While it’s exciting (and a bit overwhelming) to think about all the new games we want to play, it’s fun to occasionally walk down memory lane and remember the first games we ever played.
For the Ars staff, our lists of nostalgic games are exhaustive, but a few titles still stand out as the true gateways to the years of gaming that followed.
These might not be the very first games we played, or even the games we played the most during our youth, but they do hold a special place in our hearts for sparking inside of us that made us continue to seek out games to feed our needs for action, adventure, strategy, escape, and more.
As a kid, I wanted an NES more than anything else, even more than that sweet baby-blue and white Mongoose dirt bike that the rich kid down the street had. And, like everyone that age at that time, I loved , , and . But I didn’t consider myself a real gamer until 1991, when Sid Meier gave the gift of to the world. Thanks to a handful of different civilizations to play, along with adjustable difficulty levels, the game had massive replayability.
All these years later, we have , which I absolutely love. Furthermore, the mod community around the series is fantastically creative. Want to play Westeros? Really wish Stalin was in the game? It’s all possible. And unlike so many other games today, you don’t need a high-end PC to enjoy beautiful graphics.
My parents had these friends from my dad’s work, Rob and Julianne. For many years in the 1980s, we had a tradition of going to their house for New Year’s Eve. We’d all order Chinese food, and then the adults would sit around talking about boring grown-up things and drinking boring grown-up drinks while I sat in a corner alternately reading a book and whining about waiting, because I was a kid.
But one year—I can’t remember anymore if it was 1985 or 1986—something different happened. Rob and Julianne were computer folks (they did what would eventually fall under the umbrella of “IT stuff” at my dad’s work). And so, to keep me entertained, they waved me back to their bedroom, where I could sit at their DOS machine and entertain myself.
“This is a game called ,” Rob said, as he put a now-antique 5.25-inch disk into the machine and typed vtet.exe at the A:\> prompt. “I got it from a friend of a friend a little while ago. I think you’ll like it.”
At 12:30am, my parents had to peel me off the PC to bring me home.
I must have asked about it quite a lot, because Rob made me a copy and sent it home with my dad a few weeks later. He and I would spend the next several years competing for the top 10 high score slots; eventually, I came to occupy them all.
By the time the joy of beating my dad at wore off, I’d discovered a whole world of 1980s DOS games. Around Christmas 1993, we got our first Windows computer—with a CD-ROM drive!—and before long I dove headfirst into , discovering a whole new kind of world to explore.
I’ve basically never stopped since.
My childhood gaming largely revolved around consoles and game rental stores. My family didn’t have a computer until I was almost 15 (“Your school already has those!”), and NES games as gifts dried up as soon as my parents realized how quickly my brother and I burnt through them.
So while it’s tempting to pick out games I devoured in my NES, Genesis, and Super Nintendo eras, there’s really no getting around the impact had the first time I played it, in the summer of 1994, while spending the weekend at a buddy’s from a different school. He was arguably more interested in showing off his relatively new Sega CD, but it was a brief taste of id Software’s legendary shooter, and its power on an i386 computer, that stuck with me.
On the first night, I waited until he went to bed and snuck down to his family’s computer room to boot it up again for an hour of uninterrupted play. I woke up before he did the next morning and did the same thing. I recall pretending to want to play anything else that whole weekend (“Oh, sure, , that’s controversial”), but I couldn’t get the violent, guttural, and lightning-fast out of my head.
From there, I made the right friends and snuck the right games onto my dad’s work laptop to explore the rich, complicated, and weird world of PC gaming, from the moral ambiguity of to the epic action and stories of . Plus, I eventually got to shoot robo-Hitler in . You know, stuff you couldn’t do on consoles. ‘s intensity was a gateway drug to the open pastures of video games on computers, and that led me to convincing my family to get a decent computer mere months before I applied for my first job: as a video game critic for the . I got that job at the age of 15.
My runner-up choice is a funky one: , a networked multiplayer game that someone at my middle school somehow installed on every Macintosh LC III in our lab. Unlike other installed games like , there was no clear educational value in this game. It revolved around piloting a tiny 2D tank in a top-down jungle world, then destroying and claiming the game’s “pillbox” turrets to be used against foes. It featured team combat as an option in its 16-player matches, but this required entering into arbitrary in-game alliances, which players could join and break at any time. (Yeah, that went over well in my middle school.)
Some people lucked into computer labs full of networked games of or other first-person shooters, but something about the dinky look of made it a real Trojan EXE inside my school, and my lust for multiplayer combat never really abated from there.