Mario and Zelda may be the superstars in Nintendo’s lineup of most popular characters, but there are several smaller indie games that deserve your attention. Usually made by passionate teams that don’t have the backing of wealthy AAA publishers, these games can be amazingly well-crafted when done right.
With the Christmas holidays just around the corner, here are five indie games you should put on your wish list today.
Gris: Every scene is worth a screenshot
In Gris, you play as a girl who sees her world fall apart. She’s left alone and aphonic in a bleak landscape devoid of colour.
Your character is defeated and depressed at the start. Eventually, a process of mourning leads to growth - which seeps into the game as new swatches of colour. The game tells a captivating story of pain and loss in the wake of a personal tragedy. There’s no narration, allowing the player to fill the void with their own story line.
It may be impossible to die in Gris but it still has tense moments, especially once you’re introduced to the story’s antagonist. The different stages create varied mechanics that often build off each other, like soaring upward with help from some birds. The game is similar in this way to the puzzles found in the iOS game Monument Valley.
The more you progress through the game, the more colours are introduced. The skyline and clouds bleed splotches of red when you reach the end of the first stage. In the second act, green swatches blend with red to fill a forest of flora and fauna. Every colour introduces some new terrain where you’re forced to buffet sandstorms or swim through the inky depths of a deep ocean.
The game is incredibly linear at first, almost to a fault. At times, it can feel as if you’re walking through an art gallery rather than playing a game.
The main character in Gris almost floats through the ruins of an old world as the camera pans back to show just exactly the scale of what’s around you. Toward the end, you find yourself sliding down a floating staircase in a city among the stars. The game knows it looks good. You’ll want to see these sequences on the biggest screen available, so, you may want to keep your Switch docked to your television.
Developed by Nomada Studio, Gris is one of the shorter games on this list, with roughly three hours of gameplay.
Untitled Goose Game: More than a meme
This is a video game where you flap, honk and generally introduce chaos in an otherwise peaceful town. That’s it. That’s the game.
The game may already be on your radar for the Switch, considering it became some form of a meme when it released earlier in the fall.
In the game, you must complete a list of objectives by often tricking the townspeople into doing your bidding. You are a twisted puppet-master with wings.
Putting a rake in a lake is an actual objective. You’ll also set up a picnic or scare a small boy until he hides in a telephone booth. The goose can do all this by honking and stealing whatever it can get its beak around.
At its core, it’s a puzzle game and the simple joy is in figuring out how to get from “Point A” to “Point B.” One item on the list requires you force the boy to wear a different pair of glasses. You have to figure out what levers to pull to force that outcome.
There are no real stakes in the Untitled Goose Game. Get caught red-handed and some piano music will orchestrate your dash to escape until you ultimately have to drop whatever you were attempting to lift. The goose does not run faster than a human in this game. Diversions and stealth are your only cover.
It will take around three to four hours to complete your list of tasks (maybe more if you dawdle).
Cuphead: An addicting but difficult homage to 1930s cartoons
Cuphead: Don’t Deal With The Devil tells the story of two brothers, Cuphead and Mugman. The two did, in fact, make a deal with the devil after losing a high-stakes casino bet. To pay off their debt, they must travel across Inkwell Isles to collect contracts from other debtors.
The game lures you in with its hand-drawn animation and then smacks you over the head with gruelling boss fights. It’s the classic bait-and-switch - like the one from the cartoons - and you end up playing fights over and over again.
Why torture yourself? For starters, the animation is truly worth the price of admission. Every frame of each character is hand-drawn. Cuphead’s creators have said they were inspired by 1930s cartoons from Disney and Fleischer Studios. The game seemingly comes straight out of a time capsule with its big band music and crackling film quality.
Cuphead has 28 boss fights with some platforming levels spread out in between. You can play any level solo or with a friend. The developers have said they wanted the game to be “tough but fair” like a classic arcade game. Winning against a boss requires near perfect gameplay and, after dying so many times you’ve lost count, a victory truly feels like an accomplishment.
There are a few things coming soon for the franchise. The developers are preparing a DLC, Cuphead: The Delicious Last Course, expected to come out next year. The game also has its own Netflix show in the works but there’s no set release date.
Celeste: A classic platformer with a deep, thoughtful story
Celeste is a game about a woman with an anxiety disorder who attempts to climb a mountain while struggling with her own self-contempt.
Madeline, the main protagonist, sees climbing Celeste Mountain as a promise to herself that she needs to see through. She meets others along her journey, including an embodiment of her own anxiety. Throughout Celeste, Madeline treats her anxiety as something to evade, control and even conquer. By the end, the game tells a complex story about living with one’s own demons.
Celeste is not just a good story, it’s a wonderful platformer. To climb to the peak, Madeline can run, jump, climb and dash. Those are the only controls, and the developer, Matt Makes Games, builds around these components with hundreds of platform levels across eight chapters.
You feel in complete control of Madeline as you traverse different obstacles. The mistakes you make are your own. Each room is a puzzle, a combination of jumps and climbs to reach the other side. Once you’re off the ground, it’s a tense dash to pull off the right combination of moves all in perfect sequence. For how challenging it can be at points, the game is also incredibly forgiving. You’ll immediately reset after a mistake. The game encourages repetition, trying and retrying maneuvers until you’re safely across.
Come for a modern-version of a classic platformer, stay for a compelling story about dealing with one’s anxiety. Celeste will take 10 to 12 hours to beat
Katana ZERO: Perfect action-movie choreography in playable form
Katana ZERO follows a time-bending contract killer tasked with taking out targets in a criminal underworld.
At the start, you find your character addicted to a drug only his employer supplies. The “medicine” keeps him sane but it also provides abilities to slow down time; a useful tool when you’re surrounded by enemies.
The title earns its M rating because of the lethal force players can unleash using their katana, making this game - by far - the most violent on the list.
The neo-noir story leaves the character piecing together his backstory in regular therapy sessions also provided by his employer. Katana ZERO has a creative way for players to choose between dialogue options, penalising you if you rush through. Acting cooperatively in therapy sessions will help reveal more about your character’s past. You’re faced with these decisions in almost every conversation on screen. You’ll have to decide how to act in light of all the deplorable behaviour around you.
The dark 80s aesthetic developed by Askiisoft fits both function and design. When you slow down time or dash to avoid a flurry of gunfire, you leave behind a Technicolor silhouette of the assassin. The time distortion creates a VHS-inspired slurry of special effects. Slowing down time is often the only way to avoid gunfire and there’s no health bar; one hit is all it takes to reset a level.
Katana ZERO is a game that requires perfection and leaves players creating these nearly cinematic sequences, dancing through portions of the game. The game will take anywhere between four to six hours to beat.