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Summer Indie Showdown

The summer months are notorious for a slowdown in major retail releases. Luckily, in recent years indie games have done well to fill in the gaps with a steadier stream of releases during this time. Today I’m going to take a look at three successful indie titles that were featured on consoles during the month of July and determine which one is the best. This is essentially three mini reviews in one and it assumes the reader is at least familiar with the game. What can go wrong?

Representing the Nintendo Wii U is the Kickstarter funded project Shovel Knight by Yacht Club games. Then for Playstation 4 is Towerfall Ascension, the definitive version of the OUYA hit from Canadian developer Matt Thorson. Last but not least, Guacamelee: Super Turbo Championship Edition volunteers as tribute for the Xbox One. Although Guacamelee came out on all 3 platforms, it was featured as one of of XB1’s free game of the month for July so it seemed fitting to have this game be the Xbox representative. The games will be compared in four categories: visual, audio, gameplay, and replay value. Earning two category wins will seal the victory for one of these games.

Visuals

Shovel Knight and Towerfall are both pixel art games while Guacamelee features hand drawn animation and digitally painted textures. Towerfall is the least visually impressive in terms of art direction though it is not an ugly game by any means. In fact the game looks great with its lighting effects, detailed backdrops, and fluid pixel animations, but it is simply hard to stand up to Shovel Knight’s incredible attention to detail. Shovel Knight was painstakingly designed to look like an 8-bit NES game and sticks to the original color palette of the console, only cheating in two additional color swatches. Shovel Knight isn’t shy about where it borrows its inspiration and does a great job of replicating the look and feel of the games it takes its inspiration from.  The game is also in full HD where as Towerfall takes the original resolution of the game and puts purple bars to the side of it to fill up the rest of the screen.

Guacamelee excels visually on all fronts. The game looks like a painting with its highly detailed foreground and background elements overlaid with soft filters that blend the world together. Lighting effects and particles are well executed and give the world a dream-like whimsy that entices you to explore it. One of the mechanics in Guacamelee allows the player to switch between the land of living and the land of the dead. Both worlds are radically different in tone but equal in beauty. I found myself switching back and forth between both dimensions to marvel at the landscapes. Congratulations, Guacamelee. You are the new Miss Game-merica.

Audio

Every one of these games has great sound design for their respective styles. Towerfall’s bleepy explosions and bloopy death tones fit the theme of cute things killing each other quite nicely,Shovel Knight remains faithful to the original NES by using the original sound chips, andGuacamelee sounded great with the music turned off. So really, this section comes down to the musical offerings.

I loved Guacamelee’s use of live instrumentation to create a collection of tracks that sounded straight from the south of the border. However, most of the music was recycled in later sections and it felt like the game cycled between what seemed like less than ten tracks. It didn’t always play to the mood or do much to raise the stakes. Hearing the same background music in the last temple that was in the first temple fails to build the tension the way a final dungeon should.

Towerfall has a nice collection of MIDI tracks that are epic in the way that the music of Super Smash Bros. Melee is with its similarly digitally produced orchestral tracks. The format of an arcade type game suggests that you’ll be hearing the same song a lot which unlikeGuacamelee acts in its favor. The pieces are catchy and fun to battle to, which is all you can expect.

Shovel Knight  is the clear winner in this department with 47 original tracks, two of which were composed by Manami Matsumae who is known for her work on the Mega Man series. The music in this game contributes deeply to the rich but subtle storytelling. The menu music feels like a call to action while the village theme gives the hub world grandeur. With 100% authentic chiptune music, Shovel Knight manages to deliver musical offerings more booming and banging than most games in recent memory.

Gameplay

All three games are incredibly fun in their own right offering the perfect mix of accessibility and challenge. In every case, I was able to put a controller into the hands of my friends and they were able to jump right in.

Towerfall benefits from its simplicity. Move, jump, shoot, and dodge are the only controls and they’re all mapped intuitively. This allows players to get straight into the action. The game is still capable of being deep and it evolves as the player’s ability does. Towerfall feels meticulously designed, from the way arrows home in on targets to the inclusion of advanced techniques like dodge canceling. It seems that everything was considered and balanced to the point of obsession. I wholeheartedly believe this game is worthy of eSports’ recognition — a testament to its polish.

Shovel Knight is one of the best NES adventure games you’ll ever play because it is a combination of all the best NES games you’ve ever played.  From the precise platforming to the risk/reward checkpoint system, the game is full of challenge. It is a character piece and everyone you encounter has a memorable personality. It is also refreshing to play as a character who has a voice rather than the silent hero, and the noble Shovel Knight is a character who I was proud to represent. The game’s approach to difficulty balance puts the power completely in the player’s hands without ever having them open an options menu.

Guacamelee is Metroid Fusion with a sense of humor. The main character can even roll around in a ball like Samus Aran. In this game, every power-up serves three purposes: improving combat options, destroying certain barriers, and increasing mobility. For instance, your first power up is an uppercut move that lifts enemies up into the air which is a great set up for some truly devastating combos. Since the uppercut also propels you upward, it acts as a sort of double jump as well. Once you unlock more abilities, you’ll have to use them all in quick succession to work your way through trick platforming sections. These sections require you to use almost every button on the controller and moments like these are where Guacameleeshines.

Each of these games are super tight and polished, but when all is said and done, Towerfallfeels like the most tight and most polished. Plus it’s the only game that offers a true multiplayer experience. However what truly tips Towerfall ahead of the other games in terms of gameplay is the moment to moment action. Towerfall is the only game that made me jump out of my seat, heart pumping, and screaming at my TV. These experiences are like crack and have me gathering my friends together so I can chase that high.

Replay Value

Guacamelee offers what you’d expect from a game nowadays: New Game Plus and a slew of challenging achievements. The game has built in challenges and a pit of trials as well as a vibrant world to explore once you’ve earn all your powers. I hunted for hours and still couldn’t collect everything. There’s a lot there.

Shovel Knight also has a New Game Plus mode in addition to a host of DLC content that is currently in development including challenges levels. New Game Plus isn’t enough of an offering for most, and I certainly subscribe to that notion.

Towerfall is a complete experience but the metagame is constantly evolving. As I play with my friends, we continue to discover new techniques and strategies that are always keeping us on our toes. I was blown away by the stuff I saw when watching a Towerfall tournament at EVO last month. There is so much customization in the game that you could spend years discovering new ways to play. With story driven games like Shovel Knight and Guacamelee, what you see is ultimately what you get. Towerfall wins the replay value category.

The Verdict

Choosing a winner is so difficult because each of these games are so wonderful. For the purposes of this feature the winner of the Summer Indie Showdown is Towerfall Ascension! This game is truly deserving of the victory but I also want to make something clear. I came up with this arbitrary “two win” scoring system just so I could justify choosing one game over another, but the reality is that I’ve recommended all three of these games to multiple people. I’ve played a lot of games in July, but I keep coming back to these three titles again and again.

Perhaps in the end it depends on what you, the reader, are looking for in the moment. If you want a charming story to be invested in, Shovel Knight will scratch that itch. If high-energy competitive gameplay is your thing then Towerfall is a must have. And Guacamelee provides a beautifully realized world that is fun to explore for anyone looking to lose themselves for a few hours. The fact that I don’t have any actual gripes with any of these titles should say a ton. I simply prefer some aspects of each game when compared to another which sounds like a cop out except for that I really mean it. Maybe this is why I don’t enjoy reviewing games. Either way, this is my story and I’m sticking to it.

Written by Marcus Garrett

Marcus created Top Shelf Gaming to celebrate the awesome things about the video game industry while challenging the areas of the video game community that could be improved. He loves playing guitar and eating tacos, but never at the same time.

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