Tuesday, November 9, 2010

My Favorite PC Games

A little light reading this time, as compared to the "heavy" stuff I usually write.

Everybody has their favorite bits of entertainment, right? Some people like TV shows; my dad is a huge fan of the "Indian" stories by Joseph Altsheler... and I have a short list of PC games that I consider among the best pieces of entertainment ever created.

Adventure (Crowther & Woods, 1976) — originally for the PDP, but came bundled with the original IBM PC and might have even helped sell a few boxes.

Zork I (1979) — Again, adapted from the PDP version, but still helped garner attention for the IBM PC as a gaming system.

Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (Sierra On-Line, 1987) — Yes, the PC went there.

Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss (Origin, 1992) — A good story, cool weapons to find, an open world, remarkable level design, quest-giving NPCs, a clever magic system, context-aware music, and even an invented language… and textured full 3D. Wow.

Sim City (Maxis, 1989) — The first great graphical simulation game, since ported to darn near every device on the planet.

Wing Commander (MicroProse, 1990) — Die, Kilrathi scum! A near-perfect blend of flight sim, arcade dogfighter, and space opera.

Civilization (MicroProse, 1991) — If turn-based games never stop being made and played, Civ will be the reason why. How many hours of work have been lost to people still saying, as the sun rose the next morning, “OK, just one more turn…”?

Darklands (MicroProse, 1992) — Combined a near-simulation of medieval weaponry with an implementation of magic through the invocation of saints, and switched from an overworld view when traveling to an isometric view of frozen fields or stone dungeons for combat. Incredibly addictive.

Master of Orion (MicroProse, 1993) — Made more strategic than Civilization by shrinking the playing field and increasing the importance of the technology tree through its effect on planetary development and player-designed starships, MoO defined what Alan Emrich called the new “4X genre”: explore, expand, exploit, exterminate.

DOOM (id, 1993) — How many PCs did this game sell? How many people upgraded from 386DX-based PCs to the 486 because they saw how incredibly smooth the game played? Still the benchmark game for validating the PC as a viable gaming platform.

System Shock (Blue Sky/Looking Glass, 1994) — Perhaps exceeded only by Deus Ex, System Shock fused sensationally clever systems design with solid open-world gameplay and memorable levels, and topped it all off with SHODAN, arguably one of the greatest villains in all of computer gaming.

Jedi Knight: Dark Forces II (LucasArts, 1997) — Jedi Knight improved on the original Dark Forces with clever Force-based puzzles to solve, highly varied lightsaber battles, and some of the best level designs ever seen in any computer game. In particular, “The Falling Ship” must be counted as one of the greatest levels of all time.

Age of Empires (Ensemble, 1997) — Not quite a real-time tactical game like Warcraft, and not quite a turn-based historical strategy game like Civilization, Age of Empires took the best parts of both genres and created something new and wonderful from them.

Baldur’s Gate (BioWare, 1998) — Introduced BioWare’s Infinity Engine for multi-person isometric RPG play, and built a phenomenally good AD&D-based game with it, mating an excellent story with solid fantasy gameplay, and including some legendary characters (“Go for the eyes, Boo! Go for the eyes!!”).

Half-Life (Valve, 1998) — Between the highly intelligent design of levels and tactical challenges, the thoughtful user interface, brilliant scripted sequences, interesting enemy AI and funny NPC barks, Half-Life permanently raised the bar for what a first-person shooter could be. Valve’s openness to player modding of their games, starting with Half-Life, also makes this an important PC game.

The Sims (Maxis, 2000) — Subversive brilliance, The Sims takes playing with virtual dollhouses (and our willingness to torment little computer people) and uses it to communicate a criticism of materialist consumer culture, but it still manages to be fun to play with just for the crazy things you can do with and to the characters in the game.

The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion (Bethesda Softworks, 2006) — Despite the limited number of NPC voice actors, Oblivion signaled a great leap forward for open-world first-person RPGs with high-quality visuals, a large number of quests, and a huge world to explore.

Portal (Valve, 2007) — Portal’s wonderful momentum-based first-person physics puzzles would have made for a good game. The inspired insanity of GLaDOS elevated this good game to an all-time classic.

The Witcher (CD Projekt RED, 2007) — Took the bar for intelligent and mature RPGs and kicked it a mile down the road. The mark of greatness is how many other things are compared to you, and by that measure The Witcher is one of the modern great games.

Minecraft (Mojang Specifications, 2010) — No, it’s not too early to include the alpha version of this game in the list of all-time great PC computer games. It’s already proof that there absolutely is a good market for exploration-oriented games, as well as being a great success story for indie game development.

Runners-up: Wolfenstein 3D, MegaTraveller: The Zhodani Conspiracy, Half-Life 2 & Half-Life 2: Episode 2, Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri, Star Wars: TIE Fighter, Giants: Citizen Kabuto, Knights of the Old Republic, The Operative: No One Lives Forever, Redneck Rampage.