The best Linux games cover all of the bases, from text mode to 3-D first-person shooters. Most games are family-friendly, support network multi-player mode, and can be installed instantly on all popular Linux distributions. They’re also all free—so you can enjoy the best Linux games without paying anything.
Best Linux Games #5: NetHack
Great for teenagers and up.
Described by Salon magazine in 2000 as “the best game ever,” NetHack was originally released in 1987. It has no graphics or sound, but it manages to engage thousands of loyal players even in these days of hyper-realistic 3-D graphics, and it keeps players engaged for much longer than most modern games—a typical NetHack game can take years to complete.
NetHack precedes modern Massively Multi-player Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft, but players of those games will find common elements in NetHack—you choose your race, role, and alignment from fantasy elements including dwarves, elves, wizards, and knights.
A game in NetHack doesn’t end until you retrieve the Amulet of Yendor and escape the Mazes of Menace. This is a difficult task in NetHack—the mazes have 50 randomly-generated levels, so no two NetHack games are the same. NetHack adds to that another difficult challenge: if your character dies in NetHack, you have to start over (or restore from a backup).
NetHack can be installed on any Linux distribution and has also been ported to almost every computer-like device, including Nintendo DS, PlayStation Portable, Windows Mobile, Android, all Nokia Internet Tablets, and the iPhone, plus several variants for Windows and Mac OS X.
Best Linux Games #4: GNU Chess & GNOME Chess
Great for all ages with appropriate changes in difficulty settings.
Deep Blue, the first computer to beat a reigning world champion chess player, was based on Linux-like operating system AIX. In the almost two decades since then, personal computers have become much more powerful and it’s become common to rank computer chess engines against each other. GNU Chess, which is older than Deep Blue, is one of the top rated chess engines in the world—it could beat Deep Blue today.
GNU Chess doesn’t include a display program, but you can play against it using another program that visualizes the moves. I suggest GNOME Chess, an easy-to-use frontend, but a search of your distribution package manager will reveal several more compatible programs with interesting features. When you configure GNOME Chess to pit you against GNU Chess, you may want to restrict the amount of time GNU Chess gets to think about a move—I can’t beat GNU Chess if it gets more than a second to think about a move.
GNOME Chess also lets you play against online chess players. Chess enthusiasts should search their distribution package archives for more chess engines and for chess analysis tools.
Best Linux Games #3: Passage and Gravitation
Fine for all ages, but probably only understandable by adults.
Both Passage and Gravitation are very short games highly praised by The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Slate Magazine, Bloomberg Business Week, and thousands of bloggers. Both games are inventions of Jason Rohrer, a game programmer who focuses on stories instead of fancy graphics.
Best Linux Games In Depth: Passage
Written for the game exhibition gamma256—which showcased games made with 256 or fewer pixels—Passage lasts only five minutes, but many bloggers who played it reported that when they finished the game, they were crying. It was that moving. I can’t describe the game in more detail without ruining the plot.
Passage can be installed from the package manager on recent versions of Debian and Ubuntu. Other Linux users should check their package manager or go to Jason Rohrer’s website at hcsoftware.sourceforge.net.
Best Linux Games In Depth: Gravitation
Written immediately after showcasing Passage at gamma256, Gravitation includes more pixels but also more intense game play that moves players to emotion. I had to sit in quiet contemplation after playing Gravitation. Rohrer describes the game as, “a video game about mania, melancholia [depression], and the creative process.” A complete game of Gravitation lasts only 8 minutes.
Gravitation is also available in Debian and Ubuntu and can be easily installed on other Linux distributions.
Best Linux Games #2: Urban Terror
Adult players only—features killing and gore.
Many first-person shooter games feature highly unrealistic elements, so the developers of Urban Terror decided to strike back—they created one of the best Linux games by focusing on total realism. The guns you use are based on the specifications of real guns, the moves you can make and the damage you can take are based on real human physiology, and there’s no magic or monsters—just people fighting people.
For graphics, Urban Terror uses the free Quake 3 engine (released freely by ID Software), so the graphics are top-rate. You don’t need Quake to play recent versions of Urban Terror—the game is totally independent. Urban Terror features no real in-game artificial intelligence, so it’s only for multi-player use on the Internet or a LAN.
Unfortunately, Urban Terror’s graphics files are too large to be included in mainstream distributions, so you need to download Urban Terror directly from UrbanTerror.info. It will run on all fast Linux computers as well as Windows and Mac OS X.
Best Linux Games #1: Armagetron
Great for all ages.
Did you recently watch Tron: Legacy? Years before it came out, many Linux programmers wrote games based on the lightcycles from the original Tron movie. Although these games may sound entirely lame, at a Linux LAN party I attended, they were by far the most popular Linux game—we ended up playing them for over 8 hours.
The most popular lightcycle game for Linux is Armagetron (also called ArmagetronAD), which features good 3-D graphics, computer players, and an excellent multi-player mode. Although the graphics are 3-D, game play is only 2-D, so it’s easy to master the game. At the LAN party, all ages competed against each other—from age eight to almost eighty—and everyone had a great time, making Armagetron truly one of the best Linux games.