A friend of mine recently asked me to name five games I would recommend playing all the way through from beginning to end. There are tons of modern games (The Last of Us, Halo, Portal) that have great story lines, but I wanted to go somewhat old school with my list. I also couldn’t possibly limit myself to just five, so instead here are ten games I recommend modern gamers go back and play through from beginning to end. Note that this is different than my list of games that will always stick with me; the games on this post were picked for their memorable story lines and the rewards that come with completing them.
Presented roughly chronological, let’s start at the beginning.
01. Adventureland (Scott Adams, 1978)
It all begins with Adventureland. From Wikipedia:
“Adventureland is an early, formative work of interactive fiction. It was written by Scott Adams, and was not only the first text adventure game to be commercially published and sold for the then-new home computers, but was the first commercially available adventure game of any kind for use on the systems.”
Why you should beat it: Quite simply, because this is where it all began. All roads to computer gaming eventually lead back to these original text adventures. There are many, many text adventures to choose from, including all the great ones released by Infocom, but to really understand where it all began, you should play Adventureland.
When you’re done reading the list, you can play Adventureland online right here.
Although the original was text only, later releases added static pictures for players to look at.
02. Adventure (Atari 2600, 1980)
The Atari 2600’s hardware was somewhat designed with Pong in mind. Pong contains two players (“paddles”), a ball, and a background (in Pong’s case, a simple vertical line dividing the screen). Most of the system’s early games like Combat and Outlaw were technical riffs on this design. Programmers weren’t trying to figure out how to create an adventure game for the Atari 2600 back then — they were all trying to figure out how to make working games using the console’s limited resources. Most of the system’s early games (including the ones I just mentioned) took up 2k of ROM each. That’s way less information than the words in this article.
Inspired by Colossal Cave (the original text adventure), Warren Robinett decided to create an an adventure — unoriginally titled Adventure — for the Atari 2600. He used the Atari’s backgrounds for the mazes, the two “player” sprites for monsters, the “ball” as the player’s avatar, and the “bullets” for additional maze features. He crammed all of this into 4k.
In retrospect Adventure looks incredibly simple and archaic; at the time of its release, it was heralded as imaginative and groundbreaking. According to Wikipedia:
Atari’s Adventure sold one million copies, making it the seventh best selling Atari 2600 game in history. As the first action-adventure video game and first console fantasy game, Adventure established its namesake genres on video game consoles. In addition to being the first graphical adventure game on the Atari 2600 console, it was the first video game to contain a widely known Easter egg, and the first to allow a player to use multiple, portable, on-screen items. The game was also the first to use a fog of war effect in its catacombs, which obscures most of the playing area except for the player’s immediate surroundings. The game has been voted the best Atari 2600 cartridge in numerous polls, and has been noted as a significant step in the advancement of home video games. GamePro ranked it as the 28th most important video game of all time in 2007. In 2010, 1up.com listed it as one of the most important games ever made in its “The Essential 50″ feature.” (Link)
Why you should beat it: Because Adventure was first, and for so, so many game developers, this was the first adventure game they ever played. With 4,096 bytes of code, a few blocky blocks and a dragon that looked like a duck, Adventure showed gamers what video games could be — an adventure.
03. Karateka (Apple II, 1984)
Originally released for the Apple II but quickly ported to other home computer systems, in Karateka players must punch and kick their way through a long line of opponents in order to rescue Princess Mariko, who is being held prisoner by Akuma in his castle. At the time of its release, Karateka was championed for its fluid animation and cinematic experience.
Few martial arts games of the 1980s had plots. The plot of Karate Champ is “keep winning tournaments,” while the plot of Kung Fu Master is “keep punching people until you save Sylvia.” Karateka was different though, and was presented like a mini movie complete with cut scenes and jumps in location as parts of the plot were revealed. When I saw Princess Mariko slump down in her cell for the first time, man, I knew I had to save her.
Karateka also features multiple enemies that can kill you with a single blow, including deadly portcullis and, ultimately, Princess Mariko. There is no saving your game, no bonus lives, and no continuing. In Karateka dead means dead — no happy ending for you.
Why you should beat it: Because both in life and in Karateka, you only get one chance. This game taught me that video games could be tough, fair, and rewarding all at the same time. From finishing off a tough enemy with a triple kick-kick-kick combo to punching Akuma’s bird out of the air in mid-flight, the whole game just seems fun. And for most first time players, the game ends with you being insta-killed, causing them to slap their foreheads and play through the entire game again to rescue the princess. Just like real life, sometimes 99% isn’t enough for a woman.
04. Bard’s Tale III (Interplay/Electronic Arts, 1988)
Wizardry (released by Sir-Tech in 1981) is cited as one of the first D&D-style games to be released for home computers. According to Wikipedia it was the first true party-based role-playing video game, the first dungeon crawl, and the first to feature color graphics. I loved Wizardry, but it wasn’t perfect. Soon, other games inspired by Wizardry came along, improving some of the original’s shortcomings. One of those was Bard’s Tale, released by Interplay and Electronic Arts in 1985. This was followed by Bard’s Tale II in 1986 and what I consider to be the best game in the series, Bard’s Tale III in 1988.
While Wizardry mostly limited players to multiple levels of the same dungeon and Bard’s Tale introduced us to multiple dungeons in the land of Skara Brae, Bard’s Tale III had players travelling to multiple worlds, parallel dimensions, and ultimately through time. It combined the dungeon-crawl layout of the previous games with the ability to enter short parser-based commands in order to handle certain objects.
Why you should beat it: Not only does Bard’s Tale III have a great story that takes place in great locations, but to me it’s the epitome of first-person old-school dungeon crawlers (Ultima be damned). I love this game and has dreamed about wandering around Skara Brae at night, dealing with wandering Wights and Ice Giants. The pixel-drawn animations are charming, the music is creative, and the whole game is enormously rewarding. None of that stupid grinding levels for the sake of grinding levels here (unless you’re starting with a fresh party). Instead it’s all about quest after quest after quest.
05. King’s Quest (Sierra Online, 1984)
King’s Quest holds the title of “first 3D graphical adventure game,” although the definition of 3D as it applies to video games has changed throughout the years. King’s Quest was called 3D because Sir Graham, the protagonist, could move both up and down as well as left and right and could walk behind objects as well as in front of them. It’s a far cry from Oculus Rift, I’ll give you that, but at the time it was still pretty amazing.
King’s Quest was designed to show of the graphic and sound capabilities of IBM’s first foray into home computing, the PCjr. The PCjr launched for $1,269 ($3,000, adjusted for inflation); for that you got 128KB of RAM, a horrible chiclet keyboard, no mouse, and no monitor. (A complete system with a few sensible upgrades brought the price closer to $1,500.) Prior to its release it was predicted that the PCjr would put all other home computing companies out of business, but that didn’t happen. Instead the PCjr was discontinued after three years, after having sold only 500,000 units.
Despite the PCjr itself which is viewed as a flop, the greatest thing to come out of its release was a new line of games made specifically for it. Sierra On-Line was paid in advance to develop a launch title that would show off the PCjr’s capabilities (including its 16 color mode and three voice sound chip, provided by Texas Instruments). That game ended up being King’s Quest.
King’s Quest was the first point-and-click game, a genre that became very popular in the 80s and 90s and died off as other interfaces took favor. In these games you use your computer’s mouse to click on the screen, causing your character to walk to that spot. (Again, I realize that’s not particularly groundbreaking today.) For computer owners without a mouse, you could still control the game using the keyboard’s directional arrow keys. This control scheme was combined with a simple parser that allowed players to interact with this new graphical environment. To pick up a rock you can’t just type “GET ROCK” as you’ll be greeted with “You’re not standing close enough to the rock.” You have to actually stand near things to interact with them.
The plot of King’s Quest is simple and involves gathering three treasures hidden throughout the land. You’ll have to solve small puzzles to retrieve them. As a kid, I struggled with some of the puzzles; as an adult, you’ll struggle with the interface as you’ll constantly be trying to figure out what you can do and what you can’t do.
Why you should beat it: King’s Quest isn’t the best point-and-click adventure of all time, and if you like this style of game there are many better ones you should try including Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis, Sam and Max hit the Road, Full Cycle and The Dig. Sierra also released several other series of Quest games including Space Quest, Police Quest, and Hero’s Quest. That being said, it’s always fun to explore the roots of gaming. Better games came from companies like Sierra On-Line’s radical thinking and willingness to throw things to the proverbial castle wall to see what would stick. I found defeating King’s Quest a rewarding experience — and if you do too you’ll be excited to know that not only was the game later remade with better graphics, but there are also seven official sequels which will keep you busy for a long time to come.
06. Another World (Delphine Software, 1991)
In half an hour, Another World manages to tell a complete story. It does this without any spoken or written dialog and with no additional information other than the game presented on the screen. Of course it doesn’t need to show your health information because if anything touches you in this game, you instantly die.
Another World begins with a video showing Lester Knight Chaykin’s particle accelerator being struck by lightning. Even though as we watch the action unfold we know what’s about to happen before Lester does, the moment he is zapped away into the alternate universe the game takes place in is still jarring. The transition from introduction to gameplay is seamless; you will find yourself suddenly controlling the action you were just previously watching. (If you don’t, you will soon find Lester drowning…)
Why you should beat it: The polygon style of graphics used in Another World were very unique at the time, although I suspect many of the techniques invented for this game live on in modern gaming. Even if it didn’t have a groundbreaking art and storytelling style — which it does — it would still be a great game.
I’ll be honest with you: this game gets super hard toward the end and the odds of you beating it are pretty low. If you aren’t compelled to play this game, or don’t get very far after trying, you should at least watch the entire playthrough below on YouTube. It’s 23 minutes long and will spoil the ending for you, but it’s almost as enjoyable to watch as it is to play.
07. Maniac Mansion (Lucasfilm Games, 1987)
By the time Lucasfilm Games had entered the ring, point-and-click adventures had dropped manual parsers and were completely point-and-click games. While some gamers didn’t like losing the control the parser provided, being able to select verbs from a menu and objects from the screen took some of the guesswork out of “what am I supposed to do here” problems gamers previously experienced with these games.
Maniac Mansion introduced a few new ideas to the genre, including the ability to switch between multiple characters in multiple locations in order to solve puzzles, but more than that, it was funny. Really, really funny. I grew up with the Commodore 64 version, although the DOS version is also very good and playable. Some of the 16-bit version like the Amiga don’t look “right” to me. I suppose it comes down to what you’re used to.
Why you should beat it: Because you kind of need to play this one before playing the equally funny Day of the Tentacle. And because no other game on this list allows you to put a hamster in a microwave.
08. The Incredible Machine (Sierra On-Line, 1992)
While many games are about action and strategy, The Incredible Machine is all about puzzle-solving. On each of the game’s 84 levels, you’ll be presented with a puzzle and some tools, and it’s up to you to come up with some sort of Rube Goldberg device in order to complete the level’s goal. Some of the goals are simple (“Pop the balloons”) while others are more complex. On each level you’ll be given some combination of tools to deal with: pulleys, ropes, belts, gears, ramps, scissors, and so on. Many of these tools can be combined to make more complex machines. Guns can be made to fire by connecting their triggers to objects using ropes, for example. Little “motors” (hamster on treadmills) can be started by hitting their cage. All of the tools can be “flipped” left-to-right to modify their actions. For many levels there are often obvious and intended solutions, but you don’t have to solve them that way.
The first 20 levels are “tutorial levels” that pretty much tell you how to solve them. After that, the difficulty ramps up and you are on your own. You’ll spend half your time trying to come up with workable solutions using the few tools you’re given for each level, and the other half trying to make those things work. It’s a fun kind of problem-solving.
The game also comes with a free-form editor mode that allows you to create wacky machines with no restrictions. The Incredible Machine has two direct sequels as well as another similar line of games (The Incredible Toon Machine). Another line of Incredible Machine games (“Contraptions”) were released in the early 00s, and in 2011 the game was added to Apple’s App Store although it has since been retired.
Why you should beat it: Because it’s a game that can be both frustrating and fun at the same time, something that many modern games forget is possible. If you enjoy physics-style games like Crayon Physics, you should check this out. I don’t have to ask you to beat this one; once you get started, you’ll just want to.
09. Fallout (Interplay, 1997)
There were a lot of 8-bit games that tried to recreate post-apocalyptic worlds, but few did it better than Wasteland. Another Interplay/Electronic Arts teaming, Wasteland takes place generations after a nuclear holocaust. While the game is highly revered among classic gamers, for whatever reason the relationship between Interplay and Electronic Arts soured; the Wasteland connection was removed from EA’s planned sequel (Fountain of Dreams), and Interplay’s sequel (Meantime) was cancelled. Even through Interplay no longer retained the rights to Wasteland, ten years later in 1997 they released their own “spiritual” sequel: Fallout.
Although the setting is the same between the two games, Fallout is presented with a more modern interface. Although most of the game’s events play out in real time, combat remains turn based. The main plot of Fallout revolves around the search for water, although players will experience many side plots and tasks along the way. Despite the game’s gritty and bleak setting, Interplay injected the story with tons of humor.
Why you should beat it: Fallout was named “RPG of the Year” by GameSpot in 1997 and in 1988 by Computer Gaming World. PC Gamer once named it the fourth best PC game of all time. Artwork from the game is on display as part of the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s “The Art of Video Games” exhibition.
Fallout is one of the best computer role playing games ever released, period. In 2014 a fan-made sequel to Wasteland was finally released. It’s really good, and in fact the games interface is better than Fallout’s, but Fallout is such a great game that I stuck with it. But if you like it then yeah, definitely check out Wasteland 2 too.
10. Hotline Miami (Dennaton Games, 2012)
Hotline Miami (the newest game on my list by 15 years) takes place in 1989 and is presented in a top-down retro style. After receiving a somewhat cryptic message on your answering machine, as the first chapter begins you will decide what kind of mask to don (rooster, owl, tiger, pig, or horse, each with its own advantages) before walking into an enemy’s building and single-handedly massacring dozens of enemies. Some of them you will knock to the ground and bash their brains in mercilessly with a crowbar or a baseball bat before obtaining an Uzi or a shotgun and really getting the party started.
Throughout the game you’ll discover things are not all as they seem. Your senses will be thrown off by minor changes in levels and items coming and going. You’ll also get killed. A lot. A lot lot lot. Fortunately each level restarts immediately after your demise. Going in with guns blazing didn’t work? Try hiding around a corner with a bat and see if that doesn’t do the trick. Line of sight is important in this game.
The story itself is unsettling. Just when things don’t make sense, they’ll begin to, only to get more confusing again. There’s no point in trying to explain Hotline Miami. I played this game for hours a night every night for a week or two before beating it. It wasn’t until the very end that I understood the entire plot. At least I think I did.
Why you should beat it: Hotline Miami moves fast, plays fast, and gets weird fast. Figuring out how to beat each level is so much fun that you’ll quickly lose track of how many hundreds of lives you’ve violently taken. Which is okay when you’re the good guy, right? At least I think you’re the good guy. The game’s story is good, but more than that it goes to show how effective old school graphics and gameplay can be when done right. Also, Hotline Miami 2 was released last month.
The following games came up while I was brainstorming but eventually fell off the list. They’re all great games and rewarding to play through in their own right: Prince of Persia, Oregon Trail, Ikaruga, Double Dragon, and countless others.
Now it’s your turn. What games do YOU think people need to play through? New or old, doesn’t matter — let’s hear your additions to the list!