2004 Independent Game of the Year (Posted Dec 31, 2004)

2004 Top 10 Games of the Year

For all those who think that the best games that came out this year were all sequels Game Tunnel presents a different look at the best of 2004. Game Tunnel has put together its list of the top 10 indie games this year, and it is sure to have a few gems that you probably haven't even heard.

While mainstream gaming has seemingly given up on innovation and embraced instead rehashing old ideas over and over again until you can barely tell the titles apart, Indie gaming has presented another fine crop of games that will give you multiple gaming experiences that you won't find anywhere else in addition to taking some older concepts to new heights. With an increasing number of professional developers who have responded to the mainstreams strangling advances on innovation by creating Indie games by going it alone the quality of the Indie games released this year has improved greatly.

Without further ado, I give you the Top 10 Indie Games of 2004:

Want to see it instead of reading it?  See the Top 5 in an interview given on G4 TV

Number 10 - I of the Enemy

Developer: Enemy Technology Players: 1-8 (LAN)
Release: November 2004
System Requirements: Windows 95/98/ME/2000/XP, 400MHz Pentium II , 128 MB of RAM, DirectX 8+

I of the Enemy is a Real Time Strategy game that presents many different mission types, such as delaying convoys and other specific objectives. Players use some persistent units, who gain experience and ability over time, which leads to a portion of your team having a little bit of familiarity as you move on through the many levels broken into 3 chapters in the game. In addition LAN play is available allowing 8 players to play together and against each other in fantastic futuristic Sci-Fi battles.

Really though, the first thing you'll notice when you play Enemy Technology's "I of the Enemy" or even got to their website is the absolutely amazing quality of the audio. The voice work in the game and music are wonderfully done. The first time I put this game in, I heard from the other side of the room: "is that one of your indie games?" The person, who has watched hundreds of indie games come through my computer in the last few years, was visibly shocked by what they were hearing, and with good reason. The sound in I of the Enemy is crystal clear and very professionally done.

This comes out probably most forcefully with the main character of the game, Verkkal, who is voiced by Ian McNeice, perhaps best known by Sci-Fi fans for his role as Baron Harkonnen in Dune. With very strong voice acting on the game that rivals anything that you'll find in mainstream gaming, and often beats it, I of the Enemy was a strong contender for the sound award before you even get to the soundtracks which are excellent.

Perhaps the most intriguing portion of the game though is its rich storyline that is full of twists that will leave players not knowing which way is up before they reach the end of it. The added cinematics, while not up to mainstream standards, go a long way in helping players understand the struggle between the races in the game and will eventually introduce a twist that is sure to make every gamer go "oh my gosh" when they realize what is happening.

The graphics in the game are closer to the old Command & Conquer games than newer games such as Warcraft III or World Fables, and while that may keep some people from checking out the game it doesn't hinder the quality of the game overall.

I of the Enemy is a game that more closely resembles mainstream games than most Indie games do, but the quality of the story and stick to-it-ness of the developers in bringing out the game and vision that they had is something that every Indie gamer will recognize as they play through this very well constructed title.

Number 9 - Revolved

Developer: Alter Ego Studios Players: 1
Release: December 2004 Download Now!
System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2K/XP, 733 Mhz, 64 MB RAM, DirectX 3.0+

It's hard to describe exactly what it is that makes Revolved work. What probably makes the game the most enjoyable is the depth of the game play that is involved.

Puzzle games come along in a nearly non-stop barrage of mostly mindless rehashes of previous concepts. While some of them, such as PopCap's Zuma Deluxe, make their money by improving those old concepts, there have been precious few concepts to come along that have been as good as Revolved. There are only two other puzzle games that have been made that have as addictive game play qualities as are found in Revolved. Those two games are Bejeweled and Tetris, but Revolved is better than either of those titles.

Playing well and quickly are both required to advance very far in Revolved. The basic games revolves around creating a square in which all four sides have the same color fuse. You can move any of the fuse squares on the board either clockwise or counterclockwise by just clicking on them with the left or right button on your mouse. The game really gets going as you become more aware of what is possible in the game.

The open-ended play allows players to do a lot of things, and gamers will find that each time they play the game they discover new ways to manipulate the pieces on the screen and claim victory over the fuses.

I personally dreamed about this game for days on end after first playing it, completing fuse boxes over and over in my head. While that may be either a good thing or a bad thing depending on how you look at it, one thing isn't in doubt, this game is one of the most addictive puzzle games you will ever play and it has sucked away a lot of the time that was supposed to be spent writing these awards. For the addictiveness that Revolved shows helped it win the 2004 Puzzle Game of the Year Award and it didn't stop there, having now placed as one of the best 10 games of the year.

Number 8 - Smugglers 3

Developer: Niels Bauer Games Players: 1
Release: January 2004
System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP

Smugglers 3 is one of the more enjoyable surprises that came out this year. The game is a treat for sci-fi fans who are looking for more than action in their games. In Smugglers 3, you are a pilot in a interstellar conflict. However, instead of spending your time in non-stop battle action sequences, Smugglers 3 is based more on text.

Smugglers 3 places you in one of four factions. Each of the factions has different objectives and weapons. Playing through the game, one of your main goals is to trade goods with the various planets that you visit. This will help you to build up your funds so that you can buy better weapons and a better ship. In addition you will undertake missions that will help to increase your standing within your faction and win you medals of honor.

There are in fact action battles in the game, however, the battles consist of the player and an enemy in a turn based conflict that shows both ships, a proximity meter and the special weapons that each have available. These battles work very well by putting the player in control of all the important factors of the battle without over-involving players with minute details.

Smugglers 3 scores big points for providing such a rich storyline despite a few grammar problems that show up in the text. The story draws players in with constant updates as to where their faction lies in regards to the conflict in addition to encounters with other star vessels that further involve players and create a feeling of really being engaged in the conflict. The game offers amazing depth and development as players continue on, hiring crew and accepting ever more perilous and complicated missions throughout multiple star systems.

The graphics in the game are done quite well and do a wonderful job of keeping players focus on the systems, weapons, and peoples in the game. Each of the characters and screens is very well-rendered, and looks much better on the screen than one might expect by looking at the screenshots. The sound in the game is rather scant, but what is available is exceptionally well done. It helps provide a fantastic backdrop for the game that further sucks gamers into the on-screen conflict.

Smugglers 3 provides a different angle on the space sim, and one that works extremely well. Gamers looking for an interstellar challenge that will keep them in another world for quite some time would do themselves a favor by checking this game out.

Number 7 - Global Defense Network

Developer: Evertt Players: 1
Release: July 2004
System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, DirectX 8.1+, 700Mhz

Not a big genre to begin with, quality gallery shooters are a rarity in the independent gaming world and all but completely gone from the mainstream. However, seemingly out of the blue Global Defense Network appeared this year, possessing a unique visual and audio aesthetic in addition to quality production values. Forget all the derivative “army” or “duck hunt” style shooters you have seen in the past, Global Defense Network is not only fun to play but also blurs the line between game and interactive art.

Global Defense Network alternates your gameplay between beautifully conceived simulator levels and occasional real world missions. The majority of your time will be spent in “simulation” mode where you select training levels to improve your skills and earn credits that allow you to upgrade your weaponry.

Players begin the game armed with a lightning gun that is of questionable value and you will want to upgrade it as soon as possible. Players can either upgrade the strength or recharge times of the standard weapon or change to a different style of gun (steel ball, machine gun, missile launcher or shell-shot cannon). This customization will help allows players to achieve higher scores and earn more credits.

The gameplay is standard for shooting gallery games in that your score is based on the number of objects hit, with bonuses provided for accuracy, quick responses and clearing an entire wave flawlessly. Using the mouse to aim, players fire their weapon with the left button. The game also lets players purchase secondary fire modes, which are controlled with the right button. The simulator levels are all timed to high-quality, original techno themes and at times it’s hard not to just sit back and watch as the whole level plays out like a surreal music video.

Intermittently while playing, players are called upon to take a mission in the real world to clear areas of “alien infection” and track down and destroy the source.

The graphics in Global Defense Network are abstract and low in detail with most objects consisting of combinations of colored spheres, cylinders and boxes in a very basic environment. At the same time the polish and smoothness of the objects mostly makes up for what they lack in detail.

While the graphics are good, the real star of Global Defense Network is the music, which although being “techno” is far from the generic beats typical of most shooters. These are highly atmospheric and emotive, professionally composed pieces that complement the gameplay beautifully. Anyone who turns off the music while Global Defense Network is doing themselves a disservice as the music is the main component that drives the game.

Global Defense Network was one of the more original games come out in 2004. There aren’t a lot of entries in the “mouse-shooter” genre and few of the ones that exist approach the slick and unique presentation values seen here. If you are a fan of shooting gallery action then this is definitely your game.

Number 6 - Anito: Defend a Land Enraged

Developer: Anino Players: 1
Release: November 2003
System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, 600 MHz Processor, 128 MB Ram, 16 MB Video Card, DirectX 9.0

Released just after our deadline for the 2003 awards Anito found itself as one of the best games of 2004. Anito isn't your typical RPG game. There certainly is some hack and slash to the story, but the game is much more adventurous then that. Instead of simply having random monsters always walking about that you run around and kill, the game focuses more on providing a solid storyline, and it does so with stellar results. Instead of just wandering about killing things, in Anito you become deeply involved in an adventure.

The most interesting thing about this adventure is that there are actually two completely different adventures in the game. Players can play as Agila, the son of the missing tribal leader, or his sister Maya. In most games, choosing your gender at the beginning of the game is something to do for fun. It may make the game play differently, but it doesn't really affect the game all that much. In Anito, choosing Agila or Maya will completely alter the game that players play. Each character has a completely different set of tasks to undertake as they travel through the land. The storyline is one with two main characters instead of one.

There is some danger in what was attempted in the storyline. Having two storylines that are interwoven around the same mystery could have worked, or it could have fallen flat, leaving players frustrated or confused. In Anito, the storyline works amazingly well, and it is the main reason why this game is such a wonder.

Play the game as Agila, and you will progress through the towns talking to key people in the towns, moving on to try and spread peace while trying to determine where your father has gone. Returning to play the game as Maya, gives players a completely different story in addition to adding a new perspective to what has really been occurring. It is amazing as you talk to some of the same characters and go to some of the same buildings how players can be involved in the same plot, but interacting in a completely different way depending on who they chosen to play as. Players discuss different things with the characters and come to understand different facets of the same storyline. The way the two storylines were woven together in addition to providing so much intrigue and mystery is something that any true adventure fan should experience.

The complex storyline isn't the only joy to the game. In many RPG/Adventuring games, there are a series of side-quests that players may embark on. These quests typically aren't all that important to the storyline and can be skipped without changing the final outcome of things. Most of them are fairly simple, such as "kill this really bad guy," "find my daughter," etc. In Anito there are some side-quests as well. However, most of them are quite complex in and of themselves and they intermingle with the main story to give you a little more insight into what is going on. Instead of just going after the thief who stole a wallet, players find themselves talking to multiple people in multiple cities as they try to unravel just how involved the side-quest really is and how many people were involved. Each of these quests feels like a self standing adventure in and of itself. The game includes a journal, though this was one of the rare cases where we found we didn't forget what was going on as we were so wrapped up in the storyline. Still it does help players stay up to date on each of the quests they are involved with and what the latest event in each of the quest.

In addition to all of this there are of course battles. There are weapons and a special kind of magic called Chakra. As players progress through the game they learn more useful skills and spells, buy weapons and become more powerful as their experience increases and attribute points are properly applied. Most of that is fairly standard affair. Anito though isn't standard affair. Those who play it will become extremely involved in its storyline that is presented in a way that can't be found in any other game. The mark of a good RPG is how well it wraps players up in the game, and Anito certainly delivers as one of the best ever.

Number 5 - BreakQuest

Developer: Nurium Players: 1
Release: November 2004 Download Now!
System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, 700Mhz, 128 MB RAM

BreakQuest may be the best Arkanoid game in existence, and it is innovative enough that we felt no regret putting it in the top 5 games of 2004.

So where do we start in describing the game? BreakQuest is built mostly around a very strong physics engine that allowed the developer to do a lot of things with the way that the ball interacts with the other objects on the screen. In fact there are so many interesting and different features in the game that you cannot even come close to appreciating a tenth of them in the game's demo.

The boards offer a wide variety of bricks to hit, many of which use the games physics engine to create what feels, when combined with the graphics that are designed for each board, like a totally different game with each level that you play. For example, in the screenshot you'll see that there are rectangular bricks connected by a line. By hitting the bricks, the entire line will move, making the bricks move about in interesting ways that provides a lot of coolness for your eyes and challenge for your hands.

There are many different interactions like this that make the game exciting, but that isn't all. In fact there are 100 levels in the game, and nearly each one is completely different than any other one. For example there is an asteroids board complete with bouncing vector drawn asteroids and alien spacecraft that come across the board. There are levels that are somewhat typical with bricks, and atypical, like the bowling alley level, and then other levels with very small brick sizes that are formed into a picture. Honestly you even checking out the page of screenshots on the website doesn't give you a complete idea of how much variety there really is.

The reality is that this game pretty much takes every board type and every idea from every Arkanoid game ever made and makes it better. If the levels weren't enough there are a host of interesting "power-ups" that make the game play quite differently than anything else on the market. You can get power-ups that change the shape of your ball into a tear shape or square, which makes the game play very fun and challenging.

The shape of your paddle also changes from the typical semi-circle, to a flat or wavy surface, and there more. Of course the game also includes a variety of weapon-type power-ups including the missile that is somewhat guided by your paddle as illustrated in the screenshot above. The interaction between you and the board is quite enough to make this the most amazing breakout game ever, but there is so much more in this game and so much more than you'll ever come to appreciate in the demo that to come to any piece of that appreciation, you must have the full-version to experience it.

Beyond the great game play, the graphics are solid and the music is reminiscent of the Falcom titles of the early 90's, which is quite amazing as those games were all RPGs, and somehow that feel has carried over to this game, which makes it feel quite a bit like it is an actual 'Quest.' BreakQuest has totally succeeded in the Quest for perfection and in recognition of that it was already awarded the 2004 Arkanoid Game of the Year Award. It now adds a top 5 finish for 2004 and is quite worthy of its post.

Number 4 - Outpost Kaloki

Developer: Ninja Bee Players: 1
Release: September 2004
System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, 450 MHz CPU, 8MB Video Card

In Outpost Kaloki players take on the role of a space station manager, but unlike so many of its competitors, this is not some dry technical simulation. The gameplay in Outpost Kaloki is easy to pick up and always has a fun, upbeat vibe thanks to the great graphics and soundtrack. From the moment we first took a look at this game here at Game Tunnel it was obvious that it wasn’t going to be like the other management games out there and that it was one of the best games released this year.

The graphics in Outpost Kaloki are top notch and oozing with character - like a classic Saturday morning cartoon brought to life in 3D. While playing you would half expect to see Bud Lightyear streak across the screen as the highly polished and consistent graphical quality of this game almost makes it look a Pixar license.

Given the fantastic visual quality one would expect that, like so many games, the audio would suffer from lack of attention. Surprisingly, this is not the case as the music in Outpost Kaloki is just as appealing and quirky as the graphics. The soundtrack consists of fun, swinging tracks reminiscent of classic big bands and goes perfectly with the games visual style.

However what really makes this game work is what seems to have become the missing ingredient in almost all other tycoon games: Fun!

The challenge facing management game developers is that the players need enough of an open-ended design for them to create their own experience but also require constant guidance to keep the game moving forward. An open “sandbox” design just isn’t much fun for people who don’t have hours to spend at the computer. Gamers these days have limits on how long they can play before the outside world intrudes in on them.

Ninja Bee has solved this design challenge by implementing a simple “goals” system in the development of the station, requiring players to build specific add-ons or achieve certain traffic goals within a given timeframe. Not only are these goals accessible from a main list but also the visitors to your station will constantly remind you of what needs to get done next. It sounds simple enough and indeed a number of other games in this genre have tried similar features but for some reason it just plays better here.

The various goals are challenging enough to require constant activity on the part of the player but also short enough to be able to play the game in quick intervals. This is definitely the direction to go in if you want to appeal to the general, non-hardcore gaming audience.

Game Tunnel awarded the simulation game of the year award to Outpost Kaloki as it takes the SIM game genre back to its roots of fun with a game that even Will Wright would be proud of. Outpost Kaloki provides all of the fun and quirkiness that Indie gamers yearn for in a near perfect package that even the most cynical of mainstream fans will recognize as being as professional as any game on the market. Outpost Kaloki is an easy inclusion in the top 5 games this year and should be included in every gamer's collection.

Number 3 - Hamsterball

Developer: Raptisoft Players: 1-4 (vs and Party Games)
Release: February 2004 Download Now!
System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, DirectX 8+, 700Mhz, 32 MB RAM

Hamsterball is something of a departure of the other games in the top 5 games of the year in that instead of recreating a concept or coming up with a new game play type it takes a very familiar concept and just makes it as perfectly as could be imagined.

The game has a lot of similarities with the classic Marble Madness. However while that game may have started a lot of the sentences, Hamsterball finishes them and with an exclamation mark! In a word Hamsterball is fantastic from start to finish.

The biggest highlight of Hamsterball is the level design. This is a case where words don't describe well put-together this game is. The levels are each created in a way that makes them have their own feel and originality to them. Most all have tubes that you travel down, and twisty roads, but some of them focus on different things or do things in a different way.

The "UP" race is a good example of the variety found in Hamsterball. In that race, you go up the entire course starting at the bottom and working your way up. Through a series of accelerators and pipes that suck you up instead of dropping you out players work their way to the very top of the map. There are also elevators and ramps which provide more help in moving up. While none of this might seem amazing on its own, what I found amazing is that none of these features that make the "UP" appear on ANY other level in the game.

Each level has its own quirkiness that makes it feel totally original, and completely different from any other level that you play. This originality kept us amazed as we tried to unlock each level by moving through the tournament mode, seeing new features and different obstacles in the game each and every step of the way.

In addition to the well-designed game level, the fun factor in the game is out-of-site the music is also top-notch. Hamsterball is a game that most anyone can pick up and play. In fact we've been playing it here all year through and it still has its shortcut on my desktop, which is quite a feat.

Hamsterball has both the tangible and intangible pieces to it that make the game intensely fun. What is more, the developers haven't been content to just let the great game be great. They've come back and revisited the game twice, first adding multiplayer party games to the mix in addition to a two player race option to all the levels you've unlocked, and then more recently returning to add a couple more levels through their affiliation with Shockwave (oh and they created an online version while they were at it though it lacks a lot of the fun of the downloadable version.

With beautifully graphics, 3 different skill levels that mix up the play of each board in a manner that makes you want to play through them again and again, and some very innovative and interesting level design that makes each level play like a new adventure, Hamsterball is a must own game that handily wins our 2004 Action Game of the Year Award and ended up as the 3rd best game released this year.

Number 2 - Wik & the Fable of Souls

Developer: Reflexive Players: 1
Release: September 2004 Download Now!
System Requirements: Windows 95/98/Me/2000/XP, 128MB RAM, Pentium 733 MHz, TNT2 Video card+, OpenGL drivers installed

Somewhere in-between Troll dolls and Gollum is a little creature known as Wik. Who knows maybe Wik is a love child of an unknown love story between the two. While his origins may be in question, the quality of this title is certainly not.

Upon first looking at the game play video that was released prior to the Wik demo becoming available we were struck by two things. First off, as most everyone would agree, the graphics are spectacular in this game, in fact for the wonderful graphics Wik won our 2004 award for best graphics. There are many great plasma effects that blend well with the beautifully drawn backgrounds that show a wonderful artistic exhibition that players can appreciate the quality of even if the style doesn't happen to work for them.

The other thing that the game play preview video made us wonder about how difficult the game would be to play. The game play video was in fact true on both accounts, the graphics are great and the game is a little difficult when you first try to play it. In fact the only failing that I see in the game is that most people will likely not come to appreciate how good this game is from playing the demo.

Wik has a very long tongue that is used heavily in his movement much like Spiderman uses his webs. Though Wik cannot walk, he can extend his long tongue, attach it to a branch or rock, and then jump into swinging action. Players find themselves swinging from one side of the screen to the other, up and down and in all sorts of loops as they play and loving every minute of it.

Wik provides a couple types of game play. There are normal story levels that provide very strange but entertaining poetry verses to help advance the story. The other set of levels in the game are the 'challenge' levels. These levels are a fun set of levels that require all of your acrobatic skill to complete the level within the time given and then provide the challenge of going back and trying to beat your speed record while playing against your ghost. I personally thought that they were even a little more fun than the story mode as the game is at its best when you are swinging around from tree to tree.

Despite what some have considered a 'borrowed' concept from Spiderman and Pitfall on the old Atari 2600 or Bionic Command on the NES, Wik plays quite different from those games, and any other game for that matter. The additions of a rich story through Poetry and the layout of the game all add to making the game feel like no other game you've played.

Wik is one of the cooler characters to come around in awhile and definitely is a hit as the second best game available this year. People who play this game long enough to appreciate the finer moments of game play will come to crave playing the game like any good thing.

Game Tunnel's 2004 Indie Game of the Year: GISH

Developer: Chronic Logic Players: 1-2 (vs)
Release: May 2004
System Requirements: Windows 98/ME/2000/XP, 1000 mhz+ Processor, 32 MB Video (also available for MAC and Linux)

Gish is a ball of tar. Normally a ball of tar doesn't pose much threat, but take his girlfriend away and you end up with one bad mother you don't want to mess with. Gish's basic abilities lead players to being able to do many different things in the game and help to provide the many challenges that are present throughout the levels.

For example, as a ball of tar Gish can be slick or sticky. By becoming slick, Gish is able to compress his tar into small places and slip his way through the sewer in pursuit of those who have taken his love captive. Becoming sticky allows you to grab onto walls, ceilings, platforms, enemies and just about anything else that you can think of. Instead of just jumping onto enemies and squashing them into a bloody pulp, which is an option, Gish can become sticky, then grab his enemies and throw them up into the air towards a block that will finishe the enemies life. Being sticky also allows players to climb walls to new areas, or use the ceiling to avoid enemies.

Those abilities are only a portion of what players are able to do while playing the game. The basis of Gish is the physics and that is where the game play takes a turn that is so fun and different that it is absolutely impossible to describe it in writing. Objects in the game react of course due to their physical interactions with other objects. However, in Gish all those interactions are heavily based on perfect physics. Instead of having a suspended platform that just tilts and moves based on where you are standing on it, in Gish the platforms will plummet to the earth if you jump too high off of it and come down too hard, breaking away from their supports and falling. Though that is pretty interesting, it doesn't but start to explain how physics work in the game to provide an experience that you won't find anywhere else, but it does provide the faintest image of how physics work in the game.

The developers of Gish have gone far beyond just providing a wonderful side-scrolling adventure. They have studied what made the great side-scrollers of yesterday so great and have implemented many cool secrets into this game. While times have changed since the old days of 2D scrollers and we've moved to 3D gaming, that feeling of knowing where the hidden treasures in a game are has really vanished with the 2D world.

In Each level of the game secrets are hidden. The most triumphant part of this is the hidden "Warp Zones." Each level set has a warp zone hidden somewhere in it. The knowledge of the Warp Zones is prized information, with many people using the forums on the Chronic Logic website to help them locate them. What makes the Warp Zones so cool is that instead of them playing like a normal Gish level, they actually transport Gish into pseudo-representations of games of yesterday, such as Super Mario Bros. or Pitfall.

Beyond the ultimate thrill of finding the Warp Zones, Gish also provides end bosses and 'ride' levels in each of the 5 board sets. The end bosses provide a challenge, but it is the 'ride' levels that really show off how the physics behind Gish make the game so cool. Using objects like a Mine Cart (which is playable in the demo) or moving platforms, you start the level by putting your ride into motion, and then you must use your momentum and good sense to survive the rest of the ride.

For those who aren't downloading the game at this moment, all I can say is get to it, you won't be sorry, this is the gaming experience of a lifetime. Anyone who has played this game will find themselves trying desperately to explain what the game is like, using other games to try to explain it and realizing that they are failing by so doing. Gish is a one of a kind game that must be seen and played to be understood and appreciated. It is quite unlike anything else and is clearly one of the most original games ever made and is our 2004 Indie Game of the Year.





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