Retrospectacles: FPS Games (a.k.a. Is that a pistol in your pocket or are you just playing with a joystick?)

I’m going to take a shot in the dark here (yeah, look forward to more terrible puns) and guess that the vast majority reading this article have at some point in their lives played something out of the “Unreal Call of Halo 1942: Pacific Crysis” bandwagon. Not surprising really when the FPS genre is probably the most sure-fire (told you) profitable area of the industry right now with an endless stream of remarkably similar games trying to slice out their own little market share from the humongous money filled pie. I wonder how it was baked…

Well first of all you need the correct utensils. Wireframe vector graphics to be precise. You think Minecraft looks bad?? Let’s take a look at the earliest documented FPS game: Spasim (another game ‘Maze War’ was released at a similar time but they can’t prove when so no delicious money-pie for them). See that image below? That’s Spasim. Hard to believe that this is not only the first FPS game but can also be considered the first MMO game hosting up to 32 players at a time. Horrific.

Spasim: Groundbreaking stuff

Unlike later games the player could only turn in 90 degree increments too. It’s a good thing that it was never unleashed upon the unsuspecting public following its 1974 release instead being developed into a training program for the army. And we wonder why the Americans have a knack for friendly-fire…

No, the honour of the first commercially available FPS game falls to Atari’s ‘Battlezone’. Released in 1980 to arcades and sticking with the good old wireframe graphics, it launched the genre into mainstream recognition further supported by its port to several home computers later in the decade. The arcade version also required the player to look through a periscope which as we all know makes you look awesome. Gameplay was simple requiring the player to gun down enemy tanks while avoiding getting hit themselves (protip: avoid the enemy’s bullets). Only one enemy can appear at a time. Self explanatory really. The American army in their infinite wisdom also decided this would be good training for the troops.

The next big step would come in 1982 from over here on the other side of the pond. And perhaps a little oddly for a first-person shooter, it didn’t involve any shooting. We never were big on guns here in the UK… We were on the other hand big on T-Rexs especially when they hunt us in a maze. Behold the extraordinary spectacle that is ‘3D Monster Maze’! And the reason why it’s included in this article: it finally popularised the use of pixels in 3D games. As you can see from the screenshot below it was a vast improvement.

3D Monster Maze: Much better

Over the course of the next 10 years several developments were made within the genre but none were groundbreaking enough to attain mainstream recognition. The next major breakthrough for FPS games would come in 1992 from probably the first game you will have actually heard of in this article: “Ach mein Leben! Es ist Wolfenstein 3D!”. id Software’s game serves as a first for two reasons. The first reason is that it introduced the fast paced action of earlier arcade games such as Pac-Man to the FPS genre and more crucially, on home computers. The second reason is that it brought a Scheiße-storm of controversy to the industry. Probably wasn’t helped by the fact that Hitler was the final boss, the Nazi party anthem was the theme music and that one level’s map was made up entirely of swastikas. Surprise surprise the game was banned in Germany. Oh and animal rights activists got upset that you shot some guard dogs so the game was edited to have giant rats instead (which as we all know are not really animals). Perfect sense. Controversy would become best friends with id Software over time…

Riding on the success and hefty chunk of delicious money-pie from Wolfenstein 3D, id went on to release a little game called DOOM the following year. Frequently coming top of ‘Breakthrough Games’ and even ‘Greatest Game of All Time’ lists it’s hard to ignore it as a significant step – or rather long-jump – in the video game industry as a whole let alone purely the FPS genre. The most important advancements from Wolfenstein 3D would be the introduction of varying heights to rooms, non-perpendicular surfaces and enhanced lighting effects (allowing DOOM to scare the crap out of you when it wanted). Meh. The real reason why DOOM was such a huge success was that it was simply a brilliant game! Eons ahead of anything else released at the time, the game ended up being ported to practically every system known to man. It also managed to introduce a word to the dictionary: deathmatch. It also had its fair share of controversies, being cited as a ‘mass murder simulator’ and denounced by various religious groups as promoting satanic practices. Not really sure how they thought that killing everything and anything that crawls out of hell equates to that…

But my favourite game in the genre – and quite possibly of any game – to this very day, took controversy and wiped its posterior with it. Let loose on society in 1996 by 3D Realms, Duke Nukem 3D set the controversy bar extremely high for its time (and would not be ousted from its position until Grand Theft Auto 3 several years later). But that’s not what makes this game my all time favourite. It was the first FPS game to effectively incorporate jumping into gameplay alongside destructible environments and an inventory to use collected items at a more useful time (whereas DOOM used the item as soon as it was picked up). This article is not intended as a review but if you do decide to play anything mentioned here then pick Duke. I basically wept when I played Duke Nukem Forever for the first time, effectively crushing all my childhood dreams…

Duke Nukem 3D: Awwwww yeeaaaahhh!!!

But Duke was still not quite 3D. As 3 dimensional as the game may seem it is better described as 2.5D since characters and items are shown as sprites rather than fully rendered 3D polygons. The task of innovation would once again fall to id with ‘Quake’ being released shortly after Duke Nukem on home computers alongside Rare’s ‘Goldeneye 007’ on the Nintendo 64 in 1997. Although previous games had used fully 3D graphics these were the first two to do it right on PCs and consoles respectively. Furthermore they also drastically bolstered the popularity of multiplayer gaming before the advent of decent online gaming.

Beginning to enter the home stretch now with Valve releasing DOOM’s biggest competitor for the title of ‘Greatest FPS Ever’ (aside from Duke of course). Half-Life, released in 1998 brought huge changes to the genre which are seen as absolute necessities (for better or worse) in modern FPS games. First of all is its storyline. Until now the plots of FPS games were flimsy at best relying on paragraphs of text or poorly constructed cut-scenes. Half-Life introduced scripted sequences (such as an enemy breaking down a door) in order to advance the plot alongside voice-acted dialogue. Additionally it introduced fluidity – or rather, removed levels. Instead of reaching the end of a level and being ‘magically transported’ to the start of the next, Half-Life flowed as one continuous level with pauses used to load the next portion of the map the player had entered. While it is widely considered to be one of if not the greatest FPS ever, some (me) do feel it influenced the genre away from the fast paced action of games like Quake and Duke Nukem, towards more ‘mission’ based shooters which sacrificed gameplay for plotline. But that’s just my opinion…

The final notable innovation in FPS games (because this article is beginning to drag on a bit) was the popularisation of online gameplay. As previously mentioned, Quake and Goldeneye 007 boosted the appeal of blasting your best friend’s head off rather than the computer AI’s. In 1999, three games were released which allowed you to do it with complete strangers (but not in a controversial way of course). Unreal Tournament (by Epic), Counter-Strike (a Half-Life mod) and Quake III: Arena (by ‘you should know if you’ve been reading this article’). In a completely unrelated matter, internet broadband sales to bespectacled, unwashed and acne-ridden males increased ten fold. Screw plotline, fast-paced action was back in business! It would be another 5 years before online gaming was brought to home consoles with Bungie’s well-known ‘Halo 2’ being the sole reason for anyone paying for Xbox Live in 2004.

And so we come to the end of this epic tale… or at least as far as I’m prepared to delve. The money-pie (yeah, still running with that analogy) has been in the oven for years now and shows no sign of burning anytime soon. New innovations are made (you should check out id’s ‘Rage which is getting released in October) with each passing year and I have no doubt the market will be dominated by FPS games for many years to come. The real question is what those innovations might be (integration with 3D televisions and motion technology seem the way forward for now) and who the next DOOM guy, Duke Nukem or Master Chief might be. And whether or not I’ll ever get bored with Unreal Tournament 2004 and Duke Nukem 3D. I’d seriously recommend giving the older games a shot.

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