Top 10 adventure games of all time

Posted by Rich Carlson.
First posted on 01 January 2000. Last updated on 15 May 2014.
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Top 10 adventure games of all time
Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis
Top 10 adventure games of all time
Grim Fandango
Top 10 adventure games of all time
Top 10 adventure games of all time
The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy
Top 10 adventure games of all time
Adventure (Colossal Caves)
Top 10 adventure games of all time
Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle
Top 10 adventure games of all time
Monkey Island (series)
Top 10 adventure games of all time
Zork (series)
Top 10 adventure games of all time
Star Control II
Top 10 adventure games of all time
Sam & Max Hit the Road

Polling methods

The email poll is conducted over a 2-week period in December 1999. Of 30 people who are polled, there are 16 respondents. These include gaming industry pros, game site webmasters, and avid gamers. This sample thus represents a broad spectrum of the gaming public.

Each voter is told to choose 10 favorite adventure games and rank them from 1 (best) to 10 (good but not the best). Weights are then given to these ranks. Each choice (from 2nd to 10th) receives exactly 1 point, while the first choice receives 2 points. The totals are tallied to determine the final ranking. There are no ties noted among the top 10 choices.

About the author

Musician, composer and arranger originally from Minneapolis, Minnesota, Rich Carlson has switched careers in 1997 due to a lifelong obsession with games and a more recent fascination with level design. He also seems to recall spending 2 years in Dallas, Texas working on Daikatana and Anachronox at Ion Storm. Unfortunately, he has not never seen fruition of those very famous games. Carlson now lives in Somerville, Massachusetts and is deeply involved with Thief II: The Metal Age at Looking Glass Studios in Cambridge. Life is good, he has time to play his Stratocaster, and the sea breeze there is rather fishy!

Adventure genre has undergone both a revolution and an evolution from the early days of Colossal Cave on a PDP-10 back in 1972. Since then, countless numbers of gamers have devoted endless hours inside the fascinating realms of interactive fiction. Thus, it is only fitting to reflect on these achievements and the few titles which have defined this genre. Some critics may say any list made for this purpose surely omits games (such as King's Quest) which have also significantly impacted the industry. While such possible shortcoming must be acknowledged, the result of this Computer Game Hall of Fame poll still represents the opinions of a fair number of adventure gamers and industry experts.

Here is our countdown of the top 10 adventure games of all time!

10. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis

LucasArts (1992)

I am very surprised that this game has not scored higher. I mean, who in their right mind does not want to be Indiana Jones for a while? I remember that I have been crazy nuts about this game, telling all of my pals to give it a try, and arguing that it almost seems like a role-playing game. Playing Indy is just so damn fun.

Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis features an imaginative, credibly incredible story, mixed with lots of Nazis, exotic locations, cliff hangers, ancient relics—in short, the whole Indy Jones kit and caboodle, very much in the spirit of the films! Indy's voice, while not done by Harrison Ford, is surprisingly perfect in this game (CD-ROM version) and arguably even better than Ford's! The 3 games in 1 gimmick, multiple mini games and side trips, well researched and cleverly written historical fiction all make this title near perfect and among the best adventure games of all time.

9. Grim Fandango

LucasArts (1998)

I am knocked out by the artwork in Grim Fandango. LucasArts, always striving for a unique and fresh look with their releases, has really hit their stride with this fine game. At a time when the dominant action genre is imposing higher polygon counts and system requirements, Grim Fandango has proven that artistic style does not depend on fancy hardware and that a stylized look is appropriate and essential in telling a unique story on a computer screen.

Along with the diabolical Mexican influenced art, Grim Fandango also features fine voice acting, often a signature of a great computer game. Of course, this has always been a specialty of LucasArts.

8. Sanitarium

DreamForge Intertainment (1998)

It is one of the few horror games I've ever played, perhaps the only one, that got the horror right. You play an amnesiac mental patient bouncing between chapters in a sanitarium and chapters in various fantastic dreamscapes. As God is my witness, I had no idea until late in the game whether I was on a spiritual quest to save the souls of the children of Earth, or whether I was totally out of my mind. Who could ask for more?

- Tim Stellmach

Sanitarium succeeds in bringing both physical and psychological horrors to the computer screen. Its unique yet twisted story makes it a favorite among many of the voters—enough of a favorite, in fact, to push the Gabriel Knight series off of the top 10 list!

7. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Infocom (1984)

Best game ever made. Even getting stuck was hilarious.

- Loonyboi

The game version of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, better known to its fans as H2G2, is co-authored by Douglas Adams and Steve Meretzky. It remains to this day as probably the funniest and smartest adventure game ever devised. Of course most games do not have Douglas Adams to fall back on either.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, in any of its many incarnations, is science fiction comedy at its very brightest and sarcastic best, with nothing can be compared to it. The sheer amount of imagination and good writing contain in this game is staggering. It defies nearly every convention established by the adventure game genre without destroying any of the puzzle logic. In fact, understanding the twisted logic of this game is half of the fun.

The fact that it is a pure text game should be added to its credit. The medium allows Adams to cast his spell on us directly, using all the powers of his mighty writing craft. What a treat!

6. Adventure

IBM (1979)

Colossal Cave was the first one for me... It got me. It's responsible for whatever mess I've created in the business :)

- Randy Pitchford

First released in 1972, Adventure (also known as Colossal Caves), written by Will Crowther and Don Woods, is the game that has single-handedly created the computer game industry. It is not a fluke; the game has been and remains to be a textbook example of how to create a believable interactive adventure environment for a computer game. Modern adventure titles like Grim Fandango and Final Fantasy VII owe their structure to this remarkable text based game.

We used to sneak into the lab after hours to play Adventure on this big mainframe...Later we'd play it more conveniently on a Commodore Pet viewing our entered text, and the game's responses, on a monitor rather than on paper. Either way, Adventure transported us to another place where dwarves, priceless treasures and dragons were very real; a place where magic worked! We would stay up until dawn solving its puzzles and meticulously mapping every detail of the labyrinthine Colossal Caves maze.

- Anonymous

I have never taken "video" games too seriously until I have played Adventure. I have since realized that games can be story, art, psychology, myth, adventure—all of the things I really love about fantasy books and adventure films are becoming possible to experience in an even more personal way via the very new, very magical "microcomputer". My mind literally reels at the implications. I now create text adventures, write and referee AD&D (Advanced Dungeons & Dragons) adventures, and ardently play every adventure game that hit the shelf.

Terms such as XYZZY owe their origin to this game. Later in 1976, an "enhanced" PC version of Adventure is released. This game has changed everything.

5. Maniac Mansion: Day Of the Tentacle

LucasArts (1992)

Day of the Tentacle is good cartoon fun with a wonderful cast (headed up very well by Richard "WKRP" Sanders) and classic time-travel puzzles where the time travel really mattered in the solution. (Always a mind bender of a theme.)

- Tim Stellmach

Cartoon humor is a specialty of LucasArts as well as wickedly imaginative puzzle plots. In both categories, this sequel to Maniac Mansion delivers the goods and then some.

"Tentacle", as I affectionately refer to it, is a perfect game. Truly. Ask anyone who has played it.

I am not going to go on further about that, except to say that it is an absolute classic from the get go. If you miss it, you are depriving yourself of a game that is among the most entertaining gaming experiences of all time!

4. Monkey Island (series)

LucasArts (1990-1997)

While I love every game in the Monkey Island series, the first one was the best. It was one of the first CD-ROM games to come out and the music, hilarious humor, excellent puzzles and length will always keep it as one of my favorite games of all time.

- TheZealot

Good humor, great puzzles, often inextricably intertwined ... as when you had to learn to defeat the fencing master by developing a repertoire not of sword maneuvers, but of witty retorts.

- Tim Stellmach

What is it with LucasArts? They threaten to topple Infocom from the "Adventure Game Hill"! Who do they think they are?

Games such as those from the Monkey Island series are LucasArts' stock and trade. It is very hard to top their well known presentation of good versus evil, heroes and heroines, dastardly (pirate) villains, broad parody, crude humor and farce that are all wrapped up in a family game that is artistically lush and devilishly detailed. All the games from the Monkey Island series are classics, well worth their weights in gold doubloons!

3. Zork (series)

Infocom (1981-1998)

The game that launched what we can without exaggeration call the golden age of Infocom.

- Tim Stellmach

Classics, no question. Great mix of humor & adventure.

- Loonyboi

I remember just being in a kind of bliss state with Zork. Coming off of Adventure, the games from the Zork series (especially Zork II: The Wizard Of Frobozz) are like a smorgasbord buffet, as if Adventure has only been a fulsome dinner with pie.

As I think back on these fine fantasy games, and how much time has passed since they have been popular, and how much tastes have changed since then, I realize that text adventure games are perhaps dead. That is a shame if true.

When the quality of writing is as good as it is in Zork, the feeling of actually being there, while one plays it, is arguably more personal, more intimate, and even more detailed than in newer games with flashy graphics and sounds—a curious but understandable fact.

2. Star Control II

Accolade (1992)

Somehow you felt like you could go or do anywhere you wanted, and it still always worked out into a coherent plot. Not just coherent, either, but fairly compelling science fiction in its own right (complete with hilarious aliens sporting distinctive theme music). An utter classic.

- Tim Stellmach

I want this game to win the top slot. I admit it. This game completely blows me away. I do not mean to be subjective but I just cannot say enough about a game that does everything necessary and so very well to assure that a good time awaits all who play it.

Star Control II offers a grand galactic story with a host of imaginatively evocative and cartoony independent alien races, each with their own quirks, goals, and bizarre psychology. With all of the trimmings of a great space opera, equal doses of humor and mysticism (both light and dark), effective dialog and writing, and surprisingly beautiful pastel artworks, Star Control II takes adventure games where no game has gone before (except perhaps Starflight, but that is another story).

In Star Control II, each game screen has its own musical theme, which sounds old hat unless you experience games, such as The Dig or Sam & Max Hit the Road, where it is actually done right. Steven Spielberg has said that music is fully 1/3 of the movie going experience. With regard to games which utilize music, the same rule should apply.

The interface in Star Control II is cool, right down to the oscilloscope display that uses distinctively alien sounding and cartoony music tracks which are very catchy and memorable. The funky mods that accompany the game's encounters are still on my play list today at work, and everybody digs them.

1. Sam & Max Hit the Road

LucasArts (1993)

Hilarious game. It had just such an incredibly wacky vibe to it, the story was original and goofy, and the whole game was filled with gut busting good humor, from the dialog to the solutions of the puzzles themselves.

- TheZealot

So good I played it twice, as it came out right on the cusp of the CD-ROM era and was, in its second edition, one of the first adventure games with voice acting. I was afraid that nobody's voice acting could match the Sam & Max in my head from reading the comics, but what do you know? I was wrong.

- Tim Stellmach

This game edges my favorite out of the lead position as I tally up the votes for this poll. As the lead widens, I realize that Sam & Max Hit the Road is going to take home the "Green Cup of Quality". I am wnot angry, though. Sam & Max Hit the Road deserves the award and the recognition because it, along with Maniac Mansion: Day of the Tentacle, is perhaps among the few truly perfect games created for the personal computer, by any standards.

By the time I start playing Wak-a-Rat and Car Bomber, among the many hilarious mini games included, I begin to understand the certain sick and dark humor sensibility of the game. Experiencing Max's version of "the old ultraviolence", cartoon style, as well as the hands down strangest and most offbeat plot of any adventure game I have ever played, this game has kept me hooked all the way to the very ecologically correct ending, which I still chuckle about to this day.

With "classic" animation, terrific voice acting (CD-ROM version), a perfectly whacked out MIDI score, and too many surprises for a single game, Sam & Max Hit the Road deserves every kudos ever attributed to it. Congratulations, Sam & Max!

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