The Evolution of First-Person Shooters
First-person shooters are one of the more interesting genres of video games, from a historical perspective. Games released between 1973 and 1991 built the framework for the genre. Yet the genre itself didn’t take shape until the early nineties.
Games like Maze War (1973), Spasim (1974), Battlezone (1980), and MIDI Maze (1987) all put players in a first-person perspective, while not looking like what we would identify as a first-person shooter today. For that reason, that I’ve chosen to start this piece in 1992. It’s at that point that the modern first-person shooter was truly born. The aforementioned games are still well worth looking up though.
First-Person Shooters In the Early 90s
For me, the nineties were always the best era for first-person shooter games. Even though graphics technology was still developing, some of the most iconic games came out during this time period. When you talk about classics that never get old, this is where the bulk of those shooters reside.
Wolfenstein 3D was developed by id Software and released in 1992. Often credited as the first-person shooter genre’s true beginning, the game was based on two games from the eighties whose trademarks had lapsed. It was an immediate success. In the nineties, games for MS-DOS were often released as shareware titles and Wolfenstein 3D was no exception. The game utilized ray-casting technology from earlier games to create a template for first-person shooters. Companies continue to use this template today.
Given the technological limits of the time, the world of Wolfenstein 3D felt very flat. Nonetheless, the game was impressive for its time.
In 1993, id Software released their next game, Doom, which drastically improved upon the template created in their previous release. Doom featured environments that were much more exciting and alive thanks to things like stairs, which allowed players to explore higher and lower levels of the world, as well as flashing lights and areas of complete darkness.
During the days of Wolfenstein 3D, gamers wanted to be able to mod their games, but the way the game was designed made this rather difficult. Developers John Romero and John Carmack decided to help out their fans with the release of Doom by building the game with WAD files.
WAD files, which stands for “Where’s All the Data”, made creating custom levels and content for the game much easier. Doom is a very popular game to mod and custom content for the game is still being created by players to this day.
First-Person Shooters In the Late 90s
The style of graphics presented in games like Doom and Wolfenstein 3D continued to be used for several more years, in games such as Star Wars: Dark Forces, Marathon (developed by future Halo developers Bungie), and Duke Nukem 3D.
Released in 1996, Duke Nukem 3D has been described as “the last of the great, sprite-based shooters”. It’s still a well-loved game, but it’s not without controversies. The Duke Nukem franchise as a whole has been criticized for its derogatory attitude towards women.
In 1995, Parallax Software released Descent, a first-person title in which the player takes control of a spacecraft and navigates through various levels. The game was notable due to the use of polygonal graphics. This was in lieu of the ray-casting/sprite combo favored in earlier titles.
Shortly after the release of Duke Nukem 3D, id Software released their first foray into polygonal graphics in the form of Quake. Quake featured a strong focus on multiplayer gaming and created the foundation for the match types found in games today. This focus on multiplayer gaming led to gamers often having LAN parties. These involved bringing many computers to one location and creating a room of connected computers to play.
1997 saw the release of the next major first-person shooter of the 90s: GoldenEye 007, developed by Rare Ltd. It was the first landmark shooter to make its way to a home console. Praised for beautiful level design, Goldeneye featured a multiplayer mode that is still fondly remembered today.
Doom influenced shooters in terms of game mods and level design. GoldenEye did the same with mechanics. The game featured stealth elements in various sections, sniper rifles (with the ability to perform headshots), and animations relative to hits. Furthermore, the development team worked extensively off production materials from the film to make the levels as accurate as possible.
GoldenEye never received a true sequel, but Rare did release a spiritual successor called Perfect Dark in 2000.
A Bit of Variety
During the late 90s, developers liked to experiment with the genre. This led to the development of some unique franchises that played with the first-person perspective.
In 1998, Red Storm Entertainment released Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six for PCs. The game was a tactical shooter and was based on the Tom Clancy novel of the same name. Since its release, the series has spawned a variety of games, with the most recent hitting shelves in 2015.
1998 also saw the release of Half-Life, developed by Valve. Unlike most first-person shooters, which focused on action over story, the game featured a strong narrative and well developed characters. The series gained a strong following, though the series was cut short after Half-Life 2: Episode 2 was released. Fans have long hoped that Valve would announce another installment in the series. Valve is yet to announce a sequel.
Electronic Arts released Medal of Honor for the Sony PlayStation in October 1999. Development began on the game in 1997, after filmmaker Steven Spielberg met with staff at DreamWorks Interactive. Spielberg expressed a desire to make a game focused on World War II during the meeting. The well-received Medal of Honor was the result. While it did well for quite a while, poor sales of the franchise’s 2012 installment, Warfighter, resulted in EA pulling the series from its development rotation.
Other games released during this time included Quake III Arena, Counter-Strike, and Unreal Tournament. All of these games featured a strong focus on online multiplayer and featured very limited single player content.
First-Person Shooters in the 2000s
One of the most prolific first-person shooters of the new millennium was Halo: Combat Evolved. Halo was developed by Bungie and released as a launch title for the original Xbox in 2001. A real-time strategy game and later, a third-person shooter was the initial intention. After Microsoft acquired Bungie, the game became a first-person shooter and is synonymous with the Xbox brand.
Deus Ex was released by Ion Storm in 2001 and featured an RPG-like leveling system, alongside a storyline that changed depending on how you played the game.
Nintendo got involved in the first-person shooter craze in 2002 with the release of Metroid Prime, which combined the gameplay of a shooter with the platforming mechanics of the Metroid franchise. While the series has remained stagnant since the release of Metroid Prime 3: Corruption in 2007, Nintendo has announced that a fourth installment is currently in development for the Nintendo Switch.
The Call of Duty franchise, which manages to stay popular no matter how ridiculous the series gets, first came onto the scene in 2003. While the series has evolved quite a bit since its inception, its most recent release took it back to its roots of World War II, after getting as far away from that premise as humanly possible with Infinite Warfare.
Many other popular first-person shooter games were released over the course of the 2000’s including BioShock, F.E.A.R., Crysis, and Far Cry. The first person perspective has also been used for games like Portal, which are more puzzle/platformers than they are first-person shooters.
First-person shooters have a long history and they aren’t without controversy. After the tragic Columbine shooting in 1999, a strong focus was put on the shooter’s love of violent video games like Doom, sparking a national debate over the correlation between video game violence and violent tendencies.
Statistics have shown that there’s no direct correlation between violence in games and violent tendencies. The argument still pops up every few years, though, usually in the wake of a mass shooting.
While first-person shooter games do still have franchises that are released that simulate realistic combat like Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus and the ongoing Call of Duty games, a lot of the more popular first-person shooters now are more over the top.
One of the biggest games currently on the market is Overwatch, developed by longtime game developer Blizzard. Some of the other big games out now include Titanfall 2, Star Wars Battlefront II, and Destiny 2.
Some games that are out now feature a strong focus on multiplayer, while others still have some single-player elements. The one thing that’s for certain: this genre isn’t going away in the coming years.
What are some of your favorite first-person shooters? Let us know in the comments below!
Want more Doom? Be sure to check out our recent edition of From Game to Film where we take a look at the game’s journey from MS-DOS to Hollywood!