First Person Shooters (FPS) are one of the most popular genres of gaming, with franchises including Call of Duty, Doom and Battlefield constantly heading the bestseller charts. But this modern-day obsession with gun-related mayhem owes much of its origins to Wolfenstein 3D, a ground-breaking game that first appeared in the spring of 1992.

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Replay Wolfenstein 3D

I'm sure you memory is slightly hazy on the finer points of the game, so let's recap.

In one of the first, great 3D action games, you begin in a prison cell, the body of a guard at your feet and his gun in your hand.  Now, you must try to make your escape.

But this isn’t any ordinary correctional facility, as becomes immediately apparent when you begin to explore the next few rooms and discover Nazi paraphernalia decorating the walls and armed guards waiting to gun you down. It turns out you’re B.J.Blazkowicz, an allied soldier being held at His Fuhrer’s pleasure in Castle Wolfenstein, with the only way out being over a humongous pile of dead Nazi’s and the Robo-Hitler that awaits you at the end.

Wolfenstein 3D: Beginning in the prison cell

By modern standards, the blocky animation of enemies, repetitive environments, and lack of any plot other than the one described above might seem basic, but in 1992 this was unlike any other game that had appeared before. Yes, there were some that offered 3D graphics, maze-like settings, and combat, but none combined the speed and excitement that made Wolfenstein an instant classic.

Running down corridors, shooting at Nazi stormtroopers, dodging hails of bullets or the teeth of angry guard dogs, finding hidden doors, treasures, and any sign of an escape route, all while the depiction of your face in the status bar gets bloodier and bloodier to indicate how much damage you’ve taken. What was not to like?

Play Wolfenstein 3D today

If you have a PC then it’s still possible to play the original Wolfenstein 3D. If you want a standalone version then it’s on sale from Steam for £2.99/$4.99 or GOG in a double pack with Spear of Destiny for £8.09/$9.99.

You can also play the whole game for free in your web browser at RetroGames.

For more modern titles, take a look at these best free PC games.

What’s the story behind Wolfenstein 3D?

Wolfenstein 3D was developed by id Software and combined the programming expertise of John Carmack with the game design genius of John Romero. Those two would hit the headlines again a year later when id Software launched a title called Doom, and the rest is history. But, it’s fair to say that Doom wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for the game that preceded it.

 Wolfenstein 3D wasn’t actually the first game to use that name or setting, as Muse Software had released Castle Wolfenstein on the Apple II a decade before in 1981, followed up by Beyond Castle Wolfenstein in 1984. These were both 8-bit titles that used a top-down design similar to popular titles such as Atic Atak, Beserk, and many others. Sadly, Muse Software went bust shortly after the second title was released, but this did give id Software the chance to revitalise the WW2 theme once the copyright elapsed.

Carmack and Romero had already honed their considerable skills in a couple of FPS titles from id Software - Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3D – and with what they learned were able to distil the perfect blend of animation, setting, and controls to make their next effort a huge hit.

One of the main advances was the use of texture mapping, a graphically technique which gave the walls and objects a realistic (at the time) surface rather than the blocks of colour found on earlier games. This allowed Castle Wolfenstein to have areas that looked distinct from others, such as the blue-brick cell blocks, coloured-stone areas with large crests, Hitler portraits and flags of the Third Reich, as well as wood panelled sections with giant Eagle statues, all without slowing the game down.

Wolfenstein 3D : Nazi Corridors

Originally, the team had intended to include stealth elements, but encountered difficulties making them work. John Romero explained in an interview with Gamester81 that ‘The game was most fun when it was a breakneck run through maps with tons of blasting down Nazis. Anything that slowed down that gameplay had to go.’

This attention to constant action meant that the enemies were lurking around every corner, and you had to blast your way through them to find the elevator that took you to the next floor and ended the level. To encourage players to master each area, they were presented with scores at the end, showing the time it took them to complete the level (compared to a target time set by the developers), and percentage scores for the amount of guards killed, secrets rooms discovered, and treasures collected.  

Wolfenstein 3D: Adolf Artwork

As the player moved through the game there were chances to pick up new, more powerful weapons, including knives, pistols, machine guns and the notorious chain gun that sprayed bullets in a hugely satisfying manner. These were accompanied by the digitised screams and shouts of the German soldiers, plus the occasional welp as the guard dogs fell prey to the firepower.

The latter proved a step too far when the game was transferred to other platforms, with Jon Carmack telling the Bethesda Podcast, ‘of course, you can’t shoot dogs in a Nintendo game, at least not back then, so the dogs had to be changed to evil-eyed German rats, to go along with the fact that blood had to be changed to green, because you can’t actually shoot people. So, they had to be some kind of aliens wearing human uniforms or something.’ 

Just as you levelled up your weapons, so did the Nazis. Aside from the standard troopers you also had to overcome, SS guards, Frankenstein-style mutants, Officers, and bosses like Hans Grosse, Gretel Grosse, and the aforementioned Hitler in a mech-suit. If you wanted to get out of the Castle, then these were the ones that stood in your way, which was what made Wolfenstein 3D a challenge, but also a hell of a lot of fun.

What effect did Wolfenstein 3D have on gaming?

Even though the early chapters of Wolfenstein 3D were released as shareware, meaning it was free to download, copy and distribute, id Software and its distributors Apogee struck gold, as gamers would happily pay for the final parts of the game.

By the end of 1993 it had sold over 100,000 copies, plus a further 100,000 units of its quickly-released prequel Wolfenstein 3D: Spear of Destiny. The MS-DOS version was ported to a range of other platforms, including Acorn Archimedes, Super NES, Atari Jaguar, Mac OS, 3DO, Apple IIGS, and such remained the title’s popularity that it would appear on iOS, Android, Xbox Live Arcade and PlayStation Network many years later.

Wolfenstein 3D garnered a whole host of industry awards and become the focus of intense modding from fans who created new levels to expand the game. While this wasn’t new, the popularity of Wolfenstein 3D, plus the permission of id Software for fans to work on the game, helped popularise this kind of relationship between developers and gamers, which would expand even further with Doom, as id Software included map editing tools with the game.

Although it wasn’t the first FPS, Wolfenstein 3D is now thought of the granddaddy of the genre, thanks to the frantic action, responsive controls, innovative sound design, and general sense of fun. It’s perhaps surprising that in the years since its release, id Software never returned to the franchise, but that hasn’t stopped other companies from using the evergreen world that it created.

Since 2001 there has been Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Wolfenstein: The Old Blood, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus, Wolfenstein: Youngblood, and Wolfenstein: Cyberpilot, which carry on the trigger-happy adventures of B.J.Blazkowicz as he battles Nazis in ever more insane storylines.

It may have all begun in a prison cell, but once that first door was opened the games industry never looked the same again.

Wolfenstein 3D: Dead