The shareware scene on MS-DOS PC in the ’90s was a vibrant and interesting place, filled with highly creative games that got the humble old beige box doing things that people never thought it was very good at — like running console-style platformers and shoot ’em ups. Games like Secret Agent.

Playing a leading role in that push for console-style gaming on PC was Apogee, a developer-publisher who helped bring the world what would end up being some of the biggest names in retro PC gaming: Duke Nukem, Commander Keen and, of course, Wolfenstein 3D.

Secret Agent HD

Precision platformer Secret Agent came out the same year as Wolfenstein 3D: 1992. Compared to id Software’s pioneering 256-colour texture-mapped technological marvel, Secret Agent seemed relatively primitive with its 16-colour EGA graphics and PC speaker sound. And yet it definitely had a certain charm to it: it was highly playable and addictive thanks to its solid design and excellent mechanics.

In Secret Agent, you take on the role of Agent 006 and a half, who is on a mission to take down the Diabolical Villain Association. In order to do this, he must destroy radar dishes in 15 different levels and blast open the exits with dynamite in order to progress. And as he works his way through the various DVA complexes, if he can gather intelligence and valuable items, so much the better.

Secret Agent is noteworthy for each of its episodes taking a somewhat non-linear approach. While some levels are gated by others, at most points during a playthrough you’ll have an option as to which stage you’d like to tackle next. You don’t unlock any special abilities or bonuses as you progress, so it really is simply up to you which stages you’d like to play when — and the option is always there to duck out of a level that’s been giving you trouble to try something else.

Secret Agent HD

Secret Agent is so playable thanks to its excellent understanding of what makes a good platform game. Our hero is immediately responsive to our controls, albeit subject to clear limitations that the player will pick up on quickly — the most notable of which is that he can only have one bullet on screen at a time. His jump arc is easy to parse and you can control him in mid-air, meaning you can course-correct if you make a mistake — plus the block-based nature of the level designs means that every stage is built with our hero’s core abilities in mind.

Perhaps the best thing about Secret Agent is that it’s not as beholden to the “arcade game” structure as some other Apogee titles. While you have to complete each stage with only three points of health, there is no limit to how many times you can try the stage again if you make a mistake, and no overall penalty to your score — your score simply resets to what it was when you first entered that level.

And yes, this matters, because there are a lot of optional collectible objects on each stage — plus a 10,000 point bonus if you collect the letters of the word S-P-Y in the correct order and a massive 25,000 point bonus if you can clear the level without taking any damage!

Secret Agent is a great game, then; it’s fondly regarded with good reason, and even without the “HD remaster” bit, people would likely still be playing it today. Let’s be honest, though: back on its original release, no-one was ever going to mistake it for a console game — not even one for the outgoing 8-bit home consoles such as the NES or Sega Master System. The game just didn’t quite feel “slick” enough — most notably with regard to its overall frame rate, scrolling and sprite movement. That and those screechy PC speaker sounds — which were an embarrassment back in the day, but which I must admit have a certain appeal to them these days.

Secret Agent HD

Console games of the early ’90s always stood out thanks to their specialised graphics hardware that allowed them to perform silky-smooth graphics operations; the humble IBM-compatible PC, meanwhile, chugged along with chipsets that, for a long time, weren’t really designed with anything other than business applications in mind. And so while Apogee’s aspirations were certainly noble, even the most dedicated MS-DOS gamer would occasionally glance over at their console-owning brethren with a certain amount of envy.

Fast forward to June of 2021, and the newly resurrected Apogee Entertainment brand — now a separate entity from 3D Realms, which is what the “old Apogee” gradually morphed into — partners up with Emberheart Games to produce “HD” versions of several old Apogee shareware classics: Crystal Caves, Monster Bash and Secret Agent. We’ll get to the other two in due course, but Secret Agent is a masterstroke of a remaster.

You can understand the skepticism. We’ve seen attempts to “remaster” games over the years that completely miss the point of the original games, sacrificing their classic charm in favour of feeling like a gritty reboot. But with Secret Agent HD, Emberheart Games decided to do something pretty remarkable: rather than fundamentally reinventing the game, they decided to keep it as true as possible to the original while allowing it to finally fulfil its ambitions from back in the early ’90s.

What that means in practical terms is that Secret Agent HD looks — and sounds — very much like the Secret Agent of yore, but now it runs beautifully smoothly, with super-slick scrolling and sprite movement.

Secret Agent

In technical terms, this is down to the game’s visuals being designed in such a way that they looks like they’re presented at the low resolution of the original MS-DOS version, but are actually displayed at a much higher resolution, allowing for significantly greater granularity in how things move on screen. The result is that the game looks like it’s running far smoother than it would ever have been possible to make it run back in the day — but not to an uncanny degree. This still looks authentically “retro” — just retro how you’d like to remember it, rather than retro how it actually was.

On top of that, there’s a new, authentic-sounding FM synthesis soundtrack to accompany the action — but the sound effects are still based on the original PC speaker sounds. And there are more colours on screen — but not so many that it compromises the distinctive aesthetic of the original.

If anything, Secret Agent HD looks and runs like what Secret Agent would have looked and run like if it had been released for a console of the early ’90s rather than battered old MS-DOS PCs. It’s quite the remarkable accomplishment — and all the more so for the fact that it still feels very much like classic Secret Agent.

Secret Agent HD

Emberheart Games hasn’t stopped just at making the whole thing look and run better, though. There’s a brand new fourth episode added to the existing three, making for a total of 64 levels to explore. And there’s now a level editor, too, allowing for potentially limitless enjoyment as you create your own stages and share them with others.

In short, Secret Agent HD feels like the game Secret Agent always wanted to be back in the early ’90s. Okay, it may have finally achieved its goal a little later than intended — but it’s actually netting that final result eventually that counts, right?

Secret Agent HD is available for PC via Steam and