I vividly remember Wolfenstein 3D for a number of reasons. First of all, there was the fact that it was one of the earliest ever first-person shooters, making it an impressive new experience for people to enjoy on their PCs. Second of all, it was genuinely quite scary at the time it was released thanks to an excellent MIDI soundtrack and use of stereo sound effects. But I remember it most of all for one of the earliest discussions I ever had with my parents over video game violence.
The game opened with a warning that it had a voluntary PC-13 rating. This wasnt a typo; PC stood for Profound Carnage. This was more a marketing tactic than anything else; at the time, games with gore tended to hit the news quite often. Any publicity is good publicity, as they say. And Wolf3D certainly wasnt afraid to bleed to get noticed.
My friend and I were on holiday at Center Parcs with my parents one year—we must have been in our early teens at the time—and my parents clearly felt somewhat conflicted over this game. Obviously it was a revolution in graphics and gameplay, but at the same time it involved Nazis in a gloriously historically inaccurate scenario (with zombies) and bled all over the place whenever anything got shot. Also, you could drink blood off the floor when you got down to less than 10% health. Gross.
My friend Edd, at the time not particularly versed in developing tactful arguments (hes better now), pointed out that yeah, but after a while, you stop noticing it. This perhaps wasnt the best thing to say. Though looking at what we have in games now, and how little people think of excessive gore and violence, it perhaps wasnt an unreasonable thing to mention after all. And its actually true, for better or worse; the gore and the horror are not the most important things about Wolf3D. Its a maze game that demands the player explore and remember where theyre going based on landmarks.
Because Wolf3D used a fairly rudimentary cube-based 3D engine rather than the more sophisticated, realistic engines we started to see with Doom and contemporaries, players were still essentially exploring a 2D maze. Fortunately, the wide variety of texture maps and objects scattered throughout the mazes meant that it actually was practical to navigate by spotting visual features. It was a next-generation 3D Monster Maze, if you will, but the enhanced graphics meant there was no need to get the graph paper out.
Wolf3D had a great atmosphere thanks to its presentation. Enemies each had their own unique battle cry in sort-of authentic German, and an early use of stereo sound meant that you could hear where they were coming from. Oddly enough, though, picking up collectibles such as first aid kits and treasure produced some of the strangest and incongruous MIDI-based sound effects youll ever hear. These weird sounds are all part of the games charm, though, and a sign that its not supposed to be taken too seriously. But the MIDI soundtrack, while not exactly a sweeping cinematic orchestral score, certainly got the heart pumping, particularly on boss levels.
This is another thing that Wolf3D invented: the bullet-sponge FPS boss. Arguably the most irritating parts of the game, each of the six episodes concluded with a confrontation against an enormously fat, enormously powerful and usually cybernetically-enhanced boss. This included an enormously fat, enormously powerful, cybernetically-enhanced Adolf Hitler at the end of episode three. These confrontations became somewhat iconic of Wolf3D, but it was actually the tense exploration of the levels that was the real highlight of the game.
Wolf3D has gone from strength to strength over the years. Beginning as a humble shareware title that you could actually run from a floppy disk if you really wanted to, it spawned a commercial sequel called Spear of Destiny, which was pretty much the same game with different maps and a few new textures. Much later, of course, we saw the proper 3D games for the PC and consoles, but for many, its always been all about the original, which had bags of character in its cartoony, boxy graphics. Since that time, the original game has been ported to almost any platform youd care to mention; you can even play it on the iPhone.
Despite what people think, though, Wolf3D actually wasnt the first ever example of the first-person shooter. That honour arguably began a year earlier in 1991 with Catacomb 3D, a 16-colour fantasy-based shooter developed by the founders of id Software. What Wolf3D did was to take the good work that the team did on Catacomb, enhance, refine and polish it to a sheen and then release it to an unsuspecting public.
For reasons lost to the mists of time, Catacomb 3D and its subsequent sequels are long-forgotten by most gamers now, while Wolf3Ds legacy lives on. Its a game that remains just as playable today as it was back in 1992. And its arguably the game to which we can attribute the enduring popularity of World War II-themed shooters.
Its also the game to which we can look to for the birth of modding culture. Shortly after the games release, a wealth of map editors became available, allowing thousands of bedroom-based aspiring games designers to cut their teeth on making levels. The emergent popularity of online services such as CompuServe and AOL at the time, too, meant that for the first time, these modifications could be easily shared with the whole world. Publisher Apogee collected a bunch of the best levels from online into an official expansion pack called the Super Upgrades. I even had ten of my levels included in there, technically making me a professional game designer.
Wolf3D is easily available today on any platform youd care to mention. If youve never played it before, you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy, for the sake of gaming history if nothing else.