Updated: Feb 24, 2021
Welcome back, everyone. In the last article, we investigated the origins of the First Person Shooter genre and saw that it extended as far back as the 1970s. However, it would not be until the early 1990s that the supporting technology of 486 CPUs, 16-bit Sound Cards, RAM etc would be sufficiently advanced to do the genre justice.
Now we will investigate the first truly successful FPS, sometimes referred to as the 'grandfather of FPS games, Wolfenstein 3D. Let's dive in.
Wolfenstein 3D in Development
Johns Carmack and Romero of id software were keen to utilise the newly available horsepower of the (then) modern PCs. They sought to create an FPS which would feature frame rates fast enough and smooth enough to allow for exciting and frenetic gameplay, and thus bring the FPS into the mainstream. To do this id software acquired the rights to the Wolfenstein licence and set about turning it from a top-down 2D stealth game into a 3D First Person Shooter.
Castle Wolfenstein 1981
Castle Wolfenstein 1981 - the franchise’s humble beginnings. From this... Video by Dumazoid
Wolfenstein 3D Arrives
Wolfenstein 3D was then released to the world on PC on the 5th of May, 1992. To both increase awareness of the game, and reduce production overheads, developers id software and publisher Apogee used a novel ‘shareware’ distribution method. The first episode, comprising of ten levels, was released for free as a digital download obtainable via bulletin board systems.
The two remaining episodes, which also comprised of ten levels apiece, were available for purchase via mail order. This model was highly effective and would go on to be used for many other early ‘90s PC video games.
Wolfenstein 3D DOS
Video by World of Longplays
From a technical perspective, Wolfenstein 3D was far in advance of the earlier FPS games. Frame rates were far higher and the gameplay far smoother than anything that had gone before. The first person ‘window’ was also far larger, taking up roughly ¾ of the on-screen real-estate, and the FoV was far wider. These technical advancements allowed for Wolfenstein 3D to be the first truly immersive and playable FPS.
Speaking of gameplay, many of the tropes that would become commonplace in later FPS games can be found here, and they may well have begun here too.
1. Enemy Types
Wolfenstein 3D featured a range of both human and non-human enemies. These included various gun-armed hit scanning Nazi troopers, projectile throwing Nazi occultists, melee-focused attack dogs, and end of chapter bosses - including a quad chain gun wielding Cyber Hitler no less.
2. Pickups and Secrets
The health and ammo pickups, secret rooms, and even secret levels that would typify most ‘90s FPS games were all in abundance.
The archetypal FPS arsenal of weapons began its evolution here. This included the trusty ‘never runs out of ammo melee weapon’ - in this case a knife, the ‘weak but accurate and better than nothing starting weapon’ - in this case a pistol, and the ‘rapidly firing chain gun’ - in this case a multi-barrel Gatling gun.
The controversy that has plagued FPS games throughout the years also started here. Indeed, it allegedly ran into controversy even before it was released. Apparently, publisher FormGen - who would go on to handle the distribution of the expansion pack Spear of Destiny - grew uncomfortable with the game’s shock content and its depiction of violence, which was considered quite graphic for the time.
(NB: To put this into context, the far more graphic Mortal Kombat would not be released in the video arcades until August of that year - three months after the release of Wolfenstein 3D. Therefore Wolfenstein 3D pre-dates the formation of the ERSB)
Id’s response to these concerns was to inject more blood, gore, violence, German voices, and Nazi iconography, including the Nazi party anthem ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’ playing in the loading screen. It is worth remembering that in these early days of FPS gaming and the internet in general, devs, hackers, and other IT types were seen as edgy, countercultural, and generally transgressive. Many behaved more like rock stars than the stereotypical IT nerds some people might think of today. Just take a look at John Romero’s hair and you will see what I mean.
NB: There was a curious fusion of video games and controversial musicians back in the early 1990s. Bands such as Nine Inch Nails provided the soundscapes for some of id software’s later First Person Shooters - but more on that in later articles.
The game was initially banned in Germany due to its inclusion of Nazi iconography - which is a crime in that country. What’s more, the later 1994 SNES port had to be heavily censored to comply with Nintendo’s family-friendly image.
Wolfenstein 3D SNES
Video by SaikyoMog
Wolfenstein 3D was a critical and financial success that was later ported to a multitude of systems. As such, it put id software firmly on the map.
That said, it wasn’t perfect. It still used the same tank controls as earlier FPS games - you may have noticed from the videos that your avatar, William "B.J." Blazkowicz, cannot sidestep. The game’s maze-like levels were sometimes confusing and it was easy to get lost, leading to unnecessary frustration.
What’s more, it suffered from some technical limitations that even a programming genius of John Carmack’s calibre could not overcome with the technology available during its development. For example, there was no verticality in Wolfenstein 3D - everything was on one level, the walls were all the same height and Blazkowicz could neither look up nor down. This latter quirk was not a problem in Wolfenstein 3D due to the game's completely flat playing field. It would become noticeable - and thus jarring in some near-future FPS games, however.
Despite these minor limitations, Wolfenstein 3D was the first truly popular FPS, and it well deserves its reputation as ‘the grandfather of the FPS genre’. In many ways, Wolfenstein 3D was not only the first truly popular FPS, it was also the title which made people seriously consider PCs as legitimate gaming machines, and helped drive the PC gaming scene as a whole.
So, if Wolfenstein 3D was the grandfather of FPS, what was the father? That accolade would go to id’s next major project. This being the game that would set the template for almost every FPS game for years to come. The game which arguably kickstarted the PC modding scene and crashed servers across the land. I think you can all guess what is coming up in the next article of this series… DooM (1993)
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 thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.
NB – This article was originally posted on Exclusively Games. It has been re-posted here 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 online multiplayer. 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 email@example.com
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