed after specific games. The available systems include the Atari 2600, Commodore 64, Amiga, Apple II, Game Boy, NES, SNES, Master System, and Mega Drive/Genesis systems, and given that the developer is based in London, there several UK-based home computer systems in the mix as well.


The game begins with a gallery of 10 systems, with three additional systems that must be unlocked. Selecting a system gives the player a brief history of the device, including the year that the system was introduced, its hardware specifications, and any notable attributes that set it apart from other systems of the day. Notable details include the colors transferring to other objects in ZX Spectrum games, ZX81 graphics being limited to the system’s built-in character set, Mode 7 scaling and rotation on the SNES, and the fact that games for many old systems had to be loaded (slowly) from cassette tapes.


Generally, these hardware specifications play directly into the design of the levels, most notably the color limitations of each system. However, for a game that establishes itself as a historical look at the classic systems of old, there are a number of inaccuracies. For instance, the history of the C64 states that games came on audio cassette tapes that took several minutes to load. While it is true that cassettes were a means by which to play C64 games, the system also had a built-in cartridge slot and the ability to add on a 5.25” floppy drive, which is how most games were played on the system.

Fenix Rage

A game by Green Lava Studios for PC, PS4, and Xbox One, originally released in 2014.
Fenix Rage is a precision platformer that falls into the narrow range of titles considered “rage” platformers, such as Super Meat Boy. Games in this subgenre tend to offer the player fast and responsive controls that must be used with pinpoint accuracy and timing in order to survive an onslaught of enemies and obstacles with very little room for error. In these kinds of games, players die quickly and frequently, leading to frustration as players repeatedly fail to complete a set of challenges for which they have the requisite tools.


Increasing frustration levels are core to a rage game’s design, as they can lead players to make more mistakes and actually perform worse on future attempts, potentially leading them to “rage quit” and leave the game (often returning later to breeze through a tough challenge with a clear head). This rage-based design is supported by short levels, infinite lives, and instant respawns. Players are free to play and die as often as needed with no additional penalty, and no “game stuff” stands in the way of the experience, like wading through menus or sitting through loading screens before making another attempt.

Magicmaker

A game by Tasty Stewdios for PC, originally released in 2014.
Magicmaker stars an out-of-work wizard who is behind on his rent. To make ends meet, the wizard visits a magical job placement office, which casts a “career placement spell” and sets him up for a job as a security guard at the nearby Dörwall Community College, a wizarding school for the local Dörwallians. After surviving his aptitude test, the wizard assumes the responsibilities of protecting the school and taking on quests to defeat monsters and collect magical artifacts.


The game is a sidescrolling action adventure that sits squarely in the dungeon crawler category. Players enter one of five themed areas, clear the place of monsters, and collect materials along the way that can be used in the game’s extensive spell crafting system. With dozens of materials to find and millions of possible combinations, players are able to mold the wizard’s skills to their liking, experiment with new tactics, or customize the character to complete specific objectives.

Tiny Barbarian DX: Episode 2

A game by StarQuail Games for PC, originally released episodically in 2013-2014.
Tiny Barbarian DX Episode 2, Ruins of Xanadu, picks up where the first chapter left off, with the tiny barbarian and the rescued maiden lying in a cave near a roaring fire. Then, the bikini-clad woman wakes up to see the barbarian snoring away, and she goes over to try to wake him up. When he goes on sleeping, she kicks him in the gut and walks out of the cave. Your first action is to wake up the barbarian with a button press and then head out of the cave, which is situated in the side of a cliff.


The opening area is all about ascent, as you climb vines to make your way up the cliff face, and periodically enter caves to complete platforming challenges and move ever upward. Outside, a long fall usually means instant death as you drop off the bottom of the screen. Within the caves, however, you are more likely to land on solid ground and lose a bit of progress… and sometimes you can grab a horizontal vine on your way down, which lets you halt your descent and recover to your previous position.

Mighty Gunvolt

A game by Inti Creates for 3DS, originally released in 2014.
Mighty Gunvolt is an 8-bit style action game that was released alongside Azure Striker Gunvolt. The game stars three playable characters: Gunvolt from Azure Striker Gunvolt, Ekoro from Gal*Gun, and Beck from Mighty No. 9, all of which were developed in whole or in part by Inti Creates. At the time of the game’s release, Mighty No. 9 was still under development, so it also acted as an introduction to that upcoming title as well.


The connection to Mighty No. 9 is also notable due to the fact that it was under development in conjunction with Comcept, headed by Keiji Inafune, who was one of the creators of Mega Man. Mighty No. 9 shares a number of design similarities with the Mega Man series, and Beck’s appearance and abilities in Mighty Gunvolt are very reminiscent of those of the Blue Bomber in the Mega Man series.

Azure Striker Gunvolt

A game by Inti Creates for 3DS, originally released in 2014.
Azure Striker Gunvolt stars the titular Gunvolt who is on a mission to silence “The Muse” for an organization called Quill. The game begins with Gunvolt tied to a chair and being tortured by a guy with some sort of electrical whip… which wasn’t a grand idea, given Gunvolt’s electricity manipulation powers. Gunvolt was just waiting for the guy to soliloquize for a bit and give away the true location of The Muse, at which point he makes his escape and fights his way to her in the game’s first mission.


But when he meets her, Gunvolt realizes The Muse is just a young girl, named Joule, who is being used by an evil organization called the Sumeragi Group. Despite this, Quill orders that Gunvolt kill her, but he decides to rescue her instead, and leaves the Quill organization to set out on his own, taking freelance work while offering protection to Joule. Of course, intrigue abounds, and Gunvolt’s string of odd jobs eventually leads him back to the Sumeragi again.


Azure Striker Gunvolt’s developer, Inti Creates, is also the developer behind the bulk of the latter-day Mega Man games, including the Mega Man Zero series, Mega Man 9, Mega Man 10, Mega Man ZX, and Mega Man ZX Advent. There are a number of design similarities between this game and the ZX series in particular, including a blue-clad hero, the aesthetics of the game world, basic environmental navigation, and the use of the touch screen to activate special abilities. Despite these similarities, however, the gameplay in Azure Striker Gunvolt is quite different from the Mega Man series… and from shooters in general.

Rex Rocket

A game by Castle Pixel for PC, originally released in 2014.
Rex Rocket stars a former war hero and savior of humanity whose glory days have passed, and he now finds himself escorting a group of scientists as they travel across the galaxy in a starship called the S.S. Montana. In the year 28XX, scientists have bio-engineered a newly-discovered species called Terra Oozlings, and they plan to use them to terraform a distant planet and make it suitable for population by mankind. Terra Oozlings are unique in that they can mimic any life form, making them ideal for the task. But, when the crew enters their cryo-tubes for the long journey, something goes terribly wrong, and Rex finds himself fighting off Oozlings, former crew members who have been converted by the Oozlings, and a mad computer AI.


Players are able to choose the sex of Rex by selecting a captain named Rexford Rexington or Rexanna Rexington. At the start of the game, you awake in your quarters beside your trusty goldfish companion (who is destined for a hilarious end), surrounded by posters of yourself and medals hanging on the wall, reminders of your heroics from 10 years prior. You quickly find yourself needed, as repairs are required aboard the ship, offering up an excuse to explore the command deck and the surrounding area, and to familiarize yourself with the game’s controls.


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