October 9, 2006 5:41 PM |
['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.]
Before Wolfenstein 3D and Doom, before Unreal, another war was being waged between the future champions of the first person shooter. Both in their infancy, id software and Epic MegaGames were contributing to another burgeoning genre on the PC: the side scrolling platformer. Games largely remembered as trifling attempts at making the hobby accessible, they are no less important in the evolution of PC gaming.
The growing popularity of Super Mario Bros. and the home console saw PC gaming play catch up in the early 1990s. id Software's Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons arrived on the shareware scene in 1990, and was probably my first exposure to that form of software distribution. Publishers would issue the first "chapter" or "episode" on diskette, which would often be shared throughout the BBS scene. It was perfectly legal - the intent was to get the game into the hands of as many people as possible, and if they liked it enough, they could purchase the remaining episodes and see the rest of the game. You could almost call shareware the predecessor to the newly fashionable episodic content and digital distribution.
While Pharaoh's Tomb (1990) slightly predated Commander Keen as an Apogee published title, the disparity between the two platformers was incredible. Incidentally, George Broussard, the current figurehead behind 3D Realms and the Duke Nukem Forever project was the man responsible for that title. With Commander Keen id Software created a revolutionary smooth scrolling engine with only EGA graphics; the former seemed absolutely ancient in comparison.
The game starred a boy who built a spaceship out of old soup cans and spare parts in his garage, only to be marooned on Mars after crash landing to defend himself against the evil Vorticons and save the Earth. Wearing his brother's football helmet and wielding his trademark pogo stick, Commander Keen would find himself in two sequels: Goodbye, Galaxy! and Aliens Ate My Babysitter. It is rumoured that John Carmack's engine for Commander Keen was originally created to port Super Mario Bros. 3 to the PC; after the demo was rejected by Nintendo they created their own character and a series that would be PC platforming's most recognizable. It would also become the springboard for one of PC gaming's most influential developers.
Apogee Software's Crystal Caves would follow one year later, along with the start of another landmark PC gaming franchise: Duke Nukem. While he wasn't the wisecracking character made famous by Duke Nukem 3D (1995), the faster paced shoot 'em up gameplay had more in common with Turrican than Super Mario Bros. It was a big change from the jumping puzzles that were the core of Keen's gameplay.
This was simply the beginning of Apogee's foray into the side-scrolling platformer: numerous titles and their sequels would be making their way to BBS and store shelves, most of the "new" franchises such as Secret Agent (1992) simply being clones of previous efforts that used the same engine. Nevertheless, the PC platforming rush of the early 1990s saw the introduction of conventions of the first person shooter: Secret Agent was the first game I remember having to backtrack with colored keys in order to open their corresponding doors to advance through the level.
Apogee may have been the first to capitalize on this growing genre, but competition wasn't far behind. Epic MegaGames (they would drop the "Mega" in 1999 before the release of Unreal Tournament) released Jill of the Jungle in 1992, which contained its fair share of digs at contemporaries Duke Nukem and Commander Keen in a bit of friendly rivalry. While the game provided moderate recognition for Epic, it didn't achieve the same success as the Commander Keen series. Xargon was released a year later, and though it featured improved visuals over Jill of the Jungle, it suffered the same fate of being overshadowed by Apogee and id Software's established franchises. But this was about to change.
Jazz Jackrabbit (1994) showed some originality within the PC platforming genre at a time when success was often followed with the reuse of engines and similar gameplay. The game's anthropomorphic characters and sense of urgency in the gameplay were evidently influenced by a certain blue hedgehog. The game featured the various planet-spanning adventures of a gun-toting green rabbit, on a quest to save his girlfriend from an evil turtle. If comparisons can be made between id and Epic and their console counterparts, Epic's Jazz Jackrabbit was to Commander Keen what Sonic the Hedgehog was to Mario. The game introduced a much brighter palette, and a level of speed and "edginess" to the character that reinvigorated the PC platforming genre, if only for a short while. An excellent sequel followed in 1998 (and will likely end up in its own column here), but by then Epic had released Unreal, and the battle for 3D engine supremacy had begun in earnest. Jazz Jackrabbit 3, a rumored sequel that was to take the leap into 3D, was subsequently cancelled after poor sales of its predecessor.
So what happened to Apogee Software? In 1994 the prolific publisher of shareware split into 3D Realms and Pinball Wizards for branding purposes, the latter label being used for one pinball title in the late 1990s only to fade into obscurity. It's safe to say that Apogee's only lasting legacy is 3D Realms and the Duke Nukem brand, as id Software and their early titles published by Apogee have clearly become a separate entity in the minds of PC gamers.
Like many gaming classics better served by nostalgia, Commander Keen was brought into console gaming's modern era on the Gameboy Color in 2001. Doing away with the expansive levels and free-roaming gameplay of Goodbye Galaxy!/Aliens Ate My Babysitter, this adventure took a more conventional approach, and simply adapted the Keen character to console gaming's platform conventions. Similarly, Jazz Jackrabbit appeared on the Gameboy Advance in 2002, only to have the character reshaped into some kind of spacefaring mercenary inspired by a well-known science fiction landmark. Both games may have been officially licensed products, but did little to maintain what made the original games so unique: originally inspired by console gaming, but still distinctly a PC gaming experience. In those early days of PC gaming, creating a recognizable and successful franchise was just as easy as copying someone else's. I wish I could say the same for PC gaming today.
Categories: Column: Keyboard Bashing