May 5th 1992. A release date that will live for…well, a heckuva long time.
Because, before Assassin’s Creed, before Metal Gear Solid, Socomm or Call of Duty, before Quake and Duke Nukem (long may he reign as King of Vaporware), there was the ur-game of them all, the ancient DNA of all first person shooters, and it was released that day. Nope, not Doom, but its startlingly original, blood spattered, laughingly and irreverently pixellated daddy, Wolfenstein 3d.
While I fully acknowledge the origin of the game in Muse software’s 1984 incarnation, it was id software’s 1992 revisit of the game that broke all barriers and ushered in the era of the true first person shooter, where the environment was realistic looking 3d and scrolling and perspective were from that of the player. But what really made it a breakout success and runaway hit was the stroke of genius Id/Apogee had, of giving away the first episode for free, and then charging for the remaining five. Shareware was well on the way to changing business models for the entire software industry.
Wolfenstein 3d sold like a gazillion copies. Office managers routinely cursed its name. Parents were constantly kicked off their own computers (when they had them) by their kids, who played all night sessions, and then got hooked themselves after watching it for a while. Until its even better successor Doom came along (with its equally original and innovative network deathmatch play), it was quoted as one of the greatest contributors to loss of office productivity between 1992 and 1994.
One of the reasons for its perennial attraction for just about anyone of any age, was its ease of use. Left and right arrow keys, space to shoot, and maybe two other keys to throw a grenade or push a wall for secrets. Compare that to today’s games, which use what seems like every key on my board, plus a few I never heard of. My son kicks my ass at the Wii and playstation games, but I moider da bum on keys…so long as I can use just a few and I don’t have to think in 3d. Wolfenstein’s game engine made all that possible.
Wolfenstein 3d ushered in the first glimpse of a true FPS, much as Jordan Mechener’s original Prince of Persia almost redefined how graphics should look in an adventure game (both have now merged into fully rendered 3d worlds, but at the time their innovations were stunning and revolutionary to people who had only ever seen side-scolling images that did not move like real objects)
Seen today, we smile at the archaic graphics and clumsy bitmaps and poorly rendered images. Relative to today’s sleek gaming worlds, of course they are. At the time though, we had never seen anything quite like it. And me and my friends, we stayed late at our offices, played all the levels (plus more freebies), did speed runs and became masters and boasted of our achievements when we met for beers.
I’m sure today’s twelve-fingered, thick-thumbed and iron-wristed Xbox and PS3 ur-swamis are as bad, as addicted and as dedicated as we once were. But I can almost guarantee that they never had quite as much fun as we did in those days when the technology was so new it had literally never been seen before. That technologically-inspired sense of wonder and fun, plus ten beers and a pack of smokes would keep us going in our offices until long past midnight, surrounded by tinny speakers, glowing big-ass monitor and other crazies doing exactly the same thing.
Beat that, newbs