I don’t own an uncomfortably expensive gaming machine just so I can thoughtlessly crank almost every graphics setting in new games to ultra and then bask in the glow of their raytraced glory. I mean, I do do that, but I also can clog up my SSD with decades worth of incredible classics too, and then switch between crushing this year’s hottest RPG and casually clicking my way around something very, very, old, with a few taps of a mouse button.
I’ve got pretty much all of gaming history at my fingertips, and the best part is I’m completely free to spend as much or as little time as I want with all of them. There’s no FOMO with games I already MO’d on a decade or more ago, nobody is eagerly awaiting my hot take on some plot twist 30 hours into an RPG that lit up the charts in 2001, and most of them are so cheap the prices are almost offensive—I’ve paid more for snacks than I have some undisputed all-time legends when they’re on sale. Even at 2023’s idea of full price these old games don’t cost much more than pocket change.
Retro PC gaming is a non-stop party, and it only gets bigger every year. Below are some of the very best of the ’80s, ’90s and ’00s I played this year, all available to download on Steam or GOG with no fussy setup.
Back to basics: Mushihimesama (2004)
(Image credit: Cave Interactive)
Space Invaders never went out of fashion, it just evolved. Thanks to Taito’s legendary shmup gamers of a certain age have an almost primal need to shoot things coming from the top of the screen using the thing at the bottom, and for my money there’s not much on PC that can do it as well as Cave’s insect-filled Mushihimesama.
It’s visually fresh. I love making spaceships explode as much as anyone, but there’s something a bit special about flying over pastel-hued vegetation while doing it, or seeing a familiar turret-style bullet-spewer reimagined as a giant beetle bursting out of the sand. It’s got more depth than some strategy games, too: Scoring well becomes a complex points-boosting dance that could take months of practice.
The game’s only bettered by its sequel, Mushihimesama Futari, which still hasn’t been ported to PCs (or any other modern format) and yes I will stay mad about it until some kind publisher finally fixes this horrific error.
Alternatively: Touhou Chireiden ~ Subterranean Animism (2008)
(Image credit: Team Shanghai Alice)
You never forget your first Touhou shmup, and this one was mine. Much like every other game in the series, it’s filled with fairies, the sorts of characters that launch a thousand pieces of fanart, and gigantic laser beams—as any great game should be.
Best fighting game
Arcade stick workout: Capcom Beat ‘Em Up Bundle (1989 – 1997)
(Image credit: Capcom)
Come for Final Fight’s familiar Mad Gear gang whacking, stay for Battle Circuit’s aggressive pink flamingo and madcap sci-fi setting. This collection, spanning seven games released from the late ’80s to early ’90s, may not be the biggest one Capcom’s ever given us, but the highly curated selection gives it a strong theme and a laser-like focus the larger “anything goes” collections lack. This consistency makes it much easier to dip in and out of each game without breaking the mood. You know what you’re in for with this bundle—and that’s improvised weaponry, some sort of floor-delivered foodstuffs, and a damned good time.
It’s easy to have a good time with friends too, as thanks to their arcade roots these games were always designed with seamless drop in/drop out co-op play in mind, and don’t expect anyone to read a manual (to read anything, really) before getting stuck in. Just set up your sticks and play.
Alternatively: Samurai Shodown NeoGeo Collection (1993-2004)
(Image credit: SNK)
One of the greatest series the NeoGeo—maybe the entire fighting genre—has ever produced, conveniently brought together in one glorious package. Every game is beautiful, atmospheric, and unique, with a restrained approach to blood splatter and limb dismemberment that shocks in ways Mortal Kombat’s crude globs of gore and puddles of red can only dream of.
Bring out the graph paper: Eye of the Beholder (1991)
(Image credit: Westwood Associates)
I revisited this as a sort of warm-up for Baldur’s Gate 3—obviously they don’t play much like each other, but I felt I needed something to help get me back into the spirit of flinging Melf’s Acid Arrow at hordes of goblins again. What I soon ended up doing was playing EotB purely for the pleasure of stomping around Waterdeep’s sewer system one more time. This dungeon crawler’s still an essential experience even today, the real-time nature of the monster-wandering through its depths making every step into the unknown feel dangerous even before I’ve accidentally set off any traps.
Alternatively: Xanadu Next (2005)
(Image credit: Falcom)
Falcom’s game offers a very different sort of dungeon crawling, but it’s no less enthralling for it. This brilliantly atmospheric adventure—one old enough to have had an official N-Gage release—confidently takes its time to unfurl from a simple village hub into a compelling and complex epic.
Five more minutes: Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri (1999)
(Image credit: Firaxis)
As far as I’m concerned a PC’s not a PC until this strategy game’s set up somewhere in my games folder. Broadly speaking it’s not unfair to call this “Civ in Space,” although to leave the description there would do this timeless experience a huge disservice. There’s a sentient planet to deal with for starters, as well as the fragmented remains of humanity to form fast friendships and fragile allegiances with too. Whether dealing with enemy sabotage, reminding a cocky rival exactly who has the most powerful forces on the planet, or just quietly managing a (briefly) stable society, Alpha Centauri is one of those games where every “quick go” somehow becomes another all-nighter.
Alternatively: X-COM: UFO Defense (1994)
(Image credit: MicroProse)
I seem to enjoy games best when they’re infused with a lingering sense of dread, and X-COM has that by the UFOful. The most helpful advice I can offer is this: Dying a lot is a feature, not a personal failing. It’ll happen a lot. A lot. And a lot of those “a lots” will be your own fault. Embrace death, because it’s coming whether you’re ready or not.
Help, I’ve only got five minutes: Pinball Illusions (1995)
(Image credit: Digital Illusions)
Sometimes I don’t want a game to consume my every last thought until 3am. Sometimes I’d just like to spend five whole minutes having some fun with a game that didn’t mind if my tired brain could in that moment be outwitted by pocket lint. And what’s better than good old pinball for that?
I’d recommend playing the Vikings table first—great theme, impeccably pulled off, lots of fun details—before spending a little time with the futuristic Law ‘n’ Justice: which is definitely not inspired by the hit ’80s manga Appleseed. Briareos? Who? Just ignore the cyborg in the centre of the table, that could be anyone.
Alternatively: Pinball Fantasies (1994)
(Image credit: Digital Illusions)
There is no such thing as too much pinball, especially when GOG helpfully includes the game in the same “Pinball Gold Pack” as Illusions. Partyland and Stones ‘n’ Bones are my personal favourites, although every table’s worth spending your five free minutes with.