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Relive The 20th Century With These Historic Video Games

by Ben Reeves on Jun 04, 2016 at 07:55 AM

This feature was originally published June 1, 2016.

Failing history class? Maybe video games can help. Take a tour of the 20th century – covering everything from the phonograph to prohibition to Power Rangers – and look at which games can help you relive your favorite era.


The dawn of the 20th century saw a rise in American imperialism as well as the widespread application of technology like the internal-combustion engine and the phonograph. In 1903, the Wright brothers performed the first recorded heavier-than-air flight. Then in 1906, Reginald Fessenden and Lee De Forest invented radio broadcasting. Despite these monumental events, the early 1900s are rarely considered a remarkable interactive setting, so few games take place in this decade. If you’d really like to relive this bygone era, you might consider playing Frog City Software’s 1997 turn-based strategy game Imperialism or Konami’s 2010 PS2 release Shadow of Memories, an adventure game about a man who travels through time to prevent his own murder.


When most people think of the 1910s, they think of the first World War, which followed the the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria in 1914. The decade was also memorable for the Mexican Revolution, the sinking of the Titanic, the establishment Prohibition in the U.S., and the rise of Russian Bolshevism (a.k.a. communism). Those looking to relive this popular decade can check out WWI games like Valiant Hearts: The Great War and M2H’s squad-based multiplayer shooter Verdun. However, one of the best games that represents the decade is Rockstar’s open-world opus Red Dead Redemption, which takes place during the decline of the American Frontier around the year 1911. Those looking for an alternate take on the period should check out Irrational Games’ shooter BioShock Infinite, which takes place in a floating city in the sky around 1912.


Frequently referred to as the “Roaring Twenties” or the “Jazz Age,” the 1920s is looked back on as a time of excess and decadence thanks to the economic boom that followed World War I. The decade is also noteworthy due to the rise of organized crime during Prohibition, the first public demonstration of televised media, the Irish Revolution, and the opening of King Tutankhamun's Tomb. This colorful decade hasn’t been thoroughly explored in games, but a few highlights include Trilobyte’s beloved 1993 horror-themed puzzle game The 7th Guest, where players play as an amnesiac who explores a haunted mansion, trying to piece together the events of a dinner party gone wrong. Another interesting option is Haemimont Games’ turn-based strategy game Omerta – City of Gangsters, which has players relive the early days of the Atlantic City mob using XCOM-style action.


After the Wall Street crash of 1929, America (and much of the world) sank into the Great Depression for much of the ‘30s. While the decade is marked by widespread unemployment and poverty, it is also significant for the rise of the Third Reich in Germany, the Hindenburg explosion, the discovery of nuclear fission, and the beginning of the second World War. Illusion Softworks’ original open-world shooter, Mafia, taps into the hijinx of the criminal underworld, while Lucasarts’ 1992 adventure game Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis pits the famous adventurer against the Nazis in a race to discover the fabled underwater city. For a look at an alternate reality take on the 1930s, check out FASA Interactive’s Crimson Skies: High Road to Revenge, a fantastic aerial shooter that imagines what the world would be like if planes and zeppelins become the primary means of transportation.


Notable mostly because of World War II, the 1940s was a decade of great upheaval. However, in addition to D-Day and the Atomic bomb, the 1940s also gave us Bugs Bunny, Cheerios, and the Jeep. At the beginning of the decade Mount Rushmore was completed, and by the end the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered. Most video games set in the decade tend to focus on WWII, and some of the most notable entries include Infinity Ward’s first two entries in the Call of Duty series and Relic Entertainment’s real-time strategy game Company of Heroes. However, one of the most historically accurate games of all time is L.A. Noire. A neo-noir action/adventure game set around 1947, Rockstar's game centers on a Los Angeles police officer who works his way up to detective by solving a series of crimes based on real-life cases.


As the world continued to rebuild after the devastation of World War II, communist and capitalistic ideologies began to clash as the United States and the Soviet Union emerged as the world’s two superpowers. Senator Joseph McCarthy began his communist witch hunts in 1950, Fidel Castro became dictator of Cuba in 1959, and somewhere along the way we discovered DNA. Thankfully, the ‘50s also gave us credit cards, Disneyland, and color TV. If you want to relive the decade, 2K Czech took many of the things that made the original Mafia compelling and tweaked them for a sequel that was more user friendly. In Mafia II, players play though one man’s rise though an organized crime family. For an alternate history take on the 1950s, Insomniac Games’ Resistance series reimagines a post-WWII world trying to fend off an alien invasion. Stubbs the Zombie, War of the Monsters, and the Fallout series are all great games that really drive home the 1950s vibe even if they aren’t strictly set in a real historic period.


Easily one of the most contentious and colorful decades in American history, the ‘60s are hard to forget. While the cold war started to heat up between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, our nation was embroiled in a culture war of its own. In 1961, JFK gave his famous “Man on the Moon" speech. Two years later, he was assassinated. Speaking of assassinations, Malcolm X, Che Guevara, Robert F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King Jr. were all killed during this decade. Then there was 1969, which saw the creation of ARPANET (the precursor to the Internet), Sesame Street, Neil Armstrong’s moon walk, Woodstock, and the Manson Family murders. Also, thank Britain for Dr. Who, ATMs, and The Beatles. Surprisingly few games have tapped into the tornado that is the 1960s, but 2K Games’ upcoming Mafia III looks to make good use of the time period. If you don’t want to wait for Mafia III’s release, DICE’s multiplayer shooter Battlefield Vietnam partially captured the horrors of the Vietnam War as did the DLC expansion for Battlefield Bad Company 2. Also, Konami’s stealth/action hybrid Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater does a good job tapping into the technology and popular culture of the era even if its zany story involves ghosts, an enemy that shoots hornets, and a flamethrower-wielding cosmonaut.


Continuing to ride the wave of cultural change that began in the ‘60s, the ‘70s are generally known as a decade of hippies, free-love, bell bottoms, and disco. In 1973, the world faced the first of several massive oil shortages. Of course, if it weren’t for the ‘70s we wouldn’t have Saturday Night Live, Star Wars, or The Muppets. The personal computer and gaming industry exploded as Apple, Microsoft, Atari, and Activision were all formed. Games like Pong, Asteroids, and Space Invaders made a big splash in arcades, but if you really want to relive the decade you should check out games like Rockstar’s beat 'em up The Warriors, which re-envisions the 1979 movie of the same name. The Astronauts’ The Vanishing of Ethan Carter is a horror-themed adventure game about a paranormal investigator looking for a young boy within a fiction small town in 1970s Wisconsin. However, a game with some genuine historic insight is iNK Stories’ recent release 1979 Revolution: Black Friday, an adventure game where players play as an aspiring photojournalist and fight to return to their home in Iran in the midst the Iranian Revolution.


The 1980s are often seen as the decade of big business, as Western countries moved closer to laissez-faire economic policies. During the ‘80s, the world first became aware of global warming and then terrified of AIDS. In 1982, Michael Jackson released Thriller, and Steven Spielberg directed E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. However, by the end of the decade the Russian city of Chernobyl had been evacuated due to a massive nuclear disaster, the Berlin Wall had fallen, and the Chinese government had gunned down hundreds of protesters in Tiananmen Square. As the decade when video games really cemented themselves as a cultural fixture, several games from the decade are cultural icons in their own right, including Pac-Man, Super Mario Bros., and Tetris. However, if you want to play a game that perfectly captures the essence of the cocaine-fueled, neon-lit decade, look no further than Rockstar’s Grand Theft Auto: Vice City, an open-world, action game that perfectly lampooned the era while providing one of the best soundtracks in gaming. Alternatively, Sega’s much-beloved adventure-game experiment Shenmue did a good job of capturing the vibe of a small town in Japan in the ‘80s, but its soundtrack definitely isn’t as good. For a blitz of neon and style check out Dennaton Games’ hyperactive action game Hotline Miami.


“Hey man, it’s the ‘90s,” became a common catchphrase during this decade, for obvious reasons. Cultural fads such as grunge, rave, and hip hop continued to spread across the country’s high schools, and the World Wide Web began to blossom into a technology that everyone wanted piped into their homes. The 1990s were also iconic for the launch of the Hubble Telescope and O.J. Simpson’s murder trial. Thankfully, we also got Harry Potter, Pokemon, and Power Rangers. The ‘90s are a popular setting for games, almost more than any other decade. Gone Home, Fullbright's unique take on the adventure game, was a fun exploration of one family’s home circa 1995, and Rockstar again expertly mocked the decade with Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Many other games are set in the ‘90s, but one other one worth highlighting is Sam Barlow’s indie darling Her Story, which has a player piecing together a True Detective-esque murder mystery by navigating an old police-video archive.

Those are our picks for the best games to play if you want to relive the 20th century. Do you think we missed anything? Let us know your favorite games from the century in the comments below.