The Wolfenstein story continues with the game that cemented the Wolfenstein name, shaped a genre and brought us an archetypal beefed-up FPS frontman.
In 1992 eight years after Beyond Castle Wolfenstein Id software picked up the series. MUSE under Silas Warner had let the Wolfenstein trademark lapse and a complete reworking of the Castle Wolfenstein game set the action in 3D in the first person.
Id had intended by way of tribute to continue the uniform-swapping, stealth gameplay from the original but this was found to slow the game down and so Wolfenstein 3D became a straight up shooter. I remember well thinking when I first saw Wolfenstein 3D that it looked like a cross between Dungeon Master and Operation Wolf, Dungeon Master had already done to the RPG genre what Wolfenstein did to shooting games by setting the action in three dimensions in the first person. Indeed there’s a very dungeon crawl-like quality to Wolfenstein 3D you run around liberating stolen nazi treasures,occasionally picking up keys for locked doors.
The action was always enclosed by the claustrophobic low ceilings and stone-block walls of the castle and the levels were like rabbit warrens that would have you running back through them to find bits you’d missed.
But Wolfenstein 3D was a much faster game you zoomed around those wolfenstein levels and, the pace felt more like the arcades. Dogs and Nazi’s would jump right up into your face and a good reactive trigger finger kept you alive.
Previously shooters on PC had all been in scrolling 2D, either top down, side-on or tipped-up Isometric, now with Wolfenstein 3D you were the right inside the game sprite and the action followed you.
A Wolfenstein 3D game screen showing the UI, the low ceilinged game world and the first visual realisation of Blazkowicz' hard-man visage.
It was this blend of arcade-style, reflex-testing speed and first person immersion that really kicked off the whole FPS craze. For one thing Wolfenstein 3D started to make early Windows PCs look like a decent platform to play games on and a long line of PC FPS classics owe their dues to this game. The action was addictive and for me Wolfenstein 3D was one of those games that got played through to death without ever really getting boring.
Wolfenstein 3D established many of the common FPS tropes: The world seen through your eyes with only the barrell of a gun denoting your presence, the screen flashing red when you take a hit, sliding doors and lifts, enemies crumbling in bloodied lumps to the floor as they get taken out, the running and gunning play skill-curve, the player literally stepping into the shoes of the game character, in this case the infamous B J Blazkowicz who made his debut in this game. Wolfenstein 3D is the first game I can think of that was doing all these things and the Dooms, Quakes and Half Lifes etc that followed picked up the formula, refined it and moved it along.
The Original Cover art for the mail order MS DOS version of Wolfenstein 3D, who needs a shirt when you've got a castle full of Nazi's to slaughter?
How Wolfenstein 3D differs to the FPS games we play today is that there’s no real change of pace, no taking cover and a great deal more emphasis on exploration. It was a game that taught me the, ‘if there’s some bad guys up ahead then you’re going the right way’ rule, though often finding said bad guys took a few minutes running around the level. Wolfenstein also had secret push walls that would open up hidden bits of the level that you’d often end up constantly running into walls to seek out.
A large part of Wolfenstein 3D’s success is down to its distribution via the shareware model, you could get the game really easily as a result and it turned up all over the place, I remember for some reason finding it on my school network, perhaps for historical education purposes?
Wolfenstein 3D also became the focus of illustrustrious bedroom modders who unpacking the source code added their own maps and character models to such a degree that later Id FPS titles were made to be easily accessible to modders.
While we’re dropping names like Silas Warner it is well worth a mention that the lead dev on Wolfenstein 3D was one John Carmack who you may recognise today as the CTO at Oculus VR. This fact is fairly significant when you consider that it was games going into the first person view that really made gamers and devs start to think how cool it would be to use virtual reality in games for the total immersive experience. VR tech has been around a long while before the Oculus Rifts and Project Morpheus’s started getting everyone excited and to see Carmack popping up in both projects shows a progression into VR that may well end up seeing Wolfenstein 3D as a footnote in the history of virtual reality gaming.
In 2012 Wolfenstein 3D celebrated its twentieth birthday, below is a video of John Carmack himself going into a lot more detail than I as to what made this game tick and enjoy the success it did.
With a place firmly set in the hearts of gamers the Wolfenstein sequels that have come since have spring-boarded off the fame of Wolfenstein 3D, some were pretty average to be honest especially the last Wolfenstein game in 2009. This week saw the latest souped-up 8th gen Wolfenstein: The New Order head to the top of the gaming charts I’ve been getting stuck into the new Wolfenstein and will be posting up my review of it soon.