Bullets & Bombs: The history of first-person shooters

We dig into the violent history of first-person murder simulators

There won't be a test

First-person shooters are simple. Forget all the flash and pizazz of recent years, all the high production values and splosions and massive budgets. At their core, first-person shooters are, and always have been, based on a single mechanic: shooting stuff. You see the bad guys, you shoot the bad guys. Thats really all there is to it, whether youre playing Wolfenstein or Modern Warfare.

Perhaps its that simplicity that has caused the FPS genre to endear itself to so many over the past few decades. Now, dont get us wrong--first-person shooters are (usually) more than just shooting galleries. But theres just something so primal and satisfying about simply shooting stuff that it shouldnt be that much of a surprise to hear that the FPS is the current king of video game genres. But just how did FPS games get to where they are today? Well, were going to tell you right now, so read on--and keep some spare ammo at the ready.

Maze War and Spasim invent the first-person game

The earliest examples of first-person gaming go back to the beginnings of video games themselves. Around 1974, two early developers--Steve Colley and Jim Bowery--worked on separate titles that were undeniably influential to the future of gaming. First, there was Colleys Maze War, a simple black-and-white puzzle game where players would wander through a maze looking for other avatars, represented by floating eyeballs. When you saw another eyeball, you could shoot it to gain points.

This may sound like brain-dead-level simplicity, but for the early 70s, just about all of these things--the first-person view, the avatars, its in-game level map--were firsts. Around the same time, Bowery debuted Spasim, a space flight simulator also set in a first-person view. Like Maze War, movements were slow and simple, and turns could only be done in 90-degree angles. Also like Maze War, its significant for being one of the first 3D first-person games ever created. Unfortunately, neither game was released commercially; instead, they were more like radical projects shown off to select university students.

Battlezone gives life to the FPS

Everyday folk wouldnt get their first shot at first-person shooters until the early 80s, when a handful of titles influenced by the early concepts provided by Maze War and Spasim launched in arcades. The most popular of these was 1980s Battlezone, a tank combat sim that served as many gamers first introduction to the genre.

It utilized black and green vector-style graphics, basic background environmental effects (like an erupting volcano), and addictive, score-based gameplay centered on shooting up as many enemy vehicles as possible. As a result, it would remain popular with arcade-going high score chasers for many years.

MIDI Maze hints at future greatness

Besides Battlezone, the majority of other 80s shooters just werent ready for primetime yet. The technology wasnt quite there, and developers were still fumbling around with how to best utilize this relatively unknown genre. There were a few successes with light gun peripherals--like Japanese developer Taitos Operation Wolf--but it wasnt until MIDI Maze released for the Atari ST in 1987 that FPS games took their next step forward.

MIDI Maze (released as Faceball 2000 for the Game Boy in 1991) was a goofy yet charming game, featuring big, yellow, murderous smiley faces as avatars. As far as gameplay went, MIDI Maze didnt do much different mechanically from other shooters, but it was notable for being the first legitimately robust multiplayer 3D shooter for an accessible home console. It required a complicated LAN setup, yes, but MIDI Maze gave players the first hint at just how huge multiplayer FPS would eventually become.

Wolfenstein 3D fathers modern shooters

Throughout the late 80s and early 90s, Texas dev id Software had worked on a handful of first-person shooters that gradually improved with each passing release. Games like Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D saw John Carmack and company experiment with new technological advancements, including fully realized 3D environments. But when id released Wolfenstein 3D for the PC in 1992, it changed first-person shooters forever.

Wolfenstein was a revelation. Environments and character models were impressive for its time, and it ran more smoothly than any 3D shooter that had come before it. Because of this, id was able to craft a shooter that mixed the first-person perspective that was beginning to come into its own with the ultra-fast pace of many third-person action games in arcades at the time. This effectively popularized the run-and-gun style shooter, making it accessible to all. It featured many aspects of shooters that are taken for granted nowadays, like health and ammo packs, the ability to freely select weapons, and being able to save your progress at any point. Oh, and it let you kill Hitler.

Doomwell, its Doom

Though Wolfenstein was a huge success, id cemented its status as one of the premier game makers with the 1993 release of Doom. Simply put, Doom is one of the most important games ever made. It improved upon just about every aspect of Wolfenstein 3D, and established first-person shooters as a genre that would last well into the future.

Doom looked better, played better, and gave players more things to do than any shooter ever had. Its 3D environments were rich and filled with now-iconic demonic monsters--and it improved upon Wolfensteins already-successful run-and-gun gameplay template. It sported a wide variety of usable weapons, from the chainsaw to the infamous BFG. It also provided users with Doom WADs, which allowed players to create levels and mod the game to their hearts content. Oh, and it also featured online cooperative and deathmatch multiplayer. To say these non-campaign modes were popular would be an immense understatement, as Doom was the first FPS to successfully foster the kind of massive-scale user base so many shooters still seek today.

Marathon, Duke Nukem, and others fend off the Doom clones

Every major PC game maker wanted their own Doom, and the vast majority of shooters released after 1993 wanted to be Doom. These clones flooded the FPS market for a good while, but few classics came out of the sea of copycats. One of the earliest came in 1994, when a little developer named Bungie released the first game in its eventual Marathon trilogy. With a focus on its relatively nuanced sci-fi plot and its expansive multiplayer suite, the Mac-exclusive shooter was a unique hit.

The next year brought Star Wars: Dark Forces, which allowed players to look up and down in a fully 3D environment, as well as levels that were more in-depth than was typical at the time. Finally, there was 1996s Duke Nukem 3D, which hadspunk. Its raunchy sense of humor, tight, memorable action, and highly interactive levels gave it a true personality that resonated with millions of shooting fans. It even spawned a sequel 15 years later, which waswell, it was. Lets leave it at that.

Quake puts multiplayer at the forefront

While the likes of Marathon and Duke Nukem 3D were very much high quality titles, FPS fans in the mid-90s knew that id was still king of the genres hill. So when the now-legendary developers next game, Quake, was released, fans promptly went bananas. It had all the impressive aspects of its spiritual predecessors, but this time out there was a special focus on online multiplayer and technical performance.

Quakes single-player mode was great, but id knew multiplayer was where the future of shooters resided, so it jumped on the market early with a multitude of deathmatch modes and special multiplayer features like clans and modding abilities. Little quirks and tricks like rocket jumping were soon found by the games rabid community, whose collective passion rose high enough to turn Quake into one of the first legitimate e-Sports. It even has a giant annual convention/LAN party named after it, called QuakeCon. Four sequels were later released too, which solidified Quake as one of the most beloved FPS franchises ever made.

GoldenEye 007 legitimizes console shooters

Youve probably noticed that all of the FPS titles weve discussed have been for either arcades or the PC. Theres a reason for this: Console shooters either didnt exist yet, or werent all that good when they were made. That changed in August of 1997, when Rares GoldenEye 007 took the James Bond license and put it in an impeccably designed FPS.

Released on the Nintendo 64, GoldenEye almost exclusively tapped into a console market that had not yet gotten the FPS fever like its PC counterpart. It sported excellent level design in both single-player and its addictive four-player local multiplayer mode, a cast of iconic Bond characters, and a general shift away from the run-and-gun action seen in Doom and Wolfenstein. Instead, 007 moved more slowly and realistically, even putting an emphasis on stealth that had not been seen in most shooters before. Of course, some of this was due to how imprecise the N64 controller was compared to the traditional mouse and keyboard. But even still, this was the beginning of a genre-wide movement.

Half-Life, Unreal Tournament, and the continued power of the PC

Most console developers had a hard time catching up to Rares platform dominance. Instead, the best shooters of the late 90s still resided on the PC. 1998s Half-Life, for example, was the first game from developer Valve. Deeply cinematic, superbly written and designed, and decidedly focused on its solo campaign, Half-Life was a breath of fresh air for those who loved shooters but didnt always want to deal with the competitive online scene.

In stark contrast, the next year saw the release of Epics Unreal Tournament, ids Quake III Arena, and the Half-Life mod Counter-Strike, all of which heavily centered on their respective online components. UT and Quake were hectic and ultra-fast-paced titles that had almost no regard for single-player, and Counter-Strike went from user-made mod to widespread phenomenon thanks to its simple premise, brutal difficulty, and intensely dedicated player community. There were plenty of other wonderful and diverse PC shooters still being released at this point--from Starsiege: Tribes to Tom Clancys Rainbow Six to Deus Ex--making the turn of the century a golden age for PC shooting.

Halo kickstarts console shooters for good

The turn of the century also brought a new generation of consoles that were finally capable of smoothly running first-person shooters. By 2001, there werent many shooters--TimeSplitters and Perfect Dark aside--that could be considered flagship, high quality titles. Microsoft changed this by buying former Marathon devs Bungie and helping transform its next project, a real-time strategy game called Halo, into one of the most lucrative franchises ever.

Halo essentially did for console shooters what Doom did for the genre on PC. Its strong narrative, free-flowing and cinematic gameplay, advanced enemy AI, and what may have been the best adaptation of shooter controls to a consoles controller all helped make Halo the Xboxs primary system seller. Future installments, alongside Microsofts Xbox Live service, would add one of the deepest multiplayer components ever added to a console FPS too. This all added up to an incredibly influential experience, one that would provide the template for how to successfully craft a first-person shooter for the 21st century.

Consoles and PC FPS start to stand on equal ground

Like Doom before it, Halo seemed to convince the large majority of developers that making quality first-person shooters would be key to any game companys future success. The mid-2000s brought a wealth of excellent console shooters to go along with the continued--albeit slightly lessened--stream of great PC ones. These included massive amounts of World War II shooters like Battlefield 1942 and Call of Duty, highly anticipated sequels like Doom 3 and Half-Life 2, and new IPs like Far Cry and PlanetSide, among many others.

One particularly noteworthy title was 2002's Metroid Prime. It transplanted Samus Aran's side-scrolling adventure into a modernized FPS while still retaining the look and soul of the Metroid 2D platformers that the series originated from. Perhaps more importantly, though, it was one of the first popular FPS games to place an emphasis on adventure game-esque aspects like exploration and platforming rather than just shooting everything you could see. Series fans and FPS fanatics fell for the game en masse, making it one of the most critically and commercially successful games ever released for the GameCube.

Were still shooting stuff

The second half of the 00s into today has continued to see first-person shooters be the dominant genre of the video game world. Call of Duty is now a financial force and cultural touchstone; Halo is still seeing massive success after massive success; Far Cry 2 and 3 have set the standard for open-world shooters; BioShock further proved that shooters could explore complex narrative themes; F.E.A.R. and Left 4 Dead showed that FPS games could indeed blend with horror elements; and Duke Nukem Foreverwell, we made this joke already.

But while many of these modern first-person shooters have been enormous commercial successes, it would seem that many gamers are ready for the next evolution of the FPS formula. Games like Portal 2, Dear Esther, Mirrors Edge, Dishonored, and others all sport first-person perspectives, but dramatically tone down the shooting aspects--or remove them entirely--in favor of a more open-ended, non-ultraviolent approach. Whether or not this means that well start to see less bulletfests remains to be seen, but perhaps the future of FPS will be of brains over brawn after all.

And we'll continue to shoot forever

Which brings us to now. As in right now. This second. The articles over. But if our history of shooters passed by one of your favorites--trust us, theres plenty we couldnt get to in one article--let us know in the comments below.

And for more FPS-related coverage, check out our lists of the most must-play multiplayer first-person shooters, and the most must-play FPS single-player campaigns.

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