It’s no secret that Toby Fox’s Undertale (2015) enchanted a generation of videogame fans, establishing a new precedence for pixel art games and loveable — often meme-able — characters and stories. Although it began as an Earthbound hack, this “Halloween Hack” goes far beyond Fox’s original scope. Undertale’s two-path gameplay, fandubbed as “Pacifist” and “Genocide” mode, allows players to experience the same game […]
It’s no secret that Toby Fox’s Undertale (2015) enchanted a generation of videogame fans, establishing a new precedence for pixel art games and loveable — often meme-able — characters and stories. Although it began as an Earthbound hack, this “Halloween Hack” goes far beyond Fox’s original scope. Undertale’s two-path gameplay, fandubbed as “Pacifist” and “Genocide” mode, allows players to experience the same game in ways that question the player’s engagement with the RPG genre itself. Will Sans strike you down before you have a chance to murder the king? Will you befriend the entire cast of monsters and refuse to hurt them? In an RPG world where slaying creatures for experience without a second thought is the norm, Undertale asks the player not to accept that norm, take the “Pacifist” route, and enjoy the friendships along the way.
On Halloween 2018, Fox surprised us all with the sudden drop of Deltarune: Chapter 1, a sequel to Undertale. Since then, he has highlighted the project as larger and much more technical than the first in the Undertale series (a sign that there could be even more beyond Deltarune!). His biggest update to fans occurred in September 2020, which explains the need for a bigger crew and more patience as the originally one-man team (plus Temmie and a few other artists here and there) grows to suit the needs of Deltarune.
Nevertheless, here we are.
As the wait for Deltarune continues, I wanted to offer you all a collection of similar experiences. Considering Undertale’s beginnings as an Earthbound hack, I explore some of what I consider Undertale’s family — games that also began with RPGMaker, Earthbound, shared ideology and playthrough, among others. Additionally, I want to highlight some of the lesser known Undertale-esque works, the ones you might not find right away when sifting through Google’s suggestions. As an added bonus, these games are budget-friendly. Several of them are free, and the others range from $5-20. (Plus, if you purchased the BLM bundle on Itch.io, both Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass and Anodyne from this list are included.) There’s something for every Undertale fan in this list, so hopefully you find something new to ease the anticipation for Deltarune!
The list is somewhat thematically arranged to give you the best opportunity to play these games. Here are the recommendations:
Yume Nikki (2004)
A plotless game by a reclusive, unknown creator — creepy, right? In this game, you play as Madotsuki, a girl with the ability to travel through her dream world. She cannot leave her real room, and all exploration takes place in her dreams. Sparse, circuitous worlds dictate the gameplay, and the only notable interactions Madotsuki has with (minimal) other characters is with the use of “Effects” gathered throughout the game. Turn Madotsuki’s hair blonde, give her a knife, hold a lantern — there are 24 to collect in total, and some are useless while others are necessary to traverse the next section of a particular world.
Yume Nikki is creepy and intense, although eerily calm at times. Blood, violence, and a feeling of uneasiness create the atmospheric narrative. The game offers much less narrative adventure than Undertale, but relies on player interactions with the environment to propel the game forward. Consequently, just as Undertale’s silent protagonist wakes up suddenly in the Underground with only the need to get back to their human life, Madotsuki is just as mysterious and silent. Sometimes you’ll walk around an area for several seconds only to see a single tree or an entirely black background.
This sparse journey throughout the liminal dream spaces allows the player to navigate Madotsuki’s world as if also a participant in the dream. And remember Undertale’s good pal W. D. Gaster? A creepy face similar to his appears in a dream version of Madotsuki’s bedroom, as well as other creepy pixeled figures any Undertale fan will find familiar.
Notably, this is one of the oldest titles on the list, predating Undertale by eleven years. The game is a cult classic, known for pioneering convention-breaking uses of the RPGMaker engine, as well as putting the engine on the map as a means to make games altogether. A closed-eyed protagonist with an undeterminable past, disorienting pixel graphics, and an unusual mode of (non)storytelling make this a perfect fit for fans of Undertale’s darker elements and exploratory gameplay.
If escaping the Underground is your thing, then escaping from an eldritch art museum in the distant future as a girl named Ib will certainly be a priority. Both like and unlike Undertale, the game features no battle mechanic, meaning every mode is Pacifist mode. However, players will note that the game does feature some violence, especially with creepy mannequins along the way. Although you possess no weapon or formal means of battling, you, like Undertale’s protagonist, can enact violence with how you choose to interact with the environment.
I place this game after Yume Nikki to show how this game and Undertale share a common lineage. Like Yume Nikki, the female child protagonist is central to the story as she traverses a liminal, surreal landscape. Although this game has more narrative direction than Yume Nikki, the player’s exploration of the world is key to understanding how to navigate the game. Ib features areas that seem to make no sense, pixel artwork within a pixel world, and puzzles that require backtracking. Additionally, the game requires players to make choices that matter, changing the game’s ending depending on one’s playthrough. As a predecessor to Undertale, fans will appreciate Ib’s nostalgic pixel graphics and top-down gameplay as they embark on a spooky journey to escape the museum.
Quite possibly the scariest title on this list, given both the narrative and psychologically-driven metanarrative, Doki Doki Literature Club! is not part of the pixel art scene listed so far. However, just as Undertale uses is Earthbound-inspired while critiquing the JRPG formula of killing monsters incessantly to level up, Doki Doki operates under the dating sim genre in order to also critique it.
Doki Doki straddles sheer horror with genuine care. As in any dating sim, your blank, bland protagonist ends up in a situation with cute girls who the player can bond with. Typically, you choose one, and this is something Doki Doki encourages, too. However, the game is not what it appears to be. You are not truly playing a dating sim, instead participating in a metagame that requires you to think outside the box. You’ll find yourself caring immensely about the girls in the game beyond the superficial desire to win them over in the end. Just keep in mind that this game has terrifying elements to it, including intentional glitches, extensive body horror, and graphic depictions of suicide. Think about the darkest Flowey content and magnify it by 100 and you get Doki Doki.
It’s worth noting that Dan Salvato, the game’s creator, makes explicit references to Undertale. The concept of “determination” is something Monika touches on. And, if you frequented Twitch several years ago, you might have seen that Salvato streamed his playthrough of Undertale as a fan. This game is best played with as little information as possible, so if you’ve managed to avoid spoilers so far, you’re in the best position to play. If not, that’s okay — the endgame with Monika can last for hours, so go ahead and chat with her to your heart’s content.
For any Earthbound stan out there, Jimmy and the Pulsating Mass is sure to look familiar. Just like the Earthbound series and Undertale (as well as the majority of the titles on this list), this game follows a child protagonist through personal trauma. As with Yume Nikki, Jimmy allows the player to explore the character’s dream, although Jimmy’s entire narrative takes place in a single dream. As with anyone’s subconscious, tonal shifts are common in this game, ranging from mild horror (think the Core in Undertale and any Chara content) to absolute hilarity — seriously, some of the jokes in this game are golden.
In Jimmy’s dream world, you’re constantly surrounded by bright colors, numerous creatures, and whimsical scenery — yet this only makes the spookier areas of the game scarier and the pixel gore more impacting. The beginning rainbow-cladden world does not last for long, but is never too far away. Much like Yume Nikki, you explore the game through “transformations,” which allow you to change into some of the creatures you meet. However, unlike Yume Nikki’s “Effects,” Jimmy’s have more to do with his personality and interactions throughout the game — with some combat here and there, of course. Additionally, if you liked the strong motherly Toriel guiding you through the beginning of the game, you’re certain to love Helga as she introduces you to the world.
Much of the game’s charm comes from its interrogation of the darker elements of human life. Jimmy’s interactions within the dream world make sense as the player navigates the game, and whimsy strips away to reveal the more horror-bound foundation of the game. Yet, the humanity of this game is its core. If Asriel’s story impacted you in any way, you might want to have tissues within arm’s reach for this one. Dubbed Mother 4 by fans, Jimmy will recreate SNES nostalgia while also allowing you to experience an altogether new, memorable adventure.
“Your story is already over. You just have to remember it.”
In this game, you play as a child named OMORI. You begin your adventure in the WHITE SPACE, a black and white room really only good for getting you to a colorful world where all your friends live. There you’ll spend much of your adventuring, chatting, and battling with strange creatures whose designs are best described by watching the battle sequences in Puella Magi Madoka Magica.
Graphically, OMORI diverges from the typical Earthbound-alike template. Although obviously Earthbound-inspired, the aesthetic of this game contrasts between the harsh black-and-white sprite work of the WHITE SPACE and the softer, blue-toned pastel world beyond it. The characters have profiles beyond their sprites, much like Doki Doki or any Fire Emblem game. The hand-drawn elements of the game are scribbly and childlike, engaging the player in its cutesy world, only for the player to revel in the creepier parts throughout the game.
As the narrative unfolds, so does the horror lurking beneath the pastel pixelated world you continue to explore. Consequently, developer OMOCAT is up front about the game’s content warnings. Much of OMORI deals with serious mental health issues, including depictions of suicide. Beyond that, this is another game best played with as little information as possible. For those lucky enough to play Undertale without spoilers, the events of this game unfold similarly. Enjoy this story-rich game and let it both warm your heart and break it. It’s an emotional experience worth having.
Those wanting the intensity of Undertale alongside a more streamlined adventure game will want to check out Anodyne. More inline with Link’s Awakening than Earthbound, this game allows players a typical fight-pixel-baddies experience while still engaging with a mysterious atmosphere and an intriguing storyline. Gorgeous visuals take the player to the limit of the 16-bit style, offering players the chance to truly explore the world. Like Yume Nikki, this game puts atmosphere first (though not nearly to a plotless extreme). Young, the protagonist, fights enemies with a broom — the only in-game weapon. Puzzles take precedent over fighting, and like many classic RPGs, there is no leveling mechanic. Players must rely on SNES- and GameBoy-era strategy to progress in Anodyne.
The game’s soundtrack is also one of its biggest strengths, toying with the player’s expectations of pixel-style games, with an added intensity that extends far beyond the Link’s Awakening façade. Players invested in listening to Toby Fox’s unforgettable melodies while exploring Undertale’s numerous locations will find comfort in this exploration-driven game, too. Considering just how much this game encourages that exploration — offering 20 different locations, its soundtrack is something that stays with you throughout the gameplay, and its story makes it all the more memorable.
If you thought to yourself “I’m tired of playing as a boring human! Give me cat ears!” then this one is for you. In OneShot, you guide a child named Niko (a fun pun on “neko”) through their dark world in order to return the world’s sun (a lightbulb) to its rightful place and save the world from ruin. Shared with Undertale is the separation of player and player-character. You’ll experience this difference immediately in the game’s exposition, as Niko asks you for help directly. You are, of course, a distinct entity. This in mind, many of the puzzles throughout OneShot involve your interrogation beyond the game itself. Like others on this list, this requires tampering with the game window and files within your computer — a complete metagame experience.
Although the Steam release of this game, featuring multiple endings and more puzzles, came out in 2016, the first version of this game predated Undertale by a year. Its metagame inspiration came especially from the Metal Gear series. As a result, the creative team has a terse relationship with Undertale, considering it an “anti-inspiration” as they pursue a different take on the classic JRPG template. Nonetheless, fans will find this game a particularly inspiring version of a metagaming experience well-known to them through Fox’s work.
OneShot’s story is moving and emotionally-driven. Its graphics invite the player into a dim world, devoid of its sun. The game features a gorgeous, richly-colored palette complete with unique spritework. As an added feature and similar to Undertale’s protagonist, OneShot’s Niko is also ambiguously gendered, allowing players of all gender identities to speculate as they wish. Ultimately, the strength of this game lies in its quiet, short narrative but persistent requests of the player to explore the world outside the game’s world. To that end, the game is a perfect companion to Undertale and worthy of a playthrough.
The oldest on this list, Moon is also the furthest visually from the others listed. In this game, the hero has ransacked village houses for loot and slain innocent creatures for experience. You are not the hero — instead you come afterward to amend those wrongs. You do not fight in Moon, and you increase your level with “love,” obtained by pacifist interactions. Does this sound familiar? It should. Fox never played Moon himself before creating Undertale, but the concept was an early inspiration for the game’s main mechanic. Yet, in Moon, no Flowey is there to taint the idea of Love and mislead you into committing atrocities.
The game utilizes different textures to create its signature look. Unlike the simplicity of the Earthbound-inspired games on this list, Moon showcases a tactility in its art direction, resembling Final Fantasy VII, a contemporary of Moon’s also found on the same console: the original PlayStation. Naturally, the gameplay diverges immensely from Undertale, taking you on a journey to stop the hero altogether, as opposed to shifting control to the player to decide whether or not to become the “hero.”
For those who enjoy listening to Fox’s music along the way, Moon offers a unique spin to the soundtrack. As you play through the game, you unlock “discs” that can be used to change the music or stop it entirely. Thus, the soundtrack is one you as the player get to set, giving the game different moods depending on how you choose to score it.
Although an oldie, the game received its English localization in 2020, some 23 years after its release, so if you’re wondering why you haven’t yet heard of this, that’s why. If you have a Nintendo Switch, consider checking out this recently-localized cult classic.
Technically, Heartbound is still in development, but there is still a lot of game to play, as well as a free demo for those hesitant to commit. Its creators have put it up for early access purchase on Steam, though, where it has been since 2018 — and, as it updates, no further purchase will be necessary. Additionally, Heartbound follows a divergent gameplay like Undertale, and the choices made by the player will change how the game unfolds.
You play as Lore, a boy who uncovers magical secrets in his quest to find and save his dog, Baron. As the narrative unfolds, you learn more about Lore and choose how he will interact with the world. Players develop Lore as they do Undertale’s protagonist by choosing whether to do good or bad deeds and setting on a path to either stop the light or darkness. There is also a neutral path, giving the game immediate replay value.
Combat in Heartbound takes the form of minigame challenges the player must complete quickly to advance. Players use the mouse, arrow keys, and others depending on the enemy and minigame. The game also encourages interacting with everything along the way; when you wake up in your room after saving, you’ll see the knickknacks and other collectibles you’ve collected along the way, including a giant pile of socks. Players will enjoy the search as the graphics are detailed and colorful, enabling the player to learn about the environment and Lore through those interactions.
Baroque Decay’s first venture into indie games is a short horror game about Hans, a boy who decides to journey from his home to make a rich living for himself. The first few minutes of gameplay are reminiscent of the Legend of Zelda series in its fantastical, old-school appeal, but soon after, the world becomes a much creepier place. Blood, gore, and man-eating goats are rampant, and Hans must explore the dark place by candlelight (if only he had a Pokemon that knew Flash!). Immediately the game changes tone and the rest of Hans’ adventure is amped as impending pressure and a few well-placed puzzles separate you from your goal.
The Count Lucanor is not the scariest game on this list outright, relying more on survival horror levels of intensity, but the tense atmosphere and Hans’ slow walking pace are sure to keep a player from getting too comfortable. You’ll wander around the spooky castle and hide from enemies for the majority of this game as you solve puzzles and figure out exactly how you got to this place. Ultimately, it’s a visually intriguing work (featuring a cross between 8-bit and 16-bit graphics), and one that, like Undertale allows the player to explore very adult anxieties around children growing up.
Oh, and keep an eye out for the Red Camerlengo, trust me.
If Undertale’s single jumpscare wasn’t enough for you, IMSCARED is chock full of them. Creator Ivan Zanotti describes the game as surreal metahorror, and it surely meets that mark. The game features no plot — just the player trying to find the exit, and the only other character aside from you is a creepy floating entity come to life from the game’s files. Throughout the narrative, this entity speaks to the player and distracts them from finding the exit.
With no plot, this game’s horror elements stem mainly from the visual cues throughout — namely jumpscares. Often when the entity catches up to the player in-game, it does so with no warning. Yet, what makes this game different from other jumpscare-happy games is its attention to the meta elements throughout. As the player’s task is to outsmart data-turned-sentient, simply navigating the game itself is not sufficient.
IMSCARED is the only first-person game on this list. The player explores a pixel world reminiscent of something designed in Microsoft Paint, but that world is three-dimensional, unlike the other titles featured here. Graphically, it also looks “bad,” as if an amateur developer missed the mark and allowed the villainous entity the space to come to life. Fans of Undertale’s use of disorienting pixel graphics, and even Yume Nikki’s equally disorienting dreamlike worlds, will enjoy (and equally dread) navigating the purposefully-limiting world of IMSCARED.
This gorgeous freeware game will only take a player a few short hours to beat, but that doesn’t stop this narrative from capturing the immense pain of losing someone and needing time to grieve. Protagonist Lavender is dead, reborn as a reaper until she can get enough spirit energy to fully pass on. Her brother Timmy is trapped in this liminal state with her, but with one difference — he came with a soul, and it’s been stolen. Lavender must help her brother escape, and maybe fulfill her spirit in the process.
Although the story unfolds as a fantasy, the real-world consequences of getting Timmy back to life shatter the fun had by battling ghosts and reaping spirit energy. The graphics add to this moodiness, too — hand-drawn landscapes of purple blend with the retro pixel art to create tension between cute and morbid.
As Undertale fans will find familiar, the game features different endings. To understand the full game, players should strive to get all of these endings — or at least find playthroughs of the others you don’t get. And bring tissues, too. Grimm’s Hollow may be brief, but you’ll find yourself attached to the characters and how they handle being — well — dead. Yet the game doesn’t just mingle with the idea of being dead; the game invites you to think about what dying means overall.
Creator/developer Daniel Mullins describes this game as being “as indie as it gets,” and whatever that means, Pony Island is definitely an experience. It’s probably the most chaotic of the titles mentioned, but let that guide you through this very, very meta game. Much like IMSCARED and Doki Doki Literature Club! from the list, the narrative takes a specific video game genre and breaks it down — quite literally here, as the game you “play” is malfunctioning.
The kicker here is that Pony Island is not a game about ponies at all. Though you often play as a cute, pixel pony, the game strips away the cute and the horror begins. This is a game designed by the Devil himself, and he does not want you to win, nor escape. In fact, the Devil doesn’t like you doing much of anything in the game, so the stakes are high.
To navigate the game, you’ll have to repair some of the coding itself, move things around, and sometimes maneuver your pony in an attempt to attack the Devil. Players must think outside the box in order to weaken the Devil and execute a plan to win the game. Undertale fans who enjoy the darker, suspenseful elements of the game will appreciate the experience breaking the Devil’s machine and finally getting past this hell that clearly has nothing to do with ponies.
Charlie is a girl with a problem: she’s jealous of her little brother. She also has anger issues and social anxiety (I guess she has more than one problem). Yet when she loses her brother in the Kingdom of Luxia, she must set out to find him once more, while also dealing with her own personal struggles along the way.
Players embark on this journey, encountering funny and weird fairy tale creatures along the way. Often the journey is kooky and fun, other times darker and more introspective, but the story is always about Charlie and her decisions. And for Undertale fans, this game is also one where choices matter! Instead of a clear fight vs act combat system, Oddventure features one more intricate, where “mood” is the biggest factor. Much like Deltarune, you have a team with you to fight in turn-based battles. Everyone on the team has different moves, too, with some that affect teammates, make enemies happy or sad, or do damage. There is so much variety in these battles — and they’re funny, too! Players will enjoy the interactions between characters and the overall quirky tone of the game.
Oddventure is still in development, but I include it here because it has an extensive demo available right now and will soon have updates on Kickstarter. The game features so many details along the way, it’s clear the creators have put immense work into it. Additionally, it has an Earthbound-alike appeal, but distinguishes itself as a different story altogether, in a rich Brothers Grimm-inspired world.
Finally, I wanted to highlight a game that offers the closest feeling to playing Undertale, which is Undertale Yellow, a fangame set a few years before the events of Fox’s game. Fans know there were other humans who entered the Underground before the protagonist, and Clover is one of them (noncanonically, of course). The development team behind this game is working meticulously to make sure that their works aligns with the Undertale world, so Clover’s story feels like one that really could have happened.
The team assumes you have played Undertale and understand its mechanics, so this game toys with player expectations. For example, when you meet Flowey, he shows you how to dodge his attacks. In fact, Flowey is with Clover for much of the time, unlike in Undertale, so players will see a different side of this villain.
Although there are numerous fangames out there that are worth highlighting, I included this one simply because it feels so much like an extension of Undertale. Its characters, humor, and engagement with both the warmth and sadness of the Underground feels as though Fox wrote this game himself. Much of the game is new content, too — including the “fight” part of the battle mechanic, characters, and much of the setting itself — which gives Undertale fans new parts of a familiar world to explore. The music, too, features a combination of Undertale remixes and original titles.
As we wait for Deltarune, we can appreciate the influence Toby Fox has had on the video game community, as well as see what his own influences were. Now half a decade old, Undertale is part of a larger narrative of indie work that challenges our notion of “play” and allows us a different experience altogether. Whether that experience requires engagement with components outside the game itself (i.e. deleting certain files then reopening the game), or reshaping the way we interact with the creatures we encounter along the way (by befriending them instead of hurting them), Undertale is just one perspective. Each of the titles listed offers another perspective that players will find fascinating, frustrating, intense, and fun — overall capturing that inventive spirit we loved from Undertale.
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