In 1992, Wolfenstein 3D changed everything. It made people nauseous. And upset. There were violent games before, but their lack of immersion softened the blow. “You” didn’t rip out spines in Mortal Kombat 2, a sprite on the screen did. But from a first person perspective (with a phallic gun-barrel intruding into your viewfield), the illusion breaks. In this game, you are definitely the one pulling the trigger.
Nobody who’s played Wolfenstein 3D could be seriously offended by it. The Nazi element is played for kitsch and camp, this is Springtime for Hitler: The Game. And the game’s sense of realism is shallow at best: the corners are all 90 degree angles, the ceilings and floors lack textures, the repetitive environments make you feel like a rat in a maze, etc. The massive body count has a nugatory effect: after a few hours, shooting someone is as shocking as the 300th “fuck” on a rap album.
Gameplay kicks off with a screen saying “GET PSYCHED!” and this captures the game’s flavour: a crazy sugar rush. You charge around turning Wehrmächte into Swiss cheese. You’re not exactly thinking “only the dead have seen the end of war”.
Wolfenstein 3D is an arcade game. The more you play WOLF3D (as the DOS executable was called), the more it feels like it belongs on a CPS-2 arcade cabinet with wadded-up gum jamming the controls. You have lives, and a high score. All that’s missing is B.J. Blazkowicz telling you to insert a quarter. Modern 3D shooters aspire to be on the cutting edge. There’s the feeling that a game with revolutionary graphics needs to be revolutionary along other axes, too. Wolfenstein 3D remains (as it did at the time of release) stuck in the past.
There’s lots of fun goodies herein. A hidden “Call Apogee say ‘AARDWOLF'” message, remnants of an aborted contest that was immediately made pointless by fan-made data viewing programs. A Pacman level. Another level made entirely out of swastikas. The statement “This game is rated PC-13, for ‘Profound Carnage'”. A naff and entertaining battle against Adolf Hitler. A episodes 4-6 are called Nocturnal Missions. Barring Rise of the Triad, this is perhaps the most overtly comedic FPS until the release of Duke Nukem 3D (Ken’s Labyrinth was too autistic to be funny).
Little map design is possible with such a limited engine. You wander mazes and shoot groups of enemies. While Doom would give the player new and varied things in its later levels, WOLF3D has nowhere to go except harder mazes and larger groups of enemies. At a certain point, your brain becomes bored, and starts craving more stimulation. You could argue that the game reinforces the social message that mass murder is boring.
Even the game’s technological wizardry smacks of Uri Geller. Just fire up Ultima Underworld, which came out six months earlier, and had angled walls, textured ceilings, slopes, look up/down, swimmable water, etc. Not a fair comparison, since that game was developed over years next to this one’s months. And Wolfenstein 3D’s engine is faster and leaner. Too bad that equals a fast and lean journey through Legoland.
Wolfenstein 3D is a dated experience with immense historical. I can’t imagine myself ever replaying Wolfenstein 3D the same way I play Doom. But though I don’t play it, I can’t ignore it.