The Xbox 360 was one of the most revolutionary (and one of the most popular) consoles ever made. We usually only think of a system’s generational fortitude as being tied to the graphics potential or a particular exclusive AAA release or two, but what most defined the 360 was its uncompromising focus on online features.
Cementing consoles as a viable online gaming platform with the original Xbox (which spiritually succeeded the SEGA Dreamcast’s efforts), this was the console that doubled down on the first fully-fledged, paid online service in the form of Xbox Live: a subscription that made playing your favorite indie games and chatting with your friends an effortless endeavor.
While these features formed the backbone of the service, they were not the only perk. Along with a stream of exclusive video content, the 360’s iteration of Xbox Live also brought the Xbox Live Arcade (XBLA).
It represented a streamlined method for smaller development studios to deliver their titles to console gamers, and later down the road, Microsoft even extended the feature to include the smallest of developers under the category of Xbox Live Indie Games.
The 360 defined my gaming years as a teenager, and one element of that sentiment is owed to how the console blossomed my love for indie games. Undoubtedly, the indie industry would not be where it is today without the foresight of Microsoft in the late 2000s, and this is the era we’re here to talk about today.
From monumental successes to one-man development teams, presented here are the games from the time that I consider the best of the best — fantastic titles in their own right and pioneers of a sector of the industry that has immeasurably enriched the medium.
Bottom Line Up Front
As stated above, this article provides a rundown of the best indie experiences to come out of the 360’s reign: games of all types and styles united under the umbrella of the Xbox platform. Whether you’re interested in platformers, shooters, co-op titles, or addictive puzzle games, I’m certain there will be something for you here.
While some of these games have since been taken off the Xbox 360 platform — most notably those that were part of the now-discontinued Xbox Live Indie Games service — those games can still be played today on Steam. Given the age of these titles, as well as having graphics that were not demanding even for the time, anyone with a computer should be able to run them.
If you were to play only one of these titles to get a flavor for the era, I’d go with Trials HD. It’s still as bombastically fun as it was in 2009, and it played a huge part in invigorating the system’s zest for indie games.
My Picks at a Glance
If you’re just after the games and want to skip the nostalgia trip, here are each of my best Xbox 360 indie games at a glance!
- 1. Trials HD | Red Lynx | 2009: The ultimate, physics-based, 2.5D stunt bike escapade: and one of the best selling, most highly revered Xbox indie games of all time.
- 2. Braid | Number None inc., Hot Head Games | 2008: One of the first games to wholeheartedly exploit the creative freedom of the platform and run with it. Braid’s blend of mind-bending, time-shift gameplay, as well as tricky platforming, made for a truly novel experience.
- 3. Castle Crashers | The Behemoth | 2008: The best-selling Xbox Live Arcade game of all time and one of the most chaotically fun co-op beat-em-ups you’ll ever play.
- 4. Limbo | Play Dead, Double Even | 2010: This is the title that showed the world that horror could work on a 2D plane: chilling environments mixed with clever puzzles make Limbo unforgettable.
- 5. Apple Jack | My Owl Software | 2010: Sometimes, you’re just looking for some simple, relaxing, 2D platformer fun, and Apple Jack provides that experience in spades.
- 6. Geometry Wars 2 | Bizzare Creations | 2008: A stunning, fast-paced take on the arcade hit Asteroids. If you’re a twin-stick shooter fan, this is an essential title.
- 7. Total Miner | Studio Forge LTD | 2011: Unabashtedly a Minecraft clone but unique and robust in its own right, Total Miner provided a decidedly cheaper option for fans of the Minecraft style.
- 8. Dust: An Elysian Tale | Humble Hearts, Limited Run Games | 2012: Featuring as possibly the most ambitious title on this list, Dust was made by only one person. It’s a Metroid-style romp through a beautiful, anthropomorphized fantasy world, and I’m still astonished every time I go back to it.
- 9. Fez | Phil Fish | 2012: Fez was one of the first games to use the now relatively common trope of playing with perspective. A brilliant puzzler in its own right, its 8-bit art style was also new for the time.
- 10. Super Meat Boy | Team Meat, Blitworks | 2010: There are a ton of uber-difficult, instant-respawn platformers about these days, but Super Meat Boy is the OG — it’s also still one of the best.
What Is Considered an ‘Indie’ Game, anyway?
The idea of the indie game (at least, as a term to describe a definite sector of the industry) was mostly a new concept when the 360 was in its heyday. We owe the rise of the humble indie title to the power of the internet; between the emergence of Steam, PSN (PlayStation Network), and the Xbox Live Arcade, game development became accessible to anyone and everyone.
I define indie gaming loosely in the criteria below, but where the 360 is concerned, there were actually two types. Both feature in this list.
On one hand, we had the more established studios: small teams that made games without the usual creative restrictions of large publishing companies — but often utilizing their support in some capacity.
Then there were the even smaller games: those designed most often by only one or two people. These games were considerably cheaper than the already cheap traditional indie game, and you’d buy them using Microsoft points (now a relic of the past).
These titles were the product of a program that was fittingly titled ‘Xbox Live Indie Games’: a library of games created through the use of Microsoft’s own development software: XNA. With the freeware tools included in the downloadable XNA package for PC, the idea was that anyone could learn to code, design, and publish their own titles.
It was, in my mind, the coolest feature to come out of the ‘New Xbox Experience’ program from 2008 (a huge overhaul to the brand which introduced the skeleton of the dashboard we have today along with a host of new features).
It was all very forward-thinking stuff, and while Steam was the platform that truly opened the flood gates for independent game development, the prospect of having these types of games on consoles wasn’t a thing before Microsoft did it.
So, without further ado, let’s delve into the best the console had to offer!
Here’s a quick rundown of the criteria I used for choosing games for this list:
No AAA titles: this should without saying, but then again, the term ‘indie’ can be difficult to define. For this list, the simplest way to define an indie title is what it is not.
For those unaware, AAA games are your $50 titles — those with a huge budget, a large team, and the financial backing and direction of a major publisher. For this list, I decided it was best to categorize the games on the basis of being AAA or not — but also to include games that fit the traditional indie style even if their development involved large publishers.
Companies like Microsoft and Activision did have a hand in publishing some of these games but, in the beginning, they played a crucial part in getting the ground running. Some involvement from big publishers was often a necessity for the indie games of the 2000s, whereas now this sector of the industry is much more self-sufficient.
Usually, their involvement was only within the scope of solving logistical problems in getting these games onto consoles. For this reason, I’ve allowed some leeway.
No re-releases of old games: While the Xbox 360 was home to a ton of brilliant re-releases of classic games, I won’t be featuring those on this list. Only original titles will be included.
They don’t have to be 360 exclusives: There are a couple of timed exclusives on this list. To exclude titles that made the 360 platform so fun on account of their now non-exclusivity would be wrong — and besides, the only way to play some of these originally exclusive games today is through other platforms.
1. Trials HD | Red Lynx | 2009
For my friends and I, I don’t think there was as popular an indie game as Trials HD: the off-the-wall stunt bike sim that epitomized the addictive nature of pick-up-and-play indie titles. Brutally difficult — and often brutally violent — Trials was released as part of the annual Summer of Arcade event.
The premise was simple — reach the end without dying. It’s a goal as old as the hills, but you’ll be remiss for thinking you’ll have an easy ride. Each course in Trials offers an incredibly creative and clever excursion through physics-based death traps. You’ll satisfyingly fling yourself through the most impossible of loop-de-loops, 360 spin over flaming piles of melting rubber, and jump distances only the most clinically insane riders would ever dream of.
The more you progress, the more complex (and ingenious) each track becomes. The game taps into that “just one more go” mentality more than any other game I’ve played, and when you’ve finally completed the main tracks, there’s no greater satisfaction.
The end doesn’t truly spell the end, either. Along with DLC, Trials HD offered a ton of awesome game modes in the form of the aptly titled skill mode: these mini-games featured tasks such as keeping your balance on a spherical ball as it rolled to the goal — or intentionally blowing yourself up in the most spectacular fashion you could muster. But most crucial to the game’s lasting appeal were the intuitively designed visual leaderboards.
Whenever you jumped into a game, you could see how well your friends had done. Their high score and the time they’d beaten the level in were displayed on the screen as you rode. In a similar way to how you’d compete against a ghost car in a racing game, not only would you be doing your best not to die, you’d also be trying desperately to achieve the bragging rights of having beaten your friends so you could show off at school the next day.
2. Braid | Number None inc., Hot Head Games | 2008
Anyone familiar with the Xbox 360’s indie scene back in the day will remember Braid: the platformer-puzzler with crazy time-bending mechanics.
Braid was touted as a very important game when it was released. Not only was it right at the forefront of the 360’s foray into indie games, but it was also one of the first games of its type to re-ignite the discussion of games as art. Games having unique artistic merit is, in my mind, irrefutable, but back then, we didn’t have a huge collection of indie titles that uniquely expressed the artistry of the medium.
Where AAA releases tended to hinge on exploiting trends of the time, Braid was one of the first examples of the out-of-the-box game design we see frequently today. Its novel use of a rewind feature to solve intricate puzzles was totally new, and it re-defined what a 2D puzzle game could be. Pair this with a wonderfully weird art style and similarly surreal soundtrack, and you have one of the most evocative indie titles of a generation.
I specifically remember reviewers of the time being perplexed by what Braid was offering, and it’s so interesting to look back at those reviews now, with the style being long-established at this point, and reminisce about what this unassuming little game accomplished.
3. Castle Crashers | The Behemoth | 2008
Even if you never touched the Xbox Live Arcade tab when you had a 360, you’ll have undoubtedly noticed advertisements for Castle Crashers plastered across your dashboard at some point. This co-op beat-em-up was the best-selling title on the XBLA platform — and with good reason.
It managed to bring back a style of play that, at the time, was mostly relegated to the retro gaming space. Castle Crashers combined the advancements of online gameplay with the addictive, cathartic action of the arcade.
The game struck a balance between depth and simplicity: the button combos didn’t overwhelm the player and made the mastery of what was on offer rewarding; RPG elements were included and provided a satisfying progression system without bogging down the action. There were also a ton of characters to unlock to keep you coming back, and as with most of these games, the leaderboards were of utmost importance.
For those new to the concept of online gaming, and for those wanting a more casual entry point to the world of Xbox Live, Castle Crashers was the perfect game. It thrived off of the hilarity of fighting through increasingly chaotic battles with your friends, and it echoed the ethos of the 16-bit co-op titles many enjoyed as kids. This was the return of the genre, aimed at both new and old fans, and it was glorious.
4. Limbo | Play Dead, Double Even | 2010
Typically, indie games of the era had a mostly light-hearted, arcade-like feel to them, but Limbo was a sure exception. Playing as a lonesome, somber-looking kid in a truly horrifying world, Limbo’s part puzzle, part platformer gameplay was a love letter to all things macabre; it stoked the fires needed to show the world that simple, 2D indie games could actualize horror just as well as their AAA counterparts.
I remember the first time I played Limbo. It was one of those rare occasions in gaming of having experienced something truly unique. Specifically, I recall how impressed I was at how the game’s grainy, subtractive art style managed to convey such chilling emotions.
Limbo epitomized the concept of environmental storytelling. There’s no spoken dialogue, and we know very little about our protagonist or what’s actually going on at all — this emphasizes the overwhelming sense of danger, and equally so, the way the game makes you feel small and helpless in a nightmarish world ensures tentative exploration.
But this title isn’t all atmosphere; there are some brilliantly designed puzzles to think through, and while you’ll no doubt die hundreds of times trying to beat them, it’s all worth it for the jaw-dropping payoff of the finale.
5. Apple Jack | My Owl Software | 2010
Apple Jack is a platformer, and Apple Jack has an apple for a head. Having looked back at this title for the first time in years, the memories of not only this game but also others from the program came flooding back. The XNA developers kit had a certain look and feel about it — crisp, almost glossy visuals with vibrant primary colors. Apple Jack was synonymous with this aesthetic, and the gameplay was similarly embossed with the XNA style.
This was a straight-up-and-down, Super Mario Brothers 2 style platformer. If you just wanted some classic (difficult) 2D platforming action, Apple Jack had you covered; it seamlessly blended tricky puzzles with tight, appealing platforming, and it featured a brilliant soundtrack to boot.
The game represented everything great about the now sadly defunct Xbox Live Indie Games platform, and thankfully, you can still play it. Apple Jack and its superb sequel are sold as a bundle on Steam. The sequel is more of the same, and in this case, that’s certainly not a bad thing.
6. Geometry Wars 2 | Bizzare Creations | 2008
If Trials HD represented a sort of spiritual successor to the arcade ethos, Geometry Wars 2 was a direct evolution. With clear inspirations from the 1980’s arcade classic Asteroids, the game was arguably responsible for kickstarting the popularity of twin-stick shooters.
Under a neon backdrop of firework explosions and infused with an incredible techno soundtrack, Geometry Wars 2 was an additive, mesmerizing, and timeless experience. I must have put a couple of hundred hours into the game myself and, judging by what I saw in the leaderboards at the time, it had a similar effect on everybody else.
This was the Asteroids premise on steroids. The main game mode had the player placed into a square grid, and the gameplay was archetypal arcade thrills. You needed to stay alive amidst an ever-escalating barrage of colorful enemies as to rack up a score that wasn’t going to embarrass you in front of your buddies!
Like the majority of indie games on this list, it was a very accessible title despite its difficulty. The twin-stick controls — one stick to move and the other to shoot — were intuitive to anybody, and the stunning graphics, despite their simplicity, drew people in.
Alongside the main Evolved game mode, some of the most fun I had with the title was with the extra stuff. In varying capacities, these modes would restrict the player to bore new challenges. I’ll never forget the countless hours I spent playing alongside my dad in the addictive Pacifist mode.
A third game in the series was developed in 2010, and while that game added a lot of new content, I think it lacked the addictive simplicity of its predecessor.
7. Total Miner | Studio Forge LTD | 2011
Total Miner is one of many (many) Minecraft clones that came from the Xbox Live Indie Games program. Eerily reminiscent of the age of the DOOM clone (an onslaught of DOOM style games that piggy-backed the success of the game in the mid ’90s), for a time, all that seemed to be popping up on the platform were titles attempting to imitate Minecraft’s building and crafting mechanics.
Most were pretty bad, but Total Miner was, for all intents and purposes, the real deal. Perhaps most importantly to my friends and me, it was way cheaper! Total Miner could be had for mere change at the time, and we played this game a lot. I specifically recall the first time I ever pulled an all-nighter being on this game; my friend and I decided to take it upon ourselves to spend the entire night (and morning) building a towering medical castle.
The building mechanics felt just as solid as Minecraft’s and, just like that title, the game is being continually updated and improved upon to this day.
It’s now become a Steam favorite, but its humble beginnings were born out of the Xbox platform.
8. Dust: An Elysian Tale | Humble Hearts, Limited Run Games | 2012
In retrospect, Dust: An Elysian Tale was an exemplar of the ethos of the indie game. With beautiful, hand-drawn animation, sublime music, and unique, detailed world design, it was hard not to fall in love with this anthropomorphized fantasy land. Moreover, the entire thing was made by one person — you don’t get much more indie than that.
Dean Todrill’s magnum opus was praised as a rare example of grand individualistic effort: it symbolized how accessible game development had come, and the fact that such a feat could be accomplished at all was amazing. Its story was heartfelt; its combat was fluid; its art was exquisite.
This game was the first time I’d come to truly appreciate the beauty of 2D games. While I’d enjoyed the likes of Sonic and Mario on the Megadrive or SNES, Dust showed me an evolution of the concept of 2D world-building. It had a seamless quality to its world and its gameplay resembled that of an anime or classic Disney movie — a concept we’ve seen realized many times since but that was original for the day.
Also impressive were the fully voiced characters. Todrill left no stone unturned, and it’s clear from interviews with him post-release that it was one hell of a tough process. This game will go down in history as one of the most extraordinary indie triumphs.
9. Fez | Phil Fish | 2012
While the monetary constraints of AAA can lead to tired tropes, indie games tend to have a proclivity for indulging wacky concepts. Fez was the poster boy for that sentiment when it launched in 2012.
It ingeniously merged a 2D, 8-bit art style with the framework of 3D game design to create some superbly designed puzzles. Part platformer and part puzzle game, it was the player’s job to navigate towers of increasing complexity — but it was your camera skills, rather than your platforming skills, that paved the road to success.
Fez is based on perspective. While the initial camera angle may prove useless to your progression, changing it reveals new pathways. In true fashion, the game took a simple idea and exploited it to the extreme. The perspective tricks lend themselves to some of the most fantastically designed puzzles I’ve ever played through, but above all, FEZ was a proof of concept.
We take retro-style games for granted these days, but in 2012, there wasn’t anything that managed to use the aesthetic as a gameplay quirk quite like this game. The simple, yet beautiful art style made navigating the often complicated puzzles a joy — the crisp lines and essentialized color pallet leaving no room for ambiguity. It was brilliant in every sense of the word and the inspiration for countless modern indie games.
10. Super Meat Boy | Team Meat, Blitworks | 2010
I couldn’t write a list covering the best 360 indie games without mentioning Super Meat Boy, could I? Another key entry so far as defining the indie platform, Super Meat Boy can be credited for popularising the return of uber-difficult platformers. It’s difficult to see something like Celeste existing without Team Meat and Blitworks setting the crucial groundwork.
Meat Boy’s girlfriend has been captured, and it’s the player’s job to navigate a most ridiculously treacherous assortment of platforming challenges and bosses to get her back. The game’s quirk isn’t simply its brutal difficulty, though; it encourages trial and error by presenting the player with unlimited lives and near-immediate reloading into the action.
One of the most memorable features of the game comes when you complete a level — every death during that level (and there will be many) is replayed on-screen simultaneously in what is a spectacular splattering of blood.
It’s a very difficult game but in the best possible way. I spent countless hours playing this back in the day, and I’m certain this is the title responsible for the shredded state of the analog sticks on the 360 controller I still use.
Question: Were all the Xbox Live Indie Games moved onto Steam?
Answer: While the majority of developers seem to have moved their games over to the Steam platform, some, unfortunately, died with the service. Each game in this list can be bought and played today, but there are some games that were dropped by the developers and never re-released.
Question: Can you still buy games on the 360’s Xbox Live store?
Answer: Surprisingly, yes! all the games featured (with the exception of the XLIG titles) can still be purchased on the console’s store.
Question: If the games I want are available on both the Xbox 360 and Steam, which platform should I buy them on?
Answer: While Microsoft has seemingly no plans to retire this ability, it may be prudent to get the games on Steam if you have a PC. The 360 is an exceedingly old console at this point, and if you’re into the social side of gaming, the majority of players will be on PC.
Conclusion: Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
I hope this list gave you some context and history of what made the Xbox 360 a seminal platform for the mighty indie game. Above all, I hope it provided you with some awesome titles you’ve never heard of and has revitalized your zest for the medium.
Microsoft has continued to support indie developers ever since, and love them or hate them, we have a lot to owe the Xbox for its ingenuity in this space. The platform’s library is a microcosmic time capsule representative of the most pivotal, ingenious period of modern gaming, and I’m thoroughly thankful to have experienced it during the heyday.