Wolfenstein 3D – PC
The Apogee Shareware Series, Part IX
Platform: PC (DOS)
Developer: id Software
Publisher: Apogee Software
Release Date: May 5, 1992
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Nerd Rating: 8.5 out of 10
Tis the season, Baconeers! We’ve only got two Apogee games left to cover on my old shareware disc, and of the games on this list, this one is probably the most influential of all of them. This review is about Wolfenstein 3D, pioneer of the classic first-person shooter genre, precursor to Doom, and the game that made killing Nazis cool again (as long as you were born outside of Germany).
Many people have had their stab at observing just what was so brilliant about this game, and since it’s on my disc, I have the honor of joining them. But is there anything that I can say that hasn’t already been said before? That’s one question that I hope to answer, for better or worse, so grab your bowl of dog food, pick up your Luger, and get psyched!
WARNING/ACHTUNG: German readers are recommended to skip this review, as Wolfenstein 3D depicts scenes of Nazi paraphernalia and the gratuitous killing of German men. If such imagery or commentary unsettles you, do not read ahead. I will also make every endeavor to exclude the use of racial terminology in the following review, save for one term meant for general humor purposes only: Super-Aryans. You have been warned/gewarnt.
Wolfenstein 3D was originally released in 1992 by id Software, published (of course) by our good friends at Apogee Software. The plot follows the Allied spy William “B.J.” Blazkowicz as he escapes from Castle Wolfenstein and takes on a series of crucial missions to undermine the Third Reich’s master plans from within their organization. Itself being a sequel to two somewhat obscure games prior, Wolfenstein 3D had an amazing amount of momentum, spawning not only its own sequels and spin-offs that continue to this day with games like Wolfenstein: The New Order, but lead rise to many imitators like the amazing Rise of the Triad series by Apogee themselves (you’ll see that game someday, I promise) and curious cases like Super Noah’s Ark 3D by Wisdom Tree (maybe you’ll see that one too?). Needless to say, this game was a critical explosion leading to the birth of a genre that we probably can’t imagine life without today.
That being said, the gameplay of Wolfenstein 3D is both simple and addicting. You travel through the halls and rooms of each episode with only your weapons and your wits (and the strafe key) to protect you. Everything that moves wants to kill you, from Nazis to attack dogs to the legendary Super-Aryans whose twin chainguns will rend you to shreds in seconds. If you’re hurt, look for some food or a medkit. If you need more ammo, pick it up from slain soldiers and Schutzstaffel or find some stored in a room somewhere.
And you can always try seeking out that hidden Nazi gold, stored away in secret rooms behind push walls along with hidden caches of supplies. Altogether, given that you have multiple lives and scoring lots of points nets you extra lives, it has a pretty arcade feel. It’s not hard to succeed in this game if you shoot first and ask questions later, since there aren’t any civilians about. And if you’re lucky, you can find an episode’s secret level, which can be…interesting!
Similar to what I showed in my Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold review, each level has a special scoring system based on many factors, such as kill count, treasure collected, and the time taken to beat it versus the average. Going around killing Nazis is a big part of the game, so it’s not hard to get a good score on the kill count unless you’re speeding through the levels. Treasure collection, now, that’s another story.
It’s another case of running into walls for fun and profit with Wolfenstein 3D, with the added hindrance of them not having had the idea to give you a map of the level yet. Given that the room textures can be very similar at times, and the entrance to one room can look like the entrance to many other rooms, treasure seekers will be easily turned around and even if they have a very good sense of direction, having to test all of the walls to see if one opens up will easily eat up your time. That said, I easily find treasure-hunting a lot more rewarding than beating the average time. I come out of each level with more weapons, health, ammo, and lives than when I would if I was focused on beating the clock.
Graphically, the game looks good, though Wolfenstein 3D‘s level design and texturing are a sign of the times. The engine can only support right-angle walls, meaning that you’re only getting rooms made up of rectangles and squares. The ceiling and floor aren’t textured, another limitation of the hardware, I can’t exactly beat them up over that. What more people were really focused on back in the day, and probably still are, would be the pixelated violence and the Nazi paraphernalia that are a large part of the game’s aesthetic.
Before Wolfenstein 3D, you didn’t get people shooting other people in video games and blood splatter when they fell to the ground, but nowadays you can’t walk two feet in a first-person shooter without seeing a grisly and realistic way someone can be killed by a shotgun. The swastikas and other Nazi theming were controversial for their time as well, leading to the game and all of its offshoots being banned from Germany altogether (which is entirely understandable). id Software wanted this game to stand out, and their choice of imagery definitely got the attention of the industry.
In Wolfenstein 3D, the halls are alive with the sound of music…and also the sound of Nazi death cries. It was here that id Software fine-honed their use of audio cues to let the player know that enemies had spotted them, and to help the player distinguish which ones he had “woken up” over the din. Each variant of Nazi foe has a different “you got me” sound effect too, such as the Schutzstaffel’s “Mein Leben!”, and the bosses in particular have some nasty wake-up calls for you.
As for the aforementioned music, Wolfenstein 3D‘s soundtrack deserves a lot of credit: There are FPS titles coming out in this day and age with less substance and effort put into their music. id and Apogee virtuoso Bobby Prince slaved over an hour of suspenseful, thoughtful, and exciting MIDIs that perfectly complement the gameplay. “Wondering About My Loved Ones” is one of my personal favorites, playing in the menu and giving you a respite from the action while being one of the most poignant of the game’s themes.
“The Ultimate Challenge” is a track that I swear they later reused in one of the Doom games, and rightfully so, given how heavy and crushing it is, it never lets up. And the “Hitler Waltz,” well, let’s just say that I never thought waltz music would ever accompany the combat so well. Clearly the man behind this soundtrack is a genius, though if you’ve read my Bio Menace and Duke Nukem II reviews, you probably already knew that.
Now, I will admit to one thing, and that’s that I never played Wolfenstein 3D as much as I did Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold in my youth, and to be honest, I had good reason to. Blake Stone was an imitator so it had the chance to patch up and improve upon all of the things that the original didn’t have the time to. It textured the floors and ceiling, it gave you a way to check on your level progress at any time, you could even look at a map of the floor that you had explored so you didn’t get hopelessly turned around by monotonous corridors.
Hitscan weapons also weren’t such a constant danger, since projectiles were used more commonly by the alien enemies. So does that mean that I believe Wolfenstein 3D to be a lesser game in retrospect? Well, no. Blake Stone wouldn’t have an engine to stand on were it not for this guy, and despite all of the changes I felt had improved the formula, there’s an X-factor that makes it enduring and untouchable, the one thing the classic Nazi-themed FPS has had over any other game before or since.
It lets you hunt down and destroy Mecha-Hitler.
Seriously, no other game has let you strike a blow for the Allied Powers with such gusto. Sure, he’s got quad-miniguns and will continue to try tearing you a new one even when you blow away his sick robotic armor, but the fact remains that, despite the difficulty, Wolfenstein 3D eventually lets you act out one of history’s ultimate revenge fantasies, giving you a shot at killing Adolf Hitler himself.
It’s purely indulgent, like eating an expensive chocolate truffle filled with golden justice, to the point where when you land those final blows, not only does Hitler melt into a pile of viscera, but the game actually does an Instant Replay of it so you can savor that hard-fought victory like no other. In my estimation, it’s one of the most satisfying boss fights of all time, and my shareware copy of the game never let me pull it off, so yeah. Kinda sucks.
Regardless, I find myself back at the ultimate question: Have I said anything about Wolfenstein 3D that hasn’t already been said? Of course not, it’s been around for twenty years, any opinion of mine isn’t going to be original. But to review a classic title like this is a privilege, because it’s easy to forget what made it so great until you find yourself digging into it and remembering why it was a classic. Not only did Wolfenstein 3D change the game industry forever, but in taking their no-holds-barred and controversial approach to historical fantasy violence, id Software created a game that resonates in the hearts of every serious first-person shooter fan anywhere in the world (barring Germany, of course). Come for the Nazi-shooting, stay for the death waltz with Mecha-Hitler himself — Wolfenstein 3D will never stop being an awesome game, even without a fancy-schmancy floor map.
As always, you can find Wolfenstein 3D on Abandonware, where it’s the site’s third-most downloaded game, or on Steam and other sources. If you haven’t played it yet, and you don’t live in Germany, I would heavily recommend giving it a try.
Check out these other Apogee Software titles reviewed by Action Zero.
- Bio Menace
- Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold
- Duke Nukem II
- Halloween Harry, aka Alien Carnage
- Hocus Pocus
- Math Rescue
- Mystic Towers
- Raptor: Call of the Shadows
- Wolfenstein 3D
- Word Rescue
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