Essential must-play text adventures prior to 1998?

Most of the IF I’ve played (to any great extent) has been published since 1998. I’ve downloaded a lot of older games, I’ve piddled around in Adventure and Zork a little, and I’ve always meant to play A Mind Forever Voyaging (for whatever reason that one seems to call out to me as particularly “up my alley”), but I don’t have any real experience with older titles from the Infocom era or even later games from the '90s. I also don’t know much of anything at all about Scott Adams or Magnetic Scrolls besides having heard the names. Which older games are really essential “must-play” titles?


I haven’t played all of the Infocom games (yet), but I’d especially recommend Enchanter and Planetfall as essential games from that era. Definitely far better experiences than Adventure or Zork, both of which are kind of random and counter-intuitive without much of a storyline.


IFDB: published:1990-1998 , sorted by highest rating, gives you a good overview of the “new golden age” (RAIF) era.

(A few commercial 90s graphical adventures, mostly Legend Entertainment titles, are mixed in.)


There are tons of criteria here, so I’d like to focus on things that are simultaneously fun to play (or at least mess around with before giving in to walkthroughs), groundbreaking in some way, and not typical of other periods.

For that I’d like to say Zarf’s games were majorly important, especially A Change in the Weather and So Far, both very hard, both the first to win their respective competitions (IFComp and XYZZY awards), and both really fun. They really upped the game for IF to have more tightly integrated plot and gameplay.

Tapestry is another one that sticks out with a style belonging to that decade, by one of the Slouching Towards Bedlam authors. Basically back then people were playing with the idea ‘what if there were less puzzles’ but the bar was so high that ‘less puzzles’ still was pretty puzzly.

John’s Fire Witch was brought up a bit after it came out because it was shorter than what was common at the time. Among other discourse about other things it helped spark the ideas for IFComp. It’s basically a magical puzzler.

There are a lot of games I love in that time period, many of my favorites actually, but a lot of them are just polished and workmanlike examples of the same kind of stuff that’s always been good IF, and not really remarkable as a product of that time period alone. Those games are at the top of the list Zarf linked. A lot of stuff like Delusions or Glowgrass are good games but if you told me they came out in 1995 or 2018 I’d believe you either way.

(Edit: I was only thinking of adventures from 1990-1998 specifically!)


It doesn’t show up as highly-rated in that list, but I recommend Ditch Day Drifter.
I remember the excitement of discovering TADS on some BBS in 1992. Wow! A real programming language for writing text adventures! And this demo game just blew me away. It had a real parser, not like the two-word ones or the Eliza-like fakers like you got from Sierra. The setting and puzzles were exactly what I wanted. It got me excited about IF again, and it clearly convinced a lot of people to write their own.


Thanks! I actually didn’t have Enchanter OR Planetfall among my Infocom library, so I will check those out!

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Thanks! This is actually the era I know least about, except maybe the tail end of it (Photopia, Anchorhead, etc.). I’ve always heard about Curses, Jigsaw, Christminster, and Theatre, but haven’t tried any of them.

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What are you after? Essential because they are Good, or essential because they represent something significant (like an experiment gone terribly wrong)?

For example, especially since the cost to do so these days is zero, I would definitely say that it’s Essential to explore (even if it’s just through a video playthrough) games like Time Zone and Star Trek: The Kobayashi Alternative. Definitely not because they are Good, because they definitely are not! But because both were making a really big reach which seemed like a good idea at the time.


Thanks, I have several of Zarf’s games downloaded already. Played Shade and maybe Dreamhold, but not the ones you recommended. Will make sure to give them a try.

I will definitely check out Tapestry, as Slouching Towards Bedlam is one of the games I’ve enjoyed quite a lot.

As for the others you mentioned, I haven’t heard of those but will be adding them to my library!


Oh, neat… I’ve never heard of this one at all. Adding it to my library!

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Well, I was originally seeking games that are Good, but (now that you mention it) the alternative seems interesting as well. I’m not familiar with either of the games you mentioned, and they aren’t available on IFDB, but maybe I can find them somewhere.

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You are no doubt familiar with parser games. However, some eras / platforms require some practice as their parsers are more primitive (or at least different). For instance, if you are not used to Scott Adams games, you might need hints/walkthroughs a lot the first time but you will quickly get better at his style (e.g. GO HOLE) once you learn how the primitive parser normally behaves. I first played them recently and found the Scott Adams games from the 70s were great fun. The latter superhero games were less fun but I have far from played all of his games. My favourite so far is Pirate Adventure.


I’d second that. It’s my favorite among Scott Adams’ games. Of course I will forever refer to it by the name it went by on the Commodre 64: Pirate’s Cove. Which is a far better title anyway.


Thanks for the recommendation. I just picked up some of the Scott Adams games. Now I need to figure out how to interpret them on Windows.

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I’m not sure if it still works, but I used this link from if archive:

to get all the games (listed by their number of publication rather than name for some reason), and then renamed the extension of the files to .saga and then used Gargoyle to play them.

(Edit: trying this now with the first adventure in the list, I get this result:



Thanks! That’s the same file I downloaded, but I had no idea how to get them to run. That’s very convenient, as I already have Gargoyle. I appreciate the help!


If you’re after a really great retro game, you can’t get better than The Hobbit. I loved it back in the day and it’s one of the only games I’ve played multiple times after I finished it just to see what else I could do. Compared to the other text adventures around at the time with their limited two word parsers, The Hobbit seemed to be in a league of its own. You could order the NPCs to carry your items around, carry YOU around, fight for you, etc. It was great fun. It’s certainly showing its age these days but for a walk down retro lane, you can’t go wrong with this.


These days, you can also play the ZX Spectrum versions of the Scott Adams games in Gargoyle. These are also on the IF Archive, hidden in the Spectrum section at:

The main difference is that some of them have graphics, which may be a plus or not depending on personal taste or whether you play with a screen reader. They also have to be renamed to .saga in order to work.


Yes. In response to the OP, I feel the reason it’s harder to say something’s essential back in the 8-bit era especially is that there’s so much idiosyncrasy in their delivery, and that idiosyncrasy is further subdivided by geographic separation of some scenes.

The people who lived adventure games in the 80s received them in a context where you weren’t inundated with them, they were new, they were expensive if you bought them, and even if you didn’t buy one, you likely had months to work with a game you realised you liked before it had any solid competition for your attention. And there were much greater leaps of understanding/faith/luck required to get on top of how any particular author’s or company’s system ‘worked’. The games didn’t have the RAM/space to paper over the quirks. Sometimes a system or way of thinking only lasted for one game in a more specific way than typical parser games vary from each other today.

In that context, you generally persevered through each game’s parser challenges. You had the time, the interest, and not a lot of help.

I feel like because of that challenge of just understanding each game in the first place, people who could nominate ones they liked (e.g. me) are still aware that they formed their attachment partly through the strange personal effort involved that very few would be likely to want to duplicate today. I put that effort into Apple II games. In the UK, they put them into ZX Spectrum games that never saw the light of day here in Australia, but both places had big C64 scenes.

So everyone’s experiences were divided and subdivided, and kind of difficult, and that makes it harder to pull in one direction today and say, ‘Yeah, you need to play THIS one.’ So many of them were one-offs of slightly eccentric game and parser design. Like @Denk was saying, most today need to be prefaced by some kind of instruction or approach if you’re a player not used to them. Even if you are!.. when you look at Jason Dyer’s blog on 8-bit adventures (so far), you see how much time he spends just switching to the mindset of each game, testing a common verb chart he’s got, sort of trying to work out how to play.

With companies like Infocom, Magnetic Scrolls, Level 9, they have house styles where if you get a good understanding of one, it helps with other games of theirs.

The Scott Adams games are so compact that I feel that idiosyncratic as they are, experience with one carries very well to the others. HOWEVAH!.. some of them have important screen effects that are unemulatable. Like The Count and Strange Odyssey have timed glimpses you get of other areas when certain things happen that just aren’t there in non-platform-specific versions. They relied on tweaking the hardware of the particular machine they were running on (Apple II, TRS-80, etc.)



The golden age of text adventures was the 1980s, not the 1990s or beyond. However, that’s the ‘Model-T Ford’ era of text adventures. Computers were slow, storage was on cassettes or floppy disks (“What’s that?”, I hear people asking) and RAM was limited to around 48k. Two-word parsers were the norm, along with guess-the-verb, sudden death, getting into unwinnable situations without knowing it, no UNDO and so on. Despite that, there were some great games. Puzzles ruled.

For me, there are no “must play” games, just play as many as you can. I cut my teeth on Scott Adams, Brian Howarth, magazine type-ins, the excellent SoftSide Adventure of the Month series and the early Sierra On-line games (i.e. everything before King’s Quest).

I had a real soft spot for the illustrated adventures. Games like Sands of Egypt, Transylvania, Gruds in Space, The Neverending Story and Dark Crystal spring to mind.

You must also remember that the UK scene was completely different to the US scene. Level 9 and Magnetic Scrolls have already been mentioned, but there was a huge homebrew market with games written using The Quill, PAWS and GAC. Many of these were complete and utter crap, but there were also some real gems and some were very funny.

Cast your net wide and you’re sure to catch some gems. As already mentioned by @severedhand, Jason Dyer’s Renga in Blue is a great guide.