Wolfenstein 3D would never get made today. In fact so many of the games we cast a rose-tinted eye upon in this series of retrospective would fall foul of the budget meeting with stern-faced suits these days.
Imagine if you will a brash, American hero of Polish descent. The brave Allied spy, B. J. Blazkowicz has been taken by the Nazi's in World War II. He breaks out of his cell, snatches up a Walther P38 from his guard, and proceeds to take the fight to the Nazis, eventually culminating in a battle with Hitler.
So far, so good, if you're a suit. But then you add in the sub-plot involving genetic mutants being bred in bowels of German castles, secret levels that see you battling Pac-man ghosts, boss fight deathcams, hilarious soundbites, a level made up entirely of swastika tesselations, using Horst-Wessel-Lied as a jaunty theme tune...oh...and the fact that Hitler is an enormous, artillery-toting cyborg.
But, of course, this would have been 1992. Simpler times, happier times perhaps. Times when games could still be games, when shooters didn't need to take themselves so seriously. It might be twenty years on, and Wolfenstein 3D might appear a relic to the youth of today, but it still has much to impart to the many offspring it has helped spawn.
It's a testament to id's template that so many genre staples have survived to this day: the knife as a primary weapon, being able to equip multiple weapons, having hidden areas and pickups, dealing with controversy before COD was even a thought bubble. It's still a charming, incredibly playable game. True, the level textures can sometimes make navigation a pain, but the action is just as perfectly paced and well-balanced. I still find myself hugging walls and mashing buttons to open doors when checking for secret rooms, and the cries of "Mein leben" can still muster a hearty chuckle.
Wolfenstein 3D is often termed the "grandaddy" of the FPS genre, and it's a label that is perhaps more apt than we might think. Yes, it's a game that's pretty old and should be treated with due reverence and respect for its legacy, but it also displays the cheeky humour, occasional bad temper, and slight racism that one might associate with a statesman of generations past. And on the higher difficulty levels it can still separate the men from the boys.
My first memories of Wolfenstein are hazy at best. Playing it for the first time on my uncle's computer, I was arguably too young to really understand it. But I do remember being genuinely scared; terrified to open yet another blue door or round another corner for fear of a snarling soldier or (unbelievably cheap) gunchest zombie popping out, screaming "mein leben!" as they punished my health percentage. As the years passed, however, Doom, Marathon and Quake fully opened my eyes to the FPS genre, and I began to appreciate Wolfenstein 3D all the more as a genuinely important trend-setter.
After playing it through again on PC and Xbox Live Arcade, I can't help but be impressed by how forward-thinking Wolfenstein 3D was. Not only were almost all of our FPS staples completely intact (multiple weapons, circle-strafing, health meters, pickups etc), but it also helped to push the idea of optional secrets and easter eggs. The first person perspective was around before Wolfenstein 3D thanks to Wizardry, Dungeon Master and other RPGs, yet id Software's seminal title popularised the concept, making it resonate with mainstream gamers and establishing the fast and furious action that we crave. Nowadays, it doesn't feel primitive, rather it feels important and worthy, still capable of putting us through the wringer and creating an immersive interactive experience.
Interestingly, I didn't lose the fear. Instead, I began to realise that id Software had a real head for horror, hitting players in a number of unexpected ways. The fact that enemies could open doors and follow us through the levels meant that previously-safe rooms could hide a gun-toting madman, causing me to jump out of my skin several times during each level. Even if you've played it through several times, Wolfenstein 3D can be incredibly unpredictable, which is a key factor that many horror developers fail to grasp.
In terms of legacy, Raven proved to be both Wolfenstein's saviour and scourge; following up the classic shooter with the sublime Return To Castle Wolfenstein and the disappointingly mediocre veil-tastic reboot. It's unlikely that we'll see id go back to the series any time soon (hell, they need to do Quake first), but for now, go and check out the free browser version of Wolfenstein 3D if you don't already own it. History lessons don't get more bloody and enjoyable than this.