The History of Wolfenstein part one: Castle Wolfenstein

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We chart the evolution of the Wolfenstein games and celebrate their place in the history of gaming

William "B.J." Blazkowicz is coming back in May bringing a Wolfenstein game bigger, brasher and bolder than any we’ve far.  Wolfenstein: The New Order is slamming down on May 20th and will be the ninth in a series that started way back in the 1980s

But how did Wolfenstein get here and how has it changed along the way and why has the love for Wolfenstein kept burning away all these years?

I originally had Castle Wolfenstein on the Commodore 64 and had many happy playthroughs. Part of what made the game was the jarring shouts from your German captors.This game had speech which made it not only quite cool at the time but the speech consisted of loud abrasive taunts that etched away at you adding a tension to the 8 bit experience of escape from a Nazi strong-hold.

Castle Wolfenstein was originally made for the Apple II in 1981 and came from the now defunct MUSE. Looking at the gameplay on the original version and the distorting Teutonic hollering is even more arresting. Apple IIs were the US equivalent of BBC Bs, they had a mass presence in US schools in the 1980s but never really caught in the UK as British pupils were learning to program the micro with the red function keys to move a turtle around to draw shapes (remember that?)

I got my C64 copy years later but I’d heard about Castle Wolfenstein and knew it was a respected game not least because of the speech. Incidentally the speech implementation was singlehandedly developed by the game’s legendary creator Silas Warner for the Apple II. Known as the ‘Voice’ it was an early digital sound recorder that with the limited capabilities of the Apple created the bit-crunched roar.

A true giant of gaming, (the man was 6ft 9.) Warner stands as a champion of geekdom and his character very much embodies the spirit of 1980s pioneering hackers. Said to be your archetypal awkward geek, Warner played a part in the PLATO system itself influential in the development of MMO games. He authored for PLATO the RobotWar game and the RobotWirte editor which alowed players to program robots and pit them against each other (sound familiar?). Due to it’s popularity and usefulness as an educational tool RobotWar found its way onto the computer science curriculums of many universities. As an upcoming generation of games devs grew up with RobotWar and Castle Wolfenstein, Warner’s work was well known and this leads directly to the continuation of Wolfenstein, as future games nod to Silas Warner in appreciation.

Wolfenstein C64

The title Screen from the C64 version


In Castle Wolfenstein you start in a room, are given a gun, told of the Castle and that you have been brought here by the Nazi’s for interogation. You’re also told that plans for Operation Rheingold are somewhere within the castle and that you might be able to grab a Nazi uniform to help disguise yourself and get past the guards. You set out through a series of 2D top down screens which you and the guards traverse in side-on 2D.

The gun could be used for the obvious shooting of guards or to hold guards up and frisk them. The latter was often preferable due to the fact you got limited ammo. When you shot a guy you could loot them to get their stuff which you could also do by frisking There were two kinds of guards basic Nazis and SS Stormtroopers. If the basic guards saw you they would walk right up to you allowing you to hold them up or shoot them easily. The Stormtroopers were hard, they had bullet proof vests and took several shoots or a grenade to take them out. If you alerted a Stormtrooper it could follow you to other rooms while the basic guards were bound to the room they were guarding.

A lot of the game would see you making a bolt for the door to get away from guards as they shouted in German at you. Eventually you got the Nazi uniform though, this could either be looted or taken from one of the many chests about the place, all good games have chests. Donning the uniform meant you could amble past the standard guards although the Stormtroopers would still be suspicious of you.

Opening chests or doors set up a timer so it was always a good idea to clear the path to something before attempting to open it as you were a sitting duck. You could blow up chests if you wanted to save time but if they had bullets, grenades or cannonballs in they would explode. This game had destructible environments, apart from the exterior walls and any stairs everything in the room could be blown up sometimes becoming a useful tactic to get to things.

To get through the Castle search through chests and Nazis at every opportunity to keep stocked up and hopefully find the Operation Rheingold plans then find your way out without getting caught. It wasn’t  that clear how to get out but the map stayed the same each time you played so eventually you learned it. There’s someone playing the C64 version below

Used as we are these days to games with a much deeper set of tools to engage your imagination it’s hard to perceive from this video just how much this game grabbed you. Before Wolfenstein became an FPS,  Castle Wolfenstein was pre-empting stealth and adventure games and was using the very basic graphics and sounds at it’s disposal to keep things edgy. The narrative elements of the game didn't rely on a lot of text and the sense of placing you in a role (you weren't Blazkowicz in this game just yourself)  shows early resonance with first person games that were to come. 

I remember fondly thinking that Castle Wolfenstein had it’s tongue in it’s cheek a bit and that the guys that made it had a lot of fun. There was a lot of bad german stereotype jokes that today probably wouldn’t pass so well. You could get bratwurst, Liebfraumilch and Schnapps the drinks would make you drunk if you consumed them making you shoot off the mark for a while, you also picked up Eva Brauns diaries at one point. The shouted German taunts of ‘halt', 'actung' and  ‘kommen sie’ were both comical (I always imagined it was Warner himself shouting) and pitched to a level that would get you every time.

At MUSE Warner went onto make Beyond Castle Wolfenstein which was pretty much the same game in reverse. This time you break into a Nazi bunker to take out Hitler. You got a knife in BCW meaning you could take guys out stealthily rather than with guns or grenades which would attract attention. With this and a boss fight the game was different enough to warrant a play although I always thought Castle Wolfenstein was better.

Wolfenstein 3D, which we will look at next is really where the Wolfenstein we know today started to take shape and also the game in the series that gets more praise due to its influence on the FPS genre but Castle Wolfenstein does have its place in all this and tribute is due.

If you want to try Castle Wolfenstein you can get it here.


Coming soon Part two: Wolfenstein 3D

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