If modern AAA games just aren’t doing it for you, rest assured that you’re not alone. There’s a refreshing simplicity to retro gaming; most retro games choose one or two things to do and do those things very well, rather than trying to appeal to as many demographics as possible. The vaults of retro gaming are full of treasures both appreciated and underrated, so without further ado, let’s take a look at 20 classic retro games that are well worth revisiting.
1. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island
We’re going to try to limit ourselves to one game per franchise here so as not to flood the list with old-school Nintendo games. Super Mario World is excellent, and any of the NES Mario platformers are worth your time too, but for our money, it’s Yoshi’s Island that really stands the test of time. Every level introduces a new mechanic or iterates on an existing one in a satisfying and pleasing way, and the whole package just oozes Nintendo quality.
2. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask
Ironically, if you revisit just one Zelda game, it should probably be this one, and it is the least like most classic Zelda games. Link is transported to the land of Termina, where he’s turned into a Deku shrub and given 72 hours to save the world before the moon crashes into it and destroys it. What follows is a bleak and frequently touching odyssey through various lands that feel dreamlike in their surreality.
3. Castlevania: Bloodlines
From Super Castlevania IV to Symphony of the Night, the retro Castlevania lineup is heaving, but Castlevania: Bloodlines is the great underrated title. Since not enough people have played this varied and addictive 2D platformer, we’re adding it to our list, and it also boasts music from the legendary Michiru Yamane, which almost makes it worth experiencing even without the tight gameplay.
There are many great SNES-era JRPGs, but for our money, the most compelling and intriguing of them is EarthBound. It tells a skewed and twisted tale of a young boy who travels through a series of bizarre locations, meeting their unusual inhabitants and helping them with whatever humorous problems they happen to have. The gameplay is classic JRPG fun, but with some interesting twists that add to the cult classic feel.
5. System Shock 2
To many, System Shock 2 probably doesn’t count as retro, since it’s a full 3D game released as late as 1999. Still, that makes it 23 years old at time of writing; it’s as old now as the original Breakout was then. Hot take: System Shock 2 is a better game than BioShock, thanks to its sprawling level design, variety of enemies, and tighter, stronger focus, as well as its expanded RPG elements.
6. UFO: Enemy Unknown (X-COM: UFO Defense)
Depending on where you were, this classic sci-fi strategy game had a different name, but it was still the same tense, incredibly difficult experience. If you’ve played the more recent XCOM games, you’ll probably be surprised by just how much this first instalment doesn’t hold your hand, but it quickly becomes an absorbing, terrifying experience in which each decision matters.
7. Planescape: Torment
Planescape: Torment suggests a novel solution to the problem of old-school CRPG combat, and that’s to do away with it (almost) entirely. Combat is usually optional in this game; instead, you’ll engage with a range of hugely interesting and well-written characters and solve their problems mostly through dialogue. This is one of the best stories gaming has to offer.
Yeah, yeah, okay. Half-Life is a classic for a reason, and it’s impossible to write a list of the best retro gaming experiences without including it. This is the game that set a new standard for first-person shooters and for storytelling; it managed to communicate a complex and evolving narrative almost completely without dialogue, doing so instead through environmental cues and changing combat styles.
9. Grim Fandango
Of all the LucasArts adventure games released during the 90s and early 2000s, Grim Fandango stands out as the one you should be checking out. It’s relentlessly funny and imaginative, and while some of its puzzle design is classic moon logic stuff, its likeable characters and sense of invention should see you through even its more quirky gameplay moments. A remastered version is, thankfully, widely available.
10. Deus Ex
We return once again to the land of the late 90s and early 2000s for this classic immersive sim. The more recent Deus Ex games have lacked a certain something, and revisiting this original, it’s easy to see what that is: depth. Deus Ex is a game of insane complexity in its storytelling and level design; each problem can be approached in a variety of different ways, and true character specialisation leads to interesting scenarios.
11. King’s Field IV: The Ancient City
We’re going to add a massive disclaimer at the start of this: King’s Field IV has not aged well. Its combat is clunky, its exploration is slow and methodical, and its world is maddeningly esoteric. If, however, you love the Souls games, all of those things will likely appeal to you, and you’ll get a kick out of seeing what could well be the roots of Elden Ring in all its janky glory.
Released as Tombi! in Europe to avoid Italian connotations with death, Tomba! is a sort of proto-Metroidvania side-scrolling platformer with plenty of non-linear objectives to complete. It’s all wrapped up in an exciting, colourful aesthetic with lots of heart; you can’t fail to love the protagonist as they leap and bound around the place, shouting loudly whenever they discover something.
13. Breath of Fire IV
Another excellent old-school JRPG that definitely deserves a chance, Breath of Fire IV has one of the best stories in the genre. You play as Ryu, a young boy with a destiny intertwined with that of the dragons, but here’s the twist: you also play as Fou-Lu, the God-Emperor, who has unexpectedly been revived and who must find his way in a world that no longer respects or even needs him.
14. Suikoden II
Speaking of great JRPGs on the PlayStation, Suikoden II is one of the genre’s absolute best. It’s a more grounded affair than many of its contemporaries; while you’ll fight your fair share of monsters, Suikoden II makes a convincing case that the most monstrous among us are human. You’ll also build a bustling castle town and recruit plenty of oddball characters to your burgeoning army.
15. Klonoa: Door to Phantomile and Klonoa 2: Lunatea’s Veil
Like Grim Fandango, you can pick up remastered versions of these excellent and highly underrated PlayStation platformers right now, and we recommend doing so. They’re colourful puzzle-inflected games with a strong feeling of melancholy hanging over them; think the last few days before school holidays are over, or the final moments before waking from a wistful dream, and you’re in the right area.
16. Panzer Dragoon Saga
Unfortunately, it’s extremely difficult to find a copy of Panzer Dragoon Saga anywhere now, since the source code for the game has been lost. However, if you do manage to get a copy from somewhere and you find the hardware to run it, you’ll find a truly magical RPG with some incredibly innovative ideas about combat, a great story to discover, and one of the best soundtracks in gaming history.
We’re talking about the original Fallout here. Bethesda’s shooters are fine, but they’re watered-down also-rans when compared to the RPG depth of the original (with the exception of New Vegas, which is excellent). Fallout gave you the freedom to explore its nuclear-blasted wasteland however you liked; different skills gave you different approaches to each of its complex and interesting situations.
Any of the Quintet action-RPGs belong on this list, but Terranigma is the one most frequently cited as a classic, so we’re going with that. If you like games like Secret of Mana or The Legend of Zelda, then Terranigma should definitely be on your list; it’s a top-down RPG in which you battle a variety of weird enemies and explore lots of beautifully-realised locations.
19. Rocket: Robot on Wheels
Before Sucker Punch created Sly Cooper and long before the studio made Ghost of Tsushima, there was Rocket: Robot on Wheels, an utterly delightful N64 physics platformer with some truly glorious puzzle-platforming in which to partake. The presentation, gameplay, and variety in level design are all absolutely top-notch here, hinting at what Sucker Punch would one day become.
Shadowrun represents an early attempt to put CRPG complexity onto consoles. It was released in 1993 for the SNES, although you can also take this as a recommendation for the equally interesting Shadowrun on the Sega Mega Drive (which was a different game, believe it or not). Both games combine complex gameplay with strong storytelling and an extremely impressive amount of content for the time.