For all the things the indies are able to do best — experiment wildly and allow themselves the infinite creative freedom that otherwise gives stockholders the chilled sweats — one of their greatest assets is the element of surprise.
Unlike the managed valleys and troughs of the four-year-dev-time hype-cycles, fantastic and wholly unexpected indie games pop up weekly and continually knock us flat on our backs. And so, choosing a list of the games we look forward to the most in 2010 is somewhat a fool's errand, as you honestly never know when another Canabalt is going to land from nowhere in a blinding flash.
But still, there are enough higher-ambition titles — especially for indies making their bigger-budget forays onto consoles — that deserve more attention to make this round-up necessary, so find below ten of the games (of a much larger field about which we know even less: I'm looking at you Bit.Trip: Runner) that you'll likely be hearing much more about in the months ahead, as their gestation periods finally end.
DeathSpank [Hothead, PC/PS3/Xbox 360]
Hopes are high for Penny Arcade Adventures dev Hothead's upcoming DeathSpank to be the Brutal Legend of 2010, not for its mechanical or thematic similarities, but rather its pedigree.
The game marks the return of original grump Ron Gilbert, creator of LucasArts classics Monkey Island and Maniac Mansion, leading this loot-packing Diablo-esque action/RPG crossed with, well, genuine humor, still one of the things games desperately need more of.
Fez [Polytron, Xbox Live Arcade]
The excitement for Fez isn't just based on its inimitable style or perspective-shifting basics, though both obviously help: in helping to debut the game at Austin GDC I got a much longer look at the progress it's made since its Independent Games Festival debut and couldn't be more excited for the direction it's headed and the aspects yet to be revealed.
Though similarities to Super Paper Mario's dimensional shifts are still being drawn elsewhere, Fez does far more with its z-axis than anyone before has dared, making progress through its world directly reliant on cutting a path through each of its four sides.
Joe Danger [Hello Games, platform TBD]
UK upstart Hello Games came out of nowhere in 2009 — well, not nowhere, their Voltron-like team is formed of former Kuju and Criterion leads on games like Burnout 3, Black, Geometry Wars Galaxies and Sega Superstars Tennis — and their indie debut game Joe Danger rose meteorically to many top most wanted lists, especially after its debut at Eurogamer's 2009 Expo (from which the video above was leaked).
Forget the recent World Rally WiiWare remake: Joe Danger is the 21st century Excitebike we didn't know we wanted, with a gorgeous toy-like blue-sky aesthetic and a firm handle on stunt- and trick-jumping that rivals even Trials HD for expert handling.
NightSky [Nicalis, WiiWare]
Apparently lost in deep-sleep stasis somewhere in a cryo chamber hidden deep within Nintendo, NightSky should have been one of 2009's best, but — with any luck — will move on to top 2010 lists.
As good a bedtime-story game as we'll probably ever get, NightSky comes from Nicklas 'Nifflas' Nygren — the same Knytt creator that only weeks ago surprised debuted best-of-2009 champ Saira.
With a firm focus on more physics-based platforming and an entirely original approach to What Game Music Can Be — the lullabies here provided by Chris Schlarb (part of Sufjan Stevens' indie music collective Asthmatic Kitty) — NightSky's set to be an instant WiiWare classic, if it could only let itself actually emerge.
Quarrel [Denki, Xbox Live Arcade]
It'll be hard to tell from simply the screenshot above what to expect from Quarrel, and even if I then go on to explain that it's at heart a competitive word game, you might be forgiven for giving it the same pass as you rightly did a number of the lower-shelf family games that were released to no fanfare on Xbox Live Arcade this year.
But this one — be assured! — is different. Not just because of the team behind it — though Denki head Gary Penn has more than proved himself over the years with design credits on the original Grand Theft Auto and Crackdown — but for the game's more strategic underpinnings, where the actual competitive word battles are simply its substitute for combat in a larger land-grab conquest (which you see above: think DiceWars). Fast-paced, instantly approachable, and considerably and considerately iterated on for the better part of a year, Quarrel is already set to be a game worth yelling about.
Diamond Trust [Jason Rohrer, DS]
It was the least likely design doc surprise of 2009, as Jason Rohrer — solo dev behind reigning art-game-champ Passage and the Esquire-curated (?!) game Between — announced he was partnering with casual publisher Majesco to create a DS game based on "diamond trading in Angola on the eve of the passage of the Kimberly Process."
We've only seen the recently released scraps of screenshots (well, and a chick-pea and penny based prototype), but the blood diamond trade is nothing if not a, well, diamond mine of strategic, socio-political, and potential emotional depth, and there are few people other than Rohrer that I'd trust to smartly interpret that in interactive form.
Scott Pilgrim [Ubisoft, platform TBD]
Here's the wildcard of the bunch: we don't really know what Ubisoft's got up its sleeve for the game based on Canadian comic artist Bryan Lee O'Malley's cult hit comic book series, but what we do know is that there is nothing in Scott Pilgrim's already deeply videogame-influenced world that shouldn't perfectly translate into one itself.
Deep-Throat rumblings about some of the cherry-picked team behind the game have bolstered some extra high hopes that this won't just be a quick cash-in tie-in with Edgar Wright's film adaptation (itself my most anticipated movie of 2010), but with nothing publicly said about the game other than their intention to create it and continual consultation with O'Malley himself, there's nothing much to do in the meantime but scrunch your eyes up tight and hope.
Spelunky [Mossmouth, Xbox Live Arcade]
You say: "God, Spelunky again?" I say: absolutely. Even though we've already spent all of 2009 plumbing its procedurally generated depths — over, and over, and over, and over — on PC, the forthcoming console port of Derek Yu's retro-platformer is worth watching for all the ways in which it won't be a port.
Yu's already recently explained that at least graphically, the Xbox 360 version will be a much different beast, relying on a more painterly approach akin to his work on Aquaria, and in general seems to be hinting that it holds other experimental surprises that will separate it from the freeware version it was branched from. To say nothing of the simple fact that now it's Spelunky in our living rooms! Over, and over, and over, and over.
Super Meat Boy [Team Meat, WiiWare]
There's nothing necessarily experimental about Team Meat's super-charged console port of their free Flash original Meat Boy: it's just old-school white-knuckle challenge-based platforming done gloriously right.
The Meat boys are determined not to make any concessions to the white-livered weaker players among us: having run through its first world, I can assure you that there's essentially no such thing as a safe landing in any of Meat Boy's levels until you've reached the end.
It'll be the visceral thrill that separates — I don't know, the prime cuts from the grist — and also, unrelatedly, will likely be the most indie-all-star jam packed game of the year, with cameo appearances already assured from Braid star Tim, Bit.Trip protagonist Commander Video, and The Behemoth's original Alien Hominid.
Zangeki no Reginleiv [Sandlot, Wii]
This list was almost entirely conceived to give proper due to this game, which might be completely unfair as it still hasn't been confirmed for a Western release. On the surface it might appear to be any other word-jumble from the subset of Japanese gaming that only two small handfuls of obsessive sub-culture fans in the West can appreciate, but again, let me assure you this is different.
I know this, having seen only as much as the trailer above, because I know developer Sandlot: or rather, I know they are the team behind the jaw-droppingly brilliant and desperately under-appreciated Earth Defense Force games (only one of which has made it to the States as the Xbox 360's Earth Defense Force 2017 — you can find it for about $10 now and you need to purchase it immediately. Europe was luckier to have received its even more necessary PlayStation 2 prequels).
Originally devised as cheap budget thrills, the EDF series is a fantastically simple setup: choose two guns, shoot at about thirty billion cut-and-paste stock-3D-model giant ants and spiders that all swarm at you at once. But it works, better than you'd ever dream, the true gamer's game.
And then comes Reginleiv, which takes that same formula and substitutes in Norse mythology for all the future-alien-invasion b-movie tropes, hands you swords to Wii-mote slash on top of the firearm stock (here represent, of course, by "magic"), but leaves in all of the overwhelming and beelining enemy forces and, best, the towering demigods (which you can get a better taste of via this too-short earlier video teaser).
Nintendo obviously has higher hopes for this one than all of the budget publishers before have had for their previous works — they're publishing it themselves in Japan — and with more ambitious co-op play, this will be the year's biggest tragedy if we don't see it make its way West-ward.