When it comes to gaming, there is nothing quite like the personal computer (known as PC, in case you were wondering what those initials meant all this time). The personal computer has been a mainstay of homes for over two decades now. In that time, thousands of games have been made and played. Over the years, games become obsolete because computers advance beyond them, or a new operating system renders an older game unplayable. However, due to the longevity and the general consistency of computers, gamers can have a more intimate and familial relationship to their games.
If you grew up with a PC at home, you have likely played more games than you can remember (or care to remember). But what about the classics that you either beat or lost? What about the games that you couldn’t play when you upgraded Windows? What about the shareware (remember that?) that you didn’t buy, and so you only ever got a taste? Fret not, we will highlight some of those forgotten games to jog your memory and send your nostalgia into overdrive. Thanks to remasters and great sites like the Internet Archive and GOG, many of these are still playable. Here are 15 Classic PC Games You’ve Played… But Can’t Remember The Name Of.
15 Star Wars: Yoda Stories
Of all the older Star Wars PC games that have come and gone, this one is perhaps the one least discussed and least remembered. It’s a shame, too, since the game is pretty good. The game is an odd duck for any PC game, let alone any Star Wars game. You control Luke Skywalker in a top-down, sprite-based puzzle adventure game with roguelike elements.
What that all boils down to, if you aren’t familiar with the terms and haven’t played the game before, is that it is basically like a Star Wars-themed Legend of Zelda (the original NES version where you move Link from screen to screen with a sort of flat overhead view), but all the levels are randomly generated by a computer algorithm (also known as procedurally generated). You can find the demo for the 1997 game from LucasArts on the Internet Archive.
14 Sid Meier's Pirates!
Famous for his all-time great series of Civilization games (among many other classic strategy games), Sid Meier had an early monster success with Sid Meier’s Pirates! This was a do-everything pirate simulator game that allowed an unprecedented amount of freedom and control. You begin by selecting one of four countries that you want to align yourself before you take a ship over for yourself. You are able to pick from one of three kinds of swords to swordfight with and fights are determined not just by the amount of times you hit your opponent, but how big of a crew is still alive behind you and how resolved your character is.
You are able to have cannon fights with other ships, add new ships to your fleet, work as a bounty hunter, take over cities and install new governors in the name of the flag you fly under, find buried treasure or long-lost relatives, and even court/marry the daughters of various governors. You can become imprisoned, break out of jail, be mutinied against, or choose to retire from your voyage around the Caribbean. When you retire, or are forced to finish privateering, you are given a score and a post-pirating job. Mind boggling in its depth and detail, the game has been ported a number of times. A re-mastered version is available for download from most sites and is just about as good as the 30-year-old original (which can be played at the Internet Archive).
13 King's Bounty
The PC has always been home to a number of fantastic strategy games. One of the greatest came in 1990 from New World Computing in the form of King’s Bounty. The game relied on a largely traditional high fantasy setting (knights and castles and fairies and dragons), but never once felt generic in the process. At the beginning of the game, you select one of four classes to play as, each with its own strengths. You are tasked with leading an army around the world to hunt for a magical sceptre before the death of the king.
To find the sceptre you must uncover a treasure map-- finding pieces of the map by either uncovering them with artifacts in random treasure chests or defeating an evil warlord with a bounty on their heads. As you travel the world, you find animals and magical creatures willing to fight for you… for a price. You must maintain your army and their happiness, and your charisma limits the amount of each creature you may recruit. The game has been ported a number of times, and has recently had a rash of sequels that have been well-received. The original DOS version can be played on the Internet Archive.
12 Mixed-Up Mother Goose
Released by PC adventure game powerhouse Sierra in 1987, Mixed-Up Mother Goose provided a good and simplistic template for future adventure gamers. Players would engage in a series of fetch quests in a nursery rhyme land in order to set each rhyme straight. You must bring the cat its fiddle. You must bring Jack Horner his Christmas pie. And, disturbingly enough, you must help imprison Peter, Peter Pumpkin-Eater’s wife (there are even bars on the windows of the pumpkin building you force her into).
After each successful sorting out of a nursery rhyme, you are treated to an enactment of the rhyme itself. The melody blares in all its chiptune glory from the PC speakers. Educational and rote, it is likely a game many of us played in one of its many incarnations (it has been remastered and rereleased several times over the years) either at home or at school. It can be found on the Internet Archive.
11 Monty Python's Complete Waste of Time
For anyone other than a fan of the classic absurdist British comedy troupe, Monty Python’s Complete Waste of Time was probably exactly just that. CWoT wasn’t exactly a game so much as it was a Monty Python experience. Players would be able to navigate across several different locations (mapped out as if they were different segments of a human brain). The locations were often just backdrops for playing audio and video clips of classic skits from Monty Python’s Flying Circus or rudimentary animation based on those classic skits.
Much of the game came in the form of interactive versions of Terry Gilliam’s (now the famed director of 12 Monkeys and Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas) iconic collages. Each of them was stuffed to the gills with easter eggs-- many of which would lead you down a long path of more easter eggs, that would either result in a clip or in nothing at all. For actual gameplay, there was a very basic shooting gallery called “Spot the Loony” and a simple game that is basically an ancient prototype for Flappy Bird. While the game does not appear to be anywhere legal, playthroughs are available to watch on Youtube.
10 Freedom Force
In a world full of copycat games, Irrational Games’ 2002 hit Freedom Force seemed astoundingly unique. The game, which shifts perspectives just about every which way, draws heavily on gold- and silver-age comic book tropes to tell their story with equal parts parody and reverence. In fact, the subject matter was both so derivative and so inventive at the same time, that Image Comics put out a book based on the property drawn by none other than Mr. Tom “Jack Kirby Is My God” Scioli (of Transformers vs. G.I. Joe and American Barbarian).
The real-time strategy of the game could be slowed down by clicking a menu of interactions between one of your heroes and villains, objects, or NPCs. The game had a monstrously deep and nuanced character creator for custom super-heroes. Yet it also stands out more than anything for its remarkable homage characters like Minuteman, Man-Bot, Sea Urchin, and Iron Ox. The game has been re-released digitally (along with its equally excellent sequel Freedom Force vs. The 3rd Reich) and is available from a number of websites.
9 Ravenloft: Strahd's Possession
In the ‘90s, SSI (Strategic Simulations Inc.) settled into a groove of creating several entertaining RPGs based on the different campaigns (or worlds, for those not in the know) of Dungeons & Dragons. Of those, several were done as 1st person action-RPGs with a similar art style. One of the most memorable from that batch was Ravenloft: Strahd’s Possession. Part of its popularity was its repackaging in 1996 as part of the seemingly ever-present AD&D Masterpiece Collection.
Ravenloft is a setting rooted in fantasy-horror; a land where several territories are ruled by a monster or madman or someone who is cursed, and the borders of the territories are typically impenetrable by mystic reasons. Strahd’s Possession involves a party of heroes mysteriously transported to the territory of Barovia, which is ruled by a vampire named Strahd von Zarovich. The heavy horror element and unique story layered onto what would otherwise be a very solid fantasy action RPG took the game to a whole other level of fun and intrigue. The game was recently re-released on GOG alongside its sequel, Stone Prophet (which is also great and has a horror-fantasy Egyptian theme).
8 Hexen: Beyond Heretic
Hexen came about in the midst of the dark FPS revolution of the mid-90s that came about from the earth-shattering popularity of Doom. Hexen, a sequel to Heretic (which came out just a year before, in 1994), is notable for a number of reasons. One of the most prevalent aspects of the game that sets it apart is its setting. Rather than yet another game with guns or future guns, Hexen opted for dark fantasy.
There were three characters to choose from (the original only had a spellcaster player): a warrior, a cleric, and a wizard. Each of the three had different strengths and weaknesses which essentially amounted to three completely different games depending on what character was chosen. The game, despite the fantasy premise, was every bit as grim and gritty as the other shooters of the era. The game also stood out due to the fact that players would have to backtrack after completing stages in order to solve puzzles and advance; leading to a new option in the way FPS games were constructed. The game and its predecessor are both available via Steam.
ZZT is the most visually disparate of the games on the list. Despite the fact that it looks so super basic compared to the rest, ZZT was released in 1991 (or significantly later than other games on the list like Pirates!). The game was designed using Extended ASCII (or ANSI) art-- meaning that everything in the game is designed using just one of 256 symbols (letters, numbers, etc.) A modern version might mean designing a game 100% out of emojis.
The original ZZT was really just a collection of a few levels that were distributed as shareware. The meat and potatoes of the game came from its editor and the user-created levels… which took the form of a number of different game types. While this sort of a game ecosystem is popular now (with Minecraft, Little Big Planet, and the Steam Workshop leading the charge), it was extremely niche and not often done 20 years ago. Collections of some of the best levels were made available in packages. ZZT, along with over 2,000 user-created ZZT games, are available via the Internet Archive.
Descent was a fairly big outlier as far as PC games went. The game puts you in the cockpit of a little ship armed with a variety of weapons, indicating that it is an arcade flying shooter. The setting of a labyrinthine series of interplanetary mines with long and tight (but twisting) corridors indicates that it is more a First Person Shooter than any other kind of game. It is that combination of elements that has long made Descent and its later sequels fan favorites in the gaming community.
The 1995 original had you hunting down and destroying mining robots infected by a virus. Action took place in 360 degrees around you, making the game both more suspenseful and more vomit-inducing. While the concept of an FPS where you soar into vents and dive into shafts just as easily as run in a straight line didn’t quite catch on in future games, it works to great effect in Descent. The game is currently available to play through the Internet Archive.
5 Full Throttle
Written and designed by master adventure game creator Tim Schaefer, 1995’s Full Throttle represented perhaps the pinnacle of adventure game storytelling prior to Telltale’s The Walking Dead. Developed by LucasArts, the game went on to sell over a million units and become an all-time classic of the genre.
Part western and part noir, the game takes place in a near future that is far grittier and likely more realistic than other science fiction settings. You play Ben, the gruff and no-nonsense leader of the biker gang The Polecats. As the game progresses, Ben is dragged into a mess involving corporate sabotage, motorcycles, murder, and minivans. While much of the game is standard puzzle-and-conversation-based adventure gaming, there are also moments in which you must control Ben in brutal bike fights that rely on quick reflexes more than smarts (a precursor to the action sequences in Telltale games). Full Throttle has received the HD treatment, and is being re-released for the PC, PS4, and Playstation Vita in April 2017.
4 The Incredible Machine
The Incredible Machine was a remarkably unique puzzle game when it arrived on the scene in 1993. The game required the player to construct a Rube Goldberg Machine each level out of a limited number of parts assigned to you, in order to accomplish whatever task you were given. For instance, you might be asked to pop a series of balloons fenced in by vertical pipes using only a revolver (that must be triggered by a pulley), a rope, some rope, and some hamsters running in hamster wheels (which in turn turn gears).
At the onset of the level, the player is able to adjust both the air pressure and gravity in order to set the level of difficulty. The game was educational in such an undercover way that to this day the game is seen more as entertainment than it is a lesson in puzzle solving, physics, causality, and what happens when a monkey on a bike really wants a banana being dangled in front of it. Currently the game is available bundled with a number of its sequels on GOG.
3 Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager
Thankfully, when SSI was churning out Dungeons & Dragons games, they made games from a variety of different campaigns (again, worlds). One of the most unique campaigns around at the time was Dark Sun, a desert world ruined by magic that was home to a number of typical high fantasy races, but also the giant bug Thri-Kreen and the slave race of the Mul, and featuring a heavy dose of psychic powers. Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, released in 1994, was actually the sequel to a previous SSI installation called Shattered Lands. Both games, while differing greatly in graphical style, featured a similar top-down, turn-based RPG style heavy on narrative choices and the ability to affect your final outcome by random chance (and people being caught in the crossfire).
Your party are former gladiators who witness the murder of someone in a secret rebel group intent on political upheaval. Your story becomes intertwined with theirs from then on, and the game winds up featuring a number of tough moral decisions to make. Fans of the game will fondly remember working to make sure each item in their inventory was swirling with color (indicating the item is enchanted). Fans will equally still gripe to this day about the buggy nature of the game, and all the sequences that were impossible to finish due to simple happenstance. The game has been re-released and is available through GOG with Shattered Lands.
In the ‘90s, two game companies were battling for adventure game supremacy: LucasArts and Sierra On-Line. LucasArts had the aforementioned Full Throttle alongside the tremendous Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis and the hilarious Sam & Max Hit the Road and Day of the Tentacle. Sierra was best known for its series of “Quest” games: the King’s Quest series, the Police Quest series, and the Space Quest series. Sierra also had the classic and influential Gabriel Knight in its stable. And in 1995, Sierra looked to corner the market on FMV (or Full Motion Video) adventure games. The crown jewel in its attempt was the tense and horrific Phantasmagoria.
FMV meant that the player navigated the world by use of live action footage of the female protagonist. You were able to make her walk around the settings (typically a spooky mansion) and interact with objects and puzzles, as with any other adventure game-- only this interaction would usually lead to a pre-recorded live action segment. The heroine of the game is a writer staying at the mansion of a 19th century stage magician named Carno, whose personal life was wracked by mysterious deaths. The game was given a Mature rating, and then-mega retailer CompUSA refused to carry the game. The game was a phenomenal success, despite CompUSA’s objections and it being banned or spoken out against several other times. A sequel, A Puzzle of Flesh, was released the following year.
1 Commander Keen
Commander Keen was released in 1990 after being developed by id Software (the company that would later revolutionize gaming with the modern First Person Shooters Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake) and published by Apogee (who later became 3D Realms, famous for Duke Nukem 3D and publishing the Max Payne series). The team that developed the game was led by John Carmack, the gaming legend who is currently the Chief Technology Officer for Oculus (the virtual reality company owned by Facebook).
Commander Keen was a solid side-scrolling platformer featuring a young boy in a yellow football helmet. The boy, Billy Blaze, got around obstacles like spikes and ice cannons by way of jumping around platforms and using his trusty pogo stick. He could also use a limited number of laser gun blasts to knock out any dangerous aliens in his path. While the game is a great example of platform gaming on the PC, it is most famous because of its shareware distribution. At a time when the PC was becoming a must-have for every household the game’s first chapter, “Marooned on Mars” was released for free in the hopes of hooking people and getting them to pony up for the other chapters (and the sequels). Shareware done in this manner is a huge influence on one prevailing financial model of the current free-to-play gaming boom.
What are some of the classic games you remember playing on the PC? Is there one you can describe but just can't recall the name of? Let us know! Maybe somebody has your answer at the ready!