The evolution of video games over the last 30 years has been a remarkable, amazing journey.
From Pong to modern day classics like Grand Theft Auto 5, the creativity of this industry has never ceased to amaze me. But for all the advancements made in hardware and software technologies, the success of a game is still mostly dependent on one thing. “Is my game fun to play?” is, and always has been the most important question any developer should ask themselves.
In the late 80s and early 90s, when developers couldn’t rely on graphical fidelity to wow consumers, they had to resort to other methods. Back then gameplay was king, which is why some of the most fun and mechanically interesting games were created during the early years of PC gaming.
Microsoft’s first operating system MS-DOS was released in 1981, and between then until support for the OS ceased in 2000, thousands upon thousands of game were released. The following list contains my personal favourites from a sometimes forgotten era of gaming greatness.
Though many of these games have been released or remastered on other platforms, I’d still recommend playing them on PC. Luckily, most of them are available from sites such as GOG.com or Steam for a very modest price tag.
Syndicate Wars (1996)
Developer: Bullfrog Productions
The first of two Bullfrog MS-DOS games on my list, Syndicate Wares takes place in the year 2191. It paints a bleak picture of mankind’s future and our relationship with technology. Corporate mind control and religious indoctrination and central themes here, giving the player lots to think about as they try to wrestle back control of the world from the opposing factions. A fantastic mix of combat, RPG progression and sci-fi setting make this game an important must-play for any nostalgic gamer.
Syndicate Wars in available to buy from GOG.com.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996)
Developer: Bethesda Softworks
If the current trend in gaming is massive open worlds, 1996’s Daggerfall still dwarfs its modern day counterparts, including later editions in the Elder Scrolls series such as Skyrim. The map is a whopping 161,000 km² – making it the second largest game world ever created (the biggest being No Man’s Sky). But Daggerfall doesn’t rely solely on its size to impress; it’s well written, mechanically sound and it helped to cement many staples of modern day RPGs. If you’re in any way intimidated by RPGs and their tendency to rely on statistics and number crunching, then this MS-DOS game isn’t for you as it’s designed with the hardest of hardcore adventurers in mind.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall is available for free from its official website.
Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995)
An FPS set in the Star Wars universe was every 90’s nerd’s dream. Thankfully Star Wars: Dark Forces delivered and then some! It took many of the established genre conventions from games like Doom and improved on them. It was one of the first MS-DOS games to give players the ability to look up and down, crouch and jump as well as featuring level maps that had multiple floors that were able to be stacked on each other. Though modern gamers might laugh at these innovations, at the time they were incredibly important and considered game-changers. Dark Forces also featured relatively complex puzzles, further protecting this game from becoming just another run-of-the-mill shooter.
Star Wars: Dark Forces in available to buy from GOG.com
System Shock (1994)
Developer: Looking Glass Technologies
At the time of its release, System Shock was regarded as being a revolution in game design, especially within the FPS and RPG genres. Set in 2072 on a futuristic, cyberpunk spacestation, it featured excellent emergent gameplay. Praised for its innovative story telling and immersive atmosphere, it went on to gather a cult status which few games have matched since. The game’s antagonist, the malevolent computer AI SHODAN constantly taunts and hinders the player throughout the game. Both Bioshock and Deus Ex can be seen as spiritual successors to System Shock and its 1999 sequel.
System Shock – Enhanced Edition is available to buy from GOG.com
Developer: Team 17
This multiplayer strategy game became a household name due to its charm and thrilling scenes of invertebrate warfare. Iconic weapons like the Holy Hand Grenade and The Sheep, tense gameplay and memorable voice acting all helped cement Worms as one of the world’s most popular party games. It has since spawned several sequels and spin-offs, expanding on the original MS-DOS game’s premise.
Worms is available to buy on the Steam Store.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert (1996)
Developer: Westwood Studios
Many of Red Alert‘s central innovations are still staples of the genre today, like the ability to queue commands and group units. It was an incredibly smart RTS for its time, and also one of the first games of its kind to offer online play. Both of the two playable factions featured different units with very different capabilities, meaning that strength in numbers doesn’t always guarantee victory. It’s difficult, fun and had a great story and cast of characters. It’s now available as freeware so you’ve absolutely no excuse not to play it.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert can be downloaded for free from here.
4. Day of the Tentacle (1993)
The Monkey Island series, Sam and Max Hit the Road, Full Throttle: all classics of their genre. But for me, the champion of the point-and-click adventure game is Day of the Tentacle. This absurd tale about a crazed purple tentacle trying to take over the world is thoroughly hilarious and was one of the first games to feature fully voiced characters. It was recently remastered for PS4, PSVita, Windows, Linux, OSX and iOS.
Day of the Tentacle Remastered is available to buy from GOG.com
Theme Hospital (1997)
Developer: Bullfrog Productions
By far the best of the Theme series, MS-DOS game Theme Hospital is a business management sim like no other. Design and run your hospital however you see fit. You’ll need to build quirky diagnosis and treatment rooms to cure such ailments as Hairyitis and Bloaty Head, employ staff to make sure your hospital runs efficiently, decide which new treatments to R&D; all whilst keeping the books balanced. Its art style is timeless, its soundtrack fantastic and its filled to the brim with humour. An absolute gaming classic for all ages.
Theme Hospital is available to buy from GOG.com.
XCOM: UFO Defense or UFO Enemy Unknown (1993)
Developer: Microprose Software, Mythos Games
This hard-as-nails strategy game mixes real time management with turn based-tactics. The player is tasked with defending earth from an invading alien force. Battles are turn-based and take place from an isometric view. However, players must also strategically manage their available resources to develop new weapons, tactics, build and upgrade their bases and manage their staff and finances
Definitely one of the best MS-DOS games – perhaps even PC games – of all time, XCOM: UFO Defense is absolutely a must play for any strategy fan. The recent reboot XCOM: Enemy Unknown and its sequel by Firaxis Games are worthy re-imaginings of this classic game.
XCOM: UFO Defense is available to buy from GOG.com.
Developer: ID Software
The world today would be a different place if it wasn’t for DOOM. It’s hard to understate the impact of this pioneering first-person shooter. Initially released as shareware in 1993, it quickly gathered legendary status with its mix of super fast combat, extreme violence and an iconic metal soundtrack. It oozed style and attitude – like a gaping wound from a super-shotgun blast to the face of a Cacodemon.
The 2016 DOOM reboot was a welcomed suprise. It stayed true to its roots, forgoing current FPS conventions like regenerating health and reloading – and was all the better for it.
The Ultimate DOOM is available to buy from GOG.com.