3D Realms Anthology

If I remember the timeline in the book Masters of Doom right, PCs had a problem with smoothly scrolling game worlds, something that made it difficult for the system to create a game like Super Mario Bros, which had been such a phenomenon and driven a lot of people towards consoles, perhaps at the detriment to PCs. Developers plugged ahead, though, and on December 14th, 1990, Apogee (who later became 3D Realms) put out Pharaoh's Tomb, the earliest game in this collection, which presented you a screen of enemies, puzzles, and platforming challenges for you to get through. No scrolling, and each screen was its own area and challenges.

That very same day, id Software, through Apogee's publishing branch, released their first Commander Keen game, showcasing John Carmack's genius, if technically demanding, solution for making smooth side-scrolling possible on the PC. And what a strong comparison these two are, but it emphasizes how big the early 90s were as a time for experimentation and technical breakthroughs in PC gaming. It's difficult to imagine a publisher putting out two games of such wildly different technical skill on the same day anymore.

Despite his placement on the box art, you don't get Commander Keen in this pack (though the website claims you do). What you do get is a look at a company's evolution from those days of single screen platformers, as well as the leaps in PC technology that eventually culminate in games like Duke Nukem 3D. The comparison above really emphasizes how small things started for the company, which eventually went on to be one of the largest shareware developers and publishers in the early days of the internet, publishing Wolfenstein 3D and releasing Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, Rise of the Triad.

It's a rather hefty collection at 32 games, and the emulation seems good enough for the most part. Everything launches in Dos Box, a rather tried-and-true emulation software that's still a little funny to see pop up in legit purchases after its years as a hub for emulated shareware ROMs. Only a couple of issues occurred, such as weird coloring in Balls of Steel (the atrociously named but kinda decent pinball collection) and Duke 3D's default controller settings being WAY messed up. But almost all of the games also now have controller support, which is handy.

Looking at the timeline of the games, they seemed like a company that was for a long time kind of looking for... something. They would put out several games of a similar style, sure, the side-scrolling collect-a-million-things-for-no-reason variety, but the characters, tone, setting--nothing was really set or quite reaching the feel of a  franchise, until after Duke Nukum. Nukum with a U, as he was first introduced, a badass blond muscleman who just wanted to save the world in time for Oprah.

If Duke was their first franchise, it's also fitting he was the company's last real stab at relevance--even the latest game in the anthology, 2002's Duke Nukem: Manhattan Project, features him. It's clear the company knew that they hit it big with him. Balls of Steel is named after a joke from the game and features several Duke (or tangentially Duke related) pinball tables, he's mentioned as a playable character in another game, and he's in 4 games as the main character. The blond muscleheaded man's man brought the company up to something grand... and then brought them back down with Duke Nukem Forever, a game destined to be remembered for its development more than the middling game that was eventually released.

Some of you out there will probably remember these games with a lot of nostalgia, and that probably helps. It's really difficult to go back and try a game like Cosmo's Cosmic Adventure and not just be baffled by it and the bizarre creature you're playing. And games like Bio Menace have their charm, sure, but they're not games that stand out as something especially interesting in 2015 as seminal releases. Most of the games are alright, if aged. Some are poor, others are pretty fun (I love the Wolfenstein 3D engine too much to be able to imagine games being bad in it, and the Blake Stone games gave me a good bit of enjoyment), as you'd expect from a collection that's most of what the studio ever put out.

There is one aspect of a couple of these games that I do wish we'd seen a little more of carried forward, though, even if it is a somewhat cumbersome mechanic to go back to--games like Bio Menace and Alien Carnage (names!) don't let you beat a level until you save hostages. One of the mechanics of the game is to leave no one behind, something that got abandoned pretty quickly in games. Consider the what saving someone in Duke Nukem 3D does for you. Nothing--you have the choice of watching the poor women squirm, or putting them out of their misery. Most games are so concerned with your story that you barely consider, from mission to mission, the people who are lost along the way. Guess they decided it isn't fun.

As a nostalgia piece, as a museum of games gone by, as a snapshot of an evolution of a company and a medium, the 3D Realms Anthology is well worth picking up. You won't get hours of fun out of some of the games, and indeed might only find a few that really hold your interest, but seeing how games have changed, and in perhaps more bothersome ways how they haven't is always fascinating. Charting the rise and fall of a once-powerful company, it's definitely worth your time if you're curious about playing through history.