[ Retro Scan of the Week ] Doom is 20

Monday, December 9th, 2013

id Software Doom for Atari Jaguar Ad Advertisement - 1994One of the best reasons to own a Jaguar circa 1994

Twenty years ago this week, id Software launched one of the most important and influential PC games of all time: Doom. It started as a modest shareware download but grew to change the entire video game industry. To explain how, here’s 2009 Benj writing about the title for a PC World slideshow:

Id’s archetypical first-person shooter triggered a sea change in the PC game industry, which had formerly been dominated by slow, plodding strategy turn fests, brainy simulations, and stilted PC action titles of yore.

In contrast, Doom was the first of a new generation of fast-paced, smooth action titles that utilized new visual techniques to push PC hardware to its limits. With Doom, PC gamers could experience fluid gameplay, graphics, and sound that easily topped what was found on home game consoles of the day — an uncommon achievement at that point.

Moreover, it introduced exciting new network multiplayer options that are widely imitated to this day, coining the term “deathmatch” in the process.

From its lowly roots as a MS-DOS shareware title, Doom spread like a weed to other platforms, including game consoles, which now count first-person shooters as one of their best-selling genres.

Doom defined the 3D shooter genre and made multiplayer gaming mainstream,” says Tim Sweeney (founder of Epic Games and creator of the Unreal Engine), “And it did them with such incredible polish, artistry, and foresight that it created an industry.”

Considering that Doom launched in 1993 via shareware channels, I’m not aware of when or in what publication the first advertisement for Doom appeared. (I believe GT Interactive became distributor for the full, boxed PC version of Doom much later, but I could be mistaken.)

So instead, I found this nifty November 1994 scan for the Atari Jaguar version of Doom. I received this version of the game for Christmas in 1994, and it was an amazing gift.

Pushing the PC Limits, Jaguar Relief

Most people don’t remember how much horsepower Doom required in a PC at the time — at least 4 MB of RAM, a mid-range 486 CPU, and a sound card to run passably well. So I had trouble running the game on any PC up to that point.

In 1993, we had one 486 in the household with exactly 4 MB of RAM (to contrast, my personal PC sported a 16 MHz 386 and 2MB RAM), and I had to make a special 5.25″ boot disk that loaded fewer resident DOS drivers, etc. so I could run Doom on that 486 at all. If I recall correctly, I didn’t have enough spare RAM to load the SoundBlaster drivers at boot, so the experience was limited. My friend had to run Doom on his mom’s 486 the same way. Even then, the game didn’t run at full frame rate. Doom pushed the limits.

So coming from that environment, it was an amazing convenience to just plug a Doom cartridge into the Jaguar and play, full-speed, full-screen, with glorious sound and no hiccups. My brother and I played a lot of Doom on that console well into 1996 — until I got a more powerful PC that could run Doom with ease.

Until the PlayStation port of Doom came out (late 1995), the Jaguar port was widely considered the best port of the game (in terms of screen window size, lighting effects, monster interaction, sound, controls, and frame rate) available on consoles. Its biggest drawback was lack of a soundtrack during gameplay. I think that’s because John Carmack used the Jag’s DSP co-processor to handle graphics routines instead of music, which was unconventional on that platform.

But I digress. What a great game. I still play Doom regularly via modern source ports on the PC — most recently on my new 1080p big screen TV set. Add on Xbox 360 controller support via ZDoom, and you’ve got Doom heaven. It’s a game that never seems to get old for me, even 20 years on. That’s the mark of a true classic in my book.

[ From Electronic Gaming Monthly, November 1994, p.109]

Discussion Topic of the Week: How did you feel when you first played Doom? What are your memories of the occasion?

[ Retro Scan Special ] Buying from Epic Games in 1996

Monday, March 18th, 2013

Epic MegaGames Shareware Registration Invoice - 1996Epic MegaGames purchase invoice in January 1996.

You’re looking at a rare physical artifact from the twilight of shareware’s golden age.

Way back in 1996, when Gears of War maker Epic Games still went by “Epic MegaGames,” I ordered a few registered copies of its shareware games through CompuServe.

Since it was a special buy-and-download deal (very unusual in 1996), I didn’t receive copies of the games themselves on disk. Instead, Epic mailed an invoice, copies of the games’ instruction manuals (which have been displaced from this set, or else I would have scanned them too) and a shareware demo disk from Epic partner Safari Software.

[ Continue reading [ Retro Scan Special ] Buying from Epic Games in 1996 » ]

The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time

Tuesday, January 24th, 2012

The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time

If you’ve read this blog for some time, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of shareware games. Specifically, I love shareware from the “golden age of PC shareware,” an era I just made up that roughly spanned 1988-1996.

And by “PC shareware,” in this case, I mean IBM PC compatible. I was not involved in shareware or BBS scenes for non-IBM computers, so I am not nearly as familiar with them.

With that in mind, take a gander at this new slideshow over at PC World in which I attempt to pick the The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time. Whether I have succeeded or failed is not exactly the point, because as I always say, you can never objectively rank greatness. But even if you don’t agree with my picks, it should provide a fun journey down memory lane.

When you’re done reading it, I’d love to hear from you guys — what are your favorite shareware games of all time? Feel free to bring other platforms into it if you want.

If you love shareware games, check out my 2009 interviews with the twin titans of PC shareware, Scott Miller of Apogee and Tim Sweeney of Epic MegaGames.

Scott Miller Interview: On Founding Apogee, Shareware Competition, id Software, and More

Friday, August 21st, 2009

Apogee Software Logo

In early June, I conducted a lengthy telephone interview with Scott Miller, founder of Apogee Software (now known as 3D Realms). Today, the interview is up on Gamasutra. This is sort of a companion interview to my earlier talk with Tim Sweeney of Epic Games (another shareware heavyweight), although both stand alone quite well.

Scott Miller\'s HeadApogee is best known for publishing dozens of episodic shareware games, including Kingdom of Kroz, Duke Nukem, the Commander Keen Series, Wolfenstein 3D, and Rise of the Triad. The company later changed its name to 3D Realms and scored a monster hit with Duke Nukem 3D.

Through Apogee, Miller revitalized and dominated the shareware game industry, invented episodic gaming, pioneered the use of the freely distributable game demo, and provided the spark that inspired id Software’s founding.

During the interview, Scott and I went through his early days in programming, the founding of Apogee, the transition from simple shareware to 3D games, his interactions with id Software, his thoughts on shareware game competition in the early 1990s (including Epic MegaGames and Tim Sweeney), and much more. If you’re a fan of BBS or shareware history, you won’t want to miss it.

Bringing Shareware Out of the Closet

The concept of shareware has for too long been seen as the red-headed stepchild of the computer game industry. It has oft been relegated to the metaphorical back pages and footnotes of the history books — if it shows up at all — and frequently looked down upon by “serious” publishers who never deigned to give away any version of their work for free (until Apogee came along, anyway). I’d like to change that, and I’m hoping that my recent interviews with Miller and Sweeney will lay the foundation for a deeper understanding of shareware’s importance for future generations.

Although it might be a philosophy whose place in the sun has come and gone, shareware has not been an idea without merit or influence. As you’re about to read, the story of Scott Miller, his partner George Broussard, and their company firmly prove otherwise.

Tim Sweeney Interview: On ZZT, Shareware, Epic, and More

Monday, May 25th, 2009

Epic Games' Headquarters

You’ve probably heard of Epic Games by now — you know, the company behind Gears of War and the Unreal Engine. We read a lot about those blockbuster products these days, but Epic’s story stretches back much farther than that. For example, did you know that the very same Epic was once one of the world’s foremost shareware game publishers?

In January of this year, I had the immense honor of exploring Epic’s rich history in a sit-down interview with Tim Sweeney, founder and CEO of Epic. Over lunch at a local restaurant, we discussed his early programming years, the genesis of ZZT (Epic’s first game), Jill of the Jungle, Apogee Software, the shareware wars, his thoughts on id Software’s early work, the future of game graphics, and much more.

After some time on the back burner, this long, in-depth interview has finally seen the light of day over at Gamasutra. Shareware fans and general history computer buffs shouldn’t miss it. Heck, I did the interview and I’m reading it again. I hope you enjoy it.

Great Moments in Shareware: ZZT

Monday, September 3rd, 2007


Read any popular game publication these days, and you’ll probably come across ample mention of Epic Games’ Unreal Engine, the 3D powerhouse behind blockbuster first-person shooters like Bioshock and Gears of War. Believe it or not, one of today’s hottest game engines traces its roots back to a 2D text-based game programmed by a University of Maryland college student during the golden age of shareware.

Tim Sweeney founded Potomac Computer Systems in 1991 with the release of ZZT, a graphical ASCII character-based game that ran on a simple object-oriented platform programmed by Sweeney. With an in-game editor, Sweeney created multiple ZZT episodes that he sold to finance the new company. Luckily, Sweeney didn’t limit the in-game editor to himself; it featured prominently on the title screen of the free shareware edition. Much to Sweeney’s surprise, the editor itself soon became the most popular part of ZZT, allowing players to create their own games in the ZZT engine. Potomac changed its name to Epic MegaGames, and a shareware giant was born.

ZZT Title Screen ZZT Game Screen ZZT Board Editor ZZT-OOP Code

A large community of rabid ZZT fans still thrives thanks to the Internet, where enthusiasts trade nostalgia, user-made games, and the latest attempts to squeeze every last drop out of the ZZT engine through emergent programming techniques. For example, clever world builders have managed to reproduce just about every major 2D game genre — even genres the engine wasn’t designed for — in ZZT‘s editor, albeit in primitive forms. For modern ZZT fans, the game’s fun lies not only in playing the community’s user-created games, but in the challenge of creating new and unexpected things with a simple set of tools and components.

The original shareware package of ZZT only included one game: Town of ZZT, a whimsical adventure created by Sweeney that calls upon a player’s action and puzzle-solving skills. But in the late 1990s, Epic released all of Sweeney’s classic ZZT episodes as freeware, so you’ll find those worlds in the file below as well, including Dungeons of ZZT.

Have fun. Feel free to share your fond ZZT memories (or latest ZZT exploits) with the rest of us.

(Update – 05/25/2009: If you love ZZT, check out this interview I conducted with its creator, Tim Sweeney.)

ZZT 3.2
Release Date: 1991
Author: Tim Sweeney (Epic MegaGames)
Platform: MS-DOS
Runs Best On: Any 286 PC or faster with MS-DOS
Includes full Town, City, Caves, and Dungeons of ZZT episodes. ZZT runs pretty well on modern computers under Windows. You might also want to try running the game under DOSBox. Uses the PC speaker for sound.
– Download ZZT 3.2 – (175KB)

Great Moments in Shareware: Scorched Earth

Thursday, July 12th, 2007

Scorched Earth

Sixteen years after its humble emergence in the golden age of the BBS, Wendell Hicken’s timeless 1991 artillery simulation remains a hallmark in shareware history. Scorched Earth stands as nothing less than a masterpiece in the field of computer games.

With its numerous gameplay settings, variable computer AI, and an impressive variety of entertaining power-ups, Scorched Earth possesses nearly infinite replay value. It’s also one of the greatest party games ever devised: up to ten players can take turns plotting the explosive demise of their closest friends at the hands of a Nuke, MIRV, or Death’s Head over as many as 1000 rounds. As a testament to the pure strategy of the game, veterans skilled in the ways of Scorch know the best ways to dispatch foes — or merely survive as others duke it out — under any circumstance, rain or shine, springy walls or rubber.

Title Screen Tank Selection Screen Weapon Selection Screen Game Screen

Many of today’s game designers seem envious of Scorch’s ability to consistently entertain for over a decade. Fans of Hicken’s classic have attempted modern remakes of or improvements upon Scorched Earth, but to this day, none has even begun to approach the solid feel, intricate balance, or professional production values of the original. That’s how good it is.

Hicken didn’t invent the artillery game; he perfected it. And as long as our computers run without smoking, we’ll still be playing the original Scorched Earth as good Wendell intended.

Scorched Earth 1.5
Release Date: 1991 (1.0), 1995 (1.5)
Author: Wendell T. Hicken (aka “Sprig”)
Platform: MS-DOS
Runs Best On: Any 286 or 386 PC with 640K+ RAM and a VGA card
Amazingly, Scorched Earth runs pretty well on modern computers under Windows. If the game seems too fast, adjust the in-game “Firing Delay” setting (under “Hardware”). You might also want to try running the game under DOSBox. The game uses the PC speaker for sound.
– Download Scorched Earth 1.5 – (633KB)