Modern computer role-playing games (RPGs) like The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim, The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt, Mass Effect 3, and more are incredibly sophisticated AAA titles with complex game mechanics, deep narratives, and stunning visuals. Such games are a testament to the hard work of their developers, who spent years programming, testing, and finetuning them. However, such titles also owe a lot to a handful of old-school RPGs that broke new ground and set the blueprint for future titles.
The Greatest Classic Computer RPGs
Although the following games are decades old, you can still download them from various gaming distributions services. It’s also probably a good idea to run an online malware scan first to ensure that your PC is protected before you begin old adventures.
Made originally for Apple II and later ported to other PCs and consoles, Wizardry set the standard for dungeon crawl RPGs. It was a seemingly simple yet profoundly addictive title that allowed you to create a complex character with characteristics such as strength, IQ, piety, vitality, agility, and luck. Although the game featured rudimentary black and white graphics by today’s standards, its gameplay was enough to fuel your imagination.
The Magic Candle (1989)
Published by Mindcraft for Apple II, Commodore 64, MS-DOS, and PC-9801, Magic Candle put you in control of six heroes in an adventure across the kingdom of Deruvia. Your mission was to stop the dangerous demon Dreax from escaping his melting candle-like prison.
The Magic Candle was one of the first PC RPGs to feature a vast world and multiple races. It also allowed you to choose several professions for your team like carpentry, smithing, and tailoring to develop skills and resources. Your characters also felt fatigue, hunger, and the need to maintain their equipment. Such role-playing mechanics were new in 1989 but are standard in modern RPGs.
Quest for Glory (1989)
At a time when pure point-and-click adventure games like King’s Quest, Space Quest, and Police Quest dominated the PC gaming landscape, Sierra On-Line broke new ground by developing an adventure/role-playing hybrid. The Quest for Glory series married the genres by offering character classes, a skill point system, and day-night cycles in a narrative-driven world. The Quest for Glory series redefined the genre and set the stage for rich story-driven RPGs.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall (1996)
Before there was Morrowind (2002), Oblivion (2006), or Skyrim (2011), there was Daggerfall. The open-world RPG by Bethesda Softworks was an ambitious undertaking featuring a world the size of Great Britain, with over 15,000 cities, villages, and dungeons for gamers to traverse. The game also had many non-playable characters (NPCs) for players to interact with at every corner. With the success of the title, Bethesda was motivated to make bigger and better RPGs. The Elder Scrolls games also inspired other games across platforms to go big.
*click* *click* *click* sounds were heard in every other household with a PC gamer in early 1997 when the granddaddy of action RPGs, Diablo, hit the scene. On the surface, the simplistic point-and-click gameplay appeared almost silly. Likewise, the three-character classes felt insufficient. But as Blizzard Entertainment had proven with WarCraft (1994) and would later show with StarCraft (1998), an addictive game doesn’t have to be highly complex.
Over the next two decades, Diablo would spawn dozens of popular clones like Path of Exile, Sacred, Torchlight, Titan Quest, and more. While each imitator would try to put its spin on the Diablo formula, it wouldn’t quite achieve the heights of the original demon-killing hack and slash RPG.
Unlike Fallout 3, the original Fallout put you in control of your character from the isometric perspective. The game was unique for its character creation and stats system, and it was also one of the first successful RPGs to break out of the high fantasy setting — instead of elves, orcs, wizards, and halflings, the game was set in a post-apocalyptic retro-futuristic world, inspired by films like Mad Max.
Baldur’s Gate (1998)
After a long dry spell for RPGs, the highly immersive, innovative, and robust Baldur’s Gate rocked the gaming community. Its gameplay was based on a customized version of the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D) 2nd edition rules and offered players plenty of depth. Like Fallout, gamers played Baldur’s Gate from the isometric perspective, though the interface and controls were a cut above the competition.
Baldur’s Gate also put the Edmonton-based studio Bioware on the map. The team of doctors turned game developers would use the game as a stepping stone, combining great storytelling with outstanding gameplay for many successful RPGs.
Planescape: Torment (1999)
Black Isle Studios developed some of the most influential RPGs ever made, like early Fallout and Icewind Dale games. They also published the critically acclaimed Baldur’s Gate series. But Planescape: Torment is undoubtedly their crowning achievement.
Set in the multiverse of Planescape and using a modified version of the Infinity Engine for D&D rules, the game features an exceptionally memorable story. The protagonist, The Nameless One, is an immortal character who is thousands of years old and has lost his memories. Players went through an emotional rollercoaster as they uncovered their hero’s tragic past. The game’s heartfelt impact was such that its narrative was even praised by The New York Times.
These are some of the best computer RPGs ever made. Even if you haven’t played these eight classic titles, you’ve probably felt their influence in other games across genres and gaming platforms.