Independent Game of the Year (Posted Dec 30, 2003)

Independent Game of the Year!!!

The whole enchilada.  What was the best independent video game this year?  The Reviewers at Game Tunnel have been working through over 100 games this year to come up with the answer to this question.   We narrowed the results down to 18 finalists and then each reviewer ordered the finalists from 1-18.  Only the top 10 games are listed below.  Each of the games below is more than worth your time, and several have been winners in other categories in the end of the year awards this year.  You'll see the final score that each game received just after the write-up on the game.  In addition, I've shown where each of the 4 judges 1st-Place votes went, as I think it helps show just how varied/similar the judges voting was.

Alright, we've got all the meaningless out of the way!!!  Let the fun begin, with the 10th best Independent game this year.

 

10th Place

Demonstar: SM2 [by Mountain King]

Price: $24.95

Our Review

Windows System Requirements:
DirectX 5, 200mhz cpu, 32MB Ram, Win95,98,98SE,ME,2K,XP

Mountain King has become known over the years for creating some of the best Independent games on the market.  This year was no different as two similar though different games came out.  The first was Demonstar:  Secret Missions part 1, and the second was Demonstar:  Seceret Missions Part 2.  Not a lot changed between the two games, which was a good thing.  The same great graphics and 2-player simultaneous game play exists in both games. 

Demonstar hails back to the days of Raiden, and other classic shooters and proves that a 2D engine can still deliver fantastic results when properly used.  If you haven't played this game, you definitely need to give it a run.  This is a game that was built for two people to play it, just like Demonstar: SM1 was.  The game has great graphics and will certainly please those looking for a cool top-scrolling shooter.

The main thing that this game offers over Demonstar: SM1, is in my opinion, better, more interesting looking levels, and a much better sound track. (which is saying a lot, as the first soundtrack wasn't bad).  A great non-stop action game for those looking for a fun way to spend an afternoon with a friend.

Score:  10.0

9th Place

Ultra Assault [by Small Rockets]

Price: $19.99

Our Review

System Requirements: Pentium 2 400+, 64MB Ram, 120MB Hard Drive Space, Good Video Card

Small Rockets, who created Ultra Assault barely fits into the category of an Independent Developer.  Those who give their website a look will see that there are many high quality titles available from them.  In fact, you are very likely to have seen several of the titles, including Jetboats Superchamps & Red Ace Squadron available through the "value-priced" software bin at your local computer shop, and to top that off, they have a game just about to be released for the Game Boy Advance through Activision.

Ultra Assault shows again why Small Rockets are considered to be a professional developer.  This game is flawless in execution and provides many frills in addition to high quality production values that you will find in games by Small Rockets.  Ultra Assault is the pseudo sequel to the fantastic shooter Star Monkey.  In addition to sporting a much better name than that game, it has more of the none-stop action that made Star Monkey so much fun to play in addition to the beautiful lighting effects that were the highlight of its predecessor. 

If you are good enough to get through to the last level, you are rewarded with a classic final level for a shooter, steeped in graphics running on multiple levels that make you want to put down your joystick and just watch, but of course it is the last level, and any such lapse would lead to your demise in a little less that 1 second.  If you are a shooter fan, then this game is an absolute must.

Score:  9.0

8th Place

Orbz [by 21-6 Productions published by GarageGames]

Price: $19.95

Our Review

Windows System Requirements (also available for Mac & Linux):
Windows, Pentium II® 400 mhz, 64 MB RAM, OpenGL or DirectX® Compatible Video Card, DirectX® compatible Soundcard

Orbz was one of the most nominated games at the beginning of the awards, but judges opinions being what they are, it ended up winning just one category, the Best Networked Multiplayer Game of the Year.

Still, before you start to count Orbz out at all for scoring 8th, there are several things to consider.  The first and foremost is that this is simply one of the most fun games that you will play this year.  The Best Networked Multiplayer category is nothing to be scoffed at.  Orbz consistently delivers in one of the most important categories:  fun!

With colorful graphics that are a joy to see, and game play that is very easy to pick-up, but very difficult to master, Orbz has enough eye-candy to keep players coming back to play again and enough game play interest to keep you playing until you have the game mastered.

The sound is also spectacular with solid sound-tracks and a series of pre-recorded taunts that are just hilarious to hear in game.  Playing online is competitive and is even better with people you know. (For some reason, taunting the computer just isn't as fun as taunting your friends.)

Though shooting an orb at a star doesn't sound too complex, but mix in the other features including power-ups, points, rankings, medals, and different courses that get unlocked, not to mention the networking mode, and this game is a real winner!

Score:  8.25 (1 First Place Vote)

7th Place

Zen Puzzle Garden [by Lexaloffle]

Price: $19.95

Our Review

System Requirements: 133MHz CPU, 16Megs RAM, Win95 or later, DirectX 3

In what just shows how this whole process can be a little quirky, Zen Puzzle Garden actually was 2nd best in its own category, but due to the closeness of that vote, and the whole spectrum considered with the overall award it ended up 7th overall, above the winner of the Puzzle category.  (which actually finished 11th overall for the Trivia buffs out there)

 If there is one category of gaming that Independent gaming does much more than mainstream gaming, it is puzzle games, and Zen Puzzle Garden is another example of a great game that presents an original thought in a puzzle game.

Instead of moving bricks, in this game you move the sand.  Your character simply enters the sand where you say, and he will keep walking in that same direction until he either runs into an object in the sand, or runs into a spot where he has already been through the sand.  In both places cases, you need to turn and find a way to keep moving to one of the 4 sides of the sand rectangle. 

As the character moves through the sand he takes a rake and rakes through the sand creating sand designs.  The point of the game is to rake through all the sand and end up outside the rectangle.  This game is fairly calming, as a "Zen" game ought to be.  It also is fun to play the earlier levels again and again just to see the patterns in the sand that you can create. 

For those looking for a Puzzle game that offers something a bit different than the standard affair, or for those who just want a relaxing puzzle game, Zen fits the bill.

Score:  8.0

6th Place

3D Airstrike: Operation W.A.T. [by Divogames]

Price: $17.95

Our Review

Windows System Requirements:
Win 95/98/ME/NT4/2000/XP, CPU 333MHz, RAM 64Mb, OpenGL 1.xx compliant 3D video card

3D Airstrike:  Operation W.A.T. completes a three-some of games, including Orbz and Zen Puzzle Garden, that were very closely scored by the judges in the overall scoring.  The reason for this is clear as these are three really solid games. 

Combining wonderful 3D graphics and brilliant special effects, 3D Airstrike was one of the first major Independent releases of the year and it turned out to be the force to be reckoned with that we thought it would be when we first reviewed it back in March winning the award for Best Graphics in an Independent Game in 2003.

3D Airstrike added even more features after that review, with 2-Player Simultaneous play.  This game is everything that a shooter should be and that is said for many reasons.  Helicopters should be naturals as stars of shooter games due to the fact that they actually can move laterally, whereas jets really cannot.  Why there are not more Helicopter shooters like this is really a good question.

What is not in question is that this is easily one of the best looking games that we've played in the Indie sector.  Airstrike 3D will get you excited for the old school action that Independent Gaming offers.  Airstrike 3D throws a seemingly endless array of ever more powerful enemies at you as any good shooter should. Your air supremacy will be challenged by jeeps, helicopters, jets, missile turrets, and even boats. Anyone looking for a good challenge will enjoy this game...even it if is mostly staring in awe at the graphics while their helicopter spins out of control to its destruction yet again.

Score:  7.75

5Th Place

Geneforge 2 [by Spiderweb Software]

Price: $19.95

Review Coming!

System Requirements (also available on Mac): Windows 98 or later, DirectX 3 or later, 30 MB free RAM, 30 MB hard drive space, 800x600 screen resolution with 16 bit color

Jeff Vogel is considered something of a genius in a community that is always getting bigger. A developer who dropped out of Grad school when his "sanity saver," programming a game called Exile, started to sell well. His role playing games are a thing of legend among those who have played them.  This year's offering, Geneforge 2 has continued the rich tradition that he has created.  The game is steeped in rich story that will truly carry you into another world.  The game plays a lot like a fantasy novel instead of just a romp through medieval times.  After all, anyone can creates towns and wildernesses, but it takes a master story-teller to make that world come alive and become an all-involving adventure. 

Geneforge 2 does just that, sucking in players who are willing to give it a shot.  Those who don't take the time to check out the game after looking at screenshots are not doing themselves any favors.  The graphics are actually just fine, and the game play so easy to pick up and so well created that players who play for just a few moments will be intrigued enough to play for hours.  Of special interest are the way that the battles are done, combining real-time and turn-based fighting in a way that plays quickly and works extremely well.

Overall though, Geneforge 2 is one of the best Independent games that came out this year, and though the mainstream game sites may not consider it one of the best RPG games this year based solely on the graphics, it just goes to show again, that a great game will be great regardless of the games graphics.

Score:  7.0 (1 First Place Vote)

4th Place

Alien Shooter [by Sigma]

Price: $19.95

Our Review

Windows System Requirements:
Pentium II 400 MHz, Direct3D compatible 16 MB 3D graphics card, 64 MB RAM, DirectSound compatible sound card

Alien Shooter is proof that games do not have to have the newest and coolest graphics to be a blast to play having already won the award for Action game of the year from Game Tunnel

With a wonderful array of weapons, non-stop action, splendid graphics, eerie music and a wonderful adventure setting, Alien Shooter is a game that delivers on every front.

Alien Shooter has done an amazing job of taking little and turning it into a lot.  With only a few real different varieties of aliens, Alien Shooter has created endless hordes of aliens to shoot.  Blasting aliens back to their own dimension is only half of the story.  The bigger part of the story here is how the game feels.  There is a very creepy feel to this game that is aided by eerie music.  As you walk through each stage, there are 2 distinct parts.  The first part is the "finding" part of the stage where you try to either flip on the lights or blast a power generator as you find the aliens.  For those who have played Splatterhouse or other games where the tension builds to such a point that you start attacking randomly because you know that any moment you are going to be overwhelmed by enemies, you have just the smallest sense of who this game plays.  The second part of the stage is the all-out blood bath you've been "waiting for" while you attempt to destroy an angry never-ending mob of aliens. 

For a game that seems really simple in concept Alien Shooter packs a whole lot of punch. Those who are looking for an INTENSE game that will keep you glued to your screen for days should definitely pick it up immediately.

Score:  5.5

3rdPlace

Samurai [by Klear]

Price: $19.95

Review

System Requirements:
Windows 95/98/Me/NT/2000/XP, Pentium II or better, 64 MB RAM, DirectX 7.0

Already the Best independent game of the year in the "other" category and the Independent game with the best Sound this year, Samurai has collected plenty of awards proving that a well-done turn-based game is never short of fans. 

what makes Samurai such a great game? The concept is simple, though honestly it sounds complex when you try to explain it. The game takes place in pre-unified Japan. In that period, you play as a Warlord trying to control as much of the land as possible. To do this, you must gain the backing of the different classes in Japan. The three classes, peasants, clergy, and nobles are denoted on the board by different icons, rice, Buddha's, and helmets respectively. These icons appear at locations that are cities. For example, the square where Tokyo would appear on the map contains all three icons, whereas most cities just have one icon due to their smaller size. The board itself is set up as a series of hexes.

You have at your side 5 pieces. Each turn, you choose a piece and put it down somewhere on the board. Your pieces have different numbers on them that denote the strength they have. They also have an icon on them that tells you what type of piece they are. Your basic pieces have the icons of rice, Buddha, and helmet on them. So for example, you may have a piece that has a Rice on it, and the number 4. That is the most powerful Rice piece that you will have available to you. So you place it on the board so that it is adjacent to a square with Rice in it. That gives you 4 rice influence over the city. However, if you had played a helmet next to the city with the Rice in it, you would have received no influence over the city as there were no helmets in the city.

Ok? So how does this all add up to one of the best games of the year? The great thing about Samurai is that the concept is simple, but the strategy is not. Easy to pick up, difficult to master...and fun while your are trying to master it. The game takes a lot of thought to play well. Klear has included 4 difficulty levels in the full game in addition to letting you create your own custom game. Each difficulty level increases the AI of your computer opponent, making the game more challenging. The increased difficulty levels also increase the number of computer opponents, and the land available to play on, buy adding the other islands of Japan.

Obviously just because a game is challenging doesn't mean it is fun. What sets Samurai apart in this category is the fact that the challenge is reasonable. Learning how to beat the computer is fun, and even once you have it down, there are custom games you can create and you will rarely beat the computer every time you play against him. Also you can play multi-player online.

Samurai is one of the best and in my estimation least appreciated Indie games this year.

Score:  4.75

2ND Place

Notrium [by Ville Mönkkönen]

Price: Freeware!

Our Review

System Requirements:
Win98/ME/2K/XP  300mhz, 64 MB RAM, Direct3D compatible Video Card, DX 8.1+

Just because a game is freeware and made by a single person doesn't mean it isn't a great game.  Notrium by Ville Monkkonen is the perfect example of perfection in a freeware game.

In fact, Notrium has had the bad mis-fortune of being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  It finished second in the adventure game of the year voting, with the only game that finished in front of it is the game that went on to be the eventual winner of the Independent Game of the Year for 2003. 

However, before we move on to that game, let's take a moment and consider Notrium.  True it doesn't offer the newest and coolest graphics (though the graphics are very similar to Crimsonland, which has a loyal set of fans) so what sets it apart this year from so many other game efforts?

Initially I think what makes Notrium such a good game is that it catches the player up in a real adventure.  From the moment you realize you are stranded on a planet with only a stun gun to protect you from the many enemies all around you, players are entranced with the game, trying to figure out how to survive through the first day and night in a foreign land.  You likely will die trying several times before you start making the right moves.  Keep yourself out of the sun at the hottest part of the day, and near fires at night and you'll survive a little longer.  Collect the right materials, put them together correctly and you will survive a little longer. 

Notrium features a random generator and multiple winning paths that makes each game a new adventure as you try to scrape your way to survival.  The game also has several very ingenious concepts, such as the way that items are assembled, using a combination of circles that looks just a little like a bank safe and provides just a little bit of puzzle-solving relaxation as you step away from the continual strife you face in the game.

Overall this is a very well-done effort that will keep you coming back for several days as you try to figure it out how to keep your character alive and progress a little further into the game. As we have continued through the write-ups for the end of the year awards, several changes have been made to the game, including an official expansion (also free) and a FAQ on how to make Mods for the game, which is certainly being used by the very active community of followers that this game has.  If you are looking for a game with a good bit of action, but plenty of thinking involved, that takes you back to the days of the great adventure games, give Notrium a run, you're likely to be surprised by how good this game is!

Score:  3.75

1st Place

Starscape [by Moonpod]

Price: $24.95

Our Review

System Requirements:
110MB disk space, PII-300 or equivalent. 3D card with 16MB video

The dark of space has never seemed so colorful and bright as it did in Starscape this year.  The beautifully painted backgrounds made you want to turn your ship into the third dimension and sail off towards the nebulas that cris-crossed the galaxy created for Starscape.

With beautiful graphics and thumb-blistering game play, Starscape quickly became a new standard for all Independent games when it was released in March of this year and has already won the Game Tunnel Adventure game of the year award. 

The adventure presented in the game is a wonderful one, and the longer you play, the more addicted you'll get.  Starscape gives just a perfect improvement plan in the game that isn't too heavy in mindless gathering of minerals (which allows you to build new ships, weapons and equipment) instead making the gathering of items seem like a natural part of the game play as you attempt to advance the story through the different levels.

In the game you can have up to four spaceships to use for mining and fighting; these ships are fully customizable within limits; for example, you can make a huge ship with a bunch of lasers and rockets, annihilate a node full of aliens and asteroids, and then change into a little mining ship and reap the benefits of your labor. You can also upgrade main base/ship with new turrets and a *big* main gun. This way, when you're in a pinch (or just don't feel like shooting rocks), you can just fall back to your base (or call it to you) and have it do the work for you.

One of the things that keeps players engaged while playing the game is the way that new weapons/equipment is researched and then built.  You choose from the different advancements available, such as missiles, what you are going to focus your building materials and crew on.  You can assign crew members to either discovering new technologies or building new items.  The fun thing about this is the way that it spaces out the advancements in the game.  I found myself playing into the wee hours of the morning as I tried to get my crew to research just one more item.  Once they had researched it, I couldn't rest until I had them complete building the item so I could add it to my ship.  Of course, then I might realize that I would need a bigger ship to use the item, so I would immediately start researching a better ship.  The set-up keeps players heavily involved in the game as they fly about destroying enemies attempting to build up an even more destructive ship.

Starscape has been a clear winner this year with its high quality graphics, sound and game presentation, which is good news for gaming fans looking for a great game.  This is a rare game that employs a large amount of strategy intertwined with a wonderful story and even a well-presented "building" portion of the game that are all perfectly mixed together into a magical masterpiece that is the 2003 Independent Game of the Year!

Score:  2.25 (2 First Place Votes)





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