The best modern PC games that don't require a good computer

We've all been there. A brand new game comes out with state-of-the-art graphics, a long, compelling single-player campaign, and deep and competitive multiplayer. And then, you check the specs: the game is great, but your computer isn't powerful enough to play it.

Don't despair. There are plenty of great games out there that'll run just fine on almost any machine, your underpowered PC included. No, you may not be able to play the biggest, newest, most technologically advanced triple-A title on the market. But don't worry — you'll be so busy with these other games that you won't even notice.

Stardew Valley

Harvest Moon has lost its way. At least, that's what series creator Yasuhiro Wada claims in an interview with GameSpot. Over the years, the series' graphics, animations, and characters have improved, but at a cost. "The freedom of the series decreased as those improvements were made," Wada says.

Thankfully, there's an alternative. No, Stardew Valley doesn't have the detailed 3D environments of modern day Harvest Moon games–it doesn't need them. Stardew Valley is stuffed full of things to do, people to visit, and things to see—and the simple but lovely 16-bit-style graphics have a lot to do with that. See, Stardew Valley was developed entirely by one man, Eric Barone, who worked 10 to 15 hours a day to bring the farming (and life) simulation to fruition. Developing Stardew Valley in 3D probably would've been impossible, but pixel art is more flexible and easier to produce. As a result, Barone could devote more time to the things that make Stardew Valley extra-special, like the nuanced farming system, the delightful characters, and Stardew Valley's many, many mysteries.

The end result is a game that, according to Wada, "carries on the legacy of the original Harvest Moon very well because of the freedom you have in it." But that's not all: the retro-inspired graphics also mean that your PC should have no problem running Stardew Valley. The presentation might be simple, but Stardew Valley's sprawling and complex world is anything but.

Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number

You don't need technology to create atmosphere. You just need some good art design. For example, look no further than Hotline Miami 2: Wrong Number, which oozes style. The brightly colored, neon-soaked graphics and pounding techno soundtrack intentionally recall Nicolas Winding Refn's neo-noir thriller Drive. It's pulpy ultra-violence recalls some of director Quentin Tarantino's best work. The macabre, psychedelic, and depraved storyline fits nicely alongside highlights from American Psycho, Natural Born Killers, Taxi Driver, Apocalypse Now, and Miami Vice. And then, of course, there are the fast-paced, brutal, and unforgiving action scenes, which are unique to Hotline Miami 2. This is a quick and violent game. You've never played anything quite like it–except, maybe, the original Hotline Miami.

That's not bad for a game originally developed using GameMaker Studio, a game creation tool that's designed to make 2D game development as easy as possible. As a game engine, GameMaker isn't as technologically advanced as some of its peers, and it's unfairly stigmatized among gamers thanks to its simple, code-free drag-and-drop interface. But if a game is well executed, like Hotline Miami 2 is, then the complexity of the underlying code doesn't matter. Besides, there's a bonus that comes with building a solid game out of a simple technology: with luck, it'll run well just as well on a powerful gaming rig as a budget-priced laptop.

Jazzpunk

Jazzpunk probably won't win any awards for its technical prowess, but its cobbled-together aesthetic works in the game's favor. Put simply, Jazzpunk is hilarious, and its low-budget, anything-goes vibe has a lot to do with that.

Jazzpunk is ostensibly a cyberpunk espionage story, starring a secret agent named Polyblank who works for a top-secret spy organization. At the beginning of every mission, Polyblank ingests some special meds before embarking on absurd and nonsensical adventures, which include stealing a cowboy's mechanical kidney, smuggling pigeons, and facing off against Jazzpunk's big bad in a high-stakes miniature golf match.

The end result is basically an interactive Adult Swim show–not coincidentally, Adult Swim Games published the thing. It barrages players with non-sequiturs, subtle pop culture references, and a healthy dose of absurdist humor. "We had to kind of put on our lab coats and do a lot of prototyping, lots of experimentation, to figure out what was effective," developer Luis Hernandez says. Like a stand-up comedian developing a new set, Jazzpunk's developers carefully honed and tweaked each joke in order to wring out the maximum number of laughs. And you don't need a high-powered computer for that.

80 Days

Even if you have the world's wussiest graphics card, your computer can probably handle text. That means that you can play 80 Days, one of the biggest and best adventure games released over the past half-decade. In this whimsical take on Jules Verne's classic novel, players must navigate a journey around the globe as quickly (and cheaply) as possible. But every stop along the way has its own characters to meet and mysteries to unravel, and it's easy to get distracted and completely blow your deadline.

As you travel, you'll be doing a lot of reading—80 Days' script contains almost 750,000 words, which developer Inkle notes is "longer than the first five Harry Potter novels combined." Not that you'll see them all. Jon Ingold, Inkle's co-founder, estimates that players will only discover about 3 percent of 80 Days' content during a single playthrough. Thankfully, replaying 80 Days is a pleasure, not a chore. Not only does the game have many adventures to discover, but writer Meg Jayanth's prose sings. After all, there's a reason why the Telegraph named 80 Days one of the best novels of 2014 (even though it's, y'know, a game), and why Jayanth won the Writer's Guild of Great Britain's video game award that same year. It's true: 80 Days' writing is that good.

Owlboy

Fact: Owlboy is gorgeous. Sure, the graphics are made up of pixels, not polygons, and they look a bit like something that you'd find on the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis. But don't be fooled: Owlboy's artwork might be lo-fi, but there's nothing simple about it. While Owlboy's developers toiled away during the game's nine-year development period, critics and players alike salivated over the tantalizing, colorful screenshots, dreaming of the day when they could finally take Owlboy to the skies.

In fact, those pretty graphics are the whole reason that Owlboy was made. "I decided I was going to use Owlboy as a way to showcase pixel art done properly," art director Simon Anderson explained to The Guardian. When development began, Anderson says, "pixel art was still very much seen as outdated…I wanted a title that could showcase the medium's strengths."

If that's the goal, consider Owlboy a success.The game's art is almost entirely hand-made—there aren't any post-processing effects, like gradients or blurs, propping things up. So not only is Owlboy relatively easy on your machine, but it serves as a pitch-in 2D world-building. During the game, Owlboy never speaks, but his expressive and smooth animations tell players everything they need to know about the game's mute hero. The complex background art reveals subtle clues regarding Owlboy's past, at least if you're paying attention. Most players won't fully appreciate Owlboy's sophisticated visual storytelling, Anderson admits, but they'd certainly miss it if it were gone.

Sonic Mania

The best Sonic game of the past 15 years—and that's official, by the way—came from humble beginnings. Director Christian Whitehead first earned Sega's attention by recreating Sonic CD from the ground up using a game engine he developed in order to develop fan-made Sonic games. Programmer Simon Thomley got his start by hacking old Sonic games, and soon became famous for adding Sonic's second sidekick, Knuckles, into the original Sonic the Hedgehog. Level designer Jared Kasl and art director Tom Fry first collaborated on an unofficial Sonic the Hedgehog 2 remake.

As such, Sonic Mania is decidedly old-school. It doesn't have the visual panache of its modern counterpart, Sonic Forces, and you won't find extra features like a custom character creator or a meme-inspired t-shirt. What you will get, however, is a creative, speedy platformer that recalls Sonic's earliest (and, according to many fans, best) days, when his supporting cast was still small and his world was still two dimensional. Like Sonic's original Genesis outings, Sonic Mania doesn't need a supercomputer to run. And yet, the game is still full of pits to leap over, traps to avoid, rings to collect, and obstacles to speed around. Honestly, what more could a Sonic fan want?

Axiom Verge

Modern gaming owes a lot to Metroid. Not only did the open-ended adventure game spawn an entirely new genre (one that Nintendo later perfected with the SNES' Super Metroid), but it proves that you don't need great hardware to create a memorable world. By today's standards, the original NES is severely underpowered, and yet Metroid's tunnels and caverns are still just as haunting as they were in 1986. Metroid Prime, the franchise's first GameCube installment, still looks great over 15 years later. Good art design is timeless.

Axiom Verge learned Nintendo's lessons well. Like Nintendo's series, Axiom Verge is a sci-fi action-adventure that leans heavily on exploration and discovery. Like Super Metroid, the game is full of secrets to discover and cool and innovative gadgets to play with. In terms of mood, Metroid fans will feel right at home, too. Axiom Verge developer Tom Happ explained to Gamasutra that Metroidvania players love the series' unique combination of "tension, isolation, and fear," and his product has all three in spades. Best of all, however? Like the games that inspired it, Axiom Verge wrings as much atmosphere out of basic tech as possible. If you have a machine made any time in the past five years, Axiom Verge should run just fine.

Cuphead

One glance and you know: Cuphead looks amazing. Whether or not you're a fan of the playful, raunchy, and chaotic 1930s cartoons that inspired the game, you can't deny that nothing in modern gaming that looks quite like Cuphead. Years before the game's punishing difficulty became a flashpoint for controversy, its gorgeous artwork received rave reviews from critics. In 2014, Polygon called Cuphead one of the most interesting games at Microsoft's E3 press event. A year later, IGN called it E3's best Xbox One game.

But here's the secret: Cuphead's graphics aren't actually that hard on your system. Oh, they were hard for co-director and lead artist Chad Moldenhauer, who drew and animated all of Cuphead's characters by hand, and who painted the game's stunning backgrounds with watercolors. But all that work happened in production. In terms of what's actually happening while you play, Cuphead isn't much more complicated than Contra, Gunstar Heroes, or Mega Man. It just feels different because everything is so pretty and smooth. That means that Cuphead will run well on your underpowered rig (allegedly, the game's recommended setup is overkill), removing any and all obstacles towards enjoying one of 2017's best games—aside from your own lack of skill, of course.

Undertale

The most popular and influential role-playing game of the past few years isn't the open-world, 10-years -in-development adventure known as Final Fantasy XV, the 100-plus hour epic called Persona 5, or CD Projekt Red's sprawling and emotional The Witcher 3: Wild Hunt. No, instead it's a small, one-man production that's all about making friends. Undertale's graphics are charming but simple, and its combat, which combines turn-based strategy with fast-paced "bullet hell" sequences, won't turn any heads. In fact, the entire game was made with RPGMaker, a low-tech game platform that's often associated with cheap, poorly-made products.

And yet, Undertale manages to do something that other, bigger-budget RPGs can't: it radically changes the genre, challenging conventions left and right. Figuring out how to get through the game without killing anyone or anything can be a massive challenge, and if you want to get the best ending, you'll have to listen to your opponents and think about their feelings. If you mess up and decide to start over, or just fire up Undertale for a second playthrough, the game remembers what you did before and changes the story accordingly.

Undertale is so innovative, strange, and different that it's sparked an entirely new, dedicated, and occasionally abrasive fandom. In fact, Undertale's admirers take the game so seriously that designer Toby Fox felt uncomfortable. "I wished I had a way to quell the attention. I felt a strange powerlessness," Fox wrote on his blog. "It wouldn't surprise me if I never made a game as successful again. That's fine with me."

A Hat in Time

If you're jonesing for some hat-based platforming action but don't want to shell out $300 for a brand new Switch to play Super Mario Odyssey, A Hat in Time might do the trick. A Hat in Time's 40 collectible Time Pieces might pale in comparison to Super Mario Odyssey's 800-plus, and the former's hat-based power-ups aren't quite as genre-bending as the latter's. Still, it's pretty rare to find a 3D platforming games on PCs, never mind good ones, and A Hat in Time is just as quirky and weird as you'd hope. 

Graphically, A Hat in Time is a lot smoother (and should age better) than Super Mario 64, which served as Super Mario Odyssey's main point of inspiration. Meanwhile, its twisted world infuses elements from Psychonauts and Doctor Who with typical Mario tropes to create something that feels both familiar and strange. Best of all? A Hat in Time is built on the same engine as Unreal Tournament 3, a game that's over a decade old. Simply put, you can play this game. And you probably should.