You forgot all about Apogee Software, didn’t you? This is no indulgent nostalgia kick. This is a history behind a company which shaped gaming today.

Technically speaking, Apogee Software is not gone. They changed their name to 3D Realms in 1996, and they continue to do business today on the 3D Realms site. Yes, they even have a wing dedicated to Apogee Classics, which are variously available on Steam, Gog, or even for plain old free download. For the classic shareware releases, a dozen or so free DOS legacy download sites are out there with an Apogee Software section, such as DOS Games Archive.

You’ll need DOSBox to run them, of course. Just about everything Apogee / 3D Realms released in the 1990s was DOS only. Even if it ran on a desktop, it ran in a sandboxed DOS emulation mode. If you’re limited to mobile and not geek enough to get DOSBox going on Android, the Internet Archive even has you covered there with a few playable Apogee titles emulated right in the web browser.

No doubt about it, anytime you’re nostalgic for the true DOS gaming experience of Apogee, you’re only a couple clicks away. What we mean instead is that we miss the time of Apogee. These were the years when PC video games were for just us dorks.

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The Dawn of PC Gaming

To be sure, games for the home computer existed well back into the ’80s and even ’70s. However, games up to that point were something you bought on a cartridge and popped into the side of the Commodore console hooked up to a TV set, exactly like any Atari or Nintendo.

The beginning of the 1990s saw an important revolution in home console gaming, with Nintendo and Sega dominating the thick of the decade and Sony and XBox joining the fray by the end of it. But while that was going on, a new generation of home users were also discovering that you could get a proper computer for the same price, one that could be a productive workstation and still play games on the side.

In fact, “on the side” wasn’t even true after awhile. Dedicated gaming PCs became the standard. Computer Gaming World magazine, January 1993:

> “We think it would be a mistake to get anything less than a 386 clone with, at least a clock speed of 33 MHz. If possible, get a 486 clone at a faster speed. Get four megabytes of RAM and at least 100 MB on your hard disk. If you’ve never dealt with a C> prompt before, do yourself a favor and put Windows on the machine as your primary interface. If you’re comfortable with the same DOS that you see on your friends’ machines, go with DOS 5.0. Get a mouse, if you can afford it, and a sound card that is either AdLib or Soundblaster compatible. If you do win the lottery, throw in a CD-ROM, too. That’s the basic game machine for today’s games.”

The Glorious PC Gaming Master Race was born. We’ve been sick of hearing from them ever since. And their midwife was Apogee.

Apogee Software was a game publisher…

Modern gaming scholars seem a tad confused on this note. While Apogee Software shared DNA (some staff) with id Software, Softdisk, Parallax, and other game creators, they were always distinct companies. Gamers downloading shareware off BBS systems or buying the odd CD-Rom at the mall gradually saw the Apogee logo co-credit the id Software logo, then just saw the id Software logo by itself, later also seeing 3D Realms with a title of the same name, Duke Nukem, as originally published on Apogee. From this sprang the confusion that they were all the same company in different configurations.

As made clear in the glorious Apogee FAQ, ours by the grace of Usenet, id Software published under Apogee before going it alone, Softdisk and Apogee traded back and forth, and Parallax was merely a temporary collaborator with Apogee. Today we understand more about the business of game publishing, but back in the 1990s it was still a fuzzy concept.

Nevertheless, Apogee Software was the seminal game studio in the first half of the 1990s PC gaming era. It shaped so much of gaming history today that we’re better off just listing their most iconic titles – whether their own creation or published through them – and the impact they had on gaming.

Apogee Game Landmarks:

Commander Keen

Apogee had been releasing titles previously since 1986, but it was Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons which catapulted Apogee to international fame in 1990. It’s not much to look at now. A basic platform scroller (the bread and butter of Apogee’s output), where you just hop around and collect stuff. The thing is, Super Mario Brothers in the arcade and Nintendo console was also a game where you hop around and collect stuff. You could just play this on a PC for free? Players were hooked.

Commander Keen would mature as a series of titles released in 1990-1991, making it all the way to the Game Boy Color in 2001. Not to mention that without Keen, id Software would not have had the stability to develop Doom, and modern First-Person-Shooter (FPS) history would be drastically changed. There has even been tease of a Commander Keen for mobile as recently as 2019.

Here is an enchanting video interview with the staff at id Software in 1993, including a glimpse into music composition:

If you’ve ever wondered what it was like to work at a software company in the ’90s, this is it, gang! You’d come into work and everything was amazing all day.

Commander Keen also represented the co-mingling of Gamer’s Edge, id Software, and Apogee, in a story told here. In short, this was the first time that anyone had gotten smooth-scrolling graphics to work on a PC as opposed to an arcade machine or a console. This happened when developers John Carmack and Tom Hall were hacking on an EGA engine. Tom Hall decided to code up a quick Mario Brothers rip-off as a one-level demo of the technique, which he left on the desk of John Romero on a floppy labeled “Run Me!”

Before we move on, brace yourself for a retro blast and visit the Official Dopefish Home Page, just one of many gaming memes inspired by Commander Keen.

Catacomb 3D

On a side note, the first game to establish the 3D FPS standard that we basically still play today in upgraded form is up for debate. Some lay that honor at Descent (Interplay / Parallax). but for most of us it was Catacomb 3D (Softdisk / Gamer’s Edge, with the Mad Hatter banner). It was monotonous as hell, but damned if we didn’t all play through every single level in amazement. The developers of this game would go on to the other 3D FPSs down the list, under the id Software label.

Duke Nukem

Yes, The Duke comes up already. Duke Nukem was originally just another platformer shooting out of the Apogee factory, only with more action elements. Released in 1991, it would give rise to one of the most incredible delayed release stories in gaming history. This was after it got to the 3D era and the title we still cringe just to type, Duke Nukem Forever. Here’s a good place to tell the epic saga as a frame for the history of Apogee:

But that plot thread would wrap up well into the 21st century in 2011. In the meanwhile, Apogee & company were still a smashing success on the PC front.

Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure

Worth mentioning here for being a platformer with a distinct cute charm of its own and a few interesting gimmicks. Cosmo has suction-cup hands so he can stick to the side of cliffs and even hop up walls. We’re still only up to 1992.

Wolfenstein 3D

By this point you need no introduction. We have reached the 3D FPS era with a vengeance, and there will be no turning back now. Nobody who was around for this era will ever forget the first time they saw a 3D FPS on a screen. Wolfenstein, even with its monotonous scenery and seemingly endless mazes of hallway filled with the identical set of enemies to shoot, blew away everything that had come out before.

Alien Carnage

After 3D FPSs hit the market, Apogee Software was hanging onto its platform staples like a cat on a hot tin roof. Apogee’s platform games were hit and miss, some of them even subpar. But Alien Carnage, inscrutably under the original title “Halloween Harry,” is a well-loved cult favorite to this day. Was there ever anything more mid-’90s than that theme music? More cyberpunk than plowing through an office block blasting aliens while buying ammo out of vending machines? This is hailed today as a serious contender for the very last great PC-native platformer, the magnum opus of Apogee Software.

In case you didn’t watch that far, there’s a shoutout in a Halloween Harry cutscene:

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Star Wars fans can tell you all about THX-1138. It’s hip to reference it now. But at this point, memes weren’t invented yet.

We’re only up to 1993. Three short years and it was over, though Apogee rebranded as 3D Realms to announce to the world that it was done with platformers.

From there you know the rest of the story…

Doom came out in 1993, the same year as Alien Carnage. We don’t even need to tell you about the Doom chapter because – don’t look now – you’re still soaking in it. From Doom begat Quake, Quake begat Unreal, Unreal begat Half-Life, et cetera to the present day. Meanwhile, Apogee itself begat 3D Realms, and begat Duke Nukem 3D. This game garnered the company renewed fame, but it was short-lived as by now 3D gaming had caught on everywhere.

Contrary to the what you’d expect from the Duke Nukem Forever fiasco, 3D Realms kept its head above water anyway with releases for various platforms. Max Payne, a sort of vindication for the pain 3D Realms suffered over Duke, was a brief hit.

The history of the 3D FPS chapter of gaming is a story for another day.

But to the Apogee era belongs the first-generation wonder of the PC gaming platform hitting its stride, alongside the advent of the almighty Internet. Shareware games were traded on floppy disks, bulletin boards, early crude webpages framed in Natscape Navigator, and occasionally actually sold in stores like a proper retail product. New games seemed to come out daily. Your friend would drop by with a floppy disk all “dude you gotta try this” and load it up on your 386er, and you’d behold:

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…and then you knew you’d found the underground.

 

About the author

Penguin Pete

Penguin Pete

Geek tribal bard for the Internet, before "geek" was cool. Linux power user, MTG collector, light saber owner, cult movie fanatic, comic book memer, video gamer, Unix beard currently measures six inches.