FREE FOR ALL
Grand Theft Auto
Nobody would have predicted that this simple top-down shooter – fun though it was – would one day be a billiondollar franchise. It was a pure arcade game, right down to the fact that missions were simply a way of earning the points that you needed to unlock other cities. The sequel moved the action into the future and added a faction system, but for our money, the first was the better of the two games. You can download both of them for free, though, and find out for yourself. Be warned, however: they're rat-bastard hard.
King's Quest III
King's Quest III is either one of the oldest adventures around, or the newest. The original is from 1986, but this complete remake comes from just a little earlier this year. It keeps most of the game as it was in the original, but boosts the graphics to snazzy 256-colour VGA, tweaks some of the puzzles (the original featured a couple of very long sections where nothing much happened) and performs other important tweaks. You don't need to know the first two King's Quest games to follow it, but they've also been remade.
Beneath a Steel Sky
Ever since it became freeware, BASS has become the adventure equivalent of an old Doctor Who episode – a comfortable, nostalgic and unmistakably British bit of sci-fi you can just slip into and enjoy. It's not a desperately long game, nor particularly tricky, but thanks to some fantastic world-building, it's very entertaining to pick your way through.
Top-down shooters have never really been the PC's thing, but this former shareware gave it a damn good go. The levels themselves are much as you'd expect, sending you against wave after wave of enemies to be blown up. The extras are impressive, too – from the story told in emails between missions, to the number of ships you can upgrade to.
Star Control 2
The problem with many 4X games is that they can be a little dull. Star Control 2 is anything but. It's more adventurous than many adventure games, and there's real enjoyment in building the perfect fleet. Keep a walkthrough to hand, though – SC2 is firmly from an era when letting you get into unwinnable situations was acceptable, and it's easy to find yourself snookered.
If you'd rather play free Sierra games the old-fashioned way, try out Sarien.net. Thanks to an agreement with Activision, you don't need to feel guilty about it, and they're almost exactly the same as the originals. The only addition is the multiplayer support for chatting with other people in their single-player adventures. It tends to be a low-traffic site though, so usually you're still going to be on your own.
Quest for Glory II
Another Sierra remake, but a very different game to King's Quest. Quest for Glory II is an adventure/RPG hybrid, often held up as the best of a very popular series. Set in the desert land of Shapeir, you can be a Fighter, Magic User or Thief, each with a customised main quest. This remade version switches the parserbased interface for point-andclick, and replaces many of the more frustrating moments.
The Hitch-Hiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Whether you enjoy this will depend on your tolerance for an adventure that doesn't merely hate you, but actively wants you to fail. The puzzles make little sense, and the unwinnable situations are cruel. If it didn't have the licence attached, it would likely be referred to as crap. But it does have the license, and on its own terms it can be fun.
One Must Fall 2097
It's sad, but this is the closest that the PC has ever had to a commercial Street Fightertype game it could be proud of. Don't let its simple looks fool you: it's still an extremely entertaining game, with an excellent main campaign and plenty of robots to aspire to owning and upgrading. There was a fancy 3D sequel, but it bit off more than it could chew and vanished without a trace.
Command and Conquer: Red Alert
When playing an older game, it doesn't hurt to choose one that already relied on retro charm. This clash between Soviets and Allies takes place after Einstein had the wicked wheeze of going back in time to assassinate Hitler. The chunky graphics still hold their appeal, even if the AI now has all the power of a particularly stupid potato.
The Elder Scrolls: Daggerfall
How big do you want your games? A couple of towns? An overworld map pretending to be a continent? Daggerfall is 487,000 square kilometres, containing 15,000 towns, and you can walk over every last inch of it if you're crazy enough to actually want to. Most of it is unsurprisingly quite empty, but there's a seriously impressive collection of guilds, factions, quests and more to get involved with beyond the main quest. It's an odd game, but an immersive one – and one you won't be done with any time soon if it gets its hooks in.
MechWarrior 4: Mercenaries
What happened to the stompy-mech genre? We miss it. We miss the scale, the heavy ordnance, the squish of passersby under our giant metal legs. MechWarrior 4 was one of the last games to offer this kind of action, but there's some consolation: it's free, and it's had several expansions since becoming so. Download it here, complete with the extra MekPaks, and relive the experience of towering over the battlefield. And, quite likely, the experience of tumbling down towards the battlefield, walking tanks being Very Silly Indeed.
Some games need no introduction, and Elite is on that list. The original space trading simulator may no longer be a technical showpiece, but it's where the whole genre started. Of course, that's just a cover for the real reason to hit the site. Three words: Elite: The Musical. Not many audio files, sadly, but your mind can fill in the blanks.
Ground Control put the tactics back into real time strategy, making the bold decision to throw out bases and resources to simply focus on set units. A bit like real war, where the first part of the battle is very rarely 'build a functional, economically viable city'. You need to sign up to FilePlanet to get a key, but the download is free. Don't expect to find many other players, but there's still a small active community if you look around.
To PC gamers, this is best known as 'those smelly Mac games Bungie did before finally making Halo'. To Mac gamers, they're 'those amazing Mac games Bungie did before selling out with Halo'. Either way, they're an interesting slice of history – a series of very story-driven Doom-style shooters, fully playable on PC thanks to an open-source version of the engine. Just download the player, AlephOne, and drop it into a directory of data files to play the games.