by John Rogers & various contributors
As any browser of eShops, news sites and game stores (people still do that, right?) will know, new games are released at a staggering rate. They appear in such multitudes that it’s even a challenge for large media organisations to stay abreast of what’s coming out, never mind individual gamers. Some outlets estimate that from 2018 to 2020, around 8,000-10,000 games were released per year. That’s between 21-27 releases every single day (and that probably doesn’t include the experimental Itch scene)
Major releases are hard to miss but for indie studios, it’s a big challenge to cut through the noise. Taking into account that the indie game environment is teeming with innovation and fresh ideas, this means that many games – even those that sell well and garner some critical recognition – don’t quite reach the mass audience they deserve.
With that in mind, I reached out to our games writers and asked them a simple question: what games did you fall in love with that didn’t reach a mass audience? And why should we play them? We hope the results give you some inspiration on something new to try.
Podcaster, reviewer, RAR games editor | Twitter
I love a good hidden gem. There’s something especially satisfying finding a game that has flown somewhat under the radar and sharing it with fellow gamers. What “under the radar” means exactly is, of course, up for debate. None of my picks are exactly debut solo dev efforts unearthed from the depths of Itch. Some of them did find an audience, and even picked up awards in their home countries – but when it comes to the popular conversation, GOTY lists etc., there are more players who would love these games.
I’ll start with the game that prompted this article: FAR: Lone Sails. It’s the debut game by Okomotive, a small Zurich-based studio, and it is, to my mind, unique. As a small silent protagonist, you enter a huge, hulking vehicle with giant wheels (let’s call it Maggie) and roll from left to right though an unpopulated, broken landscape. Maggie needs fuel which can be hoovered up, or you can stop, hop, and grab it. The engine overheats unless you vent the pressure; if you fail to do so in time, it will burst into flames, and needs to be extinguished with a hose.
But at the most satisfying moments, a small windsock will billow, indicating that the wind is behind you. This is when you can unfurl the sails atop Maggie. At these moments, the camera zooms out, and you whizz along for a minute. You can stop the resource management mini-game of keeping your momentum going, and just contemplate the game.
All of this is aided by a stunning original instrumental soundtrack of lyrical folk-tinged music, and an arresting 3D-rendered world in which imposing bridges, buildings and pipelines swing past as you continue your journey. There’s dynamic weather that affects your progress and gameplay that evolves throughout, with environmental puzzles to solve to continue on your way. The ending – reached after 3-4 hours – is perfect.
I’d also like to advocate for Mutazione, a slow-paced, tropical adventure game about befriending the citizens of a mutant island community, finding various seeds, fixing up gardens, growing plants (and singing to them), and navigating an intriguing plot. If you want something incredibly short and incredibly weird, try to Robert Crumb-esque The Good Time Garden on Steam. If you’re a listener of the Gaming In The Wild podcast, you’ll already know about my love for the intelligently designed marine xenobiologist adventure In Other Waters.
Finally, a game I hope gets the recognition it reserves is Alba: A Wildlife Adventure, which came out to no fanfare on Apple Arcade, and is due a Switch release. It’s a beautifully created 3D exploration game in which you play a little girl who explores an island, documents birds and animals, picks up trash, gets into adventures and... takes on capitalism, kinda. It’s in the realm of A Short Hike in its relaxed atmosphere, which is high praise indeed.
Full time gamer, Part time poet, would-be novelist | Twitter
There are a LOT of games. With so many in existence, there’ll be at least one or two that fall through the cracks. With that in mind I would like to present you with my own personal ‘Hidden Gem’ game that I think more of you should be playing!
Littlewood was created by developer Sean Young and published by SmashGames. It's a highly charming ‘life sim’ game where you play as a legendary hero who, after saving the kingdom from a terrible foe, awakens in the ruins of a town with no memory of who you are or were. Your task? Work closely with your past companions to rebuild the town and live the easy life!
On the surface, you may write it off as another Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley, but Littlewood does far more than those who paved the way for its creation. The first thing that struck me about Littlewood was how it handles time. Usually in these types of games you have a constantly ticking clock to compete against as you try to find the most optimal way of doing everything you want/need to do without running out of stamina. Littlewood combines the ticking clock and stamina bar into one thing, meaning time only advances when you take an action therefore you can carefully consider which activities you want to do and most importantly take your time to get to them.
As your town grows (and Animal Crossing fans will enjoy the similar way you are able to fully customise the layout of buildings) it will attract more and more people to interact with. The characters are all very endearing, and each has a solid personality that draws you into their story. These new friends also bring with them quests and task lists to fulfil, giving you, as a player, clearly defined goals to chase should you so choose.
I absolutely fell in love with this game and with its recent release on the Nintendo Switch in the US, I sincerely hope it won't remain a hidden gem for much longer!
Journalist | Twitter
I stumbled across Islanders in a Steam sale and it immediately piqued my interest. I was looking for something simple and fun and this game definitely did the trick.
In Islanders, you get a randomly generated island - duh - and different buildings to put on it. Houses like to stand close to other houses but hate trees, so structuring everything becomes a bit of a puzzle. To pass on to the next level, you need to generate a certain amount of points with a certain amount of buildings. Theoretically it doesn’t sound too difficult, but I’ve been stuck plenty of times trying to weigh out the pros and the cons of putting a certain building on that specific spot on my island.
The charm in this game is that you can easily get a quick round in, so it isn’t too time consuming. The art style is also charming and the music is very relaxing. For me, this game is perfect to take a break from a long day.
RAR editor | Twitter
Despite looking a bit like a 2D Flash game, Mark of the Ninja is one of the most exciting and challenging stealth games ever made. Players assume control of an unnamed ninja trying to take down a ruthless corporation. It succeeds where so many others in its genre fails by producing a genuinely exciting and seemingly realistic ninja experience: it's tense, bloody, and ultimately, cool. Just stay away from the dogs.
We’re curious to hear about what hidden gems our readers have up their sleeve. Let us know by tweeting at @radartreview and @gaminginthewild. And for some relaxed chat about creative, artistic titles, subscribe to RAR’s weekly games podcast Gaming In The Wild.