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 was younger and 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 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 the sci-fi theme, 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, featuring realistic speech synthesis and fluid character animations.

In retrospect, the real genius of the game was in the design of the robot enemies. They all looked identical, but each had a distinct personality.

Some would follow your movements. Others would move back and forth slowly and predictably. Others “played dead”, but if you got too close, they might suddenly zap you with electricity.

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 real-time fantasy combat between the individual pieces.

Paul Reiche later co-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 to 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 be resourceful with the units you had remaining.

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.

This is an absolute gem of a platformer set in an dream-like, hand-drawn world filled with imaginative surprises.

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

Rainbow Six: Rogue Spear (PC)

I was never really 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)

Probably the first multiplayer RPG that could be run like a real-time D&D game by a human Dungeon 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 is closer in flexibility 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. I would take suggestions from viewers in the chatroom and try to build it in an hour or two.

It’s incredible to think that Markus Persson, as a single creator, built something that would become a world-wide cultural phenomenon.

Into The Breach (Switch)

The only game I have ever tried to gain all the achievements in.

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.

The execution of this game is flawless — the pixel art, user interface, sound effects, and music.

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