2023 is a year I have deeply mixed feelings on. The games industry is long past the point of sustainability—studios are bleeding talent, whole press outlets are dying out and it’s clear that something has to change. And yet the games this flaming trainwreck gave us this year are overwhelmingly good and practically innumerable. So let’s celebrate all that imagination and artistry with another roundup of cool, obscure games that you can pick up for cheap in the last two days of the Steam Winter Sale. Reminder that the sale ends on Thursday, January 4 at 10 am Pacific.
We’re sticking to some simple rules. All the games have to be:
Launched, graduated from early access or otherwise re-released in 2023Something I’ve personally played and can vouch for the worthiness ofNotably obscure—most under 500 user reviews, some far below thatQuirky, distinctive, offbeat and under-covered games take precedenceAt least 20% discounted—potentially a steeper discount if early access
Alright, let’s get hipster. Here’s 20 games from the Steam Winter Sale that you’ve probably never heard of. And if you have? Well, I think you’re pretty cool.
Price: $13.99/£11.72 (30% off) | Developer: Spiral Bound Interactive
An incredibly polished and slick modern reinterpretation of the much-maligned Resident Evil Gaiden for Game Boy Color. Classic zombie-mashing survival horror from an overhead perspective, up until the moment you point and aim at a monster, at which point it switches to a first-person minigame. And if you die (and you will—it says so in the title), the story continues as another character.
It’s not very long, but it’s surprisingly non-linear (thanks to deaths switching perspectives) with a challenging true ending to work towards. I’m baffled at how this flew under everyone’s radars, given how slick it looks and how many fun ideas it has.
Price: $5.59/£4.71 (20% off) | Developer: BogoSoft
N64 nostalgia is running high this year. Pseudoregalia, Cavern Of Dreams, Zortch and even the Turok 3 remaster have all channelled that very specific energy, but Corn Kidz 64 trounces them in terms of authenticity. The only thing stopping me from believing that this is a long-lost N64 collectathon platformer is its steady framerate.
It’s a joy to play, like Banjo Kazooie boiled down to its most compelling elements, with authentically sassy late 90s cartoon dialogue and some gorgeous stretch-and-squash animation. My only gripe is it feels like a pilot episode for a larger project, clocking in at around 5-7 hours.
Price: $5.99/£4.79 (40% off) | Developer: Martin Mauersics
Don’t let the clean, minimalist graphics trick you—Eigengrau is a twin-stick shmup with oodles of personality and a sense of humour. WIth level design seemingly inspired by WarioWare, each stage introduces a core theme and then iterates and expands on it every few moments without adding to or overcomplicating the controls.
It’s a great ride the first time through, with beginner-friendly difficulty options, a bunch of alternate modes, hidden objectives and secrets to dig into, plus an excellent co-op mode that adds even more fun little wrinkles to the action. Easily one of the best shmups in recent years.
Price: $9.74/£8.24 (25% off) | Developer: AlmyriganHero
Frebbventure has an infectious energy. An old school 2D adventure platformer that just crams in too many ideas, playable characters and features for its own good. The result is a little wonky, with weird difficulty spikes, some inconsistent art and what I can only describe as ‘programmer music’, and yet it’s still one of the most fun and memorable platformers I’ve played this year.
With a ridiculous story that oscillates between Looney Toons and Dragon Ball Z in tone, some wild genre shifts and a ton of optional modes, features and charming details, like an enemy encyclopaedia with colour commentary from all playable characters. There’s a sequel in the works!
Price: $6.99/£5.95 (30% off) | Developer: Jaklub
A charming QBert-adjacent arcade game with a fantastic Dreamcasty Y2K aesthetic. Guide a cute rabbity thing through 3D mazes floating in the void, stepping on every tile to colour it while avoiding (or fighting) critters that spawn in. Simple, compelling, nice to look at and with great music.
An extra fun twist is that once a level is nearly clear, there’s a bonus for colouring the remaining few tiles without touching any visited ones, so plan ahead. There’s a surprising amount of game here too. A long (and unexpectedly intricate) story mode, an endless mode, and a level editor with Steam workshop sharing. Lots of unlockables and goodies, too.
Price: $11.68/£9.53 (40% off) | Developer: HurakanWorks, NuChallenger
Treachery In Beatdown City was one of 2020’s most interesting indie RPGs—a turn-based tactical take on Final Fight and Streets Of Rage with a pointedly political plot and a scathing sense of humour. It was a bit short and limited though, and felt like it wasn’t really fulfilling its potential.
This year, the ‘Ultra Remix’ expansion more than doubled the size of the game. A free upgrade for existing owners, and now going cheap. For those still on the fence, the demo, UN Trouble, is a fully standalone side-story where you play as an off-brand, legally and politically distinct Barack Obama.
Price: $15.99/£12.39 (20% off) | Developer: Shirakumo Games
What if Celeste was a metroidvania, set in a big, explorable world, right down to the familiar air-dashing, wall-climbing and physics shenanigans? Beyond that, what if your progress was only gated by your knowledge of the game’s movement mechanics? Is it even sequence breaking if there’s no fixed sequence?
All I know is that I really dig this deeply undersold game and its Nier Automata-esque story of sad androids thrown into morally messy post-apocalyptic situations and fishing minigames, plus a bit of stylish swordfighting. There’s even a full level editor and sharing system, although not much community-made content yet.
Price: $6.49/£5.19 (35% off) | Developer: MNKY
Shaping up to be the best Star Fox and Space Harrier in years—two fields with a surprising amount of competition! Aesthetically captures those SNES highs but scales up to modern resolutions and framerates, and just feels right to play, down to the swooshy movement, the rhythm of the laser fire and the satisfying barrel rolls.
As well as having on rails and free-flying Star Fox style combat, most levels have an unlockable bonus stage attached in the style of Space Harrier, and they’re every bit as good as the main levels. Right now Ex-Zodiac is about two thirds finished, and I cannot wait to see what the last few levels bring.
Price: $3.99/£2.89 (50% off) | Developer: Cryptomnesic Softworks
Stella Pastoris combines a powerful one-bit aesthetic, a funky inverted Warhammer 40k-esque setting (you lead a cult of flesh-and-blood monks escaping a machine cult) and the action-RTS ambitions from SNES classic Actraiser (minus the platforming bits). As the flying, scripture-shooting Oversoul, you’ve got to wander the planet, hoovering up resources and allocating them to protect your monks as they stumble out of their grounded colony ships.
While not a long game, it can be pretty tough once you start having to juggle defending multiple colonies from invaders. There’s good replay value too, as there’s multiple plots to follow (one for each sect of monks you can help), and each leads to a different ending.
Price: $3.74/£3.19 (75% off) | Developer: Gridsnap Games
The steepest discount here, and a very easy recommendation. Released just a few months ago, Stop Dead is a twitchy speedrunning FPS where if you stop moving even for a second, you die. You’re also a telekinetic wrecking ball, able to pick up just about anything to use as a projectile or shield.
It looks and sounds great. The stark comic-style shading reminds me of last year’s Rollerdrome, and the way the camera rolls and lurches makes it feel like you’re skating through the maps. There’s leaderboards and ghosts to race against too. Only issue is that it’s in early access still, with only about half the planned levels. But at under four bucks, this is a no brainer.
Price: $9.99/£8.37 (50% off) | Developer: Thousand Games
An excellent deconstruction of old dungeon-crawling RPGs, sharing a similar vibe to Square’s Dungeon Encounters. Story takes a back-seat to leading a small band of adventurers exploring the monster-filled labyrinth underneath post-apocalyptic Japan. Each expedition needs to bring back food and resources for survival, with the goals growing as you recruit more survivors.
There’s some great music and character art, despite the very sparse animation. Don’t be fooled by the simple monochrome maps, though. Combat is tough, tactical and unafraid to drop some scary monsters on you that you absolutely should just run from. There’s real mechanical depth here, and exploration is very much non-linear.
Price: $11.19/£9.44 (30% off) | Developer: Moregames
After many years in early access, plus a title change (It was formerly iDracula: Genesis, a nod to the series’ roots on Apple devices), this lovely and absolutely content-bloated roguelite shooter is finally a finished game, although developer Moregames still seem to have plenty of updates planned yet.
Essentially it’s an isometric take on Enter The Gungeon, with lots of optional challenges, stat modifiers, weird character gimmicks to master and SO many unlockable guns to switch between. The over-the-top art style is a bit of an acquired taste, but it reminds me of the best of Amiga games, gross and weird critters included.
Price: $14.75/£12.50 (25% off) | Developer: Dr. Kucho! Games
Speaking of Amiga vibes, Moons Of Darsalon is a game we’ve previously covered, but still remains undersold, and that’s just sad because this is a wonderfully compelling hybrid of Oddworld, Worms and twin-stick shooter.
With highly destructible/modifiable levels and commands to bark at your lemming-like followers, there’s more than you’d expect to juggle before combat is even an issue, but it all feels just about manageable. I love the aesthetic in general, and while it does most remind me of Amiga games, it perhaps owes more to the Atari ST. Either way, it’s a very specific retro mood.
Price: $15.99/£11.99 (20% off) | Developer: Deathbulge, Five Houses
Based on a very silly webcomic (but you don’t have to have read it to enjoy it), Deathbulge is an equally silly JRPG about a bunch of idiots (including a buff skellington that loves fish) entering into a Battle Of The Bands contest. Antics ensue, many puns are deployed, goofs are had, and every single door gets kicked in a new and interesting way.
There’s some nice depth to its character building, with a Final Fantasy-inspired job system, but despite the musical theme (and great soundtrack) there’s surprisingly no rhythm element to the combat, just a clever take on Active Time battle mechanics where you can add buffs or debuffs to the turn timeline.
Price: $4.54/£3.82 (40% off) | Developer: Samurai Punk
Australian indie outfit Samurai Punk disbanded this year, but they went out with a bang. Killbug is a movement-shooter take on the Devil Daggers/Hyper Demon arcade survival format, and really damn good. You’re a mantis with a machine-pistol and sword. Many bugs are trying to eat you. You will lose, but it’ll be a wild ride out.
There’s a bit more wiggle room for error here than in Devil Daggers. You’ve got a health bar which can be replenished by melee kills, which also reload your gun. You’ve wall running and double jumps, and each enemy provides its own tactical problems. Should go without saying, but this one’s not for arachnophobes.
Price: $9.59/£7.99 (20% off) | Developer: CC ARTS
Empty Shell is that rarest of things—a spiritual successor to Teleglitch, one of the most intimidatingly intense roguelike shooters of the early indie boom. Viewed from a fuzzy, low-res monochrome security camera’s eye (you can dial down the distortion a bit if it’s too much), you play as a procession of expendable investigators sent into an abandoned research facility overrun with weird otherworldly monsters.
It is dark, tense and violent. Every new door opened is a risk, with potentially aggressive enemies ready to burst loose. The monochrome aesthetic can make it a little hard to discern what everything is, but it sure as hell sets an intense mood.
Price: $9.99/£8.37 (50% off) | Developer: Octavia Blue
Spellmasons can look a little raw and basic, but get past first impressions and you’ll find a razor sharp, gore-soaked turn-based tactical roguelike and wizard sim. In solo or co-op (with up to eight, local or online), your goal is to simply wipe out all enemies on each floor. You do this by creating your own spells by combining components from your ever-expanding spellbook.
Summon a decoy into water, which then draws enemies in and forcibly drowns them? Yep. Swap places with a monster that explodes into a poison bomb full of knives? Go for it. There are enough spell components and unlocks to ensure every run is fresh, and community mods rolling out already.
Jeff Minter is a legend among old school game developers (he’s even getting his own interactive museum soon), but very few have played his latest vector graphics sensory overload, Akka Arrh. Based on an unreleased Atari arcade prototype from the ’80s, it’s a weirdly chill and zen game about setting off a bomb and (ideally) sitting back as the chain-reaction from it explodes every enemy in the level as they spawn to attack your central turret.
It’s seldom so simple, as you’re often rushing into the basement beneath the playfield to zap invading critters, or spending your limited pool of laser ammo to keep away enemies that threaten to interrupt your chain of recursive fractal explosions. Simple, yet weirdly compelling.
Price: $5.99/£4.99 (50% off) | Developer: Aetheric Games
What if Snake (yes, the little blocky game from every old Nokia phone) had a story, and complex multi-tiered puzzles, and more moving parts than the average brain can handle? Slither your giant serpent around a death maze, eat gold-hoarding intruders and grow long. Just be careful not to bump into things or yourself. Snek is very concussion-prone.
By default, Temple Of Snek is synced to the music, with your snake moving one square automatically per beat. For those who struggle with time pressure in puzzles, you can slow the tempo or even disable the timing elements altogether, but my pride won’t let me back down. No judgement if yours will.
Price: $6.99/£5.95 (30% off) | Developer: sodaraptor
At the intersection of soothing and spooky roams Interior Worlds, a game about wandering through empty, transitory urban spaces, snapping photos and maybe spotting the occasional cryptid. It’s not a horror game, but it is about wandering through dark, lonely spaces where things can move in the shadows and objects can occasionally shift and startle you.
Mostly, it’s just a meditative, dreamlike experience. Moving at night through hollow places. A mall, an airport, a snowy suburban street, and occasionally down a strange hidden path. It almost feels like a non-combat take on MyHouse.WAD, and if you like this, you’ll dig sodaraptor’s earlier dream-quest, Hypnagogia: Boundless Dreams.
If you’re STILL hungry for weird, offbeat and obscure games, my previous roundups have all aged like a fine Christmas Pudding. Almost every game featured is on sale again, at the same (or seven steeper) discounts. So, here’s another 65+ picks from the past year and a half.
Plus, consider my personal underdog indie picks of 2023. Despite all the chaos, this year has been a never-ending buffet of amazing games. I hope you find one that’s special to you, too.