The Best Isometric Video Games

There's just something about video games with an isometric viewpoint, isn't there? Something...cute about them. No matter how dark and brutal a game's setting and art may be, tilting a camera up and around makes everything look like an action figure.

This story was originally published in September 2015.

And I don't mean that in a bad way! There's something comforting about this to a grown man like me, in the same way that otherwise mature adults enjoy things like board games with miniatures. Something makes isometric games feel strangely tangible, as though by mimicking the presentation of a toybox, the game feels a little more real.

Below then is a list of the best isometric games. Note that I've been fairly strict about what qualifies as "isometric": the principle itself was designed to simulate the presentation of a 3D space on a 2D display, so if the game has a free camera which actually allows the exploration of a 3D space, or has a fixed camera that doesn't properly recreate a 3D space (ala Link to the Past's cartoony distortion) then that's cheating.

Basically, we're talking about a screen that looks like this:

Fun fact: the isometric perspective in most games isn't quite true isometric. From wikipedia:

The projection commonly used in video games deviates slightly from "true" isometric due to the limitations of raster graphics. Lines in the x and y directions would not follow a neat pixel pattern if drawn in the required 30° to the horizontal. While modern computers can eliminate this problem using anti-aliasing, earlier computer graphics did not support enough colours or possess enough CPU power to accomplish this. So instead, a 2:1 pixel pattern ratio would be used to draw the x and y axis lines, resulting in these axes following a 26.565° (arctan 0.5) angle to the horizontal. (Game systems that do not use square pixels could, however, yield different angles, including true isometric.) Therefore, this form of projection is more accurately described as a variation of dimetric projection, since only two of the three angles between the axes are equal (116.565°, 116.565°, 126.87°).

The more you know!

THEME HOSPITAL

Think of any we missed? Got a favourite not on the list? Vent furiously below.

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I loved the adventure game Sanitarium as well. (Not to mention Pillars of Eternity.)

Marble madness, rock n roll racing, snake rattle n roll.

Last edited 07/09/15 9:08 am

Something about that Marble Madness music just makes me feel like Im home again. A very good free remake of the game is at http://www.lucaelia.com/games.php

I just received a 3" LED Arcade Trackball today, to play it on MAME. Can't wait.

SNAKE LIGHTS HIM UP!

Let the Carnage begin.

i dont know what it is about the game, but every time i see it mentioned or a comment regarding rocknroll racing, i just have to go home and play it again.

i hope blizzard dive into some of their retro titles to bring back some characters.

Could you imagine running around in overwatch as either leonard or bubba from red neck rampage. ha ha

Last edited 12/01/17 4:57 pm

Also, dont forget Tactics Ogre. Thats just Brilliant.

Last edited 07/09/15 9:11 am

Some of my best isometric memories are of Head Over Heels (Amstrad and C64 version) , i'ts also available as a free remake on PC at http://retrospec.sgn.net/games/hoh/
Cadaver on Amiga was also a bit of fun.

Head Over Heels was so awesome.......played that over and over.

We may be of the same vintage. HoH was a cracker of a puzzler in the halcyon years of bedroom software houses. If we're winding the clock back that far I'd throw in BB's Cadaver as well.

Jagged Alliance 2.

best

GTA?

Which GTA?

1 and 2 were top down

My bad I thought top down counted as isometric.

That's top down

Sonic 3D Blast!, C&C Red Alert, Rollercoaster Tycoon, Desert Strike, Transport Tycoon & Shining Force

Last edited 07/09/15 9:34 am

Man, Desert Strike. Whatever happened to the Strike games? You'd think they'd be a shoe-in for a quick and dirty \$20 downloadable game or something.

I still have my Mega Drive copy. Such an awesome game. I still remember that awesome rock song that you are greeted with when you boot the game.
Maybe we should lobby EA for Mega Drive classics

Wow haven't thought of that game in years. Desert Strike was awesome. Would make for a killer reboot.

I always thought the Strike series would be great to reboot with twin-stick controls to make a sort of thinking man's versions of the chopper scenes from Renegade Ops

The biggest surprise for me is that no one's ever done a knockoff. Those games were popular and quite unique, and with modern game engines I don't think they'd be enormously difficult to make either.

There's an open source remake of the Strike engine. https://github.com/AMDmi3/openstrike Nuclear and Soviet Strike were the 3D ones in the series.

"The project is currently on the early stages of development, and is not yet playable"

I think there was a game called Nuclear Strike which kind of killed the series.

Oh and there was a game in a similar style to the Strike series called LAPD Future Cop, I always loved that game.

Last edited 08/09/15 10:38 pm

Future Cop LAPD was actually originally being developed as Future Strike, the follow-up to Nuclear Strike, but it changed in development.

pretty sure shining force was top down......

Maybe I'm thinking of one of the spinoffs

Good to see Crusader on the list, that was a great game in its day.

I literally opened the article and scrolled through to make sure either No Remorse or No Regret were on the list.

I did the same!

Weird that a game which isn’t anywhere near my “most played” list as far as isometric games goes is so strongly associated with the term.

I remember the first time I played that game on a 486 (I assume it was my 486) and it didn’t so much chug as it just moved realllllly slowly. You know it’s a good game when that doesn’t stop you though! Plus I think it made burning people with exploding barrels easier (and more gratuitous).

Gun down a room full of people barrels explode every where and you watch it in glorious frame by frame action.

I played the absolute Christ out of those back in the day. The destructible environment. THE DESTRUCTIBLE ENVIRONMENT!!

Massive shout out to the Avernum series.

phew. Was scrolling through that and was starting to be outraged that Baldurs Gate wasn't in list.

BG is easily in my all-time top-10 games and honestly, I would have forgotten it.

I just don’t associate it with being isometric for some reason.

Age of Empires?

I think only one game from each series makes the list (AoE2:AoK in this case), which is why only Diablo 3 was on there.

Personally I would have put the original Diablo there, it was the real innovator of the series... Plus, I can barely recall individual bosses from the other 2 games, but I vividly remember my first encounter with The Butcher.

Theme Hospital rocked, shame i was no good at it.

Civ 2 i think it was copped a lot of gameplay hours from me back in the day.

I don't even want to think about the number of hours I sunk into Civ 2... I played it fairly regularly for about 15 years.

Ahh, Crusader No Remorse, memories. Such an awesome game, wonder how it holds up (haven't played it in a long time).

annoyingly from what I could tell - with Alien Shooter-style free aiming it would have aged brilliantly, but the clunky 8 direction movement and fixed-distance reticle make it a little painful after playing modern isometric shooters >.

Hmm, good points. Maybe I'll hold off on replaying it and leave it sitting in the GOG library like the others. At least that way it will always be a nostalgic classic.

it's one of the ones I always thought would be good for a remake - like my earlier Strike series comment; just remake the same game using a 3D-capable engine like with Meltdown or Renegade Ops since the controls are the only things still stuck out of time (this is partly why the Twinsen games aged so well - using 3D models with full rotation meant the controls never suffered such limits and could be modded in the couple of places where they were still awkward, or eventually Alien Shooter where you had 32 directions rendered for player characters instead of 8)

its not too bad actually i was playing it the other day and it holds up fine. you surprisingly adapt to the control system really fast.

great game back in the day and today as well

Clicked just to make sure Xcom was here. Checked
Fallout. Checked
Baldurs Gate. Checked.
AOE Checked.
I am surprised Diablo 3 is in here instead of Diablo. I prefer more atmospheric feel of the original but can do, so Checked
but Jagged Alliance ??!??! why is it missing ???

transport tycoon.... spent way to much time with that game as a kid.

Most definitely :)

I still keep the free/remake version on my PC to mess around in as I do other stuff sometimes!

Same, its such a goto game for wasting an hour or so.

My contributions:

Breach and Clear / Breach and Clear: Deadline
Battletech 2: Crescent Hawks Revenge
Mechcommander 2
Command and Conquer

Dune 2 almost was- but not quite :/

Some of these games bring back memories. A quick list of my favourite isometric games that i can think of that aren't on the list above:

- Cannon Fodder (SNES)
- Command & Conquer (PC)
- Illusion of Time (SNES)
- Snake Rattle & Roll (NES)
- Solstice (NES)
- Secret Of Mana (SNES)
- Secret Of Evermore (SNES)
- Seven Kingdoms 2 (PC)
- Theme park (SNES)
- Warcraft 2 (PC)

No Equinox!? THIS LIST IS BAD!!!!!!!@!!!11ONE

No takers for Hatred?!!

Haha oh well apart from Sim City (3000 bring my fave) I really haven't played any of these games - always wanted to try Solstice on the NES - that looked cool

Holy Wow.

You really should dig into GoG, EA Origin, and Steam and try to get ahold of some of these titles. There's some solid gold in there, truly some of the greats of gaming history that stand today.

EA has even given a few of these titles away for free at one time or another, thats how I got Syndicate and Theme Hospital.

Yup. Syndicate, Theme Hospital, and I think Populous. All great games.
(Also, all Molyneux games, interestingly. Before he branched out and got too ambitious for his own good.)

Personally, I think it was technology that killed Molyneux. He was at his best when limitations were forced on him, and he ended up, as you say, getting too ambitious for his own good.

But it was technology improving and allowing him to remove the boundaries that got him there.

A lot of those golden era creators were like that. They never really successfully got out of the 8/16 bit eras.

Syndicate, X-COM, Sim City 2000, Little Big Adventure. Monday flashback complete.

Blasphemy that it's not on this list. Also the more recent Shadowrun Returns games. So good.

Any of the Strike games...

Desert Strike
Jungle Strike
Soviet Strike

My older brother and I used to hire a Mega Drive from the video store just to play these games. At first we had to try and complete it overnight, or write down the codes for completing a level before taking it back.
So much fun!

Urban Strike for the weird ass story. and for the chilling insight of a game made in the mid 90's foretelling the destruction of the twin towers in new york in 2001...

Albion, all the way!

Earthbound and Bastion are pretty cool.

Most of those aren't isometric (perhaps all, I'm not familiar with a couple).