Free Gaming Levels Up
Freeware games--available for nothing at all--have always been a part of PC gaming's DNA, but recent years have seen an explosion of free titles that are addictively enjoyable. We've rounded up 21 of the best freeware titles for your PC, from retro-shooters to cutting-edge platformers and experimental indie games. This trove of free treasures could keep you gaming on the cheap for years to come.
Runman may look like a child's drawing of a video game--but when you see it in motion, that becomes part of its charm. And you'll see it in motion a lot, since Runman is a fast-paced platformer that plays a little like a youthful, exuberant, early Sonic the Hedgehog game.
Are you angry that games aren't as hard as they used to be? Then the brutally difficult Spelunky may be just the game for you. One wrong step in Spelunky's randomly generated levels can lead to your doom. And if you end up loving the game so much that you feel bad about getting it for free, you're in luck: The design team has also made a version with updated graphics for the Xbox Live Arcade.
Cave Story, or Doukutsu Monogatari as it's known in Japan, is a charming little platformer with a rabid fanbase. Ddevoted fans have translated the game into English and ported it to everything from Linux to the TI-83 calculator.
The short game Passage may not be for everyone, but you owe it to yourself to try it at least once. This art game's many unusual features, from its prosaic storyline to its weird aspect ratio (the game runs at 100 by 16 pixels) made indie developer Jason Rohrer famous--and justifiably so.
Command and Conquer
If you're a fan of real-time strategy games, you must at least have heard of the Command and Conquer franchise, which has already advanced to a fourth edition. Meanwhile, EA has re-released the original game as freeware.
Battle for Wesnoth
Battle for Wesnoth is a turn-based strategy game set in a medieval world. The graphics may not look like much to a modern PC gamer, but the gameplay is brutally addictive and the developer tools that let you create your own units and maps make Wesnoth infinitely replayable.
Quadrax could be described as a platformer puzzle game in which you try to get characters to a goal somewhere on the map without getting the fragile little guys killed. Though the gameplay may sound simple, it provides enough variation to have earned it six sequels. The latest, Quadrax VII, has a few new features (including the ability to hide the game quickly by pressing the F12 key), but it's still basically the same game.
The granddaddy of all freeware games is still one of the best. Though NetHack was first launched in 1987 (making it older than some PCWorld interns), the roguelike dungeon-crawling game has been updated so many times by its huge community of players that it's available with updated graphics on every platform imaginable.
Unepic is a great little platformer/RPG in the style of the more recent Castlevania games. Instead of focusing on a vampire hunter, however, Unepic follows a protagonist who accidentally stumbles out of his D&D session and into a fantasy world. The game is still in development, but the company recently released a fairly lengthy demo.
Pilot is a fun Japanese vertical shooter in the style of the old ‘80s arcade games. With just five levels, it's not the longest game on the list--but if you're in the mood for some retro-shooter action, it's a great little game.
Prime Minister's Questions
An experimental game in which you pretend to be the prime minister of the UK may not sound like a recipe for fun, but Prime Minister's Questions is a great little indie game that feels more like an old Monkey Island adventure than a prolonged C-Span viewing session. Give the game a shot, and see if you have what it takes to lead the British government.
A lot of free games have impressive developers, but few can say they're the official video game of NASA. Moonbase Alpha is a free 3D game that lets you play the role of a lunar explorer looking to restore systems after a meteor strikes your lunar settlement.
League of Legends
League of Legends lets you level up as a powerful champion fighting your way through massive waves of enemies. League is technically a "freemium" game, meaning that you have to pay to unlock some of the heroes and items in the game; but in view of its massive popularity, we couldn't drop it from the list.
Tale of Maledict
Tale of Maledict is a new freeware game, released just last month. The first level or two can feel a bit tough to push through, but once past them, you'll find a great Metroid-style platformer with a unique and enchanting world.
Before there was a Halo, before there was Master Chief, there was Marathon: Bungie's first hit FPS, released in 1994. After Halo earned the company truckloads of money, Bungie released the whole Marathon Trilogy as freeware. As you might imagine, the graphics are a little outdated, but the gameplay and the storyline have aged well.
If you needed more proof that Valve, the creator of Half-Life, loves you and wants you to be happy, look no further than Alien Swarm. Last year Valve released this top-down shoot-‘em-up game based on an Unreal Tournament mod for free, and gamers have had fun teaming up and mowing down alien hordes ever since.
Tired of grim, gritty WWII action games? Then the second freemium title on our list, Battlefield Heroes, might be the game for you. Visually, Battlefield has more in common with a G.I. Joe cartoon than with Saving Private Ryan, but this third-person conquest game's classes and leveling system provide a lot of depth.
Another great game for retro-gaming enthusiasts, Oniken mimics the look, the music, and the difficulty of an old-school NES game like Ninja Gaiden for free on your computer. The game is still in beta, but you're much more likely to die from its brutal difficulty than from any bugs.
Freeciv is a great boon for fans of Sid Meier's addictive Civilization turn-based strategy games who are also fans of not spending money. This freeware Civilization game may not have the looks of its for-pay counterpart, but it mimics the feel of an early Civilization game very effectively.
Digital: A Love Story
The most interesting game on our list may also be the hardest to explain. When you open up Digital: a Love Story for the first time you'll be confronted with what looks like an old PC interface from the 1980s asking you to sign on to a local BBS. What looks like a simple exercise in nostalgia, however, soon blossoms into an addictive interactive story of love, conspiracy, and old-school hacking.