10. Unreal Tournament (Epic Games, Digital Extremes, 1999)
Unreal Tournament remains, to this day, the undefeated gold standard for multiplayer arena shooters. There is simply no game since that has nailed the polished design, diversity of levels, weapons and gameplay, well executed graphics and overall balance like Cliff Bleszinki’s Unreal Tournament. UT was the big challenger for FPS supremacy against the veterans at id Software with their multiplayer shooter Quake III Arena, and they nailed it.
I received UT as a Christmas present in 1999, and I could not put this game down. The modding scene kept the game alive for many years, and the ability to play against highly-configurable and intelligent bots meant that limited access to the internet was not an obstacle to enjoying this game. To this day I still play UT, and prefer it over all of its sequels — even the highly regarded Unreal Tournament 2004. UT is, for me, a perfect game in every sense of the word.
Who should play it?: If you love modern arena shooters, like Overwatch and Quake Champions, or you simply enjoy fast paced shooters in general, then give this one a go. Take it easy with the bots though — I guarantee that, no matter how good you think you are, they will smoke you. And if you decide to play online, then good luck — the few people who are still playing this game haven’t stopped since 1999 and they’re bloody good.
9. Star Wars Dark Forces II: Jedi Knight (LucasArts, 1997)
Another Christmas present, this time in 1997. I have been a fan of Star Wars as long as I remember — one of my earliest memories is The Empire Strikes Back. So when I first had the opportunity to wield a lightsaber as the Kyle Katarn in the demo of Jedi Knight, I was hooked, and put this game on the Christmas wishlist.
Some of my fondest gaming memories are tied to this game. Not only does it have an excellent single player campaign with huge, expansive levels, Jedi Knight multiplayer was in its own league, and there was simply nothing else at the time that could capture the feel of an epic lightsaber duel. I love this game, not just for the gameplay, but for the memories I have of that time in my life.
Who should play it?: Jedi Knight is a little bit janky by today’s standards, but it has a unique look and feel that is worth experiencing. I highly recommend it to fans of Star Wars, and for fans of late 90s shooters, this is a very interesting game to see what other shooters were doing when Quake was king of the roost.
8. Sam & Max Hit the Road (LucasArts, 1993)
From the late 80s through to the late 90s, LucasArts was one of the most respected game developers in the industry. One of the reasons was their Star Wars games, of course. But another, perhaps far greater, reason they were loved so much was their adventure games. Alongside Sierra, LucasArts played a critical role in defining this immensely popular genre. There are so many brilliant LucasArts adventures to choose from — Monkey Island, Day of the Tentacle, The Dig — but my favourite LucasArts adventure, and one of my favourite games ever, is Sam & Max Hit the Road. Based on a comic created by LucasArts’ animator Steve Purcell, Sam & Max Hit the Road is the story of an anthropomorphic dog and rabbit who are freelance police, tasked with locating a bigfoot that has gone missing from a local carnival.
Sam & Max Hit the Road is full of LucasArts’ trademark of gags and humour, excellent voice acting and brilliant animation that is on par with some of the best animation studios of the 90s. Its a fairly linear experience, and I can safely say that I’ve memorised the solution to every puzzle — but I still find enjoyment in repeated playthroughs for the timeless jokes and loveable characters.
Who should play it?: Sam & Max Hit the Road, like many adventure games, is a timeless experience that has aged quite well thanks to its simple game design. Adventure games have seen a resurgence in recent years, so if you’ve yet to experience one of the greats from the genre’s golden age, now is the time to do it.
7. Half-Life 2 (Valve, 2004)
In 1998, the original Half-Life shook up the FPS genre. For years, the genre was associated with beefy action heroes wading through pools of blood to single-handedly save the world. Half-Life introduced us to Gordon Freeman in an intelligent sci-fi story that challenged those stereotypes. Half-Life was such an immense success, it catapulted Valve to prominence, and the highly active modding scene kept them there. In 2004, Valve debuted Half-Life 2 on its brand new platform Steam. The brilliant follow-up is, to this day, widely regarded as one of the best games ever made.
Half-Life 2’s world is equal parts War of the Worlds and Ninteen Eighty-Four, and was built in the highly regarded Source game engine. It proved that the FPS genre was just as capable of telling an engaging story as any other genre, and set a standard that other games in the genre have endlessly tried (and often failed) to reach.
Who should play it?: The entire Half-Life series is regularly on sale for peanuts, and over fifteen years later, Half-Life 2 still looks good. It is an essential game for fans of the genre, and fans of cerebral sci-fi. Unfortunately, the series ends on a cliffhanger, and it is unclear if we will ever see it resolved.
Where to get it: Steam
6. Rocket Jockey (Rocket Science Games, 1996)
In my mind, Rocket Jockey is a game that was released about 20 years too early. It is the very definition of a cult classic — most gamers have probably never heard of it, but those that have adore it unconditionally. Rocket Jockey is a sports game where the player controls a rocket-powered flying bike in Rocket Racking, Rocket War (a last man standing game mode) and Rocket Ball (soccer with rocket bikes). The bikes have a very poor turning circle, requiring players to use grappling cables that fire from either side of the bike to latch on to objects and slingshot themselves around corners.
Rocket Jockey was well ahead of its time, and if it had been released at the same time as a game like Rocket League (which was inspired by Rocket Jockey), then it is entirely possible this could have been a megahit. Finally in 2018, Burn Ward Games announced a remake, but so many years had passed it failed to garner much interest — what even was this game?
Who should play it?: Fans of Rocket League will enjoy this, as will fans of fast-paced racers like Episode I: Racer and Wipeout. It is notoriously difficult to get running, but once you start playing, you’ll struggle to put this one down.
Where to get it: Rocket Jockey, like so many forgotten classics, has for a long time been tied up in legal limbo, and no one is quite sure who owns the IP. You’ll have to rely on abandonware sites for this one.
5. Tyranny (Obsidian Entertainment, 2016)
I’ve previously written about Tyranny, in my first article on Medium a few years ago. In that article, I wrote about how Obsidian’s incredible writing added depth and complexity to a theme that is usually approached in quite a basic or juvenile way — the concept of evil. In this RPG, an evil god-like being known as Kyros has conquered most of the known world, and you are one of his champions leading the subjugation of the last hold-out. What unfolds from here is a game that offers unique commentary on the nature of power and morality, and has one of the most well-executed plots of any game I’ve ever played.
Tyranny was released at a time when traditional RPG games were making a bit of a comeback, and it was somewhat lost in the crowd. Sales were lacking, and it is unlikely that this will receive a sequel based on that; but if there’s any game that deserves one, it’s Tyranny. This is a game that will truly challenge you with every choice, and is probably one of the best RPGs released in recent memory.
Who should play it?: Fans of traditional late 90s RPGs like Baldur’s Gate and Fallout will appreciate this game. If you enjoy deep and engaging stories in your game that really challenge you and force you to embrace a perspective that challenges you, then this game will also appeal to you.
4. Red Dead Redemption 2 (Rockstar Studios, 2019 (PC release))
This is Rockstar’s magnum opus, and undoubtedly one of the finest games ever released on any platform. There are precious few games that have made me feel as emotionally involved as this one, and even fewer that have made me shed a tear. Red Dead Redemption 2 is a monumental improvement on the previous game in the series, which was already one of Rockstar’s best games, and certainly one of my favourite console releases.
The story of Arthur Morgan and his fellow band of outlaws and outcasts is one of the best tales of the Wild West in any medium, be that film, literature or games. The central story is full of brilliant moments that would make any Hollywood director jealous, but it also shines in its side quests and quieter moments. There are few moments in gaming more sublime than the sound of feet crunching through deep snow as you track an animal deep in the isolated Grizzlies mountain ranges.
Who should play it?: Everyone. Everyone should take any opportunity they can to play this game, even if it is only for a short few hours.
3. The Witcher III: Wild Hunt (CD Projekt Red, 2015)
It was a hard choice choosing between The Witcher II and The Witcher III for this countdown. Both are brilliant games in their own right, but The Witcher III comes out in front purely for the incredible passion and detail apparent in every moment of the game. The world of The Witcher III feels alive, from the villagers going about their daily routines, to the bustle of the markets, to the simple detail of the grass and trees gently swaying in the breeze. Most of all, The Witcher III shines in its storytelling — every line of dialogue is delivered flawlessly, and the player is faced with many choices that will genuinely challenge them.
CD Projekt Red, through their combination of attention to detail, generous content delivery (16 free DLCs!), and “when it’s ready” game development mentality have rightly established them as one of the most respected game development studios in the modern games industry. Best of all, they are still independent, meaning they are able to exercise 100% freedom in how they make their games.
Who should play it?: The Witcher III is pretty much an essential game for any fan of RPGs or open-world adventures. Whatever you do, don’t miss the expansions; the best moments of this game are in the Heart of Stone expansion, and Olgierd von Everec is one of the most nuanced characters I’ve ever seen in a game.
2. Planescape: Torment (Black Isle Studios, 1999)
Though this list is in “no particular order” there is no doubt that Planescape: Torment would appear in my top ten every time. This is a game that could only have come about in the late 90s — when game development was beginning to become sufficiently mature enough to tackle complex themes, while at the same time having the freedom to really experiment with game design ideas. Torment is often described as an interactive novel, and features some of the best writing of any computer game ever made. It is set in the Planescape setting of the Dungeons & Dragons tabletop, a setting known for its embrace of philosophy and metaphysics.
It is entirely possible to play through the entirety of Planescape: Torment with hardly any combat, resolving many conflicts through dialogue alone. Alternatively, you can fight your way through every encounter. It is this freedom that makes Torment shine in subsequent playthroughs. Most unique of all is the protagonist’s condition — he is unwillingly immortal, and seeks to cure his immortality. Many of the games puzzles require you to take advantage of this condition — for example, one way to enter the mortuary is to literally die, and you will resurrect inside shortly afterwards.
Planescape: Torment is one of those games that makes me want to encourage everyone to experience gaming — it has the sort of story that stays with you forever, and is an experience you can only get from this medium.
Who should play it?: Though Torment deserves universal recognition for its brilliance, it doesn’t necessarily have gameplay that everyone will enjoy. If you don’t mind dialogue-heavy RPGs (such as Disco Elysium), then you will enjoy Planescape: Torment. But even if it doesn’t sound like its the sort of game for you, I would encourage you to at least give it a try.
1. Doom (id Software, 1993)
I tried as much as possible to avoid this top 100 reflecting the “token” top 100s that the gaming press put out as an annual obligation. Doom regularly features in the top 10 of those countdowns, and often at number one. But I cannot deny that this is a game that deserves it. Doom revolutionised a genre, and PC gaming is forever changed because of this game.
Doom sits at my number one not just because it “should”. It has had a genuinely enormous influence on my gaming life, and I regularly play it and still enjoy it, even 27 years after it was released. I most recently played through it from start to finish this year, in 2020.
Everything in Doom is an example of perfection — the level design, the music, the sound effects, the graphics (for the time). It lacks almost any plot, but it doesn’t need it. This is gaming in its purest form.
Who should play it: It’s Doom. It deserves to be played by everyone, if only so you can understand what this thing is that has such a massive influence on the games industry.
That about wraps things up. Thanks for sticking with me on this. One thing I’ve learned is that, next time I try and do this, I need to plan out my top 100 well in advance — unfortunately I had to cut a few games that, in hindsight, I probably should have added. I’ll follow this article up with another highlighting some notable mentions, and after that I’ll do a bit of a post-mortem — what are some of the stats on my top 100, and what does that say about me as a gamer?
Until next time, I hope one of my recommendations has introduced you to something new that you enjoy as much as I have.