The 50 best free PC games
10. Barkley, Shut Up and Jam: Gaiden
Developer: Tales of Game's
Rich: The best freeware JRPG about ex-NBA basketballer Charles Barkley and his flight from an evil Michael Jordan in Neo New York after he performed an illegal chaos dunk that caused the post- Cyberpocalypse I’ve ever played. The combat is acceptable, but it was the freewheeling funnies that kept me playing. The creators had a shared love of taking the piss out of indie games ultrareverential to SNES-era JRPGs, and made their own game – but instead of filling it with earnest heroes and bad bishonen, they used sewer-dwelling poet furries, the giant floating head of ghost Bill Cosby, and a monster made entirely of sugar.
Developer: Adam Atomic
Chris: The game that invented the endless runner, and also the game that proved that it is impossible to jump through a window if you are actually trying to do it. I love Canabalt for its atmospheric, low-key sci-fi visuals and Danny Baranowski’s amazing soundtrack.
Rich: Those pissing windows, man.
8. Stealth Bastard
Developer: Curve Studios
Phil: It’s a stealth game: there are traps to avoid, patrols to evade, shadows to cling to and terminals to hack. But Stealth Bastard: Tactical Espionage Arsehole repurposes these genre staples to neatly fit into a 2D puzzle platformer. Time spent waiting is kept to a minimum. Instead, you’re encouraged to sneak, leap and clamber through the darkness, activating switches and buttons to progress through the intricately moving levels. The expanded, money-costing Deluxe version has overtaken the majority of the game’s website, but you can still access the original through a tiny link in the bottom corner of the page.
Developer: Doukutsu Monogatari
Rich: The sheer size still impresses. It’s a vast, shooty platformer in the Metroid vein, and stands out for having been developed in one Japanese man’s spare time over five years. Paid-for versions have had their graphics retooled, but the original, free version is just as tight and rewarding.
6. N 2.0
Developer: Metanet Software
Graham: It’s all about the replays. After hundreds of attempts in which your walljumping ninja is sliced by lasers, burst by missiles and crushed by thwomps, you get a replay of your successful run to the level exit, in which you seem to dodge each threat with psychic reflexes. There are hundreds of levels, and thus hundreds of opportunities to feel so satisfied.
5. Neptune's Pride
Developer: Iron Helmet
Rich: Or, How To End A Friendship In One Easy Strategy Game. The action is simple: move ships to conquer planets, then build an economy on those planets. The glacial pace ensures that as you set nefarious plans in motion against your best friend, they have hours to marvel at your cruelty.
We like Neptune's Pride so much we made it our Webgame of the Year back in 2010.
Developer: Bay 12 Games
Graham: Climbing DF’s mountain of menu madness means a weekend of reading guides and scratching your head, but once you’ve scaled its ASCII peaks, the world’s most complex simulation game stretches out in front of you towards the horizon of PC gaming. After ten years of development, the game generates religions, political histories, entire societies, and then challenges you to build and manage a thriving underground city, starting with seven depressed, alcoholic dwarves and a few supplies. You’re as likely to starve to death as you are to be trampled by wild elephants, and you’ll definitely fail, but you’ll have fun dying.
You've read the tale of how seven drunks opened a portal to Hell, right? Well if you haven't, go do that here.
Graham: When you complete a playthrough, you get half a dozen images showing other scenes you might have missed. In the 15 minutes it took you to reach an ending, you attempted to keep your fashion design company solvent, solve your best friend’s murder, and resolve some tension with your wife. You probably failed at all of those. But then, in among those frames at the end, is a shot of you tossing a frisbee for a young kid on a beach. A kid? You didn’t even meet a kid. Why are you playing with him, and how do you get to that beach? You go back and try again... and again, each time stumbling down new branches of Masq’s seedy, soap opera world.
2. Gravity Bone
Developer: Blendo Games
Graham: We often condemn linear games, but Gravity Bone makes it obvious that all we crave is more interesting worlds and stories to be pulled through. It communicates your instructions through posters and notes, it populates its colourful world with blockheaded spies and bossa nova-style, and its use of ultrashort flashback vignettes is structurally more interesting than anything most mainstream games even attempt.
Tom: Using the Quake 2 engine was an inspired move, removing the loading zones that might scupper the sporadic smashcuts that make Gravity Bone so pacey and exciting. The use of filmic rhythms and references show that ‘cinematic’ needn’t be a dirty word in games.
Graham: By crossbreeding roguelikes and platformers, Spelunky solves longstanding problems with both genres. The clear graphics and controls of its platforming forebears make the traditionally awkward, ASCII-graphics roguelike genre easy to understand, while the random level generation of its Rogue heritage prevent Spelunky’s platform dungeons from ever becoming boring or predictable. The result is a game that looks superficially like Mario, but where playing it is a long series of meaningful choices, and where a wasted bomb can be the difference between finding the fabled city of gold and being hurled over a cliff by an angry yeti.
Phil: It’s the combination of difficult platforming, random level generation, and a reliable ruleset that makes Spelunky one of the few roguelikes where death isn’t just an educational experience, but an inventive and funny one too. It’s not just that an angry yeti can throw you off a cliff; it’s that afterwards, you can land next to even an angrier shopkeeper, who’s still pissed off about an incident earlier in the game when a stolen statue triggered a boulder that crushed his friend’s shop. He’ll either shotgun you to death or erratically plunge into the abyss himself. If – by sheer luck of interweaving game systems – you do survive, seconds later you’ll mistime a jump and land in a pit of spikes. Because Spelunky.
Tom: Spelunky’s flair for the unpredictable refuses to fade after hundreds and deaths. The level generation formula will always throw up tricky new formations, its denizens will spawn in new configurations. That bat you’ve dodged hundreds of times before can kill you on the 101st attempt. Spelunky is here to mess you up, and it will continue to mess you up forever. Experience helps, of course. You might start to recognise dangerous set-ups that you’d once try and blunder through, but when total mastery isn’t an option, you can only fall back on your wits. That’s the key to Spelunky’s brilliance. It never stops being interesting. You’re always improvising, making plans, and getting killed trying to outwit a goddamn bat.
Chris: The way Spelunky uses slapstick to salve the frustration of an accidental death is my favourite thing about it. Failure is an integral part of roguelike design, and finding a way to turn it into a source of fun feels like the final piece of the puzzle.
Graham: If Tom Francis was still here, he’d talk about his hours-long pursuit of the city of gold, and how he eventually found it. I have played Spelunky for as long as Tom, and I haven’t found it. I haven’t even completed the game, even though I can now reach the final boss with hardly a wrong-placed rope along the way. If a game can hold my attention for so long without that ultimate gratification, I think that’s a pretty good sign.
Tom Francis went on a quest to discover Spelunky's mythical City of Gold. Follow the link to discover how he got on.