We’ve come a long way in video gaming. Exponentially larger playgrounds to muck around in, ever-increasing audio visual fidelity, and greater degrees of choice and consequence. But with bigger and bolder experiences, comes greater costs and higher risk.
It’s go big or go home these days: spend the most money to aim for the biggest and broadest market possible. Put collectibles and microtransactions in there. Make maximum loot at the highest levels the endpoint of your design. And sell the game as an ongoing service for ongoing revenue. And if it fails, crash and burn and fire everyone.
Sure, independent efforts and crowdfunded projects are still around to push the boundaries of design and aesthetic. But those halcyon days in which big time publishers experimented with the form, catered to diverse niches and spent modestly to gain maximum returns are mostly gone. Never was that era so apparent than in the year of our Lord 1998, especially on the PC space.
In 1998, the now standard Windows platform made it possible to enjoy our games without fiddling with various system files and making special boot disks, ensuring a stable platform to run games. The dark ages of DOS were behind us, but the trend towards homogenization had not yet begun. Here’re eight games that prove that 1998 was the golden age of PC gaming.
8. Fallout 2
Okay, maybe a sequel is a less than ideal example of the PC golden age. But Fallout 2 outdoes everything its predecessor did a year ago, with a bigger sandbox to play in and the freedom to be as depraved as you want to be. Forget Grand Theft Auto’s roadside murders and Mortal Kombat’s fatalities. Fallout 2 let you deal drugs, kill children, join Scientology and enslave villagers. Oh and you can be a good guy, too.
7. Descent: FreeSpace – The Great War
The space combat genre has deep roots in PC culture with series like Wing Commander and X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter. But the challenging newcomer that blew them out of the water was Freespace. It had a bedazzling 3D engine made space combat look better than anything gamers had ever seen before and a gripping campaign filled with clever missions. With Freespace, Volition took the genre into a new frontier.
6. Baldur’s Gate
This defining adaptation of Dungeons & Dragons is viewed as one of the finest RPGs of all time. Together with Fallout, it brought about spawned a score of RPG progeny and chaos was sown from its passing. Baldur’s Gate also established a formula that Bioware would rely on to great success in Dragon Age and Mass Effect: chosen one heroes, winning companions and moral choices.
The first person shooter boom was in full swing when Unreal hit the store shelves. But what made it stand apart was its truly alien otherworld, unconventional firearms and environmental storytelling not unlike Dark Souls and Fallout 3. Its oft forgotten in the wake of the more fondly remembered Unreal Tournament. But without it we wouldn’t have the Unreal Engine that’s powered thousands of games since.
4. Thief: The Dark Project
In this unusual first person adventure, you play an artful dodger who steals from the rich and keeps for himself. Thief: The Dark Project emphasizes stealth and resourcefulness over quick reflexes. With your trick arrows, lockpicks and flashbombs, your goal in every level is to get in, get the goods and get out. The game spawned two sequels and a forgettable 2014 reboot, but its legacy lives on in games like Dishonored and Alien: Isolation.
3. Grim Fandango
Although a commercial flop at the time of its release, Grim Fandango remains one of the most treasured gems from the twilight days of adventure gaming’s golden age. Drawing unique inspiration from the morally compromised world of Hollywood noir and the aesthetic of the Mexican Day of the Dead, Grim Fandango is one of the most unforgettable adventure games of all time.
While Valve Software is mostly known for Steam and Dota 2, they hit the first person shooter genre hard with Half-Life. While games like Ultima Underworld and System Shock definitely tried to make things weird, Half-Life retains the basic language of the genre and uses it to tell a compelling story through immersion. Half-Life is the torch bearer that lit the way for storytelling in shooters.
1. StarCraft & StarCraft: Brood War
While real-time strategy games were already a booming genre when this one dropped into store shelves, StarCraft up-ended the genre with asymmetrical factions, a gripping narrative campaign and top-notch multiplayer gameplay that is the stuff of net cafe legends. Even more astonishing is that Blizzard Entertainment released this landmark classic and followed it up with a full-fledged expansion for it in the same year.
Which of these did you play? Tell us below!