Running Down The History Of Wolfenstein, The World’s First First-Person Shooter

A Change Of Perspective
Few games exist which you can truly call evolutionary without receiving a raised eyebrow or dismissive chuckle in response. Wolfenstein 3D makes that short list with ease. A retooling of Muse Software’s games, 3D gave us a memorable protagonist, B.J. Blazkowicz, and let us see the world through his eyes. While Doom is often considered id Software’s masterpiece, Wolfenstein 3D founded an entire genre and introduced players to a new way of playing video games.

In his book Masters of Doom, David Kushner explains why Castle Wolfenstein was the perfect candidate for id’s genre-founding transformation:

Wolfenstein was perfect for Carmack’s technology because it was, at its core, a maze-based shooter. The player had to run through all these labyrinths fighting Nazis and collecting treasure, and then doing away with Hitler. Despite the game’s blocky, low-resolution graphics, it was unique in its implication of a larger virtual world. When Caste Wolfenstein was released, most games for computers or arcades, like Pong, existed on one static screen. But in Wolfenstein the conceit was that each screen the player saw represented one room of a large castle. Each room was a maze of walls. When players ran through the maze, the screen would change, showing a new room. Though there was no scrolling, the feeling was one of true exploration.

The combination of first-person perspective, seen previously in the likes of Wing Commander and MDI Maze, with the concept of Castle Wolfenstein’s exploration as well as Id’s amazing (for the time) 3D graphics made games feel intimate in a way that they had never felt before.

For all its innovation, Wolfenstein 3D has not aged well. The mazes feel dull thanks to the castle’s gray and brown hallways, which are only occasionally peppered with a Swastika or portrait of a Nazi, and the enemy variety leaves much to be desired. People still remember Doom fondly over Wolfenstein 3D because Doom is a superior game, with a fully-realized, otherworldly setting packed to the brim with countless, well-designed enemies. Wolfenstein may not be as good, but it made everything people love about Doom, and the rest of the first-person shooter genre, a reality.

After Doom, many people forgot about Wolfenstein 3D. Within a few years, the term “Doom Clone” that was being bandied about the gaming world was phased out as it became clear this style of game, combining the intimacy of the first-person perspective with gun violence, was emerging as a genre unto itself. Titles like Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Half-Life, Rainbow Six, Starsiege: Tribes, GoldenEye: 007 became embedded in the consciousness of pop culture. The stylized, high-production violence of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Tom Clancy films had finally arrived on our consoles and computers in the form of first-person shooters, and we were the stars.

The Return
Id Software never returned to Wolfenstein after the original release. The company instead kept its focus firmly in the realm of science fiction after Doom by developing Quake, various Doom sequels, and the post-apocalyptic FPS/RPG hybrid Rage. Wolfenstein, with its particularly chaotic brand of Nazi bloodshed, lay forgotten for nearly a decade as other developers introduced their own World War II action games like Medal of Honor and Hidden & Dangerous.

In 2001, Gray Matter Interactive and Nerve Software rebooted the series as Return To Castle Wolfenstein (RTCW). Like Wolfenstein 3D retained the infiltration-focused foundation of the adventure games, RTCW strived to embrace the heritage of frenzied, Nazi-slaying gunplay that became 3D’s defining feature while also embracing trends running through the gaming industry at this point. Essentially, this meant that RTCW had a (dumb) story, with characters who had (simple) motivations. B.J. Blazkowicz, who had existed primarily as a generic action hero, now spoke and was on a clearly defined crusade to stop evil dudes with a little more form to them than just “Generic Nazi.” Blazko also sported a new look, with the blonde muscular man of the original game being replaced by a smaller character with a black-haired, roguish look. The castle levels were also more vertical and realistic, with cafeterias, offices, and bunk rooms as opposed to an endless labyrinth.

RTCW also eventually gave birth to Enemy Territory, a class-based multiplayer shooter that was ahead of its time due to its atypical release. Originally conceived as an expansion pack, the game suffered problems during development and was eventually released as free standalone game. The game, alongside Day of Defeat and Team Fortress, helped popularize class-based multiplayer games and continues to enjoy a healthy community to this day thanks to mods and community support.

Outside of its beloved multiplayer, Return To Castle Wolfenstein didn’t set the world on fire. The campaign was fine for its time, but felt inferior to the likes of Half-Life and Halo, which had released four days earlier and pushed the genre forward in exciting new ways. However, this entry introduced important elements that would carry forward into its predecessors: A Raiders Of The Lost Ark-esque theme centered on Nazis being obsessed with the supernatural, the resistance group known The Kreisau Circle, and the introduction of General Deathshead, who would end up being the primary baddie in The New Order.

In 2009, Wolfenstein yet again made its way to a new generation of hardware. Developed by Raven Software, the simply named Wolfenstein was a direct successor to RTCW featuring the black-haired variant of BJ again and dosing him up with super powers. This entry leans even harder into the occult than the previous game, with an alternate dimension playing a huge role in the plot as well as a few monsters. Despite some interesting ideas, Raven Software’s take on the franchise just didn’t feel true to the series. It replaced the classic health bar with Call of Duty’s duck & cover regenerating health scheme, and went all in on a story that just wasn’t good at all.

Our own Matt Bertz ended his review of the game, saying “Speaking of strategy, Wolfenstein is in dire need of a new one. Grinding through waves of predictable enemies in corridors is no way to pay homage to the franchise’s unquestioned legacy in the genre.”

Luckily, that new strategy was just a few years off.