Hi there! Still in quarantine / isolation / etc? Here is why you probably should.
Last week’s article about “20 FREE classic videogames you can play right now” went very well (I am glad you enjoyed it!), so here as promised is the follow-up.
20 classic, free games that can help you to spend the time, get a kick of nostalgia-powered good vibes, and maybe explore the history of this amazing medium.
We will explore a mix of genres, from action to strategy to storytelling, and as always the suggestion is the same: if you like something, find a way to support its creators. Also financially. I don’t get paid for my endorsements, but these are not easy times for creatives and the cultural industry in general.
I can tell you, we appreciate all the help we can get :)
21) Dungeon Keeper (1997), Bullfrog Productions / Electronic Arts
This little masterpiece explored an interesting question. We all know the story of the brave heroes who enter a dungeon, kill all the monsters and take the treasure. But what about the bad guys? What are their problems, their motivations? What is life like, deep down underground in the darkest dungeons?
In this game you get to be the titular “Dungeon Keeper” and it will be your job to design and manage the tunnels, populate them with creatures, while you explore the darkest corners of the underworld and solve its mysteries.
In the process, you will have to keep an eye on finances, research new and powerful spells, recruit creatures and monsters, and keep off those damn heroes who want to foil your plans (and steal your hard-earned gold).
It’s a sandbox – managerial game that has all the essentials: you will need to manage food, gold and happiness of your “workforce”, plus design your dungeons complete with traps and secret doors.
But it also poses an entirely new set of challenges to the player. How to keep monsters motivated and obedient? What do vampires, orcs and dragons do for fun? How many times can you slap a goblin and still feel good about it? Imprison the heroes, torture them, and rejoice as you manage to corrupt some of them to join the dark side. Endless hours of fun, and when you are done, consider moving on to the sequel: Dungeon Keeper 2.
The game crossed medium as it inspired the popular boardgame Dungeon Lords by Vlaada Chvátil.
22) Ghosts ‘N Goblins (1987), Capcom
This legendary platformer packs fast action, scary monsters, weapons and thrills – as well as a memorable soundtrack. Sir Arthur has to rescue his beloved princess (I know, it’s another of those tropes) by beating one level after another populated with hordes of zombies, ghosts and other demons – and all must be done against a relentless time limit. To help him in his quest, he can find more powerful weapons, armors, extra lives and power-ups.
One memorable and fun feature was the armor. Arthur’s armor could protect him from one hit, after which the brave hero could still proceed in his journey – in his underpants. He would not lose his life, only his dignity. Luckily, by defeating monsters he could occasionally find new pieces of armor and go back to a full suit.
This was considered a hard game to beat (and it was). Find out by yourself what kids did to have fun in the arcades in the 1980s. Its sequel (even more action-packed) was Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts.
23) Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987), Microprose
Sid Meier is the legendary creator of the Civilization series (see below). In 1987 he developed this genre-defining simulation of the pirate life in the Caribbean.
The game lets you choose from 6 different “ages” and scenarios (for example, “The Silver Empire” from 1560-1600, “War For Profit” from 1640-1660, etc.); 4 nationalities (English, French, Dutch, Spanish); 4 difficulty levels; and one special ability (swordfight, navigation, etc.). It featured nine different types of ships.
Pirates! let a lot of freedom of choice to the players, who could decide to go to the open seas and try their luck at trade, exploration, diplomacy or just ruthless piracy. The actions influenced how each faction in the game reacted to the “pirate”.
The only real goal was to retire with as much gold and land as possible, as many ranks/titles as possible (Colonel, Admiral, Marquis, Duke), and (uh…) a wife. Yes, the protagonist would age, making it a complete simulation of the adventurous life at sea.
A definite classic, “Pirates!” inspired countless spin-offs (and clones), the official remake Pirates! Gold (1993) and a remastered version in 2004. I feel confident to say that without this classic game, “Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag“, “The Secret of Monkey Island” and maybe even the super famous movie franchise “Pirates of the Caribbean” wouldn’t have been the same.
24) Master of Orion II – Battle at Antares (1996), Simtex / Microprose
The original Master of Orion (1993) defined the 4x genre: explore the universe, expand your empire, exploit resources, exterminate your enemies. Three years later, its sequel basically improved every aspect of the game, bringing a more complex gameplay, new alien races, a very solid model for diplomatic relations and the possibility to greatly customize the game experience.
Every aspect of the game blended perfectly in and was so much fun. Scientific research, space and land combat, customizing your ships, galactic politics, espionage, and diplomacy. Victory could be achieved in a number of different ways and with so many options, every game really felt like a different experience.
This is classic that is still completely playable in our days. In fact, I have it installed on my travel laptop and from time to time I enjoy a game while on the train or waiting for boarding.
It’s the grandfather of today’s Stellaris by Paradox, but it doesn’t require a powerful computer, its mechanics are perfectly balanced and if you are a science fiction or space exploration fan, this title for sure has many hours of solid fun in store for you.
25) Speedball 2: Brutal Deluxe (1990), The Bitmap Brothers / Image Works
This is the sequel to Speedball (1988) but it was better than its predecessor in every way, so it’s definitely the one I recommend.
Imagine football manager, but in a cyberpunk, violent futuristic setting. “Speedball” (not the drug cocktail) is a brutal futuristic mix between football, handball and hockey, probably inspired by the cult 1975 sci-fi movie “Rollerball” with James Caan (recommended, by the way).
In the game, the player gets to manage an underdog team (“Brutal Deluxe”), and hopefully lead them from the bottom of the board to the top of the league.
Graphics and music were ahead of the time, the gameplay was brutal and furious, and the managerial aspects were fun too. You get to manage your players, buy better ones, invest in their development or look after their injuries – or worse: Speedball is a brutal game and players can get killed in the field.
And then, face each opponent in the field where several power-ups and instant bonus tokens are there to guarantee that every game is exciting and challenging.
26) Lemmings (1991), DMA Design, Psygnosis
Do you know the little rodents that – supposedly – commit mass suicide by throwing themselves off cliffs?
Spoiler alert, they don’t. But in this game, they will. Lemmings is a puzzle-platformer in which you have to lead a herd of tiny, helpless creatures across dangerous scenarios.
You can do that by assigning special powers to some of them, like the “stopper” or the “parachuter”, and see how they interact with the environment and other lemmings.
This is a game of trial and error, and to solve its many levels will require some serious thinking and problem-solving cleverness. Expect your little creatures to die, die, die some more, but that’s part of the fun! Success feels so rewarding when you can outsmart this game.
Lemmings is one of the most popular video games ever created, it sold more than 15 million copies and it had a bunch of sequels (that you should also definitely consider trying).
27) Double Dragon (1987), Technos Japan / Taito
A real beat-em-up arcade legend. Billy and his brother Jimmy have to take over an entire criminal gang, the “Black Warriors”.
With its mix of martial arts and street fighting tricks, the gameplay always felt fresh and engaging. Players could use improvised weapons, objects from the environments, and cooperate with each other to take down the enemies.
The game was best played in two players as a co-op, and it was so balanced you could actually clear it in one go (I could).
28) Star Wars: TIE-Fighter (1994), Lucasarts
“The Empire is on the verge of success” – these words uttered by Emperor Palpatine opened the first cinematic sequence of TIE Fighter.
It was a space flight and combat simulator produced by Lucasarts, so it couldn’t get more Star Wars than that. IGN declared it in 2010 “the best Star Wars game ever made”.
Set at the times of The Empire Strikes Back, this game had everything: atmospheres from the movies with original voice acting and soundtrack, action-packed combat, over 50 cleverly designed missions, a well written story, all the spacecrafts – plus you got to play as the bad guys! Finally!
Keep in mind this was 1994, and the Star Wars Universe was not so densely populated with products as it is today. Whenever something was released, fans had reason to rejoice. And this was a real treat.
TIE Fighter was the sequel to the 1993 Star Wars: X-Wing, which gave players a more canon experience following the iconic events from the movies, and was followed by X-Wing vs TIE Fighter which somehow capitalized on both experiences, offering cooperative and competitive gameplay via LAN.
TIE Fighter, however, was the most innovative of the series and was received incredibly well by fans, gamers and critics.
29) The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996), Bethesda Softworks
You are probably familiar with titles like Skyrim or Oblivion. These are parts of The Elder Scrolls franchise, which started in 1994 with Arena.
However, it was in 1996 with Daggerfall that the series started to show what it was capable of. This was an open-ended beauty, with no required quests, an incredible amount of procedurally generated characters and events, and a huge world to lose yourself into.
You could choose a class or customize your own. As a wizard, you could write your own spells or create enchanted items. You could get cursed and become a werewolf, radically changing your experience.
And so much more! The game map featured 161,600 square kilometers – incredible, for the time, and 750,000+ NPCs.
This can probably be a bit intimidating for the casual gamer. But if you are into a solid RPG with plenty of depth – and want to get hundreds of great gameplay – you won’t be disappointed.
30) Ghostbusters (1984), Activision
If there’s something strange in your neighborhood, who you gonna call?
Ghostbusters is the official video game based on the legendary 1984 movie. The gameplay is simple but addictive: the city is invaded by ghosts, and you have to set up a successful agency to stop them. Choose the car, buy the latest tech gadgets such as traps and ghost baits, and wait for the calls.
Your ghostbusters will drive across the city to catch the ghosts: each mission opens a mini-game in which you will need some skills to trap a flying ghost. Each successfully completed mission will net you some money, which you can use to buy better equipment, and so on.
When the total ectoplasmic energy in the city passes a critical threshold, Gozer the Gozerian / the Destructor will finally manifest and try to destroy everything. Your final mission will be to stop it!
31) Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985), Origin Systems
The Ultima series defined the RPG genre in the 1980s and early 1990s, and its creator Richard Garriot considers Ultima IV his favorite chapter.
Ultima IV moved the series towards a storytelling based approach. The main character embraces the quest to become the master of the Eight Virtues (Honesty, Compassion, Valor, Justice, Sacrifice, Honor, Spirituality, and Humility), in order to access the Codex of Ultimate Wisdom.
The game included dungeons and combat, but in addition, it explored morality and self-growth. For the time, this was really groundbreaking as it pushed the boundaries of the medium beyond the classic “kill the monster, grab the treasure” trope. The player can recruit NPCs, explore the big world, explore its open-ended storyline, fight monsters, gain experience.
The game got overwhelmingly positive reviews at the time. This old-style game gem is something for real retrogamers, but if you want to explore how computer RPGs evolved, this is the place to start.
32) Populous II: Trials of the Olympian Gods (1991), Bullfrog Productions / Electronic Arts
Another sandbox game developed by Bullfrog Productions, this put the player literally in the sandals of a Greek god. The sequel to the original Populous, this chapter focuses on Greek mythology as the player embodies a divinity. You will have to attract followers, assist them as they build a city, guide them through their lives.
But after all, you are a god, so you will use your powers to improve the land, help them, guide them in battle against their (your) enemies. You will also have the power to attract legendary heroes (inspired by real characters of the Greek myths, like Odysseus and Achilles), each with their unique powers, that will make the difference on the battlefield.
They will be needed to fight equally powerful magical creatures controlled by your rival gods. If you always found the idea of playing god entertaining, this game – with its 1000 maps and a whole lot of replayability potential – may be for you.
33) Master of Magic (1994), Simtex / Microprose
Let’s talk about a real classic now. This a turn-based strategy game set in a high fantasy setting: think Civilization meet Lord of the Rings.
The player impersonates a wizard, who rules over a particular race of fantasy creatures (humans, elves, dwarves are all there – plus other more exotic ones like dark elves, beastmen and trolls). Through them, he gets to explore the world (divided in two dimensions), fight monsters, get treasure, and accumulate more power.
With its amazing potential for customization, no two games are ever the same.
You will get to hire heroes, create magic items for them, summon a huge number of magic beasts, research new spells – until you defeat the other wizards and conquer the randomly generated world(s). With the official fan-made patch (“Casters of Magic”), the game got bigger than ever, and it’s still considered one of the best strategy games of all times.
Speaking of classic turn-based strategy, you may want to check out the four Sid Meier’s original masterpieces: Colonization (focused on the exploration and conquest of the Americas); the first legendary Civilization or even better its sequel Civilization II (1996) (I discuss the latest chapter here); or the visionary Alpha Centauri , a real gem of a game describing the human colonization of an entirely new, alien planet.
34) Alone in the Dark (1992), Infogrames Europe / I-Motion
Ten years before Resident Evil, the 3D survival horror genre was established with this game. A man dies in mysterious circumstances. Playing as either the victim’s niece or a private investigator, your task will be to investigate the murder.
The game is set in a haunted house. You are trapped inside. And you will soon discover that you are not alone. Clever level design and puzzles will keep you busy as you advance through the game. You will find items, documents, weapons, and of course horrible creatures.
If you love good storytelling and scare jumps, consider playing this classic with strong Edgar Allen Poe and H.P. Lovecraft influences. The game had such a great success that it quickly established its own franchise.
35) Sensible World of Soccer (1994), Sensible Software / Renegade Software
This was the superpowered version of the original Sensible Soccer, the memorable and ultra fun football game of the 1990s.
The game database was immense, with virtually every important league in the world faithfully reproduced (some down to the 3rd division). All the important international competitions were also included (club- and national-team based).
And on top of that, the game featured a strong managerial dimension and a full career mode. Keep in mind this was 1994, when the FIFA game franchise was moving its first steps. This was the real deal back then.
Then, you actually got to play every game. Sensible Soccer was great fun: it didn’t focus on realism, but on fast action and easy play. Add the managerial side of things, and you will see why it was such a huge success.
All teams included had real players from the 1994/1995 season (with names, strengths etc) and it was possible to buy and sell them. You could buy Maradona for your team!
36) X-Com: Enemy Unknown (1994), Mythos Games / Microprose
Roll out the red carpet, ’cause this is videogame royalty. Read more about the franchise here.
UFO: Enemy Unknown (or X-COM: UFO Defense in the USA) is a 1994 strategy game and a real classic. Imagine a great mix of real-time simulation with turn-based tactic battles.
Set in the near future, enter the X-COM agency, created as a shadow international project to deal in secret with aliens. As the director of X-COM, you can get your hands dirty with every aspect of the management of such an agency: hiring the staff, managing research & development, maintaining an effective fighting force to contrast and contain the alien threat.
X-COM combined successfully different elements. You had strategic combat on a nice 3D planisphere; geopolitics as different governments are affected by your success (or lack of) or infiltrated by alien agents; a realistic and detailed tactical combat when your marines made close encounter. You had a deep managerial side as you expanded to different corners of the world and had to keep all your bases operational. And crisis management. A lot of crisis management: X-COM simply keeps the players always on the edge of the seat.
This beast won 16 awards including #1 PC Game of All Time and Best Genre Mix. It got a number of sequels, none of which reached the same level of greatness in my opinion, until it got a fantastic cinematic reboot in 2012 with XCOM: Enemy Unknown. This is how it looks now:
and the new games are fantastic, but if you want to explore the original one, you will find it still has a lot of charm.
37) Frontier: Elite 2 (1993), Frontier Developments / Gametek
A sequel to Elite (1988), Frontier is the legendary space flight, combat and trading simulation created by David Braben.
Frontier was a real evolution of the species. Its realism (based on Newtonian physics) set it aside from all the other “space games”, making it an experience as close as possible to a simulator. How would it feel, to travel the endless void of space? To navigate the lightyears between solar systems, trading or looking for a new discovery?
Add to the mix a lot of ships to choose from (and upgrade), frantic and well-designed space combat, with different factions and cultures constantly at war, space piracy, bounty hounting, and you had a classic.
The game was unbelievable! It could store on a single floppy disk (we are talking early 1990s here) a huge universe with more than 100 billion star systems, each named and mapped.
Often dubbed “a space trucker simulator”, this game can be a real trip. Put some music on and get ready to be lost in the endless space, hours and hours of immersive gameplay. The space station docking sequence with classical music was of course a homage to Kubrik’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Of course, it’s a 1993 game, so expect a lot of polygons. But if you want a fresher experience, Frontier is living a great renaissance with its 2015 reboot Elite: Dangerous, which features top-of-the-line graphics, sounds, and a real scale model of our galaxy to lose yourselves into.
38) Another World (1991), Delphine Software / Interplay
39) Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992), Lucasarts
From the studio that gave us “The Secret of Monkey Island” (and well, yes, Star Wars) here is another point-and-click adventure, this time featuring everybody’s favorite archaeologist-with-a-whip: Indiana Jones!
The Fate of Atlantis is an original story, not based on a film. The adventure will include the usual twists and tropes of any self-respecting Indiana Jones flick, including nazis, exotic locations and moving red lines and dots on an aged map to represent traveling.
The story will take us to investigate the Lost City of Atlantis. You could choose between three ways to enjoy the game: co-operation with two protagonists (Indy and Sofia), adventure (Indy alone), and action (less brainwork, more punching bad guys).
If you like good storytelling and adventures, here you will find nice graphics, challenging puzzles, atmospheric settings and a well-written story worthy of a major movie (probably better than that Crystal Skull thing). Plus, what is there not to love about Indiana Jones?
Atlantis is considered the best of the series, but when you are done and you still want more, consider the previous episode. Here is Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989) for you to enjoy, right off the movie screen.
40) Grand Theft Auto (1997), DMA Design / BGM Interactive
Everybody knows Rockstar’s videogame masterpieces, like GTA 5 and Red Dead Redemption 2. But how did it all start?
Find it out yourself by playing this 1997 classic.
The original GTA put you in the role of a small-time criminal. The game blends freeplay and missions based on stealing cars, running drugs, and various killings. But of course, the big fun is just to take control of different vehicles, drive around in the cities, and raise hell.
There are over 200 different missions like these, taking place in three different cities filled with traffic and pedestrians. You can also equip different weapons: a pistol, a machine gun, a flamethrower, and a rocket launcher. It’s a big sandbox game ideal for a few hours of mindless fun and destruction.
And this was the second list. I think I don’t have much more to recommend (for now), so it really is time to play :)
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