Few people have heard of it, yet many consider John Blankenbaker's KENBAK-1 to be the first commercial personal computer.

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The Ultimate Apogee Software Gaming Guide

You have to shoot the cute doggies?! Argh.

You may remember that I had a Sega Master System growing up. Well, that wasn't my only way to play games back then. We also had a family computer, and Dad would install computer games on it to keep us entertained. They were always free games - Dad hated spending money. He wouldn't buy gas, the car would move by itself to try and earn Dad's nod of approval.

However, that cheapness allowed us to discover Apogee Software (now known as 3D Realms, now known as...Apogee Software. Don't ask). They used a neat way to sell games. The games were divided into three episodes. The first episode was free, and if you liked it, you could order the rest. Naturally, Dad never fell for this trick, but as a result I've played most of the shareware games Apogee developed or published. And I want you to play them, too. Apogee Software games were a huge part of my childhood, and if you haven't tried any of them yet, you're totally missing out.

That's where this guide comes in. What follows is a list of all the Apogee games I've played, what they're about, and how good I think they're are. And since you need to play these in DOS, I'll show you how to set up DOSBox, too. Oh, sure, regular fans of this blog may know how to do that, but for some people using DOS is like mastering magic. You ready to get started? All right. Let's do it.

WHAT YOU NEED

1. Obviously, you're going to need some games. You can find practically every game on this list at 3dRealms, except where otherwise noted.

2. DOSBox emulates the environment needed to run these games, so head on over to the DOSBox site and download the version appropriate for your operating system.

3. Now, to play games in DOSBox, you'll need to type in a series of commands. But I don't feel like doing that. Instead, grab a handy front end called DOSShell which will make DOSBox ten times easier to use. DOSShell is a Windows-only program, though. Front ends for Mac are also available at the DOSBox download link above, but I can't help you with those. I'm not good with Apple products. The only way I can use my iPod is to bookmark the songs in Internet Explorer.

SETTING UP YOUR SETUP

Step 1: Download the DOSBox and DOSShell installation programs from the appropriate websites.

 DOSBox

Step 2: Install DOSBox first by double-clicking on its installation program. It'll create its own folder in whatever drive you're installing it to, but since I've already got DOSBox on my machine, I'm putting this new version in a separate folder.

 DOSBoxing

Step 3: Once DOSBox is done installing, go ahead and install DOSShell next. I'm going to put mine in the same folder as DOSBox for easy access. That way, if they both refuse to work, I can drag them above the Recycle Bin until they plead for mercy.

Step 4: When DOSShell is done installing, uncheck "Show Readme" and click Finish to load it up. A popup will tell you that DOSBox's directory hasn't been set. That's fine. Click OK to clear it.

Step 5: After DOSShell comes up, go to the menu bar and click Edit, then Preferences. Click Browse and surf to the directory where DOSBox is located. Click OK to load that up, then click OK on the Preferences screen to clear it.

 Extraction

Step 6: Now let's get a game. Keep DOSShell up, and go download a game from 3dRealms. I'll pick, oh...the registered version of Bio Menace. Unzip the game to the DOSBox folder, creating a separate folder for it. This way, you can keep all your games organized. It's a good habit to keep, so later on, see what else you can organize on your computer. Your spyware will look so much better in nice little columns.

 New

Step 7: Uncheck "Show extracted files" and click Finish. Now, bring up DOSShell and click the big green plus sign. We're going to use this to create an entry for Bio Menace. The bolded fields are required, so copy it like I have below, using your own file location in place of mine. (To make a new group, just type its name in the Group field.)

Step 8: Click OK to reveal your new entry. Double-click on it, and bingo! You're playing the game. That wasn't so hard, was it? By the way, if you don't want to play in fullscreen, go back to Preferences and uncheck "Run programs directly in fullscreen mode". But what if the game you unzipped came with an installation program instead of the whole game? Don't worry about it - just set up the entry like you did before, but under "Path to Executable", point to the installation program instead. After installing the game, right-click the entry and select "Edit Entry", where you can then select a new path to the game you just installed. You can do the same thing for any setup programs the game might have. (And if you want music and sound, that's a good idea. Choose Sound Blaster when configuring sound in those setup programs for the best results!)

All right! Now that you've got DOSBox ready to go, it's time to play some games. The list below will get you a big head start on Apogee Software games, but there's a few more out there that I haven't played, like their early trivia games and the Kroz series. These are also available at the 3DRealms download link, so give 'em a shot if you're interested. And now, without further ado...

THE GAMES

COMMANDER KEEN: INVASION OF THE VORTICONS

 Mmm. Vorticons.

To be fair, the Commander Keen games were developed by id Software, but Commander Keen is such an iconic part of Apogee that I had to cover him first. He's actually a super-smart eight year old named Billy Blaze who builds a working rocket ship in his backyard. When he flies it to Mars, aliens steal parts of the ship, so now it's up to Commander Keen to get those parts back. If he doesn't hurry, the Martians will sell the parts. Then they'll have enough to buy a booty call for each booty a Martian woman has.

How Good Is It? Well, compared with later Keen games, this one's primitive. The jumping can be stiff and the in-level backgrounds are simple. Keen is also a One Hit Point Wonder - a enemy can kill him with a mere tap. Still, it's definitely playable, and while not my favorite Keen game, it's fun enough to warrant a recommendation. 


COMMANDER KEEN: GOODBYE GALAXY!

 Keener

After taking care of the Vorticons, Keen hears about a plot by the Shikadi to destroy the galaxy. He flies over to Gnosticus IV to consult the Keepers of the Oracle and learn more. There's just one problem, though - they've been kidnapped! Now Keen has to rescue them all, and quickly if he wants to save the Milky Way. And that's good. Life would suck if we lost that sweet combo of chocolate and nougat.

How Good Is It? Goodbye Galaxy! is SUCH a huge improvement over the original trilogy. Thanks to the vibrant, cartoony graphics, Keen's world really pops. And it's a lot easier to guide Keen's jumps now. He's still as fragile as a tissue, but when you narrowly avoid death thanks to some slick moves, you feel like a champion. This game is a must-play.


DUKE NUKEM

 Retro Duke

You may know Duke Nukem these days as a super-macho action hero, but he was a lot calmer when he first started out. In fact, the whole reason he's trying to stop the evil Dr. Proton and his army of robots was because the invasion interrupted Oprah. Don't get me wrong, though - he's still pretty manly. After all, he uses an ATOMIC PISTOL that fires bolts of NUCLEAR ENERGY. With all that exposure, I'm surprised his soul hasn't caught cancer. "I'm sorry, we have to take this soul out. You can't go around making moral decisions with a soul like this."

How Good Is It? Though made a year after Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons, Duke Nukem looks better and plays better. No music, unfortunately, but the sound effects are pretty dynamic. The game has a few epic moments too, like when you go on top of a building and shoot down a helicopter who tries to crash into you. While there are better 1991 games out there, Duke Nukem is no slouch.


DUKE NUKEM II

 More Duke

After taking care of Dr. Proton, Duke Nukem becomes a national hero. However, during an interview for his autobiography, he's abducted by aliens called the Rigelatins. They want to use his brain to give their army the knowledge they need to conquer Earth, but Duke rejects that idea and quickly busts out of prison. Now only he can defeat these aliens and save Earth for a second time. You know, if an action hero's all you really need, why bother training an army? The entire military budget could just be buying Stallone a gun and a flash card of one-liners.

How Good Is It? Well, it's got more weapons, more detailed graphics, actual music...and yet, I think this game's inferior to the original. Maybe because the details can clutter the screen and Duke's guns don't feel quite as powerful as the atomic pistol did. It's just not as memorable of a game. Your mileage may vary, but play the first game before you give this a shot.


COSMO'S COSMIC ADVENTURE

 Cosmo 

Cosmo is an alien with suction cups for hands and an "overbite like Bart Simpson". (Apogee's words, not mine.) While traveling with his parents to Disney World for his birthday, their ship is forced to land after it gets hit by a comet. Cosmo pokes around the strange planet a bit, but when he returns, he finds that his parents are missing! Thus begins Cosmo's great adventure to find his family. Maybe, by saving his abusive father, Cosmo will prove that he's a good son. And then maybe his dad will give Cosmo back his real hands.

How Good Is It? I used to like this game a lot as a kid, but these days, my opinion has soured. The graphics are detailed, but the frame rate gets choppy as a result. Cosmo himself doesn't have a lot going for him, either. He jumps on enemies and uses his suction cups to stick to walls. That's it. Oh, and he can use bombs. Somehow. They never really explain that angle. All in all, without nostalgia backing you, you might find this game underwhelming.


WORD RESCUE AND MATH RESCUE

 Word Rescue

I'm lumping both of these games together because they're mostly the same. All you need to know is that it's your job to recover words and numbers stolen by a bunch of jerks called the Gruzzles. Why did the Gruzzles steal words and numbers? Because they don't know how to read or write. Here's a news flash, Gruzzles - it's called a GED. Be responsible and go get one. That way, when you apply for a job, you won't get rejected because of your lack of education. It'll be because a Gruzzle looks like cat puke.

How Good Is It? Well, Math Rescue has more colorful graphics than Word Rescue, but they play the same - run around, solve problems, and avoid the Gruzzles. Basic educational fare. There are better retro educational games out there with a better presentation, like the Carmen Sandiego and Dr. Brain series, so try this only if you're curious.


SECRET AGENT

 Ahh. Blinding tiled background.

Agent 006½ has been dispatched to a series of islands to stop the plans of the Diabolical Villain Society (DVS). They've stolen blueprints to a powerful laser satellite that can fire at any point on Earth. In the hands of DVS, these blueprints will help them create a weapon capable of holding the entire planet under their control. But, you know, maybe if you didn't design plans for an ORBITAL DEATH RAY, we wouldn't have this problem. Why not make something less inviting, like an orbital peace ray? Think about it. If you're a terrorist, what would you pass up - the plans to a death ray, or the plans to Space Station Kumbayah?

How Good Is It? Ehhh...it's not a bad game, but nothing really stands out. There's tons of backtracking, though. And with the tight jumps, loads of death traps, and only three hits per life, you've got to play this one carefully. Still, it's competent enough, and best of all, you don't have to clear out every level to get to the end. Go ahead and give it a whirl.


CRYSTAL CAVES

 Crystal Caves

Mylo Steamwitz wants to get rich quick. That's why he's trying to capitalize on the recent Twibble fad by opening up his own Twibble farm. To do that, he needs to earn money by collecting crystals under the surface of a strange planet. Sure, there are a bunch of hostile aliens running around, but Milo can deal with it. He's only got a pistol that fires ROCKETS. Seriously, how do these Apogee characters get such overpowered weaponry? Maybe there's a special company they buy them from. "Excessive Arms - if your gun kills a criminal, and then his children die in the fallout, it's Excessive."

How Good Is It? Crystal Caves' engine was used to make Secret Agent, but for some reason, I never got into this game as much as the other one. You're still exploring various levels from a world map, but much more annoying since you have to collect EVERY crystal in a level before you can leave. And unlike Secret Agent, you have to clear every area to beat the game. Only go for this one if you love picking up the shinies.


WACKY WHEELS

 Wacky Wheels

Here we've got a Super Mario Kart type of game for the PC, and if you've played kart racers, you know what to expect. This time the characters are zoo animals, and you've got a variety of weapons like hedgehogs and fireballs. Besides standard races, you can battle other racers or take out ducks in Wacky Duck Shoot mode. It sounds fun, but I don't think a lion would like it if a gazelle beat them in kart racing. Next thing you know, the winner would get a note: "Prairie. Midnight. Come alone."

How Good Is It? For a shameless Mario Kart clone, it's not bad. The available drivers and tracks are pretty limited in the shareware version, but from what I've played, it's a good understudy if Mario Kart isn't available. Then again, there are ways around the limitation - visit Phil’s Wacky Wheels Site for cheats, ways to play registered characters, and file editing tips. All in all, I say you should give it a shot.


BIO MENACE

 Bio Menace

Metro City is infested with mutants! And we're not talking the friendly ninja turtle variety. Snake Logan is a CIA agent assigned to fly over Metro City and gather recon, but when his plane gets shot down, he has to fight through the city and stop the madman behind it all. Snake doesn't have anything crazy like a rocket pistol, but he'll make do with floating powerups like lasers and grenades. Man, life would be easier if you just had to jump to get what you wanted. Want that surgery? Sorry, it's too high. Come back when you've got the super jump boots.

How Good Is It? Now, to be fair, most of the game was made by one person. And since one-person operations have given us fantastic games like Cave Story and Knytt, I support them. The problem is that you expected a lot more from Apogee in 1993, and Bio Menace doesn't shape up. I personally like this game, but there are a lot of problems which might understandably piss you off, like annoying enemy placement and weird jumping. On the plus side, the registered version is now freeware, so if you like it, you can enjoy the entire trilogy at no cost. It's up to you.


WOLFENSTEIN 3D

 Poor dogs.

Ah, Wolfenstein 3D. The landmark, historically inaccurate first-person shooter. Although I'm pretty sure World War II would've kicked a lot more ass if it had Hitler in a giant mech suit. You play as B.J. Blazkowicz, an American soldier who has to bust his way out of a German prison and shut down the Nazi's plans to conquer the world with undead soldiers. Not motivating enough for you? How about collecting all the Nazi gold hidden throughout each level? The Nazis are too busy to stop you. After all, any good action hero will teach Nazis "The Seven Habits of Highly Deceased People".

How Good Is It? Well, any FPS gamer worth his salt needs to give this a shot, no doubt. But how does it hold up these days? Well, movement can be tricky if you want to strafe and move without the mouse, which is how I originally played it. And for a game that helped kickstart the FPS genre, you can expect simple graphics and a small selection of weapons. If you're an aspiring FPS historian, you need to play this. If not, well...don't feel ashamed if you pass it up.


MYSTIC TOWERS

 Mystic Towers

As Baron Baldric, an extremely old wizard lacking pants, you must purge monsters from a set of towers and destroy the monster generator within each. You can pick up a variety of spells along the way, but you also have to pick up food and drink to stay healthy. Of course, not all of these consumables are safe to eat. Like you should be surprised when you eat floor slime and it kills you. "Hey, wait a minute, that's not fair! I know touching this stuff made my hand scream and hide inside of my wrist, but still!"

How Good Is It? On the bright side, I love the look of the game. It's colorful and detailed, with cartoony animations and enemies. But the controls totally kill it for me. Everything moves around on a grid, and because the grid is isometric, pressing up moves you northeast. Not only is this hard to get used to, but since your spells fly forward in a line, aiming attacks on monsters that never stop moving becomes pretty difficult. To top it off, you can't configure the controls to your suiting. That's a game breaker for me. You might like this game if you can get past the control problems, but be cautious.


BOPPIN'

 Boppin

Your job in Boppin' is to create matching block formations in order to free video game monsters captured by Hunnybunz, who's out to "clean up" video games. Kind of an ironic antagonist, considering that Boppin' features characters who commit seppuku if they lose. Oh, and let's not forget the developer's logo of a stabbed teddy bear leaking blood. You wouldn't know this if you played the Apogee version, though, since it got censored immediately. The developer claims all the blood was for "art", but I don't buy that story. You don't have to be disturbing to create art. You just need to have a hard time paying for electricity.

How Good Is It? Since you play as a character who throws around blocks, you'll need to learn how to angle your shots if you want to win. The controls handle this pretty well, even if they take some finesse to actually fire a block. Plus the unique levels give you a huge variety of blocks to match up in various locations. Puzzle fans who want a new game to chew on might want to give Boppin' a try. It's devious, but definitely rewarding.

NOTE: If you want the DOS version of the game, hit up the DOS Games Archive. If you want the uncensored version that works in Windows without DOSBox, go to Jenniverse.


HOCUS POCUS

 Hocus Pocus

A young wizard named Hocus wants to join the Council of Wizards. Naturally, killing a ton of monsters is the only way to prove his worth. Hocus only has a basic lightning spell to defend himself with, but he can find potions along the way to help him out. These potions range from health recovery to super jumping. My personal favorite is a potion that lets you fire so fast, it creates a chain of lightning that I call the Murderbeam. While fun, I'm not sure how wise it is to give this power to a child. It's like giving a toddler a nuke and telling him, "Have fun, but don't hit your sister with it."

How Good Is It? Though not developed by Apogee, I still find this a solid platforming adventure. There are some annoying bits, though - you can't hold down the fire button to keep shooting, and with all the enemies that warp in, this gets old quickly. And you can't set the buttons to any keys you want. In spite of that, I'm gonna give Hocus Pocus a recommendation.


MONSTER BASH

 Monster Bash

The unimaginatively named Count Chuck is kidnapping pets! After Johnny Dash's puppy is stolen, a monster under his bed arms him with an unlimited slingshot and sends him into the Under World. Now Johnny must free all the pets from their cages while fighting the forces of evil. To this day I'm still amazed that a game featuring such a young protagonist has so much gore in it. Zombies explode into chunks when you kill them, blood streams down the title screen when you boot the game up...is this something that children needed to see? Answer: yes. How else are parents going to have something to blame if their child is dysfunctional?

How Good Is It? The EGA graphics may not be top of the line, but this is still a great game. Johnny can aim in multiple directions for easy shooting and he controls fairly well. The sound effects are also quite good. My only gripe involves some of the trickier parts later on in the game, but that's a minor complaint. Play this one right away.


RAPTOR: CALL OF THE SHADOWS

 Raptor

There's a story about being a mercenary and junk, but who gives a crap about that? Raptor is all about killing stuff in your kickass fighter jet. You'll fly over a variety of terrain, taking out enemy ships and avoiding big yellow bullets of death. The best part about this game is upgrading your jet with shields, bombs, and weapons. Fortunately, enemy ships you destroy are all too eager to drop money. Real life should be like that. Then the Vietnam War would've just been a really big casino.

How Good Is It? Raptor is easily one of the best games on this list and a total must for any shoot-em-up fan. The graphics are still sharp as hell, the sound is awesome, and with the ability to destroy almost anything in a level, there's definitely no shortage of action. Apparently the Windows version has control problems, so go with DOS on this one. You will not be disappointed.

For more nostalgic DOS action, check out Matt Willard's ongoing comedic playthrough of Space Quest V: The Next Mutation at his website, Giant Robot Invasion.

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