There’s a lot to like about modern games. Graphics look better with every passing year, physics engines get more nuanced, and maps are both huge and detailed. Sometimes, however, it feels good to go back to how games used to be 20, 30, 40 years ago, but with the possibilities provided by modern tech and decades of gamedev evolution.
Thankfully, the trapping of old-school games are alive and well, and have been used to make some really good, interesting, refreshing titles. The list below features ten games that are worth checking out if you want to figure out if the retro-style gaming is for you.
|Hotline Miami 2 Wrong Number||2015-03-10||Action & Shooter||Dennaton Games||80%|
|Legend Of Grimrock 2||2014-10-15||Adventure||Almost Human Games||57%|
|Thimbleweed Park||2017-03-30||Adventure||Terrible Toybox|
|Strafe Millennium Edition||2017-05-09||Action & Shooter||Pixel Titans||85%|
|Axiom Verge||2015-05-14||Adventure||Thomas Happ Games LLC||37%|
|Dead Cells||2017-05-10||Action & Shooter||Motion Twin||59%|
|Eterium||2014-04-15||Action & Shooter||Rogue Earth LLC||83%|
|Hotline Miami 2 Wrong Number||2015-03-10||Action & Shooter||Dennaton Games||80%|
|Developer||Thomas Happ Games|
If you saw a random Axiom Verge screenshot, you could be excused from thinking it’s not a game made this century. It looks like a weird retro Metroidvania from early 90s, perhaps. It IS a weird retro Metroidvania, but it’s from 2017, and it’s very good. Its main character is a scientist who ends up on an alien planet through a series of complicated circumstances and has to survive somehow.
Axiom Verge takes inspirations from several classic games, such as Contra, or Bionic Commando, and tweaks and refines the borrowed elements to work really well with the game’s vision of an alien world full of weird technology. There’s a fascinating world to explore, and a nuanced, weird, and serious storyline to be followed to its conclusion. Between the story and the action, you won’t be bored.
BroForce loves old-school. It is clearly in love in the golden age of action movies, and it is in love with the run’n’gun games of old. As a result we get a game which is an explosive, fast, and completely not serious game filled with loving tributes to famous action cinema characters, like Rambro, Brobocop, and Ellen Ripbro. They are all bros, you see. And they are fully capable of unleashing untold havoc.
The maps are almost completely destructible, which is great for pure fun factor, but if you go overboard you might have to get creative in order to reach extraction. The game’s quite pixelated in order to evoke the style of old run’n’gun games like Contra, but the pixel art is really good and identifying a Bro is never a problem. The lo-fi style also means the game won’t hog resources.
|Developer||Motion Twin, Evil Empire|
Dead Cells is certainly one of the games using a pixel art look, but if it wasn’t for the vivid colours and lighting, you’d be excused to think it’s a genuine old-school game. It’s a Metroidvania mixed with a Roguelike, which mean a side-scrolling action game with procedurally assembled rooms. You’re playing as a bit of biomass capable of animating dead bodies dumped into sewers of a dungeon complex.
The goal is to escape, but every death sends the Prisoner back to square one to claim a new body and try again. Dead Cells’ combat is very precise, and every hit counts. If you die, you lose the items you discovered, but if you spent the progression currency: cells, before dying, your upgrades stay with you. Inevitably you’ll become strong enough to make to whatever lies at the end.
|Genre:||Space combat simulator|
|Developer||Rogue Earth LLC|
Eterium revives the nostalgia for old space-sim games of the 90s like such as X-Wing or Wing Commander, and the developers wear that inspiration on their sleeves. While games like Star Citizen or Elite Dangerous go for realistic graphics benefitting from modern solutions, Eterium winds the clock back to the 90s. Be ready for a crispy pixelated look of the cockpit and full joystick support.
Don’t be misled by the retro graphics, however, because behind them lies a game with a pleasing complexity and detail. There’s a broad selection of available ships, and you can come up with different weapon loadouts. The story is about a war between United Earth Alliance (your faction) against aliens called Revi, and the core enemy action.
Hotline Miami 2
Hotline Miami was a smash hit when it launched in 2012, and it deserved every bit of its success. The second game was also a critically acclaimed tile and fan-favorite. Both games are a rare example of a top-down shooter, that puts you in the role of a nameless man who sets out on a series of massacres against the Russian mob in 1989 Miami. But that’s just the premise, the story gets weirder as it develops. And then we get into the excellent gameplay to complete the picture.
Every mission requires you to clear a number of rooms, some separated by doors, others not necessarily. You can burst through a door to quickly deal with a goon passing by only to get shotgun blast to the chest if you aren’t careful. Everybody dies in one hit, so there’s no room for error. Fortunately, death costs nothing, you can just start again from the top.
Legend of Grimrock 1 & 2
|Release year:||2012 (LoG), 2014 (LoG2)|
|Genre:||Action role-playing, dungeon crawl|
Before the coming of isometric RPGs like Fallout and Baldur’s Gate, a common way RPGs worked was in line with games like Bard’s Tale or Might & Magic: first-person dungeon crawlers, which have you move as a 2×2 “blob” of four party members. Legend of Grimrock revived that tradition but added modern graphics to make the very old-school playstyle look more polished.
Over the course of the game you’ll encounter plenty of traps laid for interlopers, and you’ll need to solve quite a number of puzzles of all kinds. There’s also a lot of combat which, uncharacteristically for the genre, takes place in real time instead of turns. In general, if you liked classic dungeon crawlers you’ll feel a welcome sense of nostalgia, but not without some refreshing tweaks.
Stardew Valley’s inspiration is the Harvest Moon series, dating back to the mid-90s. As a result, and because it’s developed by one person, Stardew Valley has a similar charming old-school 16-bit aesthetic and an isometric view of the farm you inherit at the beginning of the game. At the beginning of the game the farm is neglected and in general disarray, and it’s your job to restore it to function.
Over the course of the game you’ll clean the land of weeds and boulders, making place for various crops, pens for livestock, farming equipment and occasionally decorations. There’s also a nearby town full of friendly NPCs and stores where you can get supplies. SDV is a very relaxing, optimistic game, which is a worthy successor to a classic 90s game. A perfect option for a chill afternoon.
Strafe not only plays like one of the old school shooters from the turn of centuries, but it also makes the effort to look like them, too! Whereas 2016’s Doom looks every part like a modern-made game, STRAFE goes the extra mile to have the look you remember from your time with Quake 3 Arena or Unreal Tournament. It’s also a roguelike and the blood of your enemies stays where it fell.
It’s possibly the first FPS with procedurally generated levels and going really all in on the concept. The way the levels are populated with enemies, and with all sorts of secrets and pickups is also randomised. And all of that is rendered with purposefully blurry textures, low polygon counts, and unrelenting action. If you miss old-school first-person shooters, you may well like it.
Thimbleweed Park is something that truly feels like a game from a bygone era: it’s a point-and-click adventure game. Although the genre used to be exceptionally popular, it virtually became extinct in the past fifteen or so years. Thimbleweed Park is made by Roy Gilbert and Gary Winnick, people who are behind the classics like The Secret of Monkey Island or Maniac Mansion, and looks the part.
The game’s story is set in 1987 and follows a murder mystery, but the eponymous town is full of way weirder things than just some dead person. You’ll find ghosts, foul-mouthed clowns, and more, all connected by fantastically witty writing by two of the genre’s legends. It’s a fantastic game, perfectly capturing the humour and playstyle of the classics from the past.
Undertale is a game that hides an exceptional depth and cleverness under some quite rudimentary graphics. Developed by Toby Fox, Undertale is an RPG with bullet hell-style combat, and with some very effective fourth wall breaking that isn’t used just for comedy. But that doesn’t change the fact that graphically, or gameplaywise it feels very old-school, in a very deliberate way.
In Undertale you play as a child who winds in an underground world populated by monsters, banished from the surface world. Although the monsters are mostly friendly, you can choose whether you want to interact in a friendly or hostile manner. There are several endings available, and the game tracks your decisions across playthroughs, which lets certain endings happen in the first place.
Old-school, but modern!
That concludes our list of suggestions, but there are many, many more games that consciously and purposefully adopt the style and/or substance of the older titles. They emulate graphics, gameplay concepts, sometimes even genres we don’t see much of anymore. There’s no shortage of games which wouldn’t look too out of place on a twenty years old machine.