Sunday, June 7, 2009

Wolfenstein Then and Now

Wolfenstein 3D resurfaced on XBox Live Arcade this week, and it got me to thinking about its history. Most everyone has played id's seminal 3-D first-person shooter -- released in 1992, it was primitive in many ways, but it was also great fun to play and laid the technical and financial foundation for DOOM, a game that arguably spawned twin industries -- the FPS genre that drives the hardcore market as we know it, and the dedicated graphics card industry that helped gaming move beyond what a PC could render under its own power and made today's 3-D feasible.

I have played Wolfenstein on the PC, the Atari Jaguar, the GameBoy Advance, and the GP32X (a neat little Linux-based handheld that deserves a couple of blog entries on its own). There was also a bowdlerized version on the SNES, and Wisdom Tree's bizarre Super Noah's Ark 3-D that used the same engine. And I am now enjoying it once more on XBLA -- at 400 Microsoft points, it's US$5 well spent. It's a classic -- simplistic and repetitive by today's standards, but still fun to dig out and play through now and then.

But we all tend to forget about the TRUE classic game, Silas Warner's original Castle Wolfenstein, published by MUSE Software in 1981 for the Apple II. I remember playing the game on a friend's computer in high school -- it featured Warner's impressive new technology allowing playback of digitized speech at a very low sample rate, and the stealth-based gameplay was innovative. Nerves were thoroughly wracked as your prisoner-of-war character waited around the corner for a chance to shoot or sneak by a Nazi guard, and their low-fidelity cries of "Achtung!" or "SS!" were always a cause for panic. The need to search bodies and difficult-to-unlock chests for always-dwindling supplies kept a sense of desperation alive, and it was a real challenge to escape the castle successfully on higher difficulty levels.

The game was resolutely 2-D, as the technology at the time was not up to full-screen refreshes -- it was a "flip-screen" game, much like Berzerk, where exiting one room would display the next room with the player at the opposite side of the screen. Sprites were flickery when they moved, and color was very limited per the Apple II's pseudo-color hi-res approach. But the levels were laid out with thought and cunning -- no random mazes here, and the drama of the story was enhanced by its simplicity: stay alive, steal the plans, and escape the castle.

The original Castle Wolfenstein was only ported to other 8-bit computers, never to consoles as far as I know. But its influence is still apparent today. As the videogame industry matured the stealth genre it pioneered fell into temporary disuse, with only Hideo Kojima's Metal Gear series on the MSX and NES carrying the torch into the late 1980's, but that series in turn led to a major revival in the 3-D era. Wolfenstein 3D borrowed its setting, though not its gameplay -- but it kept the name alive and a new 3-D series entry is reportedly in the offing.

I'll sign off with another Wolfenstein 3D recollection -- when guards are shot, they sometimes exclaim Mein lieben! But back in the day a good friend of mine persistently misheard it as: I'm leavin'!

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