The prototype for Maelstrom is the often copied arcade game classic Asteroids from Atari that was published in September 1979 in an arcade machine.

Maelstrom was first published as unlimited shareware in November 1992 for Mac OS after three months of development and was supplied with bugfixes for the following three years. At release the game took full advantage of the multimedia capabilities of that time's Macintosh systems (it was targeted for the Macintosh IIsi) and brought about unmatched animation and colourful gameplay to the Macintosh platform. Quickly it got famous, won several awards and turned to a classic and milestone of Mac games. Its popularity caused the (main) developer Andrew Welch to start the software company Ambrosia Software that sold the game from then on and developed many more remakes of famous arcade games following a similar recipe as with Maelstrom. In 1995 Sam Lantinga ported the game to Linux and added a networked multiplayer mode and other things to the game. This port has the version number 3.0 and was released as free software under the terms of the GNU General Public License (GPL), while the game contents were still copyrighted and non-free, albeit free to use for personal use.

In consequence many mods were developed and it made its way into the software repositories of major Linux distributions like Ubuntu. In 2001 also a version for the Unix-based Mac OS X was created from the released source code.

Later Ambrosia titles of the Escape Velocity series (initial release: 1996) are based on a very similar mechanics, that build on those of Maelstrom.

In 2010 the game contents were also released under a free license – the Creative Commons license Attribution 3.0. Therefore the whole game is now available as free software.

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