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Blast From the Past: 10 Must-Play PC Games From the ’90s

January 18, 2011 in Featured, Gaming

The roaring ’90s. Or was that the roaring twenties? Doesn’t matter. The last decade of the 20th century might have brought Hanson, Pokemon, and The Internet, but it also brought about the biggest gaming revolution in history. Also, Rush Hour, the best movie ever.

Unfortunately, for most of the ’90s I was stuck with chronically underpowered computers, and not a single game console except for one beat-up Game Boy, circa 1989. And so I ended up playing a hell of a lot of computer games.

This list is ten of my favorites. The best part is, even though these games are more than a decade old, they’re still worth revisiting.

Most of these games can be played with DOSBox, an x86 DOS emulator.

Dark Sun

A game that goes down as one of the buggiest in PC gaming history (second only to its sequel, Dark Sun 2), Dark Sun draws you into a bleak world filled with swords, sorcery, and spelling mistakes.

Here’s the story in a nutshell: you’re a captured slave who must break out of prison and save the region from a nutty sorcerer-king attempting to take over the area. There are multiple ways to escape from the prison: you can organize a prison riot, you can bribe the guards, or you can just straight out attack your jailors. Battles in Dark Sun are turn-based, long and hard-fought.

The game uses standard Dungeons and Dragons rules, allowing you create a party of four characters of varying races and classes.

You can also export your characters into the sequel, Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager, an excellent game in its own right. Minus one game-breaking bug.

It's two humans, a dwarf, and a bug versus four fire elementals and one angry wizard.

It's two humans, a dwarf, and a bug versus four fire elementals and one angry wizard.

Dune 2: The Building of a Dynasty

Imagine a world without Starcraft, Warcraft, and Command & Conquer. It wouldn’t be much of a world, would it? In fact, I have it on good authority that if it weren’t for a little game known as Dune 2: The Building of a Dynasty, we’d still be playing Pong on our 4 mhz monochrome computers.

The Dune world is the same as the one created by Frank Herbert, and features three factions vying for control of the planet: the Atreides, Ordos, and Harkonen. In each scenario, you start with a basic construction yard and must harvest spice while constructing

With the introduction of much better RTSes, Dune 2 has fallen from the limelight, but sometimes it’s nice to see where the genre started.

The precursor to Starcraft 2, Warcraft, and Command & Conquer.

The precursor to Starcraft 2, Warcraft, and Command & Conquer.

Fallout 1 (and 2)

There aren’t many good RPGs on the PC. Fallout, and the rest of the games in the original series is one of the best. The story: in a post-apocalyptic wasteland, you’re a simple tribal warrior tasked with finding a water chip before your clan dies. Of course, things happen and you end up trying to save the entire world – or at least SoCal – from a virus that transforms humans into angry mutants.

“I’m gonna break you like a cheap watch!”

This is gonna be a tough nut to crack.

This is gonna be a tough nut to crack.

Flashback

The 90s produced some truly excellent side-scrollers, but I’d say the best of them is Flashback, by French developer Delphine Software. You are Conrad Hart, an agent who has to find his way back to Earth to warn of an impending alien invasion. Bad news: the aliens captured him and erased his memory. Good news: he figured that might happen and copied his memories into a datacube. Sort of bad news: when the game begins, he accidentally knocks the datacube off a ledge.

Flashback has some of the most fluid animations ever produced for a side-scroller, and even though the game’s short (and frustrating at times), it’s still a killer game.

Avoid the sequel like the bubonic plague.

Download REminiscence, an open-source remake that requires the original DOS data files.

Flashback: still one of the greatest PC side-scrollers.

Flashback: still one of the greatest PC side-scrollers.

Heroes of Might and Magic 2 (and 3)

Remember 3DO? A long time ago, they made a really, really expensive game console. So expensive, in fact, that nobody bought it. So the company got out of the console business, and made games instead. That strategy worked until 3DO realized that no one was buying their games and went bankrupt.

But during their ten-year reign, 3DO managed to create Heroes of Might and Magic 2, (known hereater as HOMM2) a turn-based strategy game with some RPG elements (character classes, leveling up, spells, etc) mixed in. At the start of a standard game, you assume control of a town and a hero. Each turn, you can recruit additional heroes and creatures or build new structures for town defense or to advance your army.

Your heroes move separately and can explore the world map, fighting monsters, gaining experience/new skills, and adding resources to your stockpile – but the real threat are opposing armies, all of which are out to pillage your towns and steal your cookies.

HOMM2 has an excellent CD soundtrack, while HOMM3 adds more of pretty much everything (at the expense of darker graphics and no CD music).

Explore a vast continent and beat up on other cities in Heroes of Might and Magic 2.

Explore a vast continent and beat up on other cities in Heroes of Might and Magic 2.

The Longest Journey

Lead heroine, magic, parallel worlds, futuristic settings, you name it, Longest Journey’s probably got it. One of the last real point-and-click adventure games, you play the part of April Ryan, an uninspired art student who’s having bad dreams of alternate worlds. Of course, it turns out that the dreams are in fact reality, and a long time ago the Earth was split into two worlds: Stark and Arcadia. April possesses the unique ability to shift between both worlds.

The voice-acting is top-notch, the graphics are solid (well, the backdrops are anyway…this was made in 1999) and the puzzles are well done.

The Longest Journey will run on XP (you might want to turn off 3D graphics acceleration), and you can buy the digital version for $9.99.

The Longest Journey: Not long enough, if you ask me.

The Longest Journey: Not long enough, if you ask me.

Quest For Glory Series (or more specifically, 1, 2, and 4)

Quest For Glory started out innocently enough as yet-another-Sierra-made adventure game titled “Hero’s Quest: So You Want To Be a Hero” and sporting lush 16-color graphics. I do fondly remember the moments I spent typing “climb tree” over and over and over again to build up my skill points.

What made the series so damn awesome was the perfect mixture of role-playing and classic Sierra adventure elements combined with some thick wit. You choose one of three standard character classes (Fighter, Thief, Wizard), but you can allot your points into any combination of skills from the three classes. That meant you could build a ridiculous hybrid character, a warrior that could cast spells and pick locks.

They just don’t make games like these any more.

You might be wondering: what happened to Quest For Glory 3 & 5? After the epic that was QFG2, QFG3 was a huge letdown for me. It was one of the shortest Sierra games I’ve ever played, and the battle system was terrible. So I just pretend it doesn’t exist. As for QFG5, it didn’t feel like any of the previous games and I never bothered finishing it.

Note: Sierra released new versions of Quest For Glory 1 and 2, converting the old typing interface into a standard point-and-click. Since QFG1 did not pause the game when typing in commands, you might be better served by playing the remake.

The remake of Quest for Glory 1 brought some beautiful landscapes formerly displayed in 16-color glory.

The remake of Quest for Glory 1 brought some beautiful landscapes formerly displayed in 16-color glory.

Star Control 2

The first Star Control redefined the top-down ship-vs-ship experience, but lacked any kind of single player story mode. Star Control 2 filled the void with an engrossing story, a ridiculously humongous galaxy (so large, in fact, that the game features “quasispace”, basically another map that lets you warp to places in the galaxy), and lots of strange aliens. And some of the greatest dialogue in any video game.

Star Control 3, on the other hand, sucks. (it was not made by the same developers)

Download Ur-Quan Masters, the open-source remake of SC2.

"This game has been brought to you by...Frungy! The Sport of Kings!"

"This game has been brought to you by...Frungy! The Sport of Kings!"

Syndicate

In the future, there will be no companies. Only syndicates who control vast territories of the world and employ cyborg agents to do their bidding, usually resulting in lots of dead people.

Luckily for you, you’re at the top of one such syndicate hell-bent on controlling the entire world. In each mission, you’ll use up to four agencts to complete a set goal (assasinate a target, protect a convoy, persuade a civilian, retrieve an item, etc). The problem is, rival syndicates have a set goal of removing you from the planet.

An extensive upgrade and research system allows you to tech your agents progressively, and missions can be completed in any way you see fit – just as long as you get the job done.

A must-play of the must-plays.

This is what happens when you mess with the Syndicate.

This is what happens when you mess with the Syndicate.

X-Wing (or TIE Fighter/X-Wing Alliance/X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter)

I personally cannot count the number of hours that I’ve spent on the X-wing franchise. All I know is that it’s somewhere in the triple digits. And that it was well, well worth it.

In each game of the series (series is used pretty loosely, since none of them are directly related), you start out as a newbie pilot, in the employ of either the Rebel Alliance or Empire, and have to work your way up the ranks by completing progressively harder missions. With the exception of XvT, each game has some kind of story behind it that generally follows the original movies, leading up to some epic event, like destroying the Death Star. Or, destroying the second Death Star.

A joystick is highly recommended but not required, but using the mouse usually results in the “backscratcher” technique. X-Wing and TIE Fighter were both remade for Windows 95/98.

You probably don't want to be the Y-Wing pilot in this picture.

You probably don't want to be the Y-Wing pilot in this picture.

***

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