Back in the days of the Intel 486 and the Macintosh Classic, the shelves of Software Etc. and Electronics Boutique held less variety than the online marketplaces of today.
With the limited hardware available then, video game developers experienced constraints that gave birth to innovation. Since the complicated acrobatics of games like Assassin’s Creed or the open-world possibilities of Cyberpunk 2077 would never work on the old machines, novel genres like the best 90s point-and-click adventure games had a chance to shine for a moment, and these games left an imprint in the minds of a generation.
Read on for a tour of some of the best offerings of that long-lost era.
1. Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers (1993)
Gabriel Knight: Sins of the Fathers revolves around the mysteries of New Orleans' Voodoo traditions. Bookstore owner and struggling writer Gabriel gets drawn into investigating a series of witchy murders resembling occult rituals.
Fans of the Mickey Rourke movie Angel Heart may notice that game designer Jane Jensen took inspiration from its tone and plot. Gabriel Knight also boasts a score composed by Jensen’s husband, Robert Williams, who provides a French Quarter jazz-inspired soundscape, in addition to voice acting from the likes of Tim Curry, Mark Hamill, and Leah Remini.
In the broader context of the best 90s point-and-click adventure games, Gabriel Knight stood out for its mature storytelling. This point-and-click rounds out the darker end of Sierra’s titles from that era.
2. The Secret of Monkey Island (1990)
The Secret of Monkey Island has more fun packed into each sequence than most games have in their entirety. Players take on the role of Guybrush Threepwood, an aspiring pirate who shows up on Mêlée Island trying to make it as a swashbuckler. He gets into insult duels with other pirates, squares off against the ghost pirate LeChuck, and pursues his love interest, Governor Elaine Marley.
The LucasArts team, led by the legendary Ron Gilbert, apparently got the idea for the game after a visit to the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride at Disneyland. The soft reggae soundtrack feels suited to an amusement park or carnival. Some things in life just have all the magic: Steven Spielberg movies, snow days in elementary school, or the Monkey Island franchise.
3. Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards (1987)
Al Lowe’s Leisure Suit Larry in the Land of the Lounge Lizards had an eyebrow-raising premise for its time. Set in Las Vegas, sleazy Larry Laffer—a balding 40-something pint-sized sprite — tries to lose his virginity in the city of Lost Wages.
While rudimentary by today's standards, the graphics seemed cutting-edge back in 1987. The game’s adult themes and risqué humor—its main selling points—also generated mild controversy at the time. It uses quizzes as age verification methods, an easy enough hurdle for youngsters to bypass. The game would not get marketed to kids now.
4. Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars (1996)
This game starts with an explosion in a Parisian café that spirals into a story that takes the player through locations in Paris, Ireland, and the Middle East, with an almost novelistic mystery involving the Knights Templar.
After the dramatic opening, players find themselves entangled in a plot that does not shy away from touchy geopolitical subjects like the legacy of colonialism. Revolution Software sets up players with George Stobbart, an American tourist, and Nicole “Nico” Collard, a French journalist in what feels like one of the most tonally successful attempts at a lighthearted thriller in the point-and-click genre.
Broken Sword: The Shadow of the Templars’s audio places it a head above competitors, with a soundtrack by Barrington Pheloung and atmospheric effects that make players truly feel like they have wandered into a marketplace or catacomb and raise the emotional stakes at every turn. Similarly, the puzzles feel integrated into the narrative without jarring interruptions and rely on genuine logic and problem-solving skills rather than haphazard clicking. This one holds up extraordinarily well as one of the best 90s point-and-click adventure games.
5. The Legend of Kyrandia (1992)
While better known for its Command & Conquer real-time strategy series, Westwood Studios dipped into the world of point-and-click with The Legend of Kyrandia, the first in a series of three games.
Set in the fictional land of Kyrandia, the game introduces players to the evil court jester Malcolm, a Loki-like figure who breaks free from his stone imprisonment and begins his vengeful spree. The player controls Brandon, the grandson of Kallak—a member of Kyrandia's ruling council, who Malcolm turns into stone.
The game’s interface has a minimalist approach, opting for a simple context-sensitive cursor. At times, this leads to the classic adventure game trap of trying everything on everything; in other words, the player might have to click maniacally in the hopes of unlocking the puzzle.
Nevertheless, the vibrant colors of Kyrandia—with enchanted forests, luminous caves, and glimmering gems—make for a delightful experience.
6. Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet (1993)
One of the earliest video game adaptations of H.P. Lovecraft's cosmic horror, Infogrames’ Call of Cthulhu: Shadow of the Comet, deserves recognition as a memorable 90s artifact, albeit with its share of quirks and intricacies.
Players slip into the shoes of John T. Carter, a British journalist chasing the story of Halley's Comet. Carter’s work takes him to the eerie town of Illsmouth, a place tied to the comet's last passage and teeming with an underbelly of cultists.
Unfortunately, certain puzzles lean heavily on trial and error, and “dead-end” scenarios can force a player to restart and replay, not to mention the issue of pixel hunting, where key items can get easily missed due to their tiny size.
While the game lags behind peers like The Secret of Monkey Island in terms of overall graphical quality, Shadow of the Comet’s limited color palette and simple animations have an antique charm. At the same time, the game’s soundtrack, full of creepy silences punctuated by monstrous cries, makes the setting come to life. The game deserves credit for its commitment to capturing Lovecraft's essence.
7. Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis (1992)
With a plot as good as any of the movies, Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis took players around the world in search of the fabled sunken city, always staying one step ahead of those pesky Nazis.
The story traverses from New York to the Azores, Iceland, Algeria, and Tibet. The 1930s vibe overwhelms with art deco, swing music, and creeping fascism. The MIDI music puts a terrific spin on the famous John Williams score, while the art direction lets those pixels pop.
It really needs emphasizing: the story here feels strong enough to have constituted a standalone movie had they gone that route with this material…possibly stronger than the plots of the later films.
8. Day of the Tentacle (1993)
Day of the Tentacle, the follow-up to LucasArts’ 1987 cult hit Maniac Mansion, has gone down as one of the great classics of the early point-and-click era.
Primarily set in the Edison family mansion, the narrative splits between three characters time-traveling through three eras. Bernard, Hoagie, and Laverne solve puzzles by sending objects back and forth through eras like the American Revolution, the present, and the distant future—when diabolical tentacle creatures have come to rule the Earth.
The brainchild of LucasArts stars Tim Schafer and Dave Grossman, Day of the Tentacle clocks in at a shorter play time than many similar titles. While a child in the early ‘90s may have resented that, an adult in 2023 may find it more manageable.
9. King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder! (1990)
In King's Quest V: Absence Makes the Heart Go Yonder!, King Graham returns from a walk to find his castle and family taken away by the wizard Mordack. With only a talking owl named Cedric for company, Graham sets out to rescue his family and quell the threats to his kingdom.
Designed by the visionary Roberta Williams, the game broke from its predecessors by switching from a parser-based system to a point-and-click interface. This massive leap enabled players to immerse themselves without fear of typing the wrong command.
The vast landscapes Graham encounters, such as the desert of Serenia or Mordack's island, use hand-painted backgrounds full of shimmering detail. Moreover, for the first time, voice acting graced the series, and the various NPCs presented cheeky vignettes that layered the tapestry of the sprawling world.
10. Alone in the Dark (1992)
While most people associate early survival-horror with the Resident Evil franchise, the true progenitor of the genre, Alone in the Dark, showed up on the adventure-game scene in 3D with a whole new keyboard interface and, uncommonly for its time, seamlessly mixed action into gameplay.
Set in the spooky Derceto mansion in Louisiana of the 1920s, the plot lets players choose one of two characters—Edward Carnby, a detective, or Emily Hartwood, a relative of the mansion's previous owner. Aspects of the story take cues from H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos, which deepens the appeal.
The game uses fixed camera angles to heighten the fear, and ammo tends to run out quickly. An undertow of fight-or-flight calculus exists throughout the game. Today, the pixelated characters can seem almost hard to distinguish from the backgrounds, but the game feels at least worth viewing snatches of on YouTube—certainly, this beats watching the film.
11. Full Throttle (1995)
Towards the end of LucasArts’ run of classic adventure games — before the company made a hard pivot to its Star Wars roots — came Full Throttle, a motorcycle thriller centered around the character of Ben Throttle.
Throttle leads the Polecats, a biker gang in a dystopian near-future setting laden with conspiracies and intrigue. The villain, Adrian Ripburger, gets his voice from Mark Hamill, marking a turn from LucasArts’ previous custom of relying on in-house voiceover talent.
The game’s themes have a very ‘90s mood, focusing on the tension between individualism and consumerism as Ripburger’s corporate behemoth hatches an evil scheme to phase out choppers in favor of minivans. The desert setting feels rich with neon grime, and the animations heralded a leap forward for LucasArts. There could have been a movie in there somewhere.
12. Myst (1993)
Back in the mid-90s, Myst became a cultural phenomenon. This game somehow captured the attention of adults—a commonplace now but an extreme rarity back then, as, for the most part, the then-middle-aged Boomers had little interest in video games.
Looking back now, it makes more sense. Rather than naturally walking around the level, the player clicks through what one might ungenerously call a slideshow of images to get from point A to point B. Essentially, no twitchy gamer skills required here.
The title sold over six million copies, and many newcomers to gaming enjoyed the relaxed pace and picturesque setting on the mysterious island, with exploring caverns and solving puzzles as the orders of the day. Regardless of what anyone may think, Myst had an extraordinary impact on the mainstreaming of computer games, probably more so than anything else on this list.