8 ways Wolfenstein 3D changed video games forever

Guten Tag!

This month's Wolfenstein: The New Order isn't just another FPS. It isn't just another great looking FPS. It's the latest bloody spawning from one of the most important and influential lineages in gaming history. Wolfenstein 3D, you see, is the tobacco-chewing, shotgun-cradling, vaguely xenophobic but highly charismatic grandaddy of first-person shooters. Hell, it pretty much stepped in to help raise shooters in general, after their parents were killed by that nasty barbecue accident (thats what happens when you cook on a red barrel).

Unsure as to how a 22 year-old purveyor of pixelated nazis could hold so much influence more than two decades later? Well then it's fortunate that, in true high school maths fashion, I've made sure to show my work for the above statements over the next few pages. Click on, and you shall be able to read it.

It gave the world real first-person shooters

Kind of a big deal, this one. You see, the FPS is fairly well-liked these days. Never in human history, except perhaps during World War 2 itself, has the process of shooting men in the face from a first-person perspective been more popular. Wolfenstein is responsible for that. Well, technically it refined pre-existing ideas into a newer, better format, but rocks and caves existed before we invented houses. And that's precisely the kind of scale-up we're talking here.

Although very basic first-person games such as Spasim and Maze War had existed in the late '80s, followed by first-person RPGs like Ultima Underworld in the early '90s, Wolfenstein accelerated the concept like never before. Faster, cooler, and more involved, Wolfenstein was a stunning showcase for the improved tech of dark coding mage John Carmack. But it was also much more. With its brisk, brainy conceits, it kickstarted the entire FPS race by setting the standard genre design model for about a decade. Sally forth, and I shall explain.

It set the standard for how shooters worked for about a decade

There are certain design tropes that we take for granted in FPS. Certain innate systems and set-ups that we instinctively know to be 'just the way things work'. In fact many have filtered their way through into the wider realm of action gaming in general. And a whole bunch of their early foundations were popularised by Wolfenstein 3D.

Maze-like environments. Challenges built out of variable combinations of different enemy classes. The annoying, nippy, melee enemy that gets right up in your face. Combat built around spatial control and tactical use of architecture. Level progress fuelled by the eternal hunt for keys. Secret areas hidden behind doors disguised as walls. Wolfenstein polished up and combined the whole lot, to craft the whole world's perception of what a contemporary shooter was. And as for the weapons...

It drew up the blueprint for FPS weaponry

In the same way that we all understand how action games work, everyone in the world understands the archetypal weapon tree of the first-person shooter. It's been unspoken knowledge for so long that many confuse it for an instinctive, genetic understanding of human beings, like the fact that bread is tasty or that wasps are bastards. But it's not. It's another thing that Wolfenstein came up with.

The short-range, desperation melee weapon. The better-than-nothing pistol. The trusty-but-unspectacular machine gun. The short-lived, cathartic fury of the chain gun. With the later SNES port adding the anarchic, multi-directional destruction of the flamethrower, and the Holy Grail of save-it-'til-you-need-it weapons in the form of the rocket launcher, that's every archetype of FPS weaponry locked down. Every action-game kill-tool, barring only the shotgun introduced by Doom, is a variant of those. In generic function, if not in form, Wolfenstein decided on the video game guns we'd be using for decades.

It gave shareware distribution a massive shot in the arm

The shareware distribution model was the Kickstarter or Steam Early Access of the early 90s. We might think that we're all very clever with our internet-distributed, community-supported, pre-release indie game love-ins, but shareware was the precursor of that whole philosophy. And although it had been around for a few years before Wolfenstein 3D was launched, iD's Nazi-pulping simulator sent it through the roof.

Using the shareware system--whereby players could access around a third to a half of a new game for free, before paying for the rest--id's sales for Wolfenstein rocketed past those of its previously best-known franchise, Commander Keen. And when Doom springboarded off its predecessor's success using the same system... Commercial and cultural nuke. And it wasn't just the id canon that benefited. For a period in the mid-'90s, a swathe of independent developers launched iconic franchises (FPS and otherwise) using the model. Heard of a company called Epic? Yeah. And now things are coming full-circle, with early access sales and crowd-funded indie games dominating the landscape again. Which is great. But never forget that the cycle started with Mecha-Hitler.

It lit the touchpaper on the mod scene

While we're on the subject of player-supported gaming and development, it's worth noting that Wolfenstein (accidentally) paved the way for more than a few careers by way of the modding scene. You see while Wolfenstein 3D itself wasn't designed to have mod tools, fan passion led to a whole bunch of unofficial character and level editors.

id quickly caught on to that, and built Doom specifically for easy modding. That cemented a vast legacy for the demon extermination sim; indeed, one that still thrives today. But it also instigated a culture of modding that launched a pantheon of developers (perhaps the best known is Randy Pitchford, from Gearbox) from their bedrooms to the big time.

It brought the one-man army archetype to video games

Rambo and Matrix were the two Johns of bicep-bulging bullet-fun years before Wolfenstein's BJ Blazkowicz picked up the baton. But we shouldn't overlook how fundamental id's hero was in making the archetype a video game staple. Prior to Wolfenstein, action-game heroes were an odd, eclectic bunch, comprising little kids, wizards, out of work D&D extras, plumbers, animals and whatever abstract shapes could fit into a limited number of pixels. Blazkowicz, though, brought cinema's archetype of the badass, one-man bullet volcano to gaming, and with it, perhaps the first (silly) step towards more adult characterisation.

Yes, it's entirely understandable that you might curse his name to Hades for the proliferation of grunting, bald-headed knuckle-men that he and Doomguy later wreaked upon the world. But by bringing a relatively adult cinematic character-type to high profile acceptance in gaming, Blazko almost certainly helped the pastime take one of its earliest small steps away from being perceived as a child's plaything, and towards becoming a medium in its own right.

It invented the World War 2 FPS

It might be surprising, given that the last decade saw World War 2 shooters become as prolific as hormonally unstable diatribes on Justin Bieber's @reply tab, but the setting really hadn't been explored by games very much before Wolfenstein 3D. There were a few flight and vehicle command simulators like The Red Baron, Silent Service, and Conqueror--but little in the way of pure action games. Perhaps due to understandable reverence, gaming's treatment of WW2 was sparse and largely limited to more cerebral, slightly distanced experiences. The visceral, harrowing, on-the-ground action just wasn't represented. Obviously, Wolfenstein 3D blew the doors off that in 1992.

Now of course Wolfie is no poignant, historical document. It doesn't pretend to be for a second. But by giving World War 2 such a balls-out, explosive, cartoony treatment, it definitely opened up a whole new avenue for the conflict's exploration in gaming. As ancestors go, it might be Medal of Honors slightly embarrassing, socially inappropriate Grandad. However, without its selfless historical efforts, wed all be speaking German now. Or something. Ive lost the run of this metaphor, to be honest.

It made Nazi zombies a video game staple

Okay, so Wolfenstein hardly invented the occult Nazi stereotype. It's been around for decades. Just watch Michael Manns The Keep if you dont believe me. In fact watch The Keep anyway. But let's face it, video games have run with the Nazi zombie idea like no other medium. If there were royalty payments for ideas, Call of Duty would be knee-deep in dept by now, and John Carmack would be tinkering around with diamond Oculus Rift screens on his private island in space (which floats upon the back of a giant robot T-Rex of his own making).

Actually, scale that last sentence up a bit. I'm talking about Carmack here. That's just his Tuesday mornings.


So that's why Wolfenstein 3D is Damn Important Business. Enlightened? Enthralled? Merely passed a few minutes of a Friday afternoon while watching the clock glacially, tortuously tick toward Gin o'Clock, mocking your ennui with every single second? Whatever the case, I'm glad to have been of service. And obviously, if you have any comments, you know the drill. Below. Not up here. This is my bit.

And if you're still around and have yet more time to kill, why not check out some of our related content? If you're on this page, I assume you do care about Wolfenstein, so how about having a look at a couple of juicy big articles on The New Order. I've got one on Why it's a smarter shooter than you think, and one explaining why narratively it's about much more than just shooting Nazi Robots.

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