Crack dot Com's Abuse['Keyboard Bashing' is a new GameSetWatch column by Tales of a Scorched Earth's Andrew Smale which discusses the history, present and future of PC gaming.]

Crack dot Com's one and only published game was Abuse (1995), which was released to hype that called it "the Doom of platform games". Combining the precision aiming available to first-person shooters that use the mouse and the jumping and climbing puzzles familiar to platform games, its darkened atmosphere and dedication to fast-paced action garnered a page in PC gaming history. But was it for the right reasons?

Crack dot Com was founded by programmers Dave Taylor (formerly of id Software) and Jonathan Clark. The demo, while essentially a beta of the unfinished game, provided network play and an easy to use level editor in the package. The mouse and keyboard control scheme was enough to get people talking - what seemed like an odd combination for a platformer ensured the game would at least be talked about. The company found a publisher in Origin Systems shortly before they were absorbed by Electronic Arts, and the game was made available to the masses in 1995.

Linux had not reached the levels of acceptance it's at now, and the game was released for DOS and Linux concurrently making it the first published game to take this approach. The game's source code would be handed off for free two years later under the GPL. Crack dot Com disbanded in 1998 after going bankrupt, making all of the assets for what would have been their next game available to whoever wanted to download them. With no hope for an official sequel, Abuse would be relegated to PC gaming cult status.

Hm. These creatures look familiar. Except they're red.The premise of Abuse is that you are a wrongfully incarcerated man looking to escape a prison facility that has been conducting biological experiments on its residents. It's up to you to fight your way out, battling an assortment of alien creatures, robots and automated weapons. The influence of the Predator and Aliens films on the player character and enemy design is completely obvious. The game's environment was similarly inspired by these science-fiction landmarks. Though it's not like we hadn't seen run and gun platforming before: Turrican (1990) and Duke Nukem (1991) had already shown us the side scrolling key, switch and door hunt while blasting away at waves of monsters. Had the features of Abuse stopped there it would have been dismissed as an also-ran, at a time when the reigning genres of PC gaming were still being defined.

It was the controls that secured the place of Abuse in PC gaming history. It marked an evolution of the control scheme for the side scrolling platformer. No longer were you limited to shooting up, down or at an awkward angle while running - the "freelook" available through using the mouse allowed complete control over the player's aim. What's more, you could actually run one way and shoot in the other - perfect for those overwhelming firefights in Abuse's many darkened corridors. Also similar to the FPS standard was the focus on weapon acquisition: Abuse had a large arsenal of weapons available, modeled after their first-person counterparts - including a lightsaber-like laser sword. So what happened to this sub-genre? Was it simply an isolated case of experimentation before the rise of the graphically intensive first-person shooter?

Examining the mechanics of the first person shooter since its ascent to PC gaming's most prevalent genre, it has shown no real maturation beyond the formulaic hallway navigating run and gun switch hunt. Instead, the genre has developed in terms of presentation: better graphics, better sound, more epic setpieces and cutscenes. The basic principles have stayed the same: kill anything that moves.

This increasing reliance on graphical fidelity made "gimmicky" side-scrolling shooters almost unnecessary, or something that would be better suited for console gaming. With Abuse, its potential for genre trailblazing on the PC was basically a matter of timing. The highly modifiable Doom was still on everyone's mind, and the fully 3D engine of Quake was just around the corner.

Beautiful low-res explosions.The view offered by Abuse made jumping puzzles easy, providing a logical challenge to progressing through a level. Its assortment of powerups (such as the Jetpack) added some flair to getting past these obstacles. Ironically, jumping puzzles remain a staple of most FPS games, despite their impracticality.

Most importantly, Abuse lacked an identity. Focusing on the control scheme only avoided the fact that it wasn't much more than what was offered by the standard shooter. This prevented long-term association with the title from the PC gaming community. What would you even call the game? A precision-shooter-platformer? Abuse was beyond categorization, and as such probably contributed to its lack of success in inspiring any followers aside from the hardcore fans that aimed to create a full-fledged sequel.

Abuse showed what a first-person shooter would be like as a side-scrolling platformer, but despite its critical acclaim failed to produce any notable descendents. Abuse would end up as one of those games we all played, and remember well, but ends up more of a title you mention when working towards something else. Abuse would be absorbed by the pages of PC gaming history, a victim of the constantly changing tastes of gamers and the company that produced both a cult classic and one-hit wonder.

Editor's Note: Since the release of the game's source code, there have been numerous projects started to revisit it either through creating a sequel or simply porting it to modern-day PCs. The original DOS game can be found on many abandonware sites (such as The Underdogs), while Win32 versions are available via the fRABs (Free Abuse) project, or Jeremy Scott's port. I have had more luck getting the DOS version to work, because the aspect ratio of the Win32 version doesn't work very well with modern hi-resolution monitors.