Bored? Quarantined? Just looking for something affordable and smart to do? Here is your chance to try something old and at the same time learn something new!
I compiled a list of 40 fantastic and FREE games for your PC, and how to find them. 20 will be in this article, 20 in an upcoming one.
These titles have all made history, each in their own right. I don’t claim them to be “the absolute best” but each of them was groundbreaking or somehow interesting: the story, the game design, a particular mechanic.
I will provide links to different online services (when available) where you can get the games, 100% legally, 100% FREE (or almost):
The Internet Archive – which not only collects and stores classic FREE videogames, but also books, movies, music, websites. A true treasure of the internet. Here you will mostly find the free, MS-DOS versions of the games.
Games Nostalgia – a website entirely dedicated to retro gaming. All the games you download from here already include a proper emulator and are ready to play on your PC or Mac. In general, they are Amiga or NES ports, so better quality than the MS-DOS ones. These guys do a fantastic job, consider supporting their work with a couple bucks if you like it.
GOG – Good Old Games – they offer perfectly curated old games, complete with emulators, manuals and artwork for a very little price. Their website also offers newer games, often with amazing discounts. Worth supporting. And they are the same guys who developed “The Witcher” (and soon, “Cyberpunk 2077”), so there is that, too.
Ready, here are the retro
1) Prince of Persia (1990), Jordan Mechner / Brøderbund Software
The legendary title created by Jordan Mechner inspired a bunch of sequels and a major Hollywood movie. Why not try what started it all?
A perfect mix of puzzles, combat, exploration; a realistic, a One Thousand and One Nights atmospheric setting and wonderful, cinematic visuals made this game a best seller. Give it a try.
Fun fact: to create the realistic animations in the game, Jordan Mechner used rotoscoping to capture his brother’s real-life movements.
This guy can speedrun the whole game in less than 10 minutes. Can you?
2) Dune 2 – The Building of a Dynasty (1992), Westwood Studios
Inspired by the bestseller and fundamental sci-fi novel “Dune” (you can read everything you need to know here), this game started the realtime strategy genre.
The planet Arrakis (also known as Dune) is the only place where it’s possible to find the Spice, the basis of interstellar travel and the standard of the Imperial economy. To increase productivity, The Padishah Emperor Shaddam IV invited three powerful Houses to compete against one another and bring up spice production. And here starts the game.
The houses fight with units on the battlefield, special projects, and secret agents. You will also get to know the mysteries of the planet’s ecosystem, in particular its massive (and hungry) sandworms, which are closely connected to the Spice.
Each house presents different features, which makes them balanced and fun to (re)play. If you do particularly well, in the end the other two houses will join forces against you, in a final battle for the control of Dune.
With its fast pace, thrilling battles and the immersive narrative, the game is still fully enjoyable today. Blizzard obviously learned a lot from this experience when they created the first Warcraft (1994), while Westwood moved to make Command and Conquer (1995). And so began the RTS war. It was the dawn of an era that would characterize 20 years of the gaming industry.
(3) Dune (1992), Cryo Interactive / Virgin Games
link: Games Nostalgia
Curiously enough, in the same year Cryo Interactive was also developing a game after the “Dune” franchise. This one would follow more closely the original story, in particular the movie (released in 1984). So this game went on to become “Dune”, while the Westwood realtime strategy was released as “Dune II”.
Dune is an interesting mix, part adventure, part strategy and resource management, with a huge love for the source material that is evident in the writing, the visuals, the pace. The story follows step by step the events around Paul Atreides, so no spoilers, but if you loved the book(s) or the movie you will also appreciate the game. A total run is probably 4-5 hours of time.
Will you be able to control your destiny, and the universe?
4) Centurion – Defender of Rome (1990), Bits of Magic / Electronic Arts
Starting as a young Roman legionnaire in 275BC, your job is to conquer the known world through force or diplomacy, fighting on land and sea.
Centurion: Defender of Rome is a turn-based strategy game. You start with one province, Rome, and one legion.
One part of the game is managing your provinces, managing things like tax rates and consensus. You can organize chariot races, gladiatorial combats or even naval battles; all these start action mini-games which were surprisingly fun to play. If you become particularly fond of a specific gladiator, you can grant him freedom.
Another part of the game is military conquest. You can raise legions and meet your enemies in battle in what is without a doubt the grandfather of every “Total War” game. Diplomacy is also possible, and sometimes you will manage to acquire a province through peaceful annexation rather than with brute force.
Give this ageless classic a try, especially if you like military strategy, or Ancient Rome as a setting.
5) Defender of the Crown (1986), Master Designer Software / Cinemaware
Before Centurion, Kelly Beck developed this strategy classic, which put the player in the role of one of four Saxon knights in medieval England, in a time of political instability. Saxons and Normans were fighting each other for the control of England.
After a short introduction by Robin “Hood” of Locksley to set the atmosphere, you start with a single castle at your command. You can build your army, invade territories and fight the Norman lords – or your Saxon friends as well.
The game also included jousting (to gain either fame or land), or raid a castle for loot or the hand of a princess, who would join your houses and territories.
It’s fast, easy to learn, and with a huge replayability value.
6) Dragon’s Lair (1989), Sullivan Bluth Interactive Media / Readysoft
This legendary cross-over brought the talent of the former Disney cartoon animator and director Don Bluth (Anastasia, An American Tail) to the videogames universe. One of the first arcade games to use a laserdisc, this was a spectacle for the eyes – and maybe a mixed result as a game in itself.
The gameplay was clunky and suffered from the not so great coordination between controls and animations; but the audio-visual quality was ahead of its times, and seemed to come from another world. And maybe it was.
Take control of Dirk the Daring as you try to rescue the princess (sigh… it was 1989 after all!). You will die more times than you will care to remember, but you will enjoy the ride!
7) Bubble Bobble (1986), Taito
Bubble Bobble is probably the most popular arcade ever created. The player(s) can co-op controlling two adorable dragons who can somehow produce soap bubbles.
With one player controlling Bub and the other controlling Bob, the dragons can jump, collect items for points and blow bubbles to capture and kill their enemies.
Additionally, power-ups sometimes float by in bubbles. They include lightning, which flies out horizontally at enemies, and water, which drags players and enemies and it’s so much fun.
Incredibly addictive and fun to play, it’s just one of those time sinks. And the background tune – once it’s in your head you will never forget it. Never.
(8) Rainbow Islands (1987), Taito / Ocean
links: Games Nostalgia
Bubble Bobble went so well that it was granted a sequel, and it was Rainbow Islands. The two dragons Bub and Bob are (spoiler!) now back to their original human forms, and have a new mission: to rid the Rainbow Islands of evil.
The gameplay is different but the action and the dynamics are similar. The game is more cheerful and colorful but keeps the same high energy feeling. Rainbows can kill enemies (wait, what?), trap them, or be used as platforms. Add the usual variety of power-ups and fun gameplay, and you have another timeless platform classic. Try it and you will not be disappointed.
8) The Secret of Monkey Island (1990), Lucasarts
We enter videogame legend here. The Secret of Monkey Island is the story of the young, naive Guybrush Threepwood and his adventures to become a pirate in a fictional Caribbean-inspired setting.
In the process, Guybrush will solve puzzles, win verbally violent duels, fall in love and defeat an undead lord. It was a classic point-and-click adventure in which you combined objects and action verbs… and hoped for the best.
A unique brand of humor characterized the game, which can be defined as an adventure, but also stands on its own as a comedy classic. Some seriously out-of-the-box thinking was required to solve puzzles, which meant the solutions were never the most obvious ones.
The game had such a huge success that it originated an entire franchise. Understandably. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge (1991) was perhaps even better than the original. You have been warned.
9) Day of the Tentacle (1993), Lucasarts
And while you are at it, try also the other Lucasarts masterpieces. Day of the Tentacle – sequel to the original Maniac Mansion – stood out for its wacky humor, absurd situations and time travel: think Back to the Future plus Futurama plus… talking tentacles?
It’s completely off the wall crazy and you will love it. I still remember a memorable sequence in which the player has to rewrite the U.S. Constitution (no spoiler!). Just play it.
And if you like the series, consider also Grim Fandango, considered by many the best of all. Too bad Lucasarts is not a thing anymore. At that time, it was really a leading force in the industry.
10) Joust (1983), Williams Electronics
Let’s try some serious retro arcade gaming here. These games are fast, dynamic, and provide great opportunities for a “gaming break” even if all you have is 10-15 minutes.
Joust was a cult game in the 80s arcade scene. Its popularity is reflected by the fact that it’s featured as one of the boss fights in “Ready Player One” (the book, not the somewhat disappointing movie). In a classic 2D platform setting, players take control of a knight with a lance who rides… on a flying ostrich. I know it sounds crazy, but consider the idea for a second.
Enemies are riding giant vultures, they are all around you. Players must maneuver and strike the enemies from above to defeat them, while avoiding being hit. The last standing wins. It’s fast, brutal, engaging.
11) Burger Time (1982), Data East / Interceptor Micro’s
Who is hungry? In Burger Time you control the chef Peter Pepper, and your goal is to create hamburgers. To do so, you literally have to walk on the different ingredients and you drop them on the plates.
I know it doesn’t sound very hygienic, but so didn’t the 80s.
Peter has to avoid “enemies” (stuff like walking eggs and sausages actually sounds scary!) to complete each scene. The game is challenging, absurd and fun. It was nominated for 1984 Videogame of the Year on C64.
12) Rampage (1986), Bally Midway / Activision
Think about this: have you ever wanted to be a monster with the power to destroy an entire city?
Not bad as a pitch, uh? Rampage lets you do exactly that.
The game supports up to 3 simultaneous players, who control giant monsters (a Gorilla, a Lizard and a Werewolf respectively) trying to destroy an entire city. You can punch skyscrapers, destroy infrastructure, and since police and the army will try to stop you, you can fight the armed forces as well, and that’s a nice bonus.
13) Doom (1993), Id Software
This is another classic game that changed the entire landscape. The incredible success of Doom changed the medium for good.
The story: the Union Aerospace Corporation has been experimenting with teleportation technology on Mars’ moons Phobos and Deimos. After early successes, something goes wrong, and literally the gates of hell break open.
And you have to fix it. With lots of bullets (and a chainsaw).
This game defined the first-person shooter genre, and experimented with everything, from the 3D level design, failure and rewards, lights, inventory and weapon management.
It was a scary survival experience, ultra-violent and brutal, and it showed a lot of blood on screen: it was immensely gratifying. All this sparked a huge controversy that lasts until our day (read more on the cultural impact of the game here, for example).
This is considered one of the top ten most influential PC games of all times. The very successful franchise continues to entertain and break grounds today (Doom Eternal is coming out on March 20th), but if you want to try the original experience, give it a try. It’s worth it. And then, play Doom 2.
14) Wolfenstein 3D (1992), Id Software
And while we are talking about first-person shooters, why not go straight to the origin? Try also what started it all: the original Wolfenstein 3D.
Inspired by the 1980s Castle Wolfenstein, the game tells the story of a captured WWII allied spy who escapes from a Nazi prison and manages to sabotage their plans for world domination. The franchise is now experiencing a second youth thanks to the very successful (and controversial) cinematographic high-octane reboots (started in 2014).
15) Heretic (1994), Raven Software / Id Software
Heretic was one step forward, using the same engine as Doom but in a medieval high-fantasy setting. Kill gargoyles and undead with an arsenal of magic weapons (that are basically equivalent to those of Doom). A bunch of power-ups, clever level design and the ability to fly made this game even more engaging than the predecessor.
and its sequel,
(16) Hexen: Beyond Heretic (1995), Raven Software / Id Software
links: Games Nostalgia
More of the same elements seen in Heretic, but there is nothing wrong in that. The game featured improved graphics, hectic and smart level design, puzzles, sword and sorcery, and the possibility to personalize the game experience by choosing your character class at the beginning.
17) Eye of the Beholder (1991), Westwood / SSI
Speaking of fantasy and role-playing elements, let’s get serious. Eye of the Beholder is a dungeon crawler RPG in first-person based on AD&D (the 2nd edition of Dungeons & Dragons).
Create your party, get hired to investigate a mystery, enter a dungeon choke-full with enemies, traps, secret doors and treasure.
Keep in mind this was the early 90s, the game has no auto-mapping function. The player had to keep manually track of hints and draw their own map on paper. Of course everything can be found online now, but this was part of the fun back then!
The starting party consists of four characters and up to two NPCs that can join later. Combat and magic happened in real time, characters could die (and hopefully be resurrected with magic).
18) Theme Park (1994), Bullfrog Productions / Electronic Arts
The guys at Bullfrog (the studio led by Peter Molyneux) at some point were the best at creating crazy, wacky sandbox games based on a specific concept – taken to the extreme consequences. Their games were small world-building gems, packed full with humor and brilliant ideas.
In Theme Park the player is running an amusement park, managing rides and their maintenance, gardens, staff, food, souvenir shops and everything else. The game combined a strong managerial aspect, research & development, and even a stock market with you and your competitors. It was really a complete and excellent gaming experience.
Once your park was successful, you could sell it, make a lot of money and move to another, more profitable (and challenging) part of the world. Rince & repeat, and you have got a great game.
19) Theme Hospital (1997), Bullfrog Productions / Electronic Arts
links: Games Nostalgia
Similar concept, have you ever dreamed of running a hospital? Assemble rooms and facilities, buy and manage the equipment, hire and supervise doctors and nurses.
And then meet the patients! These guys would check in with the craziest stuff (completely made up conditions, like “spare rib” and “bloated head”, to keep a light tone) and the doctors needed to treat them.
The graphics were a bit essential, but the game design was incredibly solid and made up for it. Try it, for a fun and fresh experience.
20) Simtower: The Vertical Empire (1995), Openbook / Maxis
links: Games Nostalgia
I wanted to finish this collection with one of the less-known “Sim” games. Will Wright (the legendary creator of Simcity and The Sims) was also active as a talent scout and discovered a small indie studio in Japan that created a “skyscraper simulation“.
The game was published in 1995 worldwide as “Simtower”.
Like the other open-ended Maxis simulation games, the player’s goal was to build, manage and make a profit from different elements. In this case the setting is building a mega skyscraper complex: you will manage apartments, offices, shops, restaurants, elevators, escalators and keep building higher, higher, higher.
The game is “hard fun” but if this is the experience you want, it will keep you entertained for days.
Thank you for reading! Now go out and play :)
And stay tuned for the second part of the list, 20 more games are coming up next week, and you can find them here.
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