Prior to id Software’s 1993 landmark FPS romp Doom, the American developer launched this thing called Wolfenstein 3D.
It was revolutionary, using ray casting rendering to create a (now primitive) 3D game engine. And the game is now thought of as the grandfather of first-person shooters! Well, isn’t that lovely?
Shoot Nazis in Wolfenstein 3D (indeed)
Wolfenstein 3D was one of those games that sparked the 1990s moral panic about violence in video games.
For the plot, you take control of American spy William “B.J.” Blazkowicz (of Polish family background). His goal? To DESTROY all Nazi bastards! The result is, gameplay involves moving around shooting at digital versions of the Nazi party.
The game features Nazi swastika across its level designs and has the anthem of the Nazi Party (Horst-Wessel-Lied) as its theme tune.
Naturally, that was somewhat controversial in Germany. And the game was, essentially, banned in 1994 after a ruling by the Amtsgericht München (Germany’s District Court). The use of Nazi symbols in Germany was (and probably still is) a crime in Germany.
It’s presented in a cartoonish way. And by modern standards it’s incredibly primitive and rather tame. But for the day, Wolfenstein 3D was as revolutionary as it was controversial—it set in stone the genre’s basic archetype.
Back in 1992, it was all very exciting! You’re a spy. You’ve got a gun. And you’re infiltrating a Nazi base and gunning those SOBs down.
Anyone who’s played Doom will see a lot of similarities here. id Software took the best bits of Wolfenstein 3D and turned it into the 1993 landmark classic.
The result is Wolfenstein 3D comes across as an experimental gamble by id. To test the waters with gamers and see how they’d react.
It paid off big time as the game was a hit, inspiring the developer onto bigger and better things. And the Wolfenstein 3D game engine went on to become Doom. A game that, to this day, is still a hell of a lot of fun to play.
id’s work was so influential other developers nabbed the Wolfenstein 3D concept for their titles. For us, we saw it in action across the SNES Jurassic Park movie tie-in (launched in late 1993).
Wolfenstein 3D was itself adapted from many earlier FPS efforts (see below) and a culmination of almost 20 years technological experimentation.
The game may seem rather basic now, but it’s still fun to play. Although going through it is more of a rites of passage experience, as Wolfenstein 3D is such a landmark title.
It clocks up at about two hours of gameplay.
You gun down Nazi bastards. You work your way through complex maze levels. And you nab swag along the way. Fun. But now it’s mainly the title that laid the foundations for much better things ahead.
Some Early First-Person Shooters to Muse Over
First-person shooters date back to the early 1970s. One of the most prominent (if not the first) was Maze, developed in 1973 and expanded upon in 1974.
An ambitious title, it was high school students Steve Colley, Greg Thompson, and Howard Palmer who developed it for the Imlac PDS-1 minicomputer.
By most accounts, Maze is the first ever FPS title.
You can see the basic structure that creates the illusion of a maze. For 1974, it must have been extraordinary!
However, Jim Bowery’s 1974 flight sim and FPS title Spasim is also in the running for first ever FPS. It was released on the mainframe computer PLATO. Behold!
Spasim was also a 32-player game! The idea is to fly spaceships around four planetary arenas. Eight players are grouped into a team and do battle with each other.
Graphics aside, these days we think of video games from the past (especially the ’70s) as moronically primitive. But titles like Spasim were very advanced. At least for the day!
But the FPS genre really took off in the 1980s.
In fact, 1980’s Battlezone (a tank-based FPS) advanced things considerably. But 1982’s Wayout on the from Sirius Software launched on the Atari 8-bit.
A maze game, you can turn full 360 degrees and move around your environments. This was state-of-the-art stuff!
You can see the foundations there for what would become a basic 3D arena, which Wolfenstein 3D used, Doom advanced, and various other titles perfected.
But what was the real breakthrough moment?
Well, arguably it was a peculiar looking game from 1987 called MIDI Maze. It was by Xanth Software F/X and was published on the Atari ST.
In this one, and for the very the first time, bullets were visible! Proper ZOMG, right?
MIDI Maze was far from a hyper-realistic violent game, being a maze exploration experience with big acid house smiley faces.
16 computers could be networked together to form a MIDI Ring and battle it out in an early form of the now popular FPS deathmatches.
In fact, MIDI Maze appears to be the very first FPS to introduce deathmatches.
Things like that—random little games over the years, pretty much in total obscurity now. But they gave id the inspiration it needed to go one better.
For there’s no denying Wolfenstein 3D defined what a FPS is.
And id Software rapidly took it to new heights with Doom and then Quake in 1996. But other developers caught on, with Valve’s Half-Life (1998) introducing sweeping narratives to the genre.
And then 2004’s Half-Life 2 landed and… well, that game is on a different planet. Very possibly the best FPS ever.
But we must also nod to Rare’s Goldeneye 007 (1997) on the Nintendo 64, which was also a landmark moment for FPS on home consoles.
And the game introduced enhanced stealth elements and home console deathmatches, which defined many a childhood circa 1997.
But anyone used to FPS titles these days will still see id’s pioneering gameplay mechanics across the likes of id’s DOOM Eternal (2020). A modern reboot of its earlier games and an outstanding modern take on it at that.