Best old-school PC games for the new-school generation (March 2018)

I’ve been playing games on the IBM PC since I was 3. One of the first few games I played was SimAnt. Over the years, I continued to game, playing titles such as Heroes of Might and Magic, Master of Orion and Realms of Arkania. Then, in the late 90s, I was introduced to more computer role-playing games such as Baldur’s Gate and Fallout. In the 2000s, thanks to the explosion of abandonware sites like Home of the Underdogs, I was able to access a lot of older classics like Ultima Underworld and Darklands.

Believe it or not, many of these games helped me to sharpen my writing skills, learn new vocabulary, understand the English syntax, and develop a love for reading. More importantly, they encouraged me to think multilaterally, critically and analytically.

If your child is addicted to mobile or console games, consider letting them try an old-school PC game. Below are SIX classics that I very strongly recommend.

A word of caution: some of these feature heavier themes, such as geopolitics and violence, as well as controversial topics like sex and drugs. These ones are better off for teenagers, who are more exposed to such topics in school.

Without further ado, let’s dive into the list.

1) Deus Ex

Overview

There is a lot of political discourse in the background, but it never feels hamfisted.

The story of Deus Ex begins in the year 2052. Players take on the role of JC Denton, a bio-engineered agent working for the United Nations Anti-Terrorist Coalition. There is a conspiracy afoot, and things are not as they seem.

Deus Ex is widely considered one of the best PC games to have ever been made (I personally have completed it about 8 times).

Why I highly recommend it

First of all, the story is amazingly well-told. Events happen in an organic way, and your choices will affect the game later on.

I also enjoy its semi-realism, especially at higher difficulty levels. Your character cannot sustain a lot of damage, and playing poorly will result in crippled limbs and depleted resources. As such, players must play very cautiously and plan their actions ahead.

In fact, the game encourages planning. There are multiple solutions to every problem. Players can sneak and find alternate entryways, or go for the brute force approach. It’s very non-linear in that sense, and offers a lot of creativity.

The environment is also highly interactive, and players can uncover more of the setting’s lore by reading newspapers, books and computers. There are a lot of political allusions, but they never feel hamfisted.

What aspects of learning it can potentially benefit

  • Exposition and critical thinking
  • Narrative writing
  • Lateral thinking
GOG.com
Buy it from GOG.com

2) Fallout

NOTE: Fallout is a very well-written but fairly mature game that deals with topics like sex and drugs, and as such I don’t recommend it for younger audiences.

Overview

The writing is theatre of the mind at its best.

Fallout is a post-apocalyptic role-playing game. The world has ended due to nuclear devastation, and most surviving communities are reduced to tribalism or anarchy. Only a small handful of scattered underground communities called “Vaults” still maintain a semblance of democracy.

Players take on the role of a vault dweller, from Vault 13. Because Vault 13’s water purification chip has malfunctioned, the player is tasked with leaving Vault 13 to look for a water chip out in the wastes. However, things quickly escalate when players realise the world out there is far more different than they could have imagined.

Why I highly recommend it

Fallout 1’s world is supremely detailed, from the art style down to the lore. While the overarching story is quite simple, it has a very satisfying exposition of different societies that can emerge from the collapse of democracy. The exposition feels natural, done mostly through the player’s interactions with the world and its inhabitants.

It also does “show, not tell” very well. The ambience is gritty and consistent. Players never know when they’re truly in danger, but they know it’s always around the corner.

There’s a ton of reading in this game. From speeches to descriptions, there is no shortage of good vocabulary. Players will need to read between the lines to interpret intentions, motivations and hidden meanings. The writing is theatre of the mind at its best.

Finally, the game is full of choices and consequences. Almost anything you do will have an impact on the communities that you come across.

What aspects of learning it can potentially benefit

  • Exposition and critical thinking
  • Narrative writing
  • Vocabulary building
  • Reading comprehension
GOG.com
Buy it from GOG.com

3) Heroes of Might and Magic III

NOTE: Heroes of Might and Magic III is a very addictive game, and as such can be distracting for children and teens. I recommend supervision when letting them try this game.

Overview

The bright colours and top-notch music make this a thorough joy to play over and over again.

Heroes of Might and Magic III is a strategy/tactical game. Players choose one of 8 factions with its own racial characteristics. They must then stockpile resources, build up an army and complete the scenario’s objective (which usually involves vanquishing the enemy’s heroes and conquering their cities).

Why I highly recommend it

Although Heroes of Might and Magic III was released in 1999, thousands of people still play it today. There’s a good reason for this: no two games are the exact same. It encourages careful, methodical planning before launching an offensive against the enemy. It also has a very enthralling element of exploration, as players roam the land to collect resources.

Heroes of Might and Magic III is a very aesthetically pleasing game. The bright colours and top-notch music make this a thorough joy to play over and over again. Just be careful: the game has a reputation for being extremely addictive, though thankfully not in the mindless way that many mobile games encourage.

What aspects of learning it can potentially benefit

  • Analytical skills
  • Big picture thinking
  • Lateral thinking
GOG.com
Buy it from GOG.com

4) Master of Orion 2: Battle at Antares

Overview

It is a thinking man’s (or woman’s) game, encouraging careful planning every step of the way.

Master of Orion 2 is a strategic science-fiction game in which you eXplore the galaxy, eXpand your empire, eXploit existing resources and eXterminate your enemies.

A game like this, as well as the aforementioned Heroes of Might and Magic III, is therefore commonly referred to as a 4X game. To elaborate on each X:

  • eXploring the galaxy by sending ships to other star systems;
  • As you visit each star system, you can eXpand your empire by setting up a colony there;
  • Over time, your resources will increase, your technologies will advance, and you’ll start politicking with the other alien races. You’ll need to eXploit all of it to your advantage;
  • Eventually, you’ll have to eXterminate your enemies.

Why I highly recommend it

Master of Orion 2 puts players in the shoes of an armchair general. It is a thinking man’s (or woman’s) game, encouraging careful planning every step of the way.  You’re constantly on your feet, thinking, making tough decisions.

“Should I increase taxes to build that hydroponics farm?”
“Is it better to research in Subterranean Farms, or the Weather Controller?”
“What’s the next step in my contingencies?”

It’s also a thematically strong game, taking influences from popular films like Star Wars and Star Trek. It will definitely appeal to children and teens who are very interested in science and technology.

What aspects of learning it can potentially benefit

  • Analytical skills
  • Big picture thinking
  • Lateral thinking
  • Executive functioning
GOG.com
Buy it from GOG.com

5) X-COM: UFO Defense

Overview

Playing X-COM is very much like watching Aliens.

The premise of X-COM is straightforward. Aliens have invaded Earth. As the head of the Extraterrestrial Combat Unit (or X-COM in short) your job is to find out more about the invasion, save civilians, and eventually stop the invasion completely.

The game is a mixture of strategy and tactics. At the highest level, you’ll decide where to build your bases, what equipment to purchase, how many soldiers, engineers and scientists to hire, etc. At the ground level, you’ll be commandeering your troops to eliminate aliens and capture their technology.

Over time, as your research progresses, you’ll use the alien technology for yourself, eventually being capable of making weapons of destruction like the Blaster Bomb and Heavy Plasma. Your troops can also progress, growing from cowardly Rookies to eagle-eyed Captains and Colonels.

Why I highly recommend it

X-COM is a game that simulates many things. It simulates a battlefield and all the elements that come with it, from morale all the way down to line of sight. It makes every decision on the battlefield a crucial one, as one wrong move could get the entire team wiped out. Moreover, it often puts players in seemingly impossible situations, where the odds are stacked against them.

However, it is never unfair, and with careful planning, players can win. In a way, it shares one philosophy that’s similar to chess: sacrifices will have to be made. Players will need to play very carefully, thinking steps ahead.

The highlight of X-COM, however, is that it writes its own story. It doesn’t need to explicitly tell you how Sergeant A sacrificed himself for Squaddie B, or how Captain C is the best soldier in your team. All of the narrative is woven through the actions of each character (and the outcomes that follow). Playing X-COM is very much like watching Aliens.

What aspects of learning it can potentially benefit

  • Narrative writing
  • Big picture thinking
  • Lateral thinking
  • Analytical skills
  • Executive functioning

Editor’s note: I’ll admit I’m biased towards X-COM as it’s one of my favourite games. It is a truly rare gem, with few games coming close to its fun factor and emergent story-telling nature.

GOG.com
Buy it from GOG.com

6) Pizza Tycoon

Overview

Underneath Pizza Tycoon’s quirky, cartoonish art style is a lot of depth.

Here’s a game that I don’t see recommended very often, but which is a classic in my opinion.

Pizza Tycoon is an economic strategy game in which you must manage your pizzeria empire while defending it against other competitors. There, it’s that simple a game.

Why I highly recommend it

Actually I kind of lied. It’s not as simple as it sounds. Making money requires the player to analyse the market’s taste(buds), acquiring stock, and occasionally even taking a loan. Underneath Pizza Tycoon’s quirky, cartoonish art style is a lot of depth. It’s not extremely realistic, but it does a good job at simulating many of the elements that come with running a business, including the ability to sabotage an opponent’s restaurant.

Pizza making is fun, by the way. It allows for an almost infinite number of ways to make a pizza. There are over 50 ingredients that can be placed anywhere, chopped up to (almost) any size. Pizza Tycoon, released in 1994, may still be the most detailed pizza-making simulator yet.

Be warned though, this game isn’t newbie-friendly. Should you decide to give this a try, I highly recommend reading the manual first.

What aspects of learning it can potentially benefit

  • Big picture thinking
  • Lateral thinking
  • Executive functioning
  • Creativity and visual think
GOG.com
Buy it from GOG.com

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the best classic games with learning value, but it does offer a small snapshot of what’s out there. The PC games of old may not have the fanciest graphics, and at times may be newbie-unfriendly. However, there’s much to be said about their value-addedness.

For instance:

  • X-COM demonstrates how easy it is to tell a fun but unusual story
  • Deus Ex and Fallout can be used to explain political systems to older kids
  • Heroes of Might and Magic III and Master of Orion 2 can showcase the ‘how’ and ‘why’ of planning
  • Pizza Tycoon is useful in showing the facets of business management, which is relevant to functional writing

Swords & Stationery advocates games as a platform for learning, and PC games are no different. Of course, guidance is necessary to get the most out of these games. Feel free to contact us if you’d like to know more about how we use games to teach students with specific learning difficulties.

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Teacher Shaun

Teacher Shaun

...is a self-professed geek and lover of all things old-school. When he's not playing Fallout or Deus Ex for the nth time, he can be found sitting in front of his laptop hacking away at his keyboard, typing blog posts like this one.He also runs a little company called Swords & Stationery.
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