SLIDESHOW

The 12 Greatest PC Shareware Games of All Time

From the birth of Duke Nukem to the first great digital pinball game, here are a dozen classics from the shareware era.

A Dozen Classics

The early 1980s saw the emergence of a new breed of software developers who gave their games away for free (usually through dial-up BBSs) in the hope that some players would enjoy the games enough to "register" them--usually by sending money over good old snail mail.

Not many players did, but that didn't stop the game makers. Eventually, the shareware method became more refined, offering a free episode as a trial with the promise of more episodes upon payment. The golden age of PC shareware that this model inspired lasted less than a decade, but it left us with thousands of memorable titles that changed the modern gaming landscape. From those many great games, I've chosen a dozen that I think are particularly innovative, influential, and just plain fun.

Many of these games are still available for download or purchase online today. In almost all cases, you'll need DOSBox, an MS-DOS emulation program, to run the games correctly in Windows, Linux, or OS X.

#12: The Adventures of Captain Comic (1988)

Publisher: Michael A. Denio

By 1988, the Nintendo Entertainment System console had already inspired Mario mania among American video gamers. Captain Comic was the first PC title that attempted to capture the feel of a side-scrolling Super Mario Bros. game. It did a surprisingly good job, considering it was the work of just one man who packed interesting worlds and detailed EGA graphics into a mere 102KB game package. Captain Comic was successful enough that it inspired many other shareware authors, including the folks who would later create Commander Keen.

Where to get it: Captain Comic shareware is available for free download online.

#11: Kingdom of Kroz II (1990)

Publisher: Apogee Software

The launch of this game turned the shareware publishing industry on its ear. Scott Miller's innovation was to release a shareware episode for free, and then sell further episodes of the game if a user sent payment. Before Kroz, authors released a full game and essentially begged for compensation.

As a game, Kroz--an overhead action-adventure title that used IBM text-mode graphics--is not particularly distinguished, but its influence on the industry was huge.

Where to get it: The full version of the Kroz series has been released as freeware.

#10: Raptor: Call of the Shadows (1994)

Publisher: Apogee Software

Could a little-known shareware title from 1994 compare to the best shooters released in Japan, home of the shmup (short for "shoot 'em up")? To this day, some people swear that Raptor: Call of the Shadows is the greatest 2D shmup ever released. Detailed graphics, fluid animation, responsive controls, and rich sound effects made Raptor one of Apogee's highest-selling games of all time.

Where to get it: Today, Raptor's creator sells an updated full version through GOG.com, though you can also download the shareware version from 3DRealms.com. An iPhone version is available as well.

#9: Epic Pinball (1993)

Publisher: Epic MegaGames

Epic redefined software simulations of pinball with this shareware title, which accurately reproduced the fluid motion and realistic physics of a pinball machine at play. Its creator, James Schmalz, coded the game entirely in assembly language, and it quickly became Epic MegaGames' highest-selling title--and one of the highest-selling shareware games of all time. The shareware version included one table for free; but if you registered it, you got up to 12 additional tables to play.

Where to get it: You can download the shareware version online.

#8: Duke Nukem 3D (1996)

Publisher: 3D Realms

Duke Nukem 3D marked the three-dimensional debut of popular Apogee character Duke Nukem (which we'll see more of ahead). Coming three years after Doom, it included an advanced pseudo-3D game engine, plenty of amusing weapons, and more sophomoric humor than you can find in any other shareware title. Those qualities proved to be popular with PC gamers, who bought more copies of Duke Nukem 3D than any other shareware game except Quake.

Where to get it: Buy the full version through GOG, or download the shareware version from 3DRealms.com.

#7: Duke Nukem (1991)

Publisher: Apogee Software

Duke Nukem, the original game in the series, is a 2D side-scrolling platform shooter that Apogee made as an in-house answer to Commander Keen, another 2D shareware platformer that had proven very successful. In the process, Apogee created a major game franchise that continues to this day (though most reviews savaged the latest version).

Good controls, colorful EGA graphics, and surprisingly detailed PC speaker sound effects drove the sale of 70,000 copies of the game--an astounding number at the time. Duke Nukem's game engine later provided the scaffolding for a number of similarly popular Apogee titles, the look and feel of which defined an era in PC shareware gaming for many players.

Where to get it: You can download the shareware version online.

#6: ZZT (1991)

Publisher: Epic MegaGames

ZZT's genius is that it is both a game and a game engine; Tim Sweeney programmed the engine first, and then created episodes of the ZZT series within the engine using an in-game editor he devised.

Instead of keeping the editor to himself, Sweeney distributed it with every shareware copy of ZZT, and soon it became the most popular feature of the game. With it, players created their own games, fostering a tight-knit community of fans that survives to this day.

Where to get it: The full version of ZZT has been released as freeware.

#5: Operation: Inner Space (1994)

Publisher: Software Dynamics

Operation: Inner Space was one of the very few games that took advantage of the Windows 3.1 graphical environment. It stands out for its Asteroids-style action gameplay, its high-quality graphics and sound, and its astounding depth. It could be the most underrated PC game ever made.

The game takes place inside your own computer. You pilot a tiny ship that fights its way through file directories scanned off your real hard drive to retrieve program icons and fight back viruses. Along the way, you'll meet other ships with complex AI that side with you or against you based on your actions. You also have to obey certain laws, or the police will catch you--but hey, you can blow them up too if you're powerful enough.

Where to get it: Software Dynamics still sells the game from its website. You can also download the shareware version, which works with Windows XP, at the site.

#4: Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

Publisher: Apogee Software

Id Software's first-person Nazi hunt rumbled through the PC gaming world like an earthquake. The game was of such a high quality, with vivid VGA graphics, haunting sound effects, and an innovative play style, that the mainstream press began to take notice of shareware for the first time.

Wolfenstein's stunning success (it sold over 200,000 copies, becoming the highest-selling shareware title at that point) ironically marked the beginning of the end of PC shareware as a commercial force: Among game publishers, Wolfenstein sparked a quest for higher revenues that, eventually, the shareware market could not provide.

Where to get it: The shareware version is downloadable online.

#3: Commander Keen: Invasion of the Vorticons (1990)

Publisher: Apogee Software

Though published by Apogee, Commander Keen was the first game developed by Id Software. A Mario-esque platform adventure game set on Mars, Commander Keen starred a charming kid with a football helmet and a homemade spaceship. The game turned into a long-running and lucrative shareware series that continued even after Id had moved on to the first-person shooter titles it is now known for.

Where to get it: The shareware version is downloadable online.

#2: Scorched Earth (1991)

Publisher: Wendell T. Hicken

Wendell Hicken's 1991 classic set the standard upon which all tank games are measured. Scorched Earth incorporates an impressive variety of environment, weapon, and gameplay settings that lend it near-endless replay value. Up to ten players can take turns battling it out on randomly generated terrains with an arsenal of strategic yet entertaining weapons.

It may not have sold a million copies, but few games define the spirit and quality of PC shareware like Scorched Earth does.

Where to get it: The shareware version is available for download from the author's website.

#1: Doom (1993)

Publisher: Id Software

In this fast-paced first-person shooter, gamers fought an invading horde of monsters from Hell in a mature, sci-fi-themed environment, which developers would emulate numerous times throughout the next decade. Doom presented a richly detailed, atmospheric setting for a PC game that rivaled both home and arcade video games at the time. It also introduced new network gaming idioms, such as "deathmatch," that set the standard for future FPS games to follow.

Where to get it: Doom is available for purchase and download from Steam.

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