PC gaming is experiencing something of a renaissance at the moment, but most people still use their machines as utilitarian web and email access points rather than a platform for video games. But even if your computer has all the graphical power of a sedated hamster, there are plenty of great options for gaming.
What You’ll Need
To start, you’re going to want Steam, which is still the premier PC gaming store right now. Any Windows-based machine (even tablets) or Mac can download the program, and creating an account and browsing the store is free. You might want to look into alternatives, too, especially Good Old Games’ Galaxy and EA’s Origin, both of which are filled to the brim with older games. Check out this article for a list of stores that should work even on old or low-power machines.
You’ll also want some kind of controller, at least if your gaming tastes extend beyond mouse-driven fare like shooters, adventures, and strategy games. Microsoft’s Xbox controllers are the de facto standard for PC games, and they’re available in both wired and wireless models. The Xbox 360 and Xbox One versions are both solid options—there’s very little practical difference in the designs, though the Xbox One controller ($45) does subjectively look a bit nicer. The Xbox 360 controller ($30) is a bit cheaper, though.
That being said, prospective laptop gamers might want to take a look at the recent revision of the Xbox One controller. It includes Bluetooth in addition to Microsoft’s proprietary RF technology, so a separate (and bulky) USB adapter is not required. There are other options, like the Steam Controller and a ton of third-party wired and Bluetooth controllers, but I’d still recommend staying with the Xbox designs unless you have a compelling reason to go elsewhere.
Just because a game is new doesn’t mean it demands an incredible amount of power. Almost any game that relies on 2D sprites rather than 3D polygons can run on the integrated graphics cards found on inexpensive desktops and lightweight laptops. Most of these titles are from indie developers, and are considerably cheaper than AAA releases.
2D games needn’t necessarily be retro-styled, either. For example, the 2D platformer Salt and Sanctuary is basically a riff on Dark Souls, one of the most well-known third-person action game from the last few years. It uses the same dreary, dreadful aesthetic, the same dodge-and-strike combat, and the same punishing difficulty of the full console and PC games, but in a format that’s less punishing on your hardware.
FTL, a combination of roguelike elements with Star Trek-inspired sci-fi storytelling, is about as simple as graphical games get. But commanding and managing your spaceship on an interstellar chase is a unique experience, even if the top-down interface looks more like a board game than a PC title.
Shovel Knight is perhaps the best-known example of the recent revival of retro-style games. Though the graphics and controls are reminiscent of something from the 8-bit era, the game has just enough thoughtful updates (like parallax scrolling and a ton of combat options) to make it feel fresh. It’s still getting new content, too—the Specter of Torment DLC expansion is coming in April.
Note that when I say 2D games, I specifically mean games with 2D sprite graphics. Trine is a 2D game in the sense that its characters move in a left-to-right plane, but its 3D polygonal graphics and heavy lighting effects make it unsuitable for low-power PCs.
Here are some other picks for great 2D titles:
- Mark of the Ninja: a fantastic Metroid/Castlevania hybrid that focuses on stealthy movement and creative exploration.
- Guacamelee: a mix of long-form exploration and beat-em-up brawlers, with a wonderfully angular art style that takes inspiration from Lucha Libre wrestling.
- Bastion: a top-down isometric action game that tasks the player with rebuilding a broken world. Excellent music and voice-over work.are included.
- Hotline Miami: pixelated ultra-violence soaked in neon. Hotline Miami’s lightning-fast combat is just as thrilling as any shooter.
- Papers Please: a soul-crushing simulator of Iron Curtain bureaucracy that makes the player take the role a border agent. Not for the faint of heart.
- Rayman Origins: An update to a classic platformer franchise with jaw-dropping art and animation. The stages themselves have some wonderfully original design.
- Skullgirls: a trippy one-on-one fighter that looks like it evolved from the exaggerated cartoons of the 1920s and 30s. Fans of old-school Street Fighter will love it.
- Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved: a top-down, twin-stick shooter that feels like a 21st-century version of Galaga or Centipede.
- FEZ: a minimal platformer that uses its flat pixel graphics to play with perspective and mess with your head. Players have to rotate the 2D world to progress.
- The Banner Saga: a startlingly original turn-based tactical game based on Norse mythology. The hand-drawn character art is especially fetching.
Don’t be fooled by the simple graphics: there are some great, challenging, and engaging games here.
The advent of digital distribution meant that developers and publishers no longer needed to rely on outdated brick-and-mortar sales models. It also opened up vast back catalogs of older PC and console games for re-release to current players. Thanks to their age and the relative power of newer hardware, even the cheapest of PCs can play some of these titles with ease.
Valve doesn’t seem to make any actual games anymore, but their back catalog includes some of the pillars of modern PC gaming, like the original Half-Life, Counter-Strike, and Team Fortress 2. The updated Source Engine is efficient enough to run these games even on integrated graphics, though you may need to turn some of the special effects off and lower the resolution.
Top-down strategy games from the early 2000s are especially ripe for re-release. Age of Empires II received an excellent remaster complete with modern multiplayer, and Blizzard recently announced a remastered version of the original Starcraft (and the non-updated version is now free!). Origin has classic versions of Red Alert and Command and Conquer games on its storefront.
GOG (Good Old Games) is an excellent source of all kinds of older games in this style. The service specializes in making sure that PC games from the 90s and 2000s can be purchased and played on modern machines with no issues. A few of the very new titles in the catalog might not be suitable for low-power machines or those with integrated graphics, but the vast majority of the catalog can be played on just about any PC released in the last few years.
There are more updated classic games than I could possibly mention, but here are some notable entries:
- System Shock 2: the precursor to modern Bioshock titles and an inspiration for first-person action games for more than a decade, this classic was recently re-released on PC, Mac OS, and Linux.
- SEGA’s Steam page: this publisher has tons of classic games re-released for the PC, from the Genesis to the Dreamcast and all the way up to the PlayStation 3 era.
- Older versions of SimCity: notably SimCity 4 and 2000, both available on Origin. Oddly, EA is keeping some of its older games away from Steam and other platforms.
- Freespace 2: widely considered one of the best space fighter/sims ever made, the game is available in pure digital download form.
- Microsoft Flight Simulator X: originally released in 2006, this simulator is still widely played by the obsessive fans of the genre.
- Dungeon Keeper: the original evil-tinted strategy and its sequel are currently kept under lock and key on Origin.
- The Thief series: 3D stealth was never better than in the second game in the series—play this instead of the ill-advised 2014 reboot.
- Diablo II: perhaps the quintessential top-down dungeon crawler, it’s still for sale and still supported by Blizzard. For that matter, World of Warcraft is now so old it can run on many low-power laptops, at least at low graphical settings.
- Civilization III: the last in Sid Meier’s empire-building series to feature 2D graphics, it can now be had for a song.
There’s also something to be said for playing old games you never got a chance to when they first came around, even if they haven’t been truly updated. Got an itch for first-person shooters, but can’t run the newest Call of Duty? Doom is where it all began. Ever played the early Elder Scrolls games like Arena or Daggerfall? They’re both available for free (though they don’t hold up to modern eyes as well as the above options).
Casual and Mobile Cross-Platform Games
This category has a bit of overlap with 2D games in general, but it’s worth highlighting that many of the games designed for release on both PC and mobile are made specifically with low-powered hardware in mind. Some of the games you might already enjoy on Android or iOS are already in the Windows 10 Store.
There’s no example better than Blizzard’s fantasy-themed multiplayer card game Hearthstone, which runs on PC and Macs as well as iOS and Android devices. With simple Magic-like mechanics hiding deep strategy, the most fervent Hearthstone players would flay me alive for even hinting that it’s in any way “casual.”
The block-building phenomenon known as Minecraft is hardly casual to its legions of dedicated fans, but it runs on almost any PC. Perhaps it’s the simple graphics and low system requirements that helped it sell over a hundred million copies across PC, Mac OS, and mobile platforms.
World of Goo is well-known among indie fans for its original and organic building style. Simple 2D building quickly gives way to insanely intricate physics-based architecture. Almost 10 years after its release it’s still a must-play.
A few other casual and cross-platform examples include:
- Peggle: this digital take on Pachinko is the destroyer of an entire generation’s free time.
- Reigns: this kingdom-ruling game has hidden depths, and the left-or-right card system restricts the player in surprisingly compelling ways.
- Castle Crashers: a 4-player beat-em-up that marries classic arcade fighting elements with modern cartoony graphics.
- Plague Inc: you play the role of a worldwide virus with the goal of eradicating humanity on a 2D Earth. It’s a real heart-warmer.
- Stardew Valley: essentially a PC remake of the old Harvest Moon games, this pixelated farming simulator has a huge following.
- Goat Simulator: originally a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of the “simulator” genre, this fun and goofy physics sandbox and its sequels will run on most laptops with low graphical settings.
- Scribblenauts: first released on Nintendo portables, this platformer lets you summon almost anything you can imagine into the playing field.
- Keep Talking and Nobody Explodes: use a separate bomb diffusing manual to help your real-life friends stay alive (in a virtual sense, of course).
- Octodad: Dadliest Catch: this floppy physics game is all about a completely normal human going about his completely normal duties. Move along, nothing to see here.
- Oceanhorn: this Zelda-inspired action game uses a top-down perspective and 3D graphics, but it’s simple enough to run on most laptops at low settings.
Point-and-Click Adventure Games
Not only have point-and-click adventures had their own resurgence as of late, the one-two punch of digital distribution and renewed interest means that many of the genre’s classic mainstays are now available in remastered forms. Even when they use 3D graphics, these games are ideal for low-powered systems, as they rarely require fast framerates (or lightning-fast reactions) to reach the end of the story.
I could fill up this entire list with Telltale’s collection of episodic adventure games, but to save time, just check out their Steam page. Between interesting originals and a ton of licensed content from The Walking Dead to Minecraft: Story Mode, you’re sure to find something you’ll like. See also: Poker Night at the Inventory.
Steam’s Classic Sierra Bundle is basically a masterclass of 90s-style adventure games, containing such notable series as Space Quest, King’s Quest, Police Quest, and Gabriel Knight. You needn’t buy the whole thing, since the individual games are available for under $10.
Here’s a selection of old and new point-and-click adventure games that should work on almost anything.
- Myst: this mystery series dropped jaws in the 90s with its prerendered 3D graphics, which have since been updated a new engine with full exploration.
- The Monkey Island series: a humorous cartoon take on pirate life, this series is easily among the most-beloved games of all time. Start with the original Tales of Monkey Island, then move on to the sequel and the Telltale series.
- Life is Strange: this time-bending episodic story follows two friends as they investigate a missing person and explore the darker side of their small town.
- Syberia: a long-delayed third game set for release in 2017 should finally finish the story of a woman unraveling the mystery behind still-living mammoths in a surreal world.
- Her Story: a disturbing and disjointed murder-mystery that uses live action footage of a police suspect. Players have to navigate a faux-retro computer interface to piece together the story.
- Loom: originally released in 1990, Loom‘s serious tone and unique musical interface is a departure from the genre standards of the time.
- Broken Sword: mixing noir mystery and current wit (circa 1996), this series follows a tourist and a journalist getting to the bottom of a shadowy secret society.
- Kentucky Route Zero: this incredibly stylish side-scrolling episodic game tells most of its story by letting the dialogue take a backseat to the angular pastel visuals.
- Five Nights at Freddy’s: a love-it-or-hate-it horror series that puts players in the damp shoes of a night guard at a restaurant filled with demonic Chuck-E-Cheese animatronics.
- Deponia: a post apocalyptic world is played for laughs in this lighthearted story of love and class warfare. The original and three sequels are all highly praised.
We could go on, but these should get you started (and keep you busy for quite a while).
Keep Your Refund Options Open
Even while sticking strictly to older and 2D games, you might still accidentally buy a game that your computer can’t quite handle. Keep in mind that Steam offers full refunds for games that have been played for less than two hours, up to 14 days after the original purchase. EA’s Origin is more forgiving, allowing a full 24 hours of play or 7 days after purchase for most EA games (and some third-party titles).
Good Old Games offers a full money back guarantee on all its games for up to 30 days after purchase, but only refunds purchases if you can’t get the game working on your PC.