The Very Important List Of PC Games, Part 4/5

By Alec Meer on February 17th, 2011 at 12:12 pm.

I don't look like this. Yet.

Young people. Good grief. Your ignorance is as plain as those spots on your greasy face. Don’t you know anything? Can’t you be bothered to learn anything? Did you even read the words of esteemed colleagues Rossignol, Walker and Smith detailing the first three parts of this Olympian list of The Most Important PC Games Of All Time? I am quite sure that I, Deacon Meer, am wasting my time attempting to impart my own wisdom on this matter to your feckless minds, as is Intel’s AppUp developer program for having the consideration and grace to so thoughtfully sponsor this series. You’re probably all too busy fiddling with your genitals and snorting heroin at one of those ‘rave parties’ I hear young people go to every night. I shall say my piece regardless.

These, you snivelling little godless wretches, are a selection of the PC’s finest hours. Put down whatever bestial pornography you’re staring at on your portable telephone device and pay attention. You sicken me. You probably won’t even bother reading the phrase “Part 4/5″ at the top and thus will have an ignorant whine that your favourite game or genre does not appear. I shall take this as an open admittance of your stupidity, and recommend to your parents that you are immediately taken out of internetschool and kept locked in an airing cupboard for the good of society.

PLEASE NOTE: these games are ordered according to a cryptic logic code based on Aztec sun prophecies that you are far too backwards to possibly decipher.

Aliens versus Predator (original)
RELEASE DATE: 1999
IMPORTANCENESS: Clamped forever to our faces

Games based on populist movie licenses aren’t all mindless thumpathons with dreadful level design and ludicrous bossfights, you know. If someone actually bothers to fully examine the nature and behaviours of the characters in their license, they can achieve magical things. AvP was not just another game about killing monsters in the dark: it was a game about being inside the skulls of iconic movie monsters, and fleshing out those beasts far more than any movie ever did. Three playable perspectives – alien, predator, human marine – and all so distinct, and each’s motivations rendered sympathetic despite encountering them all as enemies from the other perspectives. To boot, AvP made much more of the first-person perspective than most of its gun-crazed genre-mates ever did. While the telltale targeting reticule was ever-present, this is a game about survival and observation, a claustrophobic odyssey of fear and strange abilities. Add to this multiplayer modes that deftly realised the fantasy of the titular What If? and have you a smart, far-reaching reinvention of first-person shooters. It’s one that puts the lie to the oft-made claim that only Half-Life saved the genre from stifling cynicism and machismo in the twilight years of the 20th century.

Audiosurf
RELEASE DATE: 2008
IMPORTANCENESS: Can hear it in our dreams

I’ve said this before and it provoked great outrage from readers and colleagues alike – so I shall say it again. If you don’t enjoy Audiosurf, I truly believe you do not fully understand the importance of music. Criticism of Audiosurf’s puzzle and point-scoring mechanics – slight, strange thing that they are – is to completely misunderstand its purpose and achievement. It identifies the tiny, beautiful crossover point between games and music – that microgalaxy of emotion and imagination, of colours and sound, where we lose ourselves in a euphoric place that doesn’t exist outside of our minds. Neither arch nor overcomplicated, it is simply about interpreting music as something visual, and the fizzing pan-sensory consequences of this. The constant dance of the player’s ship from left to right is all that’s necessary to turn the game from sensory observation to real engagement, and that wonderful sense that the song is all around you. True, there is plenty of music that simply doesn’t work, with many ‘courses’ feeling awkward and even irritating, but when it does – wow. The rush of colour, the curve of a track at a crescendo, the sharp downward plummet as a finale looms, the joyful bobbing of an itchy beat… And the rush of sheer pride when you beat your own, or better yet a friend’s, high score on a beloved song. It is, after all, your song. No-one else should own it.

Blade Runner
RELEASE DATE: 1997
IMPORTANCENESS: It did things you people wouldn’t believe

The adventure game is not dead. Far from it: I find it to be vampiric in its deathlessness, forever feeding on its past, never growing old, never growing wise. Others will argue that point and present fine evidence to the contrary, but when I think of Blade Runner I become furious. That was what was supposed to happen. A few annoying pixel-hunt puzzles aside, Blade Runner was this genre growing up, moving to new places, finding evolving purpose and relevance. Why was it so alone? Why were we so much more distracted by traditional adventure games going 3D or having more grown-up stories? Blade Runner, for God’s sakes, introduced choice and dilemma, change and chaos theory, action and detective work into a staid setup. This could have been the branching point to another age. It is so completely, absolutely different from anything else in its venerable genre, throwing down a forward-looking gauntlet that no-one’s picked up some 14 years later. Maybe it happened too late, maybe it was too clever for its own good, or maybe the appetite just wasn’t there as shooters rose and rose. Perhaps that’s for the best. Blade Runner remains singular, a lone tear in the rain of so many lesser, cowardly games.

Bioshock
RELEASE DATE: 2008
IMPORTANCENESS: Beyond that of the sea

Uh-oh. If there’s a poison chalice in this list, it’s Irrational’s spiritual sequel to System Shock 2. Of course, if it had never been described as a spiritual sequel to System Shock 2 there never would have been a problem. But this is a list of importance, not a list of perfection – and while we can all agree Bioshock was a less mechanically ambitious game than its remarkable predecessor, had it not happened, and had it not been a commercial success, the action gaming landscape today might look very different. Do you want endless pseudo-military shooters, whose greatest use of the brain is a cover system? Or do you want something that creates a tantalising new fiction and aesthetic from the ground up? Rapture is one of the most remarkable gaming worlds ever created, creating instantly iconic figures that stood out a mile and posed a glut of fascinating questions in an age otherwise dominated by same-faced growly soldiermen. Though unfortunately mis-hyped as offering far more roleplaying and decision-making than it ultimately did, its real achievement was to calmly state that action games did not have to be merely glossily violent games. Art and thoughtfulness stood proudly equal to the action – and perhaps even surpassed it. Dwell not on the missteps that so troubled us at the time of release; dwell on how well it proved that even the most mainstream of shooters can be so much more than weapon-obsessed power fantasies.

Colonization (original)
RELEASE DATE: 1994
IMPORTANCENESS: Imperial

A sequel that looked inwards rather than outwards. This is, to this day, so unbelievably rare. Civ follow-up Colonization, focusing slowly on one continent during the period 1492 to 1850, didn’t seek to be bigger – it sought to look closer. The history of the world is all well and good, but it does not truly put you in the mind or shoes of a nation and its ruler. Colonization does: the greed and pride of burgeoning national identity, the slow, painstaking steps necessary to achieve survival, subsistence and eventually economic success, and the complex and violent consequences of that latter. It concerns the struggle to even be a nation, not the struggle to be the biggest nation, and that strikes a profound difference from its conquest-hungry peers. Sure, it side-stepped the more unsavoury elements of America’s birth, but it achieves the remarkable feat of telling, essentially, a hero’s journey within a strategy context, without silly cutscenes or achingly earnest exposition. Most of all, it’s a lesson that if you’d just dig a little deeper where you stand, you don’t need to move anywhere else.

Command & Conquer (series)
RELEASE DATE: 1995 and beyond
IMPORTANCENESS: Tiberionic

While largely we have looked to specific installments rather than series in this list, C&C is a rare exception: it is its near-constant presence throughout the history of PC gaming that creates its importance, not so much the particular achievements of particular iterations. C&C, for at least the first two-thirds of its lifespan, has defined strategy gaming. While nominally an evolution of systems created in Dune 2, it has always been about pursuing the extremes. Although that old core chestnut – drag a box to command, click on a power station to conquer – has never quite gone away, at the same time C&C has never taken the easy route. Madly switching from apocalyptic sci-fi to grim alterna-history to pantomime soap opera to open comedy to shockingly exploitative modern conflict to all-out gloss and, sadly, to a well-intentioned but cramped and misjudged finale, it has changed and striven far more than it’s often given credit for. In recent times it has ceded its position as strategy flag-bearer, but none of the other RTS games in this list would possibly exist without it – and that includes those that strove to not be like it as much as it does those that so shamelessly copied it. A years-long inspiration like no other, for both good and ill.

Darwinia
RELEASE DATE: 2005
IMPORTANCENESS: Artificially high

A milestone moment in indie gaming – the first time I can remember that there was same level of anticipation and excitement as there was for a publisher-funded game. While much of that was admittedly within jaded journalist circles rather than the outside world, there was nonetheless something incredibly striking about those screenshots. It looked bold and weird, lavish and beautiful: a world away from the spiky visual crudity we at that time expected from the then tiny field of indie gaming. It also bucked the trend of selling games based on high-tech graphics, instead employing an immediately memorable art style instead. We get a lot of that now. We didn’t then, and I’m quite sure it contributed highly to the current indie wonderland we live in. Of course, Darwinia was a distinctive action-strategy game in its own right, throwing out direct control in favour of herding pixels and employing directional surges rather than targeted strikes.

Deus Ex
RELEASE DATE: 2000
IMPORTANCENESS: C’mon, it’s Deus Ex

I feel deeply anxious whenever I have to write anything about Deus Ex. It’s that important. There is a reason it’s the first game on so many PC gamers’ lips. While today it may offer a hilariously cartwheeling narrative, hideous voice-acting and far too much ‘We’ve seen the Matrix 20 times!’ it still carries that unmistakable air of wanting videogames to be so much more than they’d been before. It’s a protest, a call to arms, an uprising against what games were in danger of becoming. A world that explores you as you explore it, the constant choice of how to behave and how to fight and the still-rare sense of wanting to educate you while taking your own intelligence entirely seriously. That, and reminding men that it really is not cool to walk into the women’s toilets.

Diablo II
RELEASE DATE: 2000
IMPORTANCENESS: Hellishy so

HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT DING HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT DING HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT DING HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT DING HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT DING HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT DING HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT HIT SPLAT LOOT DING. If you don’t understand the sheer entertainment of this salt-moreish formula, I don’t understand you. Many have tried and failed to sieze Diablo II’s title as king of the hack’n'slash tribe (Torchlight is probably the most successful) but no other has truly nailed its magic mix of idiocy, perseverance, grit and pride.

Dune 2
RELEASE DATE: 1992
IMPORTANCENESS: Controls the universe

Our great-grandfather who art in strategy heaven, Dune II be thy name. Thy House come, thy will be done, on Earth as it was on Arrakis.
Give us this day our daily spice, and forgive us our harvesting, as we forgive those who harvest against us.
And lead us not into sandworms’ mouths, but deliver to us Fremen.
For he who controls the spice controls the universe, for ever and ever, Westwood.

Dungeon Keeper
RELEASE DATE: 1997
IMPORTANCENESS: Anti-heroic

Another one of those what if/genre truncation moments. Dungeon Keeper should have been the launching board for the calcifying management genre to explore new territory, but outside of the incredible Startopia and the underwhelming Evil Genius, that ambition apparently curled up and died when Bullfrog did. Perhaps there’s another chance for the business-building concept to reach for the skies, as the current glut of FarmVille clones surely has to give way to more ambition at some point. Dungeon Keeper though: probably my most-played game on this list. This has relatively little to do with the concept of being the bad guy, which was forever pantomime at best, and a whole lot to do with an easy blend of construction and destruction. You admire what you’ve built, and you feel compelled to defend it. It just works, to coin a phrase. Of course, also key was the rarely-explored idea of imbuing the unseen strategy/management overseer with real vestiges of character. That the cursor is a taloned hand that, with a click, can cruelly slap a passing minion and be rewarded with fear or rage, achieves more scene-setting and personality than 1000 cutscenes every could.

The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
RELEASED: 2002
IMPORTANCENESS: It’s the last of a lost race, baby

When I worked out which games I was going to write about it, there was at least half a dozen I worried about what I could say, how I could possibly summarise their importance. Turns out, they weren’t a problem. Morrowind, a game I’ve written thousands of words about previously, has however proven to be. I can’t compress it like that. It’s a huge, incredibly strange, endlessly surprising world that I can’t quite believe was actually made, and so many years ago. It doesn’t seem possible that anyone could or would do it now, let alone then. If I’ve seemed ungracious to Bethesda’s RPGs in recent times, it’s purely because I expect so very much of them based on this incredible, impossible achievement.

Fallout / Fallout 2
RELEASE DATE: 1997/1998
IMPORTANCENESS: Apocalyptic

All RPGs owe a debt to Dungeons and Dragons, but Fallout at least has the good grace to not be so totally brazen about. The post-apocalypse is one of gaming’s most appealing settings, and I’d say Fallout and STALKER are twin kings of our beloved wasteland. Casually amoral and calculatedly unfocused yet almost scientific in their statistics, the original Fallouts are a world away from the earnest epic narratives of fantasy roleplaying. That it is so often hard to mention these games without nodding to the famous ferocity of its fans speaks volumes: in a dry desert of lightweights, an RPG that really does the heavy-lifting was always going to inspire grand passion.

Freelancer
RELEASE DATE: 2003
IMPORTANCENESS: Galactic

Speaking of RPGs that stray bravely from the beaten path, here’s this shiny relic of a time when Microsoft still cared about PC gaming. A space sim with a heart of roleplaying, it twins trading with purpose rather than pure economics. It’s not nearly referenced enough. Sure, it may not have the sprawl and hands-off approach of its great ancestor Elite, but it has bravado, gloss and excellent starship argy-bargies. It’s also hugely accessible compared to the niche-catering handful of space sims we’ve seen in the last decade. While the hardcore will always call for more hardcore, making such complex systems open to all is by far the harder achievement.

Grim Fandango
RELEASE DATE: 1998
IMPORTANCENESS: More than heaven

Or, the day that LucasArts grew up. I don’t envy the great adventure company at that period – surely stuck between the rock of an enormously successful formula and the hard place of innovating within it without scaring anyone off. Grim Fandango failed to move the puzzles on in any meaningful way (and in some cases even regressed), but it did bring a new seriousness to the table without losing any of the playfulness. As sombre and introspective as it is wry and ludicrous, it moved us to care about a Mexican skeleton and his fat, orange best mate. Tragic, beautiful and charming, it is for me the last word in traditional adventure games.

King’s Bounty: The Legend
RELEASE DATE: 2008
IMPORTANCENESS: Legendary

More than anything, Katauri’s first King’s Bounty exemplifies my increasingly repeated mantra that the best thing about the PC as a gaming platform is that you can never, ever second-guess it. With no one company calling all the shots, every day bears the legitimate chance of discovering something completely unexpected and brilliant. Back when this Russian rethink of the Might & Magic formula cropped up, I confess to having been feeling a little cold-footed about RPS’s purpose. All these rubbishy low-budget Euro-games, militaristic multiplayer shooters and indenti-strategy fare: was this really what we wanted to write about every day? Then, all of a sudden, the most generic-sounding thing I’ve ever heard of has me fighting battles inside my own clothing, divorcing zombie wives and making snakes fight ghosts. Sure, it was far too long, often incoherent and aggravatingly unbalanced, but sometimes pointing out a good thing’s flaws is completely redundant. Unhinged, unbelievably good-natured and Pringle-like in the happy ferocity of how compelling it was, it completely transformed my feelings about PC gaming – and even my very concept of what PC gaming had become.

Mass Effect 2
RELEASE DATE: 2010
IMPORTANCENESS: Massive

Throw it all out and start again. There was absolutely no reason Bioware needed to do that: one of the advantages of having so few competitors with enough resources to actually compete is essentially having a captive audience. Bioware could have carried on pushing out derivatives of the KOTOR formula again and again. Clearly, they didn’t want to. Mass Effect 2 might be pretty sparse on what we tend to call roleplaying, but like so many of the best games (for instance, the one below this) the result is something that’s easy to comprehend but hard to categorise. So much so that we felt compelled to give it its own genre: guns and conversation. Big, bolshy space opera with action and character in equal quantities, a world away from its more expansive but plodding predecessor. ‘Shephard’ is such an astonishing creation – so generic in so many ways, especially the male version, but being the vanguard of these 21st century star wars’ pounding purpose and thoughtful action-drama makes him/her the hero that we all ache to be.

Minecraft
RELEASED: Not yet, technically
IMPORTANCENESS: Still building

Not a single advert. No tutorial. A game about reconfiguring blocks in a more pleasing way. A game about survival. A virtual online world without any of the cynicism or hollow pseudo-socialising.

The world sat up and took notice. A man become a millionaire without the support of a corporation. People who barely even played games built impossible creations.

People still talk, almost with a degree of horror, of the strangeness that such a thing would be such a success. Why can’t they see that it was inevitable? Don’t fight so hard and spend so much to bring people to your door. Just leave it wide open and see what happens.

Minesweeper
RELEASE DATE: 1989 and onwards
IMPORTANCENESS: Explosive

Match-3 hogs all the glory, but it was Minesweeper that birthed casual games and played a profound role in the establishment of the PC as a gaming platform. While a console did and does require the specific decision to be a gamer, Minesweeper created legions of gamers by stealth. ‘I’m not really gaming, it’s just a little thing I do between spreadsheets.’ I’m amazed how much Microsoft has failed to capitalise on the power of bundling a game with its operating system, but at the same time I appreciate that this was bottled lightning.

Farmville’s sort of doing the same thing for the modern age, as is Angry Birds on iPhone, but without unnecessarily disparaging either I’d argue that both will prove to be far less valuable despite being far more profitable. Minesweeper encouraged thinking and the lure of being smart, rather than being simply a matter of chance and time (though both do play their part). It is maths, it is strategy, it is gambling. It is also, to this day, one of the most tension-building games ever created.

Peggle
RELEASE DATE: 2007
IMPORTANCENESS: PEGGLE!

You’ve probably noticed I’ve tended towards describing these games’ importance in terms of context rather than specific achievements, and that’s a tune I really can’t change for this. Before Peggle, the gulf between ‘our’ games and what we rather dismissively called casual was enormous. We’d sneer in contempt, convinced they were for stupids and bored housewives. Peggle proved how wrong we were – it united the cold-warring tribes. And all because it was incredibly enthusiastic; excited about it existing, and steeped so completely shamelessly in goofy humour that any lingering aroma of cheese was discarded. Most of all, it understood that games, that collection of flickering pixels and electronic sounds, can make people feel good. Peggle is, at its heart, a game that wants to reward you simply for playing it, simply for the act of pressing and button and watching things happen. And just say its name, out loud. Peggle. Peggle! Peggggg-ullll. Doesn’t that feel good? Truly, an ode to joy.

Planescape: Torment
RELEASE DATE: 1999
IMPORTANCENESS – Can change the nature of a man

The game that breaks all the rules. Far too wordy, far too grim, far too peculiar, steeped in cynicism about humanity and absolutely determined to give you a hard time at all stages. That’s exactly why Black Isle’s dark opus works so well. The game of heartbreak, the game of mortality, the game of treachery, the game of philosophy, the game of life. The mentality of the most determined, individualistic fan art game, somehow given a budget and dozens of hours of playtime. The impossible game, the greatest cRPG ever made.

I’ve met a lot of big-name developers in my time, normally to point a microphone in their faces and ask questions they’ve already heard 30 times. I’ve bever been moved to say anything fannish, as my interest as a gamer and a hack has always been the product not the people. Planescape lead Chris Avellone, though: that’s the one and only time I didn’t keep my awkward cool. God forever bless him for laughing at my shitty talking skull gag and clinking beer glasses with me.

Plants vs Zombies
RELEASE DATE: 2009
IMPORTANCE: Organic

If Peggle was the game to make traditional games embrace casual, PvZ was where the waters became entirely muddied. Taking the tower defence genre and carving it into something both insanely accessible and thrillingly imaginative, it’s a lot closer to being a bona fide phenomenon that we might realise. It’s everywhere right now, still cropping up on new platforms and on new players’ lips even though it’s two years old. Everyone knows the song, there’s garden ornaments, it’s a quest inside World of Warcraft, there’s even going to be a boardgame, for Crazy Dave’s sakes. It’s seeped in the mass cultural consciousness more than most of the list, and without anyone entirely realising. It’s also deft, endlessly charming proof that games for non-gamers don’t have to be non-gamey. This is, after all, a strategy game at its heart, and even if much of it relies on timing, it casually introduces concepts and systems the world at large would otherwise have run screaming from. PvZ broke down barriers just as surely as would a troupe of bucket-headed zombies chew through a Wall-Nut.

But never, of course, a Tall-Nut – gaming’s greatest-ever hero.

The Sims
RELEASE DATE: 2000
IMPORTANCE: Severely underestimated

We’ve observed a few times how perplexing it is that no-one really tried to take on the Sims, in terms of simulating human behaviour and relationships. The other strangely unexplored element of it, to me, is that as well as being a sorta-management game it’s an RPG where your character often doesn’t do what they’re told. That is, of course, because they’re supposed to be human. My girlfriend told me to do more cleaning the other day. I haven’t done it yet: which is not to say I won’t, but purely that humans don’t operate in such a blindly say-and-do way. At least not in a healthy society. I’d love to see a full-on RPG explore that – a character that broadly shares your intentions for them but whose own urges, interests and exhaustion often takes precedence. That, as well as the sex and aspirational house-decoration, is the key to the Sims – the arrogance and thrill of controlling people who don’t really want to be controlled. Which is, of course, why it’s all the more entertaining if you recreate people you know in it.

Spelunky
RELEASE DATE: 2008
IMPORTANCE: Crusading

Ah, the procedurally-generated Indiana Jones game. I suspect RPS’ greatest-ever oversight was not going absolutely grade-A fuckin’ crazy-nuts about Spelunky. Mangling roguelikes and platformers together in a fashion that revealed their truths rather than trod old ground, it gets back to that singular importance of having your world, your game. I could never have the slightest bit of interest in seeing someone beat Mario 3’s World 3-4 (or whatever the hell else Nintendo bores go on about) in 24 seconds. What on Earth’s that got to do with me? Spelunky, like Minecraft or Desktop Dungeons, gives me my own world, my own challenge, my own epic narrative. Get the treasure, save the girl, blow up a load of rocks and monsters and probably die doing it. Sounds good to me.

Total Annihilation/Supreme Commander
RELEASE DATE: 1997/2007
IMPORTANCE: Totally supreme

Apologies for the slightly awkward double-whammy there, but I trust you’ll appreciate the lineage. As discussed earlier, C&C has been the backbone of so much of real-time strategy’s history, and that also includes inspiring rival games to not be like it. TA almost aggressively bellows “this is not how war should be.” It wants big, huge machine genocide, not a handful of chunky things picking each other off. It is grand and epic, cold and fiddly and completely, proudly inhuman. Supreme Commander continued the tradition, and proved it was just as relevant a good decade later. It indulges warfare rather than fiction, and with that bird’s eye view the stakes seem so much higher.

Ultima VII
RELEASE DATE: 1992
IMPORTANCE: Ultimate

While we’ve covered a fair few RPGs in this list, they’ve tended to be games focused on specific areas of the genre. Ultima VII, the main series’ highpoint, is the RPG that does it all. It’s a society simulator as much as it is a free-form fantasy tale. Baking, survival, law, music-making, vomiting, crime, drugs, racism, buying bus tickets… It’s a project of astonishing scope – so much so that it was split into two parts, each with their own expansion pack. To recreate the sheer scale of U7′s ambition in a modern game would surely involve enough gigabytes to sink Ireland. No wonder the Ultima series slumped so dramatically following VII – this game aimed so high that there was almost nowhere left to go but down.

Warcraft II: Tides of Darkness
RELEASE DATE: 1995
IMPORTANCENESS: A portent

Perhaps not one of the more interesting strategy games on this list by today’s standards, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a landmark game. This is where Blizzard really became BLIZZARD, the goliath that we know and love/fear today. Battle.net (well, the first RTS to use it), expansion packs, the semi-toon visual style, eyewatering sales figures, uber-lore: it all started here. And while Warcraft 1 had started the multiplayer RTS ball rolling, it was WC2 that really got it doing so at speed. WC2 is why we have WoW, and why we have StarCraft. This is the tap that the money-hose is connected to.

Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War
RELEASE DATE: 2004
IMPORTANCENESS: There is no importanceness. Only war

Relic’s Warhammer 40,000 real-time strategy game didn’t really come into its own until its second expansion, Dark Crusade, where suddenly it all made sense. This wasn’t just a C&C-like with Games Workshop art – it was an attempt to create an absolutely enormous wargame, packed with units and factions and abilities. Not for this the laser-focused dual- or tri-race balancing act of its peers, but instead a giant toychest stuffed with science-fictional conflict. Forever a bit of a let-down in singleplayer terms, it flexed its enchanced muscles in skirmish and multiplayer: so much choice, so much indulgence. While final expansion pack Soulstorm was not its strongest, just glancing at the total unit roster following it remains extraordinary. It’s a huge game, and it also expertly pulls 40K out of its tabletop ghetto and into something far more universal. Dawn of War II has so far been a much bolder game, but perhaps a less impactful one. I’m pretty sure Relic are absolutely determined to correct that latter, however. In a couple of years and a couple of expansions, no doubt it will be similarly huge.

World of Warcraft
RELEASE DATE – 2004
IMPORTANCE – All the money. All of it.

Oh, it’s too easy to sneer, isn’t it? WoW might be built upon a troubling foundation of feeding incessant virtual goods hunger, but it’s vitally important. It keeps the PC the world’s foremost gaming platform, it proves that massive creative ambition and scale is not a barrier to massive financial success and it’s entered popular culture at large in a way that few games ever have. It is shaping and evolving not just a genre, but an entire industry. And it’s still growing: there’s still so much more it might yet do.

Personally though, the first year of the game, early adventures with friends in fantasy lands before they became dominated by stat-fiends, will forever be some of my most memorable gaming time. Making it up as we went along, finding ways to defeat what we thought we impossible odds, laughing at ridiculous hats, being thrilled by unlocking a brand-new ability. I am deeply, deeply sad that WoW -and probably no other MMO – can recapture that. We just didn’t know we were in for or what we doing then. I miss that so, so much.

X-COM: UFO Defense AKA UFO: Enemy Unknown
RELEASED- 1994
IMPORTANCE – God-king

Ah, how fitting that this list should end with this. As your didactic tutor, there is simply no other game I could more strongly recommend to you as homework. The hybrid of all genres, the never-bettered original. A game of fear, elaborate plotting and terrible, terrible sacrifice. That the Gollops are not regularly releasing big, successful games with their names in the title, Meier-style, is a constant mystery to me. I mean, Julian’s next game is a barely-credited, barely hyped Ghost Recon spin-off for 3DS (though excitingly it sounds a little X-COMesque). Absurd.
Sometimes, I must admit, all I really want from gaming is a re-release of this with a modern interface. I don’t need new graphics or new units or improved AI or a first-person-perspective. I just want to play this, forever.

Please note that this post is but one fragment of a larger list, which in total covers over 100 of what RPS feels is the PC’s most important games (but not all of them). You can find the other parts to date here. More is yet to come.

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275 Comments »

  1. Angryinternetman says:

    Theres still a chance for a Star Control 2 :)

  2. Sarlix says:

    Hurrah! Dune 2. I can almost smell the spice.

  3. disperse says:

    Well, with the addition of Deus Ex, Fallout, Spelunky, Ultima 7, and X-Com to Mechwarrior 2, Baldur’s Gate, Nethack, and *cough*counterstrike*cough* that makes 9 games I’d have to put in my top 10 all-time list. What will be the 10th? I’m so excited, what could it be!?!

  4. bill says:

    AvP1 rocked. Scared the pants off me as a marine, but awesome as an alien.

    Playing King’s Bounty now for the first time. Sad to hear it’s “too long” as i hate games like that. So far i’m enjoying it, but the battles don’t seem to call for any tactics.. which makes it slightly like a JRPG with less cutscenes.

    Bladerunner was awesome. If adventure games were like that (or penumbra) i might play them.

    Deus Ex and Darwinia rocked of course.., and Bioshock was an awesome action+story game, whatever people might have wanted it to be.

    I’ve tried fallout1, planescape and baldur’s gate 2 recently. Never got very far with any of them. Maybe they all have very dull starts, but it seems like they’re totally cold and uninvolving. Didn’t get any feel for place or care about any of the characters at all.
    ( yet i loved KotOR1 and morrowind. I’ll try jade empire and see what end that falls…)

    • Evilpigeon says:

      Planescape in particular has a really, really slow star. As someone else who played these games for the first time recently, I found I had to sink in a lot of time before I actually started to ‘get’ them. If you can find the time though, it’s well worth the effort and Jade empire is awesome : )

    • Lilliput King says:

      Yeah Planescape takes an age to get going but it’s worth the effort. Jade Empire isn’t, sadly. Well, it’s okay. 6/10.

  5. Bilbo says:

    On X-Com: entirely agree. Everything else consistently disappoints when compared to it. Finest game ever. Bar none. BAR NONE!

  6. faelnor says:

    I would totally buy Blade Runner again if it was available on GOG or Steam. What a fantastic game.
    I think there are one or two endings I’ve yet to see and I lost my discs long ago.

  7. Wang Tang says:

    I’m waiting for a game from the Settler Series, or Anno 1602 – finer grained, more micro-oriented economy / building-simulations than, say, Sim City 2000.

  8. arioch says:

    So happy to see the best RPG of all time, Ultima VII in here… I thought it was going to be overlooked!

    Man – if they tried to recreate that game with modern graphics and voice-overs, imagine the number of DVDs it would come on… It must have taken me 2 years to complete all 4 parts.

  9. Jake says:

    X-Com…greatest and possibly hardest/most frustrating game ever. I concur with the fact that it just needs a modern interface. Though my hopes are high for the remake, Xenonauts.

  10. Friend says:

    The strongest list of games (even though it doesn’t specifically include some of my very most favorites), and I think the best set of justifications and analyses so far.

    Still waiting to see Populous, Settlers II, Black & White, Caesar III, Mount & Blade, and possibly Everquest (though I didn’t play the last, personally) but this list and the last one covered pretty much all the bases I was hoping for. Well done, you’re allowed to keep games journo’ing.

  11. Daryl says:

    I remember reading about Dungeon Keeper back in 1997 in an issue of PC Gamer that I had. Of all the games in that magazine, that was the one I wanted to play most. I never did though. I also remember in that same issue (it had a preview of the next year’s games, called “The top 50 games of 1998″), seeing some really, really early shots of Starcraft. I didn’t even think about it back then. I wish I had kept that magazine, if for nothing more than to look back and laugh.

    I also can’t overstate how important Warcraft 2 was for me. It was *the* game for me between 1996-1998. I get a feeling in my gut from looking at that screenshot that no other game on these lists has given me. I don’t know what it is or how to explain it.

  12. kyrieee says:

    Limb reformation on the Aliens was great too

  13. Nimic says:

    I literally fist pumped when seeing C&C on the list, and again when Dune 2 came up. Definitely my favourite list so far. As always, there are a few games I didn’t particularly like, but in most cases I can appreciate the inclusion of even those games.

    I think at this point almost every game I’d really like to see has already made the list. The one exception would be the Europa Universalis series (preferably represented by EU3) – or other Paradox games, but that might just be a tad too niche. It wouldn’t surprise me if in a group of 4 or 5 hardcore PC gamers no one played EU3.

    Oh, and of course some AoE-type games, like Empire Earth and Rise of Nations (both excellent games in their own right). Oh, and Alpha Centauri, which at least had a token mention under another game. Alright, so there’s a few games I’m missing (and which are unlikely to all make it into the last list), but overall I’m very happy with this series of articles.

    It’s really sort of been a validation of why I read RPS daily.

  14. Qjuad says:

    Wow, a very strong list. Lovely to see Fallout and Ultima pop up. And Grim Fandango is a game I adored… and yet never completed. Dunno why.

  15. 8-bit says:

    I can agree with more of this list than any of the others, bioshock is I think the breakthrough the shock series has been working towards for, what, 15 years now? It might be a bit dumbed down than its predecessor but its a triumph for a more intelligent shooter, and that’s important.

    Mass effect 2 though, well its just kotor all over again in the story department and the shooty bits just removed the pause function from the last game, but is it important? I don’t think so, it achieved the same level of praise as the first, similar sales, I don’t think it achieved any great breakthrough in the so called mainstream. Has it had an impact on the industry itself, as in are people taking bits from this game, will we see gears of war (I don’t know his name) talking to his buddies in between battles? Too early to say.

    ME2 also makes you fight a stupid robot at the end, that should automatically exclude its inclusion in any list other than stupidest boss fights ever, dumbest plot twists and most anticlimactic moments in a game.

  16. Synchrony says:

    I’m glad dune 2 showed up at last. although the line in the c&c entry ‘none of the other RTS games in this list would possibly exist without it’ applies more to dune 2 than c&c, as without it c&c wouldn’t exist

  17. Lacero says:

    One game which deserves a place but I suspect you’ll leave off is Star Wars: The Old Republic. Although it isn’t out yet it’s already one of the most important games ever, it appears to be EA’s last roll of the MMO dice and a lot hinges on it whether it succeeds or fails.

    The budget, the time it’s taken, and the importance of it to EA and the wider MMO industry make it one of the most important PC games ever. But as I say, I don’t expect to see it :)

    • Nick says:

      I think Modern Warfare 6 will be very important, as it will be the last game Activision makes before the world is destroyed by Cthulhu. But I don’t think it will make the list.

    • Joshua says:

      Modern Warfare 5 would certainly be on the list, since that game enraged Cthulhu to the point that he decided to destroy our planet

    • Lacero says:

      I see your point(s), but it is important right now, not probably going to be.

  18. hjd_uk says:

    Hmm no Tachyon love – i mean it had Bruce Cambel voicing the lead! It was also a good mid-level ( not too sim-like) space-shooter. Two story paths too. Not astonishing I admit but good fun.

    Boom Stick!

  19. starclaws says:

    Warcraft 2 didn’t have battle.net originally :) Most played on 3rd party servers like Kali.net and such.

  20. Dervish says:

    ” … its real achievement was to calmly state that action games did not have to be merely glossily violent games. Art and thoughtfulness stood proudly equal to the action … ”

    Haha, does anyone actually believe this about Bioshock? The entire game you’re leaving a trail of blood-splattered corpses on the way to the next objective (it is also one of the glossiest games ever made, shader-wise, but that’s being too literal). You’d need a hell of a lot of art and thoughtfulness to balance out that scale.

  21. daphne says:

    Probably the best, and admittedly the most generic list so far. I am especially happy that WoW and Freelancer got referenced, and extraordinary worried that it’s been four lists with no mention of Freespace, especially in a list as agreeable as this entry.

  22. shiajun says:

    Great lists so far, but I am wondering about the dearth of Sierra adventure games on these lists. Maybe the RPS hivemind doesn’t like them but their importance in creating and strengthening PC gaming is undeniable. Guess I’m just waiting to see if Gabriel Knight will pop up in part 5, since it’s my favorite adventure game series, ever. Bless you, Jane Jensen.

  23. VA1N says:

    Man these articles take me back. Looking forward to the next.

  24. plugmonkey says:

    Alec: You win at listing.

  25. Thwick says:

    Loving this set of 5 articles.

    I’m waiting for some older games to make the list (if I’ve missed some that have posted, sorry, i’m rushing to post this at work and can’t double check):
    Heroes of Might and Magic 2
    Commander Keen
    Red Baron
    Amazon (Apple IIe)
    Oregon Trail (Apple IIe)
    You Don’t Know Jack

    Any chance that Everquest makes it? Sure Ultima Online was its predecessor, but EQ opened up the MMO pandora’s box it seems.

  26. Pike says:

    I’m ashamed to say I’ve never played an Ultima game so I was hoping Ultima 7 would be on GOG or Steam but it doesn’t appear to be, is it available anywhere else?

  27. Thirith says:

    Yay, Ultima VII! Yay, Grim Fandango! Yay, Planescape Torment!

    Blade Runner is a game that I wanted to like, but from what I remember there was so little actual *game* in it. What I remember is a trail of breadcrumbs that didn’t give me much in the way of choice, since the variables (who’s a Replicant, who isn’t) were determined when you started the game. Perhaps there’s lots and lots in it that I simply missed, mind you.

  28. Frosty says:

    What is it I don’t get about ME2? What is it about it that makes me think it’s an inferior game to the first? AM I CRAZY?!

  29. Wizardry says:

    The most influential PC game of all time, Wizardry, better be on the next list, even if you do an Ultima VII on it by only featuring one of the later and better ones in the series (Wizardry VI, VII or 8). The Wizardry series pioneered turn-based combat with a party, popularised the first person perspective in RPGs and introducted the WA(S)D controls. Furthermore, almost every video game can be linked back to it in some way. Morrowind to Daggerfall to Ultima Underworld to Dungeon Master to Wizardry. BioShock to System Shock to Ultima Underworld to Dungeon Master to Wizardry. King’s Bounty to Heroes of Might & Magic (and the original King’s Bounty) to Might & Magic to Wizardry. Every single JRPG to Wizardry.

    Even working forwards from Wizardry itself you can see just how big an influence it had on widely used mechanics and features. Ultima’s party combat introduced in Ultima III was influenced by Wizardry. In Ultima IV the series then twisted this slightly to introduce recruitable NPCs which you see in all BioWare games. The first person movement throughout the game world (which was hugely popular in 80s and early 90s RPGs) was also made popular in Wizardry (even though Akalabeth had it, Ultima is more well known for its top-down overland travel). This went on to influence the entire Might & Magic series, Ultima III, IV V’s party-based first person dungeon crawling, the GoldBox engine D&D games (such as Pool of Radiance) and Dungeon Master and all its clones (Eye of the Beholder, Lands of Lore).

    One interesting traceable line of influence leads to Fallout. The Bard’s Tale was a popular (and pretty) “Wizardry clone” from 1985 which directly led to Wasteland in 1988, a game which was very much a combination of Ultima’s overworld travel and Wizardry’s party based “blob” combat. Sure, Fallout may have only taken the type of setting and humour from Wasteland and little else, but the building blocks are there.

    On the whole, these articles seem to completely miss out the 80s. While the 90s may have featured many more games of a much higher degree of polish (and better user interfaces), the 80s was the decade where the majority of “modern” features can be traced back to.

  30. JohnnyMaverik says:

    My favourite part of the list so far ^_^

  31. haircute says:

    My chest swells when ever I hear mention of XCOM. I can still see my thirteen year old self hunched over the computer in the basement sixteen years ago fighting a desperate battle against time. They had 15+ bases! The only nations sponsoring us still were the US, UK, and Japan. Fuck…ended up winning THAT game when I was fifteen.

    I don’t know…thank you, Englishmen, for XCOM. That game did so much for me during my bleak teenage years. Time to go play ;_;

  32. patricij says:

    BLADE RUNNER…HOOORAY! LOVE THIS LIST. Ahem…’nuff said

  33. Ohle says:

    All. So. Good. Though this Spelunky is one I’ve never actually heard of… seems I should.

    • sinister agent says:

      Spelunky will make you hate yourself. It’s brutally hard, but with very few exceptions indeed, every single death is entirely your own fault.

      And you will die. Many, many times. It’s brilliant.

  34. Bob says:

    Ooooh, Deus Ex and Freelancer are games I’ll always have room for in my heart. The addition of Mass Effect 2 in Alec’s list makes it my favourite (list) so far.

  35. DiamondDog says:

    It’s not particularly popular anymore among many people on here but I have to agree with Alec’s assessment of WoW. I’ve grown cynical about a lot of aspects in the game, but I can’t ignore those first few years playing WoW with friends and some good guild mates. I have to admit it was my first MMO so I had no thoughts about what developer invented which feature or who did it best. All I know is I had some of the best gaming experiences of my life trying to figure out how to get through those first instances or exploring new towns and areas. Or the joy of PvP servers where the school yard gang mentality was alive and well. One person gets ganked trying to complete a quest, calls all his mates together and you end up with two groups who don’t know how to PvP slowly circling each other from a safe distance, until one idiot gets too close and it descends into chaos. The name Tarren Mill will always conjure specific memories.

    I know it sounds like “it was good at the start but now it’s everywhere I hate it!” but the fact is my enjoyment came from that sense of being part of a group all trying to figure stuff out and see how the game works. Once it got to the stage where systems and rules were in place it lost some charm. I’d be lying if the loot didn’t have some appeal but it really wasn’t my objective. The end game of constant grind for better armour and unique weapons held little interest. I think the last time I played WoW and truly enjoyed it was playing Burning Crusade and learning how to play Paladin.

    I’m not sure why WoW grabbed me like it did. It’s not the only game I’ve played with a community I felt involved in and I hope it’s not the last. I suppose it’s when something reaches a certain size that it starts to stand out, and then you sit back and realise you’re right in the middle of it all. It was a good feeling.

  36. Gaff says:

    Great mentions for Freelancer and Blade Runner, both of which I have under my desk here not two feet away, and Blade Runner on 4 glorious CDs, to boot.

    Both were highly underrated but shaped later games significantly.

    Microsoft’s treatment (and lack of a sequel) of Freelancer was nothing short of criminal, and Blade Runner, while being a great game, did not sell too well from what I remember.

    Maybe I’ll fire them back up (assuming they work with Windows 7) for old time’s sake. The Blade Runner box does caution me that I need a Pentium 133Mhz and Windows 95, though.

    • Bob says:

      Freelancer works on Windows 7 64 bit. The latest iteration of the Crossfire mod looks wonderful. The only slight hiccup is vanilla Freelancer’s subtitles and cinematics go a little out of sync with a multicore cpu.

  37. CareerKnight says:

    Warcraft 2 was not the first blizzard game with battle.net, nor did it even have battle.net (which is why the battle.net edition was released). That honor goes to Diablo 1.

  38. sinister agent says:

    Ha, minesweeper! Excellent. I almost suggested this previously as a joke, but having read the explanation, I can totally see the case for it.

    And Blade Runner? I’ve never even heard of it (the game, I mean). Lumme. Will have to look around, as I want to like adventrue games but have never enjoyed them for more than about twenty minutes (apart from Nelly Cootalot). Cheers for these!

  39. Pinky_Powers says:

    These have been a good read so far.

  40. Pantsman says:

    So where can one find Spelunky these days? It seems the game’s website is down.

  41. Lambchops says:

    Another wonderful list.
    Personal highlights include:
    My favourite game of all time if you ask me on a Wednesday – Grim Fandango
    The game that made me notice indie gaming (which is very much how Alec described it in the article) – Darwinia
    The two games I’ve probably poured the most hours into in the last couple of years – Spelunky and Audiosurf
    My favourite game of all time if you ask me between the hours of 11:00 and 19:30 (Wednesdays excluded) – Deus Ex

    Only one article left to include Little Big Adventure 2 though, fail to do so and the whole endeavour has been a failure! A failure, I say!

  42. Shadram says:

    One game I’m not expecting to see, but secretly hope to, is RollerCoaster Tycoon, or its second sequel (the 3D Frontier version). My favourite management games of all time, and responsible for almost failing my degree for me (not my fault, it was Chris Sawyer’s!) So personally, very important indeed, but on the industry-wide scale, probably not.

  43. AdamK117 says:

    This list of games is so nostalgic for me :D the upcoming deus ex sequel (lets ignore the actual sequel) has inspired me to replay the original and record some gameplay footage for youtube. Every sneaky LAN mine, every sketchy multiplayer server spammed with spawned NPCs, so so nostalgic…

  44. The Army of None says:

    I’m quite happy that you included Freelancer. Given, all the other games here and on the other chap’s lists were all excellent and well deserving, but I’ve put more hours into Freelancer than most other games combined, and had so many amazing moments.

  45. Metonymy says:

    This one was noticeably better than the previous ones. It included less junk-games.

    Your young age is really showing however, stating Ultima 7 as the high point? It was merely the point at which 4′s formula was fleshed out as far as it would go. Ultima 4 is the most pivotal game in ALL of computer RPGs. This is when it happened, when RPGs became what they are today. Before Ultima 4, all computer RPGs were like Bard’s Tale: make your characters and then walk through a dungeon.

    And not one Infocom game yet, not one Zork. I’m trying to remember if you’ve mentioned even a single MUD, the games that are solely responsible for the existence of MMOs. No, I’m pretty sure that slipped your mind. Again, joking about other people being young, comes across as a little pitiful.

    Master of Magic not mentioned? The game that introduced the notion of heroes that could be leveled up and then used against an enemy? It was one of the first, if not the first game that included ‘character customization’ in a game that wasn’t an RPG? And was excellent in it’s own right?

    Adventure Construction Set? Didn’t start on PC, so I can see why you might have skipped it.

    • Wizardry says:

      Partially agreed.

      Ultima IV is definitely the Ultima game I would put up on a list of most influential games. Ultima V, VI and VII were all refinements of Ultima IV’s concepts with the massive benefit of improved technology to help out. Ultima III may have introduced a bunch of features to the series (party and combat system), but failed to introduce anything that made the Ultima series stand out, such as the dialogue system, virtue system and magic system (introduced in IV). This is why Ultima IV is the best fit for the Ultima games.

      I agree with you that before Ultima IV, CRPGs were combat heavy dungeon crawls and nothing more. However, dungeon crawling continued to be popular right up through to the mid 90s and then went on to influence games with a lesser focus on combat and dungeons right up to this day. This is why Wizardry deserves to stand alongside Ultima IV and Pool of Radiance as the three most important RPGs. Ultima IV for making the player question their actions. Wizardry for pioneering turn-based party combat, and Pool of Radiance for successfully bringing D&D onto the computer.

      To me it’s almost criminal that the likes of Mass Effect 2, Knights of the Old Republic, Dragon Age: Origins and even Morrowind are all up there on these lists over the pioneering 1980s RPGs. Knights of the Old Republic merely brought western RPGs to modern consoles, Dragon Age: Origins watered down Baldur’s Gate for consoles, and Morrowind, while a great game, didn’t do too much more than Daggerfall, a game also deserving to be on these lists.

      Perhaps an “80s special” can fill this hole. See my comment on the second page about Wizardry for more stuff to read.

  46. Sigvatr says:

    Interestingly, Derek Yu (who made Spelunky) also made the graphics in Desktop Dungeon.

    When are you going to do an interview with Derek Yu?

  47. Phydaux says:

    FWIW: SupCom2 is available on Steam today with 75% off. Only £2.49.

  48. Flimgoblin says:

    Is there anywhere you can buy Blade Runner other than second hand? (and if not does it run on XP?)

  49. soylentrobot says:

    im pretty worried about the lack of Just Cause 2 so far

    • Metonymy says:

      Just Crap 2 was a console game, it was merely ported to PC.

      And what’s awesome, is that they didn’t even given it a PC control scheme. Negative acceleration on the mouse, a persistent and unfixable input lag, auto-aiming that you can’t even turn off, most objectives are effortlessly attainable, with no clear indication of how you could even successfully ‘fail,’ no health system, no customization, no weapon variety, no enemy variety, exactly like the worst call of duty games.

      Sorry, I realize it probably ‘looks good’ or something, but JC2 is the purest manifestation of shovelware I’ve seen on the PC.

    • Shadram says:

      Play it with gamepad, and all the control issues go away. I switched when I realised that flying a plane with a mouse is impossible, and the game became a whole new world of fun. Or are we narrow-minded/old-fashioned enough to suggest that all PC games must use mouse and keyboard control schemes to be good?
      I actually don’t think JC2 deserves to be on the list of important PC games, but I did find it mighty enjoyable for the most part.

    • Pointless Puppies says:

      @Metonymy, So JC2 gets to be accused of being a “console port”, yet BioShock and GTA IV aren’t?
      Oh ho ho. Man are the comments getting hilarious.

      @Shadram I don’t even need a gamepad. I get no input lag in the game (thought I did when I had a less-than-capable machine) and the controls are far more fluid and intuitive with mouse+keyboard. I can do a bunch of precise stunts I wouldn’t even dream of doing with a controller.

      Since GTA IV was picked to be on the last list pretty much “becuz the city’s cool”, I wager it’s just as justified to replace it with JC2 for a better reason: a stunt-driven sandbox game that’s as huge in scope as it is beautiful. The PC port of JC2 is a thousand times better than GTA IV’s, I’ll tell you that much.

  50. Dances to Podcasts says:

    The one big, big name that’s still missing that none of you lot have mentioned yet: Farmville.

    (Though the one I’m actually still hoping for is Mirror’s Edge.)

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