I know I said that this list isn’t ranked, but I’ve definitely saved some of my favourites for the top 20. Enjoy!
20. World of Warcraft (Blizzard Entertainment, 2004)
The biggest online game of all time hardly needs any introduction. Blizzard’s first foray into the increasingly popular MMO genre was a huge success, and that largely boiled down to having a thorough understanding of what gamers wanted. World of Warcraft was the ideal blend of complexity and approachability. At its peak of over 12 million subscribers in 2008, World of Warcraft had more players than the populations of 158 different countries.
World of Warcraft is still going strong, and its on its eighth expansion. The game has had an enormous influence on both the industry and wider society, and has even provided an interesting case study for epidemiologists studying people’s reactions to a pandemic (have a read about The Corrupted Blood Incident). I can’t even begin to count the hours I’ve spent playing WoW, and the release of World of Warcraft Classic was a long-awaited return to the series’ golden days.
Who should play it?: If you don’t mind a bit of grinding, a bit of theorycrafting, or you really dig the Warcraft lore, then World of Warcraft is essential. I would personally recommend Classic in order to best capture the feel of the series’ glory days, but try them both to see what really suits your play style.
19. Quake (id Software, 1996)
In 1992, they essentially created a genre with Wolfenstein 3D. In 1993, they perfected the genre with Doom. Then, in 1996, id Software set the stage for the next era of the games industry — the 3D-accelerated multiplayer era. While many developers were still trying to emulate Doom, Quake pioneered a bold new direction that would see the emergence of a entirely new method of playing shooters (the WASD+Mouse method), which was a reaction to the three-dimensional battlefields of their new game engine.
Quake signalled a new era for the games industry. With its release alongside large scale adoption of the Internet, multiplayer exploded. This led to the first great expansion of eSports in many years. It also heralded a new direction in game design, with almost all new shooters beginning to incorporate more advanced 3D engines. The style of Quake is unique to this day, and its sequels incorporated more of a science fiction aesthetic, rather than the Lovecraftian gothic horror of the first game.
Who should play it?: With the current resurgence of late-90s style shooters cashing in on nostalgia (such as Amid Evil, Doom Eternal and Dusk), now is a great time to go back the game that took the FPS genre into the third dimension. An essential title for FPS fans.
18. Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (Troika Games, 2001)
Troika Games was an unfortunately short-lived studio. It was made up of refugee developers from Interplay’s Black Isle Studios, following the collapse of the publisher in the midst of a wider economic bust in the technology industry at the turn of the century. In the studio’s short seven-year lifespan, they released three RPGs, all of which are regarded as some of the best examples of their respective styles. Arcanum is by far my favourite Troika Game, and that’s saying a lot, considering that I generally don’t like the steampunk fantasy genre.
The fact that such a small studio was able to create this immense, complex and reactive world using the limited tech available to them is a feat in itself. Arcanum’s depth truly shines with the way its world reacts to your character, and the game benefits from multiple playthroughs.
Who should play it?: Fans of Fallout 2 will appreciate this game — the influence is strong. If you’re a diehard RPG fan that appreciates sprawling, reactive worlds full of choice and consequence, you’ll also appreciate this game. But don’t expect any hand-holding. Arcanum is merciless with its consequences.
17. Wolfenstein 3D (id Software, 1992)
Before id Software’s 1993 masterpiece, Doom, there was Wolfenstein 3D, the game that practically created the FPS genre as we know it today. The concept of first-person gameplay had existed since the 70s, particularly in RPGs. Ultima Underworld was a major influence on the formation of the genre, inspiring John Romero and John Carmack to create Catacomb 3-D, which could technically claim the title of the “first” FPS genre. However, it was id Software’s next game, Wolfenstein 3D, that truly solidified the modern concept of the shooter — multiple guns, maze like levels, keys, doors, bosses and of course — gratuitous violence.
Wolfenstein 3D was based on the early 80s action games by Muse Software, and is set during World War II, with the player taking on the role of B.J. Blazkowicz as he attempts to escape prison of Castle Wolfenstein. Dozens of maze-like levels eventually culminate in a showdown with Hitler himself — wearing a giant robot suit with gatling guns on the arms. Defeating him results in a satisfying explosion of blood and gore, which replays in slow motion. I can still remember the first time I saw it, and thinking to myself “cool!!!”.
Who should play it?: Fans of shooters, even if they don’t play the entirety of the game, should at the very least give it a shot. It’s an important chapter in gaming history, and really highlights how much gaming has evolved the past three decades.
16. Diablo II (Blizzard North, 2000)
Way back in 1996, a tiny little American studio called Condor Games turned the RPG genre on its head with 1997’s Diablo. Blizzard Entertainment, with their eye for potential, acquired the studio shortly before the game was released, and Condor Games became Blizzard North. This multiplayer-focused, streamlined take on the RPG genre was a runaway success, and one of the driving forces behind the rapid uptake of multiplayer gaming in the late 90s. In 2000, Blizzard North released the highly anticipated sequel, and the gamers all over the world couldn’t get enough of it. Every criticism of Diablo had been ironed out, and every positive trait refined.
For me, Diablo II is a good example of a game that is pretty much as close as you can get to perfect. I remember spending literal days playing this game in multiplayer, both over LAN and online. This is probably why Diablo III was ultimately so disappointing to so many. It’s as if Blizzard removed all the aspects of the game that made it what it was, resulting a product that, while polished, ultimately didn’t have a soul. Here’s hoping that Blizzard recaptures the essence of the series with the upcoming Diablo IV.
Who should play it?: Fans of modern action-RPGs like Grim Dawn and Path of Exile will most likely get the most satisfaction out of Diablo II. If you enjoy Diablo III, then you might find the tone too dark, and the mechanics too complicated and dated.
Where to get it: Blizzard
15. Civilization II (MicroProse, 1996)
When I returned from living in the US in 1997, we got a new family PC, and one of the first games I played on it was Civilization II. I was only about 11 years old, and I had no idea what I was doing. But it was one of the only games I had access to, and I persevered like only young gamers know how.
In Civilization II you choose a culture and guide them from the stone age through to the modern era, building wonders and conquering foes. Its a series that has been so iconic no developer has really bothered to challenge it. The choice of best Civilization game varies immensely from player to player, and I would say the height of the series sits with Civilization IV. But it is Civilization II that I feel is the most iconic, and the game that fostered a love in the series.
Who should play it?: If you’ve not played a Civilization game before and are interested in trying it out, then Civ 2 is actually a decent option, as it lacks a lot of the depth and complexity of later games. However, it also lacks a lot of the user experience improvements of later games. Civ 2 is probably best played for its historical significance.
Where to get it: Oddly enough, Civilization II has never received a rerelease, and even if you manage to get an abandonware copy (the only way to acquire it these days) it is the most difficult game to run on modern PCs — you’ll have to rely on a Windows 95 or Windows 98 VM.
14. Unreal (Epic MegaGames, Digital Extremes, 1998)
1998 was the year when, finally, id Software began to face serious challengers in the genre they had created. One of those challengers was the upstart Epic MegaGames (now known as Epic Games) with the technical marvel that was the Unreal Engine, as shown in the suitably titled FPS game, Unreal. The first time I witnessed the opening scene (part of the main menu), I was utterly blown away. There simply was no game that looked this good. Not only did Unreal look amazing, the gameplay and design direction made this one of the best shooters of the era.
The release of Unreal kickstarted one of the iconic rivalries of the late 90s, between an up-and-coming Epic and veteran developer id Software, particularly on the multiplayer scene. Unreal held a trump card though, with native botmatch support. For gamers with limited or no access to the internet, they could still experience the thrill of multiplayer against the incredible AI of Unreal’s bots.
Who should play it?: Today Epic is synonymous with Fortnite, but for me it will always be the Unreal series that defined them. Unreal is still an excellent shooter, and I highly recommend both the single-player and multiplayer. It has some of the most unique weapons and levels ever made, and is unmissable for shooter fans.
13. Star Wars: TIE Fighter (Totally Games, 1994)
1993’s Star Wars: X-Wing fulfilled every Star Wars fans dreams, giving them the chance to fly an X-Wing starfighter down the Death Star trench and deal a devastating blow against the Empire. The following year, gamers got he opportunity to exeprience the war from the other side, piloting a TIE fighter deployed on one of the Empire’s Star Destroyers, taking part in a campaign to crush the Rebel scum.
TIE Fighter is easily one of the best spacesims ever made. The game perfectly replicated the epic battles of the films, and the campaign (consisting of several tours) was made up of diverse and challenging missions that told a brand new Star Wars story from a perspective not previously explored in Star Wars fiction.
Who should play it?: Spacesims are a bit of a niche genre, and this won’t be for everyone. But if you enjoy mission-based spacesims like Freespace and Wing Commander, you’re likely going to enjoy this. You’ll need a joystick, but with the resurgence of the spacesim genre, this is a no-brainer investment.
12. Starsiege: Tribes (Dynamix, 1998)
Today, large-scale objective-based shooters are one of the most popular types of multiplayer games — Squad, Battlefield and Planetside are all popular examples. However, in the late 90s, this genre was little more than a vague concept for most developers. The slow speed of predominantly dial-up internet connections was a major limitation on multiplayer of this scale.
Somehow, with some sort of network code sorcery, Dynamix delivered. The result was Starsiege: Tribes, a shooter loosely set in the Metaltech universe (Earthsiege, CyberStorm). Dozens of players faced off on one of 40 different levels (yes 40 — no DLCs either). They could configure their class (heavy, medium or light) with several different weapons and tools, and the game required good teamwork and communication to assault the enemy base. Tribes is an iconic shooter that consumed many dozens of hours, and will always hold a special place in my heart.
Who should play it?: If you’re willing to submit yourself to a bit of punishment, Tribes still has a somewhat active multiplayer community — but almost all of the players are very, very good. You’re multiplayer experience won’t quite be what it was like during the game’s peak, but it is fun nonetheless for those who love fast-paced multiplayer battlefields.
11. Baldur’s Gate II (BioWare, 2000)
Whenever I hear of people claiming that BioWare’s “golden era” was in the mid to late 2000s, I shake my head. Baldur’s Gate II is the game that represents BioWare’s finest hour. Hundreds of lines of dialogue. An enormous cast of lovingly crafted characters. Brilliant voice-acting. Meaningful side quests. An epic story with dozens of twists and turns in a lovingly crafted world. Baldur’s Gate II is one of the greatest RPGs ever made, for these reasons and many more.
I can’t even count how many times I’ve played through this game, trying out different party combinations and different choices along the way, and each time I come back to it, I seem to discover something new. The mod scene helps to keep this game alive, and some of the best characters are actually user-created ones. Baldur’s Gate II is one of the most faithful and considered depictions of the Dungeons & Dragons Forgotten Realms campaign setting in gaming history.
Who should play it?: If you’re a fan of RPGs, of Dungeons & Dragons, or just love epic, story-driven fantasy games, then Baldur’s Gate II will satisfy that desire. The first Baldur’s Gate game is great, but by no means essential. I’d recommend this game to anyone looking to play Baldur’s Gate III.