Joe Lesko | Blog | creativity, programming, and design

My Favorite Computer Games

This is a list of computer games that stuck with me over the years.

They skew toward the 8-bit era, because that’s when I had the most time to play games.

In roughly chronological order:

Tetris (C64)

My first exposure to Tetris was on the Commodore 64. Unlike the NES versions, the music and graphics had an otherworldly space theme, which really added to the hypnotic, addictive effect.

A truly timeless game. People will be playing this a hundred years from now.

M.U.L.E. (C64)

A multiplayer sci-fi trading game where you lead your robot “MULES” to develop plots of land on a planetary colony, and sell your goods in a real-time auction.

It took a seemingly boring theme (economics) and made it engaging and fun, with the help of cartoony aliens and imaginative random events.

It’s amazing how similar it is to modern Euro board game design, though it predates Settlers of Catan by about 15 years.

A work of genius by Dani Bunten.

Ultima IV (C64)

One of the only RPG's that I know of to include virtues like Compassion and Honesty as a central theme and game mechanic.

An epic RPG with a very memorable soundtrack by Kenneth Arnold, made better by the Commodore SID sound chip.

Impossible Mission (C64)

A platformer set in the underground lair of a mad scientist, that featured realistic speech synthesis and character movements.

In retrospect, the real genius of the game was in the design of the robot enemies. Despite their identical appearance (a short round robot moving back and forth on its platform), each had a distinct personality.

Some would follow your movements. Others would move back and forth slowly and predictably. Others stood in one place and “played dead” until you got too close.

Observing each robot’s pattern was key to safely navigating the complex and collecting all of the digital puzzle pieces.

Archon (C64)

Still one of the best “battle chess” style games. It mixed strategy on a chess-like board with 1-on-1 arcade fantasy combat between the individual pieces.

Paul Reiche later created the very popular Star Control, which is like Archon, but in space.

Modem Wars (C64)

Another Dani Bunten design. One of the very first networked real-time strategy games, and still innovative compared modern RTS's.

It featured true positional strategy over today’s emphasis on resource management and unit production.

For example, units on a hilltop would deal more damage to units below. Forests would provide cover and limited visiblity.

There was also finely-balanced espionage element involving invisible spy units, bomber drones, a hidden mobile HQ, and cloaked units.

Each player began with a fixed number of units and a limited ability to produce new ones. This meant that games got very intense toward the end, because you had to make due with the units you had left.

Defender of the Crown (C64)

A medieval strategy game created by Cinemaware, with multiple minigames: army battles, catapult sieges, sword duels, and jousting.

Noteworthy for its realistic graphics (for its time), and atmospheric cut scenes that made each game feel like a unique story.

Tecmo Bowl (SNES)

Tecmo Bowl took the complex sport of American football and reduced it to the parts that are the most fun: simple play calling, big breakaway plays, on-field injuries, and short dramatic cut scenes.

There were a couple of major issues with game balance, but I still find it more engaging than the latest AAA football titles, because of its simplicity and charm.

Civilization II (PC)

My favorite in the Civilization series. For me, it got all of the elements right without being too complex.

I find that the classic 2D isometric map still feels easier to navigate than its 3D successors.

Alpha Centauri was built with the same engine, paired with an incredibly evocative science-fiction setting.

Seiklus (PC)

Created by an indie developer back when the term “indie” wasn’t yet adopted by the gaming world. It’s an absolute gem of a platformer set in an dream-like, hand-drawn world filled with imaginative surprises.

This is the game that made me aware of games as an viable artform, and inspired me to make games of my own.

Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear (PC)

I was never interested in Doom or Quake, but this was the first FPS that piqued my interest. I was immediately sucked in by the cooperative tactical gameplay and maps that were open-ended and atmospheric.

With the right tactics and a bit of luck, you could succeed in a lot of different ways. Slip up a little, and you’d be wiped out in seconds.

I learned a lot about level design by modding maps, using obstacles to create cover, set sight lines, and control the flow of movement.

Neverwinter Nights (PC)

Possibly the first multiplayer RPG that could be managed by a game master.

I spent countless hours building adventures using the built-in map-making tools and scripting language.

The limitations of NWN largely inspired my creation of Fabletop, which has the flexibility closer to a true tabletop RPG.

Minecraft (PC)

To be honest, I never really “played” Minecraft much. Instead, I spent hundreds of hours working on creative builds while live streaming on Twitch during the first year of its launch.

All told, I created over 200 “mini-builds” during that time.

It’s incredible to think that Notch, a single creator built something that would become a billion dollar franchise.

Into The Breach (Switch)

The only game I have ever actively tried to gain achievements for — and succeeded at getting all of them.

It’s a grid-based tactics game where each turn feels like a puzzle, since you know beforehand what the next enemy movements will be.

Every decision counts, and the game balance is refined to perfection.

Each game can last up to 4 hours, but replayability is in the incredible breadth of combinations of mechs, pilot abilities, and weapon upgrades.

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Joe has been designing and developing games and web apps for about 20 years. He is a self-taught programmer, and creates art and games in his spare time.

He currently works as a User Experience Prototyper at Netflix, on the Interactive Design team that created Bandersnatch.