Gaming on a netbook: yes we can

As you might have already seen, I recently had the chance to play with Asus’ new Eee PC 1000HE. In my journey to further understand the merits of netbooks, I found myself curious to see what games I could play on it. After all, PC gaming is of great interest to many of us here at The Tech Report. No matter how focused a product’s role or how one-dimensional it may be, if it’s got a user interface and buttons, we want to know how to waste time with it.

I know what you’re thinking: we’ve all seen the Intel GMA 950 benchmarks. We’ve all watched the proof-of-concept YouTube videos showing Half-Life 2 or World of Warcraft running at a dozen frames per second while some guy tells you it’s "perfectly playable." That’s not what I’m interested in. I don’t care if some dork can dig through configuration files and console commands to force a game to launch, because after you’ve died for the seventh time due to slideshow performance, you’re just not having any fun. No, I wanted to find games that were entertaining and actually ran well on a netbook.

For gamers, netbooks present some unique challenges compared to their full-sized brethren. Not only are you limited by the lackluster integrated graphics and energy-conscious Atom CPU, but the display resolution and input mechanisms create new hurdles.1024×600 doesn’t leave enough vertical space for most new games, though some still find ways to fit. The keyboard and trackpad are often much smaller than on a regular laptop, which makes twitch reactions or precise movements difficult to pull off. The trick to gaming on a netbook is to find titles that play to the strengths (or at least fit within the constraints) of the platform. Believe it or not, you’re not just limited to Solitaire.

Cave Story (a.k.a. Doukutsu Monogatari)

Cave Story is a game that hearkens back to the NES platformers of old. Part Metroid, part Castlevania, and a dash of Mega Man come together to form a wonderfully retro title made by a single programmer known only as Pixel. Cave Story‘s charming characters and challenging gameplay will keep you coming back for more, even after you’ve beaten the game. And of course, the low-resolution graphics and simple controls make it a perfect fit for netbooks. Did I mention that the music is awesome, too? An updated version will be arriving on the Nintendo Wii later this year, but the original PC version of Cave Story, along with an English translation, can still be downloaded for free.

Battle for Wesnoth

Linux users might have heard of Wesnoth already, but they’re not the only ones that can enjoy this turn-based fantasy strategy game. Fans of Heroes of Might and Magic will feel right at home, while genre newcomers will warm quickly to the game’s simple yet subtle game mechanics and interesting setting. Thanks to its open-source roots, Wesnoth has countless user-made scenarios and is regularly updated with new content. Battle for Wesnoth is a free download for Windows, Linux, Mac OS X, and more.

Grand Theft Auto 1 and 2

No, you don’t need to spend $30 on Steam for a Grand Theft Auto pack to play these 2D classics again. A few years back, Rockstar Games released both GTA 1 and GTA 2 for free on its official website. If you’ve been meaning to revisit the series’ roots, or you’re just curious about where it all began, the 2D installments of the GTA franchise are a great fit for netbooks.

Freeciv

I don’t care what you tell me—Sid Meier’s Civilization series peaked with Civ II. Thanks to some endeavoring programmers, we can relive the glory days of the turn-based pioneer with Freeciv. As you might expect from the name, it’s a free clone of Civilization II that just happens to have a great community to go with it. Freeciv doesn’t like to be limited to 600 vertical lines, but as long as your netbook supports 1024×768 with scrolling, you’ll be just fine.

The Ur-Quan Masters

You’ve got to love free clones of classic games. Some consider Star Control II: The Ur-Quan Masters to be one of the greatest PC titles of all time—a satisfyingly deep space adventure that broke new ground with its exploration and customization elements. Now, over 15 years after its initial release, we can experience the game all over again thanks to a free, open source remake called The Ur-Quan Masters. The slow gameplay style and limited visuals make it a perfect fit for netbooks. Regardless of whether you have a netbook or not, you owe it to yourself to give The Ur-Quan Masters a shot and see why the game is still held in such high regard to this day.

Adventure games

Point-and-click adventures also work great on netbooks. They’re the opposite of twitch gameplay, and they don’t require long gaming sessions. You can simply fire one up and enjoy it for a few minutes at your leisure, and then return to it whenever you like. Sierra On-Line was a pioneer in the genre and made some of its most memorable titles. The company’s franchise-launching King’s Quest was remade a few years back by ADG Interactive and released for free. Point-and-click fans will also want to grab ScummVM, which allows modern systems to run original versions of classic LucasArts and Sierra On-Line games.

Emulators

All right, the Atom won’t be able to play God of War, but there are plenty of older systems it will emulate just fine. Pick anything from before the 3D era, and you’ll generally be good to go. The SNES and Genesis are my favorite consoles for netbooks, with dozens of RPGs to sink hours into. Anything with more action than that can cause some control issues—you don’t want to attempt some of those jumps in Super Mario World on a netbook’s tiny arrow keys. Don’t just limit yourself to consoles, either. DOSBox makes revisiting some of your favorite games (that haven’t been remade) a breeze. Performance on the Atom can be hit-or-miss, but it should be enough for some good old-fashioned Doom, SimCity 2000, or Worms.

Netbooks clearly aren’t ideal gaming platforms, but with a little creativity and some nostalgiac thinking, you can still have fun with them. What games do you have loaded on your netbook? Maybe you’re faithful to the "net" part of the term and rely solely on Flash games, saving yourself the hassle of installing anything. Did getting a netbook get you on a classic gaming binge, or have you found more free or independent titles to keep yourself entertained? Netbook owners, feel free to hit the comments and let others know how you have fun with your tiny laptop.

Comments closed
    • swaaye
    • 11 years ago

    The EeePC 900 performs like a GeForce 2 + P3 1GHz. I don’t find it all that limiting for what it is and what I like to play. There is an almost endless list of great games to choose from. I bought the machine partly because I thought it would be a nice miniature retro game rig.

    What I have on it right now:

    Battlezone
    Unreal
    UT
    Quake
    Quake 3
    Project IGI
    DOSBOX (Dark Forces, Betrayal at Krondor, Terminal Velocity, Star Trek A Final Unity, Star Trek 25th Anniv, Blood, Wolf3D, Terminator Rampage…)
    Deus Ex
    System Shock 2
    Star Wars X-Wing vs. TIE Fighter
    Star Wars JK2
    Star Wars JK MotS
    Star Wars Rebellion
    Screamer 4×4
    NFS3 Hot Pursuit
    C&C Tiberian Sun
    Total Annihilation
    2GB SD card with ROMs

    • Forge
    • 11 years ago

    If you play King’s Quest I remake and like it, but the ScummVM games bleh you with their EGA graphics, also check out the Quest for Glory 2 remake by the guys at AGDI, who did the KQ1R. Also free and enhanced.

    • shank15217
    • 11 years ago

    Try ZNES and some SNES games with 3X filtering turned on, its like a whole new game and it works great on atom netbooks.

      • bthylafh
      • 11 years ago

      Likewise Nestopia and NES ROMs, or Stella and Atari 2600 ROMs, or Applewin and Apple // disk images…

    • yogibbear
    • 11 years ago

    I play System Shock 2, Fallout 2, Contra, Castlevania and Raiden II on my MSI Wind u100

    • dustyjamessutton
    • 11 years ago

    Don’t forget Ultima 7 Part 1 and 2 using the Exult engine….

    • tocatl
    • 11 years ago

    I believe battlefield 1942 would run ok in any nettop, and the online servers are stil crowded today, and after all this time, the game still rules….

    • pogsnet
    • 11 years ago
    • Ubik
    • 11 years ago

    Some other classics you can play on a netbook:

    -Starcraft.
    -Master of Orion II.
    -Doom, and *most* PWADs out there (nuts.wad and Deus Vult might be a bit too much to ask :P)
    -System Shock 2.
    -Freespace 2 (Not with all the tricked-out effects of the SCP, though).
    -MAME. Yes, even Street Fighter III: 3rd Strike seems to play nicely on netbooks.
    -And, of course, the immortal Chip’s Challenge. ๐Ÿ™‚

    By the way, Matt, you get major props for recommending Cave Story. One of my favorite games ever. Some other indie games that work:

    -Aquaria (albeit at a slightly reduced framerate)
    -Eversion
    -Most Japanese freeware shooters like Cho Ren Sha.

    What it boils down to is this: Are you going to get your frag on in TF2? No, but you’ll still be able to waste many, many hours playing some fantastic games.

    • TheEmrys
    • 11 years ago

    Most of the classic Sierra games work fine. The King’s Quest, Space Quest, Leisure Suit Larry, and Quest for Glory all work great.

    • Tarx
    • 11 years ago

    Also check out the games on GOG – costs a few bucks but no DRM, updated for current OS and no CD!

    • Xenolith
    • 11 years ago

    The games I play on my netbook…

    Unreal 1 / UT99
    Quake 3
    Spore
    Original CS

    UT2004 is playable, just need to crank it down considerably.

    I have heard reports that Quake Live works, but I haven’t had much luck.

      • Usacomp2k3
      • 11 years ago

      QL didn’t play so well on my laptop either. Even 320×200 mode was too stuttery.

        • pwnrhasta
        • 11 years ago

        QL ran on my laptop very smoothly
        800×600
        on a P4 2.0Ghz
        on a ATI 7500 with only 16MB of vram
        with pretty much everything on low
        able to get first place in like half of my FFA matches

    • iamajai
    • 11 years ago

    Baldur’s Gate I/II
    Dune 2000

    Works well even on my eee700.

    • juampa_valve_rde
    • 11 years ago

    try scummvm for that old skool point n click adventures, makes lotta easier n nicer to play em again. and gave a change to get a notebook gamepad for some of the titles, specially from the 16 bit era (mk, sf2, sonic, mario). also some old games with mame would be a grea idea

    • Dposcorp
    • 11 years ago

    I have played GuildWars on a MSI wind, so add that in.

    • Bombadil
    • 11 years ago

    Half Life runs decently on my 1000HA even on a 1280×1024 monitor. Source based games can run but run very slowly. Even flash games like Desktop Tower Defense run noticeably slower. My $150 Sempron LE-1250 + 740G is so much faster.

    • Usacomp2k3
    • 11 years ago

    It should play Age of Empires great too (if my laptop with GMA950 is any indication).

    • awakeningcry
    • 11 years ago

    Not a netbook owner, but…

    Sensible World of Soccer, DOSBox, and my ever-faithful Competition Pro Joystick!
    Also, Grim Fandango (IF my machine wasnt too good to play it…), Beneath a Steel Sky (also freeware now, yay!), and does anyone remember Big Red Racing???

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      BRR was hilarious over the top fun! XD

      Racing in massive tracks in off-road courses just takes the cake.

        • Meadows
        • 11 years ago

        Big Blue Racing?

        Edit: he ninja-edited it again.

    • Krogoth
    • 11 years ago

    UT99 (had a kick-ass software render), Quake 2 and even Quake 3 can run fine on a netbook provided that you have a mouse. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    I give props for the mention of the Ur-Quan Masters a.k.a 3do port of Star Control 2. FYI, you can play 1 vs 1 with the Supermelee mode.

      • derFunkenstein
      • 11 years ago

      you’re better off using the updated OpenGL dll for UT99.

        • Krogoth
        • 11 years ago

        Hmmm, I thought that Intel graphics wasn’t that great at OGL.

        The updated OGL driver for Unreal 1 engine does work wonders though.

          • derFunkenstein
          • 11 years ago

          some added performance is better than relying entirely on the CPU. Plus the image quality is much better than software rendering.

    • engti
    • 11 years ago

    what about counterstrike????

    can we play that?

    • stoydgen
    • 11 years ago

    Hm on my 701 i have the genesis emulator along with ROMs of some of my games from back in the day:

    Street fighter 2 turbo
    sonic series
    Streets of rage series
    Aladdin
    Micro machines

    Also another great game if u want to kill your keyboard is Guilty Gear X, unconventional 2D fighter which was extremely addictive, and runs great. it also makes for a decent original CS machine oddly enough :S

    If racing is our thing, try Motorhead, looks great on this thing ๐Ÿ˜€

    • fishyuk
    • 11 years ago

    Would “World of Goo” be too much for it? Would love to have that available on a netbook !

      • _Sigma
      • 11 years ago

      That was my first thought. I bet it would run.
      It runs perfectly on a GMA945 w/ core duo @1.6ghz (one of the ULV cpus – don’t remember which one exactly).

    • moose17145
    • 11 years ago

    Even though I own an i7 / 4870 1GB rig… I have to admit I still find myself playing games on it that can do with much less processing power. Right now the game i have been playing the most has actually been Supreme Commander: Forged Alliance. To be quite honest most new games to me just don’t hold the appeal they used to. They all just seem to be carbon copies of each other. Every now and then something comes out that I find really good. An example of this would have been Far Cry for it’s time. Man the first time i saw Far Cry i was blown away. Heck I still play it even though I had beaten it years ago. IMO Far Cry is still by far and large the best of the series / franchise / whatever.

    Heck the most demanding game I have played on my awesomely amazing i7 rig has been Far Cry 2, and even then that’s only because I was able to get a free copy (legally might I add). It was ok I guess… but I was rather disappointed that it was the actual sequel to the first Far Cry which I have enjoyed so very much. GTA3 has also been a long time favorite of mine on the console front. Plus I found lots of girls loved playing it too… which obviously made me even fonder of the game…

    The first Empire Earth i rather enjoyed playing, the old CnC series and Emperor: Battle For Dune were always long time favorites of mine, Sim City 2000…. oh sim city…. SOOO many wasted hours of productivity… lol, mario saving that damn princess is always a never ending task as always… sigh… now i am getting all nostalgic and need to play some old games again…

    Something of an observation too… It seems like lots of the indie games lately are seriously rather good. They seem to be rather original, or at least put a fun and modern spin on the old games, but didn’t go overboard as to lose the original game play. Idk… seems refreshing from the same garbage formula that companies like EA keep crapping out. Portal was a GREAT game imo… I REALLY enjoyed it, and still play it occasionally when i am looking to kill a bit of time.

    • shiznit
    • 11 years ago

    You can play the awesome 2d rpgs of the 90s like Planescape and Fallout, they both have mods that allow the resolution to be increased to whatever the native of the netbook is.

    But props for Day of the Tentacle, my favorite scumm game. I miss the glory days of Lucas Arts, I played their games more than any others when I was a kid. I would run home from middle school to play a couple missions of Tie Fighter before my parents got back from work and made me do school stuff.

    • dragmor
    • 11 years ago

    If it can play HoMM3 thats all that matters.

      • Krogoth
      • 11 years ago

      Did you ever tried the fan-made mod, Wake of the Gods?

      • grantmeaname
      • 11 years ago

      Amen! And (I’ll hate myself for this later) I have to second Krogoth on the Wake of Gods

    • Pax-UX
    • 11 years ago

    And the best thing is you can hold your netbook like a Gameboy!

    • ssidbroadcast
    • 11 years ago

    *[

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      You’re quite easy to woo, I’ll give you that.

    • kilkennycat
    • 11 years ago

    Should be able to play quite a few of the full 3D classics with modest poly count (AvP2 etc.) at great frame rate when netbooks embedded with the nVidia Ion (Atom paired with the single-chip 9400M core-logic+IGP) arrive. And low poly count will still look great on the smaller display. Intel knows that decent 3D gaming on a netbook will be a huge purchase-attraction; their stepped-up attacks of lies and fud on the Ion are no coincidence. They fear that Ion will do for PC netbooks what the 9400M itself has does for all the new MacBooks – replace Intel’s core logic. The Ion chews at Intel’s achilles-heel —the never-ending abysmal design of their IGPs and drivers.

    There are many, many great full-3d or isometric gaming classics developed in the early days of DirectX, modest CPU and GPU technology and very modest storage requirements that will run just great on an Ion-base netbook. Since most of those games still run great today with nVidia’s current drivers, then no problem with Ion. And since so many of these classics are available now as paid or free downloads, then no availability problems either.

      • archivist
      • 11 years ago

      Many games in this category are perfectly playable on the current Atom platform. As a FPS junkie, I tried out some more recent games (from early in this decade) on an eee1000H, Windows XP, 1GB memory. I found these to be perfectly playable at 640×480 (smooth, without any noticeable stutter; most are also perfectly playable at 800×600):
      Star Trek Voyager Elite Force (which means all Quake 3 engine games should run)
      System Shock 2
      XIII – this really surprised me. Especially nice was my discovery that Ubisoft has released a patch (1.3) removing all CD checks for this game.
      No One Lives Forever
      Deus Ex

      Max Payne 2 played well, but I’m not really sure about the frame rate. The same goes for Broken Sword 3, but since that’s an adventure, twitch performance is less important.

      Doom 3 and Battle for Middle Earth are a slideshow.

      No One Lives Forever 2 (DirectX 8.1) isn’t supported by the chipset. Half-Life 2 games require too much tinkering to avoid a crash to desktop, to be interesting. Vampire: Bloodlines crashes too. For some of these games, I suspect the Ion chipset will make a difference.

      Of course, games from the 90s can be awesome as well. Broken Sword 1+2 are a blast, once again.

      As a bonus, the GMA950 drivers in my netbook allow 4:3 display on an 800×600 surface, there’s no weird stretching.

      • barleyguy
      • 11 years ago

      Intel seems to be finally making progress with their IGP’s. The 4500 is at Radeon 9600 levels. Yes, they are still several years behind. But many games will run with that level of graphics.

      If there was a netbook with the 4500, the Atom 1.6 would be more of a limiting factor for most games than the GPU.

    • BoBzeBuilder
    • 11 years ago

    Netbooks ain’t got nothing on Obama.

      • DrCR
      • 11 years ago

      Indeed as it does not cost you individually countless thousands, weight like a brick, and have a screens res of 480×320. And no ‘free’ netbooks for all, even though everyone has the right to -[

    • shaq_mobile
    • 11 years ago

    wooooooooot day of the tentacle!

    • MadManOriginal
    • 11 years ago

    Geneforge is an indie shareware series with limited content trials that is a pretty good turn-based RPG. Ought to run fine on netbooks, #4 and up require 1024×768 res though.

    ยง[< http://www.spiderwebsoftware.com/<]ยง

    • OneArmedScissor
    • 11 years ago

    Starcraft?

    Hopefully they can run Unreal Tournament. :0

    Of course, the list is all free games, which is appreciated, but it makes netbooks look a bit archaic. Some of the best games ever made should work on them just fine.

      • mbutrovich
      • 11 years ago

      It’s hard for my micro to be off the chart with a touchpad, so for strategy games I went with more turn-based or sandbox style games. If you’ve got a mouse around, Starcraft is certainly a great choice.

      • Meadows
      • 11 years ago

      He just mentioned some of the best games in the history of games, so whether it makes the platform look archaic or not, it’s still fun.

      • Farting Bob
      • 11 years ago

      i would think playing UT on a touchpad may prove to be one of the worst gaming experiences i can think of. Get a small mouse though and it would be great if it runs at a passable framerate.

        • Meadows
        • 11 years ago

        Sure, the small mouse would make your hand hurt like hell within 5 minutes of intensive FPS-ness. If you want a mouse for such a purpose, at least get a decent sized one.

          • highlandr
          • 11 years ago

          Hey, you get used to it. For months I used a MS optical laptop mouse because it was the only one I had with a scroll wheel, and I was too cheap to get a new one…

          Seriously, months. The cramping goes away after a couple of days of solid use. The carpal tunnel stays forever ๐Ÿ˜‰

    • UberGerbil
    • 11 years ago

    /[

      • paulWTAMU
      • 11 years ago

      Civ II shall forever be supreme. I still play it on a semi-regular basis–a few games per year usually.

        • UberGerbil
        • 11 years ago

        I used to keep it on my laptop. It was an ideal game for long plane flights (more than once I was disappointed we were going to land because I was enjoying it so much). One great aspect of it was that once you cycled through all the F keys to bring up all the dialogs and got through a few turns (and turned off a bunch of fluff like the wonder movies), everything was in memory and the disk could spin down for extended periods which meant significantly improved battery life.

        But that laptop died, and I never reinstalled it. I still have the CD (and the expansion with the bug fixes) somewhere around here.

          • FireGryphon
          • 11 years ago

          The Wonder movies and the Adviser movies were some of the things I liked best about the game. Without the high quality movies, CivIII just seemed weak. Of course, the game itself is what counts, but the movies complete the experience for me.

        • Delphis
        • 11 years ago

        I feel the same way about Civ 3 .. I find that one more enjoyable than Civ 2. The fact that all the land doesn’t end up looking like tartan is a plus I think :> Civ 4, I really didn’t get on with.

        I did edit a custom Civ 3 scenario I enjoy playing and I rebalanced the units somewhat too, so maybe that makes it more fun for me than others have found from it.

      • ssidbroadcast
      • 11 years ago

      Uber, you would’ve liked Alpha Centauri. Sure the setting is different but it really is the best Firaxis ever made in terms of gameplay depth.

        • shiznit
        • 11 years ago

        agreed 100%

        • Krogoth
        • 11 years ago

        Alpha Centauri had good gameplay for a 4X, but the theme and other things were lame or annoying. I hated the voice of the damm AI for the UI. A few of the factions were next to useless and usually died within 250-500 turns.

        I dare anyone to beat the game on the hardest difficult with Church of the Planet or in the expansion, the Data Angels.

          • ssidbroadcast
          • 11 years ago

          “Please don’t go… the drones need you… they look up to you.”

        • UberGerbil
        • 11 years ago

        I tried Alpha Centauri and I just couldn’t get into it. There were some really good ideas IIRC — like the zones of influence that could cause a city to spontaneously convert to your side — but the overall gameplay dynamic just wasn’t as fun for me. Plus I’m a bit of a history buff so the overall idea of the game was more compelling (and doing things like getting to airplanes by the 18th century). Perhaps if I’d played AC long enough I would’ve internalized all the technologies etc to the same point, but the game just didn’t keep me interested long enough for that to happen.

        Plus CivII ran really nicely on my old laptop; AC, not so much.

        • ApockofFork
        • 11 years ago

        I have to say I loooove Alpha Centauri. I really like the government system and the fact that wonders don’t become obsolete (that always annoyed me endlessly). The setting was a little strange but I actually kinda liked the whole planet living organism thing. Plus the factions all were different, and behaved differently which was nice. The only thing that I would say it needs to do away with to be perfect is the individual city based support. (oh and the auto-terraforming AI was pretty terrible).

          • DrDillyBar
          • 11 years ago

          AC was great too

      • drfish
      • 11 years ago

      I don’t know… CivIV+BTS is pretty freaking sweet. I’ve been playing Civ since 1991 and I’ve never had more fun that a game of BTS multiplayer with my nephews on a LAN. I’ve probably recently surpassed total time playing CivIV vs CivII – a feat I never thought any game would do…

      …oh course TF2 is probably getting close as well…

        • Pettytheft
        • 11 years ago

        Civ IV + BTS is the first Civ type game I’ve liked since Alpha Centauri. Definately worth a spin. I can’t go back to Civ II anymore because of it.

          • ssidbroadcast
          • 11 years ago

          What’s BTS ?

            • Meadows
            • 11 years ago

            Beyond the Sword expansion pack for Civ 4.

            It extended the modern half of the game mostly (like the first expansion pack was mostly for the early half of the game), adding more diplomacy and espionage.

            • ssidbroadcast
            • 11 years ago

            Oh ok. I thought the Warlords x-pac was pretty good, though.

      • DrDillyBar
      • 11 years ago

      Civ3 with the PTW expansion. Civ4 has yet to replace it.

        • cygnus1
        • 11 years ago

        Can’t disagree more. Civ4 w/ Warlords and BTS, blow Civ2 and 3 and all their expansions out of the water. The only other version I’ll play is Civ1, and that’s just for nostalgia

    • Ricardo Dawkins
    • 11 years ago

    Battle for Wesnoth is the best!

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