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“What are the best shareware games?” It may not be a question we ask all that often these days, but back in the ’90s it was something that PC gamers cared deeply about. After all, many of the most innovative and technologically revolutionary games were actually appearing out of the shareware sector — and as such it was a part of the industry that was very much worth keeping an eye on.
As I type this in 2021, the software brand Apogee has recently brought itself back from the dead, with a remastered version of its classic platformers Secret Agent and Crystal Caves, a brand new indie survival game and more to come. So what better time is there to look back on some ’90s classics from Apogee and its peers — the golden age of PC shareware games?
There is none. None, I tell you. So let’s get to it.
In roughly chronological order, and deliberately excluding some of the more obvious picks like Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Commander Keen…
Most people will cite id Software’s Wolfenstein 3D as one of the best shareware games of all time and the first great first-person shooter, but it actually had some spiritual precursors in the form of the Catacomb series. Originally building on their top-down Gauntlet-style shooter The Catacomb, id released Catacomb 3-D in 1991, and then this was subsequently followed up by the three-part Catacomb Adventure series; the latter wasn’t developed directly by id, but rather by Softdisk’s Gamer’s Edge team.
The Catacomb games combine elements of classic dungeon crawlers with fast-paced first-person shooting action. They pioneered the idea of the player’s “hand” (or weapon) being visible in the game world, and they still play well today despite their putrid EGA colour palettes. Pick up the Catacombs Pack from GOG.com and you’ve got a whole lot of game to enjoy, too, ranging from id’s initial 2D Catacomb prototype right up to the three Catacomb Adventure games.
This platformer from Apogee is one of the company’s best shareware games, and one of numerous attempts the company made to prove that the PC was up to the job of providing console-style action games. While Bio Menace’s 16-colour graphics were obviously inferior to the stuff the 16-bit consoles were putting out at the time, the gameplay was rock solid and the package as a whole was excellent value, offering a hefty number of levels to blast through with plenty of fun things to do along the way.
Bio Menace also features a hero with one of the best moustaches you’ll ever see, which is something to be celebrated. And if that doesn’t get you going, perhaps the unnecessarily gory death animations, where pretty much everything splatters into meaty chunks, will interest you? You monster. Anyway, here it is on GOG.com.
An early title from Epic MegaGames, Solar Winds was the first game from James Schmalz, who would go on to create some of the best shareware games of all time such as Epic Pinball — plus the legendary Unreal. It’s a top-down spacefaring RPG in which you take control of a pilot named Jake Stone as he tackles a variety of missions and eventually uncovers and interstellar conspiracy.
Solar Winds was noteworthy for providing deeper gameplay than one would traditionally expect from a game like this; rather than being a straight-up blaster it’s more akin to the Star Control games, since you have to navigate between different destinations, communicate with a variety of characters and ultimately determine the best way to reach your goals.
Regrettably, Solar Winds has never been rereleased anywhere in more recent years, though you can play the shareware episode over at the Internet Archive.
Another Epic MegaGames jam, this time put together by a North American demoscene group called Renaissance. It was noteworthy for being available on a self-booting floppy disk rather than being loaded from DOS; at the time of its 1993 release, this had somewhat fallen out of favour for PC games, with most being loaded from MS-DOS, but the creators of Zone 66 found it useful for creating a custom environment in which the game could run.
Zone 66 is a top-down shoot ’em up in which you control a variety of different aircraft and destroy air and ground targets. It drew particular praise for its soundtrack, which on compatible sound cards made use of an unusual combination of FM synthesis and digital samples — this was Renaissance’s trademark.
Zone 66 is no longer available for purchase online, but once again the Internet Archive has the goods for now.
Traffic Department 2192
A 1994 release from Safari Software, distributed by Epic MegaGames, Traffic Department 2192 is, for my money, one of the best shareware games ever. It’s a top-down shooter adventure game in which you take on the role of the hot-tempered and foul-mouthed Marta Louise Velasquez, a space-age traffic cop on the planet Seche.
The game is noteworthy for its uncommonly detailed, lengthy and distinctly adult sci-fi storyline, telling an uncompromising tale of how Velasquez seeks revenge for the death of her father. It was one of the earliest games to make use of a hefty amount of profanity in its script, and remains beloved to this day for its complex narrative that unfolds across its three main episodes.
Traffic Department 2192 was released as freeware under the Creative Commons CC BY-ND 3.0 license in 2007; the full registered version can be found over at Classic DOS Games, though note you’ll need to set up your own DOSBOX or MS-DOS environment in which to run it.
Apogee weren’t the only ones trying to hit the console-style gaming market during the shareware boom — Epic had a good go at it too and, with Jazz Jackrabbit, arguably came closer than Apogee managed with many of its titles.
Jazz Jackrabbit is a Sonic the Hedgehog-inspired speedy platformer that also incorporates run-and-gun elements. The attractive, smooth scrolling visuals and complex level designs have cemented the game’s place in the pantheon of best shareware games among DOS gaming fans over the years — and it’s still readily available today via GOG.com.
It wasn’t just platformers where Apogee was trying to master console-style gaming on PC — they also took a pretty direct pot shot at Nintendo’s classic Mario Kart with 1994’s Wacky Wheels, a comedic racing game heavily inspired by the iconic “mode 7” effect on the Super NES.
To everyone’s surprise, Wacky Wheels actually ended up being pretty good, and even incorporated split-screen multiplayer like its console inspiration. Sure, it didn’t run quite as smoothly as the Super NES’ dedicated gaming hardware — but for those who didn’t have a console in their household, it was a more than adequate substitute for the time, and is still pretty fun today. And yep, this one’s on GOG.com too.
Tyrian is probably one of Epic’s most famous games, and with good reason — it’s an absolutely fantastic shoot ’em up, featuring an interesting story, multiple ways to play, a highly customisable ship and some great, great music.
The game was originally developed as an experiment in producing a smooth scrolling effect on PC, but was subsequently noticed by Cliff Bleszinski, who compared the prototype project favourably to Compile’s classic Zanac. The rest is history — and best of all, these days it’s completely free, too! Nab yourself a copy here and prepare for one of the best shmups on PC — and one of the best shareware games ever released.
Realms of Chaos
After numerous attempts to produce a truly “console quality” game on PC, Apogee finally nailed it with 1995’s Realms of Chaos, a smooth-scrolling, 256-colour hack and slash adventure in which you could freely switch between two heroes: a sword-wielding beefcake and a lithe lady magician. Naturally, both characters’ abilities are required in order to progress.
Those who enjoy titles like classic-era Castlevania and Rastan will definitely get a kick out of this one — and it’s readily available on GOG.com for modern players, too.
Rise of the Triad
Well, we started with a first-person shooter so we might as well finish with one, huh? Originally intended as a sequel to Wolfenstein 3D, Rise of the Triad ultimately became something very strange indeed: a game that might initially appear to be a testosterone-infused blast-fest, but which quickly reveals itself to have a distinctly offbeat sense of humour.
To date it’s still the only first-person shooter I know of with a Dog Mode, a God Mode in which you can literally point at enemies to kill them, and a holy baseball bat that is one of the most devastating weapons in the game. Couple that with an astonishingly good soundtrack and some satisfyingly speedy gameplay and you have a superb, oft-overlooked classic of the FPS genre. Nab it on GOG.com here.
So those are our picks! As always, this isn’t a definitive or exhaustive list and we’d love to hear your thoughts, too! What do you think are the best shareware games of all time? Let us know down in the comments or via the usual social channels — and check back next week for another 10 of the Best Tuesdays!
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