Updated: Oct 23, 2020
Hello, and welcome to the first episode in the ‘Influential FPS Games’ series. In this series, we will investigate the (arguably) most influential FPS games throughout history. The games selected for this series are those that introduced innovations that would go on to shape and influence the FPS games that came after them.
A game’s financial success - or lack thereof - is not a consideration as to whether it will be featured in this series. What is important here is the impact a game had on future FPS design. Therefore, a hypothetical game that was a massive commercial success, but didn’t bring anything new to the table and thus didn’t influence the games that came after it, wouldn’t be featured. Conversely, a hypothetical game which was a commercial failure, but who’s innovations went on to be incorporated into many later FPS games, would be.
FPS games that were innovative, but who’s innovations were not then widely adopted, will not be included here either. However, it is highly likely they will be celebrated in a separate series at a later date.
With that out of the way, let's dive in.
The First FPS Game
When asked “what was the first FPS game?” many people will reply ‘Wolfenstein 3D’. I would have too before researching this article. However, it turns out that it wasn’t the first First Person Shooter (FPS), not by a long shot.
That accolade likely goes to MIT’s Maze War created in 1973 (or 1974 – sources vary), which predates Wolfenstein 3D by nearly two decades. Maze Wars and the Atari ST’s MIDI Maze (1987) all came before Wolfenstein 3D too, as did id software’s own Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D, both from 1991.
However, most of the above were relatively primitive affairs, hamstrung by the limited power of home computer hardware at the time. This limited processing power forced several restrictions on these early attempts at FPS gaming. One of these restrictions was the relatively small ‘window’ in which the on-screen action took place. This was hampered yet further by their relatively narrow Fields of View (FoV). What’s more, the frame rates of these early games tended to be both choppy and slow as you can see in the videos below.
A further limitation of these early attempts at FPS gameplay was their unintuitive ‘tank’ controls. These games pre-date both mouselook and the ability to sidestep, which made controlling your avatar awkward.
This may have eroded their entertainment value somewhat, since video game controls need to be as intuitive as possible so that the player's movements can become instinctive. Since these games were relatively slow-paced it is doubtful this would have been a major concern at the time. However for the fluid and faster paced FPS that would come later a more natural and intuitive control set up would be required, which we will cover in a later article.
Hover Tank 3D
All these limitations conspired to consign these games to niche novelty titles. For the FPS to become successful more powerful hardware would be required.
That hardware hit the scene in 1989, in the guise of the 486 processor. The specs of the 486 would be laughably underpowered if compared to any modern-day CPU, but at the time it was the most powerful processor available for any home system. Upon release it was far too expensive for mass adoption, however, within a few years, the price had dropped sufficiently for it to become a staple of home PCs.
256 colour ‘Mode 13h VGA graphics and 16-bit sound cards also became available around this time, thus completing ‘the holy trinity’ of early FPS games; namely sound, graphics, and CPU clock speeds. PCs were now ready to take on the 16-bit competition as a legitimate gaming platform, and one that would carve out its niche by easily going where the competition struggled, namely, into the third dimension.
This is probably a good time to explain what the gaming landscape was like during the early 1990s for anyone who isn’t old enough to have experienced it first-hand as I did.
The 16-Bit Era
During the 16-bit era, the big players were the 16-bit consoles, namely the SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive and the Nintendo SNES, and the 16-Bit home computers, most notably the Commodore Amiga 500/600 and the Atari ST. All these platforms were ‘complete’ systems, built with gaming in mind. Their sound and graphics capabilities were hardwired and built-in from the start, thus making them far more suited to gaming - 2D gaming especially.
However, they could not be easily upgraded.
PCs, or IBM compatibles as they were sometimes referred to at the time, were considered ‘work’ machines. They were intended for word processing and spreadsheets, not for gaming, and thus did not come with gaming hardware built-in. For example, PCs usually didn’t come with dedicated sound hardware installed, and so were incapable of creating music or in-game sounds beyond the most basic of beeps.
However, just like today, they could be upgraded.
The installation of a 16-bit sound card solved this and provided PCs with audio capabilities on-par with the competition, if not superior to it. The sheer horsepower of the 486 processor allowed for 3D graphics which the competition simply couldn’t cope with. As a result, the PC developed a reputation as being the natural ‘home’ of 3D gaming. This reputation grew with time as the hardware continued to improve. Indeed, the PC would not see serious competition in the 3D space until the introduction of the PlayStation in 1994.
Few could have predicted back then that one of the most dominant genres in video gaming would spring from such humble beginnings. What was needed was a 'killer app' to show off the potential of both the new hardware, and the sorts of FPS games that could run on it. That killer app would then set the stage for all FPS games that would follow. The name of that killer app? Wolfenstein 3D, the topic of the next article.
See you all then.
Did you learn something today? Were you aware that the FPS genre could trace its roots back so far? Have you played any of these early FPS games? If so, feel free to share your experiences in the comments section below.
NB – This article was originally posted on Exclusively Games. It has been split into two articles of a more easily digestible length and re-posted here. This is for archival purposes due to Exclusively Games closing its doors and the website being taken down. Correct at the time of writing Monday the 13th of July 2020.
Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at firstname.lastname@example.org
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Maze War Title Image
By Bruce Damer - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZgT9IgRlrvI&ab_channel=brucedamer, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=47507741