Abandoned but not Forgotten: Five Games to Remember (and play for free!)

Usually good games go down in history for eternity. They’re remembered from ages to come as the gems that shined or that influenced the genre of the market. However, business can be unpredictable. Games of great quality can be long-forgotten, being kicked into the pit of abandonware, where good games go to die (or for the literals, it’s what happens when a game has an unsupported license). The game essentially becomes free (rare in these days, I know) and it’s open for anyone to mess around with. This article will celebrate my five favorite games that have been abandoned or released as freeware. Be wary though; these games are older than Jesus and some of them don’t put a heavy emphasis on what a quality of graphics in today’s market is. But hey, free is free.

5. The Elder Scrolls: Arena
Taste steel, fiend! Before there was Oblivion, before there was Morrowind, before there Daggerfall, there was the first game in the Elder Scroll series. Released for MS-DOS in 1994, Arena was the first cult classic of Bethesda, back when they were a teeny, tiny independent developer (and with the original staff). Arena nearly proved to be a disaster when Bethesda missed the deadline to release. They were already been scoffed at, as this was Bethesda’s first stab at the ARPG genre (not to mention the amount of adventure found in the game in comparison to other games of its time). When the game finally launched, it was panned by reviewers alike and not hitting stellar sales. Some Bethesda employees even thought it’d be the game that would do them in and send the company under. However, the game slowly had an increasing fanbase, and with its excellent flavor of the storyline and game play, the game became a cult classic and paved the way for the future of the Elder Scrolls series.

While Arena definitely has less than stellar graphics, and it’s for the MS-DOS platform, it is worth a check in if you’re a fan of the later Elder Scrolls titles and you’re wanting to brush up on the earlier history of Tamriel. Ever wondered who Barenziah is? Curious of the origins of the realm of Oblivion? Then I suggest you take a look see at this game, which Bethesda now offers as a free download from their site.


4. Allegiance
While there has been a long line of attempts at a true online space sim (with X-Wing vs. Tie-Fighter being perhaps the best challenger), Allegiance was the precursor to the MMO market. Taking place in the future after Earth’s destruction at the hand of an asteroid, warring factions attempt to survive in a civil war conflict–in space. While Allegiance had an extensive and customizable interface and options, the game never took off, as, at the time, no one was quite sold on a subscription pay model. Microsoft eventually licensed the game as freeware and, to this day, remains supported by volunteers.

Oh, sure, it’s no extensive MMO in respect, and you’re not going to be walking around on planets or anything like that, but the concept is basically the formula Eve copied and made successful. While it seems there isn’t more than 50 people playing the game at a time, I suggest that it’s at least worth a look into the complex machine that is customization.


3. Ground Control
The craze for RTS was prevalent in the years following to 2000 and the craze for everything 3D was making its way. While RTS space sims like Homeworld were already making their way in the 3D world, the land lubbers of the genre that liked their troops’ feet on the ground and not in space didn’t have many choices to choose from. Enter Ground Control, one of the earliest 3D RTS games that not only had the setting of being on the ground (hence the pun in the title itself), but also being quite complex in nature. Rather than the traditional build from scratch RTS formulas found in Blizzard’s Warcraft and Starcraft or then Westwood’s Command & Conquer, Ground Control was unique in the aspect that troop placement came before the game even started. Strategic placement is what won a game in Ground Control, thus challenging players to actually think before acting.

Of course, as you can imagine, most people don’t really want to think when it comes to video games. Ground Control was complex in the aspect that units and squads were customizable and each had strengths and weaknesses that you had to take into consideration for a battle, which meant that you were spending time before a game planning before taking action. The game never picked up well and even with the change in pace of its sequel, it was eventually licensed as freeware. Worry not though; Massive Entertainment, the developers behind the game, ended up finding a winning formula with their hit success World in Conflict.


2. Castle of the Winds Episodes I & II
Now here’s a title I doubt anyone remembers, considering the game is older than the average gamer. Castle of the Winds is a throwback to roguelikes in evolution, except this time around the graphics have been upgraded from ASCII characters to Windows icons. While the game had no sound, it was still a blast to play in the days when RPGs were still mainly played on pen and paper. The game is set in a Norse mythology mythos where your character seeks revenge and the truth to his heritage. Of course, considering the game was released in 1989 for Windows 3.1x and its license has long-since expired, the original creator of the game decided to release the entire game free of charge.

As I said, what makes this game unique is the aspect of its identity as a roguelike. The complexity to character customization and to what your character can do sadly rivals what some commercial “success” RPGs of today (and that’s saying something). However, fans of Diablo will find a certain air of similarity in equipment management, as well as the dreaded cursed items you may wear if you were first fool-hardy to not identify the item first. Just like in traditional roguelikes, however, when you die then that’s it, so saving frequently is a very good idea.


1. MissionForce: CyberStorm
Here it is, the number one game I recommend out of the abandonware bin. MissionForce: CyberStorm was released in 1996 by Sierra and developed by unsung hero-of-a-company Dynamix (the guys that brought us Tribes and Earthsiege). If you’ve played Earthsiege then you may recognize the structure of the Herc in the picture, and you can pretty much guess the rest–sort of. While Earthsiege was a first-person real-time strategy game, CyberStorm is the bastard child to turn-based strategy.

Taking the idea of the usual machine-destroys-man plot, you are a contract commander for a company known as Unitech, which tries to battle the Cybrid overmind that wishes to eradicate all human life. As you gain rank, you gain an increase in the number of Bioderms (your Herc pilots, which are, essentially, clones) and Hercs you can command at once, eventually being able to tackle harder missions. The meat and potatoes to CyberStorm, however, is the complexity in nature of the game. Like Ground Control, much of the game takes place out of the battlefield, where you can customize your Hercs to such complexity that it’s overwhelming. The same can be said for your pilots, who vary in variety and can be trained in specific weapon systems (and how’s this for a kick; they have a lifespan). On the battlefield, the game is just as complex; the energy a Herc can use during a turn depends not only on the class of Herc, but its weight, its components, and the pilot’s capabilities as well. The battlefield is entirely isometric, with terrain acting as obstacles to cover in firefights.

Unfortunately, again, games that require people to think usually don’t sell well, and CyberStorm fell victim to such mentality once again. Though it spun a sequel, it was nothing like the first, which, even to this day, I still fire up to play and customize for battles. If you can find a buddy to play with, I’d suggest it, as the game offers LAN support.


And that concludes my list for the top five abandonware games you should check out. Sure, some of them aren’t pretty, but if you can look past 32-bit graphics, then I imagine it won’t be a problem.

Originally written: December 2008

About Agamemnon
Started blogging back in 2007 amidst that whole Hellgate: London fiasco on a blog known as flagshipped.com. Eventually moved on to do my own thing in December 2008 at gameriot.com and started Caveat Emptor there. Wrote there for six months, gained some notoriety, and then left. Now I'm back.

One Response to Abandoned but not Forgotten: Five Games to Remember (and play for free!)

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