The best classic PC games provide a sense of scaled evolution to the gaming industry itself. They walked the long, arduous walk of being a tastemaker so that the best PC games as we know them today could run, thanks to the ambitious genre standards established by their predecessors. Whether it is classic adventures like Grim Fandango and Day of the Tentacle, immersive sims like Deus Ex and System Shock 2, or titles that still have the ability to absolutely dominate your spare time like Diablo 2 and StarCraft, there really is something for everybody to enjoy in this list. While a few of these experiences may look a little janky by modern standards, these titles have earned a spot among the 20 best classic PC games for good reason. Let's check them out.
Released: September 24, 1993
Myst is a puzzle-based adventure game that launched in the early 90s and went on to become the best-selling game of the decade. Armed with a magical book, the player can hop through different worlds, solving puzzles and finding the missing pages of yet more books, to ultimately save one of two brothers trapped in - wait for it - other books. Or you could opt to leave them languishing in their respective prisons. Myst was applauded for its visuals and sound, although the audience was split over the gameplay, making it the marmite of adventure games to some degree. Either way, it’s had a slew of remakes over the last 25 years, and was even released on console and mobile, so if you want to see what all of the fuss is about, you can dive in when the fancy takes you.
19. Duke Nukem 3D
Released: January 29, 1996
Developer: 3D Realms
If it wasn’t for Duke Nukem 3D, I’m not sure any of us would know what a real man looks like. At least that’s what the buzzcut topped bundle of machismo barely suppressed behind a pair of sunglasses and bursting out of a red tank top would have you think. Duke may have been desperately compensating for something, but solid, fun gameplay wasn’t it. Steeped in the action hero run off from the late 80s ad early 90s, Duke kicks ass, chews bubblegum, and saves buxom beauties from an alien threat that invades his impromptu vacation in L.A. after he just got done saving the world in Duke Nukem 2. The bare bones story and action movie caricature may not have aged well - as evidenced by the horrendous flop of Duke Nukem Forever - but you can relive Duke’s glory days with Duke Nukem 3D: Megaton Edition.
18. Hexen: Beyond Heretic
Released: October 30, 1995
Developer: Raven Software
Hexen married a first-person shooter with a high fantasy setting, giving players three classes to choose from before unleashing them into a world full of monsters that were in need of a good trouncing. A sequel to 1994’s Heretic, players have to choose a fighter, cleric, or mage before setting out to track down the second of the Serpent Riders, the game’s ultimate boss who awaits in a trap-riddled throne room. It may not hold up graphically, but there are plenty of mods that will spruce it up for you, letting you dive into some monster-exterminating shenanigans without taking a toll on your eyeballs.
17. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee
Released: September 19, 1997
Developer: Oddworld Inhabitants
Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee is a perilous prison break from RuptureFarms, a meat processing plant that is grinding up the local fauna into delicious treats for the Glukkon race of aliens. When the titular Abe gets wise to what’s going on, he makes a break for it, rescuing his fellow Mudokons on the way out - or not. The choice of playing the hero is left up to the player, but there are consequences that unfold at the end based on how many enslaved workers Abe transports to freedom. In a happy turn of events, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee also got a remake from the ground up in 2014, as Oddworld: New ‘n’ Tasty, so it’s another one on the list that you don’t need to take your rose-tinted glasses off for.
16. Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
Released: December, 1991
Ron Gilbert took the lead on one of LucasArts most well-known and well-loved titles, with the second game in the Monkey Island series. Joined by Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, the three conjured up a story about the return of the pirate LeChuck, resurrected as a zombie after his defeat in the first game. Gilbert left the studio after Monkey Island 2, stating that LucasArts’ vision of the series’ future wasn’t in line with his own, and so the game remains a must-play for his fans. A Special Edition launched in 2010, with new voice overs and a hint system, which would have been handy for the infernal monkey wrench puzzle that was notorious for stumping players back in 1991. You can even switch between the new and original version of the game, if you’re anxious that you might be missing out on something.
15. Resident Evil 2
Released: January 21, 1998
In its heydey, Resident Evil 2 received critical acclaim for its cinematic camera angles, oppressive atmosphere, and level design. It introduced Leon S. Kennedy and Claire Redfield to fans, who were both nobodies before career and family brought them to Raccoon City as Umbrella’s zombie virus spilled out of Resident Evil’s mansion on the outskirts of town and spread to the local population. The story quickly escalates to the realms of the outlandish but it's par for the course for the series by now, and you’d be disappointed if it were anything different. If you were still potty training at the tail end of the 90s, you can give the Resident Evil 2 Remake a whirl when it launches next year.
14. Day of the Tentacle
Released: June 25, 1993
Another Tim Schafer masterpiece, Day of the Tentacle is more renowned than Grim Fandango, and is the sequel to 1987’s Maniac Mansion. A cartoon point-and click adventure with a story centreing on time travel, the players can switch between three different characters, separated by a faulty time machine. The title got a remaster in 2016, made by Schafer’s new studio Double Fine, so you can enjoy all new hand-drawn, high resolution artwork, along with remastered audio.
13. Final Fantasy 8
Released: February 11, 1999
Developer: Square Enix
Final Fantasy 8 was a PlayStation console exclusive when it launched almost 20 years ago, but it got a PC release in 2000. A heart-wrenching story of lost love is at the centre of the series’ traditional overarching story of political intrigue, peppered with magic, memorable characters, and breathtaking full-motion video sequences, if you want to use the lingo of the time. While it’s common to hear Final Fantasy 7 cited as the best of the series - on the PlayStation at least - Final Fantasy 8 was praised for building on the accomplishments of its predecessor. The title got a re-release on PC in 2013 and is sitting at Very Positive on Steam, so there’s a sweet dose of nostalgia right at your fingertips.
Released: December 10, 1993
Developer: id Software
Doom is the mother of all first-person shooters, and the landscape of gun-toting games wouldn’t be what it is without it. A sci-fi horror, Doom follows a nameless space marine as he fights back the hordes of hellspawn that have broken through to the base on Mars. Despite not being particularly rich on the narrative front, the game boasted 3D graphics, and networked multiplayer. These days you can play Doom on pretty much anything, from a printer to an ATM machine. But the good news is you don’t have to. The game got a reboot in 2016 that is suitably shooty and gives players a veritable arsenal to play with.
11. Grim Fandango
Released: October 30, 1998
Grim Fandango is a funny and heartwarming tale that follows the adventures of underworld travel agent Manny Calavera as he ushers the recently departed on their journey through the land of the dead. With a gripping plot and devilish puzzles, LucasArts upped the ante on an already stellar title by making it the first adventure game to be rendered in 3D, bringing the vibrant Aztec-inspired art deco graphics to life. Hailed as one of the last great adventure game of the 90s, its hard-boiled film noir narrative was resurrected in a Grim Fandango Remaster in 2014, and with an Android and iOS release a year later, there’s no reason to miss out on it.
Released: June 22, 1996
Developer: id Software
Id Software hit it out of the park again just three years after the release of Doom, with Quake. It abandoned the Doom engine for the Quake engine, rendering 3D environments that knocked the socks off everyone old enough to persuade their parents to buy it for them. Medieval gothic was the setting this time around, and multiplayer was cranked up a notch, supporting a whopping eight players instead of a paltry four. Quake was also the first shooter to have maps specifically for multiplayer, and clans sprouted up in the community around it. The game is arguably just as important as Doom for shaping the current gaming vista. The title spawned a series, with the most recent entry being the upcoming Quake Champions, a fast-paced arena shooter that’s currently in Early Access on Steam.
9. Chrono Trigger
Released: March 11, 1995
Developer: Square Enix
Technically, Chrono Trigger shouldn't be one of the best classic PC games, as it was originally released for the SNES in 1995, but the seminal JRPG recently got a PC port, and now that Square Enix’s post-launch updates have cleaned it up significantly, it’s well worth a look at on Steam. What’s more, it was made by the dream team of RPG developers, including Final Fantasy series creator, Hironobu Sakaguchi, Dragon Quest series creator, Yuji Horii, and Dragon Ball manga artist, Akira Toriyama, as well a host of other talent from the 16-bit era. The game’s story is a time-hopping adventure with multiple endings and a unique battle system. Now that it’s available on PC, there’s no excuse not to play one of the best RPGs ever made.
8. System Shock 2
Released: August 11, 1999
Developer: Irrational Games
Bioshock’s Ken Levine designed System Shock 2 almost a decade before he unleashed Bioshock and Andrew Ryan onto the world. Instead of the depths of the ocean, the game takes place in the vastness of space, tasking the player character with trying to prevent an infection from spreading to everyone on board. Bioshock is considered to be the spiritual successor to the System Shock series, and echoes System Shock’s narrative to some degree. A remake is being kickstarted (opens in new tab) by Nightdive studios, but it’s not set to release until 2020.
Released: November 30, 1998
Developer: Looking Glass Studios
Stealth games today might not be what they are without Thief’s contribution to the genre. Or perhaps it might have taken them longer to get there. Either way, Looking Glass Studios’ 1998 title was a first-person game that actively had players avoid confrontation, rather than running headlong into the action. Thief’s steampunk setting added a touch of whimsy and was brought to life with emergent gameplay, as players decided how best to navigate their way through the levels - either with pure stealth, or by breaking from the shadows and engaging in combat, although the latter wasn’t half as satisfying. The series got a fourth instalment a decade after 2004’s Thief: Deadly Shadows, which acted as a reboot for the franchise, so if you’re feeling light-fingered, you can get a taste of the criminal lifestyle in 4K with the 2014 Thief reboot.
6. Star Wars: TIE Fighter
Released: July, 1994
Developer: Totally Games
Star Wars: TIE Fighter is renowned as one of the best space-combat sims in video games, with strategy playing a huge part in epic dogfights set against the backdrop of space. The energy management system keeps players on their toes, having them decide whether to sink it into shields, the ship’s engines, or weapons, for each scenario. What was even more revolutionary was that a Star Wars game put players into the shoes of an Imperial pilot, rather than a member of the resistance. TIE Fighter was made available to buy on Steam in 2014 with slightly improved graphics and sound, and all of the game’s expansions to boot, giving you the chance to play one of the best classic PC games ever for under $10 / £10.
Released: March 31, 1998
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
Launched before Activision bought Blizzard’s parent company, Vivendi, StarCraft is a real-time strategy game set in the expanse of space that revolutionised the genre. Players choose one of three races and construct bases and manage resources until they get strong enough to steal everyone else’s. The title was the best-selling PC game in its year of launch, and has become a cultural phenomenon in South Korea. StarCraft 2: Wings of Liberty released in 2010, but the original got a spiffy remaster in 2017.
4. Deus Ex
Released: June 23, 2000
Developer: Ion Storm
Deus Ex is a cyberpunk action RPG that explores themes of societal inequality, technological advancement, and the augmentation of human beings. The protagonist JC Denton is an entry-level cyborg, for all intents and purposes, and his first assignment as an anti-terrorist agent, is to root out the culprits behind a stolen shipment of vaccines for a lethal pandemic. But of course nothing is that straightforward and he soon gets embroiled in a plot that pits him against a number of shady organisations like the Illuminati and Triads, to name a few. Thanks to the magic of mods, the game has had a visual overhaul as well as improved AI and expanded physics. The Give Me Deus Ex mod describes itself as Deus Ex but better, which is a bold claim, and you can try it out for yourself right here (opens in new tab).
3. Baldur’s Gate
Released: December 21, 1998
Baldur’s Gate is an iconic RPG that set the bar for everything in the genre that followed it, earning its rightful place on our best classic PC games list. If RPGs are your jam, Baldur’s gate is your peanut butter. Essentially a D&D game brought to life in the Infinity Engine, the isometric RPG is split into chapters, and allows players to build up their characters through combat, side quests, and the main storyline as they progress. The game got an Enhanced Edition in 2012 that included the Tales of the Sword Coast expansion, although there are enough mods for the original that you can stick with the authentic experience if you prefer.
2. Diablo 2
Released: June 29, 2000
Developer: Blizzard Entertainment
The Diablo series is one of the most well-known on PC, and Diablo 2 is considered to be the best of the bunch. It built on its predecessors genre-defining gameplay, and wasn’t bogged down with Diablo 3’s auction houses or dragging story. The game only got better with the release of the Lord of Destruction expansion that added a whole new act, and two additional classes with the assassin and the druid. You can grab it for less than $10 before moving onto Diablo 3: Reaper of Souls, which overhauled the third game in the series to make it a worthy challenger to Diablo 2’s crown.
1. Half-Life 2
Released: November 16, 2004
One of the most beloved PC titles of all time, Half-Life 2 picks up a few years after the events of Half-Life, with the ever silent Gordon Freeman waking up to find that the alien threat from the first game has triumphed. Freeman joins the resistance, gets a bunch of cool guns to play with, and even meets a robot dog - the pet of his companion, Alyx Vance. It seems like an age since the game was released, and as much as the community has been clamoring for Half-Life 3, it doesn’t look like one is on the way any time soon. As you’d expect, there are a plethora of mods for the title, meaning that you can boot it up and enjoy a playthrough without risking taking an eye out on all those janky pixels.
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