9 indie games shamelessly inspired by retro ancestors

Party like it’s 1989

Blah blah indie games. Blah blah, cheap NES game rip-offs. Weve all heard the tedious battlecry of the anti-indie backlash by now. Its usually a load of old rot; an uninformed nonsense-rant that takes the pixelart aesthetic as a jumping off point and then looks no deeper. You know, like into little details like game design, or any of that other, inconsequential stuff.

That said, although often expressed with premium-grade inaccuracy, there is a hint of truth to the sentiment buried underneath the offal pile of jerking knees. You see there are a fair few indie games that definitely do have their roots in the earlier years of gaming–not just copies of Minecraft (opens in new tab). In fact a few are packed with design nods to very specific retro games. It was bound to happen when a certain generation of gamers grew up and started making games of their own. Childhood is one hell of a powerful influence, just ask Freud.

Mercenary Kings

What is it? A rampantly violent, cartoon platform-shooter comprising gorgeous, chunky sprites, and intricately detailed animation. Players run, jump, shoot and stab (opens in new tab) their way through a swathe of retro-futuristic levels, obliterating chubby soldiers and clunky machines each and every second. Theres also co-op and a weapon-crafting system.

Whats it inspired by? Metal Slug, which presents most of the above (opens in new tab), bar the weapon-crafting. Mercenary Kings non-linear upgrade system represents a major change from Metal Slugs resolutely straightforward arcade romps, but the lineage is undeniable. Hell, they even have almost the same logo.

Volgarr the Viking

What is it? A meaty, mythological, 2D platform slash-em up, with a punishing but fair difficulty balance. An affectionate tribute to the genres 8 and 16-but heyday, its built out of cribbed influences, glued together with love.

Whats it inspired by? Primarily Rastan. Volgorrs weighty movement, horizontal attack focus, and even the games approach to level design, are all taken from the blueprint of Taitos 1987 arcade game. Compare Volgarr footage (opens in new tab) to Rastan’s gameplay (opens in new tab) and youll see what I mean. Even the slope-sliding mechanic is the same. Elsewhere, the double-jumping Dane (Im assuming hes Danish for the purpose of alliteration) borrows the treasure chest and armour collecting from Ghouls n Ghosts, and theres a whopping great Altered Beast reference on the title screen.

Thomas Was Alone

What is it? A quirky, funny, and rather emotional existential platform-puzzler set inside a computer mainframe, dealing with themes of co-operation and friendship. A collection of geometric AI shapes pool their resources (opens in new tab) and unique abilities to overcome their worlds various obstacles and tribulations.

Whats it inspired by? Lets face it, its basically just Tetris: The Platformer, isnt it? Okay, so it isnt. But theres definite smack of single-player, SNES co-op platform game The Lost Vikings (opens in new tab) in there. In fact the same goes for Frozenbytes 2009 game, Trine, which evolves the idea in a more traditional fantasy setting.

Mighty No. 9

What is it? Mega Man by any other name. Well, not any other name. Its name is Mighty No. 9.

Whats it probably inspired by? Mega Man. And the fact that it’s being made by Mega Man’s designer (opens in new tab) pretty much makes it indie inspiration Inception.

Hotline Miami

What is it? A brutally tough, top-down shooter in which a technically weak, underpowered character triumphs over seemingly insurmountable numbers of almost immediately lethal enemies, via the smart use of limited ammo and a sound grasp of tactical door-opening.

Whats it inspired by? Probably Alien Breed (opens in new tab) on the Commodore Amiga, which is basically a less sophisticated version of the above, but with thinly disguised xenomorphs instead besuited bloodbags. Incidentally, Alien Breed was developed by Team 17, the publisher of one of the later imitators on this list. What youre witnessing here, kids, is the very circle of life itself. Everybody sing.

A Hat in Time

What is it? A bright, breezy cartoon platformer, aggressively seeping a giddy blend of bright-eyed personality, chirpy tunes and all-encompassing quirk. Obviously its visuals are pseudo cell-shaded, in accordance with law.

Whats it probably inspired by? Big budget Nintendo, comprising the period of 1996 2007. Take Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine and The Legend of Zelda: Wind Waker, stick them in a blender, then go out and buy new copies, because blending games breaks them. Play those new copies back to back, and then imagine a game that blends their aesthetic, game-flow and humour in a grand homogeny of triple-A Nintendo fun. Thats what A Hat in Time looks like. And it doesnt even care. In fact it probably bloody loves it, as well it should. Just look at the button-map in the screenshot above. Just look at it.

The Legend of Grimrock

What is it? A first-person, grid-based dungeon crawling RPG, set within the grim, stony walls of a very traditional western RPG setting.

Whats it probably inspired by? The very games that made that setting traditional in the first place. Early 90s home computer RPGs such as Eye of the Beholder (opens in new tab), Dungeon Master and Ultima Underworld created the template for the pseudo-realtime, first-person dungeon crawl, casting parties of D&D approved warrior archetypes into sprawling, maze-like, resolutely square dungeons of slimy stone and oversized creepy-crawly enemies. Legend of Grimrock does all of the above, and then makes the slime extra shiny.

The Zenonia series

What is it? A beautiful, detailed, gloriously colourful 2D action-RPG (opens in new tab), with a gorgeous soundtrack, lush environments, and a whole lot of stat-handling going on under its sword-swinging action.

Whats it probably inspired by? Secret of Mana (opens in new tab), and to a lesser extent, Nintendos Legend of Zelda series. The real-time, isometric combat apes Manas fast-paced, combo-driven battling and accessible magic system all the way, as does the games marriage of immediate, easily comprehensible game mechanics and deep, proper roleplaying. The graphical style and structure of area layouts are also as close as a lawsuit will allow, and as for the upbeat, layered, sparkly vibe of its soundtrack? Some of it could almost be made out of Hiroki Kikuta b-sides.


What is it? A frantic-looking puzzler in which a pack of barely sentient wildlife (known in the real world for its blindly-following pack mentality) bumbles around hazardous 2D environments. The player has to impart special powers and build safe paths in order to keep marauding fatalism at bay and keep his sheep alive.

Whats it probably inspired by? Lemmings. A frantic-looking puzzler in which a pack of barely sentient wildlife (known in the real world for its blindly-following pack mentality) bumbles around a hazardous 2D environment. The player has to impart special powers and build safe paths in order to keep marauding fatalism at bay and keep his Lemmings alive.

Feeling inspired?

So, that’s a fresh, tasty slab of some of the brightest and best retro resurrections. But which are your favourites? Any you think we’ve missed from this list? Any particularly egregious knock-offs that you think have gone too far? Let me know in the comments.

And now that you’ve made it this far, what would you possibly have to lose by checking out some more of our stuff? The 25 best indie games of all time (opens in new tab) would be a good place to look, and if you’re in more of a retro mood, direct your attention to our new video series, Sega Saturdays (opens in new tab). It’s really good. Promise.

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