Alright, so we’re getting in to the real “meat and potatoes” of this Top 100 now. I know that I said there was no particular order, but I have been holding back when it comes to a few favourites.
30. The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind (Bethesda, 2002)
The Elder Scrolls series is one of the games industry’s longest running and most beloved series — with a projected release date for the upcoming TES6 sitting somewhere in the vicinity of 2022, that would mark almost 30 years since the series began in 1994 with The Elder Scrolls: Arena. Of all the TES games so far, the one that stands out the most to me is the third entry, Morrowind.
Morrowind stands out as a highlight in the series because of its rich world-building that largely resisted fantasy tropes. The province of Morrowind was heavily influenced by Middle Eastern and Asian culture, and the predominant power structures in the province were the Dunmer, as opposed to the Western European-influenced human societies of the world of Tamriel. Morrowind has a unique feel more remeniscent of Dune than Lord of the Rings, and it remains to this day Bethesda’s most ambitious and unique world.
Who should play it?: This is a tough one. Morrowind is widely regarded as one of the best of the series, alongside Daggerfall, but it hasn’t aged as well as its older brother. If you’re going to dive into this one and don’t have the benefit of nostalgia, look for some lore-friendly mods to update the experience.
29. Battlezone (Activision, 1998)
Activision has long been one of the unstoppable juggernauts of the games industry, responsible for an endless stream of mainstream blockbusters and mega-hits. Yet there was a time, in the PC Gaming Golden Age, when even the big game dev studios were taking risks with game design.
Battlezone takes its name from the 1980 Atari arcade hit, but aside from the sci-fi tank warfare link, the two games have little in common. It is set in an alternate history where the Cold War has reached the surface of the Moon, with the US and Soviet forces facing off against one another in a secret lunar war. Battlezone was incredibly unique, and was the first game to successfully merge the two most popular genres of the era, first-person shooters and real-time strategy. It was a risky gambit, but it paid off, and established a genre that has influenced many modern games.
Who should play it?: Thanks to the recent remaster and fairly timeless mechanics, Battlezone is still an enjoyable game. I recommend it to fans of action and strategy games, perhaps even fans of games like Arma 3.
28. Quake III: Arena (id Software, 1999)
One of the most fiercely contested rivalries in gaming history has been between first-person shooter innovator id Software and revolutionary upstart, Epic MegaGames (now known as Epic Games). This rivalry reached its apex in 1999, when Quake III: Arena squared off against Epic’s Unreal Tournament. It was the height of the FPS genre’s golden age, when multiplayer gaming was starting to really demonstrate that it was about to take over the world.
Quake III: Arena is raw, uncensored id Software style. Heavy metal music, gore and exaggerated weapons in a gritty industrial/gothic setting. Quake III didn’t take as many creative risks as its rival Unreal Tournament, and had far less content — but what it did have was polished to perfection. Multiplayer shooters had existed for a while, but Quake III signalled the dawning of a new era in the games industry.
Who should play it?: If you like first-person multiplayer arena shooters, Quake III is an essential game to play, if only for an education. This is one of the original arena shooters in its purest form, designed by the masters of the genre. Just be aware — if you play this online, the players you’ll be up against are very, very good.
27. Star Wars: Jedi Outcast
1997’s Jedi Knight finally brought the lightsaber to gaming, but it was Jedi Outcast that made gamers truly feel like a Jedi. Jedi Outcast continued the story of Kyle Katarn after he swore off the Force following his slip to the Dark Side in Mysteries of the Sith. After a few bland opening levels, Kyle once again takes up the lightsaber in his quest to defeat a new order of Dark Jedi.
While many remember the later Jedi Academy more fondly, I always preferred Jedi Outcast for its more engaging plot and greater complexity in lightsaber combat. Becoming a master with the iconic Jedi weapon required practice, and the best players in multiplayer moved with fluidity that was rivalled only by the heavily choreographed films, and Jedi Outcast really did shine in multiplayer. This is, without a doubt, one of the best Star Wars games ever made.
Who should play it?: Apart from Jedi Academy, there hasn’t really been a game that has captured the feel of this Jedi Outcast since. If the previous games in the series are a little dated for you, then at least watch a plot summary before jumping into this.
26. Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Any game prefixed with the name “Sid Meier” carries a lot of expectations with it, and Alpha Centauri was no different. Its safe to say, however, that when Alpha Centauri was released, those expectations were not only satisfied, but greatly exceeded. At the end of Civilization II, the player can win the game by building a colony ship to send to the Alpha Centauri star system, and this is roughly where the game picks up.
4X strategy games like this aren’t known for their strong narratives, instead focusing on deep mechanics and engaging gameplay. Alpha Centauri definitely had this, but it also had a surprisingly deep and engaging story. Each faction leader was given high quality voice acting, and the lore and world-building was on par with some of the best science fiction ever made.
Who should play it?: Alpha Centauri is a unique game that has no modern equivalent (don’t get me started on Beyond Earth). I recommend you set aside an afternoon and dive right into the mechanics of Alpha Centauri. At a very minimum, I’d recommend the PRACX mod before playing this, as it enables task switching and widescreen resolutions.
25. Dungeon Keeper II
“It’s good to be bad” was the tagline for this iconic Bullfrog game that cast you as an evil overlord managing a subterranean dungeon full of monsters. Dungeon Keeper II is Bullfrog at its finest, combining their expertise in the management genre with a unique style of humour that they had become known for over the years. Particularly memorable was the voice acting of Richard Ridings, who played the part of the player’s mentor, and whose gravelly voice players with children might recognise as Daddy Pig from Peppa Pig.
Dungeon Keeper II was the refinement of all the best aspects of the first game, and it also took Bullfrog into the 3D age, with beautiful lighting and bump-mapping effects. It wouldn’t be until 2015’s spiritual sequel War for the Overworld when gamers finally got the chance to experience a game on par with this gem.
Who should play it?: If you love management games like the Theme or Tycoon series, then Dungeon Keeper II is guaranteed to scratch that itch, and deliver some memorable humour as well. I’d also recommend the spiritual sequel War for the Overworld, which almost perfectly recaptures the vibe of its source material.
24. Black & White
One of the games industry’s undisputed “visionaries” is Peter Molyneux, a designer who practically invented the “god game”, and it was his mind behind the original Dungeon Keeper. After his departure from Bullfrog Productions in the late 90s, Molyneux founded Lionhead Studios, where he once again showed his penchant for pushing boundaries with Black & White, another unique take on the god game. The player is a god, competing with other gods for the worship of an island of primitive humans. To carry out your divine will, you chose an animal who acts as your avatar, and whose size and power grows as your faithful do.
Black & White is a feat in artificial intelligence. You don’t directly control your avatar — instead, you use your divine powers to teach it how to act, whether that be as a vengeful and and violent creature, or a peace-loving and caring creature. The beast’s appearance reflects its moral alignment, as do its actions. A good creature might help villagers build their town, while an evil creature may eat villagers who don’t sufficiently revere their god. Black & White is a unique game that has no modern comparison.
Who should play it?: Another game for fans of management games, Black & White will also appeal to fans of god games like the Populous series, Spore and From Dust.
Where to get it: Black & White is yet another gem that has disappeared into the past, and its legacy only lives on thanks to the abandonware community. You’ll have to check those sites or The Internet Archive.
23. Duke Nukem 3D
Here is a game that should be instantly familiar to anyone who grew up in the 90s, and even today, Duke’s legacy lives on — “problematic” as it might be in the modern era. Duke Nukem 3D is the third game in the Duke Nukem series, which began with a couple of Apogee platform games in the early 90s. It is full of crass humour, bikini-clad babes, aliens and violence, and Duke is an obscenely masculine parody of the macho action heroes that graced the silver screen throughout the 80s and 90s.
Duke Nukem 3D popularised 3D Realms’ Build engine, which became famous for being synonymous with highly interactive worlds. Everything in Duke Nukem 3D could be manipulated — pool tables, light switches, cameras, toilets, sinks. It created a highly immersive experience that clearly influenced later, more serious titles like Half-Life and Unreal.
Who should play it?: Good old Duke Nukem 3D was one of the most popular shooters of the 90s, so there’s a good chance you’ve already played it. But if you haven’t, I would highly recommend Duke for any shooter fan. Sure, the humour might be dated, but that’s part of the charm.
Where to get it: Steam
Long before the controversial saga of Star Citizen, Chris Roberts’ had his first attempt at the open-world spacesim genre with Freelancer. Like Star Citizen, development was fraught with outlandish promises, scope-creep and delays, and the game was ultimately pushed through to release by Microsoft. While Freelancer didn’t quite meet the promises made, it nevertheless delivered the sci-fi space experience that many gamers had been craving for years.
Despite its flaws, Freelancer is one of my most beloved games, and I have spent hundreds of hours of the years enjoying every part of it — the single player story is cheesy, but well executed, and the modding scene was always highly active, constantly breathing new life into the game. On top of that, Freelancer had one of the earliest implementations of multiplayer for the genre, and introduced a whole additional layer of fun to an already great game. Maybe, one day, we might see a remaster. Until then, I’ll just have to hope that Roberts’ can pull off Star Citizen.
Who should play it?: Freelancer lacks a lot of the detail and polish found in its modern descendants, but it does have a unique charm and approachable gameplay. If you’re looking to take your first dive into open-world spacesims, you’ll get a good taste of the fundamentals here.
Where to get it: Despite a cult following, Freelancer has never received an official rerelease. If you want to get your hands on it, you’ll need to rely on either The Internet Archive or the abandonware community.
21. Neverwinter Nights
Dungeons & Dragons and PC games have had a long history together, and some of the best PC games of all time are based on D&D adventures. But try as they might, games were never able to offer the freedom and social interaction that could be found at the tabletop. Neverwinter Nights represented a new era for D&D games, coming hot on the heels of the highly regarded Infinity Engine games from BioWare and Black Isle.
The core design goal of the Neverwinter Nights experience was to emulate the tabletop experience as much as possible. NWN was as faithful as possible to D&D 3rd Edition rules, and included extensive mod support and a robust multiplayer system that incorporated a Dungeon Master role. As a result, NWN has enjoyed one of the most enduring and dedicated fanbases of any modern CRPG, a fanbase that was still active even after the release of Beamdog’s remaster in 2018.
Who should play it?: 18 years after its release, there is a plethora of both official and user-created content for NWN, and even multiplayer is still surprisingly active. If you really want a CRPG full of diverse experiences that you can sink your teeth into, Neverwinter Nights is a great choice.