Kicking it old school
What makes PC gaming glorious? Sure, the performance that's possible only with a high-end graphics card in a roomy desktop is a big draw—“Can it run Crysis?” is a meme for a reason. But there's also PC gaming's willingness to embrace the classic gameplay of the consoles of yesteryear.
Many indie games bask in delicious (and sometimes experimental) gameplay. Graphics takes a back seat to the experience itself—giving them a feel that harkens back to the 8-bit NES era. These modern PC games relish their delightfully retro feel. Even better, most will run just fine even on PCs with integrated graphics.
Did I say NES era? VVVVVV’s aesthetics—both visual and aural—are actually reminiscent of the good ol’ Atari days, and the insanely fun gameplay is just as simple. As Captain Viridian, you need to find your lost friends—who were teleported to far-flung locations—and save the universe.
It’s a basic platformer at its heart, with spike traps and various other obstacles. But VVVVVV’s secret sauce lies in how it handles jumping: You can’t! Instead, you toggle switches that flip gravity and send you shooting from the floor to the roof, and vice versa. This single mechanic, mixed with some superb level design, makes VVVVVV an absolute blast to play.
From the gameplay to the graphics to the insane bosses, developer Yacht Club Games purposefully designed Shovel Knight as a love letter to the 8-bit adventure games of yesteryear. But best of all, Shovel Knight is actually fun. Like Castlevania or Mega Man, Shovel Knight is all about developing your skill and exploring the world at your own pace, and the game rewards you for going off the beaten path and toying around with weapons and capabilities.
There’s a reason Shovel Knight launched to universal acclaim from professional reviewers and everyday gamers alike. Don’t miss this game.
Another 8-bit knight! Or knights, rather. Mixing an 8-bit aesthetic with gameplay derived from the 1980 classic Rogue, each run through Rogue Legacy’s fortress casts you as the successor of the knight you played on the prior run. Every time you die, you pick one of three randomly generated successors (each with unique capabilities and traits) to carry on the torch—er, sword. The dungeon rearranges itself every time you die as well, though you can buy character and equipment upgrades that carry over generations.
The platforming action is pitch-perfect and some of the traits are hilarious—yet surprisingly helpful in specific scenarios. Rogue Legacy ’s great for quick bursts or marathon play sessions.
Shadowgate is actually a remake of the famous 1987 Mac point-and-click adventure game of the same name. Recrafted by the creators of the original, Shadowgate is unashamedly retro, with mostly static scenes and classic “Look” “Go” “Eat”-style prompts—and damn is it tough. Seriously, this game will kick your butt—but classic adventure game fans will enjoy each and every minute of it.
PCWorld’s Shadowgate review has more nitty-gritty info if you’re considering delving into Castle Shadowgate.
Hotline Miami basks in the 1980's, from its neon-soaked NES-era graphics and top-down view, to its Scarface-style world and hardcore “one hit and you’re dead” action. You even get your assignments on an answering machine.
As a masked antihero clearing out safehouses full of white-suited gangsters, Hotline Miami is a pure, unadulterated celebration of violence—a thrilling blend of planning and raw brutality. Don’t let your kids play it, but this game will grab you by the throat and refuse to let go.
Ick. After thinking about Hotline Miami’s buckets of blood, let’s transition back to something more family-friendly. Fez is yet another platformer—just like so many of yesteryear’s games were—with a nifty twist. After receiving the titular fez, protagonist Gomez’s world explodes from two dimensions to three, with your perspective rotating 90 degrees with the click of a button.
The mechanic let developer Phil Fish work in all kinds of masterful level designs and secrets. Devoid of violence and chock full of thoughtful touches, Fez is pure joy to play.
The Binding of Isaac
In a nutshell, The Binding of Isaac—which sprung from the mind of one of Super Meat Boy’s creators—is a mash-up of old-school Legend of Zelda dungeons mixed with Rogue-like (there’s that word again!) randomization and a touch of blasphemy. Devout Christians may want to pass, but everyone else should check it out.
The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth was released just this week as well. It’s basically the same core game with a slew of tweaks and enhancements, as well as a faster new engine, new hand-drawn art, and a completely redone soundtrack.
Okay, okay, one more Rogue-like game and that’s it, I promise. Spelunky is a dungeon dweller with destructible, randomized environments and insanely deep gameplay systems. Seriously: Every aspect of this game screams “finely tuned,” from the angles bats take to how arrow traps always—always—seem positioned in just the right way to make you jump on a spike trap. Its design is just as thoughtful as Mario’s. You’ll die a lot—and have to start over when you do—but you’ll never feel cheated (and you’ll probably walk away with a cool story to tell).
The randomized dungeons keep you coming back for more, but Spelunky also sinks its talons in you with co-op and daily challenges.
Retro City Rampage
C’mon, “retro” is right in Retro City Rampage’s name. Basically, you collect power ups, complete challenges, rack up points and generally wreak havoc in wonderful 8-bit-esque glory. The nods to classic games and 1980's culture come fast and furious, too. Jumping on civilians for coins? It’s there. Throwing papers into mailboxes in true Paperboy style? Yep, Retro City Rampage has it. There’s even a business dubbed “Skate or Buy”—and an awesome Saved by the Bell parody.
There’s a genre of games dubbed “Metroidvania”—a mash-up of Metroid and Castlevania—whose roots spring from that iconic duo. They’re side-scrolling platformers full of puzzles, item management, and areas that can be unlocked only after acquiring items later in the game and then backtracking to the appropriate spot. The games themselves are essentially giant puzzles comprised of a bunch of smaller puzzles (and plenty of action).
La-Mulana is one of the finest Metroidvania games of all time. It’s also one of the hardest—the difficulty will have you pining for Dark Souls. The journey is so engrossing that you probably won’t mind too much though. And the music is amazing!
Wasteland 2 is the long-awaited sequel to Wasteland, the legendary 1988 role-playing classic. The sequel heartily embraces its old-school heritage: It’s replete with flavor text, inventory management, character stats, and isometric turn-based battles.
Wasteland 2’s writing and flexibility truly shine, however. Unlike many RPGs, Wasteland 2 doesn’t have a set protagonist—you create your own party of four characters—but the deft narrative and take-no-prisoners decisions succeed in creating a living, breathing world. Your choices can spark major reverberations, long after less scrupulous gamers would have had a chance to reload a save game and try a sticky situation a second time. Wasteland 2 rocks.