When designing a triple-A smash hit game, companies tend to go all-in. This usually means aseembling a large team of very talented individuals, each with unique skills and specialties. Look at the likes of Rockstar or Ubisoft and you’ll find companies with hundreds of staff working tirelessly to create worlds spanning miles of digital space. It’s a process that requires a balance of different skills, opinions, perspectives, and a whole lot of manpower to achieve.
So imagine the process of creating a solo-developed game, where one individual creates an entire game on their own. It seems unthinkable, but incredibly, this is not a foreign concept in game development. The efforts of small, but dedicated dev teams managed to kick off the indie game boom of the early to mid 2010’s, giving us a collection of wonderful indie titles. Amongst those, however, were a small handful of games developed by a single person. Yet they have the depth, brilliance, and attention to detail that suggests otherwise. So, lets look at the best solo-developed games ever.
5. Fez — Phil Fish
We start off with a game that wasn’t truly a solo effort. Fez, the indie 2D platformer, was initially a two-man job. However, throughout development, developers Shawn McGrath and Phil Fish had a very public falling out. McGrath would eventually sign off the project and Fish would finish the game with the help of Renaud Bédard. However, this game is still included in this list because of Phil Fish’s perfectionist attitude towards its development. Throughout four years of development hell, Fish would practically lose his mind trying to bring this colorful adventure to life. Ultimately, this was his baby.
Thankfully, Fez made it through development and is regarded as one of the most whimsically fun and creative indie games on the market. If you’re interested in seeing Fish’s behind-the-scenes struggles, check out Indie Game: The Movie. The documentary follows Fez’s development, along with another solo developed title, Braid, and action-platformer Super Meat Boy. It serves as terrific insight into the amount of work, pressure, and hardship that comes with indie game development. Sadly, Fish’s exit from the gaming industry means we probably won’t ever see the proposed sequel to Fez, though the original will forever stand as a masterclass in solo design.
4. Pokémon GBA ROMs — Various Creators
Again, not a conventional entry, and this is more of a movement than one sole title. Game Freak’s GBA outings were arguably the pinnacle of the top-down, 2D Pokémon RPG format. So, when individual hobbyists began taking the base games and tweaking them to create brand new and interesting titles, it gave Pokémon fans a plethora of new content to enjoy. And it was all free to download. Was it necessarily legal? No, not really. Was Nintendo pissed about their intellectual property being stolen? You bet. Yet, for that brief spell, developers created brand new pocket monster adventures for everyone to get stuck into.
Now, it may seem strange to be piling praise onto developers who simply recycled assets from big name developers. And I agree, those ROMs usually suck. But the ROMs that I’m talking about have their own stories, new graphics, unique monsters and mechanics, and tweaks to the original game’s difficulty and tone. So although these are not completely solo-made, it’s clear that the developers have put their heart and soul into the development of these ROM hacks.
One of the best examples is Ash Gray, by Metapod23, which allowed you to play through the original anime story. Snakewood, by Cutlerine, treated us to a weird zombie Pokémon narrative. Advanced Adventure by Dbzmay stuck to the usual formula but offers a zany twist in the narrative with your rival being an evil overlord. And then there’s the crushing difficulty and unique storyline of Dark Rising created by DarkRisingGirl. There are so many new and innovative ROMs to download and play — just don’t tell the big wigs at Nintendo when you boot them up.
3. Papers, Please — Lucas Pope
Papers, Please was born from former Naughty Dog developer Lucas Pope’s various xenophobic run-ins with immigration authorities, taking further influence from various espionage This unique indie game is Set in a dystopian nation during a Cold War, this unique indie game casts the player in an usual position of power — your character mans a border control kiosk, giving you the power to deny entry to the great and glorious (and fictional) nation of Arstotzka.
However, it soon turns into a fight for survival as you have to balance your conscience with your domestic life. As mistakes become life threatening for you and your family (you’ve got bills to pay and mouths to feed, after all), critical thinking and careful analysis become essential. Then, added work responsibilities like checking work permits or local terrorism only adds to the tension, and minor decisions become moral dilemmas. Papers, Please asks the player how evil they can be when the “moral” choice inflicts suffering on you and your in-game family.
Papers, Please is a fantastically crafted game with a gritty art style and soundtrack that provides thought-provoking social commentary. Not bad for one guy. Lucas Pope, take a bow.
2. Undertale — Toby Fox
In Toby Fox’s Undertale, you take control of a boy that has fallen to the center of the Earth, beneath the magical barrier where the monsters whom were once man’s equal were banished. This RPG uses the simple premise of guiding your character back to the surface to create an RPG experience unlike anything that had preceded it. The game offers a uniquely self-aware RPG experience that pokes fun at the usual tropes of the genre. It also offers a bullet hell combat system with options to subdue and pacify enemies. However, the true genius of the combat comes through its unique blend of dialogue and action. The moments when fourth wall-breaking meta-dialogue penetrates the turn-based combat gameplay are captivating, giving each encounter a truly unpredictable feel.
Its blend of comedy, self-awareness, and genuinely touching moments testing your morality and humanity allow Undertale to succeed in spite of its unconventionality, because that same unconventionality is Undertale’s greatest strength. IGN’s Kallie Plagge said it best when discussing the game’s specialty in her review for Undertale. Kallie says Undertale is great at “playing with our expectations of what an RPG should be, subverting them, and using them to drive a story unique to what games can do.” To think that Fox created every fiber of this masterpiece on his own is mind blowing. Undertale received massive critical praise and various award outlets nominated it for Game of the Year in 2015.
1. Stardew Valley — Eric Barone
In at the top spot is Eric Barone’s Harvest Moon-inspired smash hit, Stardew Valley. This game blends all the best aspects of relaxing RPG classics into one wholesome experience. Often thought of in the same vein as Animal Crossing, Slime Rancher, and Harvest Moon, this farming sim offers hundreds of hours of stress-free gameplay. Crafted over the span of four years, Barone has made a game that offers a sense of community and deals with difficult and controversial issues with respect and delicacy. Yet, it still manages to deliver fun consistent and fun gameplay throughout.
The reason Stardew Valley takes the top spot isn’t just because Eric created a wonderful game. He also constantly develops and improves the game through new content patches and quality of life adaptions. An example being the most recent patch that added over 200 unique changes to the base game. Some were large changes, some were intricate details such as your in-game pets being able to sleep in your bed. It’s that attention to detail that wins Stardew Valley and Eric Barone the top spot. The game continues to be a great and growing success. If you want to keep up with the upcoming changes to the game, follow Eric’s twitter here.
Are there any solo developed games that would have been in your top five? What solo developed games did we miss? Let us know in the comments. Also if you’re interested in more Culture of Gaming content, why not check out this review on new indie title 7th Sector? Thanks for reading!