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Quake Renaissance: how to start playing original Quake today

Have your Quake and eat it too

If you had asked me about Quake a few years ago, I would've made a weird farting sound with my mouth. But that was before I realized how messed up it was and how good the mods are. Today I'm here to offer you a way inside. Whether you're a lapsed Quake fan from 1996 or a skeptical newbie from 2021, it's never been a better time to start playing Quake.

In this guide, I go over how to download and install Quake, give advice for enjoying it, and provide curated playlists of notable mods along with some tasting notes.

Cover image for YouTube videoQuake - Official Trailer (2021)

How to download, install, and play Quake in 2021

I should note, this was written before Quake's new expansion and shiny new graphics updates were announced, but most of it still applies today - especially if you want to get involved in the mod side of things. One thing to keep in mind is that Quake's tech is still from 1996, so setup is not instantaneous. But trust me, it's worth it. If you get lost, this whole process is also covered in this handy video tutorial.

STEP 1. Buy Quake and install it.

Most people buy Quake from Steam for $5 / £4, or on GOG for $10 / £8 which includes the expansions. During QuakeCon or a seasonal sale, it's probably much cheaper.

Eventually the community project LibreQuake aims to replace all the game content files with legally distinct equivalents, which would make it possible to play all Quake community levels for free with no purchase necessary. As of 2021, it has made impressive progress, but it's still not quite ready for public use yet.

STEP 2. Use Quake Starter... OR manually download and configure a Quake engine

On Windows? Get Quake Starter, a free open-source Quake tool bundle. Download it and unzip it somewhere convenient, then double-click "quakestarter.cmd" and follow the prompts. While the new enhanced Quake re-release has an official updated engine, modern Quake mods might crash or run poorly on it. For maximum compatibility, use a community engine like Quakespasm.

Or manually install everything:
  • Make a new folder called "Quake"; this will be your new Quake folder
  • Copy over the /id1/ folder from your retail Quake install (to find this folder in Steam, right-click on Quake > Manage > Browse Local Files)
  • Download and unzip Quakespasm to your new Quake folder
  • Start Quakespasm; in Options, enable mouse look, crosshair, and always-run... and increase "scale" so you don't have to squint at everything
  • Follow this guide Quake Soundtrack Solutions to fix music (optional)
  • To disable texture filtering, open the console (press "~") and type: "gl_texturemode 3" (optional)

Mac users: see this step-by-step guide with additional notes.

For multiplayer Quake (QuakeWorld), use auto installer nQuake or manually install ezQuake. Then visit multiplayer hub QuakeWorld.nu for more info and events.

STEP 3. Use Quake Injector... Or manually download and install mods

Get free open source tool Quake Injector to browse, download, install, and launch custom Quake maps easily. On Windows, get the standalone "gradle" EXE version which no longer requires you to install Java. On Mac or Linux, get OpenJDK 16 (Java without Oracle's bloatware) and then run the regular ZIP version.

Or download and run mods manually:

  • (a) GET MOD: download a mod from Quaddicted and unzip to your Quake folder (e.g. the Copper mod should be in "/copper/")... but if it's just some random .BSP map files, it's easiest to put the files in "/id1/maps/" so that any mod can access it.
  • (b) LOAD MOD: use Simple Quake Launcher 2... OR start Quakespasm and in console, type "game (mod folder name)"... e.g. "game travail" loads the mod in folder "/travail/"
  • (c) START MOD: if it's a mod or recent jam pack with its own start map, select New Game... but sometimes you must load the first map via console: use "maps" to see a list of maps, then use "map (mapname)" to load a map, e.g. "map e2m5" loads e2m5.bsp
(left) Contract Revoked, (right) Subterranean Library

New to single player Quake?

Quake's design sensibilities and traditions differ from new shooters today. Here's some important advice, including some stuff that Quake never tells you:

Don't stop moving. Circle strafe and run backwards a lot. Scream.

There's no objective list, quest log, or mini-map, so embrace the wandering as part of the charm. There's also no autosave, but forgetting to quick save is also part of the charm.

Shoot red buttons, touch the others. There's no "interact" button. Sometimes there are secret shootable buttons in the ceiling. Hit suspicious walls with your axe to save ammo.

Ration ammo a little. Sometimes Quake is spray and pray, other times it's survival horror. Don't waste shotgun shells / nails on Zombies, they revive unless gibbed with explosives or quad damage. And don't waste grenades / rockets on Shamblers, the big pale tanky lightning monsters secretly have 50% resistance against explosives. Instead, try the "shambler dance" - dodge in-and-out of close range to bait it into a melee attack.

Lastly, it's OK to use cheats or to play on Easy mode, there's no shame in a "give s 20" to top up your shotgun, or a brief "god" mode to survive an impossible fight, or a little "noclip" to bypass a platforming section. Some community maps' Easy modes feel more like Normal.

What to play

Playlist 1: The Vanilla Quake Bible (4-6 hours)

(left) e1m5 Gloom Keep, (right) e2m1 The Installation
  1. Quake, episode 1 by Tim Willits, American McGee, and John Romero
  2. Quake, episode 2 by John Romero and Tim Willits
  3. Quake, episode 3 by American McGee, Tim Willits, and John Romero
  4. Quake, episode 4 by Sandy Petersen and Tim Willits

Quake's original episodes are the canon every map invokes and remixes. They're also simpler and smaller than most custom maps, an ideal way to ease into Quake's language.

Episode 1 begins with Romero's elegant tutorial e1m1 "Slipgate Complex" which modders have remade countless times. Willits' e1m2 "Castle of the Damned" became a popular multiplayer map, while e1m3 "The Necropolis" and e1m5 "Gloom Keep" are common riffs among mappers. Make sure you explore e1m4 "Grisly Grotto" thoroughly to find McGee's secret level e1m8 "Ziggurat Vertigo", a low gravity grenade ballet and fan favorite.

Episode 2 is mostly Romero's dark medieval ("wizard") levels, solid consistent work that plays with platforms over water. e2m1 "The Installation" is the standard sci-fi base map, e2m2 "Ogre Citadel" is a mapper's delight, and Romero's personal favorite e2m5 "Wizard's Manse" has a memorable entry gate and water trap. Also, don't miss e2m6 "Dismal Oubliette" with its great clockwork hub and haunted elevator ending.

(left) e3m7 The Haunted Halls, (right) e4m7 Azure Agony

Episode 3 is defined by McGee's work, metal "runic" tombs littered with lava traps and a sense of humor. e3m2 "Vaults of Zin" mischievously dangles a key in front of you, while secret level e3m7 "Haunted Halls" stages a tiny castle siege and odd cage encounter. And Willits' guest level e3m5 "Wind Tunnels" funnels the player through air pipes, which always feels a bit silly.

Then there's the polarizing Episode 4. You either love or hate Sandy Petersen's upside-down maze dungeons, full of relentless liminal hostility where every hallway feels too empty and too long. Petersen's e4m2 "Tower of Despair" memorably fools the player into jumping down through a false pool to a room below. e4m3 "Elder God Shrine" debuts the most-hated monster in Quake, a fast-leaping blue bomb blob called a Spawn; true to its name, e4m7 "Azure Agony" contains a dozen Spawns. It's OK to rage quit.

Lastly, not even fans defend the disappointing boss fights. It's a shame, since the final boss has a brilliant telefrag concept. Modders often try to improve the bosses, to varying success.

Playlist 2: Copper Tone

(left) Dwell, (right) Realm of the Lost SMEJ1
  1. Underdark Overbright (2019) by Matthew "Lunaran" Breit and Sean "Scampie" Campbell
  2. The Punishment Due (2021) by Julian "Juz" Priestley and Lain "Fairweather" Fleming
  3. Dwell, Episode 1 (2020) organized by Lain "Fairweather" Fleming
  4. Realm of the Lost (Menetettyjen Valtakunta) (2019) by SMEJ Crew

The popular "refinement mod" Copper has a flagship episode Underdark Overbright ("UDOB"), a partial re-imagining of Quake with clever callbacks and possibly the best boss remakes in recent memory. Years later, The Punishment Due evokes and builds upon UDOB with its own callbacks. Then the impressive episodic mod Dwell alloys an Egyptian theme onto Copper and polishes it to a sheen. Lastly, the Realm of the Lost starts with intense puzzles and platforming, and ends with extreme slaughter map combat... those Finnish mappers don't mess around.

NOTE: The Copper tradition is to truly support cooperative play for 2-4 players, a great way to get into Quake with a friend. Follow this video tutorial to configure your router for co-op.

Playlist 3: Arcane Sampler

(left) Horde of Zendar, (right) Forgotten Sepulcher
  1. Tears of the False God (2020) by Benoit "Bal" Stordeur
  2. Horde of Zendar (2013) by Simon "sock" O'Callaghan
  3. Forgotten Sepulcher (2017) by Henrik "Giftmacher" Oresten and Simon "sock" O'Callaghan
(all maps included in Arcane Dimensions v1.81)

Each of Arcane Dimensions' levels easily demands an hour or more. Play them all. But in particular, Bal and Sock are "elders" who returned to Quake in the 2010s to craft these jewels of the renaissance. Tears of the False God's milky arches flow effortlessly. Copper creator Lunaran says medieval city map Horde of Zendar is "the biggest, complete-est, flawless-est map I'd ever played, until Sock made even bigger ones." Bigger ones like the Forgotten Sepulcher, a massive poisoned temple that hides secrets within secrets.

Playlist 4: Honey Underground

(left) Honey, (right) Func Map Jam 1 - Honey Theme
  1. Honey (2012) by Christian "czg" Grawert
  2. Func Map Jam 1 - Honey Theme (2014) organized by Simon "sock" O'Callaghan
  3. Down the Gutter (2021) by Paul "plaw" Lawitzki

czg's brilliant short episode Honey is a frequently recommended classic of the early Quake Renaissance. "Nobody really used fog much until czg made it an outright character in the game," says Lunaran. "He used it deftly for atmosphere, basically inventing 'silhouette as environment art' within Quake mapping [and] now nobody forgets to consider atmospherics in their levels." After you play the original, try out subsequent community riffs / fan distillations, with varying amounts of fog... Just don't call it a sewer level, it's a "cistern"!

Playlist 5: Rubicon Run

(left) Rubicon Rumble Pack, (right) Alkaline
  1. Rubicon 2 (2011) by John "metlslime" Fitzgibbons and Christian "czg" Grawert
  2. Rubicon Rumble Pack (2014) by Peter "Hrimfaxi" Sørensen, Louis "ijed" Manning, and Maik "mfx" Franz Xaver
  3. Alkaline (2021) organized by James "Greenwood" Greenwood and Fabio "bmFbr" Pereira
  4. 37th Relic Retrieval (2019) by Mazu

Many look down on the "base" sci-fi theme. Sci-fi was the problem with Quake 2 and Quake 4, they remind us, and it pressures mappers to use the (boring) sci-fi monsters and textures. But then the base themed Rubicon 2 changed the conversation, Rubicon Rumble Pack (RRP) expanded it, and now Alkaline re-imagines the idea of the Quake base entirely. After that you'll be ready 37th Relic Retrieval, a multi-hour "huge fuckoff base" with 37 secrets that rivals the Forgotten Sepulcher.

Playlist 6: Everything on Quaddicted

(left) Nyarlathotep, (right) Disconcerting Unease 2

Try the XMas Jam packs. Fight through Raven Keep and enjoy the campy Dark Souls and Bloodborne homage. Or if you get tired of shooting, wander around Explore Jam 1 and 2. Play library themed classics like Contract Revoked and Subterranean Library. Breeze through wind tunnel takes like Antediluvian and Backsteingotik. Nyarlathotep will please even the most discerning flesh temple fans. Enjoy the level design pranks in Jokejam and the weirdly elaborate pumpkin spice latte themed Disconcerting Unease 2... and all of this merely scratches the surface of everything you can play.

Playlist 7: Make your own damn maps

There's never been a better time to start making Quake levels. The tools are all free, modern, and user-friendly. Grab the Quake Level Design Starter Kit, watch some of David "dumptruck_ds" Spell's video tutorials (or follow Andrew Yoder's text tutorial), and then join the Quake Mapping Discord to ask for help when you get stuck.

Still not convinced Quake is worth it? Maybe the rest of the series will change your mind: read part 1, the cursed magic of Quake, and part 2, how the mod community realized its renaissance.

Header image render by Ben Hale

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Robert Yang avatar

Robert Yang


Robert Yang is an artist, writer and game developer, and makes surprisingly popular games about gay culture, such as The Tearoom, Rinse And Repeat and Radiator 2. Previously, he taught at NYU Game Center.