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Influential FPS Games (Part 1): Wolfenstein 3D (1992)

Hello, and welcome to the first episode in the ‘Influential FPS Games’ series!

In this series, we will investigate the (arguably) most influential FPS games throughout history. The games selected for this series are those that introduced innovations that would go on to shape and influence the FPS games that came after them.

A game’s financial success – or lack thereof – is not a consideration as to whether it will be featured in this series. What is important here is the impact a game had on future FPS design. Therefore, a hypothetical game that was a massive commercial success, but didn’t bring anything new to the table and thus didn’t influence the games that came after it, wouldn’t be featured. Conversely, a hypothetical game which was a commercial failure, but who’s innovations went on to be incorporated into many later FPS games, would be.

FPS games which were innovative, but who’s innovations were not then widely adopted, will not be included here either. However, it is highly likely they will be celebrated in a separate series at a later date.

With that out of the way, let’s dive in.

When asked “what was the first FPS game?” many people will reply ‘Wolfenstein 3D’. I would have too before conducting the research for this article. However, it turns out that it wasn’t the first First Person Shooter (FPS), not by a long shot.

That accolade likely goes to MIT’s Maze War created in 1973 (or 1974 – sources vary), which predates Wolfenstein 3D by nearly two decades. Maze Wars and the Atari ST’s MIDI Maze (1987) all came before Wolfenstein 3D too, as did id software’s own Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D, both from 1991. 

However, most of the above were relatively primitive affairs, hamstrung by the limited power of home computer hardware at the time. This limited processing power forced a number of restrictions on these early attempts at FPS gaming. One of these restrictions was the relatively small ‘window’ in which the on-screen action took place. This was hampered yet further by their relatively narrow Fields of View (FoV). What’s more, the frame rates of these early games tended to be both choppy and slow as you can plainly see in the videos below.

Maze War

Maze Wars


Hover Tank 3D

Catacomb 3-D

A further frustration was their unintuitive ‘tank’ controls. These games pre-date both mouselook and the ability to sidestep, which made controlling your avatar awkward. (At least by modern standards.)

All these limitations conspired to consign these games to niche novelty titles. For the FPS to become successful more powerful hardware would be required.

That hardware hit the scene in 1989, in the guise of the 486 processor. The specs of the 486 would be laughably underpowered if compared to any modern-day CPU, but at the time it was the most powerful processor available for any home system. Upon release, it was far too expensive for mass adoption, however, within a few years the price had dropped sufficiently for it to become a staple of home PCs.

256 colour ‘Mode 13h VGA graphics and 16-bit sound cards also became available around this time, thus completing ‘the holy trinity’ of early FPS games; namely sound, graphics, and CPU clock speeds. PCs were now ready to take on the 16-bit competition as a legitimate gaming platform, and one that would calve out its niche by easily going where the competition struggled, namely, into the third dimension.

This is probably a good time to explain what the gaming landscape was like during the early 1990s for anyone who isn’t old (and balding) enough to have experienced it first-hand like I did.

During the 16-bit era, the big players were the 16-bit consoles, namely the SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive and the Nintendo SNES, and the 16-Bit home computers, most notably the Commodore Amiga 500/600, and the Atari ST. All these platforms were ‘complete’ systems, built with gaming in mind. Their sound and graphics capabilities were hardwired and built in from the start, thus making them far more suited to gaming 2D gaming especially.

However, they could not be easily upgraded.

PCs, or IBM compatibles as they were sometimes referred to at the time, were considered ‘work’ machines. They were intended for word processing and spreadsheets, not for gaming, and thus did not come with gaming hardware built in. For example, PCs usually didn’t come with dedicated sound hardware installed, and so were incapable of creating music or in-game sounds beyond the most basic of beeps.

However, just like today, they could be upgraded.

The installation of a 16-bit sound card solved this and provided PCs with audio capabilities on-par with the competition, if not superior to it. The sheer horsepower of the 486 processor allowed for 3D graphics which the competition simply couldn’t cope with. As a result, the PC developed a reputation as being the natural ‘home’ of 3D gaming. This reputation grew with time as the hardware improved yet further. Indeed, the PC would not see serious competition in the 3D space until the introduction of the PlayStation in 1994.

In many ways, Wolfenstein was not only the first truly popular FPS, it was the title which made people seriously consider PCs as legitimate gaming machines, and helped drive the PC gaming scene as a whole. 

Johns Carmack and Romero of id software were keen to utilize this newly available horsepower. They sought to create an FPS which would feature frame rates fast enough and smooth enough to allow for exciting and frantic gameplay, and thus bring the FPS into the mainstream. To do this id software acquired the rights to the Wolfenstein licence and set about turning it from a top down 2D stealth game into a 3D first person shooter.

Castle Wolfenstein 1981 – the franchise’s humble beginnings

Wolfenstein 3D was then released to the world on PC May 5th 1992. To both increase awareness of the game, and reduce production overheads, developers id software and publisher Apogee used a novel ‘shareware’ distribution method. The first episode, comprising of ten levels, was released for free as a digital download obtainable via bulletin board systems. The two remaining episodes, which also comprised of ten levels apiece, were available for purchase via mail order. This model was highly effective and would go on to be used for a number of other early ‘90s PC video games.

Wolfenstein 3D DOS

From a technical perspective, Wolfenstein 3D was far in advance of the early FPS games that came before it. As you can see in the video above, the frame rates were far higher and the gameplay far smoother than anything that had gone before. The first person ‘window’ was also far larger, taking up roughly ¾ of the on-screen real-estate, and the FoV was far wider. These technical advancements allowed for Wolfenstein 3D to be the first truly immersive and playable FPS.

Speaking of gameplay, many of the tropes that would become commonplace in later FPS games can be found here, and they may well have begun here too.

Firstly, Wolfenstein 3D featured a range of both human and non-human enemies. These included various gun armed hit scanning Nazi troopers, projectile-throwing Nazi occultists, melee-focused attack dogs and end of chapter bosses – including a quad chain gun wielding Cyber Hitler no less.

Secondly, the health and ammo pickups, secret rooms, and even secret levels that would typify most ‘90s FPS games were all in abundance here.

Thirdly, the typical FPS arsenal of weapons began its evolution here. This included the trusty ‘never runs out of ammo melee weapon’ – in this case a knife, the ‘weak but accurate and better than nothing starting weapon’ – in this case a pistol, and the ‘rapidly firing chain gun’ – in this case a multi-barrel Gatling gun.

The controversy that has plagued FPS games throughout the years also started here.  Indeed, it allegedly ran into controversy even before it was released. Apparently publisher FormGen – who would go on to handle the distribution of the expansion pack Spear of Destiny – grew uncomfortable with the game’s shock content and its depiction of violence, which was considered quite graphic for the time.

(NB: To put this into context, the far more graphic Mortal Kombat would not be released in the video arcades until August of that year – three months after the release of Wolfenstein 3D) 

Id’s response to these concerns was to inject more blood, gore, violence, German voices and Nazi iconography, including the Nazi party anthem ‘Horst-Wessel-Lied’ playing in the loading screen. It is worth remembering that in these early days of FPS gaming and the internet in general, devs, hackers and other IT types were seen as edgy, counter-cultural, and generally transgressive. Many behaved more like rock stars than the stereotypical IT nerds some people might think of today. Just take a look at John Romero’s hair and you will see what I mean.

Indeed, there was a curious fusion of video games and controversial musicians back then, with bands such as Nine Inch Nails providing the soundscapes for some of id software’s later First Person Shooters – but more on that in later articles.

The game was initially banned in Germany due to its inclusion of Nazi iconography – which is a crime in that country. What’s more, the later 1994 SNES port had to be heavily censored to comply with Nintendo’s family-friendly image.

Wolfenstein 3D SNES

Wolfenstein 3D was a critical and financial success, was later ported to a multitude of systems and put id software firmly on the map.

That said, it wasn’t perfect. It still used the same tank controls as earlier FPS games – you may have noticed from the videos that your avatar, William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, cannot sidestep. The game’s maze-like levels were sometimes confusing, and it was easy to get lost, leading to unnecessary frustration.

What’s more, it suffered from some technical limitations that even a programming genius of John Carmack’s calibre could not overcome with the technology available during its development. For example, there was no verticality in Wolfenstein 3D – everything was on one level, the walls were all the same height and Blazkowicz could not look up or down. (Not that he needed to considering how flat everything was.)

Despite these minor limitations, Wolfenstein 3D was the first truly popular FPS, and deserves its reputation as ‘the grandfather of the FPS genre’.

So, if Wolfenstein 3D was the grandfather of FPS, what was the father? That accolade would go to id’s next major project. This being the game that would set the template for almost every FPS game for years to come. The game which arguably kickstarted the PC modding scene and crashed servers across the land. I think you can all guess what is coming up in the next article of this series…DooM (1993)

See you all then.

Iain is a 40+ gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 35 years ago. He can be reached via Twitter at and Facebook