Wolfenstein 3D goes free for 20th birthday

May 10, 2012 | 15:23

Tags: #browser-game #commander-keen #doom #first-person-shooter #fps #in-browser-gaming #quake #rage

Companies: #apogee #bethesda #id-software

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of seminal first-person shooter Wolfenstein 3D, Bethesda - current owners of original studio id Software - have released the game free of charge as an in-browser title.

Launched for MS-DOS as a shareware title by publisher Apogee back in 1992, Wolfenstein 3D - a re-imagining of top-down Castle Wolfenstein - saw hero William 'B.J.' Blazkowicz attempt to escape from the clutches of the Nazi and assassinate a quad chaingun-wielding mechanised Hitler. Basically, it was a game that valued action over historical accuracy.

Based on the Catacomb 3-D engine developed by company founder John Carmack for an earlier game, the Wolfenstein 3D that was released into the market was a vastly different game to the original design proposal. Taking inspiration from the stealth-'em-up Castle Wolfenstein, Carmack envisioned a game where the player would have to sneak through the environment silently killing guards, hiding bodies and swapping uniforms - a Nazi-filled Hitman, in effect.

Although the complexity of the game was lost in favour of a straight run-and-gun first-person shooter - something which would influence id Software's output for years to come, from hit classic Doom to the recently released Rage - the team was able to include some impressive technology for the era. Ray casting was used to generate a pseudo-3D environment with texture mapping everywhere save for the walls and ceilings, while hand-drawn sprites were created in eight different angles to give the impression of a solid object.

The engine, which was created in response to a tech demo from role-playing giants Looking Glass Studios and Origin Systems showing an impressive but slow game engine, was a remarkable achievement: featuring 256-colour graphics, the game ran well on even the most modest system - providing the display size was scaled down in the in-game options - at a time when 3D acceleration hardware was but a distant dream.

Although id Software would go back to the drawing board for Doom and create an all-new engine with full texture mapping, height level changes and a textured skybox, the Wolfenstein 3D engine would find use in games including Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold, Operation Body Count, and even Rise of the Triad - albeit in much-improved advanced form all-but unrecognisable as having stemmed from the same technology base as Wolfenstein 3D.

The game's basic graphics and simple gameplay may seem primitive now, but the title was a stellar success for the company and helped cement shareware - a distribution method where the first episode of a game would be delivered free as a form of extended demo, with further content requiring paid registration - as a legitimate means of marketing a best-selling title.

It would also influence the output of numerous studios, not least of which is id Software. Prior to Wolfenstein 3D, the company had concentrated on side-scrolling platform titles like Dangerous Dave and Commander Keen. Following the success of Wolfenstein 3D, however, the company would concentrate on first-person shooters including Doom, Quake - which included a true 3D engine with polygon-based objects for the first time in an id game - and all their multifarious sequels and spin-offs.

Although Bethesda has missed the official 20th birthday of the title, which was launched in the US on the 5th of May 1992, the company is keen to celebrate its influence on the industry: players are now able to enjoy the title in their browser as a free-to-play game.

The browser-based implementation includes all the features of the original Wolfenstein 3D, with the levels and episodes of the registered version available for unlimited gaming. The game may still look basic compared to some in-browser games, but it's a good indication of how far technology has progressed in the last two decades.

The game is available on the Bethesda website now, if this little wander down memory lane has filled you with nostalgia - or if you just want to see what passed for a high-tech 3D engine back in the 90s.
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