2012 was a great year for video games, and a great year for free software. The idea of free business models has become a real player in the industry, from free-to-play installs, to the increase in free indie titles on distribution services like Steam and GOG, to forum-brewed internet sensations like the Slenderman, to the final 1.0 release of free competitive FPS Warsaw (which people have been playing since 2005), and even some forays into freeware by big name publishers, like Capcom's backing of the fan-made Mega Man X Street Fighter made in December.

This list is a look back on the year that was; one from a slightly different perspective than 2012's many blockbuster titles would have you remember. Many of the games built here were by small teams, and even individual developers. Some do it for awareness of future projects; some do it to send updates to dying genres; some just do it for the love of video games. Each of the 10 games are still available for download at no cost, and worth experiencing for their quality, their innovation, and their fun. Enjoy!

*Disclaimer*
This is not a topic about microtransactions, free-to-play subscriptions, beta releases, or demo/lite versions of games. Each of the games represented here have launched within 2012, and are available in their entirety to be played legally for free, bar none.

One of the earliest releases of 2012, Abobo's Big Adventure launched on January 11th, 2012 to the frothing mouths of retro-gamers everywhere. Abobo offers up perhaps the greatest number of NES references per screencap than any other fan project on the market as players take control of Abobo, the beloved "thug/walking tumor" from the 80's hit Double Dragon as he journeys across the NES library in search for his lost son. Abobo's adventure is filled with throwbacks left and right with levels based on Double Dragon, Zelda, Contra, Urban Champion, Balloon Fight, and more, while battling against a whole host of recognizable enemies to those that lived through gaming's golden age (boy, was I surprised to see Kid Nikki Radical Ninja thrown in there).

Coupling with the onslaught of 8-bit nostalgia is a host of rapid fire changes to mechanics and control setups, to which Abobo's Big Adventure blends together to become a series of situational challenges instead of a contained overall experience. Abobo embraces the worlds he visits rather than rely on stolen sprite designs alone, and the overall experience is unified by the game's achievements (some humorous and clever, some less so), and by Abobo's rage meter; an ever adapting super attack that Abobo unleashes in comical ways within the levels.

Some of the humor is a bit crude, and the game certainly does rely more on 8-bit memories rather than offer anything new. Even so, any game that references the "Death Blossom" from The Last Starfighter is OK in my book.

One enjoyable development to see is the growing number of games made in RPGMaker that aren't RPGs themselves (Perhaps the greatest example of this is 2011's excellent To The Moon... not a free game, but worth every penny). Every so often, you'll find a game that ignores components of the software's built-in programming like random encounters, attack patterns, and stat gains, instead focusing on something entirely different; in this case, being led through a horrific alternate dimension depicting the twisted mind of a surreal artist... with light puzzle solving, of course!

Ib (pronounced "eeb," I think) is the titular young girl who visits an art gallery, and after wandering away from her parents begins to see the museum in an entirely different light. Patrons disappear; the rooms become much more unsettling; and strange phenomena begins to creep across the corners of the screen. What follows is a relatively cute (albeit nightmarish) top down adventure game as Ib begins to journey deeper into the world of the artist Guertena, coming into contact with surprising versions of his creations.

In 2012, word of Ib's twisted tale of puzzles and passive-aggresive horror tendencies have managed to spread all over the internet, developing an undeniably strong cult following in a short amount of time. While the game itself is only about 2 hours (more if you choose to revisit for the games multiple endings), the Ib catalogue has greatly expanded with fan-fictions, animations, artworks, and entertaining "let's play" videos, all typically featuring the same surprising reactions for a few of the game's key "jump scare" moments, despite the limited visual palette. It's able to go in these directions, as Ib manages to retain some of its mysteries long after its closing credits, inspiring players to contemplate what they've seen, and encourage discussion on what may have been.

There's typically nothing visually artistic about Tower Defense games; a genre where player focus is solely on function and time/spatial management. With all of the exciting micromanagement to be had, players keep busy monitoring their structures, keeping an eye on various gauges that may be in play, and acquiring extra build resources to keep the oncoming enemy swarms at bay, to which taking some time to admire the surroundings can be easily left behind. Fortunately, Bonsai Defense is a glowing exception to the rule, for its beautiful renderings are a very key component to this strategy game's subject matter.

Bonsai Defense takes the player into the aesthetically pleasing world of Japanese Bonsai; the art of long-term shaping and cultivation of miniature trees. Players are tasked with growing their trees and shaping their branches, while through the use of the tree's multi-talented fruits, stave off timed waves of dangers like infections and parasites. Fruits are the planet's defenses, becoming turrets, bombs, generators, sticky traps, and more, that when used effectively will keep enemies off of your branches and defend the tree's roots. It's an exciting battle of nature between plant and insect that ends up unfolding on screen, all the while splashed with gorgeous colorful renderings from the Unity engine, and you're free to focus in on any part of your creation at any angle, with thanks to the game's wisely incorporated 3D floating camera.

Developer Mate Cziner created the game as his college thesis project for the Moholy Nagy University of Art and Design, incorporating an interesting level of balance towards achieving your tree's goals that goes a step beyond the standard tower defense game as well. While most of the gameplay is focused on destroying the parasites and allowing your tree to survive, the ultimate end is to generate enough nectar from your tree to claim victory. As your nectar count increases, more and more enemies become drawn to your tree, creating a level of adaptive difficulty that is within the player's control to advance, rather than becoming overwhelmed into oblivion. All in all, it's a fascinating take on a rather standard genre of video games that offers a unique visual flare and methodology all its own. You'll never have guessed it was so much fun watching plants grow!

The DigiPen Institute of Technology has been keen on presenting its innovative student projects for years now. Many DigiPen projects tend to reassemble multitudes of video game conventions to provide alternate takes on mechanics and genres we're already familiar with, and an impressive project that's caught the eye of many gamers this year has been Perspective, a room-flipping platformer that combines 2D gameplay and a 3D world.

Now, similar games have been made on this subject; you have Super Paper Mario which swaps between 2 viewpoints for example, but you also have the 2012 indie hit Fez which shifts the camera in 4 directions. Where Perspective differs, is that the camera is free range with basic FPS controls, giving players an all encompassing directional input to view their platforming character on screen. It's up to players to find the appropriate angles that will allow the character to move through the level and reach the end goal; often times waiting in seemingly impossible places.

The color scheme of the world is a bit bland, but not without its own charm (and if I'm not mistaken, the platforming character totally jumps like Mega Man), and the novel concept of using 3D to reconstruct the 2D landscape is well varied in its design, ultimately offering more than a concept demonstration to provide some well thought out design scenarios before the end.

Zineth is an exciting 3D platformer where players skate around a futuristic cell-shaded desert cityscape, using their speed and momentum to jump, grind, and wallride to where they need to get, much like Sega's own Jet Set Radioseries. Players take control of a "Zine" delivery boy, tasked with a series of varied challenges, from deliveries, to races, to locating hidden objects, to space travel.

Alright, so it's not quite the same as Jet Set Radio, but that makes it all the more interesting! You can get up to absolutely crazy speeds in this game, launching off ramps at over 2500 mph (and twice that once you unlock the debug tools!), and the fun of finding appropriate ramps, walls, rails, and platforms to gain enough speed is an exciting navigational challenge. Adding extra benefit is the game's "rewind" feature right out of Prince of Persia:Sands of Time where ill-timed jumps don't get overly punishing (navigating the terrain is hard enough itself, and since much of the city is a vertical climb, falls can be a considerable setback).

The game world has oodles of goodies, from collectible cubes and zines to the fun monster-battling phone game that has infected each of the city's inhabitants, to a strange cat that every so often can be seen in the desert. Perhaps the cleverest inclusion of all, the game has been developed with social media in mind; syncing up in-game twitter posts for a communal marketing strategy. You can blast through most all of Zineth in about an hour or two, but it's quite a wild ride!

Locomalito has had an excellent year, releasing two fun freeware games in 2012. The first, They Came From Verminest! was released in early February and was an enjoyable vertical shooter with a cheesy B-movie aesthetic (offering one of the greatest release trailers of the year in the process). The second game, Maldita Castilla (if I'm up on my romance languages, the ll's make a "Y" sound) was released on 12/12/12, giving the world a long overdue foray back into the tough-as-nails world of Ghosts 'N' Goblins- style action platforming.

Players guide the brave Don Ramiro through 6 levels across the land of Tolomera, facing off against 14 bosses and a wide variety of unique enemy behaviors along the way. Gameplay is spot on for an 80's action platformer for both its challenge level, and its tight controls. True to its arcade roots, the game only features directional support, and two buttons for jumping and attacking, although that these controls are customizable is a nice modern update. The game also technically allows the player an unlimited number of continues; albeit after the acceptable 3 continues, you will need to sell your soul to continue more, a nice compromise for those of us with some arcade heritage.

Those continues may end up being needed by most though, as when it comes to the game's later levels, the game just gets downright evil. Enemies are expertly placed in locations the player would logically hop right towards, and certain enemy types team up well to offer a barrage of assaults the player needs to juggle poor Don Ramiro between. While the graphics and music are intentionally limited in techonology (using simple pixel art and an emulated Yamaha YM2203 sound chip, courtesy of music/FX mastermind Gryzor87), the complete product is so full of attention to detail that it's a real joy to play through, even though it may frustrate you to no end in the process.

There's a stigma in the gaming community when it comes to Flash games; that they tend to be shorter experiences without any great level of added depth. There are of course some brilliant exceptions that shatter these notions, and a particular game that caught my eye this past year was a little Flash game that could called Seedling.

Seedling is an action adventure that has a lot in common with the Legend of Zelda; specifically the games for the Super Nintendo, and the GameBoy. Like SNES Zelda there are scrolling level panels that ultimately form a map, and like GameBoy Zelda, your items (including your sword) are assigned to two buttons for use. While items are lower in count than the Zelda games, being only 4 actionable items and a small number of mobility enhancements (swimming in water, swinning in lava, etc), the game is well structured to allow players to explore the game world as their inventory expands, without holding the player's hand to guide them along their way.

The game well adapts the Zelda formula into the Flash style, being quick to understand and short on its setbacks. Player death is a quick fix, saving at the start of every area, and simply starting the screen over with enemies fully restored instead of retreading through several screens to resume forward progress. Dungeon levels are also varied in their challenges to keep the game from becoming too monotonous (a potential pitfall of single mechanic flash games as they are continued).

Seedling's story is also a step above the average Flash game, and in some regards the Zelda series as well for that matter, taking into consideration the repercussions of the player character's actions. Rarely do players find themselves thinking if what they needed to do to progress was in fact the "right" thing to do, but Seedling's morally ambiguous finale offers just enough to be fascinating without making a hard ruling on the subject.

A Story About My Uncle was developed as part of a classroom assignment to create a first-person game without violence in it. Instead of guns and bosses, players live through the retelling of a father's adventure to find his Uncle Fred; how he put on his Uncle's spare adventure suit, activated a strange piece of machinery, and was wisked away into an alternate universe of floating rocks, underground caverns, and a few more surprises along the way.

The adventure suit has three primary functions; a charged super jump (for great vertical distance), a charged super leap (for great horizontal distance), and a grapple beam, which as long as it's within range, can catch on any surface to drag the player towards it. It's up to the player to figure out how to chain their moves together to navigate the otherworldly levels to locate Uncle Fred, whose own adventure suit has fortunately left some residue behind to show which direction he went. The levels are gorgeous to look at, and once you begin to acquire more grapple upgrades (you can eventually launch up to three grapples without landing to power back up) the game becomes quite the aerial ballet, with giant leaps of faith into grapples onto moving rocks.

With only three levels to move through, the game can be completed in roughly an hour, but it is a very unique experience, with a level of storytelling and closure that very few student projects can achieve.

J. Kyle Pittman is a busy fellow who loves video games. By day, he works over at Gearbox Software, where he's been busy working on big retail games like Borderlands and Duke Nukem Forever. By night, however, he dons his eye-patch and indie coat under the moniker Pirate hearts, making free games to be enjoyed by all.

Like Abobo's Big Adventure mentioned above, You Have To Win The Game also pulls on people's nostalgia organs; in this case it's the limited palette and shoddy resolution quality of the BBC Micro. Colors bleed together, animations are rarely more than 2-3 frames, and the game's monitor overlay even makes it looks as though a light source is reflecting off your screen; it's positively gorgeous.

Better still, is that YHtWtG is more than just a showering of retro goodness; it's smarter than its simple graphics would have you believe, as the game has been so meticulously assembled with its mechanics in mind that exploring its every nook and cranny far outweighs the actual act of "winning" the game, as there are treasures hidden in every corner.

You Have to Win the Game is an open-world exploration-style platformer that shares a lot in common with 2010 indie hit VVVVVV. The world is a series of inter-connected platforming screens that don't scroll, coupled with occasionally witty room titles ("contrived lock key mechanisms" is my favorite). Like VVVVVV the tutorials are quick, deaths are frequent and painless thanks to the quick save system, and players are left alone to figure out for themselves what to do, but instead of gravity flipping, progression is made by acquiring 4 powerups that allow you to progress further than you could before a la metroidvanias. While one may be able to reach the game's end, and even win the game itself (with the help of the game's magic symbol and magic word), the real fun is achieving 100% completion, using all of your tools to retrace your steps and find all that you missed. Layouts hint at possibilities, and chances are that if an area looks possible to reach, there's a way to reach it. For players who enjoy collecting things and exploring areas to their fullest, YHtWtG is a dream come true, even if you've never touched a computer from the previous millenium.

<Teletrooper is an exciting top-down flying combat simulator that's actually been 7 years in the making, finally being released in September 2012. The game, inspired by the precision shooting action of Starfox 64 (think all range mode in particular), places the player into the cockpit of a rather odd development program that perhaps could have benefited from a little more R&D.

Have you ever noticed that in shoot-em-ups, players and their ships can just... respawn? Pretty weird when you think about it. The Teletrooper program is a step to rationalize that in-game logic. Initially developed to teleport pilots back to base moments before their ship blows up (which was apparently a disaster), the program now only communicates the brainwaves and memories of the pilot back to base, then uploading them into a new host body; the pilot is more or less able to continue living on, although they're likely encouraged to not hold on to any valuables when out on missions.

Those missions, of course, are pretty fun, even if they're crazy difficult at times. Controls are something to get used to, steering with two buttons and accelerating/decelerating with others, but once you get the hang of it (and fortunately their tutorial is very helpful to do so) you'll be blasting off into the levels to complete a host of different objectives. Players will be battling enemies, battling bosses, navigating tight quarters requiring hairpin turns, acquiring pickups, and activating switches, all the while being careful not to crash to send yet another brain scan back to base (I certainly hope the new ship costs don't come out of the piilot's paycheck).

There's a great amount of action, and a great amount of variety within the game, all wrapped around a jovial knock at video game conventions, and coupled with comical quotes from program personnel interspersed between the levels. It's quite the package, one that can really draw a player in to not only complete, but strive for perfection, revisiting levels for higher scores and ratings.

A few honorable mentions to get through that may also be worth your time before I sign off

- Cavenaut: an exciting minimalist adventure that's unfortunately not a valid entry for the GameFAQs database.
- Slender: not on the list because he owes me $20
- I Wanna Be The Guy: Gaiden: I had thought about including it, however technically it didn't leave beta in 2012
- Frog Fractions: Honestly, this one is top 10, I just couldn't figure out how to write about it. Play Frog Fractions and educate yourself!

There are many free games released every year to be enjoyed; the ones above I happened to enjoy the most, but certainly I haven't played them all. If you know of a free game that you'd consider a favorite for the year, don't just keep it to yourself. When we talk about free games, everyone wins, so I look forward to hearing about them in the comments!

Thanks for reading!

List by BlueGunstarHero (02/19/2013)

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