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2 Features

History Lesson: Wolfenstein 3D

The Nazi shooter that created the FPS genre

There's a lot to be said for a good, snappy name.

From Galaxian to Titanfall, sticking with something cool and yet tenuously relevant has rarely steered anyone wrong. It's a bonus if the game happens to define or epitomise a genre, like brassy Nazi killfest Wolfenstein 3D here, which probably wouldn't have caught on if they'd called it Super First-Person Fascist Castle.


Wolfenstein 3D was the first of the big three FPS babies to find life in the labs of id Software. Following the experimental Hovertank and Catacomb 3D, it defined the company's trajectory towards a high-tech, balls-out extreme - leaving an interesting 'what if?' scenario had it been their chirpy 2D platformer Commander Keen that hit the big time instead.

One element retained from Keen was the shareware structure. Wolfenstein 3D arrived in six multi-level episodes, with only the first being available without picking up the commercial release (adding campaigns against mutant master Dr Schabbs and angry Adolf) and Nocturnal Episodes prequel pack.

Its thematic roots went back further still, to ancient Apple II stealth games Castle Wolfenstein (1981) and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein (1984). For a quick flavour of those, think Berzerk with Nazis.

If the original Castle Wolfenstein was a cunning fox, Wolfenstein 3D was a charging rhino - any stealth elements pared away in its transition to all-action juggernaut with a voluntary PC-13 rating (for Profound Carnage) and an OTT hero in soldier and jailbreaker BJ Blazkowicz.

In the wrong hands, this new direction could have been cataclysmic buffoonery, but tied up tight to id's tech and no-nonsense design, it worked like a charm. The revamped game was all about utilising speed and red-hot gun barrels over any thought of stopping to strategise.

Its newly 3D corridors were wide and low-ceilinged with a constant sense of personal danger, a bit like Lidl, with treasure laid out in neat stashes and pushwalls concealing health and ammo dumps. Hundreds of Nazi aggressors, dogs and bosses were available for immediate consultation with your knife, pistol, machine gun and chaingun. Good times.

Wolfenstein 3D is known as the grandfather of the FPS genre for good reason: many of the staples it introduced have barely changed, while its modding capacity opened the door to countless itchy-fingered designers and coders.

Following the monstrous landmarks that were Doom and Quake, John Carmack stuck with id Software beyond Wolfenstein's 20th anniversary in 2012 before leaving last November to join Oculus. Meanwhile, John Romero and Tom Hall founded Ion Storm, the output of which, during a brief, tumultuous life, ranged from the sublime (Deus Ex) to the ridiculous (Daikatana).

Wolfenstein itself has had a tough time keeping up, as neither 2001's Return to Castle Wolfenstein nor 2009's simply titled Wolfenstein could bottle the same lightning. So now it's up to Machine Games and Wolfenstein: The New Order.

We remain hopeful, because Wolfenstein - with its technical accomplishment, huge legacy and cheerfully black-and-white view of the world - has surely earned that hope.