The World of Cosmo
Wayne’s World and The Lawnmower Man were playing in theaters, and the release of My Cousin Vinny was imminent. No Doubt released their debut album, and the radio reign of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” had not yet been supplanted by the Whitney Houston cover of “I Will Always Love You.” Who’s the Boss? was nearing the end of its eight-season run, Johnny Carson was just about to pass The Tonight Show’s torch to Jay Leno, and I had just turned six.
It was March 1992. The popularity of arcade gaming was in decline due to the growing market share of capable home video game consoles. Super Mario World, and the Super Nintendo Entertainment System it ran on, had just been released in North America the previous summer. Two years prior to the SNES, the Sega Genesis had become available in the same market. To most observers, there was no question that these console systems were where the true gaming action was. These observers may have been right, but they were overlooking something.
Roughly one in five U.S. households had a home computer of some type at the time,1 and that number was growing at an ever increasing rate. There were a number of competing platforms – Commodore, Atari, Amiga, and Macintosh – but the real juggernaut was the IBM Personal Computer. Most of these PCs weren’t made by IBM, mind you; by the early 90s most PCs were clones made by other manufacturers. IBM had shot themselves in the foot some years prior with the introduction of the Personal System/2, with its technically superior but definitely less popular Micro Channel Architecture (MCA) bus. Unlike the Advanced Technology (AT) bus that preceded it, MCA’s specifications were proprietary and required licensing deals for any company that wanted to make a compatible add-on card. The PC market didn’t play ball, the clone manufacturers renamed the AT bus to the Industry Standard Architecture (ISA) bus, and everybody won except IBM.
A typical PC of the era might have had the Intel 80386 processor, perhaps 4 MB of memory, and a 120 MB hard drive. Beefier models like the Compaq Deskpro 486/33 could set you back a tidy $5,699 plus another $699 for the VGA monitor.2 For comparison, a new Toyota Corolla sedan cost around $11,000 at the time.3 Out of the box, these new PCs ran MS-DOS 5.0. Windows 3.0 was available, and Windows 3.1 would come the following month. The Linux kernel had not yet reached the milestone of its first birthday.
Macintosh users could purchase the brand-spanking-new LC Ⅱ with System 7 software starting at $1,699.
Many home computers had modems that facilitated a data connection through the copper telephone network. By instructing their computer to call a capable host at a different telephone number, a user could access Bulletin Board Systems (BBSes) to swap messages and small files. Some computer users were members of dial-up services like America Online or Prodigy, but each of these were fundamentally closed systems with limited contact with non-members on the outside. There may have been fewer than fifty HTTP servers in the world, and none of them had ever served a photographic image.
From this primordial networking ooze, a novel distribution system for games emerged. Rather than physically visiting an arcade to drop quarters into machines or driving to a mall to purchase cartridges/discs for a home system, dial-up networking granted the ability to download games from remote computers. Not only that, but a user could then save copies of these games onto blank disks that could be removed from the computer and shared with others. The general-purpose nature of the home computers, along with the availability of programming resources on BBSes and in print magazines, put game creation into the hands of anybody with access to a computer and the perseverance to figure out how to program the thing. A simple upload to that same BBS, and a programmer’s work could potentially reach an audience of thousands.
In my day…
COSMO1, compressed using PKZIP 1.1, fits into a 525 KiB ZIP file. The top-of-the-line modems of the day ran at 14.4 kbit/s. This means it would’ve taken almost five minutes to download the game from a BBS. Those poor saps with 2,400 bps modems would spend almost a full half hour doing this.
One of the game companies testing out online-first methods of distribution was Texas-based Apogee Software Productions, founded by Scott Miller. Apogee pioneered a distribution model called episodic shareware, where a game would be split up into three or more episodes, with the first episode made available completely free on BBSes and disk collections bundled with computer gaming magazines. Players and BBS operators alike were encouraged to share copies of shareware episodes with anybody who might enjoy them. Upon playing all the way through the shareware episode (often to some sort of cliffhanger), the game would present a screen with information about how to purchase the remaining registered episodes. This was accomplished by either mailing a check or phoning/faxing a credit card order to Apogee and receiving a disk in the mail. By all accounts, shareware was a massively successful model.
Apogee did not employ its own programmers in those early days. The games were created by outside individuals or teams, and Apogee handled the distribution in exchange for a percentage of profits. One of their creators was a small Louisiana company called id Software, who had just released Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy! around Christmas of 1991. Many people had heard of the game, but not nearly as many as who would hear about their big release for 1992: Wolfenstein 3D.
There was another Apogee creator on something of a roll: 22 or 23 year old Todd J. Replogle. Eight months earlier he – along with Jim Norwood, George Broussard, and Scott Miller – had unveiled a character named Duke Nukem and released the debut game of the same name. Duke Nukem would prove successful enough that, a little less than two years later, a sequel called Duke Nukem Ⅱ would be released. That, in turn, would lead to Duke Nukem 3D in 1996, but that’s another story for another day.
In March 1992, between Duke Nukem and Duke Nukem Ⅱ, Replogle released a game called Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure. Ostensibly a children’s game about a young alien tasked with rescuing his lost parents after the family’s spaceship crash-landed on a dangerous uncharted planet, the game was polished and technically respectable. Some of the standout features include 45-degree slopes, the ability for the player to climb vertical walls using suction cup hands, and the impressive variety of enemies, bonus objects, and visual effects. It was a fun game, and I’d encourage anybody who has never played it to find a copy of the shareware episode and give it a spin.
Cosmo and the first two Duke games are all 16-color EGA side-scrollers, and there are clear technical similarities between the file formats, in-game behavior, and overall “feel” of their gameplay. One of the key traits shared by all three games is some form of parallax scrolling on the background (or backdrop) layer, where there is an area visible “behind” the level that scrolls at a different rate than the foreground action. (Video game console systems had dedicated graphics processors to handle this sort of thing, but PC games had to do all their work on the single general-purpose processor.)
I can’t prove it, but I would not think it unreasonable to imagine that the code for Duke Nukem was modified and improved to create Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure, and Cosmo in turn was used as the foundation for Duke Nukem Ⅱ. Framed this way, Cosmo serves as an interesting technological touchstone between the first two Duke games.
Nowadays one of the chief criticisms repeated about both Cosmo and the two Duke games is that the gameplay is choppy. This is owed to the fact that the screen (and objects on it) can only scroll vertically/horizontally in eight-pixel steps, which necessitates dropping the frame rate so things appear to move across the screen at a believable speed. The parallax scrolling is demanding on the hardware, and shrinking the step size below eight pixels would have caused more frequent redraws of the screen and dramatically raised the minimum hardware requirements to run the game.
In many ways id Software’s Commander Keen, initially released in 1990, was a technically superior game with first-of-its-kind EGA smooth scrolling. The graphics programming genius of wunderkind John Carmack pushed the boundaries of what was thought possible with PC hardware available at the time. However, there was a trade-off in the technique: Because the whole screen needed to scroll as a single unit for the effect to work, it was not possible to have both smooth scrolling and parallax backdrops. For both Cosmo and Duke, Replogle made the choice to go with parallax backdrops.
But what do I know?
In my (worthless) opinion, Replogle made the correct choice. Keen is an incredibly smooth game, but the rigidity of that scrolling gets a little monotonous after a while. Cosmo and Duke’s scrolling is undeniably chunky, but the parallax backdrop effects (especially some of the ones in Duke Nukem Ⅱ!) definitely help create a sense of immersion. Still, Keen was a much bigger commercial success, and maybe what I value in a game is completely different from what the gaming public values.
Incidentally, the desire to understand how the parallax backdrops were implemented was the primary motivation for me to start exploring the game’s code.
Replogle didn’t go it alone. According to the in-game credits, there were a number of people who helped bring Cosmo to life.
Graphic artist Stephen A. Hornback was the first staff artist hired to work for Apogee in the 1990s. As a result, he contributed to many of the games produced and published by Apogee during that era. As far as I can tell, Cosmo was the first game that Hornback was credited on, although he would go on to create graphics for games like Rise of the Triad and Duke Nukem 3D. He also designed the original logo for Apogee’s 3D Realms group. Hornback passed away in November 2016.
Producer Scott Miller is perhaps better known as the founder of Apogee, and the father of the episodic shareware model. He mentored these independent creators, oversaw the games they developed, and helped mold them into compelling works that people wanted to play and buy. Apogee was a small operation in the grand scheme of things, and Miller’s responsibilities at various times could have involved anything from quality assurance testing to order fulfillment and everything in between. As producer, he undoubtedly provided suggestions for gameplay and story in addition to handling the business aspects of the game.
Allen H. Blum Ⅲ has a number of video game credits to his name, with most involving level design. He’s also occasionally credited as an artist and a programmer. Blum is credited with creating the level editor for Cosmo, which is no small feat considering the size of each map and the technical implementation details one needs to keep in mind to make the game function as intended. It wouldn’t be unreasonable to assume that Blum contributed to the actual level design as well.
AdLib music composer Robert “Bobby” Prince is a legend in his own right. He has composed hundreds of pieces of music for dozens of games spanning three decades. Prince did the music and sounds for games like Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom, with contributions to Rise of the Triad and Duke Nukem 3D. These games helped drive consumer demand for sound hardware, pulling the PC out of its original pit of single-pitch beeps and into a new universe of riveting music and lifelike digital sounds.
Cosmo owes its AdLib music routines (and a small bit of the PC speaker output code) to id Software. Their “Sound Manager” (a.k.a.
ID_SD.C) was a multi-purpose utility library for sending sound effects and music to all of the audio output devices of the day, including hardware the game didn’t utilize like Sound Blaster and the Disney Sound Source. The id Sound Manager’s heyday spanned from Commander Keen in Keen Dreams (possibly earlier) all the way through Wolfenstein 3D. The bulk of the code was credited to Jason Blochowiak, and he is credited by name in a few other games that most likely all shared the same underlying sound code.
The special thanks to Softscene in the credits is a bit of a mystery. As best I can tell, Softscene Inc. (or possibly SoftScene) was Stephen Hornback’s company. There are a couple of clip art libraries floating around the Internet today bearing both Hornback’s and Softscene’s names, and both are frequently listed together on public records websites. It appears as though Softscene ceased operations (or significantly reduced them) prior to the proliferation of search engines and web archives, and now only echoes of the company remain. It’s not clear what Softscene may have contributed as a company that Hornback didn’t contribute as an individual.