Saturday, February 04, 2006

The Software Labs

A couple of weeks ago, I got the bug to sort through some of my packed-away boxes, in the hope that some of my long-missing floppy disk games would have magically reappeared. And what should I find, but 5 sets of 5.25" games that I had honestly thought I would never see again: Commander Keen 4, Commander Keen: Aliens Ate My Babysitter, and Keen Dreams. Also in the box were two others that had been by dad's: Catacomb Abyss and Ken's Labyrinth.

While trying to dig up cataloging information on them, I ran into a snag: the publisher, The Software Labs, had been out of business for over a decade. The last mentions of the company I could find on the net were in archived documents from 1993. To add to the confusion, some of these games seemed to be credited to multiple developers and/or publishers, and I was having trouble coming up with a firm understanding of who was actually responsible for these games I had found.

Enter Mr. Dafydd Neal Dyar.

I ran across My. Dyar's website in my search for information on The Software Labs. It turned out that he used to work for TSL as a kind of modern renaissance man -- Senior Copy Editor, Software Reviewer and Developer, Telephone Support Technician & Troubleshooter. He was basically involved in every step of the process of publishing software titles like the ones I had found. I shot off an email, and we corresponded over a couple of weeks. He was kind enough to answer some questions for me about TSL in general, and about my games in particular.

* * * * *

ICG: I have 5 games from The Software Labs, all on 5.25" floppy: Catacomb Abyss, Ken's Labyrinth, Commander Keen 4, Commander Keen - Aliens Ate My Babysitter, and Keen Dreams. In general, anything you remember about these games would be helpful -- approximate release dates, copyright holders, anything like that.

DND: The Commander Keen games were from the creators of Wolfenstein 3D and Monster Bash. You'll some history on the games here:

And here:

And even here:

These folks were also responsible for Catacomb Abyss, as noted here:

Ken's Labyrinth was created by Ken Silverman, who went on to develop parts of Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior and Blood, and initially published by Advanced Systems before being picked up by Epic Megagames. An earlier incarnation was released under the name Walken. It was originally a clone of Wolfenstein 3D. (He got his start in 1991 with a Tetris clone called Kentris.) You'll find more on the game, including downloads of its various incarnations, here:

ICG: More specifically, though, I was wondering about the publication process. Did The Software Labs work directly with the developers/programmers of these games? Were they commisioned pieces, or was The Software Labs a reseller of sorts, picking up titles that had previously been put out by other publishers? Was The Software Labs associated with Epic Megagames, Apogee, FormGen, or iD? The reason I ask is that some of these games show up on some websites with those companies as either the developer or producer, and I was wondering what sort of business relationship existed.

DND: The Software Labs was a repackager and distributor that harvested shareware from public FTP servers and dial-up "information utility" systems and, with a full knowledge and consent of the authors, made it available via mail-order on diskette and, toward the end, CD-ROM.

In return a distribution license from the author, TSL provided standardized installation and help files and first-tier customer phone support, freeing the author of the hassle of dealing with the consumer. TSL also added value to the consumer with a dual guarantee: no "crippleware" and no viruses, Trojan horses, logic bombs or time limits. Authors could disable advanced features or levels or insert nag screens, but everything had to work and continue to work, no matter what, in order get into our catalog.

We were, essentially, middlemen, providing a service to both author and

ICG: Is there any remnant of The Software Labs around? Were they bought out by another company, or did they wind up closing their doors?

DND: The World Wide Web killed The Software Labs, which failed to adapt to the changing PC environment. I warned them that this would happen in 1994, back when Mosaic was still the only Web browser and required a third-party TCP/IP stack. Toward the end, I finally convinced them to start repackaging basic Internet tools, but the management thought it too complicated for their target audience and never believed that their position in the middle would be made obsolete by direct download from HTTP servers.

While I was urging the Powers That Be at TSL to begin setting up FTP and HTTP servers and staging downloadable packages that approximated our diskette offerings in self-extracting ZIP files, they instead were trying to craft a deal with IBM Prodigy similar to the one the Ziff-Davis had made with CompuServe. Had they followed my advice, TSL would've been where Tucows was when the "Information Superhighway" became a household word. Instead, it slowly withered from ever-decreasing sales as people discovered that they could get software directly from Internet via their Web browser, without a middleman or postman.

When the crunch finally came, I was among the first to be laid off, freight thrown off the sinking ship while it floundered waiting for a rescue from Prodigy that never came.

* * * * *

In addition, Mr. Dyar included his rewrites of the catalog entries for the titles I own. I'll post these at the end. Reading through them really took me back -- I remember seeing similar catalogs back in the day, and drooling over the software described.

First, though, I would like to let Mr. Dyar know how grateful I am for his assistance. It is often difficult -- nearly impossible -- to find first-hand information on titles as old as these. The fact that he not only has kept this information, but actually worked with the original distribution of the software, makes his help extremely valuable, and I am grateful that he took the time to share his experiences with me.

And now, the write-ups:

CATACOMB ABYSS (8160-8162) 3 disks

The Virtual Reality technology of Wolfenstein 3-D takes you to a subterranean world of wizardry in the CATACOMB ABYSS! Your sorcerous skills will be tested to the limit by skeletal warriors and vicious vampires and other undead beings who rise from their graves to destroy you. And these are but the minions of your true enemy, the evil necromancer Nemesis, with whom you must contest for ultimate mastery of this 3-D fantasy world. Requires a 286 or faster PC with 640K RAM, EGA/VGA graphics, DOS 3.3 or higher and a hard disk. Mouse/joystick recommended but not required. ASP
KEN'S LABYRINTH - Episode 1: Search For Sparky (8378-8380) 3 disks

Journey through a maze of passages in a sinister alien laboratory on the planet Zogar, fending off monsters at every turn. Your mission is to prove that Earth is more than just a mass of rocks, plants and animals before Zogar destroys it. But to do that, you have to navigate KEN'S LABYRINTH of warp zones and passages while surviving deadly deathtraps, arcane alien artifacts and continual combat. It's 10 levels of 3-D Virtual Reality labyrinth populated by SMART beasties, in the tradition of Wolfenstein 3-D! Each level has it's own original music - and it's own unique and nasty surprise! Requires 512K RAM and a hard drive. Sound Blaster optional (1MB RAM required for sound). 386 or faster PC recommended.
COMMANDER KEEN v1.31 (9332)

This 1992 Shareware Industry "Best Entertainment Program" and "Best Overall Program" Award-winner lives up to its legendary reputation! You're kid genius Billy Blaze, on what could be a one-way trip to Mars in your home-built space ship, which has been dismantled and hidden by the Vorticons. Now, as Billy's secret alter-ego COMMANDER KEEN, you must recover all the pieces and repel the Vorticon invasion of Earth. So power up your stun gun and polish up your pogo stick, because this is a job for COMMANDER KEEN! Requires an 8MHz or faster PC with 640K of RAM and EGA/VGA graphics.
COMMANDER KEEN: KEEN DREAMS (7842,7843) 2 disks

The sequel to the 1992 Shareware Industry Award-winning hit is better than the original! KEEN DREAMS is every 8-year-old's worst nightmare: all those fruits and vegetables Billy Blaze turned up his nose at have conspired to take their revenge and spoil his night. Little do they know that they've kidnapped the intrepid COMMANDER KEEN, fresh from the Martian war and ripe for battle! Will he be beaned by broccoli, speared by asparagus and survive the sour grapes and tater troopers? Can he slice and dice the violent veggies before they cook up their recipe for destruction? The answers to these and several other culinary questions can only be found in this fun-filled graphic action adventure game. Requires 640K of RAM, EGA/VGA graphics and a 720K diskette or hard disk.
COMMANDER KEEN: ALIENS ATE MY BABY SITTER! Special Edition Demo (9187,9188) 2

The third time's the charm in the continuing saga of COMMANDER KEEN. Don't be fooled by the word "Demo" in the title - there's plenty here to keep you busy a lo-o-ong, long time. Billy Blaze's baby sitter has been invited to dinner (as the main course!) by omnivorous aliens and his parents are due home soon! But Billy Blaze is COMMANDER KEEN, Scourge of the Spaceways, and no aliens are going to eat HIS baby sitter, no matter how much she may deserve it. 3 levels of difficulty on several levels of play, a musical soundtrack and a computer-game-within-a-computer-game (check out Commander Keen's wristwatch!) highlight this graphic action romp. Requires 640K RAM, EGA/VGA graphics and hard disk. Joystick and AdLib sound card are optional.
(Order individually by Disk No. below)

While testing his new Photachyon Transceiver, Billy Blaze overhears a plot to blow up the galaxy. Sounds like a job for COMMANDER KEEN! Now it's off we go to rescue the Keepers of the Oracle, the only ones capable of telling him who the Shikadi are and why they plan to use our galaxy for target practice. With 14 deadly, hideous creatures to run from, jump over, stun or otherwise avoid, you may need the self-running Demo mode just to figure out the best next move. Requires 640K or RAM, CGA or EGA/VGA graphics and a hard disk.

(9183,9184) 2 disks - EGA/VGA version

(9185,9186) 2 disks - CGA version


Blogger Unknown said...

Hi! If you happen to find a pdf or something of one of the old Software Labs catalogs, I'd be REALLY interested. God, I used to obsess over those things when I was like, ten. Also, if you ask me questions about shareware games, I'm embarassed to say I can probably answer, oh, all of them.

7:58 PM  
Anonymous Tom said...

I found your page because I too found my old The Software Labs diskettes. Mine are 3 1/2 & math programs. Did you come across any info on those? Several require codes I don't have or lost over time.

10:23 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The Internet Archive will have several of the old catalogs available to download as PDF files soon. Search "The Software Labs".

12:20 PM  
Blogger Scott Mercer said...

Amazing. I worked there as a phone drone late 1992 to 1993, about 5-6 months. (I remember going outside on a break and looking at the LA Times in the vending machine noting that Bill Clinton had won the election for President). Got laid off along with a bunch of others. I assume they didn't last much longer after that.

9:38 PM  
Anonymous Rob Glazebrook said...

Wow. Amazing memories here. I found one of their catalogs online ( and I swear, I had 1/3 of the stuff in the catalog.

10:49 AM  

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