Matt Gardner looks at the pioneer of not only the FPS genre, but atmospheric gaming at its finest.
In my earliest days of gaming, I only had access to an inherited Commodore 64 and a broken ZX Spectrum. I was without anything approaching “cutting edge” for a good few years, but I learned to work the C64 surprisingly quickly.
While most of its games seemed tedious, insanely difficult or downright unplayable, there were a few I just couldn’t get enough of – International Karate and Shinobi were particular standouts. Sadly, whatever I played, I’d have to wait a minimum of 15 minutes for them to load, and that’s if the tape didn’t jam. Even terrifyingly crap titles like BC Bill took upwards of four hours.
And so I spent a lot of my time outdoors, cycling circuits around the block and waiting for the cassettes to do their duty. I had to plan in advance for any gaming session; so-called “instant gaming” was experienced solely through my friends’ greater technological fortunes.
Like me, my mates were too young to have consoles of their own, but many at least had family computers. Games were expensive and hinged massively on how good your PC was – the early 90s, you’ve got to remember, was a time when hardware capabilities were improving exponentially.
Luckily, demos were rife. In those days, all you needed was a floppy disk drive, and in a matter of moments, a whole new world opened out in front of you. In the case of Wolfenstein 3D – the first-ever first-person shooter I (and many others) ever played – it literally opened out in front of you.
Sharing is caring
While modern games now regularly allow time-restricted access to the full game before you have to buy them – and, with the likes of modern Telltale games, you’ll be given a whole episode of a series for free – demos, historically speaking, only gave you a brief insight into the biggest hits of the day. Whether that was being limited to bombing around Gare d’Europa in a Feisar to CoLD SToRAGE’s Body in Motion on Wipeout 2097, enjoying the Net Yaroze Hall of Fame on Official PlayStation Magazine’s demo 42, or dashing through the epic, famous, ten-minute run-through of Resident Evil 2, you got a great taste of the game… but just not quite enough.
Yet back in the early 90s, if the word “shareware” was stuck onto your three-and-a-half-incher, you knew you’d have unrestricted access to plenty of hard and frantic fun. Shareware was a simple proposition: play the first part and, if you enjoyed it, you could go to a holding screen within the game and send off an order form to some random office block in the US, along with a cheque for a surprisingly high amount. That is to say, a shockingly high figure for games you can now buy for under £1.
My best friend, Richard, introduced me to the shareware-gifted Episode 1 of Wolf3D: Escape from Castle Wolfenstein. We used to huddle around his dad’s ageing PC in his parents’ bedroom, playing all sorts of stuff, like The Crystal Maze or Jill of the Jungle. Yet the ten-stage taster of the FPS world from Apogee (that’s nine levels and a secret bonus level) was the first to really take things up a notch, and it showed me a whole new world.
The storyline was so simple that it’s pointless to pontificate, but the standard rule was that in each chapter, you started with nothing, navigated through different levels, gradually got better guns and fought harder enemies, then inevitably had a boss fight who was associated with, but usually wasn’t, Hitler himself. Admittedly, killing Hitler at the end of Episode 3 – Die, Fuhrer, Die (“The Fuhrer, The”) – was a real nothing moment when it finally came round, but his intense death animation is one that lives on forever through the glory of DeathCam™.
The story aspect of the game really didn’t matter. At the time, I was used to having no storylines at all in games. What was truly important, however, was a factor I discussed much, much later with my mate: at the time, Wolfenstein 3D was the scariest thing we’d experienced. Even now, playing it on the Xbox One or on Steam, it still is scary.
Sharing is scaring
This opinion might sound stupid, especially when you consider that Wolfenstein 3D is understandably compared to the inimitable Doom franchise that followed, and was jam-packed full of choreographed jump scares, mindless gore and hellish iconography. Monsters there were like nothing people had seen before, and the brute force and patience you needed to overcome seemingly endless waves of evil was chilling. I mean jeez, just look at how they stack up against one another.
Yet it’s often said that zombies scare people more than most monstrosities because they’re horror with a human face – and Nazis usually come a pretty close second for the same reason. In Wolfenstein 3D, you got Nazis, and zombies, and Nazi zombies.
This fear of other people – NAZI other people – when combined with the rather austere setting of Wolfenstein 3D, made you feel truly alone and in despair. While Doomguy was also on his lonesome, the ridiculously overbearing madness of the surroundings – alongside the gratuitous carnage of the never-ending battles and hyped-up weaponry – really took the edge off the #2spooky4u underworld theme for me.
Wolf3D, instead, created tension with truly basic tricks, from muffled German shouts behind walls to the ever-present danger of dogs and hurtling towards you. The uniform clanking sound of doors opening and closing, however, was a sure-fire way to guarantee your stomach would hit the floor.
You see, in the corridors of Castle Wolfenstein – unlike anything quite like it before – enemies would follow you through doors if you decided to cheese it. This just wasn’t a thing before; you’d enter a room full of bad guys, nope the fuck right out of there, and they wouldn’t chase you. This was a joke of games as late as Resident Evil 2 – and while I’m aware zombies aren’t exactly finely tuned to interacting with their environment, even compos mentis villains would be felled by a door handle.
What was even more incredible for a game of its time was that, despite the sprites being effectively 2D, carcasses in doorways would block the door from closing. It meant that baddies on the hunt for you couldn’t be anticipated – there wasn’t a background sound effect to guarantee that you were being followed.
This threat of pursuit was particularly stepped up a gear by a factor in Wolfenstein 3D that many people dared not experience. In fact, it was something I didn’t even try properly until 2009, reliving the game alongside the very man who introduced it to me over 15 years earlier.
The only true way to play Wolf3D is on ultra-hard mode – and I say this as a man who’ll buy every Call of Duty game going, but never venture past Hardened mode, because I just can’t be arsed with the frustration of it. It only took one poorly negotiated run-in and you were done for – and kicked back to the very start of the level, however far through you made it.
Despite being a latecomer to the self-flagellation party, there was something incredibly perfect about “I am death incarnate!” mode, not least because you’re a prisoner escaping from certain death, and the fear of being caught is ever-present. Spy or not, it was you versus an entire castle of Nazis. You’d face more than four times as many of them as you would in “Bring it on!” mode, too. You had to be careful, collected, but not necessarily calm. Thankfully, there were certain core mechanics that worked in your favour.
Number one: the game never made you reload, even though guns shared ammunition, meaning if you took the piss with an MP40, you’d not be able to fall back on your pistol if you emptied the three-foot-long clip you presumably loaded into it.
Secondly, you could save and load at the touch of a button, which was somewhat of a novelty to me. However, you’d regularly find yourself saving over the only slot you’d bothered to commit to throughout a campaign, or save over your latest mission’s slot after 40 minutes of careful exploration, with just 9% health. That meant one bullet (at distance!) and you were done. And Wolfenstein wasn’t known for being fair.
Thirdly, and perhaps most famously for this game above all others, you could get the best guns in the game quite far ahead of time, if you stuck at it and learned the maps. In fact, you could get the “ol’ faithful” MP40 within mere seconds of escaping your cell, just by touching up a Nazi insignia behind a swiftly-dispatched Wehrmacht soldier.
But alas, this was not where the fear factor stopped in Wolfenstein 3D. Sure, you were alone, facing Nazis, anticipating certain death as a misjudged firefight, while the clanking doors and muffled shouts of “Achtung!” reminded you that you were constantly surrounded by the biggest bygone bastards, baying for BJ Blazkowicz’s blood. On top of that, you also had to find your way through.
You might Nazi a way out
The biggest worry was the all-too-real possibility of getting lost. Red-brick walls, occasionally punctuated with images of Der Fuhrer, made Wolfenstein 3D a real trial. The general rule of thumb was to keep trying doors in the vain hope you’d find more enemies, or stumble on a key or switch. You made mental notes of unlockable doors, but after ten rooms of searching, it became an absolute guessing game.
Even my all-time favourite game exploration rule – “ATL”, or “always turn left” – sometimes couldn’t get you out of a jam, because maps were cyclically designed to literally have you going in circles, so you’d often never come upon the dead end that forced you to try another route. You couldn’t default to trying your next left, by hugging the wall to the right of where you stopped.
Speaking of maps, level design did really improve as you made your way through the six episodes. And while ultimately underwhelming, the final chapter, Confrontation, featured a true feat of engineering: tessellated, colourful swastikas comprised the map. Given the rampant iconography used in the game, it’s surprising that the developers took so long to come up with the idea.
Luckily, one often-overlooked factor in Wolfenstein 3D meant that finding your way out was made a little more bearable, if you could control it: the simple art of running.
Float like a butterfly
While it wasn’t known for its graphics – despite them being absolutely unforgettable, even now – Wolfenstein 3D’s core movement mechanic was just as cartoonish as the visuals. As standard, you didn’t so much run across levels as float around them, bobbing up and down like an amateur boxer.
You went the same speed in all directions, which was especially funny with regards to strafing – you’d regularly overshoot a corner by a good 20 feet, making a subtle peek around the corner at nearby Nazis look more like a piss-taking competition with ol’ Fritz and friends.
But the run button took on speeds only later seen in the F-Zero series. I can only faithfully guess that at full pelt, BJ was hitting a good 40-50mph. It’d be funny if it wasn’t so undependable; you’d only use it if a) you’d killed everyone and couldn’t find an exit, or b) the aforementioned nopeing the fuck out of a room full of enemies so you could effectively gun them down in the bottleneck of a doorway.
The latter approach was a consistent tactic – Nazis may’ve been clever enough to follow you, but they weren’t clever enough to stop following you despite a small burial mound forming around a door that could no longer close. Maybe that’s why they lost the war.
Tricks like this really were a necessity at higher difficulty levels. The control system was, frankly, garbage. It still is. A complete lack of sensible mouse controls, combined with a really dodgy one-button strafe input, meant navigation in early releases of the game was terrible. Of course, it was always going to be limited with the lack of vertical aiming (later fully introduced by Heretic two years later).
Yet the FPS genre as a whole was a brave new world, and the twin-stick approach we know and love today was something even I didn’t adopt until after completing Medal of Honor: Frontline just 15 years ago (it sounds longer than it feels, trust me). I still have no idea how I finished that game with forwards, backwards and left/right turning on one stick. I sometimes disgust – and impress – myself in equal measure, like when I once regularly saw entire Viennettas as a single dessert, and often straight after an entire box of Birds Eye Chicken Dippers.
Game for a laugh
Input foibles aside, and despite the fact Wolf3D may’ve been one of the most atmospheric games of all time, it also knew when to throw you a comedic bone. From the first moments of the game to the very end of your experience, it had a solid sense of humour – whether it was with the difficulty select that effectively mocked you for going on easy mode with the time-honoured baby costume, or the very end when you wanted to quit and go back to reality – again, with deprecating phrases. It was as colourful as its palette was. Luckily, these traits continue to this day.
And on that, it must be said that despite the way modern FPSs have moved on, the Wolfenstein franchise has continued to deliver great games. The PS2’s Return to Castle Wolfenstein was very good indeed, and even the heavily-panned Wolfenstein (2009) had plenty going for it. Of course, Wolfenstein: The New Order once again proved that the game series’ approach and direction could once again be given credit for influencing another all-time great franchise: the id Tech 6-engined DOOM, arguably the biggest surprise of 2016, and one that drew heavy inspiration from W:TNO’s use of id Tech 5.
But before those bangers, Wolfenstein 3D had inspired much more than Doom and DOOM – let’s not forget underappreciated and highly celebrated titles such as Rise of the Triad, Quake, System Shock, Star Wars: Dark Forces, Descent, Duke Nukem 3D and Alien Trilogy. It’s a game that must be celebrated by all gamers, and one that will be remembered long after the likes of Battlefield 1 and Call of Duty: Black Ops III.
The original was still the best, and Wolfenstein 3D is the type of landmark of game that you will constantly have burning in your memory: one that introduced you to a whole new concept, or emotion or experience. It may be Q*bert, Ocarina of Time or The Sims, but you’ll have one. I just count myself lucky that my earliest coming-of-age title helped me discover so many new feelings and challenges in one small, perfectly-formed package.
And it was free.
- One of the biggest fear factors in gaming, then and now
- Laid the foundations for a great franchise and countless others like it
- Simplicity to the point of FPS perfection
- Inspired maps packed full of secrets
- Who doesn’t like killing Hitler?
- Controls on the PC were impossible with a mouse
- The same battles could dole out inconsistent damage
- The entirety of Operation Eisenfaust was completely uninspired, Nazi zombies aside
- Par times were an absolute joke, even if it was often a welcome challenge
The fact you only needed the first, free chapter of Wolfenstein 3D to have one of the most memorable gaming experiences of a lifetime proves it not only as a pioneer of its genre, but of gaming in general.