After an exodus that devastated the industry, the pluckish Australian gaming community has had a stellar run over the last several years. Games like Florence, Hacknet, Armello, Satellite Reign, or Hand of Fate have all excelled in their own right, but Australia's talent goes back literally decades.
Let's appreciate some of that history today.
As was the case before, this isn't a definitive list for everyone. It's my own list, so feel free to agree, disagree, or suggestion alterations of your own in the comments. Australia's had a long, proud run with video games, and I'm sure there'll be one or two I've missed that mean an awful lot to someone, so let everyone know!
Update 19/02: Added more titles (now that I've had the time!).
Powerslide is one of those racing games that everyone loved - if you had the hardware to run it. The post-apocalyptic arcade racer was built to support 3Dfx cards, so you were shit out of luck if you didn't have a good Voodoo card.
It was a huge deal back in the day: at E3 1997, Powerslide and its Difference Engine turned a lot of heads on the show floor. The physics engine made up for the lack of detail in some of the sand-hewn levels, and the all-polygon graphics was a huge step forward for the time. Getting used to the constant sliding - there's very little friction in how the game handles - takes some time, and there's a steep difficulty curve with some of the tracks. But with a few laps around the track, everything clicks together well enough.
Powerslide won't ever be remembered as fondly as a Mario Kart or other arcade racers of the time, but it was a huge technical accomplishment for a small Australian studio. It's available through GOG for just under $9.
I've always loved the fact that Auran's plucky sci-fi often gets mentioned in the same sentence as Total Annihilation, or that people draw comparisons between the two RTS games to begin with. TA is a legendary game in its genre, and Dark Reign deserves to remembered just as highly.
It might have suffered a little at the time due to the graphics. There was some definite allusions to Red Alert with the UI structure, which is a shame, because Dark Reign was so, so clever for its time. Production queues became a thing of the past. Grouping entire divisions wasn't capped the way StarCraft was. The waypointing and pathfinding was excellent, and there was a control panel letting you setting basic behaviours for AI troops, a little like Age of Empires.
Dark Reign is still one of the best strategy games ever made, for me. I know KKnD has its fans, and I'm one of them, but KKnD is more a highlight for its charm than what it does as a strategy game. It's very good, but Dark Reign isn't just excellent. It's world-class, and it's Australian.
The purity of FRAMED and FRAMED 2 is one of the best things you can play on a mobile. It was Hideo Kojima's favourite game in 2014, which tells you something about the game's chops.
In all ways, "studio" is a fitting description for the working environment of Loveshack Entertainment, a developer formed by a trio of talented ex-Firemint employees. Sitting — literally — atop Millipede, another creative company whose most recent accomplishment is the absurdly well-polished iOS game Run That Town, Loveshack, in its entirety, occupies a space similar in size to an inner city studio apartment — in New York. Within its surprisingly sunny confines, they chip away at Framed, easily one of the more innovative and refreshing titles currently in development in Australia.
Created by Blue Tougue Entertainment in Melbourne, de Blob came back to life recently after the franchise was acquired by THQ Nordic (now Koch Media) in the THQ firesale. de Blob was special because it was a rare commercial hit on the Wii, a platform where typically only Nintendo games sold well.
It's even more special when you think about how de Blob was marketed. It was sold as a kid's game, one that ended up finding an audience among adults nonetheless. "It’s weird, marketing fucked up, but the public got that de Blob was more than just product - they got it that it was somehow different," Nick Hagger, one of the developers, told Kotaku Australia at the time.
de Blob and de Blob 2 have since been re-released on GOG and Steam, so you can enjoy them all over again.
If you walk into the Wargaming Sydney offices today and walk around, you'll see a framed copy of Fallout Tactics on the wall. That's an echo back to the studio's past life as the Australian wing of Micro Forte, which also worked on Demon Stalkers, Bombs Away, an unbpulished MMO for the original Xbox called Citizen Zero, and Enemy Infestation:
But apart from their development of the technology that would go on to underpin the World of Tanks franchise and its spinoffs, Fallout Tactics was Micro Forte's greatest achievement. The improved combat system worked for fans of Jagged Alliance or X-COM who wanted deeper, more complex fights than what the original Fallout offered. It's basically a post-apocalyptic S.W.A.T. game set in the Fallout universe, and it probably would have been an even bigger hit if you didn't have to do all the scrolling with the arrow keys. And with some mods, it's great to replay today.
Way of the Exploding Fist
Probably the best thing to say about Way of the Exploding Fist is a story told to Kotaku Australia by Gregg Barnett, the game's creator, during the prototyping stage:
He had just finished creating one of the first playable builds of the game, on the Commodore 64. He went to make a cup of coffee. When he got back, everyone in the office was at his desk, fighting over who was going to play next. That’s when he knew he had a hit on his hands.
Part of the DNA in Way of the Exploding Fist found itself in some of the biggest fighting games, which makes sense whenm you consider how successful it was: the game sold over 500,000 copies in Europe alone, a figure indie studios would be proud with today, let alone in 1985. Way of the Exploding Fist is the only Aussie title to win Game of the Year at the Golden Joystick Awards (The Hobbit was nominated in 1983, but lost out to Jetpac).
Game Dev Tycoon
The tycoon series of simulators is a genre unto itself now, and developers Kairosoft have played a huge part in that. But still one of the best versions of the game - and one of the most wonderful stories about subverting piracy - is the Queensland-made Game Dev Tycoon.
Brilliant for the way it messes with your mind and your eyes, Antichamber was one of the first Aussie indies to really find success on Steam. It was also one of the few Unreal Tournament mods that found success as a standalone game: Antichamber was originally called Hazard: The Journey of Life when the game was being originally built. You can see some of what that looks like below.
Ty the Tasmanian Tiger
How many other Australian games have been spun off into their own TV series? Ty's success extends well beyond that, of course, but the part I love about the game the most was how the remaster came back to life and, briefly, was the most highly rated game on Steam.
Ty The Tasmanian Tiger, for an ocker platforming game from Australia, has had a pretty good life. It was well received at launch, and the remaster had the honour of being the highest rated game on Steam for a short while. But the story goes much further than that. The game was actually optioned for a TV series by Film Roman, the studio responsible for animating 24 seasons of The Simpsons. Two scripts were made, some of which you can see today.
Puzzle Quest: Challenge of the Warlords
Puzzle Quest has been adapted to a million different formats now, but the original is by far and away the best version. It took a basic mechanic from casual gaming - the success of match-3 popularised by Bejeweled and Candy Crush - and adapted it into a fully fledged RPG, complete with cheating AI, resource management and frustrating battles.
The game was made by Infinite Interactive in Melbourne's St Kilda, the same studio behind Warlords Battlecry 3 and Warlords 4. The studio is defunct as far as I can tell, although for some reason their website is still active, even though it just links to a file directory with the entirety of the site backed up in one handy ZIP file.
When most people think of Marble Madness, they think of the designer Mark Cerny and everything he's accomplished not just on hardware, but as the chief architect of Sony consoles. Marble Madness was Cerny's first game, but what most people don't realise are all the companies that were involved in bringing the game around the world.
So if you played Marble Madness on a ZX Spectrum, as many did in the UK and some in Australia, then you did so because of Melbourne House. Melbourne House, which was also called Beam Software and operated under one name or another until 2010, was one of Australia's pioneering studios, so you'll see them a few times in this story.
One of the best Metroidvania 2D platformers in the last few years and comfortably the best game ever to come out of South Australia, Hollow Knight is the definition of world-class. It's been a massive success for Team Cherry, and is likely to only be bettered by the Silksong sequel when it comes out sometime this year.
Few people remember that the Shadowrun SNES adaptation is actually Australian, which just goes to show how good Beam Software (and Melbourne House) were for their time.
Shadowrun, amazingly, was a commercial flop at the time. The game was created in a remarkable five to six months, courtesy of a ridiculous deadline set by the publisher Data East, and so Beam used elements of their Nightshade action-adventure as the basis for Shadowrun. It holds up well today, on an emulator or if you're fortunate enough to have the original cartridge hanging around somewhere, and is definitely one of the best noir games from the '90s.
The legacy of Shadowrun ended up being a commercial hit in the end: the Aussie game formed the inspiration for Shadowrun Returns, which had a hugely successful Kickstarter and release on all major platforms, with developers Harebrained Schemes making an extra storyline that linked their game with the events of the SNES and Genesis versions of Shadowrun.
The fact that The Hobbit got made in Australia is astonishing. Text adventures were huge in the '80s - that was the popular genre - and a plucky Australian studio not only went on to have a massive smash hit, but some programming genius meant The Hobbit had some of the most complex text prompts for any text adventure at the time.
It's difficult to appreciate the success of The Hobbit in 2020, save to say this: it could be the most successful text adventure ever made.
Not a bad effort for a small Aussie team in the '80s.
Crossy Road is the kind of game that changes lives. It certainly changed the outlook for its developers. The game was so successful, it practically became an industry unto itself, strong enough to attract the attention of The House of Mouse after release.
What's not as well understood is how Crossy Road helped developers - Australian devs especially - think about design. Crossy Road has a great free-to-play model that's fair for players because it's fundamentally designed around the idea that you can, and probably will, die early. That allows for more ads, which means the game doesn't need to shove as many pop-ups for microtransactions and skins in your face.
It's not the first thing people think about on a list of best Australian games, or their favourite mobile games. But it's a design ethic that became part of the fabric of mobile gaming, and helped inform a generation of designers worldwide going forward. That's a big impact for one little chook.
Remember when EA Sports used to make all kinds of sports games with smaller developers? ARL 96 was one of those. Hell, even the commentary isn't terrible, and that's the hardest and most expensive thing to get right in a video game.
It's insane to look back at the places Fruit Ninja has ended up. There was a successful Kickstarter to make tabletop Fruit Ninja games. Talks about a film have been ongoing for ages. It even got its own show, released as a YouTube Red original.
And sure, Fruit Ninja as a show sounds silly. But consider how gargantuan the game's success was. From a small Brisbane studio came a game that reached one billion devices in five years. Next to Candy Crush, Fruit Ninja was the game that showed everyone what the iPhone and touch controls could do.
As the studio said themselves, it was a miracle.
We talk about video games a lot, which often results in board games and tabletop being ignored. Talk to long-time Cthulhu fans, however, and chances are they'll have fond memories of the Terror Australis RPG gamebook, which took the Lovecraftian setting into Australia.
Apart from now being housed at the National Library of Australia, Terror Australis is special because it did something very few board or video games even thought of. Terror Australis went into great detail to incorporate the wisdom and teachings from Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders into the game, fleshing out rules and mechanics for how the Aboriginal Dreamtime functioned.
Terror Australis wasn't just a book about indigenous or outback Australia: it was also the hard work of a lot of Australian authors. It belongs in any list of Australian games just as much as anything else, but because it's a tabletop RPG, it often - wrongly - gets overlooked.
All the way back in 1987, a group of Australian writers got together and decided to take Call of Cthulhu into one of the lesser fleshed out settings - Australia. Our fair shores were already featured in The Shadow Out Of Time, so it was no surprise that some tabletop fans would want to flesh out the sunburnt country a little further. That RPG was called Terror Australis, and 32 years later a collection of writers have banded together to update the book for the latest core rules. But rather than just being noticed by Call of Cthulhu and tabletop fans, the work ended up getting the attention of a completely different organisation: the National Library of Australia.
There's tons of Australian cricket games to focus on, and most will hold some reverence to Super International Cricket. My heart, however, belongs to Cricket 96, or the more fully licensed Cricket 97 Ashes Edition.
It was the first major cricket game to adopt a 3D engine, which was massive for the time. But more than that, it also ventured a step towards a more realistic style of cricket without abandoning the ability for an old-fashioned slog.
Don Bradman Cricket 14
But the problem with cricket games, before and after Cricket 96, is that they all generally played the same way. Ricky Ponting International Cricket (or Brian Lara in the rest of the world) introduced a 360 degree zone that moved away from the oldschool cardinal directions, but it was still largely a glorified rhythm game.
Don Bradman Cricket 14 revolutionised the control system. But more important, it became the basis for an engine that is now the beating heart of a studio focused on making current and next-gen sports games. It's not the size of a Wargaming or a Firemonkeys, but like so many other Australian studios over the last few years, Big Ant has carved out a niche for themselves both with technology and sports long ignored by other publishers.
There's so much that could be said about LA Noire: its troubled development, how long it was in development, and what it did that no other game really attempted.
It was flawed, but it was also a game that mattered. It's facial animations are a bit hokey now, but they were groundbreaking for the time.
LA Noire mattered: not only to the industry, but to a lot of fans. It was one of those flawed gems that you love all the same, and we'll probably never see another game like it.
Untitled Goose Game
Goose now sits in an upper echelon alongside games like DOOM and Battlefield 1942. But more important than winning industry awards, The Goose united gamers - and even found a way to breakthrough to mainstream media, who found themselves talking about games in a way that was wholly positive.
Games simply don't do that. But The Goose does. That's a mark of just how much it cut through, something every game wishes it could accomplish.
What are your favourite Australian games of all time?