Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

What Are The Most Significant Indie Computer RPGs?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on May 18, 2010

It’s  list-time again! What some dude (me) thinks are the most significant indie computer RPGs.

[UPDATE: Be sure and check the comments for this post. As predicted, folks have submitted a lot of their own personal candidates, including a couple that I want to kick myself for overlooking, and a few that I'd not yet heard of. Man, there you guys go, exposing my ignorance YET AGAIN.... ]

What does “significant” mean? It’s not quite the same as “most popular,” “most influential,” “the best,” or even “one of my favorites.” Basically, if I was wanting to provide someone with snapshots of what I consider the most noteworthy (for whatever reason – including raising controversy) indie RPGs over the last couple of decades  so they might gain a broad overview of the history tiny little sub-category of games, these would be the games I’d show them.

Now, the whole “indie” thing gets a little fuzzy if you go back much further than two decades. As I pretty much define indies as those studios who bypass the big publisher system that controls the industry, if you go back too far you get into a time where… uh, there was no big publisher system that controls the industry, and most game studios’ projects were self-funded. There really has to be an establishment for there to be an anti-establishment.  All the guys who took out ads in computer and gaming mags for mail-order titles back then embodied the indie spirit, and one day I need to go back and find some PDFs of those old magazines and look up the titles of those games. Maybe they still exist somewhere.

And then there’s my own ignorance of what was happening much earlier than about 1991 or so. Well, okay, my ignorance in GENERAL, but especially here. I played a lot of funky homebrewed software back then, but very little of it ever achieved any level of distribution (or completion). If it seems there are more entries from just the last few years, this can be attributed both to my own lack of insight into earlier years, and the fact that indie RPGs have really enjoyed a surge of popularity and releases in just the last few years. I expect as many “indie” RPGs were released just last year than in the entire first half of the decade.

But all those weak qualifications aside, here’s my stab at creating such a list:


Vampyre: The Talisman of Invocation
– This was a 1990 freeware  EGA Ultima clone by high school students Brian Weston and Victor Shao. The plot was  almost non-existent and I never played it too far, but I was always impressed by what these kids had written (I wasn’t that long out of high school myself at this time). While it wasn’t the first / only RPG out there at the time that might qualify as an indie, it actually achieved pretty decent distribution. I stumbled across it on my college library’s “public domain” collection, and on several bulletin boards. I saw posts and talked to many people who played it. I never heard of anybody ever finishing it (without cheating), however.

Why is it significant? This was an indie, homebrewed game that managed – at least from a technical perspective – not too short of the mark of that of a fairly contemporary title (Ultima IV, in this case). And it obtained fairly widespread distribution – which wasn’t saying much, back then.

Vampyre: The Talisman of Invocation


Dungeons of Kairn
– Mike Lawrence’s 1991 shareware RPG was also very obviously inspired by the earlier classics – the Ultima, Wizardry, and Might & Magic series are likely suspects. Like many earlier party-based games, you had a roster of characters from which you could compose a party. Like the 1980s-era Ultimas, the game featured a top-down overland travel view, and a pseudo-3D dungeon view.

Why is it significant? The game remains one of the few shareware RPGs still remembered and mentioned today from the early 1990s, and included a surprising level of complexity and detail.

Dungeons of Kairn


Exile / Avernum Series –
Before anyone used the word “indie” to describe games. Exile: Escape From the Pit started things off, and with commercial success (principally on the Mac), it became a four-game series. Later, these were remade / re-imagined with much more advanced technology as the Avernum series. As these games from the earlier days of shareware, where making shareware “trilogies” with the first episode free was par for the course, these games are known for having ginormous demos. And being generally ginormous on their own. And being choc full of hardcore, old-school, turn-based-tactical goodness harkening back to an earlier era… Which wasn’t all that much earlier when the first game was released.

Why is it significant? For many years, Jeff Vogel’s Spiderweb Software was THE Shareware RPG Studio.  And this was Spiderweb’s flagship series.

Exile Series

Avernum Series


Roguelikes
– I confess, I’m not much of a follower of the roguelike scene, and it’s been quite a few years since I had many weeks of my life sucked down into the pits of games like Moria. The biggest ones these days would include Nethack (of course), Adom, and Angband – and various derivatives. I’d have to defer to experts on the subject for better clarification, so I’m just lumping them together here.

Why are they significant? While there isn’t quite as much crossover between roguelikes and other indie RPGs as I would expect, but the influence is hard to deny – particularly their indirect influence by way of Diablo. And yes, I do consider them to be RPGs.

Major Roguelikes


Dink Smallwood –
A tiny, silly, glitchy action-RPG from RTSoft in 1997, Dink Smallwood was released in 1997 as a boxed mail-order game. Later, in 1999, it was released digitally as a free download.  Dink Smallwood features tongue-in-cheek (and often mildly off-color) humor, and some reasonably powerful tools and mod capabilities, which extended its popularity among fans for many years.

Why is it significant? People still talk about the game today, years after its release – probably due to its mod friendliness and price (free) – or the fact that there wasn’t much else from that time frame. Whether or not it is a “true” RPG is probably more in question.

Dink Smallwood


Devil Whiskey – This game was inspired by the Bard’s Tale, Dragon Wars, and similar games.  Still limited to the four cardinal directions for movement, the game used OpenGL and real 3D graphics for rendering the world. It featured some absolutely gorgeous portraits and music. And, like the first Bard’s Tale game, just surviving a few seconds out on the street is a chore at level 1.

Unfortunately, Devil Whiskey’s developer has pretty much vanished, the website is succumbing to bit-rot, and even getting the demo can be tricky.  However, I was informed at the time of this writing that the boxed set of the game is still being sold at Decklin’s Domain, and that digital downloads are planned in the not-too-distant future.

Why is it significant? This game provided inspiration for more than one indie RPG developer, and amongst its indie-gaming peers, it still stands out as a solid indie title seven years after its release.

Devil Whiskey


Geneforge Series
– The second (or maybe third, depending on how you are counting) major RPG series from Spiderweb Software, Geneforge goes from the sword-and-sorcery realm to that of “science fantasy” with another story of warring factions competing over the secrets of genetic manipulation and the creation of life.

Why is it significant? Spiderweb. Major series. And not traditional fantasy.

Geneforge Series


Super Columbine Massacre RPG!
I’m not fond of it, and I found what I considered it’s revisionist explanation to ring disingenuous after playing the game. The game lets you reenact the 1999 Columbine High School tragedy as the villains in a bizarre, fanciful, 16-bit RPG universe, and then follows their later adventures in Hell, populated by creatures from Doom and characters that were supposedly influential on Harris and Klebold.

Why is it significant? Any indie RPG making this big of a stink has to be labeled “significant.” It went into ethical territory that no mainstream RPG would dare.

Super Columbine Massacre RPG!


Minions of Mirth
– While I don’t really want to open the floodgate here for indie MMOs (of which we have many, many examples), Minions of Mirth is fully playable as a single-player game as well (at least it was the last time I checked). If I were to guess at the inspiration for this game, I’d not hesitate to answer “EverQuest.” While not the most exciting game in single-player mode, the technical accomplishments and sheer quantity of content for the game are amazing for such a tiny team – though they obtained plenty of community support after release.

Why is it significant? While still not very well-known, it’s a solid indie success story, and a major technological achievement in the “kids don’t try this at home” category.

Minions of Mirth


Aveyond Series
– as I understand it, Aveyond was not originally intended to be a breakout title that found an audience amongst non-traditional RPG fans (namely, the casual market). Designer Amanda Fitch, an RPG fan herself, simply made an RPG that she and her small (*cough* at the time) community would enjoy. Well, two. Her second, Aveyond, was a commercial venture, taking advantage of the new licensing for the next iteration of the RPG Maker engine. But she made a high-quality, entertaining game which found great appeal amongst both classic console RPG fans and women who wouldn’t know what the acronym “RPG” meant.

Why are they significant? Aveyond found – and continues to find – great success, and hits an audience few RPGs previously could. It also inspired a contingent of indie RPG developers who saw commercial opportunity in fulfilling their dreams using RPG Maker as their principle tool. And the Aveyond games continue to represent the high bar of quality in the RPG Maker game category.

Aveyond: Rhen’s Quest

Aveyond 2: Ean’s Quest

Aveyond: Lord of Twilight

Aveyond: Gates of Knight

Aveyond:  The Lost Orb


Cute Knight Series
– Appearing at around the same time as Aveyond, Cute Knight was another RPG that enjoyed a strong appeal with girls.  Borrowing heavily from both the Princess Maker series and old-school dungeon crawls, Cute Knight is a “Sim-RPG” that few hardcore RPG fans (admit to having) played, yet enjoyed significant commercial and critical success.

Why is it significant? It’s a genre-buster that hit new audiences and set a few trends. And note: “success.” Nevermind your dreams of indie stardom – in this branch of the biz, being able to pay the bills is always considered success.

Cute Knight Deluxe

Cute Knight Kingdom


The Spirit Engine 2 -
Utilizing the unusual (but not unheard of) side-scrolling perspective, The Spirit Engine 2 weaves a story of a small group of heroes facing a murderous cult and a political conspiracy. The first game in the series was released as freeware, and the sequel has now become freeware / “donationware” a few months ago, so they are easy on the wallet to check out.

Why is it significant? While unfortunately not a commercial success, the game still garnered a good deal of attention. The side-scrolling perspective also helps it stand out. But principally, the game stands out as an example of solid indie craftsmanship and polish in spite of what might be considered “retro” technology.  The incredible soundtrack stands out in particular, and that’s really saying something in this list.

The Spirit Engine Series


Depths of Peril
–  Like Cute Knight, this game went outside the box to embrace features from another genre to make a unique experience. In this case, Depths of Peril united the action-RPG gameplay of Diablo with some strategy / negotiation elements more frequently found in games like Civilization, and also incorporated some exciting dynamic quests and events that would progress organically based on the player’s (and rival NPCs) actions – or lack thereof. The mix was a little intimidating for some players, and has since been toned down for later titles.

Why is it significant? Maybe this is wishful thinking here, as I would really love to see Depths of Peril be more influential than it probably is. However, it did succeed in shaking things up a bit in the indie RPG realm, and was frankly better than most mainstream RPG releases that year.

Depths of Peril


Eschalon Series
– Now with the second chapter of the saga released, this old-school powerhouse of an RPG takes inspiration from mainstream games of the 80s and early 90s, as well as indie titles such as the Avernum series. Marrying old-school gameplay and concepts with more modern interfaces and polish, the Eschalon games play about like the old-school classics would if viewed through the rose-tinted glasses of  nostalgia.

Why are they significant? The series looks sharp, plays sharp, and feels like something out of the early 90’s. And that’s a good thing. They demonstrated that high production values could be obtained on an indie budget, and that there remains a lot of potential for modern games in old, abandoned game ideas.

Eschalon: Book 1

Eschalon: Book 2


Laxius Force
Series – Taken in and of itself, I don’t consider the original Laxius Force to be that significant of an indie release. When I first encountered the game, I thought it to be entertaining, but not quite up to the standards of its elder RPG Maker Peer, Aveyond. Since that time, however, studio Aldorlea Games has used this title as a springboard for a pretty massive stable of RPG Maker-based commercial games. Their quality continues to improve, and Aldorlea has become a big fish in the small pond of casual RPGs.

Why is it significant? I’m using the Laxius Force series (which is expecting another installment this year, which I cannot wait to see) as a proxy for Aldorlea here, as it was a harbinger of good things to come.

Laxius Force

Laxius Force II

3 Stars of Destiny (prequel)


Knights of the Chalice
– Speaking of old-school, Knights of the Chalice embraced low-res graphics (optimized for 320 x 200 resolution, reminiscent of Ultima VII‘s visuals), turn-based tactical combat, and borrowed heavily from 1970s-era Dungeons & Dragons (using the newer, “open gaming license” D20 rules system as a baseline).  And it’s old-school hard and nasty, making regular reloading a necessity. In spite (or because) of this, it has proven to be ridiculously fun for a large number of fans. Myself included.

Why is it significant? Knights of the Chalice was everything that seemed destined to fail, from the “overly complex” rule system to the likewise detailed, difficult, turn-based combat system that common knowledge stated was nothing but tedious, and to the graphics optimized for a screen resolution that had been obsolete for over fifteen years. And yet, it kicked butt and garnered some significant attention.

Knights of the Chalice


Din’s Curse
– It’s far too early for this one to be called a classic, as it is still only weeks old. However, as the third game from Depths of Peril creator Soldak Entertainment, it shows the improvements of consecutive refinement in both the game engine and the design. The principle claim to fame of Din’s Curse is simply the presence of a Diablo-style game in an extremely dynamic and ever-changing game-world. I really hope other titles pick up on the ideas set forth in this game.

Why is it significant? While even the best procedurally-generated plots and events get old and mechanical after time, Din’s Curse shows the entire industry – mainstream and indie alike – how it should be done.  Or at least a major example of how it should be done.

Din’s Curse


Your Turn!

I’m not suggesting this list is anything like the final word on the matter – far from it. I’m hoping this will actually start the discussion, as I’d like to hear other people’s picks or comments. I’m just one guy with limited visibility into this area – and you, my friends, are many. What did I overlook or get wrong?


Filed Under: Indie Evangelism - Comments: 22 Comments to Read



  • Ken said,

    Two major additions:

    1. Tom Proudfoot’s games: Nahlakh, Natuk, Tower of Darkness, and Pirates of the Western Sea. Only the first two were finished, but they were deep tactical crpg greatness, and inspired many others.

    2. Helherron, my personal favorite. Best tactical depth in a crpg, in my opinion.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Tell us more about them! I only recently learned about Tom Proudfoot’s games, and still haven’t had time to play them. So this is, like, me leeching knowledge off the community ‘n stuff… ;)

  • juv3nal said,

    The interface is kind of busted, but there are some decent freeware rpgs listed on home of the underdogs.

    rpgs start on this page when sorted by genre:
    http://www.homeoftheunderdogs.net/company.php?offset=1000&id=Freeware&sort=genre&sg=

  • juv3nal said,

    shareware ones here:
    http://www.homeoftheunderdogs.net/theme.php?offset=240&id=26&sort=genre&sg=

  • Ken said,

    Proudfoot’s games survive mostly through his forum at http://www.proudft.com/smf_forum/.

    Nahlakh was 1994 or so, a top-down Ultima-style game. High points: huge world, many dungeons, very varied loot (a system of random loot atributes), good magic system (you had to find books with the syllables), gain-power-by-using-skills system. The best part was very elaborate tactical combat. Proudfoot said that classic tactical crpgs like Wizard’s Crown and Eternal Dagger inspired him. Nahlkah is great if you are a classic indie games devotee, but it’s damn hard. Not for the weak.

    Natuk was his next. It had very substantially improved graphics, even better tactical combat (with a lot of deep stuff like wounds, bleeding, facing, spells that changed terrain, etc.), with a slightly improved spend-exp-to-improve-skills advancement system. The fun part: in Natuk, you and your party are all orcs and trolls, exiled and sentenced to death by the Orc king, seeking revenge. Great little sound touches of orc noises. Great tactical combat, fun magic system.

    Tower of Darkness applies the Natuk engine to a randomized dungeon. Pirates of the Western Sea applies that engine to a vast world with an ocean-going theme, but is incomplete.

    If you like indie games at all, you’ll find them a revelation. Natuk is a little tough to start with — it looks CGA, and is damned hard — so start with Natuk to get a feel for what he is about.

    Helherron is, in turn, an homage to Nahlakh, coded by a (IIRC) Scandanavian programmer. It’s also top-down and Ultima-style, with graphics somewhere between Nahlakh and Natuk. Eight player characters. Cool magic system (you have to find the spell book to cast the spell; you can spend more mana to make it more powerful). Very cool loot system (arms and armor can have many randomized qualities that makes them do fun things; the loot is different every game). The main quest is straighforward, and the plot is nothing to write home about, but the world is fairly large, and the tactical combat is utterly unmatched in a crpg. There’s a variety of character classes that make you want to replay to try them, and a vast number of terrain-effecting spells that you can use for combat tactics. My co-blogger wrote a post on it here: http://www.popehat.com/2007/12/19/helherron/ . It looks as if the web site for it is down, but the last version was freeware, and I’m sure you can find it. If you like indie crpgs, and like tactical combat, you should love it.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    @Ken – Awesome. Thanks for the additional info. I’m sure I’m not the only one who appreciates those additions to the list!

  • Agnari said,

    lets get into the wayback machine and revisit probably the most important of all Indies. Overseas at the time of this and serveral other releases I belive it’s pretty much responsible for starting a lot of what we take for granted today.

    drum roll:

    Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord, aka Wizadary I

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Yeah – like I said, once you go back far enough, they are all indies – or none of them indies. Take your pick. They were definitely do-it-yourselfers back then, out of necessity.

    I’m still impressed today with everything they did with Wizardry I back then. Sure, we could clone it today easily enough – but we don’t have to deal with 32K memory limitations and everything else they handled back then.

  • DarkAdam said,

    Some great Indie RPGs are missing such as those by SCF, namely, Last Scenario and Exit Fate. This games are huge, epic(storyline wise, and well executed) and contain some of the coolest mini games, similar to CCG etc. If you’ve played it you’ll know what i mean.

    http://site.scfworks.com/?page_id=3

    Another recent release is Blood Rain, its a china made RPG which has been translated to English. The english version is paid, but the chinese version is free. It contains some of the best and most unique graphics you’ll ever see. Most people probably can’t even tell that its made with RPGmaker !

    http://www.soulframe-rpg.com/rainblood/?p=277

  • murlock said,

    May be it’s not a indie / shareware game but maybe you should add http://www.mobygames.com/game/windows/demise-rise-of-the-kutan, I found very interesting (a huge dungeons and allowing to recreate party to help previous party)

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Some suggestions from elsewhere on top of these for inclusion are:

    Mount & Blade (D’oh! Yeah, it really should be)
    Incursion
    Pyrrhic Tales: Prelude to Darkness
    Azalta
    Excelsior
    Walls of Bratock
    Mysterious Song

    the Aethra Chronicles
    Yendorian Tales
    Warwizard
    Aleshar
    Runesword

  • guenthar said,

    WWOB – This is the first computer rpg I played and I have been looking for this for a long time without luck. The game is a shareware game from the early 90s with an Ultima 6 style.

  • Viratoxe said,

    Nazghul/Haxima is worth checking out. Nazghul is actually the game engine itself…in theory you could code your own Ultima V style game. Haxima is a game showing what the engine is capable of.

    http://myweb.cableone.net/gmcnutt/nazghul.html

  • Scotoma said,

    Never played it, but the Laxius Force games are actually much older than the Aveyond series, since they originated in the freeware Laxius Power series, which started around 2002 and had already three games out before Aveyond was published. Which is not a comment on quality, never played them, but heard they had awful engrish in them.

  • Patrick said,

    Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden

    It’s actually one of the best JRPGs that I’ve played.

  • Zeus said,

    Castle of the Winds! It was a two-chapter Shareware RPG for Win 3.1. And the first chapter was free, so you got a _lot_ of bang for your zero bucks.

    Aside from the abysmal Dragon Crystal on Game Gear, CoW was the first Roguelike I ever played. It had a town with inns and shopkeeps and the like, so it wasn’t quite as claustrophobic as Rogue. You could outfit your character however you liked and send him into the mountain, and best of all, his sprite looked like a Win 3.1 desktop icon.

    The developer recently released both chapters as freeware on his website:

    http://www.exmsft.com/~ricks/

    There’s also a pretty in-depth fan page here:

    http://lkbm.ecritters.biz/cotw/

  • Kelly said,

    Another RPGmaker game is Quintessence by Freebird Games. It’s free, and is currently being released in chapters. It’s a bit story heavy, but the story is excellent and the game has many interesting gameplay elements aside from battling, plus all the music is original and beautiful. It’s really well done but seems to be overlooked. Other games made by Freebird Games is The Mirror Lied and Do You Remember My Lullaby (which is actually non interactive, so it’s not really a game, I guess.)

    http://www.freebirdgames.com/

  • Played Eschalon: Book II or Din’s Curse Yet? said,

    [...] peanuts… these games are exactly the kinds of games I’m talking about. (Well, alright, this whole list holds the kinds of games I’m talking about, but [...]

  • Jorlen said,

    Minions of Mirth… The MMO I played the most aside from Everquest. Awesome indie achievement, created mainly by a couple, believe it or not.

    And Din’s Curse – I’m still playing it now after purchasing it after its release. Easily the best graphical roguelike since Diablo. Highly recommended.

  • Rampant Coyote said,

    Amen on both, Jorlen. I didn’t play MoM as much as I’d like, but it was enough to be really impressed by it (and you’ll recognize some of the monsters in Frayed Knights as well… while the art style doesn’t exactly match, they were at least a cheap collection of licensed monsters I could build from). I’ve chatted with Josh – the guy who headed up the project – a few times, and he is one incredible developer.

    Din’s Curse – ditto. I’m still a fan.

  • The Twenty and the Seven said,

    [...] time limiting myself to just seven.  Last year I wrote an article  about what I felt were the most “significant” indie RPGs and that large list had some gaping holes and questionable inclusions in it. So I can’t fault [...]

  • Crassty said,

    Personally, I loved Nethergate, and its subsequent re-write, Nethergate: Resurrection :) I loved the Celtic/Roman storyline, and I have always been a huge fan of The Exile/Avernum series and interface, which Spiderweb Software used much of for Nethergate. I thought it was a solid game, and I REALLY wish that they would make a sequel to it.

top