In this special 4-part article, FBT goes back to the best era in gaming (so he says) –
The 1990s explosion and implosion of First Person Shooters
Part One: Gott im Himmel
They say in the Sixties everyone remembered where they were when JFK was shot. In the Eighties, everyone remembered where they were when John Lennon was shot. But in the Nineties, we remember doing the shooting - on December 10th, 1993, id unleashed Doom.
Built by gamers for gamers, Doom may have been underground but like an earthquake its impact was seismic, sending shockwaves through the gaming world and eventually reaching the real world; referenced in The Simpsons, Friends and ER, Doom was part of the nineties zeitgeist, gaming’s Nevermind or Pulp Fiction and in modern terms, it was bigger than Facebook, affecting workplace productivity and causing issues on company networks.
Doom even slowed Microsoft’s world domination; When their ads for Windows 95 asked ‘where do you want to go today?’ Gamers replied ‘DOS’ - the only sure-fire way to game on PC. Gamers weren’t going to risk losing Doom to this Windows thing (it was rumoured Doom was installed on more PCs than W95), and Microsoft, realising Doom’s dedicated fanbase was the future, developed Direct-X which allowed games to play ‘as’ a Window. It was a watershed moment; Doom was ported to Windows (by some bloke called Gabe Newell), and Bill Gates appeared ‘in’ Doom during a W95 Expo to prove Windows was the future - a video game created by a bunch of lads made Bill Gates, at the height of his power, say ‘if you can’t beat’em…’ It gave Gabe Newell some ideas too.
And Doom pissed off parents, like every good trend should. Doom wasn’t the first game to show death but this time you really were in there, up close – with a chainsaw. Stories of players passing out, getting motion sickness and post-traumatic stress triggered Parent Groups who classified Doom as top-tier evil alongside Ren & Stimpy. ‘Killology researcher’ David Grossman coined the phrase ‘murder simulator’ and it was said this new era of games could turn kids into killers; Doom was held accountable for the Columbine Massacre.
But none of that mattered to the gamers who discovered Doom that day; we had no idea we were loading up the You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat moment of gaming; we were in the Aliens Hive scene screaming ‘its game over man, game over!’ - And for any other game, it was. Doom was the new standard, and it launched a whole new race to be the biggest, baddest First Person Shooter - gamers couldn’t be happier. Parents, less so.
Games back then, loaded up through that DOS prompt and the shareware warning were way more exciting that anything around now. You really had no idea what you were getting into, even with a Doom Clone. It took commitment to finish a game in the nineties; we didn’t have any of your fancy auto-saves or mission skips, no walkthroughs; you had to really love a game to finish it and that stays with you.
We sweated for the exit, got your head down and tapped spacebar until something opened. And the joy of finding the secret that had an exit! That meant secret level, that meant bragging rights. It was a great time. So, what happened? The FPS genre is awful now. Generic reheats, remakes, reboots; story-led, watered-down, XP-driven, gimmick-ridden bastard-childs of RPG. Thinking back to Doom, when is something gonna come out of nowhere and make us think ‘the fuck just happened?’ I’m going to replay FPS from Wolfenstein onwards until I track down Doom’s killer. Where it all went wrong.
Mein Leben! In May 1992 Wolfenstein 3D landed. We’d barely gotten over the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert and now we were blasting Nazis. Not sure what the connection is, but I admit I might have been listening to Extreme at the time. More than words can say how much I played Wolf back in the day; the only German I know is from Wolf (and Die Hard…) Replaying Wolf doesn’t just bring back embarrassing adolescent musical choices (I was also into Mr.Big for a while; don’t judge me, I liked Guitar Shredders at the time, Steve Vai rocks. Totally not a power-ballad phase), but it has fondly reminded me of Shareware; ripping a disk off the cover of a magazine I didn’t read and excitedly loading up every demo, game and crappy screensaver. Then borrowing the full game from mates. I think one of those mates still has me To Be With You CD single.
Wolf was Gamer’s You Know When You’ve Been Tango’ed moment. When we weren’t suffering tinnitus from ear-clapping each other in the playground, we were amazed at the fast-moving, unforgiving gameplay. It was exhilarating; Wolf wasn’t the first FPS but it was the first to get it right, to make you feel like you were there. I played Wolf endlessly, least when Gladiators wasn’t on. But unlike Jet, it’s not aged well. Really, Wolf is a maze layout fighting through pixelated Nazis over and over. I don’t know what I was expecting but once you’re through the first level you’ve played them all really, but you can appreciate the work, feel the energy that went into building this. It’s kinda quaint now and has that arcade feel but still, it’s fast and unforgiving – I expected years of digital shooting would make this a cake-walk but I spend as long reloading the game as I do the guns. If they had reload.
Wolfenstein is best left in the past; while it had me smiling, once those memories of singing Ebeneezer Goode stop flooding, the lack of ceilings and floors and the repetitiveness make Wolf a bit of a slog, but you must pay homage to the OG of FPS, the calm before the storm. What Wolf has done for me is get me excited for what’s coming next.
What came next was Blake Stone. I feel sorry for Blake, sent to a mad scientist’s space-station to stop his evil experiments; like the rest of us, he didn’t know what was coming. Released in December 1993, just before Doom landed, BS was completely steamrolled and I was mid-way through it when my friend appeared, waved a floppy and yelled ‘get ready to shit your pants’ – I remember it because I did shit my pants; that disc had Doom shareware on it. I also I never went back to BS. It felt like a kiddie game after Doom.
As I play it now, I realise I owe Blake an apology; it’s a really good game. It does look rough but there are some surprising touches absent from the others of the era; Blake gains health at vending machines and you’ll find scientists who give info – one of several ways this reminds me of Half-Life. Like all games of the era you’re looking for a key to progress but more logically, the keys unlock floors accessed via an elevator and you can return to a floor to further explore when better armed, rather than exit never to return - the floor layout, while basic is much more interesting than Wolf and the art design has a nice 50s Sci-Fi style to it, the antithesis of Doom’s slimy atheistic. It’s a lot more busy that Wolf’s basic look and while it may not have been intentional, BS feels like it was just having some fun; the monsters wouldn’t look out of place in a Goosebumps book and it has an Indy-inspired adventure feel to it. But that was exactly what we didn’t want at the time - Doom created the perfect run n’ gun; who wants to talk to Scientists, use vending machines, go back instead of relentlessly pushing forward? But there’s a lot to it, it’s harder than it looks and it’s crying out for an app re-release. It fun and worth a go if you’re bored of shitting your pants.
So this was it, September 12, 1993 – A moment I’ll never forget. Terri Hatcher in Lois & Clark. Three months later, Doom landed and nothing was the same again.
As the years passed I left Doom behind. I played it endlessly at first, but eventually recalled it becoming hollow once you’d gotten over shitting your pants and, especially after the Wolf and Blake experiences, I expect to find Doom equally dated – I’ve not played for at least ten years yet as soon as I get going, I remember secrets, barrels just around corners, which exit doors have an Imp behind them. Doom is so entrenched in my DNA, my first-born’s first word will be an Imp growl; and that familiarity isn’t the only thing I’m responding to - this is really good. Not in its scares or firefights, but the rhythm. I hadn’t appreciated how well balanced a game Doom is, how it subtly ratchets up the tension instead of exhausting you into giving up. Twenty plus years and modern shooters could still learn from this. Doom was like when you were a kid and found a wasps’ nest. You still poked it with a stick even though you knew better. Doom gave you a shotgun instead of a stick and there was no Mum with the Savlon and a scolding afterwards but you still went for it. That’s a good game.
Doom does, honestly, still have it. It isn’t even in my top ten but it should be; I realise now, Doom formed my opinion on every gun-orientated game since. It’s one thing to remember how good a game was, it’s another to be realising just how good it is. Doom 3 sucked because it went for the jump-scare. That’s not good level design or pacing, that’s lazy. No, worse than that, it’s a misunderstanding of Doom, where you hear the imp behind the door and you have to open it. That’s far scarier than something leaping out at you. You’re so into it that the minimal pixels and blocky movement melt into a pure visceral experience and while modern shooters may look the shit, they’re not In The Shit like Doom is – this is just a bunch of pixels, how is it triggering some caveman-survival instinct?
There’s a real subversive simplicity in Doom; you can describe it in a sentence, but you have to experience it to understand; Modern Shooters are nothing compared to your first Tour of Duty in Doom - take down a horde of invisible pinkie demons, then we’ll talk about your kill-streaks. Some of the impact has been lost, but when it all kicks off I’m still as mesmerised as when Terri Hatcher said "They're real ... and they're spectacular."
I wouldn’t have called Doom art back then, I do now.
Of course, Doom didn’t stop at the exit. The biggest shock was Deathmatch. Seeing your pal as a little Doomguy then fragging them with a rocket launcher was something gaming hasn’t ever surpassed; Multiplayer, co-op, online is a standard now but that’s nothing compared to LAN games where the only smacktalking was from your friend sitting opposite - this was just fun scrapping about, not a dickhead half-way round the word being a little big man on his mic. Fuck those guys, I miss the Doom Parties. Even when you were hilariously murdering each other, Doom brought us together. Nothing has ever topped that, and nothing ever can.
Replaying Doom does bring back some awesome memories, especially the best prank of all time on my ‘shit your pants’ mate - the secret level in episode 3. It's a remake of the first level and I found it when I was playing alone. I saved it for future fun and at our next hang-out, suggested we speedrun episode 3. I went first and reached the exit … Then, when he was busy mocking my attempt, I loaded the secret level instead and let him have at it. His face when he hit the exit and sat back to crow but the Cyberdemon appeared instead - he actually jumped as if it was in the room with him. But then he sucked it down and got on with shooting, his voice trembling as he called me names. That’s Doom – panic and pals. I’ll admit the panic has waned, but it’s replaced with appreciation and the excitement is still there – Doom is brilliant. Who killed you? I shall avenge you. Just as soon as I’ve humped my rig over to my mate’s house and LAN’ed it up for old time's sake.
By 1994, UK society was on the brink of collapse. Ch4 aired a lesbian kiss on Brookside and Frances Ruffle flashed Union Jack knickers (take that Ginger Spice) during a Top of the Pops performance; the children of Mary Whitehouse screamed the place down – they also felt affronted by Frances’ hip-swinging. The outrage. Hips! Swinging! Did we learn nothing from Elvis’ gyrations, sending an entire generation into an uncontrollable sexual frenzy? Good job that Brookside kiss turned us all homosexual otherwise it doesn’t bear thinking about. Society was at an end apparently though; our most beloved TV character (besides Beth Jordache) was Mr. Blobby?! How did he get a Christmas single and Zig n’ Zag didn't?
There was little to do in the wake of Doom, except on Wednesdays when you’d get rudely awakened by the Dustmen. There was Pie in the Sky; while their game engine PitS was a bit Poundland, it was offered as an off-the-shelf product making PitS the archetype of Doom Cloning; dozens of PitS-powered shooters popped up and while they’re long-forgotten now, PitS should be remembered for filling many a floppy on the cover of PC Gamer while we waited, and watched Brookside.
And it was Doom II we were all waiting for. Released in September 1994, I was more excited about Doom II than Rachel’s haircut. I rushed it home and at first I was shrieking and screaming at the scale and intensity of it, but then I started to feel like I was playing mods of the original. And that bloody ending with the Icon of Sin - I do recall cheating and finding Romero’s head, although then I had no idea who it was. I had high-hopes for DII when I restarted this time, hoping for a new appreciation like the original, and to begin it is heart-stoppingly brutal; Those damn chain-gunners, that rocket-launching blob, the missile-launching skeletons, the goddamn Arch Vile, all (and more) between me and an exit that took effort to reach alive. Those are big levels. But then, that energy starts to dip. The expanded level-sizes are all good but it’s more of a survival game than an exhilarating rush like the original, and while the layouts are good, the larger size starts to be betray how little art design id had to work with – as good as it is, it gets samey; Doom was never a game to stand around and look at the wallpaper. It’s just not as much fun, like the id guys were distracted by what Carmack was cooking up for Quake. There's some brilliant levels, and it's still an awesome yardstick game, but it just doesn't feel fresh. I’m never happy - had DII been a departure I likely would have moaned too, but DII should have been more than just more. For me, besides further improving the Deathmatching, DII greatest contribution was the killer Aliens Doom mods, complete with facehuggers, plasma rifles and Hudson as Doomguy; they’re better than Aliens Colonial Marines. But then, what isn’t?
Most games from this era punted out quickie sequels; Blake Stone turned in Planetstrike, Wolf repeated itself in Spear of Destiny – using left-over level designs, those retweaked remakes were low-cost, high-sell games and I would dismiss DII as just a Clone, but it was more than that; Doom might have been game-changing, but Doom II was industry-changing; no longer an underground, mythical thing traded in playgrounds like fuzzy VHS copies of Evil Dead, Doom II was a grown up, on the shelves game and a phenom on release – it netted id millions and cemented FPS as a major genre; it was everywhere, like that Meat Loaf song. I’d do anything for Doom but I won’t do that. It was so big even my parents knew it. I recalled my Mum saying she’s “read about some horrendous game that lets you chainsaw people, you’d better not be playing that” / “No mum, I just wanna listen to Mr Big. Did you buy the Radio Times with Lois and Clark on the cover?” – we have our first suspect in the Doom murder. Not Terri Hatcher, Doom II! The motive? DII brought FPS into the mainstream; every publisher that saw shareware as rinky-dink suddenly went ‘that could’ve been us’ and while the music industry was busy signing up every band that wore a checked shirt, publishers descended on devs and demanded more Doom. Doom II didn’t kill Doom with innovation, it killed it with success. Clone after clone followed, each a copy of a copy, until the pure Doom experience got fuzzy.
FPS was out now, there was no stuffing that demonic genie back in the bottle. As Doom II cleaned up, others were about to make things messy. But which game dealt Doom the killing blow? I had a few more suspects to question; Lo-Wang and Duke to name a few.
Check out part two of FBT’s ‘investigation’/excuse where he continues to blast his way through the best 90’s FPS had to offer while watching Earth 2 and Seaquest.