As on older gamer in his mid-forties, I’m finding it increasingly more difficult to play modern games. Mainly due to, how year after year, AAA games keep getting bigger and bigger. Huge maps that are crammed full with icons for missions, sub-missions, distractions, etc. I just don’t have the time to invest in gaming like I used to, and to get the most out of these grand games made today, you really need to invest a lot of time. Work, parenting, reading, researching for my books, writing and general day-to-day life takes up more and more time, and my gaming takes back seat. So much so that it’s currently in the back of one of those super-stretch limos right now. So recently, I’ve been getting into smaller, indie games over the bigger titles and have found, quite possibly my favourite smaller, indie game publisher with Devolver Digital.
For this article, I’m just going to cover some (not all, there’s a lot) of their titles, ones I have played and really enjoyed and look at what makes them so damn enjoyable. Smaller, easier to get into games that still offer plenty of gameplay with tonnes of original ideas, along with paying respects to gaming days of old. This is my love letter to Devolver Digital and the teams who create their games. Give the main titles a little click for game trailers and check out the other links in this article for main websites, etc.
Founded in 2009, Devolver started out by releasing HD updates of the classic Serious Sam franchise. OTT shooters with a seriously funny sense of humour. The trio of Mike Wilson, Harry Miller and Rick Stults were the founding members of the studio. The trio had previously co-founded Gathering of Developers in 1998 and Gamecock Media Group in 2007, focusing on the logistics of releasing physical games. Long story short, those companies were bought out, swallowed up by larger companies and soon dissolved.
Still really interested in game distribution, Mike, Harry and Rick co-founded Devolver Digital in Austin, Texas. Not wanting to repeat past mistakes, they decided to not deal with physical games and concentrate on digital distribution instead. Joining the original three were Nigel Lowrie and Graeme Struthers. Setting up business, not in an office at first, as they didn’t have one then, but in a bird feed shop, which Rick Stults owned at the time.
After releasing several Serious Sam titles and spin offs, they set out to concentrate on small, indie games. Their first big hit being…
Released in 2012 from the very small, two man team of Dennaton Games. Hotline Miami is a top-down shooter where you play as an unnamed protagonist who receives mysterious, cryptic messages on his answering machine, thinly veiled euphemisms to kill Russian mobsters. Split over several chapters, each with multiple levels. You kick things off by wearing an animal mask, with different masks offering different benefits. Then it’s away you go to kill some Russian mafia. Hotline Miami is a simple game, and it’s simple games that Devolver do so damn well.
Set in 1989 and obviously massively influenced by the whole eighties era, Hotline Miami is a fantastic shooter with a lot of ridiculously enjoyable gameplay. Bloody and brutal, sometimes strategic, but always damn great fun. Really nice graphical art style that makes things easy on the eyes, even when all hell breaks loose and the bullets and blood start flying. Still, this is not an easy game and you will die a lot. It’s one of those ‘one last try’ kind of games that you’ll still be playing long after your last try. A sequel/prequel, Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, was released in 2015 which offers just as much madcap fun as the first game. Both titles are well worth checking out for some crazy, violent action.
Developed by Roll7, OlliOlli is a side-scrolling, 2D, skateboarding, platform game from 2014. You play as a skateboarder and you have to pull off tricks… and that’s about it. This one is so basic, with a very basic control scheme that anyone could pick up and play it in seconds. Now I just want to make it clear that my saying this game is basic is not a put-down, far from it. OlliOlli’s simplicity is what makes it so damn appealing. Easy to get into, easy to play and understand, but hard to master.
Each level has as score you have to try and beat by pulling off and (hopefully) chaining tricks. There are also five pre-set achievements to complete. Example of a level: Score 70k, have a 35k combo, grind a road sign, grab all spray cans and score 5k in 200m. Check off all the achievements in a level and the next one opens up offering even more of a challenge. Taking place over multiple areas (Urban, Junkyard, Port, Base, Neon City) , each with their own look and style, then each area split into ten separate courses, five amateur and five pro. OlliOlli is highly addictive and has you pushing yourself to beat your own score (or those on the online global leaderboards) to keep bettering your previous attempts. The sequel, OlliOlli2: Welcome to Olliwood was released in 2015.
Not a Hero
A wonderful 2D shooter from OlliOlli developers, Roll7 and released in 2015. Side-scrolling, pixel art, cover-based shooting action with an amazingly ridiculous story. Here’s the synopsis from the website:
Professional assassin turned amateur campaign manager Steve is charged with cleaning up the city by an anthropomorphic rabbit and mayoral candidate from the future named BunnyLord.
Now Steve and his expanding roster of dubious heroes must wield their unique skills to shoot, slide, dive and take cover behind a political platform built on ethics, accountability, and an inordinate amount of gunfire.
Eliminate the criminal underworld of the city’s three major districts and persuade undecided voters to your cause, tackling the issues that matter by putting a gun in the mouth of those issues.
Yes, a mayoral candidate from the future (2048), an anthropomorphic, purple rabbit, has time travelled to hire you to kill people to help his mayoral campaign. You chose from a selection of various protagonists, each with their own weapons and special abilities, and are tasked to basically shoot the crap out of everyone you see.
The 2D pixel art here is beautiful and highly detailed. You run around these 2D levels, diving for cover, smashing through windows, kicking in doors to mow down the enemies in your way, with a variety of weapons. The action is fast and frantic, the weapons are absurd (including exploding cats) and the pixel-gore is sublime. Kill all enemies on the level and escape. As simple as that sounds, there are a few random surprises along the way that offer additional objectives.
2018 saw the release of Minit. A top-down Zelda-like action/adventure game with a brilliant little gimmick. Developed collectively by JW, Kitty, Jukio, and Dom (Jan Willem Nijman, Kitty Calis, Jukio Kallio, and Dominik Johann). Giving you, the player, an exploreable world, but only sixty seconds to live… or a Minit. However, throughout your exploring or the map, you’ll keep finding an item or something that helps you progress.
For instance, the first item you’ll find is a sword, you can then use that sword to cut down plants to access parts of the map you couldn’t before. You’ll die soon after when the sixty seconds end, but you’ll retain that sword, so you can skip that part next time. You’ll find a shop owner who asks you to kill five crabs with your sword. You do that and receive coffee which lets you push blocks. Die again after sixty seconds, but you’ll still have the sword and the coffee, so you can access more of the map. Rinse and repeat and you’ll soon find yourself really getting around the map as it slowly opens up, meeting new characters, taking on new tasks, picking up new items that’ll allow you access to new parts of the map.
The graphics are very Game Boy-monochrome palette-like as is the sound design. It all just adds to a wave of nostalgia, but with a brilliant and unique gameplay twist that keeps you wanting to play more, solve the next puzzle, find the next important item, or just go off and explore the pretty decent sized map to find secrets one minute at a time. Minit is is glorious throwback to old school games with a modern day twist. Oh and there is a story and main quest to follow, not just random walking around shenanigans, all taken in little Minit bite-size pieces.
Also from 2018 by Sabotage Studio comes this love letter to 8-bit, hard as nails action/platformers. Just looking at the first few seconds of The Messenger, you should easily be able to see what influenced the game, the much loved NES version of Ninja Gaiden. Playing as an unnamed ninja, you are given a special scroll to deliver to the top of a mountain, making you the titular The Messenger.
I have recently just finished this game and it’s only now as I write this that I realise how difficult it is to talk about without spoiling it. To call this game a Ninja Gaiden homage or clone is both accurate, and at the same time, doing it a massive injustice. The Messenger has a lot more going on then you will first realise. While still maintaining that 8-bit platforming style, it does something else that I really do not want to spoil here. I think you need to experience the game yourself and be both entertained and surprised. I mean, I put in a good few hours and got to the end… or at least I thought it felt like the end. But there is much, much more to come. You ever play The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past on the SNES and get to the point where you think you’ve finished the game, only for it to really be more of a halfway point and there’s a whole other dark world to explore…
The Messenger is sublime. Not only just a fantastic reliving of older 8-bit gaming with references and homages aplenty, but also a damn fine game in its own right. There’s a wicked and funny sense of humour running through the entire game, the mysterious cloaked shopkeeper being a particular highlight with his stories or the cheeky messages you get when you die and are revived by Quarble (just play it, it’s easier than explaining). It’s a genuine surprise of a title with a lot of secrets to find that add so much more to the game. You’ll die, die and die a lot (I had over 230 deaths when I finished it) Even if you do finish the game (properly), it still offers a lot more to see and do, including a brilliant slice of free… yes FREE DLC. Seriously, definitely check this one out and give the developers some support, cos I want a sequel. Best game I’ve played this year.
Doinksoft are the team behind this little gem, released in 2019. Another throwback to classic gaming of old. This one sees you playing as cute kitten in a mech-suit, tasked with having to help your owner and his crashed spaceship. Yes, I did just write you play as a kitten in a mech-suit… and it’s awesome!
Just going on looks alone, I thought this was a follow-up to Minit, it features a pretty much identical Game Boy-monochrome palette-like graphical style and presentation. But the games are made by two different companies, I’m pretty sure there’s no connection between the two games other than the look. Where as Minit was a fresh take on the older Zelda games, Gato Roboto is very clearly influenced by Metroid. You are in this suit, exploring a map, finding new weapons which enable you to explore previously unreachable areas. This is Metroid with a little bit of Mega Man thrown in too. This is a lovely little title that offers some of the best old school style gameplay you’ll find.
My Friend Pedro
Another 2019 release, this time from DeadToast Entertainment. There have been some pretty brilliant and wild games so far… but right here, we have a clear winner. With you playing as a unnamed, silent protagonist who instructed to track down and kill someone called Mitch (and hundreds of others). You are told this by a floating, talking banana called Pedro. Yes, a talking banana tells you to kill people.
This platform/shooter offers some truly OTT gameplay. You can pull off some pretty impressive moves here that would make John Woo green with envy. Jumping, diving, back-flipping, pirouetting, dual weapon wielding action. But outside of the amazing action, there’s actually a pretty well told and interesting plot that I’m not going to spoil here. As the official website describes the game: ‘a violent ballet about friendship, imagination, and one man’s struggle to obliterate anyone in his path at the behest of a sentient banana’. Yup, pretty much sums it up.
Yes, another 2019 game, this time from developers No Code. This title is a puzzle/adventure/thriller game set on a space station called, Observation. An unknown event has damaged the space station to the point where it has no power and it’s up to you to fix things and save those on board… but there’s a bit of a twist.
Dr. Emma Fisher is the only known survivor stuck on the severely damaged space station, she does her best to try to communicate with anyone else who may be alive. For that, she needs the on board computer, Systems Administration and Maintenance or SAM for short. This is the twist, you the player are SAM. Yes you are a piece of AI onboard a distressed space station. The good Doctor gets you up and running and then tells you to asses the damage and try to get Observation up and running again. After performing a diagnostic, SAM receives a strange transmission of unknown origin which tells you, SAM to ‘bring her’ to a set of co-ordinates… and that’s where I’m ending this one.
You remember HAL 9000 from the Kubrick flick, 2001: A Space Odyssey? Well, that’s basically what you are in this game, but is SAM you as evil as HAL was? This is a very slow burning game, and that works very well in its favour too. The gameplay is light and really is you just being a computer scanning things, opening doors for Dr. Emma Fisher, carrying out repairs, etc. All via the cameras and computers of the Observation space station. But it’s the story and the fairly original concept that really sells this one.
Which brings me right up to date with this latest 2020 release that I’m currently playing right now. Developed by Phobia Game Studio and described as a ‘reverse horror game’. Carrion is a 2D, Metroidvania-style action game where you play as the villain, a red blob thing with fierce tendrils. You have to try to escape the underground facility you find yourself in.
For a red blob, you have some pretty nifty talents at your disposal. Your tendrils can pull you along floors, walls and ceilings, as well as grab scientists and armed guards for you to eat to keep yourself alive. Other upgrades/skills can be unlocked by exploring and playing through the story. You can squeeze down air-vents, swim in water, break through barricades, throw objects, etc. Now, I’ve only just started to play this one and I’m only a couple of hours into it. But so far, I’m really bloody enjoying it. Carrion requires a bit more thought to play then I first realised, you need to be cunning and use stealth/distraction to take out the good guys more so than just going barging in. But it’s not all about killing scientists as there are a few clever puzzles to solve along the way.
The controls are a little strange at first, there’s a slight inertia physics thing going on as your red blob doesn’t stop in an instant when you let got of the control, it drifts a little. There can be a little confusion at first as you do control the blob itself, but also its tendrils which pull you over surfaces and are used to grab/attack. It just took me a little while to get used to exactly what I was controlling the blob or the tendrils, when it’s kind of both. The story has this thing where you swap between playing the red blob and humans exploring the facility you are trying to escape as the blob. I’m not entirely sure where the story is heading right now, but I’m definitely enjoying it. Carrion is grotesquely gruesome and visceral as well as being a damn fine game to play.
And so, that’s about it. There are a lot more Devolver Digital games to discover, believe me, I’ve only just scratched the surface there of some of the titles they have released. But these are some of my favourite games from the publisher so far. I’ll certainly be seeking out more titles soon.
Fantastic little gems that may not be sixty hour epics, but still offer some damn fine gameplay, retro feels and highly unique gameplay ideas and mechanics. Devolver Digital have fast become my favourite indie game publisher, supporting and releasing some tip-top titles over the last few years. A big thank you to all at Devolver Digital and all those who made these games. For an older gamer with less and less time to invest in gaming, these titles are perfect. I hope to see more in the future.
Just one question. In the shop in The Messenger, is that red thing with tendrils, hidden in a covered cage supped to be the blob from Carrion?