With Thatgamecompany's Journey clocking up perfect scores on gaming sites around the world, it seemed only right to look at alternative download-only games worth your time and hard earned cash. Just to clarify, that's anything not available on store shelves so long as it’s an original game – that excludes the Wii's back catalogue, etc., so stop sharpening those knives over the lack of Mario 64 et al. Other than that it’s fair game, so if we missed something, tell us about it.
Format: PC/Mac (Steam)
Publisher: Mode 7
Mode 7’s top-down game of planning and strategy has been compared to all kinds of classics, from Counter-Strike and Laser Squad to the granddaddy of all tactical games that is chess. Set in a futuristic online world where factions vie for control of sectors, you’re presented with a squad of soldiers and pitted to plan their every move in a bid to destroy the opposing force. The gimmick is that as you draw up you next move the opposition is doing the exact same thing but – and here’s the real kicker – both teams move simultaneously so demonstrating exactly who has the superior stratagem; brilliant.
Format: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Classic style shoot-em-ups don’t come much more rewarding, or better presented, than Sine Mora, Grasshopper Inc.’s take on the ‘bullet hell’ genre. An unfathomable plot which depicts of rebels – who might have just stepped off the island of Dr. Moreau – rising up against a corrupt regime plays second fiddle to the action which will soon have players conducting thumb gymnastics. Central to gameplay is the notion of time which not only represents your remaining health – each shot suffered diminishing vital seconds – but can also be manipulated in Matrix-like style when the going inevitable gets tough. Imaginative, pulsating and satisfyingly tricky to master, a must for fans of the genre.
LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias
Format: Wii (WiiWare)
Publisher: Frontier Developments
The WiiWare section of the Wii’s online store has, on the whole, been woefully represented with only the odd title raising an eyebrow – Swords & Soldiers, World of Goo and LostWinds amongst them. The sequel to the latter however, is the best of the bunch, a beautifully animated side-scrolling, puzzling platformer which makes brilliant use of the seasons – the lay of the land changing depending on whether it’s winter or summer. That Winter of the Melodias features some of the most subtle yet brilliant motion controls – quickly shaking the wiimote to make a tornado for example – only adds to spectacle.
Format: PC (Steam)
Publisher: Alientrap Games Inc
I stumbled across Capsized when scouring the Steam Store updates and there’s just something about the way it looks that makes it stand out in a crowd. Once up and running those visuals are even better, a curious combination of the retro and cutting edge as its otherworldly vistas are brought vividly to life. The minimalist plot sees you taking the role of an anonymous survivor of a spacecraft crash who, having jettisoned to a nearby planet, sets out to look for a way off the bizarre and alien rock he finds himself on. Perfectly handled physics allow the wily astronaut to lasso rocks, boulders, etc. with his energy whip, make gravity assisted bounds to traverse chasms or else attempt to get the drop on the planet’s inspired but deadly fauna.
The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile
Format: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Ska Studios staffed by just two designers, lead developer James Silva and art ‘unicorn’ Michelle Juett, have made a few well received games in their time with the likes of I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MB1ES 1N IT!!!1 (2009), but it wasn’t until they won the 2007 Microsoft Dream-Build-Play game development contest with slasher The Dishwasher: Dead Samurai that their name was cemented well and truly on the gaming map. The sequel The Dishwasher: Vampire Smile continues along the same vane of large quantities of ultra violence but hones the combat system allowing for choreographed blood-letting perfectly balanced with free-running ninja stylings, all wrapped up in painstakingly animated clothing as Yuki takes her blood-spattered revenge.
Super Meat Boy
Format: Xbox 360 (XBLA), PC, Mac (Steam)
Publisher: Xbox Live Arcade, Windows, Mac OS X, Linux
Is it a bird? Is a plane? No, it’s a hunk of rotting meat bounding over your TV screen – eww. Super Meat Boy might split opinion for being a tad gross, not to mention as difficult as hell, but there’s no doubt it takes the standard platform formula and turns it up to eleven. Thankfully the game’s controls are so responsive that guiding SMB through any number of spikes and saws remains – just about – on the right said of fair; yes you’ll die (lots) but the frustration rarely gets so great that the payoff upon finally winning through isn’t worth the hassle.
Format: Xbox 360 (XBLA), PC (Steam)
Publisher: Team Meat
There are moments within Braids’ myriad time-based puzzles that provide real ‘ eureka!’ moments, as the tortuous route to a particularly bafflingly placed pick-up finally appears in your mind’s eye, as if by osmosis. The time shifting powers are hard to define, and much grater in scope than say the latter day’s Prince of Persia’s similar time manipulation, but it’s how these powers are used in ever more elaborate ways throughout the game’s length that is truly impressive – well that and the fact the graphics and gameplay combine in an emotive, emotional way – timeless (get it?).
Format: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
So good at ‘doing’ Metroid that it made the subsequent Wii title, Metroid: Other M, seem decidedly bereft of ideas and graphical finery by way of comparison. It tells the standard ‘ girlfriend captured, rescue girfriend’ story, but it’s in the way main character Jason Fleming is spoon fed enhancements that the title’s true genius shines through; that and the awesome backdrops you’ll play through in its almost-3D-but-not-quite side-on perspective – thanks Unreal Engine 3. That’s not to mention the bosses which never fall short of spectacular; roll on the inevitable sequel.
Format: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Isolation, separation, obligation, and many other kinds of ‘ ations’ are expolored in the heart-achingly poignant Limbo, the tale of a boy descending into well… limbo, in search of his sister. From the affecting use of greyscale to the very bleakness of the barren landscapes, it’s a tour de force of understatement while practical but inspired puzzles and platforming draw us in for all of its three precious hours of gameplay. If Darren Aronofsky made a game, Limbo surely wouldn’t be far from what he’d come up with; staggering.
And so, our summary of what’s best and brightest of the download-only market ends, perhaps inevitably, with Flower; Thatgamecompany’s petal blowing on the wind simulator that somehow defied all odds to become at once one of gaming’s brightest stars and went straight to the top of the list of all those who would hold up games as art. Its premise is simple, guide a petal through various glowing flowers, so gaining an ever increasing trail of petals. There’s no real challenge, no time limit, no end of level boss, just a stress free journey through meadows and eventually urban cities, as nature is restored to the environment all at the whimsy of the summer breeze.