Science Fiction is the province of the dreamer; for those who think about what might be and where we might be going. It’s a space made of big ideas and bigger concepts, often involving space. Sci-Fi doesn’t just give us a roadmap for the future – it helps us dream impossible fears from our darkest nightmares, embracing many of the secret worries that we hold close.
Video games and Science Fiction walk hand in hand. From the very earliest days a Sci-Fi slant was intertwined with many games, and that is something that continues to this day. So to celebrate National Science Fiction Day on 2nd January, we thought it would be the perfect time to look back at some classic games and walk through the best Sci-Fi games of the 1990s.
Homeworld is proper Science Fiction. It’s set in a distant star system where a race of people (not entirely unlike our own) find out that their home world is not, in fact, their home world. So begins a journey to discover where they come from, beset by an alien species intent on destroying anyone who can travel faster than light.
With stunning space visuals, the best spaceship design in gaming and probably the finest intro to any game, Homeworld is an RTS with style and bags of Sci-Fi credibility.
Sid Meier’s Alpha Centauri
Earth is a bit broken, so in an attempt to find somewhere to live, the U.N. sets out in a colossal ship to colonise Alpha Centauri. Unfortunately, humanity is still humanity, so we fracture on our long journey into many competing ideological factions.
If you’ve played Civilization II then Alpha Centauri will feel like coming home. However, as you explore this strange new planet, you’ll learn many things aren’t what they seem. For a start, the planet itself is alive, and may not entirely appreciate a tonne of warring humans on its surface. With a deep tech tree, many different ways to play and some truly creepy videos, Alpha Centauri is definitely one of the best Sci-Fi games of the 90s.
System Shock 2
The first System Shock was a cyberpunk exploration of a space station whose controlling AI has gone a bit wrong. The sequel takes the Science Fiction premise and doubles down on it, adding a thoroughly intense horror theme that’s still effective today.
Set on board the Von Braun – humanity’s first faster-than-light spaceship – you wake up and find that everyone’s dead. Well, nearly everyone. A voice in your head tells you to find them as you scamper and hide through the blood soaked corridors, surrounded by the evidence of something gone very wrong indeed. We won’t spoil what happens but if you have any interest in Science Fiction, immersive sims or horror games, you owe it to yourself to check out System Shock 2.
Fallout 2 is one of those games that can be a little divisive, mainly because it has a somewhat lighter tone than the previous game in the series. What it does have going for it, however, is a much greater focus on Science Fiction. A bigger world has begun to recover from the fall of civilisation, containing many wonders…and new threats.
Set decades after the original game, you set out to find the GECK – a kit that allows you to revitalise an area of land, making it inhabitable once again. The game contains many non-canon elements but they’re always intensely fun to experience. Who doesn’t want to meet aliens, travel back in time through the Guardian of Forever to the original game, find a crashed Star Trek shuttle pod, or cross the bridge from Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Beneath a Steel Sky
A common theme in much of Science Fiction, especially in video games, is that the future doesn’t turn out quite as well as we had hoped. In Beneath a Steel Sky, the world has become polluted beyond recognition, with many survivors living in colossal cities.
Beneath a Steel Sky sees you play as Robert Foster; someone who grew up amongst those eking out an existence in the wastelands after being lost there as a child. Accompanied by your robot sidekick Joey – whose personality you can transfer to other robotic shells – you enter Union City after being captured by security forces. What follows is one of the best point-and-click adventure games ever made. With a sequel now out, it’s well worth heading back to see how the story begins.
X-COM: UFO Defense
The original X-COM: UFO Defense (also called “UFO: Enemy Unknown” in Europe) basically wrote the manual on how to do a turn-based tactical combat game, and it does it with lashings of pulpy Science Fiction style.
Aliens are attacking Earth in classic frisbee UFOs, and it’s up to X-COM – the international clandestine defense network – to defeat them. Throughout the game you’ll build bases, defend cities, blow up invading UFOs, capture aliens, dissect them, discover new technologies and finally, take the fight to the alien headquarters. It’s a game that’s complete in a way that few are, giving you a look at all sides of the fight against aliens. If you’ve played the re-imagined XCOM series, this is definitely worth a look.
Duke Nukem 3D
Science Fiction doesn’t always concern itself with big ideas and musings on the future of humanity. Sometimes it’s also a big man, chomping on cigars, throwing out one-liners as he mows down a million alien cohorts on his way to get revenge for his blown-up spaceship.
Duke Nukem 3D was a revelation when it was first released. Not only for the quality of its shooting – which is still great – but for its sense of style. Mashing together B-Movie alien aesthetics, 1980s action hero sensibilities and recognisable, relatable environments, Duke Nukem 3D is a game that delights on many levels all at once.
There’s a reason StarCraft is still held up as a defining RTS that’s perfectly balanced and tuned, and that’s because it’s a defining RTS which is perfectly balanced and tuned. On the face of it the game’s simple; you build bases, gather resources, construct units, send those units out to fight. However, the game’s “rock, paper, scissors” approach to units means there’s almost endless variation in what you’ll be fighting against or using, and the game always keeps you on your toes.
Combine the sheer flawlessness of its gameplay with a presentation that goes for heady Science Fiction set on the frontier of human space, seeing humanity face off against elfin creatures with technology far beyond our own and a teeming race of organic monsters. StarCraft is a masterclass in setting as well as in pure gameplay, so is very much worth your time.
Day of the Tentacle
Historically, video games have had a hard time with comedy – often trying, often failing. Similarly, there are few Science Fiction comedies that really hit the mark, though they are becoming more common.
Enter Day of the Tentacle. Not only a time-twisting tale of madcap science gone wrong, but one of the funniest games ever made. If that’s not enough to tempt you to try out this highlight of 90s PC gaming, then the devious puzzles that litter its zany world are sure to keep you playing. Now available with a remastered version, there’s absolutely no excuse not to try out the legendary Day of the Tentacle.
No list of 90s Sci-Fi games would be complete without mentioning Half-Life. Newcomers to the series – coming in from the sequel or from Half-Life Alyx – may be surprised to see the difference in tone in this earlier work. It skilfully mixes a schlocky tale of a science experiment causing an alien invasion, with deeper world building that hints at something more going on.
Half-Life is a masterpiece and still stands up today. From the initial tram ride to explosive action facing down soldiers, aliens and even ninjas, Half-Life is a melting pot of Science Fiction ideas. And it weaves them together masterfully. Filled with puzzles and with a roster of weapons that’s as surprising as it is satisfying, there’s a reason Half-Life is an all time classic. Play it – you deserve to give it a try.
Honestly we could go on forever about 90s Sci-Fi games. Freespace, Another World, Blade Runner, Buck Rogers: Countdown to Doomsday, Descent, Dreamweb…the list goes on and on. What’s your favourite Sci-Fi game from the 90s? Hit us up on our Community Forum – we’d love to hear what you’ve got to say!