PC gaming in the ‘90s and early 2000s was home to a ton of revolutionary, foundational games we still talk about all the time. Games like Diablo. Doom 2. SimCity. Baldur’s Gate.
I’m not gonna talk about those here—most of them are famously among the most important PC games of all time.
I’m gonna talk about the games you might have missed. Underappreciated, fallen through the cracks, obscure-ish games that are still 100% worth a play today. They range from self-serious adaptations of literary worlds to zany shooters and pulp action games, but they’re all worth a look and readily available on Steam or GOG. Except for one. Perhaps someday soon… a guy can hope.
Freedom Fighters (2003)
Developer: IO Interactive | Get it on: Steam/GOG
Freedom Fighters reimagines one of the most essential questions in video games—what if everything went sideways and our last line of defense against destruction was a plumber?
Set in an alternate timeline where Russia successfully invades the mainland US, you take the role of everyday working stiff Chris Stone as he shoots Russians, grows an underground resistance, and ultimately frees New York from the clutches of tyranny.
Setting aside the unfortunate parallels to current events, this remains an underappreciated gem from the early 2000s. IO Interactive’s first release after Hitman 2, it featured smooth over-the-shoulder third-person shooting, a pulpy story rife with betrayal and drama, and a surprisingly robust squad command system. Ignoring the fussiness and complications of other squad shooters of the era like Rainbow Six, Fighters kept it simple. Shoot bad guys, complete objectives to grow your squad, save America. Patrick Swayze and the rest of the kids from Red Dawn are proud of you, soldier.
Giants: Citizen Kabuto (2000)
Developer: Planet Moon Studios | Get it on: Steam/GOG | Essential mod: Patch 1.5
When Baz, the intrepid leader of a blimey band of space… uh… heroes, lands on a mysterious island world en route to planet Majorca, little does he know he’ll be embroiled in a tragic story befitting the Greeks. In Giants: Citizen Kabuto, you play as three separate characters (the aforementioned Baz, sea reaper Delphi, and giant monster Kabuto) in a game that bends the idea of genre. It’s also quite funny, with lots of visual gags and goofy characters.
Giants flew under the radar a bit when it came out, a casualty of a buggy and graphics-hungry PC release and squabbles over its Mature rating. It’s still a blast to jetpack around, though, and drop flying elbows on puny villagers. It’s available on Steam and GOG, and if you do decide to give this classic a look be sure to grab the fan-made patch 1.5, which fixes a bunch of bugs and enables multiplayer. Find multiplayer games on their Discord.
Betrayal at Krondor (1993)
Developer: Dynamix | Get it on: Steam/GOG
Almost 30 years before George R. R. Martin wrote the backstory to Elden Ring, another fantasy author was tapped for a computer game. Betrayal at Krondor came out in 1993, and was set in the fantasy universe of Raymond E. Feist. Since his novels were based on a tabletop roleplaying game he invented for his friends, the project was a natural fit.
With an absolutely massive story and an innovative battle map system for combat, Betrayal did a lot of things right. It featured fan-favorite characters like Pug and Jimmy the Hand, and the story fit right in the canon of the books if you were into that. It has a bit of the feel of a visual novel—lots of the encounters are story beats rather than random monsters, and cutscenes abound. The game’s also a great entry point if you haven’t read the books—check out Magician: Apprentice to get more backstory on Pug and friends after you finish.
Developer: Westwood | Get it on: GOG
Nox might have been everyone’s favorite ARPG if it hadn’t come out the same year as Diablo 2. Oof. Developed by Westwood Studios, it’s the story of regular dude Jack Mower who gets teleported along with his TV to save the magical realm of Nox. Jack can be either a warrior, conjurer, or wizard, and each role features its own campaign. Voice acting was a particular highlight, featuring talent like character actor Mark Rolston and that guy who played Stifler.
The multiplayer was sweet. Each class had a number of spells (or special abilities, in the case of the warrior), and the dynamic line of sight system meant that there were tons of blind spots on the screen to strategize around. Casting spells on the fly was a major challenge with a high skill ceiling, and Westworld even had global leaderboards.
You can still find Nox on GOG, and fans have a Discord to coordinate games. Technically it’s only supported on Windows XP, Vista, 7, and 8, but running it in compatibility mode seems to work just fine even with newer operating systems.
Developer: id Software | Get it on: Steam/GOG
In the first half of 1997, a few short months before Goldeneye would take over all of our N64 multiplayer time, all we played was Hexen. A sequel to the well-received Heretic, Hexen was a dark fantasy FPS that eschewed shotguns and plasma rifles for spiked gauntlets and magical crosses that shoot spirits.
One of the first ever shooters to feature classes, you could play as a fighter, mage, or cleric. Each had a variety of axes, wands, and magic spells with which to slaughter hordes of demons very reminiscent of another id Software game, including an ultimate weapon that had to be pieced together by finding three component artifacts. It took until 2019 for us to get a proper retro shooter successor.
Hexen’s single-player campaign was great. Lots of baddies and bosses, breakable environments, and enough tension on your mana to make you think about whether to break out the big ‘guns’ or conserve energy by punching things for a while. The real magic was multiplayer, though, where a mad scramble to find the pieces of your ultimate weapon led to devastation until someone could take you out and make you start the process over again. Sequel Hexen 2 had an even more creative multiplayer mode that was decades ahead of its time.
Lands of Lore (1993)
Developer: Westwood | Get it on: GOG
The era of DOS dungeon crawlers has passed, despite a few excellent stabs at a revival (play Legend of Grimrock, I beg you). That said, the dungeon crawler's a vital part of PC gaming history and a genre worth remembering. If you’re looking for somewhere to start, try Lands of Lore.
Released in 1993, this game was Westwood’s attempt to top Eye of the Beholder 2 and remove themselves from having to use the Dungeons and Dragons license. The result is an enjoyable roleplaying game with simplified mechanics and some of the studio’s trademark charm, spearheaded by a VA performance by none other than Sir Patrick Stewart.
Character development is flexible—all of your party members increase levels in fighter, rogue, or mage depending on what skills they use. Your four-armed buddy Baccata will be by your side as you journey to find the elixir and save King Richard. Just don’t hand over quest items to suspicious maidens. It’s patched now, but on release Westwood actually had people send in their save files to be edited because you could accidentally hand over a key item that they forgot to put back in the game!
Armed and Dangerous (2003)
Developer: Planet Moon Studios | Get it on: Steam/GOG
It may be cheating a bit to include two games from Planet Moon Studios on a list like this, but Armed and Dangerous is really something special. If you took a third person shooter, shook it up in a blender with some psychedelics and a VHS tape of Monty Python, you still wouldn’t have something half as crazy as this game.
You take the role of Roman, leader of a small band of misfits known as the Lionhearts. You’ll use machine guns and rocket launchers alongside more… esoteric… weaponry like the landshark gun and a corkscrew that turns the world upside down to defeat your enemies along the way.
Mostly, though, you’ll sit back and enjoy the ride as some incredible voice actors take you on an absurd journey through one of the strangest stories ever told in videogames. A lady in a lake, robot gardeners turned killbots, and the stoned son of an evil king are but some of the highlights.
MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries (1996)
Developer: Activision | Get it on: Ebay 😔
Reactor online. Sensors online. Weapons online. All systems nominal. Loading into a BattleMech is one of the most satisfying things in gaming, and for most of us aging PC gamers, it probably started with MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat. While an absolute classic in its own right, I want to take a moment to talk about the standalone expansion, Mercenaries.
By now, there have been many Mercenaries games in the MechWarrior universe, but this one may be the best. Its gritty story puts you in the shoes of a merc who assumes control of his company after his commander is killed in action. You take contracts, salvage mechs, and survive as best you can hoping to retire in luxury.
Unlike most other MechWarrior games, it’s not game over if you fail a mission or lose a mech. You can limp along, losing most of your profit or fighting capacity in mechs, trying to scrape together enough to get back on your feet. This can put you in a tough spot if you’re trying to win the Champion of Solaris tournament or survive the Clans showing up, and adds interesting tension to the overall campaign.
With one of the best soundtracks in gaming from the inimitable Jeehun Hwang, classic mech combat and an excellent campaign filled to the brim with BattleTech lore and grit, MechWarrior 2: Mercenaries is still one of the best games in that universe. Unfortunately, it’s the one game on the list that isn’t readily available unless you happen to have an old disc. Here’s hoping for a re-release!