Throwback Thursday: Wolfenstein 3D

Posted on April 16, 2015 by Paul Thurrott in Xbox with 0 Comments

Throwback Thursday: Castle Wolfenstein 3D

In the early 1990s, I was an Amiga diehard, convinced that my personal computer platform of choice was superior to expensive Macs and business-oriented IBM PCs. But what Id Software accomplished with Wolfenstein 3D changed everything. Suddenly, PCs were tremendous game machines. And they could do things that were then impossible on the Amiga.

Wolfenstein 3D was released in 1992, while my wife and I were still living in Massachusetts; we moved to Phoenix about a year later. At the time, I was using an Amiga 500 with a personally-installed hardware switch that would let me jump between the classic AmigaDOS 1.3—which was compatible with all those great games from Europe—and the newer AmigaDOS 2.0. (The first hard drive I ever purchased fit inside this case, too: It was a 20 MB unit.) My wife had an IBM PS/1, mostly for WordPerfect. This was a very low-end machine, with a 10 MHz 80286 processor and a grayscale VGA monitor.

At the time, the Amiga scene was largely centered on “demos,” non-interactive extravaganzas designed to show off the computer’s graphical and audio prowess, and games, which of course achieved the same thing in interactive form. And most of the Amiga games I cared about were fast-moving sideways scrollers like “Shadow of the Beast,” “Leander,” “Agony” and other games you’ve never heard of. (That these are all Psygnosis titles is not coincidental.) They tended to utilize the Amiga’s strengths, with sprites, parallax scrolling, and tremendous music soundtracks and sound effects. In short, everything that was impossible on the PC.

I used to spend a lot of time in a local computer shop called Finestastic Computers, based in Norwood, and a follow-on to an earlier local Amiga dealer called LCA Computers. At that time, of course, the writing was on the wall, the Amiga was going nowhere fast, and Finetastic’s owner Ritchie started stocking IBM compatible PCs as well. I was mostly uninterested in the PC at the time, and from a gaming perspective, the only thing that worked well on these machines—was in fact better than the equivalent Amiga offerings—was flight simulators. Which I found boring.

But the Wolfenstein happened.

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Wolfenstein 3D—”Wolf” among friends—offered higher resolution graphics than were possible on most mainstream Amigas of the day: Most US-based games ran at 320 x 200, where even my wife’s PC was capable of 640 x 480 (VGA). It offered a first person view, which wasn’t hugely uncommon, as games like Bard’s Tale and Dungeon Master provided a similar “down the hallway” view. But it operated in real time, which was impossible at the time on the Amiga: You could move forward, back, left or right in real time and the game would just race along with you. (With Dungeon Master, the action would move forward in chunks, not smoothly.)

This was stunning. This was revolutionary.

Wolf, like many games of the era, was distributed with a free shareware episode, and you could send a self-addressed, stamped envelope to the publisher (Apogee) to get the full game (or, later, buy a retail version called Spear of Destiny). So I raced home with the shareware disk to see whether it would work on my wife’s PC. Which, again, was a horrifically low-end device.

And it worked. It worked just fine.

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Yes, it was in grayscale. Yes, the sound game out of tinny single speaker. Yes, the PS/1’s screen was also itself tiny. But Wolfenstein 3D worked. The technical genius of John Carmack, who created the Wolfenstein game engine, must never be understated. He took the most horrible personal computing architecture available at the time and bent it to his will. And in doing so, he single-handedly made the PC a better gaming platform than the Amiga.

(If you want to know more about John Carmack, Id Software, or the creation of Wolfenstein 3D, be sure to read Masters of Doom, which is a tremendous book.)

This was the moment that I first took the PC seriously. I resolved to build my own PC, which I wasn’t able to do until after we moved to Phoenix in 1993.

On a related note, when I started my writing career, my initial writing partner, Gary Brent, explained to me that he would intersperse his writing time with game playing time, and that he had played through Wolf 3D during the writing of his previous book. For our first books together, we played DOOM—Id’s follow-up to Wolf—and over the intervening years I’ve moved from shooter to shooter as the technologies and platforms evolved. For the past ten years, most of my gaming has happened on Xbox consoles, so my run on the PC was about 12 years.

Wolfenstein 3D begat games such as DOOM, DOOM II, Heretic, Duke Nukem 3D, modern takes on Wolfenstein, Serious Sam, Halo, Call of Duty, and many, many others. And of course I still interrupt writing with gaming, and find that getting my mind off the task at hand can actually help me focus better. These days, mostly Call of Duty.

But it all started with Wolfenstein. Which is the real reason I became a PC user.

And you can still play the game today. There’s a version on the web, go figure, and Wolf 3D is available on many mobile platforms. And if you want to play it on your PC, you can find the original shareware episode (for MS-DOS) or you can grab it for $5 on Steam.

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