Adventure games as a genre have evolved a lot in the past 4 decades. They started out as simple text-based interactive stories, sometimes featuring dungeons filled with hidden treasures and monsters. Eventually, the point-and-click adventure games came along.
In these kinds of games, you were shown a much deeper narrative completely with high-quality cutscenes and voice acting. The focus shifted from slaying waves of monsters to solving puzzles and talking with people to get clues. Movie genres such as noir and horror became excellent platforms for these types of adventure games.
I have come across quite a few of these old-school adventure games in my day. And let me tell you- there were both good and bad experiences. Hence, I sifted through the rubble and came up with my top 30 DOS adventure games of all time that you must play.
To clarify, there were usually a lot more good games than bad ones. Especially if you looked in Sierra’s catalog, who were the pioneers behind graphic adventure games. You also had another adventure game juggernaut in LucasArts- the masters of excellent storytelling and soundtracks.
To simply call this another point-and-click game would be a massive understatement. Because The Dig incorporates technologies and design elements that were way ahead of its time. It combines an excellent story, masterclass voiceovers, and genuinely inspiring music to create a “cinematic” experience.
For starters, the prerendered 3D art in this game was created by Industrial Light & Magic. That’s right, the visionary special effects company that was founded by George Lucas and did work on Star Wars. In the future, ILM would move on to massive projects such as 2001: A Space Odyssey, Jurassic Park, and Avengers.
Needless to say, these guys are the best when it comes to special effects and creating fantasy worlds. The Dig also features voice acting by legends such as Steve Blum and Robert Patrick.
The Beast Within: A Gabriel Knight Mystery
One part adventure, and one part horror- A Gabriel Knight Mystery keeps you on your toes from beginning to end. It features the series’ returning protagonist Gabriel Knight, who is haunted by a curse. The curse of being born into a family that has the duty of fighting evil creatures terrorizing our world.
He lives life as an author, but underneath the cover, Gabriel is a daredevil who goes around investigating supernatural incidents. In this game, he is assisted by a student named Grace Nakimura. The plot revolves around tracking down a werewolf who’s responsible for several killings (story missions can be done in a non-linear fashion).
If you still don’t know how to play DOS games, check out my other article How To Play Old DOS Games On Windows 10, Mac Or Linux?
Monkey Island 2: LeChuck’s Revenge
The first Monkey Island is still talked about to this day, being the monumental success that it was. After all, Monkey Island is part of why LucasArts was so highly regarded back then as a game developer. Much like Star Wars, which also used excellent music combined with visionary art design.
So, is Monkey Island 2 better than its predecessor? It uses the same SCUMM engine but has larger levels and more characters for you to interact with. The world is just as detailed and rich, despite being wider (you get plenty of puzzles and random encounters).
In Monkey Island 2 the gameplay feels a lot more accessible compared to its predecessor. That’s an improvement because people complained about the first game being way too difficult at times.
Cruise For A Corpse
Some rich guy asks a police inspector to take a cruise on his personal ship. Like any good officer, he complies with the request of this total stranger and decides to have some fun on a cruise ship. Expensive drinks, beautiful women, and gambling begin after boarding the ship.
But then your host ends up dead on the cruise, with no witnesses. And instead of communicating with your superiors for help, you immediately start combing the ship for murder suspects. Things aren’t as straightforward as they might seem, and you quickly find yourself trapped in a mysterious plot.
It’s a point-and-click fantasy adventure in which you play the role of Rincewind, a powerful wizard. He is tasked with stopping a Dragon that is threatening the city Ankh-Morpork. The game along with its various locations and characters are all based on Terry Pratchett’s “Discworld” series of novels.
Most of the game is shown from a 3rd-person view, while you’re walking around and interacting with various people/ objects in your environment. You can lift up objects and analyze them to gather clues regarding further progression within the game. Even though this isn’t a roleplaying game, you get multiple interaction options while greeting people.
If you are interested in RPG DOS games, you need to check my other article 30 Best DOS RPG Games Of All Time That You Must Play
Another classic graphic adventure from Lucasfilm Games. It has all the hallmarks of a well-designed adventure game. An exciting storyline, colorful characters with well-written dialogue, impressive animation, and a memorable soundtrack.
The plot is quite zany, typical of many adventure games from that time period. You are Dave Miller, a teenage hero trying to rescue his girlfriend who’s been kidnapped by an evil scientist. But that’s not all, because the scientist is actually being controlled by a meteor that’s an alien creature with its own mind.
Beneath A Steel Sky
This is one game you should definitely try out if you’re a fan of the Cyberpunk genre. Especially because it has been distributed as freeware since 2003. You play as Robert Foster, a man who was raised by aboriginals far away from the city in a wasteland known simply as “the Gap”.
Eventually, your settlement is found by military squads from the megacity who kill all the locals and take you back into “civilization”. Upon arriving in this futuristic concrete jungle, you notice common people starving on the streets while elites enjoy their luxurious lives up in the skyscrapers. As you play the game you meet various characters that provide you with contrasting perspectives on life in the city and its corruption.
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers
No wonder so many old-school DOS users love this game when it features voicework from legends such as Tim Curry and Mark Hamill. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers is a dark fantasy story featuring demons and supernatural events. You play as supernatural researcher/ demon hunter Gabriel.
He is a novelist who is unwillingly pulled into a war between human guardians and evil forces trying to take over the Earth. Sins of the Fathers is the first Gabriel Knight game. This game didn’t sell many copies but gathered a cult following due to its excellent narrative and voice work.
If you are interested in Strategy DOS games, you need to check my other article 30 Best DOS Strategy Games Of All Time That You Must Play
The Secret of Monkey Island
Let’s be honest- Monkey Island defined the 1990s adventure game template, while simultaneously popularizing Lucasfilm Games. And this is the first game, which is a must-play for DOS gamers who want a proper adventure experience. The idea for Monkey Island was originally created in 1988, by visionary game designer Ron Gilbert.
You see, Gilbert was tired of mainstream adventure titles that would almost always find a way to kill you with traps or hidden enemies. Thus, he created a game in which the player character can’t die unless you really mess things up. This meant that people playing Monkey Island would instead focus on exploring its world and absorbing the excellent narrative.
King’s Quest VI: Heir Today, Gone Tomorrow
The game’s title is a pun intended to play on the phrase “here today, gone tomorrow”. And it is in reference to events occurring within King’s Quest V, which shows prince Alexander disappearing in a weird manner. The 6th King’s Quest game has some pretty animated cutscenes with 3D graphics, a first for the series.
Keep in mind, this game was released way back in 1992. And 3D graphics were pretty uncommon in games back then, even within cutscenes. It plays like a standard 2D adventure game but stands out from the crowd thanks to its excellent art style.
King’s Quest VI features an icon-based toolbar at the bottom of the screen. This toolbar lets you engage in various activities (talking, looting, walking, etc.).
Return to Zork
In the 1980s, most PC adventure games were text-based. Kind of like Rogue, but that one spawned an entirely new genre. Graphic adventure games use 2D or 3D graphics (still and animated) to convey the story.
The original Zork was a text-based adventure, but Return to Zork is the first game in the series with graphics. It shows you everything from the first-person point of view. Interaction is done via a point-and-click HUD.
Return to Zork is unique in the amount of player choice it offers. You can interact with virtually every object and NPC in the world. And there are multiple game completion states depending on how you play.
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
After their success with The Secret of Monkey Island, Lucasfilm reorganized its gaming division which would become LucasArts. And they put out a bunch of adventure games, following the template set by Monkey Island. But with tweaks here and there to keep the formula from getting too stale.
One of those games was Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis. It has everything you expect from a LucasArts game. But with events and characters based on the Indiana Jones franchise.
The Pandora Directive
The events of this game take place in a post-apocalyptic future, within San Francisco. World War III has devasted major cities across the world, and every nation is in the process of rebuilding itself from scratch. With all the radiation and chemicals, an entirely new class of sentient beings has been born.
Called the mutants, they are constantly at war with humans to reform the hierarchical order. Caught in the middle of this fight is Tex Murphy, a grizzled and weary San Francisco detective. Now Tex finds himself trapped in yet another conspiracy after getting hired by a scientist who is searching for his missing friend.
Flight of the Amazon Queen
Developed by Interactive Binary Illusions, this is a game that takes its inspiration from LucasArts. You will find that the game plays like Monkey Island and Indiana Jones, with a plot that is deeply engaging from start to finish. The game feels like an interactive pulp fiction story and is even set in 1949- shortly after the events of WW2.
Everything from the character design to dialogue feels authentic, like what you’d find in a 1949 adventure movie. You play Joe, a pilot for hire who has an unnatural talent for getting himself into sticky situations at the behest of his mysterious clientele. His plane is called the Amazon Queen.
Shadow of the Comet
Also known as Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet. It is based on HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu universe. You’ll find many similarities between the plot points/ characters of this game and The Shadow over Innsmouth (a horror novel by Lovecraft).
The game is set in 1910, within the isolated town of Illsmouth (copied from Innsmouth). You play a young British photographer who’s been invited to capture images of Halley’s Comet (it’s only visible once every 75 years). The last time this comet passed by the town, a person became insane and had to be locked up in a mental asylum for his entire life.
John Parker (the protagonist) is aware of this incident and wishes to unroot whatever mysterious evil caused this incident. So he arrives 3 days before the comet scheduled passage. Parker finds himself stuck in a battle for survival, caught up in a deadly conspiracy.
Sam & Max Hit the Road
Based on characters who first appeared in a 1987 comic book, Sam & Max Hit the Road is packed with humor. The art design is very similar to what you’d see on a comic strip or children’s cartoon. Which makes it unique compared to other adventure games of the time.
Sam is a dog who looks and talks like a human being, while Max is a rabbit. Together, they are a freelance detective crew who go around the country on road trips to solve various mysteries. As the player, you control Sam who talks with people and retrieves clues from his environment.
Another game that uses the SCUMM engine, Loom is one of the few Lucasfilm titles to utilize a mature fantasy theme. Loom was authored by Brian Moriarty who had previously worked on games such as Trinity and Beyond Zork. Along with an unconventional narrative, Loom also plays very differently from your traditional DOS adventure game.
It puts aside the regular interaction options that let you talk with people and pick up objects. And replaces them with a distaff that can play various tunes, each one casting a spell. You can learn tunes by observing events around the world, and each tune will have a unique effect on your environment.
Lure of the Temptress
Lure of the Temptress has been available as freeware since the early 2000s, like many other DOS games released in the 1990s. It is worth playing if you like a classic fantasy tale. You play as Diermot, a simple peasant who grows crops and barely manages to scrape together a couple of meals each day.
Reluctantly, he is admitted into the king’s hunting party (as an expendable asset). One day the king receives a message asking for help. Apparently, there is a rebellion going on in a far-away village.
But upon arrival, you find out that man-eating monsters under the control of a sorceress have been butchering people. What can you do as a peasant, where trained soldiers have failed? Sneaking around the village, you try to survive while coming up with a way to take down this sorceress.
Star Trek: Judgement Rites
For OG Star Trek fans, this game is a must-play since it features the cast of the classic TV series along with various side characters from individual episodes. The engine used here is the same as Star Trek: 25th Anniversary. But if you get the CD-ROM version of Judgement Rites, you’ll be able to enjoy its superior sound and graphics compared to 25th Anniversary.
There are some gameplay changes from its predecessor. For starters, space battles are now optional and the difficulty can be tweaked based on your preferences. Missions are part of a single story arc, with one being a direct continuation of the events from the 25th Anniversary. There are a total of 8 episodes within this game, taking place both on and off the USS Enterprise.
I didn’t know the Zork series had so many games until I started looking into the various releases. Apparently, this is the 11th Zork game. This is astounding since Zork was never as popular as other adventure games of its time such as Monkey Island and Indiana Jones.
Unlike the early Zork titles, this one is a graphic adventure (first Zork was a text-based game). The Nemesis is a mysterious creature that is suspected to have kidnapped 4 powerful people. You solve a detective mystery to bring them back, while also uncovering the plans of this Nemesis character.
Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards
A satirical story featuring an alternate-reality version of Las Vegas. You play Larry, who is traveling to the famous pleasure city of Lost Wages in hopes of scoring a woman. He is a 40-year old virgin who lives in his mom’s basement.
Tired of constantly being treated like the loser he is, Larry decides to break his virginity with some sex workers. Unfortunately for him, the women he mingles with try to manipulate him. Eventually, he gets involved with some seedy loan sharks and has to gamble in casinos to get money.
Simon the Sorcerer
A basic yet enjoyable fantasy tale of a boy who is transported into another realm where he is gifted with magical powers. Using these powers, he must rescue a wizard who has been trapped by an evil adversary. The game has various references to other properties such as Lord of the Rings, and its narrative is inspired by Discworld.
It Came from the Desert
A simultaneous homage and parody of classic 1950s sci-fi horror, It Came from the Desert is heavily inspired by Them!. A movie in which giant ant-like creatures spring out from the desert, and threaten to take over human civilization. The game starts out with a geological expedition led by Dr. Greg Bradley.
He is studying the crash site of a meteor when he discovers a strange phenomenon. The radioactivity of this meteor has turned ants into gigantic monsters. You have to warn authorities of the impending doom before it’s too late, traveling from one site to another.
Tim Schafer was a visionary game designer back in the late 80s and early 90s and is credited with the development of many classics. One of those is Full Throttle- a game about redemption and biker gangs. You play Ben, a bike gang leader who has been falsely accused of murdering the head of a motorcycle company.
Full Throttle is mostly about traveling between locations and talking with people or interacting with objects. Just like many other point-and-click adventure games of that era. Except in this one, you can choose to use your motorcycle as opposed to traveling on foot.
Space Quest IV: Roger Wilco and the Time Rippers
A celebration of Space Quest as a series, as well as a hopeful vision of the future. Space Quest IV plays with the idea of time travel, in a way that very few games had done before. You can replay old missions from previous space quest games with their original graphics.
Certain characters even make 4th wall breaking references to how updated graphics with 256 colors are pretentious. Occasionally, you even get into futuristic Space Quest installments with some rather amazing level design and dialogue. The game is filled with self-aware jokes and returning characters from previous games who have entirely new dialogue.
Police Quest 2: The Vengeance
Unlike most games on my list, Police Quest 2 utilizes a text-parser style interface. Meaning you select a combination of verbs and nouns to execute various actions. Such as “Pick Teacup” or “Press Switch”. You play the role of a detective within the Lytton Police Department (a fictional town in California).
The game is set in 1988, and you have a partner (as well as a girlfriend). You have to solve a kidnapping case that goes horribly wrong, causing the escape of a convict you put behind bars in the previous game.
Quest for Glory: Shadows of Darkness
If you haven’t played the previous Quest for Glory games, the events and characters in this one won’t connect the way they are intended to. But even if you play this as your first Quest of Glory game, it is sure to leave a lasting impression. The characters are solidly written and act out a plot that is straightforward yet entertaining.
You take upon the classical hero role, as is found in most fantasy games. And you are tasked with defeating some very powerful wizards/ sorcerers. Along the way, you meet various friends who gift you the information you will need on your journey.
Space Quest V: Roger Wilco- The Next Mutation
At this point, people were getting tired of the old Space Quest formula. The developers had already tried something different with Space Quest IV in which you travel through time and experience both old as well as new Space Quest missions. For Space Quest V, they completely overhauled the premise.
It is clear that Space Quest had always been inspired by old sci-fi space exploration shows. But this is the only game in the series that overtly parodies Star Trek.
Sure, there are also references to other sci-fi franchises such as Alien, Predator, etc. But once you play Space Quest V it becomes clear that the developers almost copied some elements from Star Trek episodes.
Star Trek: 25th Anniversary
Games based on TV shows or movies that do justice to the original material are exceptionally rare. This is one of those instances- a game created by Star Trek fans for Star Trek fans. You play Captain James T. Kirk, guiding the USS Enterprise starship through various parts of the universe.
During your journey, you come across various problems, both physical and ideological. To solve these, you must consult with Spock and McCoy. Certain missions involve space combat with other ships.
Day of the Tentacle
It’s also known as Maniac Mansion II, succeeding the first Maniac Mansion which was originally released in 1987. Much like the first game, this one has a plot that is completely insane and not supposed to be taken seriously. In a way, it’s a satirical parody of old action-adventure games from that era.
You are trying to stop a giant purple tentacle from taking over Earth while traveling through time to get clues on how to defeat it. You click on objects or locations to execute one of 9 possible commands (pick, use, talk, etc.). These commands are selected via icons on your HUD.
I would argue that a lot of modern “immersive/ cinematic” AAA games trace their roots way back to the 80s and 90s. Back when adventure games with realistic cutscenes and fully voice-acted dialogue first came into prominence. These games laid the groundwork for an entire genre that would prioritize interactive storytelling and puzzle-solving over pure action.
And the best part is that they had competent writers and sound composers to pull it off. Even today, games such as The Dig and Monkey Island feel entertaining thanks to their awesome soundtracks and art design. You don’t need fancy graphics or millions of dollars to tell an engaging story, you just need a passionate team of developers with a singular vision.
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