With consoles such as the NES and Genesis, the early 90's marked a substantial rise in the popularity of the gaming market. This was the period many gamers see as the true birth of gaming. Not every gamer from that era was concerned with the popular new consoles, though. Many gamers, including myself, were far more interested in the rapidly evolving PC game market. Genres that the PC would later become best known for were being born and there was a constant stream of fun, unique games coming from developers both new and veteran to the industry. The early 90's is the underappreciated golden age of PC gaming. The following games are what I believe to have been the best generated from it. As the term "classic" can be rather broad, I've decided to define it for this as being "games released in 1993 or before."

In Paganitzu you take on the role of Alabama "Al" Smith, an Indiana Jones-esque adventurer working his way through an ancient temple for...a reason that escapes me at the moment. The story would put the worst of B-grade movies to shame and the graphics during the "cut-scenes" were hilariously bad. Regardless, Paganitzu remains one of the most challenging puzzle games to date. The game's extreme difficulty and requirement of high mental concentration and strategy make it perhaps one of the most time consuming, frustrating endeavors in all of gaming history. This in turn made every puzzle in Paganitzu very rewarding to beat, and made you want to progress to the end for the sake of getting your ill-fated protagonist far away from that god-forsaken temple. Paganitzu was never intended for the casual gamer, which was perhaps why it fell into such obscurity during a time when most everyone was a casual gamer.

Lemmings puts you in command of a seemingly endless marching line of little green-haired men in blue suits that look absolutely nothing like real Lemmings. The game's objective is to safely guide most of the Lemmings from one side of the map to the other. The problem presented in this is that the Lemmings never stop walking, even when faced with bottomless pits, treacherous waters, flame throwing traps, and other deadly obstacles. The only way to save the Lemmings from their own stupidity is to continuously solve puzzles as quickly as possible. Oddly enough, this strange formula made for one of the best strategy or puzzle games ever to hit the PC, and certainly one of the most uniquely challenging as well.

7th Guest was the original reason to buy a CD-ROM drive. The basic premise is…that you have to wander around an extremely creepy mansion solving elaborate puzzles for no apparent reason. Well, there actually is a reason, but it isn’t revealed until much later. Replace “creepy mansion” with “bizarre island” and you could use this as a description for Myst. And yes, 7th Guest is very similar to Myst, but it was released a year earlier and is in my opinion far superior. The story of 7th Guest is revealed in bits and pieces throughout the game, most often through cut-scenes triggered upon completion of one of the mansion’s many puzzles. The game also has one of the most intriguing villains of early PC gaming: The mad toy-maker, Stauf. Another notable point of 7th Guest is it’s soundtrack, which can be considered exceptional even by today’s standards. Many of the puzzles in 7th Guest resemble classic board games and logic puzzles on steroids and “ultra hard” difficulty. It is by no means an easy game, and at many points it can be extremely frustrating. But it can also be a very rewarding experience, and even more so addicting. The game spawned a sequel released several years later called 11th Hour, which took place 70 years after the first game and offered a radically different atmosphere and story. A fan-made sequel called The 13th Doll is also in the works, though there is currently no release date.

To any experienced PC gamer, Doom requires no introduction, and is inarguable as an essential part of this list. As an overly badass space marine most refer to as “Doomguy”, you wander around a military base fighting demons from hell. Great premise, or greatest premise? Although not technically the first FPS game, Doom far surpassed its predecessors both in terms of technology and design. Doom also helped greatly increase the popularity of PC gaming as a whole, drawing attention from millions of non-gamers all over the world.

The oldest member of this list is Zork, the entirely text-based adventure game released in the early 80’s. Despite a complete lack of graphics and sound, Zork remains one of the most remarkable experiences one can have with a PC game. The Zork series ran from 1980 to 1997, spawning many sequels that lived up to or even surpassed the original. As the leaflet from the mailbox west of the white house most accurately states: WELCOME TO ZORK! ZORK is a game of adventure, danger, and low cunning. In it you will explore some of the most amazing territory ever seen by mortals. No computer should be without one!

Offering colorful graphics, full voice acting, bizarre yet addictive humor, and a truly interesting plot, Sam & Max stands out as one of the best LucasArts adventure games. Following the characters of Sam, an anthropomorphic dog in a detective’s outfit, and Max, an overly violent lunatic “lagomorph”, as they unravel an elaborate mystery that takes nothing but bizarre turns. The game features a large variety of unique locations, including The World’s Largest Ball of Twine (with a rotating diner at the top), a gator-infested golf course in Florida, a surreal take on Oregon’s Mystery Vortex, and a roadside stand offering a variety of vegetables that look like celebrities. The series has recently found new life on the PC, and new Sam & Max games are currently being released in episodic format.

Llamatron is more than likely the most obscure, arguably the most bizarre, and easily the most challenging entry on this list. To this day I have never completed it, and know of no one who has. The basic idea is this: You control a llama. For some reason, the llama is shooting bullets. You must guide said llama around a level in order to shoot a variety of bizarre enemies, including but not limited to telephones, pine trees, disembodied heads, mutant llamas, soda cans, pyramids, rolls of toilet paper, and other equally random things. Should you touch any of these enemies, you lose a life. The problem is this: You have to be moving toward the enemy in order to fire at it, and there are a LOT of enemies populating each level, and each level is rather small, and the enemies sometimes move VERY FAST. Truly, Llamatron is only intended for the most hardcore and masochistic of gamers, and if you value your sanity you’d best stay away. However, if you’re looking for an unparalleled challenge with some of the most surprisingly brilliant gameplay mechanics ever conceived, you might check it out.

Perhaps the finest example of a LucasArts adventure game, The Secret of Monkey Island is nothing short of a classic. As pirate-wannabe Guybrush Threepwood, you set out on an epic quest to…become a pirate, not so surprisingly. Over the course of the game you’ll find yourself mastering insult swordfighting, feeding drugged ham to a group of attack poodles, and using a rubber chicken with a pulley in the middle in order to cross a ravine, among other interesting activities that could only be found in a Monkey Island game. The Monkey Island series spawned numerous sequels of the course of a decade, and recently even inspired a high school play. I actually gave a talk on Monkey Island for a speech class, which went quite well, surprisingly. Basically, if you owned a computer in 1990 and didn’t have a copy of The Secret of Monkey Island, you weren’t one of the cool people. Or to be more precise, you fight like a dairy farmer!

The masses may have paid more mind to Mario, but the superior series of platformers belonged to the PC. With a bizarre premise and inexplicable protagonist, ever so appropriate to the platforming genre, the Commander Keen series was the PC’s flagship platformer series. You take on the role of boy genius Billy Blaze, AKA Commander Keen, defending the entire universe from certain destruction as you battle the arch nemesis of the series, Mortimer. The fourth game marked the beginning of a new Keen trilogy and presented greatly improved graphics and gameplay for the series. The Commander Keen series eventually included a total of seven games for the PC, with the two main trilogies and a spin-off, and one game for the GBA.

The art of adventure at its best. Return to Zork is a masterpiece in storytelling, gameplay, and frustration. The first of the Zork games to include graphics, Return to Zork starts in the same field west of a white house as the original, but upon opening the mailbox the story takes a radical turn, dubbing you as the grand prize winner of an all expense paid vacation to the Valley of the Sparrows and sending you off to a whole new side of the world of Zork. Return to Zork constantly presents the player with puzzles, requiring reasoning skills both rational and irrational. Costly mistakes can be made during these puzzles, however, leaving the player with a view of his own funeral and a brief explanation of the completely inane way in which they died. The world of Zork encourages adventure like no other, with strange and hilarious characters, landmarks, and items to be found at every turn. From gaining access to the Great Underground Empire through cheating at a drinking game, to making your way through the perilous creeping bogs with a stick as your only guide tool, Zork never fails to amaze. Return to Zork is not merely a game, but an experience, unique and completely unforgettable.

The choices on this list may seem odd to some, but with such a variety of excellent games available from the early PC gaming market it’s impossible to create a definitive list. I can think of many ways this list could have been done differently, and dozens of games deserving of mention, as well as a great many games from this era I never got around to playing. But the games I’ve written about here are definitely what I believe to be among the best of the best. Classics that can still be enjoyed today, that through inventive gameplay and irreplicable atmospheres cannot be easily surpassed. Worthy of praise for helping shape the gaming market we enjoy today and still able to stand by themselves, these games should neither be forgotten nor ignored by gamers of today, but instead embraced for what they are.

List by Teuvan (09/24/2007)

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