Penguin Software, the graphics people

In the early spring of 1977, the very first West Coast Computer Faire took place. The San Francisco Civic Auditorium was unexpectedly filled to the brim, with thousands of people waiting in lines just to glimpse what would become known as the birth cradle of the Personal Computer. The West Coast Computer Faire was at the time the largest computer show in the world, here two of the three personal computers from the 1977 personal computer trifecta debuted and were shown off to the public. The Commodore PET, presented by Chuck Peddle, and the Apple II  presented by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak.
The same year Tandy Radioshack released its TRS-80 Model 1, and together with the Apple II and Commodore PET these three personal computers would kickstart the personal computer revolution. These machines were not only powerful enough to be useful they were also fully assembled, mass-produced, and marketed to the average consumer, who did not necessarily have the technical skillset earlier machines had required.

After the Apple II was introduced at the West Coast Computer Faire by Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak, the first units were sold in the summer of 1977.
The computer’s internals was primarily designed by Wozniak, while Jobs had hired product designer Jerry Manock to create a case inspired by kitchen appliances. Jobs went to great lengths to ensure that the computer would look visually appealing, rather than the crude and technical appearance of many earlier hobbyists and “personal computers”.
The Apple II was the only computer of the 1977 trinity to feature color graphics and is considered the very first fully assembled personal computer with the ability to output color graphics.

Mark Pelczarski
One of the first to take advantage of the Apple II color-producing abilities was Mark Pelczarski, a computer science teacher at Northern Illinois University. His first program, Magic Paintbrush, one of the very first digital paint programs, was published under his self-published label MP-Software, in 1979. It’s unclear if MP stood for Magic Paintbrush, Mark Pelczarski, or as Pelczarski joked in a SoftSide magazine column, Magnificent Penguin, nonetheless David Lubar, a writer for Creative Computing magazine, picked up on the Magnificent Penguin play in a review of the software, this penguin would later return and play a big part in the future of Pelczarski’s company.
Magic Paintbrush was packaged in zip-lock bags and distributed by Pelczarski to local computer stores, and in many cases rather than sell it, he would swap it for computer parts and supplies.

In 1980 Pelczarski went to New Hampshire to work as an editor at SoftSide magazine but only managed to stay for a year, before returning to Illinois to publish his new digital imaging and 3D program, The Complete Graphics System, through his new label Co-op Software, which was using the penguin as a logo for the first time. Besides Co-op Software, Pelczarski had a small mail and phone-order company called Micro Co-op, where he would sell computer supplies.
The graphic software quickly outran Pelczarski’s mail-order business and he sold Micro Co-op to focus and continue the work on his digital imaging software. Together with David Lupar, the two would develop and publish Special Effects, which not only was one of the first image editors (to edit existing images) but would also feature a cursor-driven paintbrush system, a feature all future paint software applications would adopt and utilize. Special Effects was later combined with The Complete Graphics System into The Complete Graphics System II.
Pelczarski would change the Co-op name to Penguin Software in 1981.

Mark Pelczarski’s The Complete Graphics System. On the left the first release (Co-op Software) and the more familiar Penguin Software release, on the right

In 1982, Pelczarski and Lupar went on to tackle animation, inspired and fascinated by one of the best at special effects and animation at the time, Bill Budge. Also, other prominent software titles, like the graphic adventure games by Ken & Roberta Williams would be a great inspiration.
Pelczarski met up with Chris Jochumson of Brøderbund, who had experience in animation techniques and how to make them more accessible for novices. Pelczarski Programmed Jochumson’s ideas with Lupar’s animation routines, and added his own drawing program, the result became the most successful graphics software at the time, and for many years to come, The Graphics Magician.

Different releases of The Graphics Magician. The Zip-lock bag on the left was supposedly the very first release, later the title was boxed and would include support for Double Res graphics. The Picture Painter was especially focused on photo/image editing with the ability to draw and add text

The Graphics Magician would dominate the sales of graphics and utility software for the Apple II and win sales awards in 1984 and readership polls in 1985. The animation and graphics routines would be licensed by almost every software publisher of the time.
The Graphics Magician was not only aimed towards developers but really anyone wanting to be a developer, allowing them to create animations and graphics for arcade and adventure games.

Transylvania, the game that paved the way for future
In 1981 when Pelczarski was establishing his new publishing company Co-op Software, a gentleman called Pelczarski’s other company, Micro Co-op, to order computer supplies, the gentleman mentioned his 16-year-old son, Antonio Antiochia, who had done an impressive adventure game for the Apple II. Pelczarski intrigued asked him to send over a copy.
While Pelczarski liked the game it was text-only and given that Co-op (soon to become Penguin Software) was the creator of multiple graphic packages and that the adventure game genre already was thriving with a myriad of graphic adventures, Pelczarski would really like Antiochia to add images to his otherwise interesting game. To help him out with the graphics, Pelczarski sent an early development copy of The Graphics Magician. Antiochia didn’t have any experience with computer graphics but wasn’t afraid of the challenge.
Meanwhile, Co-op became Penguin Software and started to consolidate its position as the graphics people, Antiochia used the next nine-month to complete the images for his game. Pelczarski and the others at Penguin Software took over to do the final polishing and playtesting. They cleaned up the original BASIC code and added assembly language routines to handle the graphics.
In 1982, the game was completed and published as Transylvania, the very first game under the Penguin Software label. Transylvania became one of the best graphic adventure games of its time, with beautiful graphics and a great story.

The Apple II version of Transylvania released in 1982 was the first game published by Penguin Software.
The Apple II version was followed by Atari 8-bit and Commodore 64 conversions. Later it was released for the Macintosh in 1984 and for the Apple II, Amiga, Atari ST, and IBM/PC in 1985 using the Comprehend framework

Graphics created with Penguin Software’s Graphics Magician
Developers from all around soon began submitting their own creations, done in part with The Graphics Magician, to Penguin Software for publication. Those that were accepted were polished and published and the authors were paid royalties on sales.
As there were no fees, numerous software publishers for the Apple II also licensed The Graphics Magician for their products, the only requirement was an opening line of acknowledgment: “Graphics created with Penguin Software’s Graphics Magician“, which served as advertising for more sales of the Penguin software.

The Quest by Dallas Snell, Joe Toler, and Joel Ellis Rea, released in 1983
The Quest was one of the first adventure games to integrate full-sentence parsing.
The Sequel, Ring Quest, was released by Penguin Software in 1985 before Snell became a software producer at Origin Systems, where Ring Quest was republished in 1985 with an extended manual and backstory. 
Ring Quest remains the only text adventure by Origin.
One of the characters from The Quest series would later appear in Ultima V – Warriors of Destiny and several subsequent titles in the Ultima series

To cope with the advancement in technology and with the release of new system architectures (and the switch from 8-bit to 16-bit), Penguin software would eventually develop its own language, compiler, and interpreter called Comprehend.
With Comprehend, Penguin Software would have its own adventure programming language which would let them create entire adventure games, including graphics, and save them as completely system-independent data files. With this ability, Penguin Software was able to release new adventure titles for multiple computer architectures at a time. Overall development time would be vastly reduced, and marketing would be simplified.
Antiochia’s Transylvania would see a “Comprehend” overhaul in 1984 and its sequel, The Crimson Crown, would be the first adventure game developed from the ground up in Comprehend.

The Crimson Crown, the sequel to Transylvania, released in 1985 was the first title to be developed entirely in Comprehend.

Transylvania was remade in Comprehend with new graphics, more puzzles and locations. It was released in 1984 as the first-ever program to be released commercially for the new Macintosh computer and later for the Apple II etc.

The third Comprehend release, Oo-Topos, was an original science fiction text adventure written by Mike Berlyn and initially published in 1981 by Sentient Software. Berlyn had been using The Graphics Magician while working on Oo-Topos and after meeting the Penguins agreed to let them rework the game in Comprehend and “re-release” it.
Berlyn went on to become a game designer at Infocom.

Oo-Topos, originally written by Mike Berlyn while working at Sentient Software, in 1981. It was later reworked by Polarware using its Comprehend language and released in 1986.

Another title, The Coveted Mirror, initially only released on for the Apple II, also saw a rerelease with new puzzles and a new parser in 1986. To fit within Comprehend a few small action sequences had to be removed.

The original 1983 Apple II release of The coveted Mirror and the Apple II Comprehend rerelease from 1986

The complete lineup of titles using the Comprehend development tools.
Talisman – Challenging the Sands of Time was the last Comprehend title from Polarware before Merit Software took over – and later released Transylvania III – Vanquish the Night in 1990

Polarware marketed their adventure games as Comprehend Interactive Novels with Graphics, here from an ad circa 1986

Besides graphic adventure games in the early ’80s, Penguins Software would release a number of arcade and roleplaying titles.
One of those titles was the action game Minit Man written by Greg Malone. A somewhat unique helicopter action game. Malone would start work on Moebius with Penguin Software but ended up eventually finishing it and having it published by Origin Systems.

Minit Man and some of the other Penguin Software’s action titles.
Pie-Man (1982) by Eagle Berns, who later co-wrote The Coveted Mirror
Crime Wave (1983) by Scott Schram.
Thunderbombs and Bouncing Kamungas (1982-83) by Tom Becklund.
Spy’s Demise (1982) by Alan Zeldin
Arcade Boot Camp (1983) by John Besnard

In 1983 Mark Pelczarski and Bob Hardy designed the only arcade game developed by in-house authors (all other titles were designed by people outside of Penguin Software). The title and some elements were derived from the earlier title Spy’s Demise.

The 1983 title The Spies Strikes Back here for the Commodore 64, Atari 8-bit and the Apple II

“Dynamix” titles
Stellar 7, initially developed by Damon Slye and published by his and Jeff Tunnell’s Software Entertainment Company, in 1983 was picked up by Penguin Software and published again in 1984 when Slye and Tunnell had decided to sell off their publishing company to start Dynamix to focus only on software development.
In 1985, Penguin Software published Dynamix’s next title, Sword of Kadash, a roleplaying action game, written by Chris Cole. Cole and his friends had frequently visited the software store owned by Tunnell at the time, but without buying anything, as they thought there was too much junk software released. Cole and his friend struck a deal with Tunnell – if they could write a better game than what was on the shelves Tunnell would publish it, this was in 1983 and Cole was only 15 years old, 2 years later Sword of Kadash, inspired by Berzerk and earlier RPG’s like Caverns of Freitag, was complete.

Last year I wrote an article on the very early days of Dynamix and all of its published titles. The article can be found here

Sword of Kadash for the Apple II, released in 1985 by Penguin Software and the re-release of Stellar 7, released in 1984 also by Penguin Software.

With Penguin Software becoming a household name and with an arsenal of games and software titles being marketed in magazines and physical products sitting on shelves around, it was inevitable that Penguin Books, a well established British publishing house would confront Penguin Software in regards to infringement of their name. In fear of legal cost that could essentially kill Penguin Software, Pelczarski decided to change the name from Penguin Software to Polarware in 1986.

Killed by Carmen… or maybe even assassinated by Brøderbund
Steve Meuse, who had been programming many of the Apple II double hi-res translation for Penguin Software, and his wife Marsha had been wanting to do an original project for quite a while. Steve had a Master of Science degree from the University of Illinois in “Educational Applications of Computers”, and wanted to pursue the edutainment route.
Steve and Marsha met with Pelczarski on a flight to San Francisco for the announcement of the Apple IIc in the spring of 1984. Marsha and Pelczarski would over the course of the flight storyboard a new adventure game concept consisting of a series of educational games.
The concept involved the player as a spy, pursuing an evil villain around different continents. As you arrived at new locations, you were given new clues to the location of the villain, along with information about the current location. If you paid attention to the dossiers the clues would direct you to the appropriate destinations.
In the following months, Marsha would go on to create the game graphics with The Graphics Magician, and all of the game text while Pelczarski would tackle the programming of the first title, Adventures in North America.

The 1987 IBM/PC release of The Spy’s Adventure in North America

In late 1984, preliminary copies were given to several universities to run tests and provide comments and feedback as to how it would fare as an educational game.
In early 1985, while early versions of Adventures in North America were in alpha testing, Pelczarski was joggling with the idea of merging or even selling his company in hope that someone would take over the administrative and marketing side of the business, freeing up the employees to focus on the creative elements and software development.

One of the companies Penguin Software met up with, in early 1985 to discuss the future possibilities of the company was Brøderbund, one of the biggest software companies at the time.
Pelczarski flew out to Brøderbund’s San Rafael headquarter to exchange financial information and long-term plans. Pelczarski would also describe, to several key people, the current software titles in development. Brøderbund also showcased its current in-development titles.
While nothing came from Pelczarski’s visit to Brøderbund, something did five months later at the Summer Consumer Electronics Show in Chicago. Here on the expo floor, the first public appearance of Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?. Brøderbund’s newest and still-in-development title. Carmen Sandiego looked exactly like the verbal description Pelczarski had given five months earlier, to president, Doug Carlston and other key people at Brøderbund.
If the Carmen Sandiego series was “stolen” intellectual property or not, we might never know, but nonetheless, Brøderbund was one of the biggest software developers in the world and its first Carmen Sandiego title beat the Adventures Around the World series to market by roughly two months. Penguin Software now Polarware spent a lot of time testing and getting the graphics and text just right, time that in essence made the game better than Carmen Sandiego but ultimately played a big part in its own demise.

The Spy’s Adventure series only saw three released titles, covering North America, Europe and South America

Polarware had six geographic edutainment titles planned, followed by a series of time and planetary adventures. Only four titles materialized.
Unlike the Carmen Sandiego series, which was solely single-player, the Adventures Around the World series could be played by up to six people, competitive or cooperative.
Everywhere the two series went head to head, Polarware’s series would come out on top – Unfortunately, everybody saw the Adventures Around the World series as a clear copy of Carmen Sandiego, and the niche genre of edutainment titles only had room for one title. Adding fuel to the fire, Polarware faced multiple distributors and financial issues, which led to almost no advertisement. The Adventures Around the World series had all odds against it and never truly had a chance to really shine.

The end
By 1987, the increasingly competitive computer software industry made it difficult for a small company like Polarware to survive and Pelczarski decided to sell the company to four of his employees, Jeffrey Jay, Steve Greene, Peg Smith, and Trish Glenn.
This new team would go on to produce the children’s software series, The Electric Crayon, written by Brian A. Rice. In 1988, Polarware was acquired by Merit Software and the Polarware name soon disappeared for good.

3 thoughts on “Penguin Software, the graphics people

  1. Any chance you submit box screenshots to mobygames or the penguin archives? Seems they are lacking on a lot of sites.

    Good gaming history.


    1. Hi there
      Thanks, appreciate it.
      I’ve added a few over the years, primarily ziplock releases. I really don’t have a scanner that’s good at scanning boxes. Taking photos needs a lot of work with light, retouching, etc.. and it’s not something I really have time to do.


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