The 12 best space games ever

Loving No Man's Sky? It owes a debt to many of these space game classics

Wing Commander

No Man's Sky finally arrives this week amidst expectations of galactic proportions – and we'll know pretty soon whether it lives up to the immense hype.

The open-universe game wowed us from the start, showcasing a space exploration experience that lets you pop into one of potentially millions of different planets, scope out the vibrant terrain, interact with the weird alien inhabitants, and then zip back into the stars. And it's made by a modest indie team, believe it or not.

Obviously, Hello Games' experience isn't the first game to promise the world - or the universe, rather – when it comes to exploring the stars, blasting foes in deep space, or inhabiting a brilliant original galaxy. Some of those games helped blaze a trail for No Man's Sky while others were simply fantastic in their own right.

In any case, before we start uncovering new species and building our own stories amidst the stars in No Man's Sky, here are our picks for the 12 best space games up 'til now.

Elite (1984)

Elite is the granddaddy of open-ended space games – the critical entry without which we might not even have a No Man's Sky, let alone the loads of other games that riffed on its basic premise. As so many of us know, Elite started you off with a ship and a small stack of credits and then let you forge your own path through the stars.

Compared to the competition in 1984, Elite was more advanced and engrossing than anything on the market, and the initial BBC Micro release soon spread like wildfire to other PC platforms. And its legacy lives on with 2014's Elite: Dangerous, which updates the premise for modern devices and includes VR support. (Believe us, you wouldn't want to try the original in VR.)

Wing Commander (1990)

Six years later, the original Wing Commander inspired a new generation of space shooters, offering up a cinematic campaign with a bit of Star Wars influence and some actual narrative meat on its bones, not to mention hugely impressive pseudo-3D graphics for its time.

While the original game's intergalactic blasting set the template for the series and is one of the most influential games in the category, spinoff Wing Commander: Privateer is beloved for finding a middle ground between it and Elite, while Wing Commander III: Heart of the Tiger is well known for its live-action cinematics... starring an actual Star Wars actor, Mark Hamill.

Star Wars: TIE Fighter (1994)

Speaking of Star Wars: the franchise's PC space sims from the mid-90s are still regarded as some of the best games to ever carry the brand. While picking a favourite of the bunch is tricky, our allegiances still lay with Star Wars: TIE Fighter.

Like Star Wars: X-Wing before it, TIE Fighter took cues from Wing Commander but brought in the immense appeal of the film franchise to amp up the battles – and TIE Fighter is particularly intriguing because you're blasting as an agent of the Empire instead of being the typical good guy in the fight.

Homeworld (1999)

Of course, not every space game is of the point-and-shoot variety, and Homeworld set the early standard for a real-time strategy space simulation – and was the first fully 3D game of its kind. As one of two races, you'd battle with fighters and cruisers alike to win the complex showdowns and bring your remaining units to the next fight.

Homeworld and its sequel looked increasingly lost to the ages until last year, when Gearbox released a remastered bundle that brings the sharp ship designs into the modern era. The classic versions are included too, if you want a trip down memory lane, while a brand new game just released earlier this year.

Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)

Have you heard of this little game called Halo? Of course you have – Bungie's massive franchise now spans genres and media types, but it all started with this original Xbox launch title. In it, we were introduced to Master Chief, Cortana, the alien Covenant, and so many other aspects of this beloved universe.

Multiplayer ended up being the more enduring draw, of course, with the split-screen and local LAN battles of the original game giving way to the online obsession of later entries. Still, with each new game, this universe only grows and gets more compelling… even if Halo 5: Guardians was a bit of a letdown.

Freelancer (2003)

Hailing from Chris Roberts, the creator of Wing Commander, Microsoft's Freelancer was designed to be the ultimate expansion of the Elite concept: a dynamic, open galaxy to explore, with a blend of combat and trading capabilities. The final game fell a bit short of the promises made during development, but it remains a benchmark of the space sim genre.

We never got a proper sequel to Freelancer, but take note: Roberts has crowdfunded more than US$100 million over the past four years to build Star Citizen, which promises to be a massive expansion of Freelancer's core tenets. It's in playable alpha right now and still has plenty of development to come, but you can pay to play now.

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic (2003)

We initially hesitated at the idea of including multiple Star Wars games on this list, but Knights of the Old Republic is arguably the best of the entire franchise. BioWare's seminal role-player finally let fans fulfill their long-held fantasies of living in the Star Wars universe and wielding immense power.

Whether you let that draw you towards the light or dark side of the Force was up to you and your actions throughout the immense game, and even after more than a decade's worth of entries (and a not-as-memorable sequel), it remains a definitive Star Wars experience. And now you can play it on tablets and phones, to boot!

EVE Online (2003)

EVE Online is probably the only game on this list that we'd described as "infamous," but that's really due to the community more than anything. This surprisingly long-running massively multiplayer game is filled with ruthless players who spy on each other and wage war in headline-grabbing showdowns.

Really, though, the community is the game – it's what makes EVE such an incredible and immersive experience, assuming you have the time and patience to learn its minutia and deal with such a hardened crew of everyday players. It's a true one-of-a-kind.

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Mass Effect (2007)

Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic must made BioWare hungry to make its own sci-fi epic, as spiritual successor Mass Effect took the role-playing concept to another level. It's the ultimate interactive space opera, with your custom-tweaked Commander Shepard tasked with nothing short of saving the galaxy.

Most fans argue that Mass Effect 2 – the Empire Strikes Back of the trilogy, naturally – is the strongest of the bunch, but you really need to play the whole set to see how your story unfolds and how the decisions you make reverberate across the universe. Hopefully we get a full HD remaster of the set before next year's Mass Effect Andromeda drops.

FTL: Faster Than Light (2012)

We haven't been, obviously, but blasting through outer space seems like a really difficult experience. And no game tries to reinforce that notion quite like FTL: Faster Than Light, the fiendishly tough indie strategy affair inspired by roguelike, dungeon-crawling games. 

In short, your spacecraft needs to zip through several sectors to transport some crucial info, but there's a huge enemy fleet on your tail – and no telling what new threats await in each new area you explore. FTL is often punishing in its relentless challenge, yet the hard-fought battles bring the most satisfaction, right?

Galaxy on Fire 2 (2012)

Why is a mobile game on this list? Because it's astonishing to know that you can pull out your phone or tablet at any time and immerse yourself in a large, meaty space sim campaign. Galaxy on Fire 2 offers a top-tier mobile experience: it's gorgeous, it's huge, and it plays like the great PC games it takes its cues from.

True, there are larger and more complex PC space sims from over the years that die-hard fans might pick first, but Galaxy on Fire 2 makes the genre so accessible and so approachable that it deserves recognition. And it's a free download, to boot!

Kerbal Space Program (2015)

Like most folks, you probably dreamed of being an astronaut at some point in your life – but did you also dream of being an astrophysicist or engineer? Well, whatever the case, Kerbal Space Program is designed to let you live out all of those fantasies in one package, and it's even earned the admiration of SpaceX head Elon Musk.

As a race of intelligent little beings, Kerbal tasks you with building a space program from scratch. And really, we mean building, as you can assemble your own space craft from pieces and figure out how to get the thing into space. Kerbal has been praised for its accurate physics, while the sandbox approach makes little discoveries feel monumental.

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