Time marches ever on, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t make time to look at where we’ve been. RPGs have evolved considerably over the last few decades and have become one of gaming’s most popular genres. Now, if you pick up an RPG you’re almost guaranteed a smooth, slick experience that’s fulfilling, beautiful, and rich in dialogue and consequences.
Back in the 90s, however, things were different. It was a time of unparalleled experimentation, a time when games didn’t have a rulebook so things were flung at the wall. Most ideas didn’t stick but a few were solid gold, expressing new and inventive ways of play. Some even stand up today; maybe not graphically, but they contain gameplay ideas that definitely stand the test of time. So take a trip back through the mists of time to an era where games were often broken but often brilliant. Here’s our list of the best 90s RPGs for PC.
Bluebyte is a development team best known for the Settlers and Anno series. Back in 1995, however, they made something different; an RPG. Well, calling it an RPG is probably a bit reductive. It’s a first-person isometric turn-based real-time dungeon-crawling semi-open world sci-fi fantasy role-playing game.
If that sounds like a mouthful, it’s because it is – Albion is an absolute beast of a game, featuring multiple game modes it swaps between depending on what you’re doing. Not only does it mash together multiple RPG genres into a fascinating melange, it also features a rich story about colonialism and imperialism – something that definitely needs to be experienced.
Also it has gaming’s best toilets, and that’s a fact.
Ultima VII: The Black Gate
The Ultima series revolutionised PC RPGs in the 80s and with Ultima VII: The Black Gate, it did so all over again for the 90s. This open-world adventure sees you take on the mantle of the Avatar as you return to Britannia again. This time, however, something’s wrong; there’s no apparent crisis calling you back to this alternate reality. What follows is a true open-world game – you can head anywhere almost right from the start and explore a huge world to your hearts’ content. Not only that, the world itself is incredibly interactive, letting you bake bread, fire cannons and weave garments, all of which help flesh out a fully living world.
If you’ve only played the Fallout series since Fallout 3, you might be surprised at just how different its origins are. The original Fallout was a much more serious affair, though not without its own brand of wry satire, featuring isometric, turn-based, in-depth combat. Set in the apocalyptic ruins of California, you set out from Vault 13 to find a replacement for your home’s broken water chip. What awaits you outside is danger, danger and more danger, though you won’t have to face it alone. Fallout is heartbreaking and desolate, yet still somehow full of hope. A true gem even today.
There are few names as well known amongst RPGs as Baldur’s Gate, and for good reason. The original Baldur’s Gate made Dungeons & Dragons accessible for the first time, wrapping it up in a real-time-with-pause system that still makes sense today. The storyline starts simple but soon ramps up the stakes, taking in the entirety of the Sword Coast and even beyond. With a remastered version now available, there’s no excuse not to dive into one of the best RPGs of all time.
If Baldur’s Gate revolutionised role playing games on PC, then Planescape: Torment took the next step. By de-emphasising combat and making the player truly in control of their actions and decisions, Planescape: Torment paved the way for modern RPGs
Of course that’d mean nothing if the game wasn’t actually good. Thankfully, with its mysterious setting in a universe completely unlike ours, it really is. Planescape: Torment is an all-time classic and much like Baldur’s Gate, there’s now an enhanced edition available to bring it bang up to date.
The Elder Scrolls II: Daggerfall
There’s only one word you can apply to Daggerfall; vast. With a world the size of Great Britain and thousands of towns and dungeons to explore, you could be forgiven for being afraid to delve into its treasures. Daggerfall is by no means flawless, but as a testament to ambition it simply cannot be beaten. Doing procedural generation before we called it procedural generation, it’s one of the largest games ever made. If you like your RPGs meaty then you cannot do better than this.
Betrayal at Krondor
Many RPGs attempt to feel like a fantasy novel but only Betrayal at Krondor achieves it, simply because it had the backing of Raymond E. Feist. It even became canon in his long-running Riftwar series of novels. Betrayal at Krondor features an entirely unique RPG system with character development and attributes that help your party feel completely unlike anyone else’s. Add in brilliant world-building and some truly devilish puzzles, and you’re onto a classic.
Final Fantasy VII
Final Fantasy is a series never afraid to reinvent itself and the biggest leap – both in storytelling and visual design – was Final Fantasy VII. Whilst the PC port at the time wasn’t amazing, it still managed to capture a generation’s hearts. There’s a reason that spending time with Cloud, Tifa, Aeris and co is part of many people’s formative experiences playing RPGs. FFVII is one of the best 90s RPGs for PC – not only because of its scope and quality, but also because it’s one of the few console-style JRPGs we had access to, and that makes it utterly beloved as a result.
Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager
The original Dark Sun: Shattered Lands was a gritty exploration of the desert planet Athas, seeing your group of gladiators escape from an arena to face off against an entire army. The sequel, Wake of the Ravager, seemed like it would be much of the same. Instead we got something truly weird, embracing the stranger things found in Dungeons & Dragons…many of which have never been explored again. If you think D&D is just elves and wizards then pick up Dark Sun: Wake of the Ravager. It’s truly eye opening.
Eye of the Beholder
Dungeon crawlers are a staple of PC RPG-ing, and they’ve never been better than in Eye of the Beholder. Taking place deep underneath the city of Waterdeep, you and your party have to find a mysterious evil and make your escape intact. It’s simple stuff narratively but it comes backed with an innovative approach to party management, brutal fights and puzzles that are tricky, but not too fiendish. With several sequels you can port your party into, once you dive into Eye of the Beholder you won’t be coming back for a while.
90s RPGs remain some of the high points of the genre, and though we’ve covered some of the highlights we’re sure we’ve missed some. So what do you think are the best 90s RPGs for PC? Let us know over on our Community Forum – we’d love to hear your thoughts!