There are many perks to being a PC gamer, but we’ll save extolling them all for a day when we’re feeling particularly inflammatory. For today, we’ll focus on only one – the fact that classic old games remain forever playable.
For everything in PC gaming, old and new, PCGamesN has you covered.
Yes, even on the highest end multi-cored rigs with the latest X-Titan Turbo Hydra Fulcrum Mk.III GPU, you can still boot up veteran strategy games, majestic ancient RPGs, trusty ol’ point-and-clicks, and other legendary games of yore, sometimes even updated thanks to ongoing patches made by an adoring community.
So here’s a testament to those PC stalwarts which prove that great old games are truly timeless, and deserve your time to this day.
X-COM: UFO Defense
Strategy gaming meets turn-based tactics. The first X-COM game is still one of the best strategy games ever released on PC. It inspired the team that went on to make Fallout, birthed several spin-offs and sequels, and was officially remade in 2012 as XCOM: Enemy Unknown – one of the other best strategy games ever made on PC. That’s some legacy.
In X-COM: UFO Defense, much like in the remake, players are tasked with defending Earth from an alien invasion. In doing so, players must manage the clandestine X-COM group, choosing where to position bases and what technologies to research in order to effectively combat the extraterrestrial threat. As an extension of that players must also win battles on the ground using a squad of X-COM soldiers in turn-based tactical combat.
The game itself has aged brilliantly where gameplay is concerned, though it’s nowhere near as pretty as its modern-day remake. Assuming total control of mankind’s final barrier against the alien menace is still a total joy – progressing through the research tree, turning your operatives into psionic super-soldiers, and then deploying them in the field to kick xeno-butt never gets old.
Oddworld: Abe's Oddysee
A 2D platformer where absolutely everything can kill you in an instant: large drops, any enemy attack, grazing past an obstacle, overcooking a grenade, the list goes on. Its puzzles are complex, its gaps between saves overly long, and its enemies nearly impossible to avoid. Frustrating? Rewarding is the word you’re looking for. Probably.
At the centre of all this struggle is the titular Abe, an enslaved Mudokon who discovers the meat processing factory he’s waxing the floors of is soon to be the slaughterhouse of his race. Abe breaks free and begins a quest of emancipation that the player can either go along with (making their journey much more difficult) or ignore. Choosing to steer a group of your own people into a volley of gunfire as a means of distracting an enemy is never an easy decision to make.
If you're not keen on jumping too far back in time in order to play this gem, check out the official HD remaster Oddworld: New 'N' Tasty.
Back in 1998, Half-Life’s storytelling and the conviction of its fictional world were far beyond anything else in the genre. Hell, they were beyond anything else in gaming.
The quality is evident right from the magnificent opening in which you fly through the Black Mesa Research Facility. Radioactive waste passes by, witty comments sound out from speakers overhead, doors open and close all around. Valve crafted a truly convincing world, one that was full of minutiae and intricacies that you could pore over in between all the alien fighting and physics-based puzzling. Seamless level transitions and a narrative that never broke away from the first-person perspective make this game as compelling to play today as it was upon release.
As testament to the enduring love fans have for the Half-Life series, there are still a number of fan-made narrative expansions being released for the game, like the Sven Co-op standalone.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Like any Civ game, Alpha Centauri is all about colonising a world, growing an empire, and competing and cooperating as you see fit with other factions vying for power. The twist is that it’s set on a distant planet in the future, is far more story-driven, and forces you to interact with mysterious alien lifeforms and races that inhabited the planet previously.
What makes this one of the best 4X games is that it fits the 4X formula of empire-building, research, war, and diplomacy within an excellent story featuring fascinating factions and complex leaders, offering a far more focused experience than the ‘blank canvas’ of the main series. The recent inability of Firaxis’ Beyond Earth to emulate this classic is a testament to its enduring quality.
Baldur’s Gate II
There’s something about that beautiful, seemingly hand-drawn aesthetic of the Infinity Engine that’s completely timeless, and Baldur’s Gate II utilises that to deliver an RPG for the ages.
Gamers brought up on modern role-players may have trouble adapting to the tactical AD&D combat and plethora of dialogue, but it’s precisely these traits that make Baldur’s Gate II endure as one of the best PC RPGs. The dark fantasy setting of Amn is a joy to explore with your party of companions, who are unforgettable for their excellent writing and catchy sound-bites (“Go for the eyes, Boo!”). From its pretty pre-rendered backgrounds to its rich, mysterious world brimming with character, Baldur’s Gate II is truly ageless.
This list won’t turn into an ode to the great CRPGs of the ‘90s, we promise, but… just… one… more...
In contrast to Baldur’s Gate II’s classic, companion heroics, Planescape: Torment is a lonely, personal journey, as you seek to uncover the lost memories of a person who’s lived and died untold lives with no recollection of them. Set in a surreal otherworld of multiple planes and bizarre creatures that defy conventional fantasy tropes, Torment is one of the oddest and greatest videogame stories ever told. Focused more on dialogue and choices than combat, Torment encourages you to uncover its world through exploration, conversations, and clever, choice-filled questing.
Spiritual sequel Torment: Tides of Numenera is playable now if this one doesn't slake your thirst.
Visually, Deus Ex hasn’t aged as gracefully as some of the pixel-era games on this list, but its deep RPG systems, dense hub-worlds, and intriguing conspiracy crackpot plot make it proper ‘PC games bucket list’ fodder.
The number of ways in which you can tackle the game's missions still holds up today – you have countless means of moulding JC Denton to your play style, and your choices about how you interact with the world all feel significant. In terms of empowering the player with choice, Deus Ex continues to be the gold standard for RPGs to strive for. If you go back to it, check out the free Deus Ex Revision mod to snazz up the game for modern rigs.
The lack of tribute to this gunslinging wild-western shooter is no less criminal than the exploits of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Outlaws was among the PC's best first-person shooters, sprite-based or not.
The gameplay featured several innovations that made it stand out from its peers, including a manual reload system, and the first ever sniper scope used in a shooter. The orchestrated Sergio Leone-inspired soundtrack is spine-tingling, and the animated cutscenes have that lovely LucasArts touch that gives some context to the tough, rootin’ tootin’ gunfights taking place across trains, frontier towns, and other environs of the Old West. Outlaws is a goldmine of excellent stylistic and gameplay features in a classic FPS package.
The Longest Journey
Coming in the twilight years of point-and-click games, The Longest Journey is a poignant swansong for the genre. You are April, an 18-year-old student who shifts between two contrasting realms in an attempt to restore the mysterious force that allows them to exist in harmony.
The contrasting realms of the magical Arcadia and gritty urban Stark realm are evocatively presented, and in both you’ll meet strange, well-rounded characters who you grow to care for along with the strong, troubled protagonist. Yes, it suffers from the point-and-click pitfall of absurdly cryptic puzzles, but they’re worth toughing through to experience this beautiful interdimensional adventure. The Longest Journey's sequel Dreamfall is also worth playing, though it's not quite on a par with Funcom's original.
The continuation of online support and the fact that Blizzard released a patch for Diablo II in 2016 attest to the game’s enduring appeal even in a post-Diablo III world.
So what keeps it alive? Maybe it’s the high-intensity hack-and-slash mechanics which have been emulated but rarely topped by other games over the years, or its grungy, well-animated pixel art, or the fact that its loot-‘em-up gameplay is so primally appealing that it doesn’t need to ‘move with the times’. Thanks to its perfection of the above formula, Diablo II has completely defied the typical videogame life cycle.
Looking at the image above, it’s easy to say that Fallout’s come a long way since the isometric days, but that’d be ignoring the tremendous narrative and mechanical depth hiding amidst those pixels and pre-rendered backdrops. The fact that Fallout 2 is now on Steam in high-res and with cloud saves makes it all the more appealing to revisit.
Fallout 2 wasn’t forgiving, and bad decisions or character development could essentially ruin your experience. But ride the wave of its deep systems and you have one of the greatest RPGs of all time. The range of factions, side-quests, and characters paint a rich picture of a post-apocalyptic world that’s a grim joy to explore. It's harsh, it’s bleak, it’s kind of ugly, but isn’t that kind of the point in a series like Fallout?
Still one of the funniest and most whimsical building/management sims on PC, Theme Hospital is a unique gem that no developer has even dared try to emulate. Its sense of humour ranges from excellent soundbites of the receptionists urging patients not to die in the corridors, to the emergent chaos of a mass vomit breakout in the waiting areas. AI prodigy Demis Hassabis was even involved on the project as a young boy, making this literally the work of a genius.
The cutesy visual style, so great at conveying fictitious illnesses like Bloaty Head and Hairyitis, conceals a relentlessly fast-paced and challenging sim.There is just no modern-day equivalent, thus Theme Hospital continues to stand in a league of its own.
System Shock 2
You never forget the confused fear you feel when a mutant is apologising to you while battering your head in with a wrench. It’s harrowing and deeply unsettling, capturing the dark spirit of this lonesome story in which you’re hounded by a murderous AI aboard a spaceship.
Yes, System Shock 2 was sort-of succeeded by BioShock, but it’s a tonally different beast – a psychological horror that drips with a cold, claustrophobic atmosphere that’s rarely been replicated. Grab one of the mods that updates the graphics and lighting to revive that intense technophobia you felt playing it all those years ago. It's good (if frightening) to know that, thanks to a Kickstarter, we're eventually going to be getting a shiny System Shock remake too.
Nothing now can dislodge Doom’s place within the pantheon of PC gaming greats, but it’s arguably Quake that sees id’s vision of demonic corridor-shooting executed most successfully. Of the two forefathers of those great franchises, it’s certainly Quake that proves most affecting to revisit in 2016. Doom’s cacodemons and hell knight sprites look kitsch now, but Quake’s roster of far less recognisable abominations – all lipless mouths and faceless horrors – still manage to unsettle. They’re helped along by flawless sound design created in collaboration with Trent Reznor, and a medieval occult level design aesthetic that falls somewhere between Doom and Hexen.
The culmination of those elements – not forgetting its excellent arsenal of high-impact, heavy weapons – feels like id’s best attempt to pull together the elements they experimented with throughout the '90s. Post-Devil Daggers, we’re officially in the era now where Quake’s graphics are considered retro chic. And if you've gibbed your way through this classic already, there's always MachineGames' new Quake episode to take on.
Thoughts? What treasures of the old world have we omitted? Send us your senile ramblings in the comments below.