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The 50 best free games on PC

No free-to-play, just free.

Featured post

29. Bernband [Official site] (2014)

Developer: Tom van den Boogaart

In the endless push towards photorealism, it’s easy to forget just how evocative a few broad strokes and good sound effects can be. Bernband drops you in a believable futuristic city populated by aliens – aliens in bars, aliens playing jazz, aliens at church, aliens on TV, and flying cars which we assume are being driven by aliens. That it’s mostly textureless doesn’t matter, because the fuzzy edges, splashes of neon, greebly population of sprites, and sense of scale does all the work needed to make you feel like you’re exploring a foreign, bustling, sci-fi metropolis. There’s nothing to do while touring Bernband but walk and watch, but like the best holidays, you’ll end your trip wanting to live there permanently.

Notes: Boogaart has become known since the release of Bernband for the GIFs of his games that he posts to Twitter, and the wild, curious and unpredictable things they tend to depict.

What else should I be playing if I like this: You might like to try Diaries of a Spaceport Janitor, which takes place in a similarly bustling spaceplace, or Strangethink’s Secret Habitat, which is set in a gallery of odd paintings

Where can I download it: Game Jolt

Read more: Bernband was our favourite Being Pleasantly Lost Simulator of 2014

28. Super Crate Box [Official site] (2010)

Developer: Vlambeer

Vlambeer are known today for Nuclear Throne. And Luftrausers. And Ridiculous Fishing. But before they became the reigning kings of “game feel”, they proved their skill by releasing Super Crate Box, a free, single-screen shooter. It has two rules: one, enemies flow along platforms from top to bottom, and if they fall into the firepit at the end, they re-appear at the top in faster, angrier form; two, you score points by collecting the crates that drop at regular intervals, but each crate also randomly replaces your weapon.

These two rules, when combined, create a game which is frantic but tactical. You’ll be battling to keep the crowd under control, but while one moment your melee weapon will require you to get close, the next you’ll have a rocket launcher and be trying to keep out of the blast zone. It’s an exhilarating score attack game – and yes, it feels great.

Notes: Vlambeer were founded to create commercial games, but Super Crate Box was released for free to help the two-person studio create a brand and grab attention. It worked.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Nuclear Throne takes everything Vlambeer know about gun feel and applies it to a top-down shooter. It costs money but it is also Quite Good.

Where can I download it: Steam, Official Site

Read more: Nathan’s interview with Vlambeer about being just so unlucky

27. VVVVVV: Make and Play Edition [Official site] (2014)

Developer: Terry Cavanagh

VVVVVV is a superbly designed puzzle platformer in which you navigate its rooms not by jumping, but by reversing gravity so that you alternately walk on its floors and ceilings. From this it finds a dozen different ways to challenge you, either using selective screenwrap for fiendish navigation puzzles, introducing objects that forcibly reverse your orientation for you, or by offering dastardly reflex puzzles as in the famed Veni, Vidi, Vici series of rooms. That it’s also a funny game, full of heart, and with a great soundtrack, makes it a classic of the genre.

This Make And Play edition meanwhile is the icing on the cake. After moving the original game to a new engine, Cavanagh and collaborators added a level design tool to the game so that users could create their own. It was released alongside a number of levels made by popular indie game devs, including Minecraft’s Notch, and then later made available for free. That means you can now play any custom made levels without having to buy the original game; though you should probably still do that, too.

Notes: Terry Cavanagh also made the even simpler, more challenging Super Hexagon. If you like the look, feel and sound of VVVVVV, you’ll probably like that too – and there’s even a free prototype for it, which you’ll find, uh, directly below this entry.

What else should I be playing if I like this: The decision to add a level editor and release it for free was partly inspired by Knytt, a platform game you’ll find elsewhere on this list.

Where can I download it: Official Site

26. Hexagon [Official site] (2012)

Developer: Terry Cavanagh

Super Hexagon is the paid-for and better version of this game, no doubt, but the core pleasure of it is so simple that the free version is still brilliant if you’re hard-up for cash. You control a small triangle that you’re able to rotate around a central point, and by doing so you must squeeze through the gaps of a maze that’s constantly throbbing, dancing and contracting towards you. That’s it. It’s completely simple, but also perfectly formed. By offering quick restarts, and always feeling responsive to control, you’ll soon shift from only ever lasting a few seconds per life to skirting the edge of survival for minutes at a time. The maze will keep moving faster and faster towards you, but it’s never frustrating and always exhilarating. Play it.

Notes: Terry Cavanagh also made the slightly more expansive puzzle platformer VVVVVV. If you like the look, feel and sound of Super Hexagon, you’ll probably like that too – and there’s even a free version of it, which you’ll find, uh, directly above this entry.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Canabalt has a similarly frenetic, high-score-chasing sense of speed and simplicity, perfect for mobile or minutes skiving off work.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Adam’s review of the paid-for version, Super Hexagon

25. Dungeon Crawl Stone Soup [Official site] (2003)

Developer: Stone Soup Team

Some roguelikes contain everything but the kitchen sink. Others throw in the kitchen sink for good measure. Stone Soup is one of the best traditional roguelikes in existence but many of its strengths are due to the knowledge of its own limitations. Rather than including every possible thing, Stone Soup is a condensed dungeon crawl (although it’s an expanded Dungeon Crawl, the 1997 Linley’s Dungeon Crawl being the base on which it is built). It’s packed with things to see, do and be, but rarely becomes overwhelming. Balanced, user-friendly and beatable in a single lifetime, Stone Soup is one of the best starting points for anyone interested in exploring the roots of the genre that has cast its shadow over so many modern games, from Spelunky to FTL.

Notes: Linley Henzell, creator of Linley’s Dungeon Crawl, the game on which Stone Soup is based, went on to create indie SHMUPs. This interview covers his post-Crawl development habits.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Go to Temple of the Roguelike and explore. Start with ADOM, TOME and Brogue, maybe.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Adam’s favourite Roguelikes of 2011

24. Desktop Tower Defence [Wikipedia page] (2007)

Developer: Paul Preece

In the here and now of 2016, there is something a little glum about the phrase “tower defence.” It’s often a signal that a game that initially seemed exciting is actually nothing more than a treadmill of familiar mechanics.

Back in 2007, however, that wasn’t the case. Those mechanics weren’t familiar, and Desktop Tower Defense was the crystallization of something new and pure. A steady stream of enemies are about to start strolling from one part of the screen to another, and it’s your job to place down turrets to stop them. At the start of the game, it’s always easy: a few enemies which can be swiftly dispatched with some sloppily positioned turrets. But soon the number and strength of enemies increases until your haphazard architecture won’t cut it anymore. You’re forced to either more efficiently manage your upgrade curve – the method by which you unlock and build more powerful turrets – or to construct ever more elaborate and precise death mazes for your creeping foes to wander through.

Where so many real-time strategy games eventually decided to jettison the base-building stage entirely, Desktop Tower Defense found a way to make it tactically interesting and enormously engrossing.

Notes: Desktop Tower Defense was created by Paul Preece, who later co-founded game developer KIXEYE, creators of a short-lived MOBA called TOME, which was both launched and pulled from Steam within a year.

What else should I be playing if I like this: There are a thousand tower defence games, many of which are good, many of which are boring. Perhaps try Anomaly: Warzone Earth for an interesting twist on the formula.

Where can I download it: Armor Games, Kongregate

23. Canabalt [Official site] (2009)

Developer: Adam Atomic

You automatically run from left to right, which means Canabalt is controlled using only a single button. That button is used to make your sprinting character jump, and by pressing it at the right time you’ll leap between rooftops, leap through windows, leap on to destructive machinery, and live out the fantasy of a cinematic, science fictional escape sequence. Canabalt’s popularity on mobile has somewhat obscured what a clever, clean piece of design it is, and how fun.

Notes: Simple games are often the hardest to make, as boiling them down to their most satisfying form takes a lot of iteration. Creator Adam Saltsman has written about the particulars of Canabalt’s feel.

What else should I be playing if I like this: Robot Unicorn Attack is a less austere infinite runner, and places elsewhere on this list.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Canabalt was one of our games of Christmas 2009

22. Command & Conquer: Red Alert [Fan site] (1996)

Go back in time and kill Hitler (again). Red Alert’s interface hasn’t aged particularly well as far as troop mustering and barrack constructing goes, and later C&C games improved on the formula in so many ways, but it is still one of the better examples of RTSing in the early days, before Generals came out and sunk the whole franchise. Red Alert is cleaner and simpler than the present day clickfests. You are out to win the Cold War as the Allies or the Soviets. But the real joy of the story mode are the old-school FMV sequences between missions, which feature a commanding alternate reality Uncle Joe.

Most of the free versions out in the wild, like OpenRA, focus on providing some kind of online multiplayer. You can still find the singleplayer campaigns though, if you rifle through the download options.

Developer: Westwood

What else should I be playing if I like this: Commandos, Company of Heroes, Command & Conquer, basically anything that begins with “com”

Where can I download it: From OpenRA or CnCnet

21. Candy Box [Official site] (2013)

Developer: aniwey

Candy Box is a browser-based text game in which you farm candies. Part of what makes it great is the surprises that then happen along the way, so given that it’s free, runs in your browser, and can be played with minimal attention: go, go now, and stop reading.

If you’re still not convinced, then OK, fine, I’ll spoil some things. Every second you play, the number of candies you have ticks up. Gather a few of them together, and you can plant them in order to grow lollipops. Lollipops are more valuable. Sometimes a travelling salesman will turn up and you can buy things using your accrued sweets. And different items unlock still further ways to use your candies. The game is simple in the extreme, but it’s more than just charming or a silly novelty. What makes it exciting, and worth playing, is never completely knowing where the limits are. What seems initially like a simple idle game seems to switch genres four times over the course of two hours of play.

Notes: The creator of Candy Box never imagined it would be successful, and made it only as a tool for learning web design and programming.

What else should I be playing if I like this: A Dark Room is another browser game with incremental timed progression and a lot of surprises along the way. Spaceplan is also pretty slick.

Where can I download it: Official Site

20. Frog Fractions [Official site] (2012)

Developer: Twinbeard Studios

Frog Factions is a game disguised as a different game. There’s something exhilarating about interactive experiences that spill out of the borders of the frame, whether they’re simply breaking with genre traditions or communicating with the player in unexpected ways. Frog Factions does both of those things simply by presenting one face and then shifting into new forms. It’s an edutainment game, that’s all you need to know. It’s an edutainment game, until it isn’t.

Notes: Following a successful Kickstarter for a sequel, it became tradition to assume every odd and unexpected game that came along might be Frog Factions 2 in disguise. How else would it arrive, after all, but in the guise of another game? As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.

What else should I be playing if I like this: A Dark Room and Candy Box grow out of their original form in fascinating ways.

Where can I download it: Official Site

Read more: Nathan’s chat with the developers

We’re heading into the teens! Head to the next page for even better free games.

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