There was a time when even the best computer graphics available were lousy. In this ancient time, called “the Eighties,” graphics were cool for computer games to have, but really much less important than a good story and interesting puzzles to solve. Some games didn’t even have graphics at all, depending on the abilities of their creators to write and their players to read and imagine. Many games have aged poorly, and are best left in the anonymity that the twenty-odd years since has brought them. But some are just as much fun to play now as they were then — possibly more fun, in fact, since now you can actually have other programs running at the same time as the games without bringing your computer to its digital knees.
Now, unfortunately, not all games we’d like to mention are available online, abandonware though they may be. Here, then, are the top ten computer games from the 1980s that you can either play online or download for free or very little money. Introduce your kids to them, not with a “When I was your age, this is what I played,” but with a sincere “Look how cool this game is!”
(With each entry, we’ve noted the platform or platforms for which it’s available. There are many listed as Windows-only, but of course emulating Windows on a Mac or Linux is much easier than emulating a Mac on Windows.)
10. King’s Quest III: To Heir is Human – The King’s Quest games were dopey, but a lot of fun. This one was difficult enough to be a real challenge, and fun enough to make you smile regularly while playing it. The link goes to a free VGA remake (Windows-only) of the game with a point-and-click interface, so no typing is required and the graphics are much, much better. The remake also removes some of the frustration from the original version, in that you don’t have to slavishly follow the spell recipes step by step.
9. NetHack – One of the most brilliant, deceptively simple games ever devised. It’s a classic “roguelike” game, in that the player goes around gathering weapons, armor, and magic items, and killing monsters. But there’s so much more to it than that: little intricacies that make it seriously involving and entertaining. What other game would have you write spells with a magic marker (get it?) or allow you to remove the alcohol from a “potion of booze” by dipping an amethyst in it, because “amethyst” could be read as “a-methyst,” which sounds like removing methyl alcohol … sort of? It can be very frustrating, since when you die you have to start over, and there are lots of little things that can kill you instantly, especially early on. But you will feel a certain exhilaration the first time you ascend a character, trust me. (Multi-platform)
8. Seven Cities of Gold – By Dani Bunten, famed developer of M.U.L.E., this was a strategy game designed around the historical search for gold in the New World. The player takes the role of the captain of a Spanish fleet, and proceeds to explore, move goods around, and, of course, fight native peoples. It was a very involving game that even had genuine educational value, but don’t let that stop you. It’s just a heck of a lot of fun. (Windows-only, with Flopper emulator)
7. StarFlight – A graphics-intensive game, but while the graphics were good for the time, they were not at all the focus of the game. The player is a simple ship captain — not a fleet commander, just an explorer, going on mining, diplomatic, and occasional military missions. Eventually a plot develops in a way you will never expect if you’ve never played the game or heard spoilers, and it works really well even if it does get a bit space opera-y. It was really an amazing game that influenced many games that followed it. (Windows-only)
6. Wasteland – Possibly the best computer RPG ever, and that can be said without hyperbole. It had one of the best and most innovative character development systems ever built, one that you may find yourself wishing more games imitated. Despite graphics that are decidedly primitive by today’s standards, it managed to immerse players in its post-apocalyptic world brilliantly well. It has its annoying moments, but it’s still a game any lover of RPGs owes it to him or herself to play. (Windows-only)
5. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade – Available on Steam for $4.99 (Windows-only). This was one of the few movie adaptations that actually lived up to its promise. It pulled you into the movie’s storyline but with some great puzzles and fun sequences along the way. I must have played this game at least a dozen times before I got tired of it. The awesome Fate of Atlantis sequel is also available on Steam, but came out in 1992, so can’t get its own listing here.
4. Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar – This was the game that really changed computer RPGs from pure hack-and-slash into games with real stories that you could really be interested in. It may or may not be the best of the legendary Ultima series, depending upon whom you ask, but many consider it one of the best games ever made. It’s still highly playable, and still an easy world to immerse yourself in. (Windows-only)
3. StarFlight 2 – Yes, the sequel really is good enough to deserve its own place on the list. The game designers kept the pieces of the first game that worked best, changed some of the pieces that didn’t work as well, and added whole levels of complexity to the game. They created a plot easily as interesting as that in the original game, and added a great deal more humor to boot. (Windows-only)
2. The Fool’s Errand – An absolutely brilliant puzzle game, it was an instant classic when it appeared in 1987. Some puzzles were incredibly difficult, and some were ridiculously easy — once you figured out the trick, that is. Download it and play it now, in preparation for its forthcoming sequel, The Fool and His Money. (Windows, Mac, and Amiga — no, really!)
1. Infocom Games – These were some of the very best games of the decade, despite having virtually no graphics at all. The later Infocom games had some, but it was only as an afterthought. Some of the writing on the games is genuinely great, particularly in the two Douglas Adams worked on, the exceptionally difficult Bureaucracy and the legendary adaptation of his The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The set linked to is of Java applet versions of the games, playable online (even with save and restore capability) in any browser with a JRE plugin. Warning: Playing these games can quickly become a huge time-sink.
[This article was originally published in September, 2009.]