Plugged In

10 must-play downloadable console games for $15 or less

Plugged In

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Journey (Credit: Sony/That Game Company)

The bustling fall gaming season has arrived, bringing with it countless blockbuster games vying for your ever-dwindling dollars. But at $60 a pop, chances are you're limited to just a few of the year's big releases.

Spent a bit more wisely, however, and that $60 can net you at least four top-notch downloadable console games. Some of the best game experiences of 2012 won't be found in retail stores, but through downloadable game channels like Xbox Live Arcade and the Playstation Network.

The trouble? The online storefronts of XBLA and PSN are often muddled with non-game content or bargain deals for games you don't actually want. Here are 10 that you do.

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Mark of the Ninja (Xbox 360 | $15)

Fittingly, this stealth action game snuck onto the Xbox Live store a few weeks ago with nary a peep. That changed the moment gamers discovered its impressive design and startlingly fun gameplay. Created by the team who brought us the cartoonish but brutal Shank games, Mark of the Ninja is more measured in its approach, encouraging players to keep it quiet as they slink, scramble, and shuriken through a beautiful  ninja playground.

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Journey (PS3 | $15)

That whole "can video games be art" debate seems so silly now (the answer is "of course," by the way) but in case you're still on the fence, you probably haven't played Journey.

Minimalist in its design but packing a potent emotional punch, this thoughtful PS3 game lets players skim through a massive desert as they make their way to a beacon of light atop a nearby mountain. It's more of an experience than a hardcore game, as Journey lets its incredible visuals and brilliant co-operative play do most of the talking. As one of the year's top-rated games, it got critics talking, too.

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The Walking Dead (Xbox 360, PS3 | $5 per episode)

First a hit comic, then a hit TV show, and now a hit game? It's a rare media trifecta for The Walking Dead, though some consider this fantastic episodic game series by Telltale Games to be the pinnacle of the franchise.

Each episode weighs in at about two hours and features countless gut-wrenching decisions as players guide criminal-turned-survivor Lee Everett through a zombie epidemic. It's already flirted with taboos -- kids can turn into zombies too, you know -- and we're only three games deep. Should you hop in? At only $5 an episode (it's also on PC, Mac and iOS), it's a no brainer.

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Spelunky (Xbox 360 | $15)

There's nothing worse than repeating the same level over and over in a video game. You won't do that in Spelunky thanks to its randomly-generated levels, but don't expect a cakewalk as you dig ever deeper into caverns brimming with all sorts of danger.

This is a grueling, difficult game, but one that rewards those willing to stick it out with a tense, addictive blend of action and platforming. And in case $15 is too much (come on, really?) for a critically-acclaimed Xbox hit, you can check out the original PC version for free.

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Fez (Xbox 360 | $10)

Much has been made of Fez. In development for five years, it won several awards and was even featured in an indie game documentary before being released.

But it wasn't just hype. This dimension-shifting gem is more than just an adorable homage to 8-bit gaming: it also packs some of the smartest platforming gameplay this side of Mario. A feast for puzzle fiends, it's currently rated as one of the year's top Xbox 360 games.

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Dust: An Elysian Tail (Xbox 360 | $15)

Got an idea for a game? So did Dean Dodril, but instead of just letting it sit on a shelf, he spent three and half years turning it into a whopper of a download.

Equal parts Metroid, Devil May Cry, and Saturday morning cartoon (that is not an exaggeration), Dust lets players hack and slash their way through a huge, colorful world. Fans of side-scrolling action games shouldn't pass it up.

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Papo & Yo (PS3 | $15)

You wouldn't think a game about abuse at the hands of an alcoholic father would be, you know, fun, but this riveting PSN download manages to turn its sensitive subject matter into a compelling game.

Players help transform a rundown favela into a dreamlike fantasy world meant to symbolize the emotional journey of designer Vander Caballero. It's heavy stuff, but clever design turns the creator's anguish into a triumphant download.

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Dyad (PS3 | $15)

Feel the need for speed? It doesn't get much faster -- or crazier -- than this psychedelic racing game. Dyad is an audio/visual feast, a breakneck voyage down kaleidoscopic tubes set to heart-pounding rhythms. The gameplay is a little tough to grasp, but you get hooked, you'll be locked in for hours. Hypnotic, innovative and, yes, a little bit barfy, it's not for the weak of heart. Or stomach.

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Trials: Evolution (Xbox 360 | $15)

You never forget how to ride a bike, but you'll definitely want to forget the number of wipeouts you'll suffer trying to stay on the bikes powering you to the finish line in Trials: Evolution.

Insanely hard yet equally addictive, it challenges you with finishing punishingly difficult motorcycle obstacle courses in one piece, which is easier said than done. But amazing leaderboard support, great editing tools, and 'just one more try' gameplay makes this pain so, so sweet.

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Rock Band Blitz (Xbox 360, PS3 | $15)

All those plastic instruments gathering dust in the closet? Leave them there, because the folks behind Rock Band figured out a way to let you play through your massive song library without dragging out the gear. This fast-paced rhythm game turns every Rock Band track you own into a button-mashing battle to top your friends' scores.

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