The Top 20 Indie Games of the 2010s | Nintendo Wire

Independently developed games flourished during the 2010s to a degree never seen before. At the beginning of the decade, only a few titles — the Cave Stories, Castle Crashers and Super Meat Boys of the world — drew much attention, and it was difficult for titles that didn’t specifically appeal to nostalgic 8 and 16-bit games to garner an audience. Nintendo’s WiiWare service provided access to a few sterling titles like World of Goo, but by and large the Big N wasn’t seen as the greatest purveyor of indie games among the console manufacturers.

Ten years later, and so much has changed. Indie games of countless genres and innovations now populate every digital storefront, expressing a range of experiences from small, personal journeys to grand, majestic epics. No longer consigned to merely take from the games of the past, indie games are now the premier place to find innovative, rich, and heartfelt experiences. And while there have been countless numbers of those over the past ten years, some manage to stand out from the rest. These are our top 20 indie games of the 2010s.

 

Hollow Knight

Developed by: Team Cherry
Written by Ben Fruzzetti

 

A great game feels so expansive that you feel like it‘ll never end. A masterpiece is so great that you wish it never did. And Hollow Knight is, by all metrics, a masterpiece — taking the isolated, cryptic atmosphere that is the peanut butter to Metroidvania’s chocolate and crafting what might be the greatest entry in the genre’s storied history. In the ruined Hallownest, filled with creatures both adorable and abominable, you must navigate environments both delightful and decrepit as you unravel the secrets at play.

 

 

It’s a little tricky to explain what makes Hollow Knight so special, beyond the fact that it perfects everything a Metroidvania can and should be — with flawless combat, a perfect balance of cute and creepy, and dozens of hours of content that’s perfectly paced; it represents a pinnacle of style, mechanics, and inspiration. Plus the grubs are just so gosh danged cute.

 

Stardew Valley

Developed by: ConcernedApe
Written by: George Comatas

 

When you think about the scale of Stardew Valley as a whole — between the art and spritework, the music, the writing, the content and updates and patches — it’s hard to believe that it was all created by one person. But the passion of Eric Barone (better known by his developer name, ConcernedApe) is unparalleled and evident as soon as you boot up the game for the first time. The amount of polish and professionalism makes it no surprise that this game makes it on “Favorite Games of All Time” lists consistently, and its potentially endless gameplay makes it an invaluable game to own as something you can always go back to when you’re not sure what else to play.

 

 

It’s hard for any indie game to achieve the amount of instant recognition, popularity, and big-name endorsement that Stardew Valley has, let alone when it comes from a one-person team. But the accolades are a testament to its nature. Stardew Valley is a game that anyone can enjoy, and nearly everyone does. It’s a game that’s never really finished, always waiting for you to return when you want to. Even within the life-sim genre, it’s wholly unique and wildly successful at what it’s trying to accomplish. So successful, in fact, that even just hearing that opening theme still never fails to put a smile on my face.

In short, Stardew Valley is a treat to play — but I probably don’t need to tell you that at this point. More than likely, you’ve already played the game and had the pleasure of experiencing it for yourself. For that reason, you’re probably also in agreement that Stardew Valley is easily one of the best indie games of the past decade.

 

Untitled Goose Game

Developed by: House House
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

Who would have thought that the breakaway indie hit of 2019 would boil down to ‘you’re a goose, cause mayhem’? Untitled Goose Game wears its irreverence from the moment you look at its title, inviting you to throw any sense of morality and decency to the wind and take up the most self-centered mantle a creature can possess: by being the biggest bastard goose you can be. From swiping tools from a gardener, to trapping a poor boy in a phone booth, to doing things that are worthy of a war crimes tribunal, UGG (a fitting acronym) channels the pure joy of living without responsibility and just doing whatever the hell you want.

 

What makes this one truly special, however, is how it distills its main ideas down to such a perfect microcosm. Goose Game doesn’t have a rich narrative, or tight controls, or an extraordinary aesthetic — all it has is a concept and a feeling. And, much like the goose, it runs with them as fast and far as it can, honking all the way home. 

 

Shovel Knight

Developed by: Yacht Club Games
Written by: Ricky Berg

 

Lo, after several years, expansions, and even amiibo the grand saga of Shovel Knight came to a close in late 2019. Looking back at its initial Kickstarter success you’d be hard-pressed to find a time since 2013 when people weren’t talking about Yacht Club Games’ debut endeavor. That comes with good reason, as these are some of the finest 2D throwbacks around — while also digging up their own identity. 

 

The Blue Burrower’s crusade against the Order of No Quarter was one I played through multiple times within its original release window. With all the cameo appearances that have come since (including as an Assist Trophy in Super Smash Bros. Ultimate) and the more recent presence of King of Cards and Showdown, we’re sure to always have a soft spot for this champion of Shovelry.

 

GRIS

Developed by: Nomada Studio
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

I like a good-looking video game. And there may be no better looking video game in existence than GRIS, a rich, evocative journey through emotions and grief represented through a variety of hues and shades. Following the titular character as she restores all the colors that have been lost to her after a vague, ambiguous tragedy, you’ll experience countless gorgeous environments — ruby red deserts, mint green forests, and midnight blue skylines — as you progress.

 

While exceedingly simple in terms of mechanics, GRIS excels in communicating its artistry through its breathtaking visuals and score, which stand at apexes of their respective art forms. Other games ask you to piece puzzle pieces together or connect the dots in order to figure out a narrative — GRIS does something much bolder, by asking you to be absorbed in the emotions, and lost to the colors. 

 

Shantae & the Pirate’s Curse

Developed by: WayForward
Written by: Daniel Dell-Cornejo

 

Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse, the celebrated third entry in the now-decades-old platforming franchise, was my first game in the series. This hair-whipping buccaneering adventure saw half-genie Shantae for the first time without her iconic transformation powers, teaming up with longtime nemesis Risky Boots to take on the evil Pirate Master.

 

shantae and the pirates curse

 

For my entry point in the series, Pirate Curse left quite the impression on me with its clever writing, laugh-out-loud humor, engaging gameplay, outstanding soundtrack, and charming graphics. Since then, I’ve played the original Game Boy Color game, the DsiWare original Ricky’s Revenge, and the successor, Half-Genie Hero. None have compared to the fun I had with Pirate’s Curse, and I have a feeling WayForward will never quite top it. For any gamer looking to try out the Shantae series, I’d say Pirate’s Curse is a fantastic starting point that offers a high that’s so far been unmatched. 

 

Baba Is You

Developer: Hempuli
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

A good puzzle game makes you feel like a genius for figuring out the solution. A great one makes you feel like a giant idiot until you hit that point. And yet, Baba Is You is hardly frustrating or pompous — in fact, it’s one of the simplest, most relaxing times that can be had, due to its charming visuals and ambient soundtrack. 

 

 

With an extremely basic premise revolving around coding logic that gets pushed to astronomical and mind-bending levels, Baba Is You asks you to think outside the box and consider options that no straightforward-thinking brain would even dream of. And with hundreds of levels to get lost in, it’s no wonder that it’s perhaps the best puzzle game you can get on Switch.

 

Cuphead

Developer: MDHR Studio
Written by: Matthew Weidner

 

If a year ago you asked me to name a game I thought would never get ported to the Switch, the run ‘n gun antics of Cuphead would have made the top of my list. Fast forward just a few months and I couldn’t have been more wrong. With the brawl between Microsoft and Nintendo no longer brewing, some great games are now accessible to the Nintendo faithful, including Ori and the Blind Forest and, you guessed it, Cuphead.

 

 

Everything Cuphead does oozes polish and perfection. From its jazz-infused tunes and 1930s cartoon style to the tight controls and imaginative boss fights, the game’s an absolute joy to play from your first contract to the last. It’s an ode to animation and the golden age of arcade video games — one that won’t soon be forgotten.

 

The Missing: J.J. MacField and the Island of Memories

Developer: White Owls, Inc.
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

Usually when a game is described as “painful,” that’s a bad, bad sign. But when talking about The Missing — Swery65’s narrative puzzle-platformer about donuts and agony — it makes the entire experience worth it. You, as troubled college student J.J. MacField, travel to a mysterious island with your sweetheart Emily, only to have bizarre, nightmarish events coincide with your visit — culminating in J.J.’s seeming demise. Yet she pushes through the pain to regenerate, forming the core gameplay concept: having J.J. become mauled and hurt over and over again so she can soldier onward and find her girlfriend.

 

 

The Missing is the rare game that far outweighs the sum of its parts. The controls are a little clunky, the visuals are underwhelming, and solving puzzles can take some time. But its core themes of pain, loss, and overcoming are beautifully intertwined with the rare video game narrative that focuses on LGBT experiences, and unraveling the core of J.J.’s struggles is a revelation all its own. Not to mention the ending is maybe the most cathartic I’ve ever experienced. This game in particular flew under a lot of people’s radars, so I encourage you: please play it.

 

Bastion

Developer: Supergiant Games
Written by: Ricky Berg

 

Take a gorgeous visual style, add in plenty of customization and narrative nuance, shape it into a nostalgic isometric perspective, and coat it all in narration thick and sweet as wild honey. That’s Bastion — an experience that put Supergiant Games on the map and set a precedent for all their future titles. They’ve arguably managed to do so (Transistor very nearly had this spot, and it’s my own personal preference), but none have built themselves up like Bastion has.

 

 

Though initially more associated with the XBox Live Arcade, you can play Bastion on many platforms and usually on sale these days. The Switch is no exception, and though it does show its age a little more than others on this list (first released in 2011), its themes and vision still hold true.

 

Axiom Verge

Developer: Tom Happ Games
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

“Tribute” indie games are a dime a dozen, and are progressively harder to pick out from the pack. But there’s the rare instance where a game directly inspired by a classic not only manages to be a worthy successor — it exists on the same level. Axiom Verge wears its Metroid love on its sleeve, down to the boxy map and writhing alien environments, but it does much more than just emulate the run-and-gun escapades of Samus Aran, forming a (purposefully) glitchy, eldritch experience that came at a time where The Hunter’s presence was sorely wanted.

 

 

Trace’s adventure through incongruous and byzantine labyrinths has all the hallmarks of a great: fun power-ups, hidden secrets, and endless environments to get lost in. There’s no secret sauce or One Neat Trick here that lands Axiom Verge on this list: just great design, a hefty amount of content, and one man’s passion for the genre that carries through the whole product. 

 

Cadence of Hyrule

Developer: Brace Yourself Games
Written by: Matthew Weidner

 

The Link’s Awakening remake wasn’t the only gift the Golden Goddesses bestowed upon us in 2019. Cadence of Hyrule is a loving collaboration between Nintendo and indie studio Brace Yourself Games — developers of the crazy addictive rhythm roguelike, Crypt of the Necrodancer. In it, Link and Zelda bop to the beat of remixed music from throughout the legendary series, all the while beating Bokoblins and smiting Stalfos.

 

 

Beyond its masterfully crafted soundtrack, the game’s great at seamlessly blending gameplay mechanics from both series, namely Crypt’s rhythm-based movement with Zelda’s penchant for puzzle-solving and dungeon crawling. The game’s success also opened the speculative floodgates for future Nintendo collaborations. Could you imagine a Metroid game made by Team Cherry (Hollow Knight)? Or how about an F-Zero reboot built by Shin’en Multimedia (Fast RMX)? The possibilities are endless!

 

Night in the Woods

Developer: Infinite Fall
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

If there’s one area where I feel that indie games have well and truly triumphed over AAA, it’s narrative. And there are few finer examples of that than Night in the Woods, a game that tackles millennial life, dead-end prospects, and depression with all the finesse — and honesty — that such subjects deserve. Mae Borowski’s return to her hometown after dropping out of college isn’t the start of a grand journey or a rise from disgrace — it’s the beginning of a long, awkward, slovenly exploration of living in late-stage-capitalist America.

 

 

With commentary on a whole host of issues ranging from gentrification to isolation, and characters who are among the most real and tactile ever portrayed in a video game, Night in the Woods is no escapist trip away from real world struggles: it’s one of the most authentic games ever made, wrapped up with one of the hardest ‘life goes on’ endings that the medium might ever see.

 

Overcooked! 2

Developer: Team17 & Ghost Town Games
Written by: Logan Plant

 

The original Overcooked was a co-op smash hit packed with creative kitchens sure to make your palms sweat. Like many great sequels, Overcooked 2 took the baton and ran with it, and it’s now one of the best multiplayer experiences on Switch. Nearly every world presents a new ingenious mechanic for you and your fellow chefs to work with. From conveyor belts to circus cannons, the ideas seem nearly endless in Overcooked 2. And let me say this: the fun really begins when you have to start dealing with multiple mechanics at one time. Plus, Team17 and Ghost Town Games have updated Overcooked 2 with a number of content packs that make the game worth returning to. 

 

 

Return of the Obra Dinn

Developer: Lucas Pope
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

Lucas Pope made an impression with his examination of authoritarian civil servitude with Papers, Please; but it was in Return of the Obra Dinn that we see his greatness as a game designer truly flourish. An elaborate whodunnit murder mystery featuring dozens of victims — all communicated via snapshots of their time of death — aboard a ship seemingly cursed to fall to nothingness, all portrayed in an incredibly unique visual style.

 

 

Like in his prior work, Pope shows a fine eye for making the player care about the individual lives which they learn about, making sure to apply a name, a face, and small character traits to each of the 60 ship passengers encountered. And it’s those little bits of empathy, in conjunction with the wild ride of figuring out what happened, that makes this a voyage worth setting forth on.

 

Golf Story

Developer: Sidebar Games
Written by: Logan Plant

 

Golf Story was one of the first indie hits on Switch, and it remains one of my favorite games on the platform to this day. I went in expecting a charming ode to the Mario golf RPGs of old — I got that and so much more. As the name would suggest, Golf Story focuses just as much on its character, heart, and narrative alongside the driving, chipping, and putting.

 

 

In addition to solid, addicting golf gameplay on a variety of creative courses, Golf Story packs a story worth following with a number of quirky, memorable characters. My favorite moments of Golf Story are actually when the game takes a break from golf to make you solve a murder mystery, or send you on a quest to defeat a magical wizard with — you guessed it — golf balls. These wacky moments add variety, and the creativity on display here makes me incredibly excited for Sports Story, the upcoming sequel which is due later in 2020.

 

Oxenfree

Developer: Night School Studio
Written by: Jaxson Tapp

 

There are few games from the past decade that have felt as emotional and real to me as Oxenfree. It’s an otherworldly exploration game driven by a close-to-home story and characters that you can imagine knowing in real life. Alex and her friends feel real, with actual problems giving their decisions and interactions weight. It’s more than just a game about kids and ghosts on an empty island; it’s a complex and interwoven narrative about loss, grief, acceptance and hope.

 

Playing through Oxenfree the first time touched my heart and imagination in all the right ways, and thanks to things like a subtly different New Game+ in addition to branching dialogue options, that becomes more and more true each time I play it.

 

Skullgirls 2nd Encore

Developer: Reverge Labs and Lab Zero
Written by: Ricky Berg

 

Sometimes when you first lay eyes on a game, you just know it’s going to be special to you. For me that was Skullgirls, the indie darling dark deco fighter by Lab Zero Games. Plenty of setbacks ranging from technical, to financial, to bureaucratic haven’t kept this game down; and after an outpouring of crowdfunded support, it got that 2nd Encore it always deserved.

 

 

Full of thought out fighting gameplay, a unique cast both thematically and mechanically, some of the finest animation in the genre, and much more — Skullgirls routinely gives the impression that it was a labor of love. While the homages will ring most true for genre veterans, it also welcomes all comers with its deluge of references to all corners of pop culture and a great set of tutorials. Though the Switch version wouldn’t be my first recommendation as a platform, Skullgirls itself always comes recommended.

 

Undertale

Developer: Toby Fox
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

If we’re talking about the most successful indie game of the decade… well, uh, Minecraft isn’t on this list (if that even counts at this point). But for a humble little $10 game, boy has Undertale caused ripples — and while the most popular games are often not the best, this is absolutely an exception to the rule. Toby Fox’s empathetic RPG that takes the heartfelt goofiness of a Mother game and adds its own earnest message of pacifism will go down in history as one of the most influential and talked about indie games of all-time. And it will deserve every inch of that praise.

 

 

It’s almost difficult to look back on Undertale after its success with clear eyes, but playing the game speaks for itself: the dialogue is charming, the characters are lovable, the message is sincere (and nuanced), the enemies are cutesy, and the soundtrack is FULL OF BANGERS. And for it to become big enough that Sans and Megalovania are in Smash Bros. is a testament to just how much it’s resonated. It’s all enough to fill any indie creator with determination.

 

Celeste

Developer: Extremely OK Games
Written by: Ben Fruzzetti

 

How do you make the best platformer ever made? I have no idea, but I’d start by asking Matt Thorson, since they’re the one who’s done it. 

Celeste is simply magnificent on nearly every conceivable level. The mechanics are tight and fluid. The graphics are colorful and evocative. Lena Raine’s soundtrack is ambient and emotional. The narrative is heartfelt and seamless. The difficulty is tight and accessible. No part is out of place. From a design standpoint, it’s about as flawless as flawless can be.

 

 

It would be one thing for the game to simply be the most well-constructed and fun platformer in existence, but it has to top itself by also having a narrative that tackles mental illness with all the grace and dignity the subject warrants, utilizing the medium of video games for the greater good. In a genre long dominated by the likes of Mario and his cohorts, Celeste set a new benchmark that few — if any — can match up to. 

There are many wonderful games that came out this decade that didn’t make this list, and we only wish we could have included all of them. What were your favorite indies of the decade? Let us know in the comments.

 

Rating: 4
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Written by Ben Fruzzetti

Gamer, writer and devourer of pasta. Whenever not letting his daydreams run out of control, he can be found writing for Nintendo Wire, playing old JRPGs, or reading sci-fi and fantasy novels and comics.

Ben Fruzzetti

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  1. XavierMike says:

    This is a pretty good list. I was disappointed not to see Guacamelee!, but it would be tough pointing out a game that shouldn’t be there.

    Reply →
  2. Jeffsys says:

    Skullgirls in Smash!!!!!?
    But No Freedom Planet, Shovel Knight, Touhou Project, Doki Doki Literature Club, A Hat in Time, Yooka Laykee, Ori and the Wisp and Cave Story

    Rating: 4
    Reply →