Monday, 8 October 2012

PC DOS Gaming Special - Apogee Software

Apogee, for me, will always hold fond memories. Indeed the mere mention of the name elicits nostalgic visions of playing 2D platform games, Mario kart clones, and early first person shooters using my keyboard, and of DOS based commands to get games working. Ah, who can forget the joyous days of command prompts, .exes, sound-blasters, and autoexe.bats?).

Some people emit an audible groan (or whimper) when recollecting the DOS days of yore. But I am filled with a warm, fuzzy feeling inside. Even using the marvellous DOSBox today feels comforting. Like revisiting your old room in your parent's home and finding a toy you loved as a kid.

I never had any of the problems people seemingly had in those days. Maybe I got lucky and had a magical PC that never went wrong, but I always had games up and running in a jiffy. From my very first forays into PC gaming, sneakily enjoyed in the school computer labs (as they liked to call them back then) playing Sim City and the mind blowing Wolfenstein 3D, I was hooked. I was unfortunately banned from the computer labs for installing a bootleg Super Mario Bros Clone, which became so popular that my warnings to be discreet went unheeded, and eventually I was betrayed by an anonymous snitch.

My father took surprisingly little persuading to buy me a brand spanking new 486 DX2/66. Maybe I played the educational card well. Regardless of my bargaining tactics, the next thing I knew I had one, smelling like only a new computer does, and was gob smacked to see it had a CD-ROM drive! My tiny mind was blown like a cheap light bulb, and in my haste to get it all set up, I didn't even notice the addtional CD-ROM versions of Wing Commander, Ultima Underworld, Day of The Tentacle, and Indiana Jones and the Fate of Atlantis my old man had also bought me. Yes, this was a very good day indeed!

My father was less impressed when, mere weeks later, I asked for an expensive RAM upgrade so I could play Rise of the Triads, but I ended up getting this too. Wow, my dad sure was gullible back then, or maybe he just loved me and was generous or something.. I don't know.

So with this behemoth of PC gaming set-up I was now an official recluse. School time would be spent eyeing up the clock, waiting for home time so I could cycle home as fast as my chubby little legs would carry me. Friends would come round and we would spend hours mesmerised by the amazing 256 colour VGA graphics and full speech audio tracks on the point and click adventures. Then DOOM arrived, and my life was never the same again. But that is another story for another day. 

I will be taking a similar look-back at Epic MegaGames and other DOS era developers at a later date, but for now I will be focusing on Apogee Software. But before getting to the all important games that ruled my DOS days, I will look briefly at the company's origins.

Apogee was started in 1987, way before I got my greasy little mitts on a PC. They published their own games before branching out and publishing other developer's creations. Their most famous developer was, of course, Id Software. Id first found fame with their 2D platforming series Command Keen, before getting the entire world's attention with the ground breaking Wolfenstein 3D. Id’s DOOM was actually an Apogee title for a short time, but the link was severed and DOOM was published hereafter by Id themselves.

Apogee used the shareware model for shifting their games. Instead of selling their games in retail outlets, as most of their competitors were doing, they decided to distribute their software via online bulletin boards, and by using word of mouth to spread news of their 'free' games. The shareware version would consist of a sizeable chunk of the game, much more than the demos / trials we get today. Often a game would be split into episodes, with the first being free to download as shareware. The rest would be unlocked by paying for a code, which would allow you to download the full game, or a floppy disk that would be sent via mail order.

Their early games such as Supernova, and Beyond The Titanic were actually marketed in the 'pay what you want' format we know today. The game would be completely free and Apogee's hopes of financial gain rested on how honest / generous its customers were. Of course, this didn't really work financially, so they moved on to the more commonly remembered episodic shareware model. The first game to use this method was Kingdom of Kroz, a business model that would continue on throughout the 1990s. This approach even became known as the Apogee model.

Some of the games differed slightly in that you would get the first episode free and then you could buy each additional episode separately, this was later dropped but the legacy of this business model can even be seen in today's games, with download services by Sony and Microsoft now offering players the chance to buy games, episode by episode, with no commitment to buy the following episodes. The biggest example of this today is The Walking Dead game by TellTale Games.
Due to Apogee's success in this field, other publishing companies began to use the shareware model too. Most notably Activision, Id Software, and Epic MegaGames.

Apogee was eventually to become 3D Realms, famous for Duke Nukem 3D and a whole host of other FPS titles. 3D Realms was initially created in 1994 to house the brand new 3D blaster, Terminal Velocity. It would act as a sister label to Apogee, so the output could be spread between them. 

But due to the nature of the games industry at the time, where 2D games were becoming old hat and 3D games were seen as the way forward, Apogee itself became surplus to requirements, and dissolved into 3D Realms
The final game to be released under the Apogee name was 1996's Stargunner, a fairly mediocre side scrolling space shoot-em-up.

The Apogee name is now back though. With a website showcasing a trailer for their new HD update of Rise of the Triad, and some of their back catalogue available to purchase. It would appear Apogee is not dead and buried after all.

Hopefully all this talk of the DOS era has whet your appetite for the games themselves (that is what everyone is here for, after all). So I bring you a selection of my personal favourite Apogee titles as well as some of the most important, and hopefully it will bring back nostalgic memories, and encourage you to try them again via the excellent DOSBox emulator.

The Games:

Hocus Pocus (1994)

A lovely side scrolling platformer in which you play a young wizard apprentice named Hocus. You are sent on a mission by The Council Of Wizards, and must prove your worth by traversing 36 colourful levels filled with cute, but deadly enemies. You are not unarmed though, luckily Hocus can fire lightning bolts from his fingertips. The goal of each level is to collect all the magical orbs, which in turn, opens the exit. Along the way you will find a gratuitous amount of treasures to collect, many in hidden areas you access by touching certain key points in the level. It is great fun to play, and the score system and hidden treasures give it added depth and re-playability.

Bio Menace (1993)

A more action, and violence, orientated platformer. Bio Menace has you controlling a guy called Snake, who looks alarmingly like a 70's porn star complete with large 'tash. Fortunately he is armed with a big weapon (no sniggering at the back please) to fend off the various mutants that have taken over the city. Sure, the idea is basically stolen wholesale from Escape from New York and other 80's movies, but the game is good fun to play. Collecting keys and blasting the mutant invaders is satisfying, and there are plenty of secret rooms to find to reward the player with extra weaponry and loot.
The game was released by Apogee as freeware in 2005, and can be found online.

Alien Carnage (Also known as Halloween Harry) (1993)

Very similar in style to Bio Menace, but much improved. This time around you must blast the alien invaders, while saving hostages. This is made easier by having a jet pack rather than jumping, with it you can fly around the action packed levels with ease (much like the jet pack in the outstanding XBLA version of Spelunky). Harry is armed with a flame thrower, which is always nice, who out there doesn't enjoy engulfing enemies in flames?), and can find other weapons along the way. You collect coins from vanquished foes in order to use vending machines to buy health and ammo, and your game can be saved using in-game terminals.
This is also now freeware, and should be high on your list of DOS games to play..


Wacky Wheels (1994)

A unashamed rip off.. sorry, I mean 'clone', of Super Mario Kart. This game comes with some controversy as the original authors sent out a demo to a small publisher called Copysoft. They rejected the game but Apogee snapped it up. Just before Wacky Wheels hit the stores Copysoft released a near identical game called Skunny Kart, which used the code from the demo sent to them by the developers. Copysoft were accused of copyright infringement, but no legal action was ever taken.
This is all pretty irrelevant though as Wacky Wheels is the superior game, and a fantastic kart game to boot. Its cast of zoo animal characters are colourful and cute, and the tracks are well designed and fun to play. Instead of the Mario Kart's shells, Wacky Wheels uses little hedgehogs as the primary missile of choice. The little critters hang around the tracks and can be collected by your driver to unleash upon his / her opponents. Even though I had Super Mario Kart at the time, I still enjoyed this a great deal. It still remains shareware but I recommend you hunt it down.

Raptor : Call of the Shadows (1994)

A vertical scrolling shoot-em-up, much in the same vein as Raiden. The storyline is, of course, irrelevant. What matters is the game play, and Raptor was a solid shoot-em-up experience, replicating the thrills of the arcade on your humble PC. It was well received on release, and it is easy to see why. The game plays well and offers a stiff challenge. It lacks the upgrades and land based obstacles of other, more exciting, shmups. But for its time, and the platform it was on, it is a very polished effort.

There was a Windows version released in 1999, and it is primarily the same, but for a few control issues that ruin the experience. I recommend you stick to the DOS original. There is also a 2010 version available on Good Old Games ( that is optimised to run on modern PCs.


The Commander Keen series (1990 -1991)

I could never keep track of the chronological order of the Keen games in their heyday. The first one I ever played was Keen Dreams which, it turns out, is actually the fourth game in the series. The previous 3 episodes of Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons are all considered entries in the whole Keen universe, bringing the total to 8 (including the final Keen game on the Gameboy Colour, released in 2001). Ignoring the convoluted numbering of the games, they are part of DOS history, as well as that of the mighty Id Software who created them.

The Keen games are based on the imaginary adventures of a young boy named Billy Blaze. Billy is an eight-year-old boy genius who has constructed a spaceship in his backyard from old soup cans and other household objects, called The Bean-with-Bacon Megarocket. When his parents are out and the babysitter falls asleep, he dons his brother's football helmet and becomes Commander Keen, Defender of Earth. What young lad could resist a story like that?

The first game was ground breaking as it was previously thought that console-quality platform games were not possible on the PC, but John Carmack of Id Software programmed a smooth scrolling version platform game demo based on the hugely popular NES title, Super Mario Bros 3. He named it Dangerous Dave in Copyright Infringement, and from this simple demo the first Commander Keen game was born.

Each episode features colourful, cartoony graphics and simple platforming action, but remain great fun to play. They all deserve to be checked out by anyone with a love of DOS games or 2d platformers in general. Preferably in the correct order, whatever that may be.

Some random facts about Commander Keen that you may not know:

Billy is the grandson of William Joseph "B.J." Blazkowicz (the hero of Wolfenstein 3D)

Commander Keen has appeared in cameo roles in many titles. Most memorable  is his appearance in the secret level of DOOM 2, where he is found hanging from a rope and can be killed by the player.

In Epic MegaGame's excellent Jill of the Jungle, there is a cut scene that mocks Commander Keen. A news bulletin states Keen has been forced into retirement by 'those cool Epic Heroes'.

Monster Bash (1993)

A cutesy horror platformer starring a boy in pyjamas may not sound like the ingredients for an exciting game, but the 90's were full of strange ideas (usually resulting in a 2D platformer of some kind). Monster Bash sees you in control of a young lad, named Johnny Dash, on a mission to retrieve his kidnapped hound, Tex, from the monsters that lurk under his bed. What awaits you are 28 horror themed levels that play like most of the other Apogee platformers mentioned here. The Halloween vibe of the whole thing works well and you will find yourself enjoying exploring the fairly large levels, looking for all the sweets and treasures. Johnny's weapon, a slingshot that fires rocks, is the hook here. The projectiles can be fired at angles, and can be bounced off walls to hit switches or unlock imprisoned pets from their cages. You even end up on a broomstick at one point, adding variety to proceedings. This is classic 90's Apogee platforming and is worthy of your time.



Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

The granddaddy of First Person Shooters. This is the game that truly made the world sit up and take notice of Id Software, John Carmack's amazing game engine offering a fast, smooth, first person arena to run around in. Sure, Ultima Underworld, released the same year, also had first person scrolling, but Wolfenstein was far more action based and so took the limelight. Plus it had Nazis to kill, and who doesn't love the chance to kill Nazis?.
Based on an old Apple 2 game 'Escape from castle Wolfenstein' that John Romero used to play, this took the idea of a P.O.W. Locked up in a Nazi fortress and went the whole nine yards. Creepy dungeons, Nazi barracks, science labs and other settings were the order of the day, filled with Nazi soldiers, Nazi dogs, Nazi zombies, and even Hitler himself. It was a test of survival, you against the hordes. It was tense, exciting, and fresh. It became a huge success for both Apogee and Id software, and it is easy to see why. It still holds up amazingly well today, and enjoys continuing support from the modding community. It is even on XBLA.
Wherever you chose to play it, it is a fantastic game. Sure, the consoles had some great ports (Atari Jaguar and 3DO especially) but for me, you just can't beat the PC original.


Blake Stone : Aliens of Gold (1993)

Made by JAM Software, licensing the Wolfenstein 3D engine from Id Software, this is another fantastic early first person shooter. In many ways it adds improvements to the formula set by Wolfenstein, offering interactions with NPCs, computer terminals, missions, and a wider variety of enemies, but it lacks the simplicity and polish that made Id's game so great. It has a cool Sci-Fi setting and storyline and the game immerses you in its world. It probably would have been a huge success, but the same year Id unleashed DOOM, and that basically destroyed all competition.


Rise of the Triad (1995)

The final Apogee First Person Shooter was this extremely violent gore-fest. Originally intended as a sequel to Wolfenstein 3D, this used an enhanced version of that game's engine. After Id cancelled the project (possibly to avoid competition to its forthcoming DOOM game, Apogee took it in a slightly different direction and it gained it's own identity in doing so. It looks inferior to the DOOM games, which were released much earlier, but it did introduce many pioneering elements which would go on to become staple features in the genre. Things such as bullet holes, breakable glass, panoramic skies, simulated dynamic lighting, fog, and level-over-level environments. The trampoline platforms were a strange addition that divided opinion among players, but overall the game was well received and it went on to gather a cult following. Indeed, the game is currently being remade by the newly formed Apogee for release in 2013. The game is exceptionally violent, with enemies begging for their lives when injured, and huge fountains of blood and guts (or gibs) spewing forth from foes killed with rockets. There was an official retail add-on level pack released in 1995 by Apogee entitled Extreme Rise of the Triad, but sales were poor, and it was eventually released as freeware in 2000.


Duke Nukem 1 & 2 (1991 / 1993)

Actually, I was never a huge fan of these titles, but they are still worth checking out as a curio for fans of Duke's tongue in cheek 3D adventure.. They are pretty generic platform shooters, but play reasonably well, and worth the effort of playing just to see the history of the character. The second instalment is a vast improvement over the original though, which really shows it's age.

There are several other Apogee titles out there, so I implore you to hunt them down and download the freeware / shareware versions and play them in DOSBox. It will give you hours of entertainment, as well as a great look back on the pre-Windows days of PC gaming.

Now I am off to play some Hocus Pocus, enjoy your DOS gaming!


DOSBox can be downloaded here: