The 1990s was a great decade for PC gaming, giving rise to whole genres of games.
Console gamers had their iconic franchises, but on PCs we were seeing new things well before they came to consoles.
By the late 90s, console game developers were innovating on the first-person shooter genre which started on PC.
However, titles like Myst, WarCraft, and Baldur’s Gate remained the exclusive purview of the PC gamer.
We ranked the top PC games from the decade, using the aggregate ratings on Metacritic.
GameRankings was used as an additional to source to reflect how opinions of the best PC games of the period might differ.
|2||Civilization II||Unreal Tournament (1999)|
|4||Grim Fandango||Grim Fandango|
|6||Homeworld||System Shock 2|
|7||Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!||Baldur’s Gate|
|8||System Shock 2||Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri|
|9||Thief: The Dark Project||Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings|
|10||Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings||FreeSpace 2|
Trying to argue that a game other than Half-Life was the best game of the 1990s is a fool’s errand.
Console gamers might put forward The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time or GoldenEye 007 for Nintendo 64, but they would be wrong.
Not only was Half-Life a great game in its own right, but its community created a plethora of memorable mods.
Among the more well-known of these was Counter-Strike, which helped spawn a whole genre of “realistic” team-based multiplayer shooters.
2. Civilization II
As the discrepancy in ratings between Metacritic and GameRankings suggests, Sid Meier’s Civilization II is a highly-rated game, but doesn’t make everyone’s top 10 list.
I tend to agree with GameRankings — Alpha Centauri was the better 1990s Sid Meier’s game.
Quake receives a well-deserved third place from both Metacritic and GameRankings.
Half-Life was built on a heavily modified version of Quake’s engine called GoldSrc.
Like Half-Life, Quake was not only a good game in its own right, but the community made it even greater and gave it longevity through modifications.
4. Grim Fandango
An iconic title from LucasArts, Grim Fandango is an adventure game masterpiece.
Featuring memorable characters and a creative, intriguing story, the game ranks at fourth place on both Metacritic’s and GameRanking’s top 10.
Blizzard released a number of games during the 1990s that would become long-running franchises.
Diablo made Metacritic’s top 10, while StarCraft made GameRanking’s. Clearly Metacritic has it right this time.
With Diablo, Blizzard put a different spin on action RPGs, and its randomised maps and loot system came to epitomise the genre.
Relic Entertainment launched its fully 3D real-time strategy game in September 1999.
Homeworld’s vocal-only choir arrangement of Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber (a.k.a. Agnus Dei) made for excellent background music while studying for exams in high school.
7. Sid Meier’s Gettysburg!
|Metacritic||92% (User: 7.7)|
Sid Meier’s Gettysburg will likely be the most controversial inclusion in this top 10, given its low user rating.
Like Civilization II, its rating is only based on 7 reviews, the cut-off for Metacritic’s list of the best PC games of all time.
So I feel fully justified in saying that it should be Alpha Centauri on this list, and not Civilization or Gettysburg.
8. System Shock 2
[Reconstructed from damaged SHODAN memory bank. Spoilers ahead.]
A first-person shooter and action RPG which tells the story of the noble artificial intelligence, Shodan, which only sought to mutate Earth-life into better versions of itself.
Fearless. Powerful. With no sense of individual will or moral constraints. Fitting handmaidens to her divinity.
You play Shodan’s avatar in the real world who eventually becomes corrupted, turns against her, and murders her.
9. Thief: The Dark Project
The second Looking Glass Studios game on this list — with System Shock 2 being co-developed by Looking Glass and Irrational Games.
Thief offered a first-person action game with an amazing stealth system.
After Looking Glass Studios folded, employees went on to join teams that would work on games like Deus Ex.
Unable to make direct sequels to System Shock, Irrational Games developed a spiritual successor — the BioShock series.
A direct sequel to System Shock 2 is finally in development after Night Dive Studios managed to acquire the rights to the franchise. System Shock 3 is being developed by Otherside Entertainment.
10. Age of Empires II: The Age of Kings
Age of Empires was a historically accurate series that teaches important lessons, such as running away when you hear someone chanting “Wololo”.
A number of great games did not make this list. Some of them made the GameRankings top 10, while others just missed the various cut-offs.
Some had fewer than the necessary number of reviews, but rated highly, while others were beaten out of the top 10 by a hair.
Unreal Tournament (1999)
Unreal Tournament was an arena shooter that offered interesting weapons and various ways to modify the battle, such as altering variables like gravity, and enabling single hit kills.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
“I DON’T KNOW BUT I BEEN TOLD! DEIRDRE’S GOT A NETWORK NODE!”
Since Metacritic refused to list it in their top 10, I’ll list it in my honourable mentions.
GameRankings also ranks it in its top 10, so it deserves a mention.
Day of the Tentacle
Recently remastered and released on PlayStation, Windows, and OS X, Day of the Tentacle was the sequel to 1987’s Maniac Mansion.
The game is a point-and-click adventure title originally built on the LucasArts SCUMM engine, and was critically acclaimed but only a moderate commercial success.
X-COM: Enemy Unknown / UFO Defense
X-COM: Enemy Unknown, which was marketed as X-COM: UFO Defence in North America, is a turn-based tactics strategy game from Microprose.
Firaxis remade it in 2012, and in addition to spawning a series of sequels it also inspired many games like it.
This honourable mention could just as well have been Baldur’s Gate, Fallout 2, or any game published or developed by Black Isle Studios in the 1990s.
However, Torment rates higher on Metacritic, and is my favourite Black Isle game of the era.
The plot and characters were excellently written, and are fondly remembered by the cult of PC gamers that played the game.