Retro Deep Dive: 50 Greatest Games Part 2
In the last edition of Retro Deep Dive, we started in on PC Gamer's 1997 list of the 50 Greatest Games Ever. Since there's so much to digest here, I decided to break this up into 2 parts. So, let's dive back in and finish this list off!
#24 is a pick that is perhaps the most 1997 thing ever: Beavis and Butthead. The last 90's saw the rapid decline of the graphical adventure genre, and at this point there were many, many excellent choices for this list. Choosing Beavis and Butt-Head feels like a choice buried deep within the cultural zeitgeist beyond pc gaming in general. If the writers of the magazine loved the game this much, great. But it's still one of oddest choices in my opinion.
The next pick might seem equally bizzare. But unlike the previous entry, Virtual Pool at #24 makes a lot of sense to me. I still remember when this game got released, and I spent hours with the demo alone. The graphics and physics were frankly groundbreaking for their time, and it's one of those games that is so interesting from a technical and gameplay perspective that they it can build interest in what would otherwise be a somewhat obscure subject like pool. Nothing wrong with pool, of course, but I don't think there is a massive outcry for pool games, nor was there such in the 90's.
As we crack the top 20, we see a couple more adventure games -- can you tell that was a massively important and popular genre of pc gaming in the 1990's? We also see a couple of legendary entries into their respective genres in Populous and the first two Ultima Underworld games. These are forgotten series, but vital great-grandfathers of still thriving modern genres. Without Populous we wouldn't have modern building/management games, and Ultima Underworld helped pave the way for the Skyrims of the world.
Into the teens, and we really start to see the one be-all-end-all genre that will dominate this list, pc gaming of the 90's, and gaming across all platforms today: the first-person shooter. It really is impossible to overstate how important the FPS is to the history of gaming. The explosive growth of the genre (insert red barrel joke here) helped establish several giants of the industry, drove technical innovation, and made gaming "cool". Well, sort of.
At the time this list was published, the genre was changing rapidly. Originally, these games were called "Doom clones", underscoring how important id's success with their 1993 classic was. Four years later, there had been so many quality FPS games released that "Doom clone" was outdated and probably somewhat disrespectful. "3d action game" began to be used more often, though it sounded painfully generic and was a mouthful to say. Sadly, this list was a year too early to include the game that forever changed the genre and the industry forver: 1998's Half-Life. It was around the release of that masterpiece that I remember starting to see the term First Person Shooter begin to get used regularly. Half-Life would also lead to the WASD/mouselook revolution, but I suppose that's a topic for another post.
So, with all of that said, let's talk about some of the greatest FPSs of all time. Descent was phenomial; transitioning what had really been a two dimensional genre fully into the third dimension. It was disorienting and frantic, and it desperately needs a modern update, especially with the advent of quality VR gaming.
Entry #16 is another game that oozes late 90's attitude, Duke Nukem 3D. The humor and attitude was very of its time, and honestly doesn't hold up particularly well. Luckily, the game itself is excellent, with a cache of fun and satisfying weapons, and groundbreaking level design. I've always felt that the enemy lineup was really weak, though; I'd love to play this game with all the monsters replaced with those from Doom.
Speaking once again of Doom, #15 is id's all 3d follow-up to their smash hit and it's sequels: Quake. When Quake came out, I had the initial feeling that it was kind of an upstart little brother, and that it was trying to hard, if that makes any sense. Over time I've come to respect it a lot more, and in my mind it's successfully disconnected itself from having to "live up" to Doom and Doom 2. The graphics and levels are the stars here; like Duke 3D its enemy lineup always felt kind of dull and the weapons are likewise a little boring, aside from the excellent rocket launcher that led to establishing a unique and exciting gaming skill in rocket jumping.
#14 is the founder of a franchise that has seen plenty of ups and downs but is still running today, Tomb Raider. Like a lot of early non-FPS 3D games, its controls and graphics are very clunky by modern standards, but it was groundbreaking at the time. I enjoyed it when it came out, but it's not a game that I've ever felt the need to go back and revisit, unlike a lot of its contemporaries. I think that's telling.
I have to give a special shout-out to #12's Red Baron. Again, it's a somewhat clunky flight sim that probably isn't worth revisiting over some of its sequels and spiritual successors. But I sank a ton of time into this one, and it featured one of the absolutely best and most satisfying career modes of any flight sim--a feature that is too-often lacking in the genre.
Just before getting into the top 10, we see what is probably my favorite adventure game of all time, Sam & Max Hit the Road. A mix of top-notch comedy, beautiful animation and design, and engaging voice-acting led to a great package that still holds up extremely well today. Do yourself a favor and go play this one (just don't blame me for the typical 90's-adventure-game silliness of the puzzles).
Okay, Top 10 time. We start off with a couple of entries that might elict a "huh?" from some readers, simply thanks to lack of name recognition. AH-64D Longbow was an excellent helicopter combat sim that was published by the EA owned Jane's Combat Simulations. This brand saw the release of a slew of consistently excellent combat simulators throughout the 1990's, most of which hold up well outside of their outdated graphics. At #9 is Links LS, which was the Cadillac of golf sims on the PC at the time. It's a genre that isn't quite so common these days, but was a big deal when the list was made.
#8 finds one of the most-loved RTS games ever made, Command & Conquer: Red Alert. Like other sequels such as Warcraft II and Diablo II, C&C Red Alert improved on its previous entry in every way, and was a landmark of its genre. And of course, it features a long series of wonderfully cheesy FMV cutscenes that were all the rage at the time.
At #7 is one of my personal favorites on the entire list, and the beneficiary of a couple of top-notch modern remakes: X-COM: UFO Defense. This one hit close to home for me as a kid; I always had an odd obsession with UFOs and aliens, so the subject matter here was enticing. Luckily for me, the gameplay itself was an amazing mix of long-term managment and building, alongside some of the absolute best turn-based tactical combat in gaming history. The lovely, chunky graphic design still holds up too, which means this is a great one to go back and revisit, especially if you've never played it before. Just be warned: the game is old-school difficult, and absolutely does not hold your hand.
And while we're talking a mix of management/building and turn based combat, #6 is Heroes of Might & Magic II. The third game in this series is superior in every way, but sadly this list predates its 1999 release. While innovative and enjoyable, if you're interested in the series, go with HoMM III instead.
Top 5 now, and we're hitting absolute gold. System Shock is yet another FPS, but absolutely groundbreaking for its mix of story and building an immersive world, and its influence is still being felt today. And like others on this list, it led directly to beloved modern titles in the Bioshock series.
Civilization II is a lot like Heroes of Might and Magic II, in that I feel its sequel did everything better but wouldn't be released until after this list. Civ II was great, and itself improved upon the original Civilization in every way. Obviously this is a series that is still going strong, and looking back at its early entries you can see why; it's simply a compelling and addictive formula for a game. Just one more turn...
Back to the RTS genre with #3, and the masterpiece that is WarCraft II. While the original Warcraft was compelling and fun, WarCraft II is miles better if for no other reason than its improved interface and quality-of-life improvements. Couple that with really fun and challenging campaigns, a satisfying gameplay loop, and groundbreaking multiplayer, and you've got the formula for a true classic. If you're a big fan of World of Warcraft, this one is worth checking out if for no other reason than getting to visit a ton of backstory and world building.
The last page holds our final two entries, and which both choices make total sense, I actually disagree with them both, for reasons I'll get into.
First, we have Doom. You'd have a tough time finding a more important entry in video game history. As I discussed above, it established the most important genre in PC Game history, and led to revolutionary growth on the platform. But beyond how important it is, Doom is simply a great game. It's one I revisit at least once a year; pure and simple, it's increadibly fun to play. It is almost perfect.
Which is where my disagreement comes in. The writers here declare its sequel Doom II as a "re-issue", and I can definitely understand where they are coming from there. But, in my opinion, Doom II is the better game, thanks to the addition of the Super Shotgun, a couple of new enemies, and better overall level design. So, if you're going to say that Doom II is simply a different version of Doom, why not put it on the list instead? Again, the original holds more overall importance for the industry, but the sequel is simply a better game. It's a small distinction, but I'm personally biased here.
I'm also personally biased with their choice of #1. Don't get me wrong, Tie-Fighter is staggeringly good. Again, if you've never played it, go do so as soon as you can. It improves on its prequel in every way from a techincal and presentation perspective. It's so, so good. Satisfying gameplay, engaging story, great missions. It really does have everything you could possibly want in an flight sim. Plus, it's Star Wars!
But, again, I'm super biased here--I prefer X-Wing, even though it's not quite as good. Why? Because I don't like playing as the bad guys. I mean, from a story perspective, they find ways to make the player character in Tie-Fighter noble and likeable. But still, I mean, you're fighting for the Empire. And they're the bad guys. I grew up idolizing Luke Skywalker and wishing I could fly an X-Wing, fighting the good fight for the rebellion. I wanted an X-Wing way more than I ever wanted a lightsaber. So again, while I can acknolwedge that Tie-Fighter is a truly great game, I'd still replace it on this list.
Oh, and I'd put Doom II at #1 instead. But like I said, I'm biased.
Anyway, wow! That was a long list to dig through, but it brought back a lot of fun memories. I hope this Retro Deep Dive has been as fun to read as it has been for me to write. And if you disagree with any of the opinions I've expressed, then I understand! Let me know about it by sending me an email; I'd love to hear the views of other fans of retro PC Gaming!
Stay tuned for the next Retro Deep Dive where we look at some more old gaming media.