When I was a business news reporter I had to cover the 40 under 40, and 30 under 30 lists that were (arbitrarily) created each year to honor business people who were making stupid amounts of cash and/or doing something unique within their age brackets.
I had to write blurbs about why those people were on the list and why you, a non-lister, should probably know them. I haven’t had to do that for years, but the list-writing passion still burns within me. And so I turn to games, which 9.5 times out 10 are more fun than business people, to give you the 20 under 20.
Over the next four posts I’ll profile 20 games under $20 that were released this year. You should play them, or at least be aware of them, because they’re great. In fact I enjoyed many of the games I’ve played on this list more than any full-priced game I played this year, except for maybe The Last of Us, which I borrowed from a coworker, but would have totally paid for.
Here are the first five (these are not in order of quality or anything. They’re all great for different reasons). Also, the links are to the PC versions of these games. Some are also available on consoles.
This beautiful game combines gameplay, narrative themes, and character interaction in a way few other games do. The left stick and left trigger controls the big brother, the right stick and right trigger controls the little brother. That’s it. It’s a simple setup with a superb execution. The singleplayer co-op mashup leads to some mind-bending puzzles (most of which are harder on your dexterity than your mind), and put you through some harrowing platforming sequences—wait for the part when the brothers tie a rope to each other. In an era of Uncharted-style, consequence-free platforming, that section is a breath of fresh air.
Because the brothers talk in gibberish, the bulk of the storytelling is done through the inspired fantasy art direction, the somber music, and the control scheme (what the brothers can and can’t do, and how they interact with each other and the environment, helps shape their characters). The subtle emphasis on showing over telling is rare in games, and I always appreciate it when a developer treats the audience with respect for their intelligence.
Like last year’s Journey, this is an emotional adventure you can probably clear in one sitting, but it will stick with you much longer.
I wouldn’t blame you for turning your head at this one—the Call of Juarez games have hit every point on the quality scale, from not bad, to mediocre, to downright offensive. Surprisingly, Gunslinger is the best game to bear the Juarez name. It stars Silas Greaves, a bounty hunter with a tendency to embellish the truths of his exploits. His narration—told to a bar full of folks including a star struck dime-novel reading kid, and a couple cynical old timers—directs you through the game, often rewriting events in real time.
At one point Silas claims he was surrounded by Apaches, but when one of the listener’s scoffs at the idea of Apaches being present in that particular setting, Silas backtracks, the game rewinds, and the enemies are replaced with cowboys who Silas says attacked with Apache-like fury. It’s a fun trick that gives the game silly vibe and plays well with the high-scoring fast-paced arcade shooting. It also contrasts nicely with the Nuggets of Truth you can find in each level. These collectibles give you a bit of real-world history on outlaws, locations, weapons and settings from the game. They’re fascinating, concise, and well worth seeking out.
All of that is topped off with a leveling system that encourages you to get better with each of the three weapon types—pistols, rifles and shotguns. The visual style is reminiscent of Borderlands, with beautifully drawn comic book-style art for cutscenes. The game also features an arcade mode, a new game plus mode, and duel mode, which lets you replay the games’ challenging one-on-one showdowns. Gunslinger has a ton of content for the price, and none of it is added fluff. If you’re going to play a Call of Juarez game, it should be this one.
The Stanley Parable is hard to talk about without giving too much away. You can beat it in 10 minutes. You can play it for 3 hours and still find new content. If you’ve played a lot of video games, it’s hilariously subversive. If you’ve never played a video game, it’s delightfully clever. It’s a mind boggling narrative experience that champions the video game medium in one breath, and mocks it with the next. You don’t shoot things, there are no puzzles, it’s not a very challenging game, but it is extremely entertaining, and amazingly, never condescending. For maximum enjoyment, I recommend you play it, then observe someone else playing it without comment. It’s as fascinating as it is silly.
4. Rogue Legacy
I’ve written about Rogue Legacy before. It got its claws in me earlier this year and I somehow managed to sink more than 20 hours into it, which is rare for me these days. Back in the summer I described it as “an endless runner/adventure game with loot and persistent leveling and quasi perma-death and retro graphics and cheeky writing. It’s stupid fun.” It combines the challenge, visuals, and gameplay of the action games of my youth, while mixing in the persistent upgrades and carrot-on-a-stick progression modern games have popularized. I called it quits after finally defeating the last boss (there’s a new game+ mode), but I’m seriously thinking about rebuying this one to play on the go when it comes out on the Vita in 2014. It really is that much fun.
This game was quietly released during the Steam Halloween sale, and I’m so glad I scooped it up. It’s an absurd game that anyone with basic typing skills can play. This is how I described it to coworkers: You know those games in arcades, or at movie theaters, where you hold a plastic gun and shoot at zombies on the screen? This is that game, except instead of pulling a trigger to kill them, you type random words, phrases and sentences. It’s a silly game that’s fun to pass around with friends, and a great way to brush up on your typing skills.
Come back next week for more great games under twenty bucks!