The best retro-styled new games of 2017

A few years ago, we entered a renaissance for independent video games. This was largely fueled by a nostalgic reinterpretation of the games of old starting with the release of Cave Story, the rising popularity of independent development forums, and the growing commercial viability for indie games through distribution platforms like XBLA, WiiWare, PSN, and, of course, Steam. Pixel graphics, permadeath, arcade sensibilities, chiptunes, and other elements of retro gaming had found their way back into the modern era, and that style continues to influence not only independent games, but games from large publishers as well. In the spirit of the new year, here's a look back at games released in 2017 that styled themselves in the retro tradition.

Flinthook

It wouldn't be a retro-style games list if we didn't have at least one roguelike game on here. The roguelike formula has been one of the staples of the indie renaissance, and Flinthook is here to show us that it's still going strong. Developer Tribute Games is no stranger to the retro-style. Their previous title Mercenary Kings was inspired by classic games like Contra and Metal Slug. For Flinthook, they're returning to a similar retro aesthetic with pixel graphics and chiptunes–with some real-sounding drums added to give it a modern twist.

Gameplay-wise, Flinthook combines roguelike elements such as (semi) permadeath and procedurally generated levels, with fast-paced grappling hook movement and combat. The action is reminiscent of some of the single-room encounters you might find in a Mega Man game, but dialed up to eleven due to the exquisite grappling hook mechanic. While we're on the subject: that grappling hook is tough at first, but once you get used to it you'll be flying around the level, decimating your foes with great satisfaction.

The End is Nigh

The success of Super Meat Boy was one of the most influential factors for the future success of retro-style indie games. It proved that brutal difficulty, retro aesthetics, and nostalgic tributes were something that gamers hungered for. From designer Edmund McMillen (who also designed the roguelike Zelda-inspired hit The Binding of Isaac) comes The End is Nigh, another retro-style platformer that shares a lot in common with Super Meat Boy. Like its predecessor, you play as a blob who must run, jump, and wall-climb with near pixel-perfect precision past an onslaught of increasingly treacherous obstacles and hazards.

Aesthetically, this game features Edmund McMillen's characteristic cartoony visual style, but also takes the term "old school" to a new level with Ridiculon's soundtrack. The music is made up of heavy covers of recognizable classical music pieces such as the "Hungarian Rhapsody," "Flight of the Bumble Bee," and others, all of which fit the game surprisingly well.

The End is Nigh also pays tribute to classic gaming, but this time in a more overtly meta way. Ash, the aforementioned blob and protagonist, is the only thing left alive after the apocalypse, which is fine, because he's got a classic video game to play. However, during a livestream for no one, the game breaks, leaving Ash with nothing to play. He even tries blowing on the cartridge, to no avail. He resolves to go out into the world to make a friend to repopulate the planet. This story intro is a clever nod to both modern and old school gamer culture, and perfectly sets the tone for the game overall.

Sonic Mania

The Sonic franchise has had it rough over the years, with an ever-changing pantheon of characters, mechanics, and styles that never seem to quite do justice to everyone's favorite blue hedgehog. However, when Sega gave veteran Sonic designer Christian Whitehead a chance to lead his own retro-style Sonic project, he created something that no one thought possible anymore; a good Sonic game.

What makes Sonic Mania special is that it doesn't just borrow from the old-school Genesis Sonic games, but remixes them into something fresh without losing what made classic Sonic great. In Sonic Mania you play as Sonic, Tails, or Knuckles, with controls that are almost identical to the original games, but with slick updated animations, and some new moves like the drop dash. Many of the classic levels like the Green Hill Zone are back as well, but instead of merely recreating these, there are variations on the tile-sets, enemies, and mechanics that we've never seen before. 

There are also completely new zones that still feel like they could've come straight from old games, despite being wholly original. And if that weren't enough, Whitehead even added both new and old versions of the 3D bonus stages from the classic games, some modern quality of life touches, competitive race modes, and various other surprises, making Sonic Mania a must-play for franchise fans and non-fans alike.

Metroid: Samus Returns

Few series are more influential to the history of gaming than Metroid, having partially inspired the still popular Metroidvania genre. In 2017, Nintendo revisited the second entry of the classic franchise, Metroid II: Return of Samus for the Game Boy, by creating a modernized remake called Metroid: Samus Returns. The original Metroid II is a perfect candidate for revisiting due to its position as a key entry in the franchise from a story, visual style, and gameplay perspective, bridging the gap between the original Metroid for NES and Super Metroid for the SNES. Since the Game Boy's small screen wasn't ideal for the Metroid style of gameplay, fans have long desired an updated version of this game that takes advantage of modern technology. In fact, in 2016, an unofficial fan remake of the game called AM2R was released. Nintendo understandably hit sites hosting the game with DMCA takedown notices, but apparently they recognized fans' desire for a Metroid II remake, releasing their own the very next year.

Nintendo's Metroid: Samus Returns, abandons the retro aesthetic by featuring slick 2.5D graphics with cinematic action cam moments and a modern take on the original soundtrack. However, the story is a retelling of the original, and the level structure is similar as well. In addition to the aesthetic updates, the gameplay's also been given an extensive makeover with the inclusion of the excellent melee counterattack mechanic, a full range of analogue shooting angles, and a new toolkit of Aeion abilities. With all of these changes, Nintendo's remake might feel like an entirely new game, but it still keeps true that core retro inspiration that we all know and love.

Cuphead

This game brings new meaning to the term "retro." With Cuphead, developer Studio MDHR has basically created a playable 1930s cartoon, and it's absolutely breathtaking to behold. The incredible hand-drawn animations evoke the classic Fleischer Studios and Walt Disney styles from cartoons like Betty Boop, Popeye, and even early Mickey Mouse.

However, the art style isn't the only aspect of Cuphead that makes it stand out. The game also features incredibly challenging 2D platforming in the Mega Man tradition with bullet hell style combat, even including some R-Type-style flying sections. Unlike the old school games, you have infinite lives, which allow the boss fights that make up the core of the game to be incredibly brutal without setting you back too far. Therefore, you'll often lose to a boss dozens of times before you finally copme out on top, giving the game a Dark Souls feel in terms of difficulty by forcing you to demonstrate mastery of a boss's patterns, and punishing you when you fail to execute with utter precision. Not for the faint of heart, but rewarding to overcome.

Battle Chasers: Nightwar

Based on the popular (yet short-lived) Battle Chasers comic book series, Battle Chasers: Nightwar combines steampunk and fantasy to create its own look and feel with a compelling story. However, the polished 3D art style, anime-inspired cutscenes, and rich soundtrack–while incredibly good–are not particularly retro. The isometric exploration layer, pop-up dialogue boxes, and the point-to-point overworld map are all cleanly executed, but the true core of the game is in its classic JRPG style combat, which will make up the overwhelming bulk of the playtime. That's right–it's the combat and gameplay which provides the retro feel.

The turn-based menu-driven combat feels like something straight out of Final Fantasy III, but with some modern twists. The characters' attacks often have a blend of distinct properties, so you're rarely just dealing damage, but often causing buffs, debuffs, or other effects. This gives the player a wealth of options for how to approach combat and synergize your abilities. Additionally, the overcharge mechanic incentivizes you to use more mana-heavy abilities, since it's gained and lost within the course of a single battle, encouraging you to mix up your play style rather than just going for mana-cheap abilities regularly. 

That's just scratching the surface. Battle Chasers: Nightwar has so many layers of depth with loot, skill progression, and more…all surrounding its solid foundation of retro-style combat.

Golf Story

While we're on the subject of JRPGs, Nintendo Switch-exclusive Golf Story also takes inspiration from that classic genre. The 16-bit pixel art graphics, down-to-earth setting, and conversation style most closely match Earthbound, but the golfing mechanics are directly borrowed from Mario Golf for the Game Boy. This unlikely pairing works surprisingly well, with the golf mechanics standing in for what would be combat in a traditional JRPG.

Surprisingly, though, it's the story, setting, and characters that drive you through what might otherwise be a more mundane progression of golfing challenges, giving you fun and compelling situations surrounding the golf, and interesting twists that impact the golfing gameplay itself. This might not be the most obvious combination of retro elements, but they sure make for a unique gaming experience.

Nidhogg 2

There's nothing else quite like Messhof's Nidhogg series, but its retro roots run deep. The first game was reminiscent of the Atari 2600 era, and Joust in particular, but with much more depth and sophistication. Nidhogg 2 feels like the series has evolved into the 16-bit era. While it's difficult to find a direct visual reference for Nidhogg 2's particular brand of gritty and gruesome visuals, the loose floppiness of the animation is slightly reminiscent of something like Earthworm Jimbut with a heaping helping of grossness added for good measure. The characters themselves also feel cartoony, bearing a striking resemblance to a Homer Simpson…made of, uh, slime.

If the above descriptions of the gloppy art style haven't sold you yet, the gameplay might. The simple, yet surprisingly deep combat takes the standard footsies and mind-game aspects of your average fighting game and adds factors like weapon positioning, snappy movement, and stage feature control. Nidhogg 2 also layers in a variety of satisfying new weapons, which somehow increase the depth without making it too complex for both veteran players and newcomers alike.

Rivals of Aether

Thanks to the never-ceasing popularity of Super Smash Bros Melee, platform fighters seem to be all the rage these days. However, Rivals of Aether not only takes direct inspiration from Melee in terms of gameplay, but it also features an incredible 16-bit aesthetic complete with a fantastic chiptunes soundtrack. Far from being merely a clone, Rivals of Aether carefully and deliberately diverges mechanically from Melee in specific ways. The shield mechanic has been replaced with a parry, keeping the pace of the action up. Each character has their own unique stage control mechanic, which adds a layer of strategy to stage positioning. Ledge grabs are also replaced with wall jumps, increasing the number of recovery options and minimizing cheap kills.

Conversely, some of the most unique and competitively cherished aspects of Melee have stuck around, including wavedashing, directional influence, teching, and other advanced techniques. On top of that, Rivals of Aether is full of quality of life features including tutorials, a button check function during character selection, a story mode, an endless survival mode, replays, customization options, fantastic online matchmaking, and more. If you're a fan of platform fighters, then you won't want to miss this one.

Star Fox 2

It's not exactly accurate to call Star Fox 2 a retro-style game, since it was actually developed in the mid-nineties, making it an actual retro game. The previously cancelled sequel to the original Star Fox was unexpectedly one of the titles include in the SNES Classic Edition, technically making it a 2017 release.

Star Fox 2 differs from its predecessor in a number of ways. Rather than a linear progression of missions, there's a map of the Lylat system that allows you to select where your team will go next. Additionally, some of the missions allow you to transform your Arwing into a ground-based walker, mixing up the feel of the gameplay. The game may be short, but it's a fascinating throwback gem for those of you who own an SNES Classic Edition–especially if you're in the mood for something truly retro.