Some of the best console games can't be found in any store.
Indeed, a quick peek through download sites reveals a broad mix. The titles range from Limbo to Trials HD to Joe Danger to Pac-Man Championship Edition DX. There are some real pearls to be found. Even better, they won't set you back as much as a standard store-bought game.
All the major consoles - Microsoft's XBox 360, Sony's Playstation 3 and Nintendo's Wii - accept downloads. To find them, you have to go to the console's platform. There's the XBox Live Arcade (XBLA), Playstation Network (PSN) and Wiiware. Other games are available at manufacturers' platforms, like Steam.
The main thread combining all of these games is that they are significantly cheaper than store versions, and sometimes a bit more off the wall. "Titles can be published here that would have never made it into normal stores due to development and marketing budgets," explains Felix Petzel of Microsoft.
"Small teams of developers doing a lot of creative things are usually behind these games," says Henry Ernst, an editor with the German magazine Gamepro.
The games usually cost between 5 and 20 euros (7 and 27 dollars). But only Sony's PSN relies on real cash. Nintendo and Microsoft use a point system, with 800 points at XBLA equivalent to about 10 euros.
Point accounts can be topped up with credit cards or gift certificates. A good internet connection is recommended for a smooth download. XBLA and PSN games often run up to 2 gigabytes, though most are only a few hundred megabytes. Wiiware games tend to be on the smaller side.
One of the more creative games is Braid, which is available on the XBLA and PSN. Players have to manipulate time in a variety of ways in order to achieve their goal. One level allows players to make multiple copies of the main character. In another, they are allowed to rewind the last few seconds of time. On top of that, there's an interesting story with twists, but only in text format.
The text limitation is common with download titles, says Ernst. "The low price of the games is most obvious with the presentation, because a lot of transition scenes are missing." Limbo, available on the PSN and XBLA, turns this problem into a virtue, filling space between scenes with minimalistic black-and-white graphics and no sound or dialogue.
Limbo is one of the most successful XBLA titles, according to Microsoft, as is Trials HD, where players take on the role of a stunt motorcycle rider fighting his way through a terrifying obstacle course complete with spectacular explosions, jumps and accidents. The equivalent on the PSN is Joe Danger, which relies more on upbeat comic graphics.
Another favourite niche on the download platforms are new versions of old classics, like Pac-Man Championship Edition DX. The PSN and XBLA versions have Pac-Man in his old labyrinth, but with jarring disco effects, complete with babbling electronic music and bright colours.
The Wii has two different download areas. The so-called Virtual Console has classics from older consoles. Newer games are on Wiiware. Those include the family friendly adventure game LostWinds or Final Fantasy Crystal Chronicles: My Life as a King, where players set up their own fantasy realm.
There are countless other games alongside these highlights. And every week more are added. "Even for professionals like us, it's hard to keep an overview on the flood of new releases," says Ernst.
Trade publications can help bring perspective. There are also gaming portals that thoroughly test the main titles. Ernst is also a big fan of demos. "Playing yourself is the most reliable tool for making decisions when buying," he says.
Limited demo versions are often posted on the platforms right next to the full commercial versions. That's helpful, because buyers need to be sure about their purchases, since options for returning a game that doesn't fully satisfy are limited.