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9/27/2015

Top 101 PC Games, #40-31

40. Lemmings (DMA Design, 1991)

A popular puzzle game that spawned a horde of rereleases, updates, sequels, expansions, clones and parodies, Lemmings is a simple concept - get a quota of Lemmings safely to the goal.  To this end, one picks a few out of the crowd and assigns them jobs meant to help the others avoid danger or bypass obstacles - whether simply stopping and forcing them to go the other way, digging through dirt, climbing up walls, or blowing themselves up to clear an obstacle from the others' path.  Once enough are safely through the exit door, the next stage begins.  Simple enough concept, but many of the later stages get deviously difficult, requiring some very fast thinking to succeed.  Given just how prolific and popular the series was, if you owned basically any platform out in the early '90s, you probably played or at least saw Lemmings or one of its sequels/spinoffs/expansions at some point.  And thankfully, all of them were pretty damn fun.


39. Descent (Parallax Software, 1995)


A relatively unique take on first person shooting action, Descent was basically Doom put into the third dimension - you controlled a spaceship that could move and strafe in any direction and were set in a maze full of various robots and traps, tasked with rescuing a number of hostages, blowing the reactor and escaping before the whole place goes up.  It was a bit hard to adapt to (especially if you didn't have a flight stick handy and had to make do with a mouse-keyboard setup), but it was visually impressive for the time and it played great once you adapted to it.  The later levels do tend to get aggressively hard, especially when super-durable enemies with powerful hitscan machine guns start to become common, but nonetheless, Descent is a great time.


38. Commander Keen in Goodbye Galaxy! (id Software, 1991)


The fifth and sixth parts of the Commander Keen series (though labeled as 4 and 5... it's complicated) were a big leap forward for not just platformers on the PC, but for the series itself.  Smooth-scrolling, fluid platforming action was almost unheard of in DOS games at the time (compare this to say, Duke Nukem 1 or the Mega Man DOS games - BIG difference!), and the level of graphical detail was sublime and imaginative, looking like a cartoon on your computer.  Many of Keen's trademark elements return - the stun gun, the pogo stick and tons of collectibles - but the smoother controls and new capabilities like climbing up poles, unlocking rooms with keycards and mantling up ledges made its gameplay both more fun and more complex than previous entries.  He may not be as well-known as Sonic or Mario, but Keen was the closest thing the PC platform had for a good, long while.

37. Toonstruck (Burst Studios, 1996)

I've played more than a handful of point-and-click adventure games that operate on cartoonish logic, but it always felt rather out of place when they were trying to build a serious atmosphere and story.  Toonstruck definitely broke that mold by putting the player in, well, a cartoon.  Bright, colorful and slightly off-kilter environments, professionally animated characters voiced by big-name actors like Tim Curry, Tress MacNeille, Dan Castellaneta and April Winchell, and starring none other than Christopher Lloyd, digitized and superimposed atop the action like Roger Rabbit in reverse.  There's a lot of genuine talent and adult humor on display throughout; it's just a shame that it ends on a very abrupt cliffhanger and, owing to copyright issues, the second part of the story has yet to be released.

36. Carmageddon (Stainless Games, 1997)


A game which blends all things late-90s together into one - charmingly blocky 3D engines (BRender, the same technology behind 3D Movie Maker), metal music, gratuitous violence and pure action.  Case in point, Carmageddon is a combination of an arcade racer, an open-world game and a demolition derby with three win conditions - go through all the checkpoints before time expires, demolish all of your opponents' cars, or kill every pedestrian on the map.  Impacts, checkpoints and dead pedestrians earn you extra time and points which can be used to unlock new vehicles and tracks, purchase upgrades or just repair damage to your car and get you back in the action mid-stage.  You'll also find a variety of hazards and various power-ups and power-downs like Jelly Suspension, Blind Pedestrians, Solid Granite Cars, Damage Multipliers and Free Repairs, all of which only add more chaos to the proceedings.  Gruesome, twisted and incredibly fun, Carmageddon is a blast.  Just steer clear of that godawful Nintendo 64 version and you're golden.

35. Ultima Worlds of Adventure 2: Martian Dreams (Origin Systems, 1991)

Ultima 6 is a game as known for its intriguing story as its inventive gameplay, putting the player into a world more intricately designed and realistic than any other seen to that point - cows could be milked, doors could be lockpicked, blown up or smashed down, and virtually every object one saw could be moved around, stacked atop one another or used in surprisingly intuitive and realistic ways.  Naturally, this engine cost Origin a ton of money to develop, so they decided to try and recoup costs with some spinoff games.  The end results, while lauded by critics, were not financial successes, leading to the Worlds of Ultima franchise being cancelled after only two entries. Shame, that, as Martian Dreams is easily one of the franchise's best games.  Set in a fictionalized Victorian era on Mars, it has the player and a number of real-life historical figures unearthing the remains of a long-lost civilization on the red planet, and having to endure a lot of surprisingly realistic obstacles - low oxygen, radiation and an ever-constant struggle against limited supplies.  While it is frustrating to navigate at times, the tale told here is a creative and memorable one, and proof that Ultima remains an important milestone for both design and storytelling in video games.

34. MDK (Shiny Entertainment, 1997)

MDK is an imaginative and unique mashup of platforming and run-and-gun action that could only come from the minds that brought us Earthworm Jim.  It sets out to impress with its detailed and surreal visual style reminiscent of HR Giger, some impressive effects for the time like "bullet cams" that chase up to three of your sniper shots, and an impressive score that really gives the feel of an epic battle to save the earth. But then it lays on a jokey tone, with aliens that childishly taunt the player, tons of sight gags and a generally absurd feel.  Between all that, though, it's pure run-and-gun action, having you battle hordes of aliens, tanks and robots, collecting powerups like hand grenades, "World's Smallest Nuclear Explosions" (which blast open certain doors) and "The Very Large Hamster Hammer" (creates an earthquake that damage all nearby foes).  Ingenious, hilarious and fun, MDK is a fine action game that's very overlooked these days.

33. System Shock: Enhanced Edition (Looking Glass Studios/Nightdive Studios, 1994/2015)

System Shock was another early Looking Glass title that was highly acclaimed for being innovative and surprisingly deep (big shock there).  It utilized the same engine as Ultima Underworld; however, it took things into the future instead, putting the player on a space station overrun by mutants and cyborgs and having them fight to survive and thwart the machinations of the mad AI SHODAN.  In contrast to many other shooters of the time period, though, System Shock is comparatively slow - not quite stealth-based, but you'll do a lot of crouching and peering around corners to take potshots at enemies while avoiding their fire, and you'll also collect a number of upgrades for your cyborg gear - from a camera that sees behind you to speed-boosting leg enhancements to a shield that absorbs some damage you take.  There is also a heavy focus on storytelling, puzzles and mission objectives - hunting down crew logs, keycards and passwords, finding ways to skirt around traps, and solving wiring puzzles are commonplace.  You'll also have to hop into cyberspace which, as in many 90s depictions, is a surreal world full of 3D shapes and vague space shooter elements.  Very much a product of its time for both good and ill, but the Enhanced Edition smooths out its interface a bit and gives it a performance lift, so that's the version to play nowadays.  At least until the remake comes out.

32. Max Payne (Remedy Entertainment, 2001)

Max Payne was the game that put Finnish developers Remedy Entertainment on the map. The game at its core is a tale of revenge as a New York cop goes on a killing spree, gunning down the mobsters who killed his family and partner.  What made it into something really special, though, was the strong writing in the game thanks to Sam Lake; equal parts disturbing, visceral and funny, Max Payne was an experience unlike any other to that date.  Of course, the gameplay also had an innovative element of its own thanks to incorporating "Bullet Time", allowing the player to take on large enemy forces with relative ease by slowing down time in order to effectively dodge enemy fire and draw a bead on them before they could even react.

31. Tetris (Alexei Pajitnov, 1984+)


Tetris had its beginning all the way back in 1984 for the Electronika 60, and its popularity was (and still is) such that it's gotten numerous updates, ports, rereleases and remakes across just about every platform imaginable.  But before Nintendo got the license and created the monstrously popular Game Boy port, several companies made their own computer versions (the one depicted in this screenshot is the 1987 Spectrum Holobyte version).  While each had minor variances and change-ups, there's no denying one thing - it's a fun, addictive puzzle game that's easy to learn, but nearly impossible to master.  Not that it's stopped any of us from trying for the last thirty years.