Action games these days are usually limited to the 3rd person variety, with an open world that’s wider than the Pacific Ocean yet shallower than a puddle. Compare this to DOS action games from 3 decades ago which came in every genre conceivable, from platformer to shooter. And I’m not just talking about first-person shooters, but also 2D top-down shooters that involved tanks and spaceships.
Today, I shall take a look at the 15 best DOS action games that are worthwhile. No matter your preference, you’re guaranteed to find an action game here that appeals to your fantasies. Whether it’s a shooter, brawler, fighting game, platformer, RPG, sports title, or hybrid- DOS has got it all.
Rise of the Triad
If you look at the cover art for this game, it seems like you’re about to play some kind of tactical espionage shooter in which you infiltrate secret bases. There’s a guy with a WW2-era SMG and a girl who’s shooting off into the distance while holding a guard who’s been knocked out. And you know what, the game is indeed about spying.
You’re part of a special forces team known as HUNT, tasked with monitoring and sabotaging the operations of a deadly cult that’s headquartered on a remote island. Unlike most other shooters of the 1990s, you can pick from a selection of five unique operators, each with distinct attributes such as speed and armor. Enemies behave unpredictably, sometimes they will beg for you to spare their lives, and other times they will pretend to be dead and ambush you from behind.
What makes Depth Dwellers unique is the fact that it was originally intended to be used with 3D glasses. Remember guys, this is a DOS shooter from 1994. Over a decade before 3D became a thing in PC gaming (remember those overpriced gaming monitors with NVIDIA 3D support?).
The game’s levels are set in underground caves that are filled with mechanical opponents and various treasures. Your goal is to get to one of the many teleportation gates that act as exits for the level while collecting as many secret items and treasures as possible. Sometimes, you’ll even find slaves who can be freed for bonus points.
Little Big Adventure
One of the earliest games in the action-adventure genre, Little Big Adventure has a very distinct graphical style. It meshes 3D polygonal characters with prerendered 2D environments, to create a “2.5D” effect. The game is also quite cinematic, with FMV cutscenes interspersed between important junctions.
It should be noted that FMV cutscenes, fully voiced dialogue, and high-quality music are only present on the CD-ROM version of this game. Your player character is shown from an isometric viewpoint and has 4 behavior modes- normal, sporty, aggressive, and discreet. Combat is done by throwing magical balls of energy at enemies, and your abilities will vary depending on your behavior mode.
Stylish, funny, and filled to the brim with high-octane action. This game is an interactive version of that terrible Hollywood movie from 2011 called Cowboys & Aliens. If you ever wanted to see cowboys fighting off an alien invasion with their double-barrel shotguns and six-shooters, don’t watch that movie, play this game instead.
It’s no Microsoft Flight Sim, and you control a carpet instead of an airplane. But some people prefer carpets to planes. And the experience of being a wizard on a flying carpet who goes around sieging castles full of armed guards is executed very well.
You visit 45 different worlds, with the simple task of building a castle in each one. After building a castle, you must empower it with mana. There is a fixed amount of mana in each world, which is gained primarily by blowing up the castles of enemy wizards.
A game that was ahead of its time and had some truly monumental system requirements as a result. MDK required a 60MHz Pentium CPU or better, along with 16MB of RAM. This would have put it at the top of the most demanding games chart, making it the Crysis of the 1990s.
All these system requirements weren’t for nothing, as MDK boasted some extremely large levels and highly detailed character models. It looked and played like nothing else, letting you switch from 3rd person view to 1st person if you equipped your sniper rifle. You can use a parachute to glide between large gaps in levels and call airstrikes on enemy objects.
MechWarrior 2: 31st Century Combat
MechWarrior is a game about giant stompy robots, set in the 31st century where humankind has expanded hundreds of light years into space. The BattleMechs is a revolutionary new weapons platform that provides superior firepower, mobility, and protection compared to normal armored fighting vehicles such as tanks. The game is set in a universe where rival space nations have been at war with each other for hundreds of years.
It features tactical mech combat showcased from a first-person view of a pilot sitting in the cockpit. Missions take place on giant open-ended levels. Your mission objectives can vary from search and destroy to reconnaissance and infiltration.
Star Wars: TIE Fighter
If you’re a fan of Star Wars and space combat sims, this game should be a no-brainer. It uses the same engine as X-Wing, with new technologies such as Gouraud shading. As a result of improvements to the 3D rendering model, it looks amazing for a game that’s nearly 3 decades old at this point.
The story is set right after the events that took place on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back. As the pilot of a TIE fighter, you go up against rebel alliance members and pirates. As the story progresses, you discover and stop a coup attempt against Emperor Palpatine, for which he personally rewards you at the end.
Also known as Halloween Harry, this is a side-scrolling action platformer in which you control special agent Harry as he tries to stop an alien invasion. Yes, I know- a bunch of shooting games in the 1990s featured some kind of alien invasion. It all started with Duke Nukem.
Aliens were to shooters of the 1990s what Vikings are to open-world action-adventure games of today. In Alien Carnage, you must rescue hostages to refill health (you can also eat junk food that’s lying around each level). You can fly for short bursts with a jetpack but don’t use it too often because both your jetpack and flamethrower share fuel.
I believe that at least half of all gamers who grew up in the 1990s and early 2000s have played this game, or a variation of it at some point in their childhood. Scorched Earth is best described as a turn-based 1 v 1 dueling game with tanks in which you lob comically outrageous weapons at each other along a ballistic arc. You get to choose a firing angle (elevation or depression) for your gun barrel, and the amount of power at which you lob the projectile.
Doom II: Hell on Earth
Advances in computer hardware meant that Doom II could have larger levels, with more enemy types and weapons than its predecessor. Levels are also more complex, allowing you to take a non-linear approach that rewards exploration. Doom II sees the action go from a scientific facility on Mars to Earth itself, which has now been infested with a demon invasion.
The Doom Guy slaughters demons across 32 levels, with the difficulty ramping up as you advance towards the climax. In the final level, you go up against a massive demon the size of a skyscraper, known only as the Icon of Sin.
Twisted Metal had already been out for 2 years, but DOS gamers had no way of enjoying it since that game was for Windows PCs only. Fortunately, a very similar experience can be had with Carmageddon. Instead of closed arenas, you have an entire city to yourself.
Carmageddon is a game in which you’re rewarded for smashing up your enemy’s vehicles and running over pedestrians. Because of its violent nature, it was censored in several countries such as the UK and Germany. There are a total of 36 race tracks, distributed between 11 locations.
It’s a bit of an interactive movie, with combat elements wedged in rather than a proper action game. BioForge tells the story of a cyborg who has lost his memory, trying to escape from a scientific research center that’s conducting experiments on him. This is one of the earliest video games to make use of motion capture technology.
It also has fully voice-acted dialogue and several cinematic camera angles for each stage. The story is also disseminated via notes, diaries, and research logs written by scientists who worked at the facility. As a cyborg, you have access to various built-in weapon systems (these require energy cells that must be replaced).
Its plot is similar to that of BioForge, with one key twist. Instead of just one person being experimented on, you have an entire prison full of inmates who are being used as lab rats. One day, there’s a riot at the facility and everyone gets infected with a toxin that turns them into monsters.
But you are immune to this toxin, known simply as “Abuse”. And now, you must find a way through the hordes of mutated zombies who are all out to get you.
I know what you’re thinking- “How can Chess be mistaken for an action game?”. But this is no ordinary game of chess. It’s more like that magical chess board from Harry Potter with giant stone pieces that murder each other in real life.
Battle Chess is fully 3D, and every time you make a successful move on another unit, it’s massacred in a brutal fashion. Each piece has a different attack animation based on what it’s going up against. For example, the Rook kills pawns by turning into a stone goliath and smashing their heads.
Even within a genre as saturated as the DOS first-person shooter, there was a ton of variety. Redneck Rampage is a hillbilly simulator that mocks rural Western tropes while also arming you with enough weapons and special powers to conquer an entire nation. Rise of the Triad is a James Bond-esque action shooter RPG hybrid with multiple playable characters, each of whom has unique attributes.
If you’re more interested in games like Burnout and Twisted Metal, I suggest you give Carmageddon a try since it has no shortage of vehicular carnage. Or maybe you like space combat sims, in which case Star Wars: TIE Fighter is perfect for you. There’s a ton of variety in my list of DOS action games, and they’re all abandonware so pick one that looks good and give it a try.
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