RetroVision – The Origins of id Software

Nowadays id Software is best known for creating some of the world’s most iconic shooters, including well known franchises such as Wolfenstein, Doom, and Quake.  However, id’s gaming origins surprisingly don’t lie within the first person shooter genre.  Instead, they actually found their feet within that most sacred of retro gaming genres, platformers, and the Commander Keen series.

However, Commander Keen wasn’t the first platformer that one of gaming’s most famous names worked on.  Instead, id were originally hoping to port Nintendo’s 8-bit NES titles to the PC, even going as far as to create a working prototype of Super Mario Bros. 3.  Yes that’s right, before Commander Keen and Wolfenstein, id Software created a version of one of the most respected games of the 8-bit era.

Wolfenstein, id Software’s breakthrough shooter.

You see, back in September 1990, id Software founder John Carmack had developed an efficient method of producing rapid side-scrolling graphics on the PC platform, and wanted to put these to use.  So, id Software’s founders Adrian and John Carmack, Tom Hall and John Romero all came together in order to showcase this technology.  This was done by replicate the opening level of Nintendo’s NES title, Super Mario Bros. 3.

However, not content with simply re-creating the first level for PC in under a week, the team who were yet to be known as id Software, went as far as to port the entire game.  This required many long nights, and the use of numerous borrowed computers.  However, such was the confidence in the technology, they were even willing to take this prototype port directly to Nintendo.

Super Mario Bros. 3
Nintendo’s 1988 8-Bit classic Super Mario Bros. 3. A game that helped bring together id’s founding members.

Nevertheless, despite this innovative technology, Nintendo declined their proposal.  In doing so stating that they had no interest whatsoever in porting any of their games, let alone their flagship Mario franchise, to other platforms.  In doing so Nintendo remained firm in their desire to keep Nintendo games on Nintendo platforms.  A stance that the pioneer Japanese video game developer and publisher has continued on, even to this day.

At the same time though, Scott Miller of Apogee Software became aware of the group, and their level of talent.  As such, Miller began contacting Romero in multiple different guises in order to try and initiative contact.  However, Romero spotted that all of these emails came from the same address, and confronted Miller.

id's founders
id Software’s founders, alongside their Business Manager Jay Wilbur and employee Kevin Cloud. From left to right: John Carmack, Kevin Cloud, Adrian Carmack, John Romero, Tom Hall, & Business Manager Jay Wilbur

Miller explained that due to the level of protectionism that went on in gaming at the time, this deception was necessary.  All in all though the deception worked, and Miller did in fact now have Romero’s attention and interest.  As such he wasted no time in suggesting that the team use their technology to create shareware games, with Apogee willing to distribute them.

This led to id creating the first episode in the Commander Keen platforming series.  A series that borrowed heavily from Super Mario, using their work on their Super Mario Bros. 3 port as a basis for development.  This first entry was entitled Commander Keen: Marooned on Mars, and was released on 14th December 1990.  Interestingly, this came only a mere matter of months before the team left their jobs, and officially founded id Software in February 1990.

Commander Keen
Commander Keen: Marooned on Mars, id Software’s first game.

The Commander Keen series has been enjoyed by many, and is still easily available to this day.  However, one thing that is understandably not, is id’s work on Super Mario Bros 3.  In fact, many even believed that all record of this rare port was now sadly lost to history.

That was until recently, when Romero decided to commemorate the 25th Anniversary of the Galactic Hero Commander Keen, by showcasing video footage of the work that started it all.  To do this, Romero took to Twitter and sent out a link to a six minute video demonstration of id’s original groundbreaking work.  In fact, despite understandably not being in playable form, it’s easy to see from this video alone why this was considered so technically impressive.


So once again, as with other recent gaming discoveries such as the Nintendo PlayStation, it’s nice to finally shed some light on the foundations of one of gaming’s most loved companies.  Even better, it’s nice to see one of the developers releasing this himself, and in doing so helping to document a piece of gaming history.  So, next time you take to the depths of hell in Doom, or even into the Nazi stronghold of Castle Wolfenstein, remember none of this would have been possible without Super Mario Bros. 3, Commander Keen, and the hard work of id’s founders.

Sophia Aubrey Drake

A lifelong gamer with a fanatical love of all things Nintendo and Japan. So much so that she's written a thesis on one and lived in the other. Currently on a quest to catch every last Pokémon. Follow me on twitter via @DivaXChill or @RingsandCoins.

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