Retro Gaming

The Best PC Games from the ’80s

We're honoring the '80s icons from Maniac Mansion and SimCity to Doom that are still a blast to play today

Retro Alex

As home computers became common, games turned from text to tantalizing graphics and sound. Join us as we countdown the top PC games of this vibrant decade, from the pioneering quests of King’s Quest to the timeless blocks of Tetris, celebrating the milestones that shaped gaming’s future.

#10: Maniac Mansion (1987)

In 1987, Lucasfilm Games released Maniac Mansion, a game that broke new ground with its innovative gameplay. It introduced players to a world where they could choose from multiple characters, each bringing a unique set of abilities to the table. This feature laid the foundation for the non-linear storytelling we see in many of today’s adventure games.

Maniac Mansion was a pioneer, straying from the linear paths of its predecessors and allowing for a free-form style of play that encouraged exploration and experimentation. The game’s design philosophy emphasized player choice, influencing the direction of adventure games for years to come.

#9: King’s Quest (1984)

In 1984, the game King’s Quest by Sierra On-Line changed how stories were told in video games. Before, players used text to tell the game what to do, like using secret codes to open doors. With King’s Quest, they could control a character directly and watch their story unfold in a land full of secrets. It was a big jump. This game didn’t just use new graphics; it let players feel like they were writing their own story. Players made decisions that changed the game’s world.

The game’s success promoted narrative-driven gaming and established the career of designer Roberta Williams, showcasing women in game development. Its commercial and cultural impact was profound, spawning sequels, inspiring countless other games, and shaping the future of interactive storytelling and the adventure genre.

#8: Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar (1985)

Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar from Origin Systems made waves in 1985 by introducing the concept of morality into gaming. In this game, players went on a quest not just for glory, but to become a hero guided by a compass of virtues like honesty and bravery. It’s like playing in a giant world where every action and choice could help you grow as a good character, both in the game and in real life. With its large, open world, players had a freedom similar to exploring a new city with endless nooks and crannies, each choice carving out their path and shaping their story. Ultima IV pioneered adventure that mixed decision-making with exploration, setting a new bar for video games as a medium.

#7: The Bard’s Tale (1985)

The Bard’s Tale was a game-changer in 1985, made by Interplay Productions. It stood out because it used perspective drawing to form 3D graphics that were way ahead of its time, like stepping from a world of flat drawings into one where characters and places seemed to pop out of the screen. This game let players dive deep into a fantasy world, offering a richer experience than many had seen before.

The game also left a big mark on role-playing games (RPGs), making it a legend in its own right. It wasn’t just about fighting monsters and collecting treasure; it was about taking on a role and living out a story. The Bard’s Tale made people see their computers not just as machines, but as gateways to vast, new worlds waiting to be explored.

#6: SimCity (1989)

Maxis unveiled SimCity in 1989, a game that pioneered the simulation genre and transformed the landscape of gaming. In SimCity, players were the mayor of a city with the power to build it from the ground up—a game of infinite possibilities and creativity.

The game was revolutionary, merging the fun of play with the subtleties of urban planning and management. It opened a door to a new kind of gaming that was as educational as it was entertaining. Schools even started to use SimCity to teach problem-solving and critical thinking, proving that games could be powerful tools for learning.

SimCity also set the benchmark for sandbox games, a genre that provides players with tools to create their own stories. As players designed their cities, they were not just passing scenarios but learning the balance of complex systems that make cities work. SimCity was a lesson in cause and effect. It showed how video games can mold minds and influence future planners and thinkers.

#5: The Oregon Trail (1985)

Although originally released in 1971 as a text-based strategy game, MECC’s The Oregon Trail in 1985 was a trailblazer in educational gaming, becoming a fixture in school computer labs across the United States. The game tasked players with leading a wagon train westward, facing the same challenges as the early pioneers.

Playing The Oregon Trail was a rite of passage for school kids, blending learning with the joy of gaming. Deciding what supplies to buy, which paths to take, and how to treat sick travelers turned players into managers of their own pioneer journey. The stakes were high—making the wrong decision could mean virtual life or death, teaching players the harsh realities of early American history in a way no textbook could. The Oregon Trail demonstrated the potential of video games as a medium for education, showing that with every river ford and hunting trip, players could learn while having fun.

#4: Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987)

Sierra On-Line broke new ground in 1987 with Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards, introducing an adult theme to the gaming world. This game brought a new edge to gaming, allowing players to cringe through the misadventures of Larry, a bumbling bachelor in pursuit of love. Leisure Suit Larry mixed wit with whimsy, inviting players into a world sprinkled with adult humor and innuendo.

To ensure players are over the age of 18, Leisure Suit Larry starts with five, random trivia questions. President Eisenhower’s nickname. The first baseball player to challenge the reserve clause. The type of boat JFK drove. Timezone difference calculations. Poker hands. You get the gist. It took me a few tries to make it through, making it a game in itself.

Despite its controversial content, the game was a hit and expanded the scope of what video games could cover. It showed that games could tackle any genre, including comedy that’s not just for laughs but for gasps as well. Leisure Suit Larry proved that, like movies or books, games could cater to a variety of audiences and tastes, paving the way for more sophisticated and diverse gaming experiences.

#3: Elite (1984)

In 1984, Elite, developed by Acornsoft Limited, soared onto the scene, dazzling players with its advanced 3D graphics and vast, open-ended gameplay. In Elite, navigated through a galaxy that was as boundless as the real universe. The game was like a sandbox set in space, offering a glimpse into what the future of gaming held: endless possibilities.

Elite was a forerunner, not just for its graphics but for giving players control over their journey. Players could be peaceful traders, dreaded pirates, or bounty hunters in a cosmos that responded to their actions.

Its legacy extended beyond the ’80s, as Elite‘s blueprint for open-world gaming is evident in many contemporary games that boast vast expanses and player-driven narratives. Elite shows us how ’80s games pushed the limits and set the stage for the gaming marvels of future generations.

#2: Sid Meier’s Pirates! (1987)

In 1987, Sid Meier’s Pirates! hoisted its sails and took gamers on an epic adventure across the Caribbean. Developed by MicroProse, this game blended strategy, action, and adventure in an open-world setting that was as vast and free as the open seas. Players could embody a swashbuckling pirate, navigating ship battles, sword fights, and the search for treasure, all while making allegiances or inciting rivalries on the Spanish Main.

This title set a new standard by combining multiple game types into one coherent experience. It was like the ultimate pirate fantasy. The seamless transition between the strategic overview and the thrilling, moment-to-moment encounters made Sid Meier’s Pirates! a treasure in the gaming world.

#1: Tetris (1984)

Of course, #1 is Tetris. How could it not be? In fact, in 1999, Next Generation magazine listed Tetris as second place on their “Top 50 Games of All Time” (number one went to Nintendo’s Zelda series).

Tetris, crafted by Alexey Pajitnov in 1984 for the IBM, is a testament to the power of simplicity in game design. It’s a puzzle game that’s easy to learn and difficult to master. Tetris challenges players to align falling blocks in a tight space, a concept as simple as it is captivating. Its timeless mechanics have cemented it as one of the most iconic and beloved games in the world.

This game, starting out on a modest Electronika 60 in Moscow, quickly became a global phenomenon, illustrating how universal appeal transcends cultural, country and language barriers in gaming. The clear, approachable design of Tetris means it can be understood by anyone, anywhere, making it a piece of cultural heritage that defines the universal language of play.

Wrapping Up

The ’80s gave us a decade of innovation. Games like Oregon Trail and Tetris weren’t just passing trends; they were the building blocks of the vast gaming universe we know today. These classics taught us that games could be portals to learning, creativity, and freedom.

Whether you’re a seasoned gamer or a curious newcomer to ’80s games, these titles are timeless treasures that continue to entertain, one pixelated adventure at a time.