Bored? Skint? Adventurous? Then you've come to the right place. Fire up your download-manager and have fun working your way through 20 of the best freeware games available for the PC.
1/ Narbacular Drop
Narbacular Drop is an impossible portalling game that would make Escher hiss like a cat. You move around in a dungeon, creating interconnected portals on a whim. Red door connects to blue and becomes a 'teleport' through which you (and enemies) can move in order to solve a series of increasingly brain fluxing levels. Surreal perspective possibilities mean that it's almost completely insane, but one of the cleverest games we've ever played. So clever, in fact, that the core team recently got snapped up by the brain-hungry proboscis of Valve software.
2/ Black Shades
Freshly polygonal instant bodyguard simulator Black Shades sees you trying to keep The Man From Del Monte alive while assassins attack. The readme file stumbles upon the core weirdness of all games as it attempts to explain level restarts: "If you are interested in the theory behind this: you are a psychic bodyguard, so you can see small distances into the future. The failure only occurred in a possible future which you are now going to try and avoid." And isn't every game hero a clairvoyant (quicksave) warrior? Eh? Hmm.
Do you need another time-deleting MMO? Probably not, but here's one that you don't even have to pay for. It's some standard fantasy flippery that you can get stuck into without a credit card. Not exactly World of Warcraft, but Planeshift is working hard to create a living world that delivers rewarding paths for average Joe citizens alongside the wizards and miniature murderers. There's plenty of socio-economic MMO jazz going on in here if that sort of thing gets you aroused. And I know it does.
4/ Kenta Cho's Gunroar
Holy shit. This is the best shoot-'em-up ever! As a hardcore internet addict you've almost certainly encountered Kenta Cho's majestic works of frenzied action before, but if not, then this is where you need to start. It's a vertically scrolling shooter that might just be the best game on this list. This is what Darwinians play in their arcades.
5/ Kenta Cho's Torus Trooper
Holy shit. This is the best shoot-'em-up ever! Kenta Cho's take on Tempest is oddly reminiscent of the Grin speed-junky game Ballistics. Fly down a torrent of wire-frame with guns blazing, staying alive becomes something more basic that reflexes... could it be luck? This is a harder (and more frustrating) game than Gunroar because random death is always a possibility. Nevertheless the sheer bandwidth of colour and action is enough to kill a small dog. Play.
6/ Grid Wars 2
Gah, maybe this is the best shoot-'em-up ever... Written in Blitz by a lawyer-baiting indie-programmer, this is the free version of Geometry Wars from the Xbox 360. Ah PC, how we love your copyright-bending possibilities.
This isn't a shooty game at all. Rubbish! So why are we recommending it? Well it can't all be frenzied pixel-death and One! Life! Left! That would make this list 'top twenty schmups' or something. Instead Cloud is a game about collecting fluffy clouds while flying around wearing a pillowcase. And, against the odds, that's actually a pretty relaxing way to spend an hour. It's not the kind of game that will impress large Stella-fuelled men, because it's literally got nothing to do with fighting or football.
8/ The Endless Forest
Here's another 'game' that doesn't involve epic chains of incineration. The Endless Forest is a massively multiplayer screensaver where you and all the other players are man-faced deer in a forest full of flowers and fantasy ruins. There's no chat, so all communication must be done via the medium of prancing and braying. There's some weirdness to be discovered, such as communal spell-casting and context-based actions, but we suspect you'll get bored after about ten minutes. Worth seeing, but it's one for the cyber-hippies.
Ever boggle at the fundamental interconnectedness of the universe? No? Okay. Anyway, Planarity is a puzzle game of immense inter-connective genius. The game says: "Arrange the vertices such that no edges overlap." And how we must try to untangle those errant vertices. If geometry lessons at school had been supplemented by a few minutes of this then we'd all be better human beings (although possibly stupider and deeply frustrated at the inadequacy of our spatial cognitive skills).
10/ Hapland 2
We couldn't really compile this list without a nod to all the Flash-based creativity that seethes around in the fronds of the Interweb. Hapland presents a series of intricate hand-drawn puzzles featuring stickmen and numerous things which must be clicked. Rube Goldberg devices in cartoon flash, or something.
Soldat is an insane chaotic side-on multiplayer deathmatch game, a bit like Worms would be if be if it was actually fun. 40 maps, realistic physics, crazy weapons, not quite enough people to play it with... it's an awesome piece of freeware.
12/ Warning Forever
Another Japanese freeware manic shooter, this time written by the excellently named Hikoza T Ohkubo. Warning Forever is a constant stream of bosses, each one a puzzle of blasting. There are no power-ups, just a single configurable weapon which the player has to use to take down each retro-vector boss. Of all the shooters on here this is the most satisfying to our tiny reptilian brains.
13/ Tower Of Goo
If like us you were raised in the tar pits, then making towers from blobs of black goo will be an intimately familiar experience. People who missed out on a suitably oily childhood can find their inner gack-architect in Tower of Goo. This is the first of two games we're going to recommend from the Experimental Gameplay project, a site which hosts stacks of free gaming thanks to a University project begun by Carnegie Mellon University (best-named of all the American universities), and continued by folks who just love to create weird puzzle experiences. Tower Of Goo is the zeitgeist of slime architecture games. Yeah.
14/ The Organism
And this is the second game from the Experimental Gameplay project. The Organism: Invader From The First And A Half Dimension. It's incredibly basic to behold and yet remarkably sophisticated to defeat. Vector blobs eat people and fend off attacks by tanks, while you drag the Organism around with your mouse... yeah, we can't explain it.
The Hulk meets Godzilla in a world of cartoon carnage. Crush! is a game that gives you and afternoon of Smash! Plus some laser eyes. Virtual rampaging like this always satisfied the oppressed worker masses.
This is the kind of puzzle phenomenon that genuinely worries me. There are 48,000 user-created levels for this Ninja-driven physics puzzler. Forty-eight thousand! If you play all of them your mind is altered so that you really believe that you are a Ninja. Still, there's a thousand hours of toe-curling tricky puzzle fun before the mental illness sets in.
17/ Dad 'N Me
It's nice when games exhibit a mild psychosis or two. Alien Hominid designer Dan Paladin's side-scrolling beat-'em-up Dad 'N Me is the charming tale of a young boy in a hockey mask, who goes out to beat up everyone in his neighbourhood, with a bit of help from Dad (also in hockey mask). I think you understand what we're talking about...
Hey, this isn't a game, but if you don't tell Kristan I won't either. He's away on holiday anyway, so it'll probably be too late for him to stop us! Ha! Celestia is a 3D planetarium that kept me entertained for about as long as any of the games on this list. You can poke about across the solar system or take a look at any of 100,000 stars in the system. Hard to say why it's so compelling, but for those of us lying in the gutter it's good to look up at the stars, or something.
19/ Samorost 1& 2
What is Samorost? The website explains: "Main character is the little white gnome whose dog has been kidnapped by the aliens. Your mission is to rescue the poor puppy." And then later: "Oh no! Our friends had a little accident and are stranded on a very weird planet. Help them return home." Weird and exquisitely beautiful flash puzzle/adventure in the style of Czech stop-frame animation Kratky film. There's something nostalgic about this, but we just can't place it. Wonderful.
20/ About 6000 Other Games
Oh, who are we kidding? The PC is an endless parade of free gaming. If you need something from the past you can just dip right into endless catalogues of abandonware over at www.the-underdogs.info (activate pop-up blocker!), or find games that lovely PC creative folk have put up for us to play for free. Who says there's no such thing as a free lunch?