Even more so than books or movies, video games run a high risk of having no staying power. It could be because technology makes certain aspects of the game obsolete, gameplay innovations in other similar games make this one clunky and unplayable by comparison, or it just plain becomes irrelevant. But there are other games that are relatively ancient that we’d rather replay than plunk down another $60 for a modern release. Games like that are what proves gaming isn’t going away anytime soon, and for all we know, 3017’s Rosetta Stone is going to be an old copy of Legend of Zelda one of our contemporaries modded to have Japanese, English, and French language subtitles all at the same time.
Also, we should say this list isn’t going to include the glaringly obvious ones. Games like Pong, early Mario entries, Tetris, and most of those 80s arcade cabinets you’re pining for are unspoken, assumed inclusions. We tried to dig a little deeper into games you’ve probably played, but haven’t thought about in a while.
Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask
Yes, the last paragraph did just say we were trying to be less obvious, but Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask were too good to not start with. We promise the picks from here out won’t be so predictable.
The entire Legend of Zelda franchise has some serious staying power, but the two Nintendo 64 releases epitomize what we love about the games. There are enough puzzles, quests, mini-games, equipment upgrades, dungeons, and secrets to keep you occupied for years. What’s more, they all come from a time before games treated players like brainless drones who needed everything spelled out for them. You have to think your way through the quests, devoid of any markers, hints, or insultingly simple solutions. Even the glowing red spot of weakness for bosses isn’t that crazy, since there were different things you had to do to get at each one.
The fact that these games aged well isn’t a challenging conclusion or a divisive one. Enthusiasm for these entries is currently almost as high as it was when they were first released and it’s easy to get even casual gamers to praise either or both entries. Nintendo’s also released graphically upgraded versions on later consoles, smoothing out some of the rougher edges of 1998’s original. The key here though, and the reason they sold as well as they did, was they left the game intact. Nintendo didn’t try to modernize anything beyond graphics and a few control tweaks. It wasn’t broken, so they didn’t fix it. Ocarina of Time 3DS | Majora’s Mask 3DS
Splinter Cell: Conviction and Blacklist took a lot of heat for dumbing down the stealth genre and moving away from the nuanced, slow pace sneaky ninja game that was the original. Conviction is one of our favorite games though, and we’ll defend it until it passes from human memory, but we get what people were saying. The first Splinter Cell game was an unforgiving, brutal game where stealth wasn’t recommended. It was required. You couldn’t shoot your way out of a corner or Krav Maga people’s necks until your problems were solved. Being discovered mostly meant death.
That’s why we suspect it’s still enjoyable today. It’s so different from the slick Black Ops games it feels like an oxymoron. It’s an old breath of fresh air. The game’s a bit smarter, since everything factors into whether or not your attempts to be stealthy are succeeding. Light, sound, type of floor, movement speed, and line of sight all affect your sneaking, just like they would in real life. Later games might make you feel like a badass, but early entries make you feel invisible.
Age of Empires 2
We’ve never played Age of Empires 3 and we don’t feel the need to. They nailed it on the sequel. In fact, save for Battle for Middle Earth, Company of Heroes, and Starcraft, real time strategy games could probably take some time off. We have AoE 2, we don’t need any others. And we’re not exaggerating. The RTS genre is a great one and we’re always on the lookout for new ones. But there have been many times when we were about to buy one, then thought about Age and booted it up instead. Then the match lasts for days and we don’t even notice the weekend’s over and it’s time to come back to the office. You have a friend who plays, almost guaranteed, so talk to them about joining in. You’ll get wrecked the first dozen times you play it, and then intermittently after that, but you’ll get quicker every time and the payoff when you realize a battle is finally going to go in your favor is better than most real life experiences. PC
System Shock 2
If any of you are hardcore fans of the Bioshock series, you already know why the System Shock series is so important. It was Bioshock before Bioshock existed, an extended proof of concept that every fan of Rapture and Columbia should pick up. It’s a far more complicated game, with heavy RPG elements, inventory menus that reek of the late 90s, and controls that were only intuitive because intuitive controls hadn’t been invented yet. But after an adjustment period and extensive control remapping, the game plays excellently. Even with the limited hardware of the time, System Shock 2 was full of tension, suspense, satisfying gunplay, Ken Levine’s mandatory wrench-based bludgeoning object, and compelling plot lines. Just about every computer these days is powerful enough to play the game with every setting cranked all the way up, so the graphics aren’t so bad you can’t play. But if that stuff bothers you so much you can’t get over it, the modding community will save you from the headache. PC
Half-Life and Half-Life 2
The biggest reason the Half-Life games have aged so well has to be because so much was borrowed from them for later shooters. Literally, in a lot of cases. So many other games are built on the Source engine that there are a ton of games that look and play very similarly. It had sprinting years before other games thought it prudent to include in their games. The silent protagonist trope has few better examples than Gordon Freeman. The popularity of sci-fi shooters exploded after the original’s release. There was a lot done right in these games, particularly in the fact that Valve didn’t try to overcomplicate the game. They stuck to tightening the fundamental mechanics of shooters rather than adding in a whole bunch of gimmicks that would feel dated by the time the next holiday season rolled around.
The graphics of the original Half-Life are one of the only places the series falls down, but Valve released a Source update and Black Mesa is a ground up fan-made remake. It’s an amazing remake done by people who clearly love the series and the best way to experience the series for the first time, even if it is only half done (they’re working on the ending and it’ll come in a free update). PC
If gaming ever reaches a religious status, Doom is going to be what the priests pray to when they wake up and go to sleep. So much of the modern scene can thank Doom for what it is, including popularizing the first person perspective, starting the space marine stereotype, proving metal has a place outside of grungy music halls, and supercharging the modding scene. It’s still a wildly enjoyable experience to go careening around the game at full speed with guns blazing and the only game that’s reasonably recreated it was DOOM, maybe the greatest reboot in video game history. What’s more impressive about how well Doom has aged is how it was the first to do a lot of stuff and, after all these years, it’s still did it best. PC
Duke Nukem 3D
For a lot of fans, Duke Nukem 3D was the only evidence they needed to know Duke Nukem Forever was going to be worth the wait. It wasn’t sadly, but that doesn’t overshadow what people saw in that 1996 release. It looked and played a lot like Doom, so it wasn’t groundbreaking or innovative there. But the gameplay formula worked, so there wasn’t anything wrong with it either. Mostly what Duke Nukem changed to be memorable was Duke himself. He has that classic 90s action hero nihilism about him, with plenty of quips and irreverent humor to keep gamers playing. And since the game was borrowing gameplay from other early FPSes like it, there was a solid foundation, so nothing felt super gimmicky or short lived about it. The short lived thing bore out too, as the game is still very playable today, and on a bunch of different platforms. Mostly we’d recommend mobile and PC.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Our distaste for modern sidescrollers might have originated here. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 was so good it ruined almost every other game without a z axis. Level design was simple yet challenging, the music still has the gentle ring of nostalgia backed up by quality, and it’s always entertaining to see how Tails bungles himself into suicide. This was also almost where our interaction with Sonic ended. We had the third installment in the series and Sonic Spinball, both respectable entries in their own right. After them, we fell off, so our feelings toward Sonic aren’t tainted by consistently botched releases and weird fan art. We’ve heard about them, obviously, but never interacted with them, so Sonic the Hedgehog 2 retains its glorious simple fun. The game is also old enough that there are perfectly acceptable ways of getting it for free. Emulators are plentiful and it should be easy to find a safe one for your computer.
Street Fighter III: Third Strike
A well-constructed fighting game has a special relationship with its fanbase. People pour thousands of hours into the memorization of single, game-ending combo chains and compete in tournaments for every level of talent. That’s not the kind of time and emotional investment that allows things to fade away. Street Fighter III: Third Strike took all that and more.
It’s also worth mentioning this is another game that came before graphics got to near photorealism, so since they didn’t have to worry a hell of a lot about making the game look like Capcom’s personal photo library, they sunk most of the money into actual gameplay. The reason people can pull off those mind-bending combos and streaks of perfection is because the game’s so well built. It’s the choice between the Honda Civic that will run until its wheels are only a distant grandparent’s faded memory, and a Corvette that can’t make it out of the driveway without the engine falling out. Sure the Corvette’s great looking, but that thing’s mere existence ruins driving.
Star Wars: Battlefront II
When the Battlefront series got its Battlefield-esque revival, people hoped it lived up to the epic Star Wars battles of past entries. If the community’s reaction is anything to judge by, and, with a grain of salt, it is, it didn’t happen. But those of us with functional PS2s and PCs, if you feel like wading through Microsoft’s compatibility settings, can still relive the glory days of the video game Clone Wars. Provided you can find a populated server, which seem to still exist, the game plays well. Blasters are varied, classes serve a specific function on the battlefield, and no one’s ever had a bad time behind the controls of a Star Wars spaceship. Dig your old console out of storage and pop this back in. Your local second hand gaming shop is bound to have a copy, so it shouldn’t be that hard to find.