There’s never been a better time to play games on PC. Not only does the PC get the lion’s share of the best new games, PC gamers can choose from a back catalogue that makes even the most stocked console library look paltry.
For a couple of years now, we’ve been maintaining a list of the 12 best PC games. (Among our staff, it is the trickiest and most hotly debated of all of our “bests” lists.) That list includes the 12 best modern PC games; they’re the games we would recommend if you just got a new PC and wanted to see what it could do. The list has never been complete, however, because it doesn’t include any of the multitude of incredible classic games that PC gamers can and still do enjoy.
Our readers have shared all of their favourite classic PC games, but while the resulting list is a beautiful thing, it’s also massive and unwieldy. Surely there must be a sweet spot between the modern focus of our current PC bests list and the overwhelming sprawl of our crowdsourced list of classics?
That brings us to the list you’re about to read. Given the PC’s years of rich history, we’ve doubled our usual cap of 12 games and cut things off at 24. Even that number isn’t high enough—we had to make some excruciating cuts to get this done. As you head into the comments to creatively ream us for leaving off whatever seminal game, rest assured of a few things: 1) The current list has been reached after vigorous debate among our staff and 2) We had to stop somewhere—had we extended the list to 30, or 40 games, it still wouldn’t have been enough. There were more than 300 entries on our reader-curated list, yet people regularly complain about games that were left off. And for that matter, 3) we reserve the right to return to this list at any time and swap games in and out, should we change our minds as to which games deserve the honour of appearing here.
The following 24 games represent the best of classic PC gaming. These games were important in their time and remain fun to play even today. Here they are, in alphabetical order.
Still in many ways the gold standard to which all modern PC RPGs are held, Baldur’s Gate II revolutionised the whole notion of assembling a party, heading out into the wilderness, and flirting with them enough that they’d kiss you.
Deus Ex was one of a few turn-of-the-century PC games to fuse first-person shooting with RPG stats and dialogue options, becoming an “action” game that was much about careful simulation as it was about quickfire shooting. A decade and a half later, we’re still getting Deus Ex games… and they’re good Deus Ex games for one simple reason: They’ve stayed true to the original. Deus Ex was so far ahead of its time that it still feels relevant—and fun—today.
Click, click, clickty-click / check out this new light crossbow! / click, click, click.
This is the song of Diablo. Long may it echo in the chambers of the damned.
It’s Doom. You know. Doom. What else is there to say?
Bullfrog’s Dungeon Keeper was one of several popular 90s games—several games on this list, even—that had the temerity to wonder… maybe it might be more fun to play as the bad guy? As ably demonstrated by the tactical trap-fest that followed, yes, yes it was.
It’s hard to beat an original. Fallout introduced a role-playing universe that is still alive and thriving today. It gave us the Vault Boy, Nuka-Cola, super mutants, the Bloody Mess perk and the Brotherhood of Steel. The original Fallout has a straightforward tone that feels refreshing compared with its goofier sequel, and offered a level of freedom for real role-playing that feels liberating even now.
Indiana Jones games are depressingly few and far between. Good Indiana Jones games are even fewer and farther between, which helps a gem like Lucasarts’ Fate of Atlantis shine all the brighter. Atlantis had all the necessary Indy ingredients: A globe-trotting narrative, a memorable cast of characters, puzzles with multiple solutions, and an ancient mystery to uncover. It managed all that while teaching us the phrase “Darwinian Nightmare,” and why that might be considered an insult.
While Half-Life 2 is technically old enough to be considered a “classic,” we’re going to be edgy iconoclasts (not really) and suggest that the original is more deserving. Not only is it a well-designed action game, it’s much weirder than you probably remember. Forget waiting around for Half-Life 3, go back and replay this cooker and marvel at what PC gaming used to be.
Heroes of Might and Magic III is best described as a cross between an RTS and RPG, which for the non-acronym-inclined means it’s like no other genre out there. It’s impossible to sum up its gameplay in a sentence, other than to say you have to simultaneously manage heroes, build castles, collect resources, explore the world, and train an army to take out into the world against opponents both big and small. Well, OK, that was one sentence. HOMM3 is exceptionally tough to master, but once you’ve learned how to tell the difference between an Iron Golem and a Dendroid—and once you’ve discovered the power of ranged armies—it’s even tougher to stop playing.
Adventure games are about story, and there’s a doozy of a story at the heart of Funcom’s The Longest Journey. That’s a good thing, considering that this marvellous game has a puzzle so bad it still gets written about from time to time. The Longest Journey is set in a fantastical universe so rich it seems to exist outside of the game. The worlds of Stark and Arcadia have yet to relax their grip on our collective imagination.
Many of us have fond memories of the first Monkey Island, but it was the sequel that perfected the formula and remains one of the finest point-and-click adventure games ever made. Even if a woodchuck could chuck wood and even if a woodchuck would chuck wood, should a woodchuck chuck wood? Yes, it should.
Oh, Cate. Your games may be depressingly hard to buy these days, but we will never forget you. While No One Lives Forever 2 is the more polished, more modern game in the series, its overt goofiness and less memorable story haven’t aged it as well as its predecessor. The original No One Lives Forever still feels like an improbable game; a hard-boiled spy story with a wry sense of humour, outsized action setpieces, subtle social commentary, a terrific series of narrative twists and turns, and a healthy sprinkling of actual espionage work. And of course, on top of all that, it gave us Cate Archer, one of the greatest video game characters of all time.
There’s a reason so many people call Planescape Torment the greatest RPG of all time. Because… well, it kind of is. Full of action, drama, humour, and unexpected heartbreak, Torment remains as moving now as it ever was. Plus, it features the most charming floating skull in all of video games. (Sorry, Bubbles.)
The first Quest For Glory’s subtitle—“So you want to be a hero”—is more of a challenge than a question. Do you really want to be a hero? Even if you’re kind of a hapless goof, and most people spend their time making fun of you? That cheekiness carried through the rest of the game, a semi-serious hybrid adventure/RPG that would eventually give birth to a beloved series.
More than just Civilisation in Space, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri is a bona-fide sci-fi epic in its own right, still played and beloved by tons of PC gamers even today. Alpha Centauri is so good that we used its inclusion to justify leaving a Civilisation game off of this list. Yep. It’s THAT good.
The game isn’t called Pirates—it’s called Pirates!, and the exclamation mark is key. If you ever wanted a game to make you cry out— Pirates!—this was the one. The swordfights may not have been as exciting as you were hoping they’d be, but the simulation was deep enough that it didn’t matter. Pirates! was one of the first simulation games a lot of us ever played, and what an introduction it was.
That weird, plonky music; the “zzt” of the power lines; and of course, all those splines that needed reticulation. There’s a reason so many of us were obsessed with SimCity 2000—it’s a fantastic game and it blew the whole city management thing wide open. Many years and sequels later, it’s still hard to say that any of the more graphically impressive, expansive, or ambitious SimCity games outdoes SimCity 2000.
People still play competitive StarCraft all these years later, and it’s not out of nostalgia. StarCraft was an unusually balanced, challenging game that won hardcore fans with its at-the-time peerless competitive multiplayer modes, while giving rise to eSports as we know them. For those of us who preferred singleplayer, StarCraft told us the story of Raynor, Kerrigan, the Protoss and the Zerg—a saga that is still unfolding to this day.
Sometimes “bad guy” is a relative term. If your enemies are willing to use mind-control drugs or level a city block with a Gauss gun, shouldn’t you consider doing the same? Would doing so make you a bad guy? Few games have captured the stylish amorality of the original Syndicate, and it remains one of the best cyberpunk games of all time. That there aren’t actually all that many great cyberpunk video games to begin with (what’s that about?) does little to diminish how good Syndicate is on its own merits.
Another of the progenitors of the Immersive Sim, System Shock 2 is as creepy and stressful today as it was when it came out in 1999. It may be unwieldy by today’s standards, but once SHODAN gets her claws into you, there’s no escape. Honestly, there’s been so much ink spilled on this game that we’re having a hard time coming up with something new to say. Remember Citadel, etc.
Slicker and more carefully put-together than its groundbreaking predecessor, Thief II perfected the formula laid out in Thief: The Dark Project. It remains a standard for this type of stealthy sneak-fest, and even its subsequent follow-ups have been unable to match it. Just play it, ya taffer.
TIE Fighter isn’t just one of the best space combat games of all time; it’s one of the best Star Wars games, full-stop. It accomplished that by doing something very simple: It let us play as the bad guys, and it let us fly their super cool—if impractically shield-free—starfighters. If you ever wanted to go really, really fast while blowing up friendly X-Wing pilots, this was your game. When we reviewed it last fall, it still managed to get a resounding YES.
While other RPGs were doing the Infinity engine thing, Origin’s Ultima games forged their own path. They created simulated worlds more in line with early Elder Scrolls games than their more rigid Dungeons & Dragons competitors, and they introduced us to the world of Brittania, Lord British, and the Avatar. Ultima VII: The Black Gate and its sorta-sequel Serpent Isle still stand as the pinnacle of the series, worth revisiting if only to spend more time with Iolo, Shamino, and Dupre.
There was a time when Warcraft was not synonymous with the words “World Of,” when orcs and men did battle in a more top-down, strategic format. While Warcraft II is the game many remember as the crowning moment of the Warcraft RTS era, Warcraft III improved on the formula in a bunch of small and large ways. It may have paved the way for the MOBA genre, signalling popular gaming culture’s shift away from the RTS genre as a whole, but Reign of Chaos remains one of the finest of its kind. We may never get another Warcraft RTS, but Warcraft III is so good we may not really need one.
Want more of the best games on each system? Check out our complete directory:
The Best PC Games • The Best PS4 Games • The Best Xbox One Games • The Best Wii U Games• The Best 3DS Games • The Best PS Vita Games • The Best Xbox 360 Games • The Best PS3 Games • The Best Wii Games • The Best iPhone Games • The Best iPad Games • The Best Android Games • The Best PSP Games • The Best Facebook Games • The Best DS Games • The Best Mac Games • The Best Browser Games • The Best PC Mods