Edit: This article has been updated with Montezuma’s Return because I’m a big stupid-head and wrote about a game twice. Whoops!
40. Age of Empires II (Ensemble Studios, 1999)
1997’s Age of Empires was released at the height of the RTS craze, and is well deserving of its reputation as one of the best strategy games ever made. Together with StarCraft, Total Annihilation and the Command & Conquer games, it is one of the genre’s defining titles. So it goes without saying that expectations were pretty high for Age of Empires II. Ensemble Studios not only met those expectations, it exceeded them with ease.
Age of Empires II refined everything that made Age of Empires great, though from a mechanics point of view there was little to improve. Age of Empires II really shone in the graphics department — every unit, every building was lovingly illustrated and animated. Like many RTS games at the time, it also included a powerful map editor — a feature disappointingly missing from many of today’s RTS games.
Who should play it?: If you are an RTS fan, you simply must play this game. It is indisputably brilliant. The remastered Definitive Edition is the way to go.
39. SimCity 2000 (Maxis, 1993)
SimCity 2000 is the second title in the SimCity series, and although SimCity 4 is probably the height of the franchise mechanically, SC2k is the game that I have the closest attachment to and the one I’ve spent the most hours with. There is something uniquely charming about its retro-isometric perspective, wonderfully detailed pixel art, and deep gameplay.
Success in SimCity 2000 is a delicate balancing act — keeping both your citizens and your treasury satisfied requires careful management, and some decisions you make might not reveal their consequences until its too late. Make sure you also have a bit of emergency cash too, just in case those aliens invade.
Who should play it?: Fans of the city-building genre might find this an interesting little retro title, but the modern Cities: Skylines has a great deal more to offer in features. This one is mainly a nostalgia recommendation, although it is definitely still a fun game.
38. Death Rally (Remedy, 1996)
My first exposure to Death Rally was on from a demo CD (possibly PC PowerPlay magazine). It doesn’t look like much — a nicely presented, top-down racing game. But it has a lot more to offer than that.
Death Rally puts players through a series of four-car races, but these aren’t your regular cars — they’re armed to the teeth with spiked bumpers, machine guns and mines. Sure, you can reach the finish line first — or you can just eliminate everyone else in the field. It’s fairly clear to me that the original Grand Theft Auto (DMA Design, 1997) was influenced by the driving in this game. It’s a simple but strangely addictive formula, and is still a blast to play almost 25 years later. Disclaimer! Don’t bother with the 2012 remake, it lacks all the character that made the original so iconic.
Who should play it?: For such a low price (AUD $7.50 — less than two coffess), there’s no harm in trying it, and I promise that if you love action/arcade racers, or are a fan of the original GTA, then you’ll find something here.
Where to get it: Steam
37. Big Red Racing (Big Red Software, 1996)
Big Red Racing is one of those games that I probably never would have played were it not for demo discs. This one was on a Harvey Norman demo disc (many of the games in my top 100 came from that CD). BRR is an irreverent racing game filled with offbeat and/or crude humour. It sticks out in my mind due to its distinctive visual style — an early adopter of the 3D technology that was beginning to take the gaming industry by storm, BRR has an almost surreal appearance.
The variety in tracks and vehicles is what makes this such a great racing game. You race everywhere from American Deep South everglades to African savannah to the Moon, in all sorts of bizarre vehicles like moon buggies, big rig trucks, six-wheeled bathtubs and helicopters. I spent many hours in the split-screen mode, huddled over a keyboard with my friend as we got distracted from racing and spent hours exploring trying to find the biggest jumps possible in the level. You can read about those experiences in my other article about childhood gaming.
Who should play it?: Big Red Racing is a good example of mid-to-late 90s creativity in the games industry, but it might seem a little aged to modern gamers. If you are a proponent of game history, definitely check it out. But if you like modern gaming comforts, this might be a little bit of a chore without the nostalgia to drive you.
Where to get it: Big Red Racing is another game that has been relegated to abandonware status, so you’ll need to check abandonware sites or Archive.org to find it.
36. Omikron: The Nomad Soul (Quantic Dream, 1999)
Omikron: The Nomad Soul is a work of art, plain and simple. This was the first game from David Cage’s Quantic Dream, a developer that would eventually become famous for their film-like story-telling starring high profile actors. Omikron set the bar high however, with diverse gameplay in a (for the time) huge open-world. The style is late-90s cyberpunk — classic cyberpunk tropes, but with a distinctly 90s-surrealist vibe.
One of the most notable aspects of Omikron, aside from the deeply engaging plot, was the involvement of the late musical genius, David Bowie. I had grown up exposed to Bowie’s music, but this game spurred me to really pay attention to his music, and the game’s intro is one of my favourite Bowie songs. Bowie’s influence permeates the entire game, making this a visual and aural feast from start to finish.
Who should play it?: If you enjoy Quantic Dream’s other games like Heavy Rain, Detroit: Become Human and Beyond: Two Souls, then you should certainly give this one a go to see where it all began for Quantic Dream. And for Bowie fans, this is a must-play.
35. Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines (Pyro Studios, 1999)
The real-time tactics genre was thoroughly established by the late 1990s thanks to series like Jagged Alliance. Then, in 1999, Spanish developer Pyro Studios raised the bar to a level barely reached since with Commandos: Behind Enemy Lines. This is a World War II-themed real-time tactics game, where the player controls a cast of special operatives, each with their own distinctive personalities, as they operate behind enemy lines to try and defeat the Nazis.
The game is, to this day, one of the most beautiful games I’ve played, and is evidence that good graphics are more about skill and technique rather than technical complexity. The gameplay is difficult, but not unachievable. Each mission will require several attempts, but every success is immensely satisfying.
Who should play it?: If you love tactics games, then Commandos is the gold-standard and a must-play, as is the entire series. Whatever you do, avoid the remaster of Commandos 2. For some ridiculous reason, Kalypso Media thought it appropriate to remove all references to the Nazis and Imperial Japan from a game about World War II.
34. MDK (Shiny Entertainment, 1997)
MDK is one of the strangest, most visually unique games I’ve ever played. This unique artistic style was the product of an era where investors knew that games were big money — they just hadn’t worked out how to exploit the market yet. As a result, investors were throwing bucketloads of money and developers and giving them complete creative freedom in the hopes that something would stick.
MDK is a fairly standard third-person action game, but is memorable for its surreal 90s style, offbeat humour and excellent graphics. This was another Harvey Norman demo disc game, and I remember — even in 1997 — being fascinated by its style. It is not exactly a pure PC game, and is most commonly associated with the PlayStation. However it is a brilliant game that transcends its platform.
Who should play it?: Fans of action platformers and third-person action, particularly the old Tomb Raider games, should enjoy this. It has some archaic design and mechanics, but is still a blast to play.
33. Carmageddon (Stainless Software, 1997)
Carmageddon is one of the most infamous PC games ever released, and was at the centre of numerous debates around violence in games. In hindsight, it all seems rather silly — the moral fabric of society didn’t irreversibly decay, and we’re not all serial killers. And no, I’m not traumatised by witnessing a collection of vaguely-human pixels turn into a smear of vaguely-blood-like pixels.
It would be a disservice to Carmageddon to only remember it for its controversy. This is, at its core, an excellent racing game, with a frantic driving model and diverse level design. It’s full of dark humour and silliness, and it even treats its own gore-soaked gameplay as a satirical take on videogame violence.
Who should play it?: Carmageddon really is a one-of-a-kind game, and it would be hard to pick who specifically would appreciate it. If you enjoy the bedlam of the GTA series’ vehicular elements, or the destruction of the Burnout series, then Carmageddon might be for you.
Where to get it: GOG and Steam
32. Montezuma’s Return (Utopia Technologies, 1997)
Here’s an odd one. Montezuma’s Return is a first-person platformer, based on the 1984 hit Montezuma’s Revenge. Were it not for this game’s appearance on a demo disc from PC PowerPlay, I can almost guarantee I would never have played it.
Montezuma’s Return has an odd feel to it — almost surreal. I honestly can’t think of many games that have replicated what it was trying to do, and while it may not be remembered by many, it is certainly a memorable game for those who did play it.
Who should play it?: Fans of platformers should give this one a go, but its appeal outside of that market might be limited. Its hard to say who would appreciate Montezuma’s Return, as it is such a unique title.
Where to get it: This one is another title that disappeared into the abandonware heap. You’ll need to rely on abandonware sites or The Internet Archive to find a copy of this.
31. Portal / Portal 2 (Valve, 2007, 2011)
Portal began as little more than an offshoot of the Half-Life series, but it soon took the world by storm. I doubt even Valve had any idea of how big Portal would become. What made this deceptively simple puzzle game so amazing all boiled down to one simple mechanic — the portal gun.
Using the blue an orange portals created by the gun, the player was put through a series of trials “for science”, under the watchful eye of the malevolent GLaDOS artificial intelligence.
Aware of the huge success of Portal, Valve committed to making a full-blown game with Portal 2, rather than the simple offshoot that was the first game. Portal 2 is basically a perfect game — the puzzles are balanced, the plot is engaging and the voice work is world class — Stephen Merchant and J.K. Simmons both shine alongside Portal’s Ellen McLain.
Who should play it?: Everyone. Simple as that. This is such an iconic piece of entertainment history it cannot be missed.