Good Games Are Timeless
Titles like Call of Duty: Black Ops and Civilization V epitomize just how much video gaming has progressed the past few decades. But even though these modern bestsellers put their predecessors to shame on the visual front, good gameplay experiences are timeless. That’s why many classics have enjoyed new life through community-supported remakes, or even exact clones developed from scratch. Some games were even intentionally developed with a pixelated “retro” flavor, with great effect.
What follows are twenty games that represent some of the best video gaming from or inspired by the pre-3D era. Don’t be fooled by the simplistic visuals: some of these downloads will lead to bouts of nostalgia for our older readers, while younger ones may discover that sometimes a great experience doesn’t require a 3D graphics card. More importantly, all the following games are downloadable for free!
The Chzo Mythos
The crowning glory of Ben Croshaw, now a video game journalist and writer, The Chzo Mythos is a set of four adventure games tied together under one centuries-spanning story arc. From a haunted manor set in the 21st century, to a spooky scout ship traveling in space four hundred years later, the four installments (5 Days a Stranger, 7 Days a Skeptic, Trilby's Notes, and 6 Days a Sacrifice) feature a variety of horrific settings that reveal the story behind a demented entity piecemeal. Even though the characters and places have more in common with 2D mario than actual people, all four games will scare you silly with a disturbing sense of what you can't see.
The Ur-Quan Masters
The Ur-Quan are the antagonists of this science-fiction game of exploration, resource management, diplomacy, and combat. As the pilot of a starship built with advanced yet ancient alien technology, on a forgotten human colony, it is up to you to free Earth from a imprisoning "slave shield", rebuild the long-defeated Alliance of Free Stars, and stop the Ur-Quan from carrying out their mission of enslaving or eliminating other sentient life in the galaxy. The Ur-Quan Masters is an open-source remake of Star Control 2, a classic PC game that featured a memorable mix of one-on-one spaceship "melees" and adventure gaming elements.
Bitfighter is a 2D shooter based on Robotron, a 1982 cooperative multiplayer game. Player from color-coded teams maneuver their craft around a top-down battlefield, touching power ups and exposing enemies to deadly fire along the way. But annihilating opposing forces isn't the only name of the game. There are also capture-the-flag, domination, and even put-the-ball-into-the-goal modes. Everything is rendered with line drawings, along the lines of Asteroids, another classic game. Last but not least, Bitfighter makes map creation and sharing easy.
Pac PC an open-source Pac-Man clone for the PC. 'Nuff said. Just in case you need a recap: maneuvering your yellow avatar (named Pac-Man) around the maze, eating all the dots while avoiding the four ghosts chasing you down, is the only way to get past each level. Eat any of the four slightly-larger pellets near each corner of the maze, and Pac-Man temporarily becomes a ghost-eating machine.
Like Pac PC, PC Bert is an open-source clone of a well-known classic called Q*Bert. But for those too young to remember: The player character Q*Bert starts each level on the top of a pyramid of cubes. The objective? Change all cubes into a specific color, by maneuvering Q*Bert to jump over all of them—all while avoiding deadly enemies that can kill you with one touch, or irritating ones that undo your progress. Levels of course become harder, with latter ones requiring you touch each cube multiple times to change it to the correct color.
Imagine you're a worm underground, fighting for your survival against other worms with miniguns, shotguns, and the like. You blast away dirt real-time, use your grappling hook and move quickly across empty spaces, and even lure enemies right into your time-delay bombs and gunfire. That's what Liero was all about, and OpenLieroX is the open-source remake of the 1998 multiplayer deathmatch game. Liero (Finnish for earthworm) itself is inspired by Worms, a turn-based (yet no less entertaining) excuse for worms to blast each other away.
Thanks to Tron: Legacy, you probably know that most vehicles in Disney's imagined virtual reality leave walls of light behind. Not only for aesthetic purposes, mind you, but for unlucky or unskilled enemies to crash into and die. It's no surprise that Disney turned this competitive mechanic into an arcade game. GLTron is simply the 3D open-source version of that coin-operated fun machine's first level. Maneuver your light cycle against the computer AI or human opponents online. Force them to crash into your wall of light.
What other simulation game lets you manage a sprawling empire of trains, freight trucks, buses, and airplanes across an entire region? Transport Tycoon was an instant hit when it came out for that reason alone. OpenTTD keeps the game alive courtesy of a long-running open-source development program. OpenTTD lets you play the original game on modern operating systems, but with the added option of using user-created mods, better graphics, and many more.
Kobo Deluxe isn't directly based on an old computer game, yet its graphics are decidedly retro. Still, this chance to blow up entire enemy space stations, missiles, and fleets shouldn't be passed up. As with many other games on this list, levels get harder and harder, leaving you thankful of your spaceship's ability to fire forward and back. While the version of Kobo Deluxe linked here runs on Windows, versions are also available for other PC operating systems, and even certain phones.
Secret Maryo Chronicles
If the name and screenshots haven't clued you in yet, Secret Maryo Chronicles is inspired by that famous Italian plumber, Mario. While it's easy to dismiss this game as yet another open-source clone of Nintendo's famous character, it does add to the classic platforming gameplay. Yes, you can also pick up mushrooms to become bigger, and red flowers that let you shoot fireballs. But what about the blue mushroom that lets you shoot iceballs, and a ghost mushroom that turns you invisible? There's even a poison mushroom that can kill you!
Don't let the text-driven graphics fool you: DoomRL will prove quite addicting for players who pick it up. Think of it as a top-down, turn-based version of Doom and Doom II: You and any enemies encountered take turns moving and shooting at each other. You'll need to find new weapons, armor, and medikits, all in the name of staying alive as long as possible. Reaching the end of the game at higher difficulty levels is next to impossible, but no other game provides a sense of accomplishment from shooting down Os, Vs, and Bs.
If you owned a copy the Microsoft Entertainment Pack, a collection of games designed for Windows 3.1, then you've probably played Chip's Challenge. In that puzzle game, you had to guide your character around mazes, picking up all the chips while avoiding monster and deadly traps. Tile World is an open-source clone that keeps the gameplay alive for contemporary PCs, specifically those running on 64-bit operating systems.
Super Mario War
Super Mario War is Mario gameplay mixed with deathmatch mechanics. Instead of shooting at each other with weapons, acquiring kills (or "frags") is usually a matter of jumping on top of your enemies. Up to four computer or human players can compete in the platforming mayhem, while different power-ups provide more ways to kill. Players can even create their own levels to share with others.
Maneuver your tank, shoot your enemies to oblivion, and acquire power ups and more weapons along the way. That's the name of the game for Battle Tanks, a top-down multiplayer action game. According to the open-source development team, Battle Tanks is based on the "best of... old arcade games".
LinCity-NG is actually a remake of LinCity, which itself was inspired by the first game of the popular SimCity series. In this open-source city simulator, it's up to you to turn an empty piece of land into a sprawling and flourishing metropolis. There are two ways to win here: build a "sustainable economy", or create the infrastructure necessary to launch all your citizens into space. Along the way you'll need to deal with classic problems that have long plagued virtual mayors: providing adequate police and fire protection, education, and healthcare while balancing the budget.
Battle for Wesnoth
Think of Battle for Wesnoth as a more versatile game of chess. Only your chessboard is made up hexes instead of squares, and your pieces represent powerful army units. Set in a fantasy world, you'll need to direct ranks of soldiers, cavalry, artillery, and even magic users to capture objectives and defeat enemy armies. Part of this games appeal (aside from its open-source and thus modifiable nature) is its extensive customization possibilities and support for user-built add-ons.
I Have No Tomatoes
Clearly inspired by Bomberman, I Have No Tomatoes is multiplayer game where you need to strategically place bombs and summon special attacks to kill as many tomatoes within ten minutes. The pace is furious, with the challenge mainly being how much tomato-carnage you can generate.
Civilization 2 was praised as one of the best games of all time. It ran well even on the weakest computers when it came out, and like its predecessor and later successors, kept gamers addicted with its compelling "just one more turn" gameplay. Freeciv is pretty much the same game, and as an open-source application, can run on Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and even some mobile devices. You're responsible from developing your selected civilization from its first city into a powerful empire, directing military units to carry out your conquests and protect your holdings, while balancing science, commercial, and entertainment output back home.
UFO: Alien Invasion
No one has managed to recapture what made X-Com: UFO Defense so special, but UFO: Alien Invasion comes close. You lead a covert multinational organization dedicated to protecting the earth from aliens laying the ground for a full-scale extraterrestrial invasion. Minimize your operating expenses, recruit soldiers to fight off aliens in turn-based squad battles, scientists to research new technologies from capture alien equipment, and technicians to produce what you need to eventually take the battle to the alien headquarters itself.
Who would've thought putting Mario and company on go-karts would prove entertaining? Super Mario Kart started a series that earns money for Nintendo up to this day. The two game modes—a straight-out race with the option to use power-ups to impede your competitors' progress, and arena battles using the same power-ups as weapons—remain very entertaining multiplayer options. SuperTuxKart translates the gameplay for the PC, using penguins and other characters as an anti-copyright-infringement device.