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 by Nightdive studios, but it’s not set to release until 2020.
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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.
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 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 released, and as much as the community has been clamouring 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.
If you're looking for something a bit more modern, check out the best PC games to play right now.