Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

We wade through fidget spinners and porn to bring you the best games for less than $1 right now on Steam

Yep, that’s the whole game. Not bad for a buck.
Screenshot: 1-Screen Platformer

Every Friday, A.V. Club staffers kick off our weekly open thread for the discussion of gaming plans and recent gaming glories, but of course, the real action is down in the comments, where we invite you to answer our eternal question: What Are You Playing This Weekend?


Here at The A.V. Club, we try not to focus overly much on the idea of “value” when we’re evaluating games, shying away from conversations that can end up pumping out crass, ugly metrics like “10 minutes of game-play per dollar.” (Ugh.) And yet, it’s impossible to deny that the majority of games still exist in a distinctly financial ecosystem, or that expectations for a game that costs a player $60 don’t diverge wildly from those you might pick up for $10.

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Said 50-buck discrepancy is often powered by the semi-annual holiday known as the Steam Sale, when digital publisher Valve—once the only game in town, now the increasingly harried old dog trying to fend off those perky newcomers from down the lane—briefly drops its prices, ensuring that consumers end up with hundreds of games in their online libraries that they’ll probably never play. (Also known, once upon a time, as “Bought a Humble Bundle seven years ago and never opened it” syndrome.)

And while you’d think incoming competition from new digital storefronts—Epic is literally giving away games by the week at this point—might drive down prices even more with this year’s summer sale, the offerings on the Steam Store seem to be following the same trends as usual. Last year, we ventured into these murky waters to find the best values for our readers, popping out a list of 20 excellent games that could be had for a mere five dollars. And yet, the economy being what it is—damn that economy, we say!—we now find ourselves forced to venture ever-further afield in search of savings. Indeed, dear readers, we now must mount an expedition into the darkest, most exotic region of all: The $1 and less sales bucket on Steam. It won’t be easy. It won’t be fun. It will, most certainly, be cheap. But we do it for you, our readers, and your ever-more-endangered wallets. Stay here, friends; we’ll be back shortly with news from the digital utopia that awaits.

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Jesus Christ that’s a lot of porn.

Okay, so we might have bitten off slightly more than we can chew here, because it turns out that the semi-recent domination of pornographic games and other shovelware on the Steam marketplace has made this particular sort of search, let’s say, fraught with mind-consuming questions. (“Who are these three different downloadable fidget spinners for?” “What can knock-off meme game Putin Vs. ISIS tell us about the current geopolitical situation?” “How will I understand the plot of Hentai Pussy 2 if I haven’t played the first one?”) That’s to say nothing of the strange flattening effect that kicks in once you start looking at lists of hundreds of games that each cost less than a pack of temporary tattoos popping out of a grocery store capsule machine, a sort of internal numbing that drives home how much more valuable time, energy, and attention can be in the right situations.

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Buoyed by that obvious need for curation, we’ve put together a list of some of the best games available for less than four quarters in this year’s Steam Sale. The list is by no means comprehensive, and some very good games—the original X-Com, for instance—missed the mark by as little as 24 cents. But if you have, perversely, decided that a dollar is your maximum budget for a video game this year—and for some reason, the vast panoply of free-to-play, or even just plain free, experiences has yet to capture your attention—any of these will serve you well for less than the cost of a small order of fries at McDonald’s.

Refunct

Produced by one-person studio Dominique Grieshofer, this beautiful, meditative little first-person run-and-jumper might be best described as “Mirror’s Edge, but without all the fascism.” As in EA’s oft-troubled set of parkour simulators, you’re tasked with moving from high spot to high spot, guided by sharp cuts of primary color that stand out against the pristine landscape. But rather than facing off against riot troopers and the imminent threat of falling to your death, Refunct is all about relaxation, allowing you to bounce off walls, make mistakes, and just kind of groove along to the pretty music. It’s short—20 minutes at most—but that just encourages the impulse to go back and master its tight platforming for the pleasures of your inner speedrunner. It’s not Grieshofer’s only sub-buck game on the sale this year, either; we haven’t tried their second title, simplistic shooter Swarmlake, but it looks to offer this same kind of elemental, highly refreshing joys.

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Deus Ex, plus the rest of the Ion Storm catalog

For a studio that got its start by promising to allow one of its chief architects to make its players “his bitch”—and yes, John Romero’s infamous Daikatana is included in this collection of titles—the long-defunct Ion Storm ended up putting out some of the most thoughtful entries in all of PC gaming. Deux Ex is obviously a masterpiece, but there’s also the extremely funny RPG Anachronox, the only game we know of that allows players to travel with a party member who’s a shrunk-down planet, and whose government has to vote every time you want it to use a special move. That’s to say nothing of the ground-breaking Thief games—and yes, we know, the first two entries in the series were developed by Looking Glass Studios instead. But if it’s from this era, and Square Enix currently owns the rights (meaning Tomb Raider and the Legacy Of Kain games, too), you can probably pick it up for pretty cheap right now.

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1 Screen Platformer

The most recent entry on this list by far, this title from newcomers Return To Adventure Mountain has a delightfully simple premise that it nevertheless manages to iterate on for some fairly serious challenge: A trap-filled platform game that takes place entirely on a single screen. The joy of the game isn’t so much the dungeon itself, which is roughly comparable to something you might get if you took 10 early levels from 1001 Spikes and strung them all together. Rather, it’s in the way the game slowly layers in new mechanics and difficulties as you explore its different characters and modes, eking out way more from a single screen of gameplay than you might initially expect.

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Penumbra: Overture

Really just a very good first-person survival horror game that you can pick up on the cheap, for when you really want to spend your nights cowering from monsters in a fictional abandoned mineshaft. (Meanwhile, those spendthrifts at Frictional Games have the audacity to charge five whole dollars for their much more recent—and also extremely good—sci-fi horror follow-up, Soma.)

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Super House Of Dead Ninjas

It’s one of those weird quirks of online game publishing that some of the best indie titles of the last 10 years have come out of, of all places, the TV network Adult Swim. Super House Of Dead Ninjas is one of the best of the Adult Swim Games lineup: Playing as a very fleet-footed ninja, you’re tasked with climbing down a demon-filled tower, deploying magic, tossing bombs, and generally ripping your enemies apart. (In hindsight, it’s a bit like a much more 16-bit, bloody-looking Downwell.) The appeal here is all about the kinetic and the combo, as you downward slash through foes, build up a rage meter that turns you into an invincible killing machine, and race against the steady drumbeat of the clock.

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Pretty much everything Valve has ever published

Look, we know it’s incredibly unlikely that you have a Steam account, and yet have somehow never played Portal 2. Still, it’s traditional at this point for Valve—which has mostly retired from the whole “making games” business, give or take an Artifact here or there—to drop the price on most of its products to absolute dirt-cheap any time a sale comes around. The company literally sold people on Steam back in 2004 on the strength of games like Half-Life 2 or, later, Left 4 Dead, so if you’ve never indulged in their back-catalog, you’re in for a legitimate treat.

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Like we said, this doesn’t purport to be a complete list of great games available at the absurd, completely arbitrary price point we selected. (Rusty Lake Hotel. Quantum Conundrum. The surprisingly great third and fourth Penny Arcade games from Zeboyd Games. We could go on.) The selections made here really just underline the way fixating on game prices can get very meaningless, very fast, if you’re not careful about what you’re actually measuring. It would cost you—at most—$20 to buy everything on this list, even if you want heavily into the catalog entries. Playing those same titles, though, would easily consume hundreds of hours of your life. Game companies are becoming a lot more conscious of the discrepancy between those two values as the economy shifts toward one where attention is king; that growing, ravenous thirst for your focus is something worth keeping in mind the next time these sales come around, because they’re only going to get more frequent, and more seductive, as more competitors emerge and the market continues to split.

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