When you’re away from home or travelling for work, sometimes you just need a quick gaming break. But touchpads often aren’t ideal, not everyone has a Switch – or is able to carry one around for one reason or another. So if you find yourself on a plane, the train or somewhere else where only a keyboard will suffice, here’s some games that play just fine.
This story has been updated since its original publication.
A punishing top-down space shooter when you battle hordes all around you as you drift through space and space debris to find your way home.
Super Meat Boy
One of the all-time classic platformers, Super Meat Boy is one of those games that everyone should play at least once. The fact that it plays nicely on a keyboard is an extra bonus – people generally have plenty of time and patience when waiting for a flight or travelling, and patience is something you need plenty of for Super Meat Boy‘s later levels.
One Finger Death Punch
One of the highest rated games on Steam also happens to be something you can play with the left and right directional keys. There’s a sequel out now, but the original is available for the price of a smoothie, so you might as well start with that.
One of the classics from the ’80s that still holds up today because of the FMV style, Dragon’s Lair is that class of game that believes in achievement through punishment. The art of Dragon’s Lair is learning the right pathway by rote, watching Dirk the Daring get burnt, zapped, tortured, maimed and eaten as he tries to save Daphne from the Time Warp. It’s available through GOG and Steam, but the whole trilogy is cheaper through GOG.
A multiplayer online space shooter, Subspace Continuum is a re-release of a game from 1997. You mostly fly around, picking up power ups as you go and upgrading your ship. The controls are keyboard only, and all you need to know is your guns, bombs, afterburner and what direction you want to shoot and fly.
There’s a ton of modes and special events, and the whole game is free on Steam. If you’re looking for something to knock around with a few friends, it’s a great retro shooter. Definitely an underrated classic.
Wing Commander 1 & 2
If you were fortunate enough back in the day, you might have had a simple two-button joystick to play Wing Commander. But most people ground out the Kilrathi with the keyboard, so you’re not missing out anything by reliving that experience today. GOG has the first and second games, plus the Special Operations and Secret Missions expansions for just under $9, which is banger value if you’re looking for something cheap to play on the road.
PlayDead’s original indie won’t keep you going for a full long-haul flight from Australia to Europe (or the US). But if you want something stunning that will capture your mind and you’re not going to play this on the Switch, it works just fine on a laptop with the keyboard. It’s from 2010, so PC requirements aren’t a problem.
Sometimes you just want a silly arcade racer to eat up the time, and Ignition fits the bill. It’s from that era of late ’90s arcade games that you don’t see much of today: whimsical and fun without being supremely challenging. You can get the game through GOG.
While not all platformers lend themselves well to a keyboard-only setup, there are plenty that do. Retro-inspired games that don’t lean on advanced aiming mechanics tend to have the best of it, and amongst those Shovel Knight is one of the best games you can get.
If you’re picking up Shovel Knight now, you’ll be able to get all of the DLC with Treasure Trove. That’s the original game, plus Specter of Torment, Plague of Shadows and Shovel of Hope. Plenty of levels to smash through on the plane or train.
Available for only $US5, BallisticNG is an ongoing love-letter from fans to the original WipEout games. Most people will instinctively want a controller for this sort of game, but it’s perfectly playable on keyboard – and with cracking results too:
Once you’ve got the controls down, there’s plenty of content to work your way through. 17 tracks, six different modes, a full singleplayer campaign and a low-poly style that runs perfectly on integrated graphics.
Epistory stars a girl and a giant fox, who journey together trying to battle a corruption throughout the land. It’s an adventure game controlled entirely by typing the words on screen, wrapped around a colourful paper world.
Released last year by Fishing Cactus, whose since moved on to Shift Quantum, the action/adventure has a 96% user rating from almost 700 reviews on Steam. Mikey also played it on release, and you can read more about what that’s like here.
I've never typed so hard in my life.Read more
A great action roguelike with permadeath, Risk of Rain is an amazing mix of “explosions and stupidity”, to quote one Kotaku reader. Grab random power-ups, blow everything up in your path, and try to finish the level without getting slaughtered.
It’s a great game that’s available for cheap, and will also run on a potato. It’s also designed with the keyboard in mind – the game only has partial controller support to this day – which is a lifesaver for those with a laptop glued to their knees. Not literally, obviously.
A cutesy top-down RPG, Swords of Ditto is designed to be a short-run cyclical RPG where you are given four days to face off against the evil wizard Mormo. The game is built to support controllers, but works with a keyboard just fine (provided you can ignore all the Xbox/PlayStation button prompts).
Ditto is built to be replayable as well, with the sword retaining its level and power from each hero that carried it before, a Rogue Legacy-esque trick that helps if you don’t have a great deal of time to invest in each play session.
One Must Fall: 2097
True story: Epic’s classic robot brawler was the first thing I installed when I bought my first proper laptop. (My actual first laptop was a Chromebook, which couldn’t run DOSBox.) I’ve made sure there’s a copy on every laptop I’ve ever owned since, because it’s the perfect travel companion.
It’s the best fighting game released on PC, period. If you wish to argue, continue so below.
I'm going on a flight to Japan over the weekend, and as a result I'll be needing something to occupy me should the in-air entertainment be a bore. Fortunately, there's been one game happily residing on my laptop ever since I purchased it, and that one game is what I'm paying tribute to.Read more
A 2D space trader that’s reminiscent of the classic Solar Winds shareware game – but on a substantially larger scale. It’s basically your standard rags-to-riches space trader story, with the player kicking off with a crappy shuttle before working their way up to owning a fleet of freighters or warships, while working your way through the web of mysteries and pirates that envelop the thousands upon thousands of planets and stars in the galaxy.
If you’re after modern games that only use keyboard controls, indie platformers are usually the place to go. Super Hexagon has been around for years, so you can pick it up – at full price – for a measly $US2.99.
It’s a game about handling pressure, maintaining your grace while under the pump. Be warned: it’s pretty addictive.
A roguelike game where you move – and attack – to the beat of the music, Crypt of the NecroDancer is just really, really clever. The core mechanic means the player and enemies get to move with every beat, but if you skip a beat, then different penalties start to come into play.
The footage above is a good indication of how a regular NecroDancer run can go. Make sure you watch through to around 6 minutes 35 seconds in the run when the player meets the shopkeeper for the first time. It’s brilliant.
Crypt of the Necrodancer is already tough, but what speedrunner SpootyBiscuit recently pulled off is remarkable. No one has done it, and not even the developers can really believe it happened.Read more
If you’re the kind of person who gets super stressed by timers and deadlines, Cook, Serve, Delicious! is probably best avoided. But if you’re the kind who relaxes through a lot of fast paced repetition – like typing or lots of rapid button presses – then the chef’s life is for you.
Both CSD games are on Steam, and the first is on mobiles. Neither requires any mouse input. The game is really about pattern recognition and remembering what buttons equate to what ingredients every time an order comes in. Everything is clearly explained, but the quicker your memory, the easier you’ll deal with orders.
I mean, it’s Pac-Man. But if you’re going to play any PAC-MAN, Championship Edition DX+ is as solid as they get. There’s a free demo on Steam as well, if you don’t want to invest in the full thing.
Modern racers are better with a controller, but you don’t play Burnout Paradise to hit every apex perfectly. Paradise will run on integrated graphics reasonably well with the settings down, and there’s plenty of billboards to smash and races to bugger up to last you many, many train trips or flights.
It goes without saying that a game reliant on typing words to kill zombies doesn’t really need a mouse.
Even still, everyone really should play Typing of the Dead. The only thing that could make it better would be, well, more Typing of the Dead.
Sure, you could play this with a mouse. But you can also play the ancient shoot-em-up just fine with a keyboard, the way most people did back in 1995.
Terminal Reality’s classic is on phones as well, but it’s best played when your thumbs aren’t blocking half the screen.
If you’re at a LAN in Australia, and your mouse is buggered, never fear. Because as soon as the sun starts to drop, you can bet the house that someone in the room will eventually fire up the time honoured classic, FlatOut 2.
I’ve actually only ever see one person play this with a controller at LANs. I’m sure it’s probably better, but when you’re trying to t-bone a ute with a school bus, that’s not really the point.
Like Super Hexagon, there’s a ton of platformers over the last few years that can be played rather competently with just a keyboard. If you’re the kind of person who enjoys Spelunky, Nuclear Throne or action roguelikes in general, this should be in your Steam library. You can play it on phones as well, and so it just depends on what experience you like. Personally, I’d rather not be stressed while sitting on the loo.
Falling down in video games is usually a bad thing. Spikes wait for you at the bottom of many a playfield, along with bottomless pits, pools of lava and other instadeath hazards. But, falling down is a joy in Downwell. The deeper you go, the better -- and harder -- it gets.Read more
The story of Binding of Isaac‘s ARG is perhaps the best when it comes to ARGs, second perhaps only to Trials. And while you don’t have to play the game to enjoy the amount of detail behind McMillen’s mysteries.
But Isaac a ferociously tight action RPG. And the more you play, the more enjoyment you’ll get out of this insane tale.
Last time we checked on The Binding of Isaac community, a glitch caused people to believe the game's missing content was part of a giant conspiracy. Instead, it was just a glitch. But in the last few days, culminating in a real-life search of Santa Cruz, California, fans did band together to solve a grand mystery.Read more
If you’re stuck to keyboard controls, retro games are generally your best bet. They were designed with the keyboard in mind, but not all of them play that well in 2017.
Case in point: the recent remake of Raptor: Call of the Shadows. Another title published by Apogee back in the day, it’s the original version of the top-down shooter that plays best. Good Old Games only sells the updated version, but you can buy the original for bugger all on Steam.