We’re right in the thick of videogaming’s classic rock period, when developers are seasoned enough and nostalgia is hot enough for companies to make nice change by constantly recycling the past. It’s the sort of thing that’s sustained Nintendo’s bottom line for years, but look at the HD collections of God of War and Shadow of the Colossus, or that Halo collection debuting on Xbox One later this year. It’s clear that the general public is completely fine with buying or rebuying stuff they bought or should’ve bought years ago. It’s a cash-in, but in an industry that’s constantly outdating itself, perennially keeping our classics within reach feels generous.
With that in mind, we went ahead and highlighted a handful of PC games that we think deserve the Baldur’s Gate / Grim Fandango treatment of an all-hands-on-deck HD enhanced edition. Why PC? Because it comes equipped with the biggest back catalog, and honestly, asking for an updated Thief makes a lot more sense than asking for an updated Blast Corps.
You know those trailers for No Man’s Sky that haven’t loosened their grip on your imagination? The soaring, daunting, insatiable freedom, leaping from planet to planet, battle to battle, nova to supernova, free of obligation, drinking in the purposelessness? That lustful out-of-reach fantasy of sitting cozily in your cockpit, waiting for the warp engine to rev up? Those images were first brought into focused by Homeworld, an RTS that played out its opera in the deep expanse of late-‘90s freespace.
Developed by stalwart strategy-game lifers Relic, Homeworld was deliciously spare. The clinking glass of the great beyond, a few twinkling stars in the distance, no planets in space. In retrospect it might look unadorned, but that was the beauty. Homeworld understood that in order to sink its teeth into you, to capture our collective vision of intergalactic emptiness, you must only add the essentials to the blank canvas. This added up to dozens of polychromatic space battles in an intensely deep system, lit only by the neon vapor trails of compact spacecraft and the distant, humming glow of the motherships. Homeworld reminds me of 2001. The trappings have aged, but the core sense of what it was trying to evoke remains affecting decades later. Thankfully Homeworld: Remastered, an HD remake of Homeworld and its sequel, has been announced by Gearbox.
Did you like XCOM: Enemy Unknown? Well what if you took that, swapped the marines for bitter mercenaries and the aliens with a dystopian authoritarian state. Oh, also make it a lot meaner, deeper, and far more customizable. Be careful, though, as you need to maintain your operations while still making sure you’re making enough money to pay your conscripts and afford the requisite firepower. Basically, make sure you’re willing to put in the work to own and operate a private army, in all of its grubby, anti-streamlined glory. That’s 1999’s Jagged Alliance 2, a game with greater relevance in this new century of perpetual war.
There’s this ongoing sense in the game industry that complicated, multi-layered storytelling is a fairly recent development, that characters speaking in symbols and grace goes back about as far as Niko Bellic. Those people have not played Planescape: Torment. Developed in D&D terminology by Black Isle, Planescape told what is perhaps still the most philosophically intrusive story you’ll ever find in interactive entertainment. From the first moments, waking up alone and amnesiac in a flesh-rending dungeon, with only a New Yawk-accented flying skull guiding your path, you’re drawn in by Torment’s lack of orthodoxy. Massive questions of identity, destiny, and true love are encoded in its winding, often playful dialogue. It’s a game worthy of its long list of bygone admirers, and it absolutely deserves to be debuted to a younger, more curious generation.
No I’m not talking about that awful little abomination that came out earlier this year. I’m talking about motherfucking THIEF. THE DARK PROJECT. In all its cobblestone glory. Where you hold your breath under a table for what feels like hours as a couple of dipshit guards talk about who knows what before you skulk through like the sewer rat you are. Like most games of the early 3D era, Thief’s visuals have not aged well, and it drives me crazy that a developer hasn’t done the right thing and retouch what is still the best stealth game of all time for archival and humanitarian purposes.
Considering the vastness of the Sid Meier dispatch, from Civilization, to Alpha Centuri, to Pirates, I suppose SimGolf would be the last title you’d expect to earn any belated appreciation. I mean, we’re talking about a one-off simulation of the designing and marketing of golf courses. It’s not exactly the most resonant stuff. We can be 100 percent sure that SimGolf was not designed to receive a decades-later repackaging, which is a shame, because it offers one of the most singular experiences in the history of gaming.
Sure, it focuses on a fairly mundane, specific concept, and that’s okay, Sid Meier wasn’t expecting you to be a golf nerd going in. The reason I still find time to boot up SimGolf is because there’s simply nothing else like it. Why? Because that would require a self-respecting studio to dedicate time and resources into constructing a videogame that would categorically only appeal to a very specific niche of people. Namely, the men and women who still play SimGolf in 2014. Will you plunder seaside colonies or watch nations tremble under the might of your sword? No. Will you feel all the muscles in your body relax as you add another hole to your burgeoning top-tier course? Absolutely. I think we know who the real winners are.
I will have absolutely no problem chalking this up to rosy-eyed bias. As a kid, I fucking loved RollerCoaster Tycoon. It was the first overworld simulation/strategy game I ever played, which manifested into a long term obsession. I remember the midi carnival music that haunted the streets, and opening a park that consisted solely of a carousel and a splotch of pavement. I remember the basic management of economic resources, which induced a constant state of anxiety in my over-worried youth. I certainly remember chopping off the peaks of the most profitable roller coasters in my park, to watch the steadfast little people crash and burn into the abyss, cackling madly at the ensuing PR disaster. I’m sure I was not the only one.
I have no idea if RollerCoaster Tycoon was good, but I certainly can say that any management sim that achieved enough mainstream ubiquity to produce its own pinball spinoff has to count for something. I just want to build another roller coaster, and see if the wonder returns.
When Irrational closed its doors under auspicious circumstances earlier this year, the internet was quick to lament the brilliance of those in-house Bioshock games, as well as the forbearing System Shock 2 before it. Few, however, held up Freedom Force, the awesome, Jack Kirby-inspired real-time RPG that was equally sponged with deep, tactical forethought and good old fashioned McCarthy-era jingoism. If you think Irrational didn’t have a sense of humor, you never heard Minuteman rave about the Commies.
Luke Winkie is a writer living in Austin, TX. Follow him on Twitter at @luke_winkie.