This article is part 1 in our new History of PC Gaming series.
No matter your platform of preference, it’s impossible to deny that the PC has always been a leading force in the evolution of gaming. While Atari and arcade machines were providing simple pleasures, PC developers were busy designing adventures that pushed the limits of the technology of the day. While the N64 and PlayStation were toying with 3D technology, PC developers were pioneering the online frontier. Today, studios both big and small are looking at the next frontier of PC gaming: playing on the cloud.
When trying to name the most important PC games of all-time, though, it’s not only about innovation and who came first. While those qualities will always matter, there are reasons why Slack is more popular than Skype and Facebook trounced MySpace. Innovation certainly matters, but it’s not always a guarantee of victory or a place in history.
No, the most important PC games of all-time are typically the ones that inspired the community itself. These games inspired a legion of other developers to consider new concepts. They inspired outsiders to look at gaming in an entirely new way. Most importantly, they inspired those who played them to tell everyone they knew that they had to do the same.
These are the PC games that send you right back down memory lane and define the eras in which they were released (while still being enjoyable today). Most importantly, they changed the way we played on PC.
Here are 25 of the most important PC games of all-time:
The Oregon Trail
Text-based – 1971 | Don Rawitsch, Bill Heinemann, and Paul Dillenberger
Graphical Version – 1985 | MECC
If you want to simplify The Oregon Trail’s importance, you could say that it’s the pioneer of education games. However, you’d be selling this game’s contributions short.
The Oregon Trail became a phenomenon at a time in the early 1970s when “video game” was a phrase that few people knew. In fact, it was originally designed as an educational tool to teach kids about the hardships of pioneer life. Little did the designer know that this interactive history lesson would be just so darn fan.
Decades after its release, this historical adventure was still being used by teachers and librarians everywhere in order to not only teach kids about history but familiarize them with computers in general. Our fond memories of The Oregon Trail aren’t solely based on getting to play video games in school, though.
Its methodical style of decision-based adventure gameplay remains the gold standard for any modern title that aims to take players on a grand journey. From feeding your party to hunting for meat to trying to cure your fellow traveler’s dysentery, The Oregon Trail pulled no punches, making every choice you made a matter of life or death.
1980 | Infocom
Despite the popular perception, Zork was not the first text-based adventure game. In fact, it missed that distinction by several years. However, it is the first text adventure game to showcase the full potential of the genre.
What ultimately separated Zork from everything that came before was the quality of the game’s writing. Here was a genuinely compelling fantasy adventure on par with the many adventure novels of the day. The true merit of Zork’s writing, though, can be found in the ways that the game’s diverse script let players wander off the beaten path and feel as if they had actual choices.
Zork provided a level of freedom and exploration that no other game at the time offered. It would be years before we got a graphics-based game that could replicate it.
1980 | A.I. Design
Oddly enough, Rogue wasn’t incredibly popular or influential at the time of its release. It was moderately successful and made something of a splash, but it remained trapped in obscurity for years.
That is until the rise of the roguelike genre in the 2000s. Games like Spelunky, FTL, and The Binding of Isaac led to a new generation of gamer’s recognizing that Rogue’s brilliant use of permadeath and randomization lent the game an utterly addictive quality that made it exciting and full of possibilities every time you booted it up.
Rogue may not have made an immediate splash, but the ripples of its impact are certainly being felt to this day. Newer titles like Dead Cells and Crypt of the NecroDancer have picked up the torch, introducing new elements to Rogue‘s original formula, and we can’t wait to see what tomorrow will bring for the genre this little PC game inspired.
Wizardry: Proving Grounds of the Mad Overlord
1981 | Sir-Tech
Commonly referred to as Wizardry, this 1981 game has the remarkable honor of being the godfather of dungeon crawlers as well as one of the most significant influences on JRPGs and RPGs in general.
While it wasn’t much more visually impressive than the text adventures that came before it (even if its limited visuals are iconic), Wizardry introduced many of the gameplay concepts that would soon become standard. Its use of an early party system, moral alignments, dungeon areas, character-specific spells, and an accessible menu format can all be found in some form in all RPGs that have followed it.
What’s truly impressive, though, is how Wizardry’s formula led to hundreds of hours worth of adventuring that is still worth experiencing to this day.
Ultima IV: Quest of the Avatar
1985 | Origin Systems
The Ultima series has always been a major force in the evolution of PC games, but Ultima IV stands as the most important entry in the franchise for the way that it changed our perception of the capabilities of role-playing in video games.
There is no great evil in Ultima IV to defeat or prophecy to fulfill. Instead, the game has you control a character of your own design on their quest to become a spiritual leader in an age of reason, art, and enlightenment. That may not sound thrilling, but Ultima IV’s deep morality system, open-world design, fascinating NPC conversations, and lack of busy work ensures that you’re never left wanting for a sense of purpose in this world.
Ultima IV broke all the genre rules so thoroughly that it’s often still referred to as the gold standard for developers looking to offer more through their video game RPGs than virtual dice.
1989 | Maxis
Yes, SimCity pioneered the “Sim” line of games. Yes, it practically invented the city builder genre (even if some early games laid the foundation). Yes, it was a revolutionary entry in the “games as education” genre.
However, SimCity’s biggest influence may be how purposeless it was. It was a game that offered objectives, but the thrill of playing it was based more on simply exploring the possibilities that it offered and setting new goals for yourself along the way. It’s a formula that is alive and well in games like Minecraft, Stardew Valley, Garry’s Mod, and so many more.
At a time when arcade games and 2D platformers were still the toast of the industry, SimCity argued that games could offer even the casual player something much more compelling than a high score and final boss.
March 1990 | Microsoft
Before you balk, ask yourself if you ever played Microsoft Solitaire. How many people do you know who’ve played Windows’ premier card game?
Popularity may not always equal importance, but the two go hand-in-hand in this instance. Not only did Solitaire appeal to a greater variety of gamers than arguably any other PC title of its era, but it helped many people become comfortable with the Windows operating system and introduced the concept of a computer as a gaming device to casual players.
Microsoft Solitaire was often the first game that people played on their new PCs and it’s a game that many of us still enjoy playing today. Plus, the shuffling sound is amazing.
1992 | Westwood Studios
Real-time strategy games may not be as popular as they once were, but there was a time when they stood alongside first-person shooters as the definitive PC gaming genre. That may have never been the case were it not for the innovations of Dune II.
RTS elements like fog of war, resource gathering, base building, technology trees, unique factions, and context-sensitive cursors were either introduced or refined by Dune II. More importantly, it executed them better than many of the games that followed in its footsteps would. Years later, you can play Dune II for the first time and feel like you’re sliding right back into your favorite RTS game.
Alone in the Dark
1992 | Infogrames
It’s difficult to talk about Alone in the Dark without first pointing out that it’s a highly flawed game. Its action, exploration, and storytelling elements would all be improved upon by more notable names in the horror genre. However, all of those successors owe a lot to Alone in the Dark.
Arguably the first survival horror game ever made, Alone in the Dark introduced the fixed camera angles that would be popularized by Resident Evil and proved that 3D technology could be used for so much more than action-heavy experiences. The game’s emphasis on pure horror, survival, and a cinematic presentation certainly influenced games like Resident Evil and Silent Hill, but you could go so far as to say that we wouldn’t have the vast majority of modern horror games had it not been for this earlier installment.
1993 | id Software
While this list is in chronological order, there’s little doubt in the minds of many that Doom stands as the single most influential PC game ever made. Doom didn’t invent the first-person shooter, but it did popularize the genre to the point that many subsequent FPS games were referred to as “Doom clones.”
Doom also helped bring video game modding into the mainstream, upped the ante on in-game violence, forever changed online multiplayer, raised the bar for PC graphics, and is sometimes referred to as the most imitated game of all-time. It’s impossible to imagine what the modern gaming world would be like without Doom. Honestly, it’s a world we don’t even want to consider.
1993 | Cyan
Myst is not a great game. Its puzzles are nowhere near as clever as the ones featured in the other adventure games of its era, its story is weak, and it often just feels like a chore to play. Yet, it’s very hard to justify talking about the most important PC games ever made without discussing Myst.
While that’s partially because Myst clearly inspired the “Walking Simulator” genre, its influence has much more to do with how it raised the bar for computer gaming visuals and technology. Myst utilized revolutionary – largely CD-ROM based – rendering techniques that produced visuals the likes of which nobody had ever seen before. Sure, it was mostly smoke and mirrors, but Myst expanded the imagination of millions of gamers who suddenly found themselves dreaming of endless possibilities on PC.
1996 | Blizzard North
For years, it was believed that the growth of the RPG genre was based on developers making new RPGs larger and more complicated. Those games became deeper, offered more hours of gameplay, and catered to an increasingly hardcore audience. The ambition of these developers was admirable, but it all contributed to an unsustainable market.
Diablo helped rescue the genre from the darkness. It simplified the RPG formula by emphasizing a more action-heavy approach, randomization elements, and those sweet, sweet loot drops. Far from gimmicky, the combination of these design elements resulted in a game you could play for hundreds of hours and learn in minutes.
Thief: The Dark Project
1998 | Looking Glass Studios
There’s no denying that Thief forever changed the stealth genre. Titles like Splinter Cell, Assassin’s Creed, Hitman, and Tenchu all borrow heavily from it and, in some cases, steal pages directly from its playbook.
Yet, Thief’s most notable contribution is the way that it emphasized player freedom and the ability to make unscripted choices within a 3D space. Along with System Shock, Thief is the biggest innovator in that respect. Whereas System Shock and Ultima Underworld clearly inspired this game, Thief was really the first title to figure out what this style of gameplay was going to look like for years to come.
Thief remains the earliest game of this style that still feels like a title you could easily release today with relatively few changes.
1998 | Valve Corporation
There are times when it’s easy to forget why Half-Life was so influential. In order to understand the game’s significance, though, you really need to play every other first-person shooter and action title that came before Half-Life.
Half-Life’s developers argued that the FPS could be a vehicle for more than just mindless action. It featured puzzles that amounted to more than just finding the right colored key, scripted sequences that sometimes didn’t even require you to fire a gun, storytelling that almost never took the controls away from you, and an emphasis on environment and atmosphere that FPS games like Quake only hinted at. Half-Life forever changed popular game design, and it would be years before other studios produced games that could replicate its brilliance.
1998 | BioWare
Alongside Diablo, Baldur’s Gate is often cited as one of the PC RPGs that helped revive the PC RPG market. It also put BioWare on the map and inspired a new wave of isometric RPGs based heavily on the Dungeons and Dragons formula.
However, Baldur’s Gate’s biggest influence is the shift it created in the global RPG market. The innovations and refinements of Baldur’s Gate would not only alter the expectations for PC RPGs but would soon inspire sweeping changes on the console side of things with the release of titles like BioWare’s own KOTOR. Baldur’s Gate not only popularized PC RPG concepts but helped usher in the era of Western RPG design dominance that we still enjoy today.
1999 | Verant Interactive, 989 Studios, Sony Online Entertainment, Daybreak Game Company
EverQuest was not the first MMORPG nor was it the first of its kind to gain a notable following. What it was, though, was the MMORPG that would become the template for all other games in the genre that followed.
In the process of writing large sections of that genre’s recipe, EverQuest became nothing short of a phenomenon. Once referred to as “Evercrack” due to its addictiveness, EverQuest became something of a precursor to social networks and inspired a new kind of digital culture. It was a game that those of us still living without the internet at the time of its release could only dream about. What’s even more amazing is that the game lives on to this day.
Quake III/Unreal Tournament
Quake III – 1999 | id Software
Unreal Tournament – 1999 | Epic Games
If push came to shove and we had to award this spot to only one of these games, we might go with Quake III due largely to the way the Quake series helped inspire the entire concept of an arena shooter. However, the truth is that these games should not be separated when talking about the importance of either.
During home internet’s early days, id Software and Epic Games were bold enough to suggest that gamers would not only support multiplayer only titles but that the market was strong enough to support two competing games. These games helped create a competitive multiplayer scene the likes of which nobody could have ever imagined before.
Nowadays, the idea of online multiplayer shooters becoming a hit is nothing new. However, it was Quake III and Unreal Tournament that showcased the true power and potential of that concept.
2000 | Valve Corporation
At the time of Counter-Strike’s release, the thought that a mod could become one of the biggest games in the world was ludicrous. Yet, that’s exactly what Counter-Strike became.
It’s tempting to focus on that element as the reason why Counter-Strike was so important. However, it’s true impact has more to do with how Counter-Strike’s developers interacted with the game’s community. More specifically, how the game’s community shaped the development of Counter-Strike over the course of several years.
Their input and creations were arguably more important than the original ideas of the game’s development team. As a result, Counter-Strike became what many people consider to be the greatest and most challenging competitive multiplayer shooter ever made.
2000 | Maxis
If you’re trying to remember why The Sims was as popular as it was, just take a look at some of the other popular games of this era that preceded it. In a time of intense online multiplayer shooters and deep RPG experiences, The Sims came along and offered an experience that celebrated the simple pleasures of life. It was a leisurely game that touched upon what had made SimCity such a hit years before but afforded those who played it the chance to engage in something much more personal than city building.
The true impact of The Sims, though, can be found in the memories of the diverse group of gamers who grew to love it. While it’s certainly impressive that The Sims appealed to more casual players like few major titles of its era, what’s truly amazing is that it was often enjoyed just as much by those playing Counter-Strike, Doom, and Diablo.
The Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind
2002 | Bethesda Game Studios
Games like Morrowind had existed since the ‘80s. We’ve talked about a few of them on this list. PC gamers had long been able to access deep single-player RPGs that offered complex character building, a variety of quests, and a sweeping story. However, none of those games also offered a fully 3D world.
Elder Scrolls III: Morrowind was a deep RPG for a post-GTA III world. It was no longer necessary to play a game like Ultima IV and dream of what such a game would look like in 3D. Morrowind offered an RPG experience as compelling as any that came before and let you live it out in a stunningly beautiful universe.
It’s a testament to the contributions of Morrowind that’s it’s often difficult for modern gamers to play even the greatest RPG experiences that preceded it. This Elder Scrolls title just makes everything that came before it feel inevitably dated.
World of Warcraft
2004 | Blizzard Entertainment
If we can’t summarize EverQuest’s importance by simply calling it the first MMO ever, then we certainly can’t even flirt with that claim when talking about World of Warcraft’s importance. Thankfully, millions and millions of you already know why the game is on this list.
World of Warcraft refined the MMO formula and made it more accessible than ever before without watering down the depth of the genre. As a result, World of Warcraft became the most popular game of its era and consumed the free time (and often more time than that) of people who had probably never even played a proper RPG before. Suddenly, studios everywhere had to ask new questions regarding their previously assumed perceptions regarding what kind of experiences the masses wanted and could handle.
The game outlived not only its competition at the time but many other games labeled as the next big thing. Much of its success can be traced back to the way it allowed so many gamers to participate in what is essentially one of the most incredible social experiments ever organized.
Team Fortress 2
2007 | Valve Corporation
Nobody really knew what to make of Team Fortress 2. What began as a realistic, team-based military shooter turned into a Saturday morning cartoon somewhere along the way. On top of that, the game was strangely released as part of The Orange Box after years of development and hype. Some fans feared the worst, but nobody could have anticipated what Team Fortress 2 would become.
In many ways, it was the first games as a service title. Don’t hold that against it, though, as Valve used Team Fortress 2 to showcase just how such a game could – and should – work. Not only were Team Fortress 2’s microtransactions based on cosmetics, but Valve regularly updated the game, ensuring that it continued to feel fresh year after year. We wish more live service games would follow in Team Fortress 2‘s example.
2009 | Mojang
Minecraft certainly inspired plenty of clones, but that isn’t why it’s important. It also advanced the idea of games as a series of tools (seen in other games like SimCity), but that’s not it either.
No, Minecraft’s true impact can be found in the way it forever changed how we share our gaming experiences. Minecraft was the game of the YouTube era. There were times when it felt like the only thing more popular than the game were the YouTube videos based on Minecraft and the content creators who created entire communities in its giant sandbox. That’s hardly a surprise considering that the game’s seemingly infinite number of possibilities afforded its most imaginative players the opportunity to create things that others only dreamed about.
It wasn’t just the elaborate builds that drew people to Minecraft, though. Minecraft is best remembered as the game that taught all of us about the true power of sharing our gaming experiences in the digital age.
League of Legends
2009 | Riot Games
It’s not fair to say that League of Legends came out of nowhere. After all, the original DOTA was released in 2002 as a Warcraft III mod, which was based on a 1998 Starcraft mod. People knew what a MOBA was, even if the concept wasn’t that popular.
What nobody knew was exactly how popular League of Legends would make the genre. A combination of exceptional game design and fantastic timing turned LoL into not only the definitive MOBA game but one of the most popular games ever made.
League of Legends not only essentially killed the RTS genre as we know it, but it’s one of the games responsible for the rise and continued growth of the global eSports scene.
2013 | Bohemia Interactive
Some people have a bad habit of underestimating the value of failure. While DayZ fell as hard as any game has fallen due to a series of bad decisions, it’s also responsible for helping shape the landscape of modern PC gaming.
DayZ began its life as a mod for Arma 2, but this multiplayer zombie apocalypse simulator soon took on a life of its own. For a time, all anyone could talk about was the stories they gathered by spending time in DayZ‘s digital version of the apocalypse. At the time, nobody had pulled off the experience quite like DayZ.
In the process, DayZ inspired not only the popular genre of multiplayer survival games like Rust, 7 Days to Die, and Fallout 76, but its concepts and functionality also gave birth to the battle royale genre that spawned PUBG, Apex Legends, and Fortnite. So next time you’re shooting your way to a victory royale or a chicken dinner, make sure you tip your hat to the original survival experience.
Read our complete History of PC Gaming series at the links below:
Part 1: 25 PC Games That Changed History
Part 3: The Legacy of Baldur’s Gate
Part 5: The Return of FMV Games
Part 7: The Legacy of World of Warcraft
Part 8: Revisiting The Matrix Online
Matthew Byrd is a staff writer for Den of Geek. He spends most of his days trying to pitch deep-dive analytical pieces about Killer Klowns From Outer Space to an increasingly perturbed series of editors. You can read more of his work here or find him on Twitter at @SilverTuna014.