One thing that can be said for PC gaming is that you’re almost always guaranteed a memorable and in-depth gaming experience. This has been true for over 25 years, and during that time an impressive collection of games have been released.
If you’re a fan of PC gaming from way back, you might have been there in the 1990s, when gaming on mostly business machines started going mainstream. You might well have some fond memories of sitting up late pointing, clicking, strafing and shooting.
You’re not alone.
You might think that revisiting those times would require scouring eBay and second hand game stores for your old favourites, but what if we told you that you needn’t spend anything more than your usual monthly Internet bill?
Yep, we’re talking free games, a collection of nine retro PC classics from the 1990s that you can play in your browser or download and run in DOSBox or Windows today!
A remarkable first person shooter with a demonic tone, Quake began life as a successor to id Software’s Doom and Doom 2, and as such has many similar features of gameplay. The Quake game engine delivered real-time 3D rendering, and was used for many other games.
The series continued after Quake, dumping the macabre for a sci-fi setting, and over the years it has influenced various elements of gaming culture, such as online multiplayer/death-matches, machinima and modding.
A bunch of ways exist for you to get Quake for free. Most accessible is the browser based Flash port from www.freewebarcade.com/game/quake-flash/, while QuakeJS is a browser version of 1999’s Quake III. Although not a 90s game, you should also give QuakeLive.com a try.
(Quake III Arena is available on iOS.)
Released when the decade was barely a year old, Lemmings found fame across 8-bit and 16-bit platforms as a frustratingly addictive puzzler where the aim is to guide your green haired, humanoid lemmings (named after the real-life rodents with a penchant for mass suicide) to safety through a collection of increasingly difficult levels.
Controlled via mouse only, utilizing the type of point-and-click menu usually seen in adventure games of the age, Lemmings was a perfect game for desktop PCs.
Rather than bother with DOSBox and a game ROM, you can play Lemmings in your browser right now at www.elizium.nu/scripts/lemmings/.
One of the most influential games of all time, Doom ate up many an office lunchtime/overtime session as gamers around the world attempted to conquer the hellish denizens of Martian moons Phobos and Deimos in order to return to Earth.
Admittedly, most people didn’t know any of that, and just enjoyed it for what it was – an enjoyable and revolutionary first-person shooter that evolved an entire genre and a series that continues to this day.
You don’t need to boot up your old PC to play Doom these days. It’s available to play from start to finish in your browser at www.kongregate.com/games/mike_id/doom-1.
Fans of Doom may also be aware of Wolfenstein 3D (1992), a similar Nazi-themed game from the same developers, id Software. Wolfenstein 3D can also be played in your browser, absolutely free at wolf3d.atw.hu.
My affection for Sid Meier’s games has been mentioned elsewhere on MakeUseOf – I recently explained how Civilization 5 is best enjoyed in multiplayer mode – and its original version from 1991 is a game you shouldn’t miss. It features all of the elements of the modern version, only with graphics limited by the processing power of the devices for which it was intended. Hell, the game shipped on just a few 3.5″ floppy disks!
This is the birth of a gaming phenomenon, and you can play it on your PC now. All you need is DOSBox and the game ROM from MyAbandonware.
For a more polished Civilization gaming experience, you might prefer FreeCiv, which we’ve featured several times previously. However, the browser-based version (play.freeciv.org) of this Civilization II (1996) clone shouldn’t be missed.
Duke Nukem 3D (1996)
As well as having an awesome soundtrack Duke Nukem 3D is a fun, engaging FPS with comic book overtones and a sly sense of humour, poking fun at pop culture and contemporary events.
Far superior to the modern Duke Nukem Forever, this game comprises 30 levels across three “episodes”, although if you purchased any of the subsequent re-releases you would have found far more than this.
Preceding its release in May 1996 was a shareware demo release of the first level, and today you can get the full game via various sites, but the version at eduke32.com is our favourite.
Beneath A Steel Sky (1994)
Fans of dystopian sci-fi and cyberpunk flocked to this game, an interesting collaboration between industry legend Charles Cecil and comics legend Dave Gibbons (Watchmen and 2000AD among many others).
Using the then-popular point-and-click gaming system, Beneath a Steel Sky puts you in control of Robert Foster, who discovers corruption lacing the future society in which he lives. How he deals with this is up to you, but with such a tight storyline and impressive artwork, you’ll certainly enjoy finding out.
Command & Conquer Red Alert (1996)
A prequel to the previous year’s Command & Conquer (itself a reimagining of the Dune 2 game), Red Alert features an alternate history in the game’s mythology in which the West battles the Soviet Union for control of Europe.
Using a mouse-driven real-time combat system, Red Alert also features now-common strategy gaming features such as queued orders and unit grouping.
Red Alert was made freeware by Electronic Arts in 2008, ten years after they purchased Westwood Studios, the team that originally developed the game.
Head to cncnet.org/download to download your copy of the game, and any others you fancy from Westwood Studios (these are online multiplayer versions). If browser gameplay is more your thing, the original Command & Conquer can also be played in your browser.
The Elder Scrolls: Arena (1994)
A vast RPG with an open world, this is the first game in the epic series The Elder Scrolls (the most recent of which was the critically-acclaimed Skyrim).
Adopting a first-person view on the events taking place on the continent of Tamriel, The Elder Scrolls: Arena combines an evolved version of point-and-click with a somewhat violent use of the mouse as a weapon in melee combat. As well as offering a compelling story, the game is one of the best RPGs from the 90s.
You’ll need to use DOSBox to play The Elder Scrolls: Arena, which can be found at various places online including Cnet.
Fans of Halo might be interested in this triplet of gems, a sci-fi FPS series from Bungie. Marathon was first released in 1994, with Marathon: Durandal and Marathon Infinity following in 1995 and 1996.
Considered spiritual predecessors to Halo, the first game begins on the eponymous interstellar ship crafted from Martian moon Deimos, and challenges the player to complete increasing tough missions. Meanwhile the game is also notable for its impressive collection of multiplayer options. This is a really good series of games that will keep your interest to the end.
Happily you can try the Marathon Trilogy – also available on Mac and Linux – for free at trilogyrelease.bungie.org.
Play Them While You Can!
While researching this collection of games, I discovered the horrible truth that games made available to play online or download often don’t last long. A case in point is when Rockstar gave away free copies of GTA and GTA II, an offer that is sadly no longer available.
So, grab the chance to play these games today and spend as much time as you can appreciating and beating them – they may not be around for long.
Have you got a favourite 1990s game that you play online that has been overlooked here? Set us straight in the comments.