The Boing Boing 20, pt. 2: the best indie and iPhone games of 2009

cs8.jpg It may seem arbitrary lumping the indies and the iPhone together for the second half of this feature on the best games of 2009 (which previously ran down the best retail console and handheld games of 2009), but this year more than ever the lines between the two blurred, as the App Store continued to evolve into a marketplace second only to the web where a one-person team has as equal a chance for success as the biggest publishers in the business. Granted, that chance still continues to be "slim", and most recently the tides have been turning slightly to top-seller lists reading more like those you'd find on the DS and PSP, but nearly all the iPhone games on this list earned critical praise and top slots in the charts with marketing staff and budgets approaching zero. Still, I wish this list could be longer. Even moreso than the first half of this feature, where the best games left off the list were the ones that were called out as the year's finest nearly everywhere else, the selections that didn't make the cut here were still at the top of their game. Releases like the Bit.Trip games, LostWinds: Winter of the Melodias, Bonsai Barber, Words With Friends and reams of other iPhone games (as I've been continuing to cover weekly), and especially Spelunky (which technically is a late 2008 release, though it didn't progress to truly sublime until a few months later) all deserve their high praise. So then below, the best web, PC, Mac, and iPhone games -- freeware, commercial, and uniquely otherwise -- that sprang from the best of the indie community this year.
Canabalt [AdamAtomic, web/iPhone, App Store link] Canabalt will probably be the least obscure name on this list, not least for its repeat coverage here in recent months, and in the frequent high-score updates you'll have no doubt spotted in your friends' twitter feeds. Adam 'Atomic' Saltsman's one-button game was one of the truest "sensations" this year: launched in late August as a knocked-out five-day experiment which took instant storm, leading to fast lessons in social add-on integration and an equally fast but even more compulsive iPhone port, culminating in this week's release of a newly enhanced version, adding more obstacles and more of composer Danny Baranowsky's music, and formalizing an official leaderboard for the game. And the success of Canabalt simply as a well-designed game was just part of the story: just as interesting was how in that span of time the community truly made the game its own, spawning not one but two fan-made Twitter-scraping leaderboards. Also worth note was Saltsman's decision to not succumb to the 99 cent pressures of the App Store, a move he expounded on at length here, and hopefully one that helps inspire other iPhone developers to move the device toward a more sustainable economy. Captain Forever/Successor [Farbs, web] You'll be forgiven if Captain Forever's willfully obscure homepage layout led to some blank stares, but it's all in the name of maintaining the underlying 80s-star-pilot narrative that literally binds you (via your webcam) to the seat of your ship. It's this retro aesthetic and anachronistic faux-command-line inconvenience that helped make Forever a year-topper for many indie devs themselves, but even moreso the way developer Farbs has given his players a window into a so-far limitless universe and asked only that they create something beautiful and deadly. And its clear that he has no intention of letting Forever slip quietly off the edge of that universe: taking smart cues from the MMO sphere and other online successes like Valve's ever-evolving Team Fortress 2, Farbs is building up his Captain as a brand, charging a project wide 'supporter fee' (which gets you early access to new versions of the game, like the recently upgraded Successor) rather than a per-copy asking price, allowing him to monetize development as he steers the ship in newer and more complex directions. It's an incredibly strong indie-career starter from someone who less than nine months ago made the leap from full time gainful employment (announcing the departure to his employer, you'll recall, via a version of Super Mario Bros), and one of the projects I'm most anxious to see where it's headed next. Drop7 [area/code, iPhone, App Store link] You've either never played Drop7 or the mere mention of its name sends nic-fit twinges through your spine. There is, I've found, no middle ground. One of the year's first best games, Drop7's lethal addictiveness spread throughout the year, aided by late Spring Facebook integration, and since that time I haven't met a single person who didn't follow up "yeah, I've played it," with lengthy praise/condemnation for how much they've played it. Many games lay claim over the 'minutes to learn/lifetime to master' claim, but Drop7 actually deserves it -- its balance of strategy and randomness is what gives it its compulsive charm, even after a daunting first few minutes struggling with its wholly original numerical premise. If you haven't played it yet (and if you lack an iPhone, its original incarnation as a web-based TV series tie-in is still available), by all means go, but go warned. Eliss [Steph Thirion, iPhone, App Store link] Eliss, like Drop7 and Canabalt, is another name I've been tirelessly repeating throughout the year, and it's rightfully earned its place as one of the App Store's best for perfectly encompassing what it means to be an iPhone game. It did that as one of the device's first true multi-touch games, and by seemingly effortlessly giving us a sense of style -- in its entirely original graphical/musical aesthetic -- that, especially at the time, was leagues above the App Store's standard fare of pastel-shaded and casual-focused design. For as much as the iPhone has earned a reputation as a present from the future dropped in our hands (a feeling I know I still get navigating any foreign city with it constantly at my side), Eliss should be its ubiquitous Minesweeper: a curious concoction of accessible play and alien origin, unlike any other game and baffling precisely because of its uniqueness, and destined to be the standard of tomorrow. Glum Buster [CosMind, PC] Developer Justin 'CosMind' Leingang's labor of love (slaved on for years during off hours while creating similarly overlooked and forward thinking games like the DS's wifi-signal-collector Treasure World) still hasn't quite earned the reputation it deserves but stands as one of the year's best surrealist short stories. As I've said before, part of that could be in its staunch refusal to speak in the language that game players have grown accustom to: entering its world means learning how to communicate all over again, even if its goals and navigation feel like standard platforming fare. But that's precisely what gives it its magic, and a thrill of exploration that comes not just from the sights you'll see, but the way you'll interact with its inhabitants. It's an adventure into weird worlds, and its an experience that still begs for more careful attention. Machinarium [Amanita, PC/Mac] Long-time followers of Amanita's work wouldn't have been surprised that Machinarium ended up as one of the year's best: studio founder Jakub Dvorský has proved and re-proved himself as a creator that sees -- and constructs -- realities unlike any other, via his original cult hit Samorost, its commercial sequel, and a set of other short-form commissioned side projects. What was surprising is in how much more rich its interactions were: gone were the simple pixel-hunt-and-click-to-move-on tasks of his earlier games, Machinarium dove even deeper into adventure gaming history and came back up with an even more complex and rewarding set of puzzles that took us into the bizarre order of its rusted steam-bot world. One of the few developers left keeping the point and click torch lit, Amanita -- in an ideal world -- gave a new generation a taste of what it was that lends warm nostalgia to our own pasts. Rolando 2 [Hand Circus, iPhone, App Store link] Hand Circus's followup to its landmark original -- one of the first iPhone games that caused the wider industry to sit up and take notice of the device as a true competitor -- stands a bit at odds with the rest of the games on this list, if only for how blindingly polished it feels next to the scrappy, experimental set aside it. And that's certainly not without good reason: publisher ngmoco was surely dead set on giving the indie dev the time and resources it needed to deliver a game that looked and felt like it could stand next to those on handheld gaming's more established hardware, and on all counts it did. For every part that felt slightly safer than its prequel, that formula felt doubly refined. It was smarter, flashier, and hit all the right notes that should have made it the iPhone's signature mascot platformer franchise, its Mario or Sonic -- should the studio continue to go down that natural path. Saira [Nifflas, PC] And then, from nowhere, came Saira. Making a surprise touchdown on PC just days ago (after originally being teased as a potential WiiWare game from the same team that are working on the console's gorgeously serene bedtime-story platformer NightSky), it didn't take long to recognize that it was going to leave a mark on the year longer than the year's last few weeks would otherwise allow it. Part of that was simply the developer's legacy: Sweden's Nicklas 'Nifflas' Nygren is among the highest regarded indie dev within the community for his work on the Knytt series, a freeware franchise of tiny (by pixel count) worlds that are as stunningly expressive and atmospheric as they are austere (think: the lonely landscapes of Ico and Shadow of the Colossus creator Fumito Ueda). And unlike the more physics-based puzzling of NightSky (Knytt's true chronological successor, but still maddeningly yet unavailable), Saira stays very close to Knytt's formula of exploiting the basic joys of exploration, and ups the ante considerably by connecting all those worlds via starships (with, wonderfully and unexpectedly, an onboard-playable pinball machine) and by introducing a photo mechanic that sees you hunting for clues in the landscape itself that are later used to unlock planetary defense mechanisms and allow you deeper into its twisting caverns. With everyone still caught off guard and dazed by its sudden appearance, it's a game you should be hearing much more about in the coming weeks, as the holidays settle and everyone returns with reports on how it was the best way they spent their 2009 Christmas vacation. Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor [Tiger Style, iPhone, App Store link] Like Eliss, Spider is the perfect example of the type of game that should be dominating the App Store: a brilliantly crafted mix of arcade overtones tooled specifically for the device (its flick-jump alone remains one of the year's best character control schemes), a beautifully vintage children's book style that instantly set it apart, and, at its core, a mature story that reclined quietly and let players ask all the questions of it rather than imposing itself on you. Happily, it did enjoy the chart-topping success it deserved for a time, lending a sliver of hope that iPhone development does reward more than the lowest common denominator, and is always patiently waiting for something smarter to come along -- a sentiment that hopefully will be stirred again when the Tiger Style team release their upcoming 'Director's Cut' update and move on to whatever love letters they've got squirreled away in the dark corners of their future. Windosill [Vectorpark, PC/Mac/web] And finally, Windosill shares an important trait with a number of other entries on this list: it let us explore the make-up of a world entirely unlike our own and entirely representative of its sole creator, here multimedia/interactive artist Patrick 'Vectorpark' Smith. Unlike those other surrealities, though, Windosill is made up of some manner of mathematical magic that lends a truly remarkable tangibility to its unearthly toy-box components. Even its most bizarre creations move as they "should", react believably to our prods and pokes, and, at their best, seem so alive and driven by a spirit of their own that it feels unfathomable that they're the product of code alone. All of these are, of course, Vectorpark hallmarks, and have earned him his reputation over the past several years, but Windosill was important for promoting his work beyond the usual interactive/Flash appreciators and into the wider gaming sphere -- so much so that the game landed Smith his debut on no less a mass-market service than Valve's Steam, momentum that we can only hope will be carried through into the new year.


  1. Personally, I don’t consider the AppStore to be a marketplace; it is a monopoly. Sorry to burst anyone’s bubble.

    1. Apple alone decides whether your App will be placed on the AppStore.
    2. You can’t download or buy iPhone Apps from anywhere *but* the AppStore.
    3. If Apple decides not to list your App, you have no recourse. Too bad, so sad. Guess all the time and money you spent developing your App is wasted. Doesn’t even matter if you took pains to develop the App with Apple’s feedback; just ask Google, which did that, and then had their App rejected.
    4. Apple practices censorship. It doesn’t matter if you are an adult. If Apple disapproves of your song lyrics or other content, you don’t get approved; just ask Trent Reznor.

    If Microsoft did this, there would be howls of protest, not that I am defending Microsoft’s other egregious practices. But they *don’t* control, or try to control, which programs you can put on your PC (DRM excepted, and Apple has that, too).

    When will someone have the “stones” to sue Apple over this travesty?

    Imagine having a phone where you can only call numbers the phone company “approves” of.

    1. Yes, we all know this.

      Do you understand that many of us simply do not mind buying things that work the way they say they will? (and that this fact is not even slightly related to german trains running on time).

      Go forth, buy your other gadget, and shut up about it already.

      1. Works? Do you know the number of times my various iPods over the years have crashed or died? My PC crashes far less than my iPods have.

    2. “If Microsoft did this, there would be howls of protest…”

      Microsoft *does* do this (except for the censorship part, thanks to the ESRB). It’s called Xbox Live Arcade.

      Every other major game console manufacturer does basically the same thing.

      There are fringe grumbles of protest.

    3. Oh, and before anybody points out that you can buy games at retail as well as through Live Arcade (or the equivalent services on PlayStation or Wii), I’ll note that the console manufacturer gets their cut, approves what does and doesn’t go to print, and such at retail as well.

  2. Imagine having a phone where you can only call numbers the phone company “approves” of.

    Imagine a car company covering your after market supercharger under warranty.

  3. My favorite iPhone games:

    * Ragdoll Blaster
    * Scramble
    * Stuck Genie
    * The Wars
    * geoDefense
    * lilt line
    * Fieldrunners
    * WordFu

  4. Well there is AppStore, there is also Cydia.
    Get the best of the two world or go somewhere else.
    You think it’s a monopoly? Well no one forces you to use an iPhone and buy from the AppStore.
    It’s their business, their decision and you are free to give up your free will to Apple.

    Also, this discussion is off-topic.

  5. Craw,

    Sadly Apple has made it very clear since, well, forever, that you do not so much own their products as you pay them a certain amount of money, and they give you permission to use an Apple product under certain very restrictive conditions. The iPhone is just more of the same.

    Mdh also makes a reasonable point, though. It’s the same as any video game console (since the Atari, anyways): only vetted applications are allowed on. Of course, most companies don’t seem to censor nearly as badly as Apple does, and simply make sure the program won’t crash their hardware…

    1. insane comment. apple opens the platform up to devs, provides a storefront that brings their bedroom developed apps to millions and brings into a place a method of them being paid for their apps and they get accused of the iphone being locked down…….

  6. Rolando is decidedly not creative or innovative. It is a straight up ripoff of Sony’s LocoRoco and the game’s “author” should be ashamed. It felt “blindingly polished” because Sony had already made it once!

    Maybe for an encore Hand Circus could make a tactical rhythm-based 2D realtime tactics game. They can call it Smata-Smon. Im sure it will be a big hit. Oooh, and then maybe a futuristic hovercar based racing game, they can call it Smipeout.

    1. It wasn’t intended as a rip, that’s for sure. I know the folks behind the game and in terms of aesthetic and gameplay I know that it wasn’t their intention.

      Whatever you want to call it, they did a damn good job.

  7. That you can download Wiki onto an iPhone almost made me want one… pity about the fact it doesn’t always work so well as a phone.

    And despite the otherwise sexy hardware, I really don’t want much to do with Apple… their Fisher-Price computer OS leaves me cold, as does their whole ‘no user-serviceable parts inside’ high wank-value ethos.

    I’ll stick with Lego-like PCs and eminently hackable Motorolas, thanks… until something genuinely better (more useable, repairable, moddable) reaches my notice.

    1. “Fisher-Price computer OS”? Really? “More usable, blah blah, blah blah”? Uh. Huh. In the Linux community we call this FUD.

      So what you’re saying is, you’re a masochist. Or that you’ve never actually used a Mac. The room I’m sitting in right now has computers running WinXP Pro, RHEL 5, and Snow Leopard. Guess which OS is running the browser I’m using to post this reply?

  8. Well, mdh, if the “after market supercharger” could make the iPhone explode, I certainly wouldn’t expect Apple to cover it under warranty. Seriously, your counter-example is dumb, to use a gentle word.

    Feel free to name a single car manufacturer whose warranty covers a third party after-market accessory which damaged the car. You can’t, because your Straw Man example caught fire. But if you want to be a Fan Boi, go right ahead.

  9. Ok, i try to stay out of the anti apple brigades way, but some of these comments are just a teensy bit.. stupid.

    Fisher-price OS
    Unix (even a freeBSD based variant) is suddenly FisherPrice?

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but it’s actually very flexible. I can do quite a few things on my Mac that I can’t do on my PC. Shellscripts spring to mind (and don’t even try mentioning .bat files, no fledxibility).

    Ok, you may have panicked when you saw a different graphical UI, using different concepts and different ways to reach the same goal. If you code then you might have panicked when you saw the excellent free coding and UI design environment that you got (better than most paid environments on other platforms)

    I use Linux (admittedly mostly Ubuntu as I don’t really need the interesting customizations from some of the other distros and certainly can’t be bothered with anything esoteric), I use Windows (mostly XP, but a little 7. I stay away from Vista, was a techie when that came out and the shellshock is just fading now).
    All these systems have their flaws and strengths, but I can promise that I’m most productive on the Mac. It just works very nicely. That comes from their annoying habit of making the hardware and software.
    On the Windows box I spend a lot more time on optimizations, maintenance and general frustration, but it can run more games. I really like the Linux OSS philosophy but in practice I’ve spent way too much time compiling drivers from source and trying to figure why something simple is complicated. When you get linux (and all drivers) up and running it works pretty decently, but it can just be too complex to get it to work.
    So, instead of mucking about with all that I mostly use my Mac. Money well spent. Maybe not, but I have a bunch of time freed from maintenance duties which I can spend on earning money to pay for the computer ;)

    Three family members and a few friends have switched to Mac. This means that when we meet, we actually chill and talk in the living room, instead of the computer room (where I was often fixing something). Much nicer.

    1. If I knew what to do with a command line (it’s been a long time since DOS) I’d prolly love MacOS.

      But I prefer a useful GUI. Sure, M$ stuff is poorly-designed under the hood, but at least I can make things happen with it, in a choice of several ways, and the apps that run on it tend to offer a number of useful configuration options…

      Yes, Fisher-Price – at least as far as non-ubergeek users go. The existence of a one-button mouse in this century should tell you something… I spent three weeks trying to figure out how to perform the most basic operations on a Mac, and was frustrated at every turn because I didn’t just want to hit the big shiny one-touch button; I wanted some actual control without resorting to a damn command line.

      It’s like a choice between pre-school and a post-doctoral degree on Macs, as far as I can tell.

      And while PC users can (or know someone who can) build machines on the cheap from swap meets and footpaths, the old big-endian Mac gear is relatively useless due to its obscurity.

      Sure, you can make a whole bunch of arguments in favour of Macs, and I acknowledge them, but aside from the gorgeous packaging, the advantages of Mac stuff don’t speak to me. I prefer the advantages of a relatively huge user-base along with all the attendant apps, parts and widespread expertise, and yum-cha knockoff compatibility versus exclusive proprietariness.

      Call that a teensy bit stupid if you like, but since I did qualify my usage of the term ‘better’ in the first place, here’s a mirror.


      So, how about those awesome little games, eh?

      ; )

  10. About the iPhone being a so-so phone…. well, yeah.
    It’s only an ok-ish phone, but just so darn nice as a general handheld device that you forgive its other shortcomings.

  11. i freely admit to using and loving apple products ever since the apple II, but man… the anti-apple wingnuts are just really too much. seriously – i use their products and put up with some of their questionable decisions because in the end, the products and the experience itself outweigh all else. i’m not a blind, drooling “fan boi”, and i certainly don’t feel like i’m under some jackbooted, draconian oppression. i just like to get stuff done in a pleasant to use environment that just works for me. sheesh.

  12. dugg for Captain Forever

    wait, this is boingboing? my bad, i saw the inane platform-war comments and just naturally assumed…

    (the world is a pretty neat place when you give up having to always be right, by the way)

    anyone played captain successor? is it as good as it looks?

  13. maxoid, I shelled out $20 for Successor and was pleased. It’s filled two weekends of my life. Well worth $10 a weekend so far… Can’t wait till multiplayer is added.

  14. Can we stop the OS wars here please?

    Anyway, the Machinarium game looks great. I’ve played through the demo, and I thinking about getting the full version.

    The iPhone games also look good, pity I can’t play them. I hope someone ports them to Android soon — lack of great games is one of the ‘droid app stores major weaknesses. (Though I was hoping Rob would find one or more good ones to post here).

    1. The full version of Machinarium was just so awesome, I’d definitely recommend it. My only advice is that, whatever you do, don’t cheat by watching the walkthroughs on YouTube, because the solutions to every single puzzle in the game, even the tricky ones, are so delightful that you’ll feel like you missed out on an interesting experience. Take your time with the game.

  15. Canabalt is one of my all time favorite games. This is because it is essentially an infinite random “building” generator. I also love the retro graphics!

  16. “Spider: The Secret of Bryce Manor” sounds very cool! I purchased it on my phone, though, and it was taking a while to download. Using iTunes instead, it’s clear why it was taking a while– it’s 56.6MB..:o That sounds really big for an iPhone game… but it’s on the way.

    BTW it’s a shame that EDGE is not currently available in the store– that’s the most amazing game I’ve played in a long time.

  17. Great article. Windosil was one of my top gaming experiences of the year, but that has been such a good year for indie and for experimental games that mix old, often retro-style familiarity with something with novel and often abstract or surreal ideas.
    Definitely nice to see new venues like the app store + steam, XBLA, etc for developers to make some money for a change off of these labors of love. Hopefully this will encourage and continue to polish the talents of these guys.
    Very exciting to try some of these others now, especially Secret of Bryce Manor and Machinarium!

    Other Highlights for me this year – Osmos, And Yet it Moves (was that last year?), Tag, Zenbound, and Dig it Expediations. The Point and Click comeback has been for the most part brilliant as well.

  18. Don’t get me wrong – Machinarium was breathtakingly beautiful.

    HOWEVER: It was too short! Also, part of the game required me to play a boring version of Space Invaders for five minutes. If the game only had a bit more meat to it, I would have been 100% happy!

  19. Wow, the look of Captain Successor just blows my mind, I can’t wait to wrap my head around the free version.

    Also Drop7 will be getting tons of play time for me, or rather the Flash version called Chain Factor, which was referenced but not linked:

  20. I’d also just like to namecheck Demon’s Souls (sic), a JRPG by From Software.

    PS3 exclusive, only got an Asian and US release, and bloody brilliant. If you’re in Europe, I highly recommend trying to get your hands on a Korean import copy. It’s in English and the online players are much more polite than their American counterparts.

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