PC gaming has been around for decades, about as long as personal computers have existed. The earliest games were primitive, sure, but with the 80s began the age of truly classic gaming. This saw the likes of Bard’s Tale and Castle Wolfenstein. PC games only grew in popularity and scope from there.
It has always been rare, though, to see a game worked on for more than a few years after release. Most developers bring out a game, maybe release a couple of patches over the next year or two, and move on. They can’t really be blamed either, patches cost time and money that they rarely earn back.
A few champion developers, for one reason or another, break the trend though. Some developers have given games patches a decade after launch, or even added content!
What is interesting is seeing what games based on old design philosophy do when developing new content.
Many of these games were created before too many of the tried and true fantasy tropes were fully solidified. While the Tolkien and DnD in them are usually obvious, they often feel weirder and more vibrant. Also of note are most fantasy games. Only one on this list (and the one honorable mention) is of a different genre.
Whole articles could be written about why these long-supported games tend towards the fantasy genre. Perhaps it is because of the stories they produce in play, or even just older programmers’ influences? It is not yet fully clear. But without further ado, here is a list of some of the oldest PC games with the greatest support!
Laptop Gaming Note
The great thing about these older games is that they can be played on less powerful computers, like mid-to-low range laptops. If you are in the market for an affordable laptop see our comprehensive buyers guide.
Some will argue that Dwarf Fortress hardly counts as old, having been released to the public in 2006. However, over a decade has passed since then, and the updates for Dwarf Fortress have tended to be big and meaty. Most recently, Bay 12 Games has been working on adding magic to the game.
The complexity of Dwarf Fortress is hard to overstate. It very well might be the most mechanically complex game ever created (this segment may repeat the word “complex” a lot). Certainly, it is in the top five.
An accurate description of the game is difficult, but in essence, it is split into two general parts: its Fortress mode and its Adventure mode. Fortress mode is an extremely complex management/building game. Adventure mode is an extremely complex open-world Roguelike (ish?)
Fortress mode puts players in control of the titular fortress, starting with nothing but the supplies they choose at the start. They then guide a small colony of dwarfs towards success (or, often, abysmal, hilarious failure). Dwarfs can get depressed, drunk, commit crimes, have children, seem to love eating cats, and so much more.
The player mode puts players in control of a single adventurer, chosen from one of the game’s many races. Players can gather allies, treasure, become a necromancer, and even build. Interestingly, actions in this mode can affect Fortress mode (and vice versa).
The game’s ASCII art may turn some players off, but can be reskinned with a tool that comes with the game’s (free) download. The same goes for the game’s simplistic sounds, which the same tool can make more robust. The game also has a massive modding community.
Released in 1997, Ultima Online is a fantasy MMORPG, part of the hit (and oft-strange) Ultima series. While certainly graphically more complex than a text adventure, the game’s graphics are still a product of its time. The game itself has an interesting scope and brutality to it that arguably is much rarer in more modern MMORPG.
Like with any MMORPG, especially an old-school one like Ultima Online, it can be a bit difficult, to sum up, everything it has to offer. It has a complex player-run economy and building system, and some characters may be entirely focused on crafting and trade.
With many video games growing increasingly streamlined toward broad appeal over complexity, Ultima Online can be a welcome change. It currently has 58 skills, with a character’s total skill level having a cap to diversify even veteran accounts (not unlike building one’s own class).
Ultima, as a whole, has always been a series that seems to survive on its niche appeal to devoted fans. Ultima Online is worth checking out if you’ve never tried it. There are not many experiences like it. Its biggest obstacles will be its complexity and its admittedly outdated graphics.
Originally, the game was immensely brutal and allowed PvP at all times. While certainly popular, it made the game arguably too niche for many tastes, and later expansions added safe areas. And yes, it is still receiving updates.
StarCraft (the first one) seems to have last received a patch on July 24th, 2018, as of the writing of this article. While mostly these patches add minor fixes, they indeed also add content, like some ramps to the game’s map editor. This is particularly impressive, as the game was released in 1998!
For the few unaware, StarCraft is a sci-fi RTS made by Blizzard Entertainment (now Blizzard Activision). While the series is well-liked enough for its single-player content, its multiplayer component has exploded into a cultural phenomenon. The game looks its age, but few games, old or new, can match its skill ceiling and competitive appeal.
Popular enough worldwide, StarCraft is extremely popular in Korea as an eSport. There has been some claim it is even more popular than StarCraft II in the country, an uncertain claim. While definitely still huge, there doesn’t seem to be clear data backing this up via at least cursory research.
A common sentiment is that StarCraft is more mechanically balanced than StarCraft II. To really test that claim requires one to be professionally competent in the two games since very few people will claim StarCraft II is shallow. What is clear to any outsider, however, is that StarCraft is well-liked and for good reason.
The disadvantage to newcomers to StarCraft is that the meta is incredibly difficult to master at a competitive level. After all, one is literally twenty years behind the most competitive players. At a casual level, the game remains fun and even has great single-player content (and a big user-generated content scene).
Another graphically simple, yet mechanically very deep, game, NetHack was released in 1987. Inspired by the likes of Dungeons & Dragons, this Roguelike wants players to focus less on pure combat and more on careful, deliberate, choices. The wiki heavily implies that the game should probably be first played mostly blind, but doing so is not easy.
The most interesting thing about NetHack is arguably its Conduct system. Not unlike modern Achievements or Ironman settings, the Conduct system tracks a character’s behavior. Players can try to play the game as a character who is illiterate, pacifist, vegan, or any combination of many more options.
Even a cursory look at the wiki’s description of its system shows off the game’s depth. Players can polymorph into a mind flayer, eating other creatures’ brains. The wiki notes, however, that doing this will break the Foodless conduct (fair enough).
The fun absurdity of games like NetHack can often be understood by reading even a portion of anyone's guide. One writer notes, for example, an anti-leprechaun strategy. Apparently, a good strategy is to drop all of one’s money and then beat up the leprechauns! Who knew?
It appears NetHack was last updated around April of 2018 and it would not be surprising to see it updated again. It comes off as a passion project and definitely has a cult following. For younger gamers, NetHack might be a hard sell, but for those who liked Rogue, NetHack is for you.
Like most of the games on this list, NetHack can be amazingly detailed but not always intuitive. To a modern gamer’s eye, the ASCII art maps can require a great deal to get used to. On the plus side, this game does have cannibalism.
Readers should be warned: apparently, the game no longer works on Atari or Amiga. If you have not purchased a new, or even very used, PC in the last 20 years, you may be in trouble. Also, it is surprising you still manage to have access to the internet (more power to you!).
Released in 1989, Genesis is a fantasy text-adventure game with art on its website that definitely harkens back to old-school Dungeons & Dragons. What makes this MUD unique, in addition to its apparently quite devoted fan base, is that its last update was in 2018!
For some context, the game’s website points out that it was released around the time that the Berlin Wall was being torn down. Text adventures only had to compete with relatively simple 8-bit games, and mmorpgs were basically unheard of. 3D gaming definitely hit the player base (especially with World of Warcraft) but the game stabilized and again grows.
The developers intend to keep the game running forever, and it has indeed been updating since launch. The Gameworld began as a single landmass but has grown massively in complexity and scope since then. For a game created almost three decades ago by a small Swedish team, it has a great deal going for it.
Anyone interested in this multiplayer text-adventure MUD can try it for free on the game’s site. The game has a guide explaining basic commands and MUDs in general, as well as an in-game tutorial. In terms of text adventures, you will be hard-pressed to find a more massive game than this and it only grows!
Genesis is also interesting in that it seems, from admittedly cursory research, to be the winner of the oldest PC game still getting updated. It has all the hallmarks of a MUD, from its very Tolkien fantasy tropes to its sometimes esoteric logic and plot threads. It seems like arguably “The” MUD to start with too, for those new to the genre.
A quick note about Genesis, specifically, is that the line between player and developer is grey (and has overlap). Explained a bit here, Genesis has “Wizards” who are sort of like rules arbiters crossed with Dungeon Masters. However, to not call them developers would be disingenuous, as they clearly put in tons of work to make content.
Interesting Mention: Battlefront 2 (the Old, Good One)
To cap off, Battlefront 2 relatively recently received an interesting update that might be representative of a new trend. More and more, developers and retailers are keeping an eye on fan demand. If a game has the demand for content, surprise updates are likely to grow increasingly common.
Apparently at the behest of GOG.com, not EA or Disney as one might expect, Battlefront 2 was updated back in October 2017, twelve years after its initial release, to regain its ability to be played online (and to add cross-play between GOG Galaxy and Steam).
While it is purely speculation, this was probably done to capitalize on the, at best, controversial reception of the newer Battlefront games and EA’s choices with them.
A Final Note on MUDS
This list has two MUDS (multi-user dungeons) on it: Genesis and NetHack. The reality is that these types of games, as a whole, are fairly resilient. Genesis and NetHack are just two of the big ones.
The nature of MUDs means the content is often being created by users or referees. While you can find more depth elsewhere, basically if a MUD has players, it is being updated. Sort of.
In reality, the software itself does not necessarily “update” in the traditional sense in many of these games. So besides the fact, there were too many MUDs to include, many have a serious grey area between the user and developer-made content. Collaborative works are great but can also be hard to categorize.