The Best Command-Line-Only Video Games

A rundown of the biggest, most expansive and impressive games that you can run entirely in your Linux shell.

The original UNIX operating system was created, in large part, to facilitate porting a video game to a different computer. And, without UNIX, we wouldn't have Linux, which means we owe the very existence of Linux games.

It's crazy, but it's true.

With that in mind, and in celebration of all things shell/terminal/command line, I want to introduce some of the best video games that run entirely in a shell—no graphics, just ASCII jumping around the screen.

And, when I say "best", I mean the very best—the terminal games that really stand out above the rest.

Although these games may not be considered to have "modern fancy-pants graphics" (also known as MFPG—it's a technical term), they are fantastically fun. Some are big, sprawling adventures, and others are smaller time-wasters. Either way, none of them are terribly large (in terms of drive storage space), and they deserve a place on any Linux rig.


AsciiPatrol is, in my opinion, one of the most impressive terminal games out there. A clone of the classic Moon Patrol, which is a ton of fun already, this terminal-based game provides surprisingly good visuals for a game using only ASCII characters for artwork.

It has color, parallax scrolling backgrounds, animated enemies, sound effects—I mean, even the opening screen is impressive looking in a terminal.


Figure 1. Shooting Aliens and Dodging Potholes in AsciiPatrol

For a quick round of arcade-style fun, this one really can't be beat.

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead

Cataclysm: Dark Days Ahead is absolutely huge in scale. Think of it as a top-down, rogue-like, survival game with zombies, monsters and real end-of-the-world-type stuff.

The game features a crafting system, bodily injuries (such as a broken arm), bionic implants, farming, building of structures and vehicles, a huge map (with destructible terrain)—this game is massive. The visuals may be incredibly simple, but the gameplay is deep and open-ended.


Figure 2. Running from zombies in Cataclysm


The Tron-inspired light-cycle games (and non-Tron-themed variants, such as Snake) have been a staple of gaming since the 1980s. And, SSHTron provides a four-player version right in your terminal.

Simply open your terminal and type in the following:


And, away you go! You'll instantly be connected and can join a game with up to three other players. It's simple. It's quick. It's fun. You can't beat that.


Figure 3. Magenta FTW in SSHTron

DRL (Doom, Rogue-Like)

What if you took the classic first-person shooter, Doom, and turned it into a top-down, dungeon-crawling adventure (à la the classic Rogue)? Enter DRM (aka Doom...Rogue-Like).

The gameplay is fast and easy to pick up. It's a quick way to get your adventure game fix in without spending a huge amount of time playing something more demanding (like Cataclysm).


Figure 4. Find your very own missile launcher in DoomRL.

Ascii Sector

This is one of my personal favorites.

Ascii Sector is a space-exploration game set entirely in your terminal. Travel around between worlds, trade goods, fight alien ships, upgrade your ship, go on quests. The scope is huge, and the atmosphere is delightfully retro-sci-fi.

Think of this game as being in the same mold as Elite, Wing Commander: Privateer or TradeWars 2002. If you've ever enjoyed any of those, Ascii Sector will not disappoint.


Figure 5. Approaching a Planet in Ascii Sector

There are moments in this game that simply make me smile. When coming to a planet, for example, and it's displayed entirely in colorful ASCII, it just looks glorious. I can't recommend this game enough.

Dwarf Fortress

This is the only non-open-source game I'm recommending on this list. But the game is so truly spectacular, it has earned a place here. And, it's free (as in beer).

Think of Dwarf Fortress like a combination between Minecraft, a top-down adventure game and a general construction simulator. There's a huge world to explore and build, with the player not so much directly controlling any of the characters, as giving them tasks and roles. Woodworking, crafting, farming, brewing—there are so many details and options in this game.

Dwarf Fortress

Figure 6. One of Many World Maps in Dwarf Fortress

Dwarf Fortress is the kind of game you easily can sink countless hours (and days and weeks) into. It's absolutely staggering in scope and complexity.


Although not technically a "game" in the traditional sense of the word, Frotz is an interpreter for text adventure games—like the Infocom classic, Zork.

Being able to enjoy these adventures, many of which still hold up today, right in your terminal is absolutely delightful. You can find text adventures (or interactive fiction) all over the internet. Some made by companies long since abandoned, others released (usually for free) by independent creators.


Figure 7. At least you haven't been eaten by a grue yet.

Making the Experience Fancier

If you really want to get the most out of playing games in your terminal, you'll want to make sure you have a terminal emulator that does them justice—especially one that supports color text.

And, if you really want to step up your "I'm playing these like they were in the 1980s" game, I recommend cool-retro-term. It's a terminal emulator that mimics (quite well) the look of old CRT monitors, including tons of options for scan lines, amber text and more. It really makes these games pop.


Figure 8. Even the man page for GCC looks fancy in Cool-Retro-Term.

Cool-Retro-Term is sure to win over even the most die-hard skeptic of playing text-based games.


Bryan Lunduke is a former Software Tester, former Programmer, former VP of Technology, former Linux Marketing Guy (tm), former openSUSE Board Member... and current Deputy Editor of Linux Journal, Marketing Director for Purism, as well as host of the popular Lunduke Show. More details:

Load Disqus comments