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 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.
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, 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.
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.
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.