In just a few years, Adult Swim Games has become a publishing label that matters on Steam, where I'm finding that labels matter more and more. The freedom for independent developers to self-publish is great, but with so many games releasing every day, I appreciate any marker of quality I can get. And Adult Swim is one of my favorite stamps of approval right now.
Its games aren't all hits—we weren't especially fond of Traverser, for instance—but since 2013 Adult Swim has published great stuff such as Super Puzzle Platformer Deluxe, Volgarr the Viking, Jazzpunk, and Duck Game on Steam. And at PAX Prime this past weekend, its booth was a good place to be. There were sidescrollers for days, yeah, but each one was different and immediately appealing. Here's a quick run-down of what I saw:
Katana Zero (I can't find an official site yet) is like Hotline Miami with the plane flipped vertically. You start at the bottom of a small level, and must slice through armed guards in a flawless path to the exit at the top—die and you restart the level. Swiping your sword with pristine timing bats bullets back at their source, and items like knives can be grabbed along the way and hurled at baddie heads. To help, I was able to briefly slow down time, but that didn't make it easy. I still screwed up my bullet batting plenty (if they aimed for my head, for instance, I had to jump and attack or get hit by the pitch) and one level took me at least 15 tries, all fun.
Death's Gambit was another tough one. I hate to compare it to Dark Souls when everything even remotely tricky is being compared to Dark Souls, but it's a sidescroller that requires patient learning of enemy patterns with well-timed roll dodges and shield blocks. You can carry a few health potions at a time (with the option to lower the number in return for extra damage), and if you die, you lose one and have to retrieve it. I got crushed.
Rain World, which I've followed for a while, drew me in with its animation. Using procedural techniques, its adorable 'slugcat' slinks through the remains of an old civilization, dancing on wires and slipping through tiny passages in the pixel art screens. Unlike your typical Metroidvania, the slugcat doesn't grow stronger along the way—it's up to the player to learn the behaviors of the predators stalking the world, and elude them on a quest to gather food before the deadly rain falls again.
I didn't get to play Starr Mazer, but I like its combination of point-and-click adventuring with bullet-hell SHMUPing. Apparently decisions made in the adventure portions will be stored and affect the story as you go. The excited developer told me that the team's goal is to make a game as good as we remember classic point-and-clicks and SHMUPs to be, using the years of learning since the classics to their advantage rather than emulating them entirely.
I didn't see everything at Adult Swim's booth, but time permitting I'd have liked to see it all. Desync is an FPS (hey, not a sidescroller!) said to encourage dangerous and creative play. Wasted is described as "a roguelike post-apocalyptic pub crawler," which is a nice-sounding string of game descriptors. Ghost Song is a Very Metroid-looking game set in the underworld of a "lonely world of secrets and discoveries." Small Radios Big Televisions is described as "a point-and-click exploration game that focuses on worlds within worlds and the manipulation of audio-visual data." And finally, Rise & Shine is a game of game references (the first one is a gimme), starring Rise as he saves his planet from 'Space Grunts' with "pure, satisfying shooting" and puzzle solving. They may not all turn out to be Duck Games or Jazzpunks, but they're all things I'd like to check out because—at the risk of sounding like a brand cheerleader—Adult Swim has built a healthy reputation for finding and supporting good independent games.
I'm sure plenty of developers are happier going their own way, which is great, but from a consumer perspective I appreciate dependable labels. In a sea of cold pitches, I can infer a lot from the Adult Swim logo based on its past releases and the network's personality and sense of humor. And where big publishers like EA publish everything under the sun—from Brain Training games to Battlefront—publishers like Adult Swim, Devolver Digital, and Versus Evil feel more like small record labels. They're categories of their own, tools I rely on more and more when trying to digest Steam's increasingly monstrous catalog.