In creating Wolfenstein 3D, the fine folks over at Id didn’t necessarily create the first FPS game engine, but they did create one of the first commercially successful and developmentally viable basis for what we now call a first-person shooter. This earliest version of IdTech1 could effectively simulate a 2D plain in a pseudo-3D manner – with simple, maze-like floorplans, perfect ninety degree walls only, and exactly one height of ceiling. IdTech1’s first foray into the public eye with Wolf3D would prove however that if you threw in a handful of digital machine guns, the fun of pressing every segment of wall in a castle, and the promise of killing an army of 2D Nazi sprites, you’d have a successful game.
Following Wolf3D’s commercial reception, Id moved on to working at developing a better version of their engine – with pseudo-volumetric lighting, more weapons, more colours, and the only thing more ok to shoot than Nazis, literal demons – for their next major shooter, DOOM. However, Id were not the only PC game company in the market at the time, and a few other studios popped up with an interest in producing FPS titles on their own with the IdTech software. One of these companies would be Apogee Software, better known to us these days as 3D Realms – the pioneers of Ken Silverman’s Build Engine. Surprisingly, they’re still going at it too, with 2019’s Ion Fury (ostensibly) running on the same engine as 1996’s Duke Nukem 3D.
Before making their name with all of that, Apogee developed a handful of their own original games for IdTech1 – each demonstrating a different direction in which to adapt the engine for different purposes. That brings us to this Steam release, The Apogee Throwback Pack, in which four separate games from this period of development perfectly illustrate this point.
The first is Blake Stone – both the original, ‘Aliens of Gold’ and the sequel ‘Planet Strike’. A game *very* comparable to Wolfenstein 3D, but noticeably improved in almost every technical element. The menu, mechanics, and controls will be largely familiar to anyone who’s ever touched a 90s shooter before – however, Blake Stone adds a shockingly large amount of content onto the Wolf3D framework that’s genuinely surprised it could actually be done.
The premise for this story is a bit different, and much more nuanced too – the primary antagonist is essentially a corporate sci-fi overlord who operates a criminal syndicate which spans the universe several hundreds of years into our future. Enemy designs are much, much, more detailed, animated, and come in far more different designs compared to Wolf3D – there’s an array of colourful private security guards, menacing robots, and mutant aliens, each with a very distinct and unique look about them that really blows Id’s four or five types of German solider out of the water. The entire game just looks more alive too – perhaps the sci-fi setting just allowed for a more upbeat and lively tone compared to a WWII prison-castle.
Mechanically too, Blake Stone really surprised me with features I wouldn’t have thought possible on IdTech1 and that really set it apart as something worth taking a proper look at in my eyes. Some NPCs aren’t inherently hostile – and can be interrogated for information and supplies in you don’t prematurely turn them hostile or get them killed. Enemy guards can drop tokens on death, which aren’t just arbitrary points-givers, they’re a rudimentary currency system that can be used to purchase health resources from vending machines. It all comes together to make a game that really ought to have been more well received at the time, one would think. But apart from the one sequel, also included in this Pack, which adds a few more sprite designs and one new weapon, Blake Stone made it out of the 90s surprisingly un-franchised.
Also included in this pack, and on much the opposite end of the IdTech1 spectrum are the original Rise of the Triad and its ‘Extreme’ level-adding xpack. Despite running on the same engine as Blake Stone, and having been produced at roughly the same time and by the same developers, it’s fascinatingly different in almost every stylistic respect.
Where Blake Stone was a grand attempt at DOS-era sci-fi, ROTT serves up a simple “kill the evil Nazi cultists” premise in a series of dingy castle courtyards. The range of enemy designs in much smaller – it’s basically just a couple of Apogee employees photographed in a few different coats and digitised, not even new pixel art sprites. The weapons themselves are much faster, more numerous, the guns fire hundreds of rounds a minute and also have infinite ammo. Emphasis seems to have definitely been placed here on quick mechanics and a more potentially high-ceiling of movement skill. Whatever resources were saved on HUD elements, graphics, and lighting (ROTT doesn admittedly look the most rough around the edges compared to its’ IdTech stablemates like Wolf3D, Doom, Heretic and the like) were clearly invested in many other technical areas of the game however.
Right from the very first level, if you’re anything like me, you’ll be amazed at some of the stuff programmed into IdTech1 for Rise of the Triad. The levels are all absolutely massive – leagues ahead of even the larger Doom 1 and 2 maps, textures much more detailed, floors and ceilings are capable of holding multiple textures (unlike Wolf3D), walls still operate strictly at ninety degree angles but are now capable of variances in height between each other, and most importantly, ROTT manages to implement a proto version of the simulated floor-over-floor effect that wouldn’t become industry standard until the Build Engine, as this game actually has a traversable height axis and supports multiples co-existent horizontal planes overlapping.
Also, my fawning praise for Rise of the Triad couldn’t be complete without mentioning the darling soundtrack. It’s gold-plated, high-energy shooter synth from the very start to when the credits roll and it’s all so remarkably expressive despite its origins as a 90s chiptune disc-release video game soundtrack ostensibly limiting how complex this music could be. Furthermore, Rise of the Triad actually manages something that I think many great retro shooter games – like Doom, Heretic, Duke Nukem, Blood, Shadow Warrior, Half-Life – all got wrong. Without wanting to spoil too much, I think there’s a legitimate case to be made that any of ROTT’s four main end-of-chapter campaign bosses could be among the very best of all video game boss fights, especially since Apogee has very skilfully avoided the classic problems of just making “one regular enemy but really high stats” or “invented-on-the-spot gimmick”, while also maintaining the game’s frantic, fun, tone.
If either of these games sounds like a good time to you, or if you just want to take an inexpensive look at two of 90s gaming’s more obscure shooter titles, pick up this pack and try it all out, you might just find a new favourite.