Review: 3D Realms Anthology – Part I:
3D Realms (or Apogee Software, LTD as it was known officially) is a company that needs little introduction. Anyone who played games on the PC in the 80s and 90s has most likely played a game from 3D Realms at some point, be it intentionally or by virtue of their friends. They were champions of the shareware style of game distribution, allowing users to try out their many titles for free (on a limited basis) before buying. Often install disks for their titles were shared by friends, allowing most gamers to inevitably encounter their products. Perhaps best known for Duke Nukem, 3D Realms amassed quite a library of titles since their founding in 1987. On May 5th, 2015, 32 titles from their historic catalog were released on Steam as the 3D Realms Anthology, and I will be giving you the run down on each and every one of them..
I’ve decided to break this review into several parts, each covering a genre or two featured in the collection. Following my coverage of each game individually, I’ll do a short wrap-up talking about the collection as a package.
For the first part of this review, I’ve decided to start with the Anthology’s selection of Arcade-ish titles. There’s really something for everyone in this selection, from fighters, racing games, shoot-em-ups, pinball, and a flight simulator. Let’s get started!
Balls of Steel
Original release: December 12, 1997
Balls of Steel reminds me a lot of the pinball game that used to come packaged with Microsoft Windows, only a little more grown up. It features five tables that feature action events, including blood and gore effects. The title is clearly a reference to 3D Realms’ beloved Duke Nukem character, who has been known to drop a quote matching the title from time to time. Each of the five tables are themed differently, featuring their own set of music, sound effects, and events. The tables aren’t terribly original thematically, such as an alien invasion scenario or a zombie outbreak. To be honest, the only table that held my interest was the Duke Nukem table. It is the most entertaining by far, and features all the attitude you’d expect from Duke Nukem. From the sound effects to the dialog pulled directly from his games, this is the part of the game worth playing.
Ultimately, this is a solid pinball simulation with entertaining themes bound to make a pinball wizard happy. If you aren’t into the genre, the Duke Nukem experience may still be worth experiencing. I’d play this one with caution, unless you are a die-hard pinballer.
Original release: September 6, 1996
Death Rally is a racing game played from a top-down perspective. Graphically speaking I was not expecting much, but was surprised to see that despite the top-down view the game used, the environments were rendered in quasi-3d. This gave most of the game’s tracks a surprisingly good sense of depth. If you’ve ever played the 2D Grand Theft Auto Games, you’ll be familiar with this style of graphics and you’ll feel right at home playing Death Rally. The controls handle the same, with the car rotating but not the camera. Those unfamiliar with this style may find themselves driving in circles until they get the hang of it. Players race around the track while attempting to impede other racers. Over time you can customize your vehicle with a number of weapons and upgrades to tip the scales in your favor.
I found myself having a lot of fun with this title, as it plays in short sessions and can be pretty difficult once you start advancing through the various race circuits. The announcer has some humorous lines once and awhile, and the environments are also detailed and partially interactive. I actually chuckled out loud the first time I ran down a person watching the race. I’m not sure what that means for me on a psychological level, but it was funny!
This is definitely a game in this anthology worth playing. It’s fun, can be enjoyed in short gaming sessions, and is pretty solid all around.
Original release: October 17, 1994
Wacky Wheels is a cart racer that borrows heavily from Super Mario Kart, which was released on the SNES two years prior. Frankly, the first time I booted it up I thought it was the SNES game, but as I played it I realized it wasn’t really close to the magic that Nintendo was able to create.
That isn’t to say this is a bad game. It’s not. It does everything a cart racer is supposed to do. Provide multiple characters, tracks, power-ups… but while they have a number of characters to choose from, the game itself lacks character. It plays exactly like other cart racers of the time, and actually has a bevy of modes to choose from aside from the standard race, like combat and some variants on multiplayer, but nothing worth getting excited over.
I’d avoid this one, especially if you have a fondness for the Nintendo classic. There’s just no substitute.
Xenophage: Alien Bloodsport
Original release: December 29, 1995
Xenophage: Alien Bloodsport is an arcade style fighting game. Similar to other titles in the genre, like Mortal Kombat and Virtua Fighter, it features one or two player battles between 8 characters, ranging from a man and a woman to a number of alien creatures.
The graphics are the pseudo-3D that a lot of games in the mid-90s tried, and while they are somewhat well done, fighting games that originated in an actual gaming cabinet look much better than the stuff that was hitting PCs back then. The game also has a zooming feature, where the camera adjusts its distance to the fighters based on the action. This feature… is terrible. It’s disorienting and a little nauseating, and seems to be able to be triggered rapidly without much warning.
The gameplay is par for the course for this genre, but I found the A.I. to be a little overwhelming, even on lower settings. While I struggled to get a few shots on my opponent, he (she? it?) seemed to always land more punches in rapid succession.
I’d have to say you should not play this title, only because I worry about you and don’t want to see you get sick while playing it.
Original release: January 23, 1993
Major Stryker is a top-down SHUMP (shoot-em-up) with a lot of great game play to offer. It may appear simple at first, showcasing only a single-player story mode, but the game is full of varied experiences that make the simplistic look and feel more forgivable. It ends up being quite challenging.
The game’s story isn’t very interesting, but most SHUMPs in this era didn’t have one at all, so it was probably a welcome addition back in ’93. The game has three primary missions split among three planets. Each of those missions are split into four parts, with bosses at the halfway point and the end. The player moves in all four directions while shooting and dodging enemies, all among very well put together layered backgrounds. From space to in-atmosphere, the environments make the game seem very expansive and the enemies are different in each area.
Players are capable of obtaining a large array of power-ups, from secondary power weapons to primary ones like lasers and burst weaponry. There are also a number of defensive upgrades you can acquire that make the game a little easier, but if you are destroyed, you lose much of what you collected. The difficulty stays pretty steady throughout, with the exception of boss fights. They tend to be a little more difficult, but that’s why they are there, right?
Buyers of the Analogy should absolutely play this game. If anything, it’s an early look at what early SHUMPs were, and a good template for successful ones that followed.
Raptor: Call of the Shadows
Original release: April 1, 1994
Raptor: Call of the Shadows is another 3D Realms SHUMP that clearly expanded on what went right with their past attempts at the genre. The game plays almost exactly the same as Major Stryker (or any SHUMP, for that matter) but is themed around a modern military instead of a space force. This game brings a major addition to the formula: customization.
You’ll still collect power-ups of all shapes and sizes here, upgrading your firepower and defenses, but the real addition comes between missions, where you can spend cash making changes to your plane. The menu is even creative (for the time) placing you in a hanger and the different clickable doors represent menu options. From here, you can start the next mission, buy things for your jet, and more.
The game looks graphically similar to Stryker in terms of fidelity. High-quality pixel art is the standard here, but it runs much faster and smoother here and is capable of putting more action on the screen at once, making it look much more detailed and full of color. Waves of enemy craft are more numerous and there are a ton of targets on the ground you can blow up too.
This game is great, expanding on the publisher’s past success in this genre and raises the bar considerably.
Original release: November 19, 1996
Stargunner is another SHUMP in this anthology, but this one is a side-scroller instead of a top-down shooter. Much like the genre-defining Defender, Stargunner rockets the player through space with waves of enemies and obstacles to destroy or avoid.
The game still uses many staples from its top-down brothers, including power-ups for weapons and defenses, as well as incorporating a store mechanic for more choosy pilots. There’s a lot of options available to the player, but you’ll have to rack up the kills to earn your way to most of them.
Graphically, the game looks great. It reminds me a lot of the Toy Story adaption on the Sega Genesis, attempting to convey a video-game version of Pixar-like animated objects. It works well here on the PC, and never did I feel like the busy environments interfere with the action at hand.
This is another great SHUMP from 3D Realms (actually, Apogee, according to the title screen) and a worthy addition to this collection.
Original Release: May 31, 1995
Stargunner is the only flight simulator in the anthology, and it’s a curious game, to say the least. Played from the first person perspective, it reminds me a lot of the Descent series, but not nearly as expansive. The game features a number of combat environments, with a simple control scheme and solid control support. You can use a mouse, joystick, joypad, or keyboard to play, although I’d recommend a joystick over the other options for the sake or precision.
Honestly, the game has not aged well graphically, but to be fair, not many have. That said, it still plays really well, and depending on the settings you choose, quite challenging. The controls are tight and I felt like I was actually flying some sort of futuristic space craft with some success. Combat is hit or miss depending on the enemy. Stationary targets are easy to kill, even if they are shooting back at you. Enemy aircraft are more challenging and dogfights can get quite interesting if you don’t allow them to descend into a constant circling between the two of you, as is often the case with games like this.
I’d recommend players give this title a shot, unless they really dislike flight-sims. There isn’t much here compared to other simulators, but it’s still a good time if you’re willing to overlook some dated graphics. Skip it if you don’t have a joystick.
Part 1 Wrap-up:
It’s clear 3D Realms/Apogee know what they are doing in the SHUMP space, as they were the standout titles of the handful of games I chose for part one of this review. Aside from that, I actually found myself returning to Balls of Steel now and then to get my dose of Duke Nukem’s attitude. So far, this whole collection screams 80s/90s nostalgia, and I’m looking forward to getting into the next chunk of games for part two of this review.
Stay tuned to LevelSave for coverage of the 3D Realms Anthology!
The 3D Realms Anthology was provided to LevelSave for review purposes and was played on a PC via Steam.