Lots of competition in this category, but the strangest thing about E3 is watching hundreds of people stand in line for hours to play a Nintendo game that they’ll almost certainly buy when it comes out in a few months.
This behavior would be strange even if I didn’t have a thing about lines and even if there weren’t 100 other games on the show floor anyone can just walk up and play. A lot of those games are the work of small and independent developers, often small teams or individuals who’ve spent years trying to get to the point where they can set up a kiosk or a folding table on the show floor.
So this year, I tried to walk up and play as many of those games as I could. Over about 14 hours inside the L.A. Convention Center — several of those spent at the IndieCade booth — and another three at the Wednesday night Media Indie Exchange showcase, I managed almost 30. None of them I’d heard of more than two weeks ago. Here are six that made an impression.
A pixel-art Metroidvania where you play as a barbarian who has a glowing bat familiar named Pip. I can’t say I had great expectations when I picked up the controller, but this game draws you in immediately with its clever dialogue and exploration mechanics. You hurl rocks and little red berries at precise angles — the rocks to reach switches, the berries so Pip can chase after them and activate crystals that light up for a short time, acting as sort of temporary switches. After a few rooms of simple puzzles to familiarize you with the controls, things get tricky pretty fast. A lovely little game that evokes everything from Cave Story to Castlevania to The Lost Vikings.
Developer: Unspeakable Pixels
Release date: early 2020
BITE THE BULLET
I don’t know what to say about this game, really, other than playing it results in the same type of sensory overload as walking into a casino. It takes all the weirdest stuff from the Metal Slug games — eating too much food and getting fat, turning into a zombie — and triple-distills them into purest run-and-gun ether. But it’s also a brawler. But it’s also a Metroidvania. But it’s also a rougelite. And there’s crafting and weapon upgrading and a skill tree that advances based on the types of foods you eat. It’s probably easier to say what genres this game is not (real-time strategy? Farming sim? I can’t say for sure; I only played the first level). There’s a bazooka that fires hamsters. At the end of each stage, you barf onto a scale for points. I’ve mentioned exactly none of the 10 oddest things about this game.
Developer: Mega Cat Studios
Release date: first quarter of 2020
An overhead brawler where you can use pretty much any object — from a carrot to a wagon wheel — to bludgeon, slash, crush, etc., your enemies. The game looks cool as hell — the art has a bit of a Samurai Jack vibe — and the gameplay is intensely addictive. Each “level” contains a number of enemies and a ton of strewn-about objects that you can use to kill them as quickly and efficiently as possible. I’m almost looking forward to seeing what speed runners do with this game as much as I am to playing it. One more thing: This game, more than any other I played, made me think about how creating a good game demo requires some different muscles than creating a good game. The Bloodroots demo was its own little self-contained narrative — it even featured a twist! Also, no one had to explain anything to me — “Now go here,” “You gotta press this” — I just picked up the controller, and five or so minutes later I want to buy a game.
Developer: Paper Cult
Release date: summer 2019
Last year’s most pleasant surprise was Concrete Genie, a charming game where you sneak around a drab seaside town and paint murals that come to life. The whole time I was playing I was either laughing or making the face Charles Dutton makes at the end of Rudy. This game made me feel that same kind of, “Damn if this isn’t just the most delightful thing!” It’s a dungeon crawler where your weapons transform into people (some male, some female, some nonbinary), and you take them on dates to power them up (one weapon turns into a cat, for those who proudly own a well-worn copy of Microwave Cooking for One). You can flirt with them via text while getting encouraging messages from your mom I mean come on. The art is gorgeous, the dungeon crawling is challenging and rewarding, the music is Celeste-level catchy and the game description encourages players to “plunder the dunj” — I mean, come on!
Developer: Kitfox Games
Release date: TBA
First things first: The developers brought a couch. Why doesn’t everyone bring a couch? Every other game on this list I either played standing up or perched on the edge of a $10 IKEA chair. But as inviting as that couch looked, it was the game that made me stop in my tracks. Is it possible to cram literally every color visible to the human eye onto one screen? Is it possible to stuff so many sprites into the frame that you draw backgrounds “just in case”? Yes and yes, evidently. Earth Night is a procedurally generated 2D auto-runner where each level you sprint up a dragon’s back toward its head then stab it in the brain while popping balloons and bouncing off things and dodging other things and while paying it you kind of get the sense everything looks spectacular but there’s no time to verify it. Fun to play, fun to watch (at which point you can verify it), can’t wait.
Release date: summer 2019
Shoot ’em-ups seemed to be in short supply this year. I say this based mainly on the fact that I will play any schmup I see, and I didn’t even technically “see” this one. Instead I was invited to demo it on developer Jim Dirschberger’s laptop. And, well, I mean, just look at it! You play as a flying hand that shoots bullets from its middle finger and can also punch through walls and grab enemies and turn their guns on other enemies. The game is hand-animated by Dirschberger, who co-created the Nickelodeon series Sanjay and Craig, and features big-time voice actors like Eric Bauza and John DiMaggio plus a soundtrack featuring Ty Segall and John Maus. Look at it!
Developer: Wide Right Interactive
Release date: 2019