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May 10, 2012

This game is twenty years old

I was young enough in 1992 tha

I was young enough in 1992 that when Wolfenstein 3D came out, I either didn’t know what it was or wasn’t allowed to play it. Nonetheless, it was still one of the first videogames I ever saw, on a neighbour’s computer some years later.

Wolfenstein turned twenty years old on the 5th of May, last Saturday. To acknowledge this, Wolfenstein has been made available as a free web-browser game. If you haven’t played it in a number of years—or have never played it—it’s fascinating to return to. In addition, there’s a special edition of the Bethesda podcast with id Software’s co-founder and Wolfenstein programmer, John Carmack, doing a ‘director’s commentary’ for the game (a strange term in this case, but okay).

Looking back on it now—and from my conversations with those who’d never seen the game before now—it does very much feel its age. At the same time, there’s something quite remarkable about such a formative game being two decades in age. Wolfenstein was in many respects a landmark, but a landmark that came well into the history of videogames. Atari, arcade cabinets, Nintendo, Shigeru Miyamoto, the Gameboy—these things were already well established by the time of Wolfenstein. And it was, in its own way, a sequel of sorts, being inspired by the Apple II game Castle Wolfenstein of nine years previous.

Aesthetically, Wolfenstein was intimidating. I’d never played a particularly violent game before, and the aggressiveness of the way you were clearly intended to play this game shocked me at the time. The stark, bright visuals, the shouts of pain as you shot enemies, and the dogs—oh, god, the dogs—were all confronting.

While some videogames have moved on to far more aggressive pastures, playing Wolfenstein today still has a raw and slightly nasty edge. It is unsophisticated, yes, but it is also thrillingly distasteful in a way that modern games designed to shock rarely are.

Wolfenstein had a remarkable influence on videogames and the way they are perceived by the general public. For many years, Wolfenstein and its spiritual successor, Doom (also made by id Software) was simply what videogames looked like to many people.

Playing the game today, the basic elements of the First Person Shooter are all there: navigation, shooting, and health and ammunition to collect. In one sense, it’s tempting to think of the FPS genre as a set of variations on a theme laid out by Wolfenstein and a small handful of other games in the early 1990s. Things have obviously advanced significantly in the intervening years, but the core recipe remains the same.

Yet Wolfenstein was also a landmark game in an industry sense—not only could other developers license Carmack’s 3D technology from the game, allowing them to focus more on the creative, rather than technical side of things, but the game was one of the key successes for the shareware distribution model of the 1990s.

And so this week, Wolfenstein turns twenty. I’ll leave you with the words of 1992’s Sydney Morning Herald, which had Phil Campbell “flabbergasted” with the game:

The game, we are warned, is rated PC-13 – Profound Carnage. Good advice. There’s plenty of blood and guts, and the sound effects are blood-curdling, so my sub-13-year-olds won’t be playing.

[…]

All I can say is, try it. Wolfenstein 3D is fast, it’s action-packed, and it’s fun to play. I’m impressed.

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