Last week we were inspired by the Nintendo Classic Mini to think an equivalent for MS-DOS gaming. Our idea would take the form of a bundle of the most important PC games of the early 90s, which could be played using Dosbox on a Rasperry Pi.

Today we’re looking at the days of Windows 95 and 98. The 90s were an exciting time in PC gaming – the first half of the decade, which we covered last time, saw the PC emerge as serious contender with titles like X-Wing and Doom. The later years saw great advances in 3D graphics, as hardware increased in power and dedicated 3D graphics cards emerged. We also benefited from continued variety of genres that I feel has been lost in triple-A gaming today, where there is so much focus on war shooters and 3rd-person open world stuff.

The coming of Win95 forms a convenient place to chop the decade in half. It also meant changes in how we interacted with our beige boxes. Now we were using a graphical user interface with multitasking for all things, rather than it just being something sat on top of DOS for solitaire and word processing. In this regard we were many years behind the Amiga users but their smugness was fast fading by ’95.

Our cut-off is August 2001, which marks the release of Windows XP. So technically we’re using a brief period where the current operating systems were Windows 2k (which was intended more for workplace use) and Windows ME (which sucked).

I’ve no idea if Windows 95 can be made to run on a Pi, or if it would be easier to just stick to playing on your regular PC. I guess at this point we’re detaching a bit from the “emulation box” angle and just considering what might be the greatest games of the time.

Anyway this time we’ve planned this out a bit better – we collaborated on a list together and have divided up the writeup 50/50 between us. Once again we’ve tried to be open minded and reasonable about which games to include. We’ve also tried to make sure multiple genres are represented. That said, inevitably our own preferences and areas of interest will have an influence. If you want a totally objective view, I guess you could go look up the thirty best-selling games of the 90s.

One directive we agreed on, was to stay away from multi-format games that are generally associated more with consoles. For example Final Fantasy 7 was one of the greatest roleplaying games of this period, but I imagine most people think of it as a Playstation game.

We are however starting with that genre once again so let me just grab my Chainmail Pantaloons of Wisdom…


What can change the Nature of a Man?
There were a number of isometric-viewed RPGs in this period. I considered Baldur’s Gate, since it was one of the first releases from Black Isle, the guys now known for the enormously successful Mass Effect and Dragon Age series.

Instead though I chose Black Isle’s Planescape Torment, using the same Infinity Engine. This one was known for its moving, contemplative story. In a city that joins several planes of existence, a man who cannot die unlocks the mysteries of his past lives. You as the player must decide what kind of a person he is today. For those of you who tire of goblin slaying, it’s also notable for how often you can talk your way out of problems, including even the final boss fight.

Another isometric game, but a totally entirely different kind of experience, would be Diablo 2. It’s based on endless hack and slash and a life-consuming compulsion to find shinier swords. It was also a major influence on action-rpgs that followed.

Moving onto gamess of a more 3D nature, for the next entry I really wanted System Shock 2 and Deus Ex, but they are in nature very similar. Both mix first-person-shooter gameplay with RPG mechanics like character skills. So while Rik nobly offered to sacrifice one of his suggestions I forced myself to decide and went for Deus Ex.

It grants you a high degree of freedom to solve problems – given a building full of soldiers you can shoot your way in, sneak in the sewers or try and switch off the security systems. The story is an intense near-future conspiracy thriller, where initial certainties are thrown into confusion, and you’re pitted against shadowy organisations bent on world domination. If you like you games a little more intellectual it tackles several philosophical and sociological questions along the way. It’s probably one of the single greatest PC games of all time.


Finally for this section we have the idiosyncratic and imaginative Anachronox. Its combat mechanics are inspired by japanese console RPGs, something fairly rare on PC. The story is science fiction with a bit of film noir thrown in, buy it also possesses an offbeat sense of humour. In fact it sometimes takes a turn for the outright absurd. Perhaps its greatest strength lies in the characters, each flawed but likeable, dealing with their own personal struggles whilst on a mission to save the universe from the forces of chaos.


Forget about Freeman
Action gaming had largely divided into the first and third person 3D kinds. Rik will talk you through the latter next time, so I’m talking about those late-90s descendants of Doom. By now the old pseudo-3D days were over, and everything existed in a polygon-based world of three proper dimensions.

For a start we’ll take Unreal. Epic were the first to challenge iD as builders of widely-licensed first-person engines, and their own first use of the technology still looks wonderful today. Certainly more appealing than the sludge of Quake 1 and 2 anyway. I guess that’s my bias talking, but its opening section is one of the most memorable of any shooter of the time.

My personal ambivalence towards the Quakes aside, we felt one of the two big multiplayer-oriented shooters of the time (the other being Unreal Tournament) had to be included. Even if we never played them much. So we’re going for Quake 3.

Then there’s Half-Life, without which this list could not be complete. Through the 90s, shooters had still largely been based around running around looking for a key or a switch to flip. Half Life however made us feel like a participant in a crisis, through level design and scripting. It drew us in with memorable set-piece scenes, starting with Gordon’s mundane train ride to work. Then we have the crisis of the intial alien attack, to that awful moment after the soldiers arrive, that you realise their real mission. It was a key landmark in the progression of the genre.

Rules of gaming #1: Remember to load your gun before you start waving it in the face of an enemy soldier.

I also want to include Thief: The Dark Project which is first person but not a shooter at all. Rather it’s a game of stealth and sublety, where you lurk in the shadows and avoid confrontation. It rewards patience, careful scrutiny of your surroundings, and a willingness to explore every nook and cranny of a map. It’s also uniquely atmospheric in a way no other game has matched. It came to us from Looking Glass studios, masters of immersive gaming, and since I passed up on their System Shock I’m taking this instead!


Fox Two
Our flight sim section is lacking this time, since my own experiences ended with being shit at TFX. Still, Janes USAF seems a well-regarded modern military sim. So let’s, er, take that. Suggestions in the comments would be appreciated!

Fortunately I can speak with a bit more expertise on the topic of space-sims. I reckon that Freespace 2 represents the pinnacle of that “world war 2 in outer space” style of combat and dogfighting that we saw in Wing Commander and X-Wing. Bonus points for the huge, terrifying capital ships you sometimes find yourself facing. Funnily enough it didn’t sell well, and space-sims in general went into decline afterwards.

I feel also that we should acknowledge the “big stompy robot” sims – I kind of wanted Mechwarrior 2 last time but we ran out of space. So this time I’m taking Mechwarrior 3. It kept the series trademark tactical play of balancing weapon use against watching heat levels, and the wealth of detail in equipping your Mechs. Plus it looked a bit more realistic than Mech2’s rather abstract polygon lands.


We require more Vespene Gas
One of the great realtime strategy games of this period, that epitmised the base-building and army-raising mechanics we associated with the subgenre, was Starcraft. Although it seemed like just another RTS at the time, it went on to enjoy lasting success due to immense multiplayer popularity. I never dared venture online myself since I never mastered the art of rapidly issuing commands to micromanage your army, that iss required for competitive play. I can vouch for the single player campaign being pretty good though, helped along by some memorable characters and lavish cutscenes.

My own personal RTS favourite of the time was Homeworld, which gives you epic space warface in full 3D. In fact it’s pretty much like taking command of a battle out of your favourite space opera. Nimble fighters zip around strafing their targets, gunships prowl in close formation, and lumbering cruisers open fire with huge cannons. There’s a still certain beauty and elegance to it today despite the chunky late-90s polygons. Fortunately the three dimensional aspect never becomes confusing, due to slick controls and interface.

Corvette on a strafing run.

Another kind of strategy was Shogun, which began the long-lived Total War series. It gives us big, realtime battles of cavalry and spearmen, far more realistic in nature than the Command and Conquer RTS template. A clever player will make use of tactics like ambushes, or holding high ground. A dumb player like me just charges the spearmen foward in a big block. Anyway this is all linked by wider-scale strategy and resource management played out over a map screen.

Meanwhile, Alpha Centauri is a 4x game, created by Sid Meier who originally brought us Civilisation It took the mechanics of that earlier game, moved them to a scifi setting and swapped the idea of nations for different ideological groups. There’s a huge tech-tree to unlock as you play, along with options for customising your military units.

Finally, we’re taking Jagged Alliance 2 for squad level combat, putting you in charge of small team of mercenaries. A key aspect of it is building stats of your mercenarines, RPG-style, and finding better gear to arm them with. There’s plenty of detail to keep a strategy nut abosrbed until the small hours, and also some highly amusing voice acting.

That’s me done, so over to Rik for part 2…