With blood pressures rising like a stormy sea, tempers flaring at a pin drop and once-cheerful moods dampened by months of frozen slush and chilly blasts of arctic fury, there’s no mistaking it: The holiday season is in full swing. As the malevolence of wintry tradition continues to barrel down on you, it’s often the small, simple comforts that count. Curling up by the warmth of a roaring hearth and melting away into a dreamy haze with the latest blockbuster game of choice can be a lifesaver – unless you’re too broke from holiday shopping to afford such delights.
Your credit cards, maxed out from purchasing thoughtful gifts for a multitude of loved ones, may be worthless, but take solace in the fact there are many wholesome indie gaming gems beckoning for your attention. These wondrous attractions are accessible to neophytes and masters alike, all for the lovely price of completely free. Come! Let us lose ourselves in the swirling vortex of indie freeware bliss. Grab your mouse and follow me.
While costly, peripheral-laden rhythm games continue to clog living rooms and let gamers live out their rock star fantasies, Frets on Fire delivers the rock without all the fuss. This open-source Guitar Hero clone lets you shred through tunes by wielding your keyboard like an instrument. You use keys F1 through F5 to hit the colored note frets and the Enter key to strum. Aside from making you look completely ridiculous while rocking out with your PC keyboard in mid-air, Frets on Fire is a solid recreation of the Guitar Hero experience. Even better, you can import songs from early Guitar Hero games or download other original compositions created by Frets on Fire‘s growing fan community.
In a similar spirit, Portal: The Flash Version offers a poor man’s alternative to Valve’s critically acclaimed Portal. It uses the same unique physics concepts of the original but in the form of a 2-D platformer. Despite the very different play perspective, working your way through the game’s 40-plus rooms and solving puzzles by using your head and a two-way portal gun is just as satisfying in 2-D. The game’s slick cel-shaded art direction is also a faithful recreation of Valve’s sleeper hit. It’s worth a try, whether you’re already a Portal fan or new to the game entirely.
Bubble Tanks 2 takes the arena-style battling of Combat and drops it into a bubble bath full of danger. Piloting a small bubble tank armed with a pea shooter through a series of circular bubble arenas, you’ll face increasingly complex foes concocted of the very same bubbles. Trashing their tanks and collecting the spoils lets you upgrade your own vehicle, which slowly grows and changes with every batch of bubbles it collects. Conversely, taking too many hits yourself causes your tank to revert to its weaker forms. The constant balance between trying to crush opponents to earn more bubbles and keeping your tank intact long enough to reap the firepower benefits makes for an exhilarating experience.
Quite often, it’s not the size of your sword that counts but how well you use it. That’s not the case in Ginormo Sword, however. The entire point of this excellent hack-and-slash game is to roam the land carving up pixilated beasties and use the gold you’ve accumulated along the way to forge the most immense sword possible. Don’t let the blocky, 8-bit graphics fool you – Ginormo Sword is a well-designed and challenging retro-inspired romp through epic fantasy realms. The sword forging element, which allows you to spend gold to incrementally adjust the length and width of each sword you obtain, is a fun and silly mechanic that never gets old.
GemCraft is the holy trinity of gem-matching, tower defense and RPG gameplay rolled into one. An evil wizard has unleashed an army of shambling atrocities bent on slaughtering the citizens of the land. As the local good wizard, you’ll attempt to cut down wave after wave of the vile creatures spilling forth from the dark castle as the beasts lurch hungrily down the path through one village after another. Plunking down towers along their route and equipping these mini-bastions with energy-shooting gems is the only way to halt their progress. Every action you take eats up precious mana, which you only regenerate in small quantities each time one of your towers destroys a monster. You also need mana to summon gem fragments. Different gem colors possess unique elemental properties, and matching smaller gem types together creates larger, more powerful baubles. Throw in some cool spells, additional defense upgrades, unlockable achievements and a leveling-up system, and you can kiss your free time goodbye.
The charming Cave Story drops you into a beautifully pixelated subterranean world where cute, rabbit-like creatures are menaced by a malicious entity stealing them for nefarious experiments. This very original, engaging journey feels extremely polished, from the engrossing story and characters to the slick GBA-era artistic direction. The side-scrolling platform gameplay brings to mind classics like Super Metroid and Castlevania. Though WiiWare users will have an opportunity to spend some cash to enjoy an enhanced version of the game, the original PC version lets you run, jump and shoot your way through a grand adventure for free (with the help of an English translation patch).
If you’ve ever wondered what dolphins do in their spare time, the acrobatic antics found in Dolphin Olympics 2 isn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility. This one is excellent for short diversions, since each game only takes two minutes to play. The game revolves around making your dolphin gain speed and jump out of the water to pull off airborne tricks. Your only objective is to get a high score before the time runs out. The trick element is comparable to the Tony Hawk games, albeit in a very pared-down way. You can rotate and spin in the air, and even tail-grind on the water’s surface. Pulling off elaborate trick combos and re-entering the water at the right angle gives you speed boosts to propel your dolphin to greater heights – including outer space.
The explosive impact of a giant meteor signals the arrival of the apocalypse in Dino Run. You control an adorable little dino as it leaps over (and occasionally eats) other fleeing creatures while bounding across all manner of terrain obstacles in a race to escape an oncoming wall of fiery death. A multiplayer option lets you race against other players, though going solo is just as fun. Along the way you’ll have opportunities to unlock intensely cute little hats to plop on your dino’s noggin. The frenetic gameplay and endearing retro graphics make this one a blast.
For those who thirst for the gritty battlefields of days long past, Warfare 1917 may be just the power struggle you’ve been looking for. The game pits your army in a reverse tug-of-war against enemy forces. Each side can produce different kinds of troops to send out into their trenches to defend against incoming foes. When the timing is right, you can send your soldiers charging forward through barbed wire and incoming mortar rounds to take out fortified enemy positions. You can use experience gained on the battlefield to upgrade combat or bombardment skills, providing plenty of incentive to get down in the dirt and violently crawl the extra bloody mile.
As far as browser-based multiplayer RPGs go, Kingdom of Loathing is absolutely one of a kind. Join the ranks of the Seal Clubbers, Pastamancers, Disco Bandits or other nonsensical classes in a hilariously enchanting journey through one of the strangest kingdoms you’ll ever encounter. Be prepared to battle Were-tacos, spelunk through the Dungeon Full of Dungeons, test your familiars’ powers in the Cake-Shaped Arena and engage in countless other shenanigans. This long-running parody-laden fantasy dominion is a must for online adventure game fans. It requires a free sign-up, but it’s absolutely worth the two minutes it takes to do so. Remember: “An Adventurer is You!”
The human body may sound like a strange place to mount a war, but such conflicts rage within our systems all the time as a regular function of our immune systems. At a microscopic level, Nanowar is an unusual real-time strategy game that pits opposing groups of cells against one another in a quest for microcosmic domination. Each cell you control slowly grows in number every second, and you can send projectiles containing half a cell’s numbers toward opposing cells. Overwhelming enemy cells captures them and allows you to spread your cellular force across the organic playing field. If the concept sounds overly simple, it’s because it is. However, Nanowar amply proves playing an RTS based solely on colored circles containing numbers can be seriously absorbing.
The aptly titled Choke on my Groundhog, YOU BASTARD ROBOTS has the potential to evoke the frequent utterance of phrases very much in line with its bizarre moniker. Robots have overrun Earth, and as the last human survivor, you’re hell bent on taking as many of those jerks out as possible. It’s a straightforward task but not one that’s easily accomplished. Scores of varying destructive automatons sprout from all directions, seeking to mangle your squishy human flesh. You’ll simultaneously dodge the droids while aiming endless sprays of rapid-fire bullets in their direction with the mouse. Get killed? No problem: Your time traveling groundhog lets your go back into the past to aid your past self. However, your “old you” will only remain up until the point when he was killed. It’s a completely odd but very cool mechanic that allows you to clone a multitude of yourself to fight against the mechanized menace. The game’s crayon-colored graphics, set against a blue and white graph paper background, make the game feel like an interactive grade-school drawing session – one with robots, bullets, and blood.
For a more relaxing experience, Music Catch provides a soothing piano music backdrop to a gently engrossing shape-gathering challenge. The volume and tone of the music cause colorful shapes to cascade across the screen that you collect with the mouse. Though a range of colors are present, catching yellow shapes adds to your score multiplier and increase the size of your cursor. Catching a red shape decreases both. Purple shapes turn your cursor into a vortex, sucking in all the good notes flying around. The learning curve isn’t terribly steep, but it’s pleasantly stimulating nonetheless.
Rounding out the bunch, Hell of Sand isn’t a game at all. Rather, it’s an open-ended physics toy capable of intermittently killing a few minutes of boredom throughout the day. Four streams of particles (sand, water, wax and oil) continuously fall in fountain-like fashion from the top of the screen. Using the mouse, you can draw barriers to pool and manipulate the streams, and you have a variety of volatile substances at your disposal to create some interesting effects. Equipping the fire tool allows you to melt the wax particles, burn oil or set off explosive fuses. Plant lines react to contact with water particles by sprouting green branches. Concrete starts out as liquid particles but slowly solidifies into solid lines. Essentially, this sandbox offers a lot of play without the stress of having to actually do much of anything. How very Zen.
As our trek through the digital realm of freebie independent gaming opportunities draws to a close, rest assured there are many more glorious adventures to be found. Mining the depths of the internet may turn up plenty of trash, but a little perseverance can draw works of independent brilliance to the top of the muck. It’s in these treasures we find some small satisfaction when our pockets are threadbare and our wallets are empty.
Nathan Meunier is a freelance writer and game journalist. He loves to hunt down and write about awesome independently made games as much as he loves to play them.