Remember when shelling out $60-$80 for a brand new AAA release title was the norm? Remember when games came in boxes, with those things called instruction manuals printed on an ancient material made from chemically-treated wood pulp known as paper?
Well, the days of lovingly-crafted instruction manuals may be long gone, but the price tags on AAA titles are still just about as pricey as they were more than a decade ago (more, if you factor in Collector's Editions and post-release DLC).
But these days, you don't have to shell out the big bucks for a solid gaming experience. It seems that most of a PC game developer's budget goes into pushing the boundaries of hardware and graphics, but stunning graphics does not a stunning game make.
We're lucky to be living during the era of indie game development, with quality titles pushing riveting gameplay over shiny specular effects and other graphical bells and whistles. More importantly, indie studios are often small, often consisting of no larger than a handful of artists and coders slaving away at their labors of love.
Small studios mean more lovingly crafted games and tighter development costs, which more often than not means bigger savings for you!
To help you get started, here's our list of 5 awesome PC games that you can digitally download for a price tag of under $10.
Best Computer Games Under $10
The zombies... are coming!
The dead rise, and the only thing standing between them and your juicy, juicy brain is your own little patch of lawn in the middle of post-apocalyptic suburbia. And we don't want zombies on our lawn.
Redefining the tower defense genre with a wacky twist and a killer chiptune-y soundtrack, Plants vs. Zombies will have you clicking to harvest falling motes of Solar Power in order to purchase a veritable arsenal of helpful plants, which you then, uh, plant on your lawn.
But what good will plants do against the encroaching army of the dead? Good news, homeowner: these aren't just your garden-variety daffodils and petunias.
Among the weapons of grass destruction at your disposal is the Pea-Shooter, which lobs weak but reliable projectiles in a straight line; the sturdy Wall-Nut, which serves as a tough, chewy barrier between your more fragile plants and the Zombies; the Kernel-pult, which catapults deliciously deadly giant corns on the cob (in both buttered and unbuttered varieties) at the mindless hordes; and fan favorite, the adorable, bouncy Sunflower, which forms the backbone of any reliable garden defense scenario by generating precious Solar Power to fuel your floral forces.
To counter your efforts, however, each level presents Zombies in increasingly challenging varieties: Zombie Quarterbacks are equipped with tough football armor and charge across your lawn much faster than your, ahem, garden variety Zombies. Zombie Dolphin-Riding Zombies, the terrors of the deep, are capable of submerging in swimming pools to bypass your defenses. And the hilarious Zombie Bobsled Team slides across your lawn in terrifying teams of three. Then there are the Roadcone Zombies, Zombies who wear... roadcones on their head.
With such a rich variety of plant loadouts, enemies, minigames and level types, Plants vs. Zombies keeps the action fast-paced and gripping, yet is still whimsical and laugh-out-loud funny enough to keep things light-hearted and addictive.
The Game of the Year Edition comes with extra game modes like Puzzle, Mini-Games Only and the stress-free Zen Garden, a bonus music video, Steam Achievements and other additional content, all for under $5!
Diner Dash this ain't.
Having billed itself as “one of the few hardcore restaurant sims in existence,” Cook, Serve, Delicious! does not disappoint: when it comes to fast and alarmingly engrossing gameplay, this game has definitely got the skills to pay the bills!
Its charming graphics belie one of the most challenging, fast-paced and intense gaming experiences I've ever tackled. Take on all the thrills and awkward spills of refurbishing a ramshackle restaurant catering to the high-paced employees of Sherry Soda Towers.
Only, you're not just the restaurant owner, but the cook, waiter, and janitor too! (Just don't bring this up when the Health Inspector comes a-knockin'.)
Cook delicious food from unique recipes, with each dish requiring different tasks from grillin' patties to butchering fish to boiling lobster to getting the perfect pour on a cold mug o' brewski. Since all dishes are made to order, your finicky customers will make specific requests on the fly; after all, not everyone likes the same toppings on their pizza. And was that Thousand Island that customer wanted on her salad, or Ranch?
Just when you think you've got the rush hour feeding frenzy under control, suddenly the toilet gets backed up (remember: all employees must sanitize their hands afterward!), the garbage needs taking out to the dumpster, and the rat traps need to be re-armed.
And, oh, remember when we mentioned the Health Inspector? We weren't kidding: when the Health Inspector shows up, you'd best be sure all your chores are done, the dishes and bathrooms are spic and span, the back rooms aren't cluttered with garbage, and that colony of rodents in the back has been “taken care of,” Sopranos-style.
The last thing your floundering start-up needs is a hefty fine and a hit to your restaurant's popularity driving away your customers.
If you make it through your first few week, you might be able to afford a fresh coat of paint on the walls and maybe some classier menus to make your customers happier and more patient, or help crowdfund an experimental trash compactor to ease the burden of your daily chores.
With so much to do on your culinary quest to transform your dumpy diner into a world-renowned five-star eatery, it's no wonder that Cook, Serve, Delicious! is so easily able to stay fresh, play after play. The full game, which is still actively being updated and patched with new features and bug fixes, is a steal at just under $10 on Steam.
Glory to Arstotzka.
As immigrations inspector at the border checkpoint between our proud nation and the cruel, barbaric world beyond, it is your job to safeguard fair Arstotzka from terrorists, criminals, smugglers, and other undesirables.
Inspect passports carefully for discrepancies: even the smallest details can mean the difference between catching a wanted criminal, or setting him free!
Does an applicant's passport list her weight as 87kg, when in fact, she weighs 90kg on your in-booth scale? Demand she steps into the X-Ray booth: that extra 3kg could very well be lethal, high-grade explosives strapped to her back!
And have you heard of the deteriorating political relationship with our neighbor Kolechia? Well, the Ministry of Admission is now requiring that all travelers from Kolechia submit additional documentation for processing and stamping upon approval.
(Of course, everyone knows that Yurko City lies within the territory of Kolechia. You did stamp those documents before you admitted all those students from Yurko City, did you not?)
And what is the meaning of your lengthy delays, comrade inspector? Can't you see the lines forming outside your booth? Remember, you only get paid for each traveler you process, so work efficiently, but carefully.
The Ministry is always watching.
The brainchild of ex-Naughty Dog solo developer Lucas Pope, the award-winning Papers, Please offers something completely different when it comes to video games. As an immigrations inspector, it's up to you to decide who crosses the border into your fictional dystopian European nation.
Of course, this isn't just your run of the mill, tongue in cheek TSA Simulator, it's Papers, Please: nothing is ever easy. Do you nonchalantly take that bribe someone just slotted into your mailbox? What do you do with the father brandishing an expired passport, but who's desperately trying to reunite with his family?
Do you investigate, or report those strange hooded messengers dropping coded messages into your booth, promising a better future for you and your family? And what about that crazy guy with papers that are so obviously forged they're juvenile, who's been arrested so many times claims he's on a first-name basis with the security guards? Is he just trying to mess with you, or could his antics be a distraction for some larger conspiracy?
Should you even have the heart to care? Because at the end of the day, you've got a wife and kids to support, the electric bill to pay, and if you're lucky, you won't be spending the weekend in a dimly-lit room being interrogated by your superiors in the Ministry.
Papers, Please is an unforgiving, immersive, suspenseful and brilliantly written gem of an indie game experience, and all the action takes place in the cramped, musty confines of a border inspector's booth.
Enter the violent, neon-saturated alternate world of 1989 Miami like you've never seen it before.
As a mysterious masked anti-hero with a penchant for mass murder, you embark on a killing spree across the seedy, crime-riddled underbelly of Miami, with only the strange voices on your answering machine to guide you on your rampage.
The most engrossing element of Hotline Miami's gameplay is how well it masks its own puzzle game genetics. Yes, you're bashing in skulls and slitting throats and using the bodies of your enemies as meat shields, but beneath its sultry, neon-lit exterior and ultra-violent pixel art animations, Hotline Miami is a puzzle game at heart.
Although you might be lured into thinking it's your reflexes and trigger finger that makes it so your twisted psychopath lives to murder another day, beating each level has less to do with your shoot-em-up skills as your logic and deduction.
More often than not, your survival depends on carefully familiarizing yourself with (and then exploiting with) the layout of the map, the path of enemy patrols, and even the direction each door swings.
While there's usually multiple ways to accomplish each mission's objectives, you'll always be outgunned and outnumbered; one miscalculated risk, one moment of uncertainty and you're just another bullet-riddled sack of guts being shipped off to the county morgue. Which will happen, and it'll happen a lot.
Survive long enough, and you just might find out a bit more about the twisted story behind your enigmatic protagonist, and watch more and more of his world unravel in a torrent of bright, bloody pixels.
Hotline Miami is punishing, visceral, utterly over-the-top, and available on Steam for under $10.
Originally released in 2007 as part of Valve's critically-acclaimed game compilation The Orange Box, Portal is a single-player 3D physics-based puzzler that has since earned legendary status for its unique and innovative gameplay.
As a tester in the mysterious Aperture Science Laboratories, you are tasked with progressing through a series of testing chambers, each consisting of spatial puzzles of increasing difficulty.
Guided by the facility's resident AI GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disc Operating System) and armed with Aperture Science's proprietary “Handheld Portal Device” as well a pair of mechanized heel springs (which prevent you from dying via falling damage), you must master the use of portals as well as the physics of momentum redirection to solve puzzles and bypass the increasingly alarming puzzles in each test chamber.
There are multiple ways to solve each puzzle, allowing for a great degree of replayability and creative outside-the-box thinking. And we'd expect no less: many of Portal's gameplay designers were team members from the DigiPen Institute of Technology, who had previously worked on the critically-acclaimed Narbacular Drop.
But lest you think Portal's merely a puzzle playground for armchair computer game physics nerds it—well, okay, yeah, that's essentially what it is, but it's a physics-based puzzle playground with an amazing story.
Told masterfully and almost exclusively through GLaDOS's audio messages as you progress through the testing chambers, the story of Portal unfolds in bits and pieces that are increasingly tantalizing, disturbing, and darkly humorous.
At first, GlaDOS's tone is instructional, genial, even, as she introduces you to the game's mechanics and hints of her quirky AI personality, such as her promise of cake and grief counseling as a reward for your completion of the test chambers.
As you proceed through the eerily desolate Enrichment Center, GLaDOS's quirks begin to grow darker, and she quickly morphs from a benign AI guide to something more menacing. The testing chambers get progressively deadlier, as GLaDOS directs you through a live-fire course designed for military androids and even floods a test chamber with a bio-hazardous liquid.
And finally, upon completing the final test chamber, GLaDOS congratulates you by nudging you into your “victory candescence,” which appears to be, for all intents and purposes, an entire room dedicated to incinerating organic matter.
The game then shifts from a simple playground to a bid to escape the facility and its crazed AI overseer, finding out the fates of the other subjects and scientists along the way. And all the while, GLaDOS continues her attempts to distract and mislead you, and when that fails, she resorts to threatening you in increasingly passive-aggressive and juvenile ways as you make your way deeper into the bowels of her facility.
With its innovating gameplay and brilliant storytelling, Portal is many things to many people, but most important of all these days, it's available to download on Steam for under $10.
Great games don't have to come with a big price tag.
It's rare that I pay $60 for the latest hit-or-miss AAA release anymore, not when I can get six great indie games for that same price. Even better, you can always count on indie games being made by a small, passionate development team...while it's rare these days that AAA titles are getting cranked out by anyone other than a big industry company whose only passion is in meeting quarterly financial deadlines.
The next time you're in the mood, hit up the Steam Store or your favorite Humble Bundle selections; you'd be surprised at how many hidden gems you can pick up, without breaking your budget.