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Wolfenstein 3D needs no introduction. It’s considered the grandfather of first-person shooters despite the fact there are first-person games that precede it, including id Software’s own Catacomb 3D and Hovertank 3D. But Wolfenstein 3D set a precedent. For it’s time, it was revolutionary, it was controversial, and it was technically impressive. Developed by id Software and published Apogee Software, the first shareware episode of Wolfenstein 3D was released for DOS in May, 1992. Further episodes were released shortly afterward and the complete game has been ported to numerous systems over the years. An additional episode called Spear of Destiny was developed by FormGen and was released as a stand-alone retail title. They also developed two sequel episodes for Spear of Destiny known as mission packs; Return to Danger and Ultimate Challenge.
For this review, I played through all Wolfenstein 3D episodes, Spear of Destiny, and both mission packs using the ECWolf source port. ECWolf allows you to run the game easily on modern systems, supports widescreen resolutions and modern control schemes, and includes an automap feature among some other things. And fun fact, Wisdom Tree used the ECWolf engine to update their game, Super 3D Noah’s Ark.
Wolfenstein 3D is divided into six episodes. The protagonist is B.J. Blazkowicz, an American spy. He was captured an imprisoned in Castle Wolfenstein and the first three episodes cover his escape, his efforts to thwart the Nazis plan to create undead mutants, and his efforts to assassinate Adolf Hitler. Episodes 4, 5, and 6 are known as The Nocturnal Missions which form a prequel storyline dealing with Nazi plans for chemical warfare. Spear of Destiny and the mission packs also form a prequel storyline that follows B.J. on his mission to retrieve the Spear of Destiny which was stolen by the Nazis.
If you’ve played any other first-person shooter since Wolfenstein 3D released, then the gameplay in Wolf is going to seem pretty basic. But you have to remember this came out in 1992 and there was nothing quite like it. You can walk, run, aim or turn left and right, shoot, and interact with doors and switches. You can’t jump, crouch, lean, or aim up and down. You start each episode with a knife and pistol and can acquire a machine gun and chain gun as you progress. You do have to be mindful of your health which can be replenished from food and health packs scattered around the environments. B.J.’s face appears on the HUD and the lower your health, the bloodier his face gets which is a neat touch. If you lose all of your health, you die, lose a life, and will be brought back to the start of the floor or level. You can accumulate extra lives by finding extra life pickups and by reaching certain scores.
You can hold all weapons and switch between them at any time and all of the guns share ammo. Ammo can be acquired from weapons and ammo pickups which can be found in the environments and are dropped by enemies. The mission packs for Spear of Destiny feature different assets and sounds so everything ranging from the guns to enemies look and sound different. But it’s all cosmetic. The weapons and enemies function and behave exactly the same as their counterparts in the other episodes.
Wolfenstein 3D does feature a scoring system which was not uncommon in games of the time. You earn points by killing enemies and picking up treasure. After completing a level, you can earn bonus points based on your amount of kills, secrets found, and amount of treasure acquired.
There are multiple difficulty levels to select from. On higher difficulties, enemies have more hit points and more will spawn in the levels. You’ll go up against Dogs, Guards which are the most common foes, SS, Officers which are the fastest moving foes, and Mutants which are undead soldiers with guns surgically integrated into their chests. The mission packs introduce Bats which are variants of the Mutants. Each episode features one or multiple bosses that you must defeat. They are large and have a lot of hit points. The enemy AI is pretty basic. Once you’re spotted, enemies will immediately start attacking you. The game does feature hitscanning. Whether or not a shot connects and how much damage is dealt is based on several variables. In my experience, I’ve learned you don’t want to get too close to foes and I would frequently use walls as cover. For its time, Wolfenstein 3D was a fast-paced game. Things happen quickly so you need to be careful.
Wolfenstein 3D and the additional episodes take you to several different locations like different castle areas, dungeons, bunkers, labs, and Spear of Destiny will take you to an entirely different dimension at one point. Wolfenstein 3D can be considered a corridor shooter. You’ll navigate through a lot of similar looking rooms and paths or corridors. Rooms are connected by doors and some require keys to be opened. There are secret areas you can find by interacting with walls. You can even discover secret levels. Normally when you find a secret, a hidden area containing resources is revealed or it could be a shortcut to another area in the level.
Now let’s look at Wolfenstein 3D through a modern lens because if you never played this when it was in its prime, you will undoubtedly notice its simplicity and that not everything about it has aged gracefully. I’ll first address the big elephant in the room by saying every level feels the same. Every single one. It doesn’t matter if you’re playing through a level from Wolfenstein 3D, Spear of Destiny, or one of the mission packs, they all feel the same. The mission packs are the standout in the bunch because they showcase different colors, sprites, decorations, and sounds but these changes are all cosmetic. It’s refreshing for about five minutes.
All of the walls and rooms are of equal height and most levels are straight up labyrinths. It’s extremely easy to get lost or stuck and you may find yourself running around in circles quite often. What makes things even worse is mandatory secrets. That means secrets you must find to progress. Unfortunately, there’s no real hints to indicate what part of a wall is a secret passageway. You basically have to feel up all the walls and mash the interact button to find them or use a guide. One of ECWolf’s greatest additions is the automap. You can bring up a map that reveals all discovered locations within the level at the press of a button and reference it if you get lost or stuck.
Wolfenstein 3D does not hold your hand and can be quite tough, especially on higher difficulties. You can go from full health to death in seconds. Not just because of the hitscanning but because even taking precautions doesn’t guarantee survival. You can make sure you’re health is full and that you have plenty of ammo but that might not be enough save you from a wrong turn or enemies you don’t see coming. Enemies are quick on the draw and getting too close means you’ll probably take a good chunk of damage. Some encounters are simply trial and error. It’s possible to alert multiple enemies in an area to your presence and that includes enemies in nearby rooms. If that happens, you need to be vigilant or the next thing you know, you’re rapidly losing health. You can’t lean around corners and it can be easy for enemies to sneak up on you, resulting in you taking shots in the back.
In general, Wolfenstein 3D lacks variety. Each level within an episode features many of the same looking areas and decorations. Furthermore, many of the same color schemes and decorations are used across multiple episodes. It’s not uncommon for games to reuse assets but the levels in Wolfenstein 3D become repetitive quickly. There’s very few that actually stand out. Enemies also lack variety. Other than bosses, you’ll see all of the enemy types the game has to offer by Episode 3. Spear of Destiny throws in some new bosses but contains the same standard enemies. The mission packs introduce new enemies in appearance only. They also throw in new bosses but both packs feature the same exact ones. Finally, the weapons. With over one hundred levels spread across all of the episodes, I got tired of using the same four weapons. Plus, once you acquire a better weapon, there’s very little reason to ever switch back to anything else. So once I acquired the chain gun, that’s the weapon I would use for the rest of the episode.
Once again, I want to mention that I’m only bringing these issues up because I wanted to look at the game through a modern lens. Back when Wolfenstein 3D was new and fresh, some if not all of these things could easily be ignored. It’s not like there were a lot of other games like this to compare it to. But I think it would be stupid to ignore the problems simply because the game is a product of its time. Anyone new to the game in today’s world will most likely notice these things even if they do try and ignore them. Things age. And as things age, they lose some of their luster. It happens. It doesn’t change the fact that in 1992, Wolfenstein 3D was revolutionary.
Wolfenstein 3D was technically impressive for its time. 3D graphics weren’t exactly prevalent in 1992 mainly because of the limitations of personal computers. And even though the levels in Wolfenstein 3D are presented in a 3D perspective, enemies and objects are 2D sprites. Nevertheless, this was innovative stuff. Your weapon appears at the bottom center of the screen and each weapon and enemy sprite looks unique. Ceilings and floors are solid colors but every wall has a texture. You’ll see the same textures over and over again but it’s still a nice detail for the time. Decorations are what bring the world of Wolfenstein 3D to life. At least in 1992. You’ll see barrels, tables, growths, skeletons, and other objects in the environments. Plus, pictures or posters of Hitler and Nazi Swastikas can be seen all over the walls. The action is accompanied by a pretty catchy soundtrack and on the technical side, I did not encounter any noticeable issues or bugs during my playthrough.
Not only was Wolfenstein 3D a looker, but the developers aimed to create a violent and atmospheric experience. For example, enemy death animations looked pretty violent and were accompanied by blood. It’s all very tame by today’s standards but I can see why it was controversial for its time. Think about it as if it was 1992. Video games were still primarily marketed towards children and here comes a computer game that lets you gun people down. Not just any people. Nazis. And these aren’t just stick figures with Swastikas on their chests. It all looked and sounded realistic. The art and sprites are detailed enough to make it appear as if you’re shooting actual people and they even react realistically like screaming out in pain as they fall to the ground. The enemies actually shout in German and dogs will whimper. Wolfenstein 3D was not the first controversial game to come along but it definitely set a new standard when it comes to violence in video games.
There’s a couple of things I learned about Wolfenstein 3D later in life that I never knew as a kid. One; Wolfenstein 3D is not the first Wolfenstein game. And two; Spear of Destiny exists. I had no idea it existed until I read about it in my late teens. Wolfenstein 3D is the third game in the Wolfenstein series. Muse Software developed its predecessors Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein which were released in the eighties. I first played Wolfenstein 3D at my dad’s office when I was a kid. It was the shareware version and the PCs had no sound. I remember enjoying it but would often die or get lost and then eventually give up. I eventually beat the complete game for the first time when I got older. This was the first time I played through Spear of Destiny and the mission packs. Ultimately, they’re just more of the same. For it’s time, Wolfenstein 3D was something else. There’s a reason it’s considered to be the “grandfather of first-person shooters”. It was extremely influential and popularized the first-person shooter genre. More first person shooters would follow in its footsteps and improve the formula in various ways. I do think there are better games in the genre but nothing can change the impact of Wolfenstein 3D and even today, it’s still a decent game. It’s repetitive and lacks variety but it’s good simple fun. Unless you want the ultimate vanilla Wolfenstein 3D experience, I would recommend the ECWolf source port. It’s easy to set up, features numerous improvements, and can run on any modern system.
I would recommend Wolfenstein 3D to anyone. It’s one of the most influential video games ever made. It has aged but the gameplay still holds up. It’s easy to pick up and play. Wolfenstein 3D is a historic piece of work. And now whenever I play it, I remember that and it’s surreal. The game tells you to “Get Psyched!” whenever you start a level but little did we know that we should be getting psyched for an entire genre to take off and evolve.