Caught in the Crosshair: The History of First Person Shooters

First person shooting games have been around for a considerably long time now. As a matter of fact, 2014 marked the 40th anniversary of the genre, as it dates back all the way to the first generation of gaming. It all began with the development of the two earliest examples of which; two games called Maze War and Spasim. Development of Space War started in 1973, although an exact release date is unknown. Both games debuted the following year, 1974, amidst the arcade gaming era. Spasim was a space flight simulator, featuring a first person perspective, distinctive from modern-day FPS games in that players could only move from square to square and merely turn 90 degrees at a time. It led to the development of more detailed combat flight simulators as well as a tank simulator game; though none of these types of games were ever released to the general public until Battlezone in 1980.

The genre would not be properly worked on again until the mid-stages of the third generation of gaming in 1987, when MIDI Maze was released for the Atari ST home computer console. Like Maze Wars before it, it featured maze-based gameplay and Pac-Man-reminiscent character designs, but displayed in a first person perspective like Spasim. The game was later ported to both the Super Nintendo and the Game Boy under the alternative title, Faceball 2000, whilst also even featured network multiplayer deathmatches; a trope which would become synonymous to the genre in the future. Faceball 2000 is often considered by critics as being the first multiplayer 3D shooter to be released on a mainstream console. However, it would be during the fourth generation of gaming whereby the genre would rise to true prominence.

Id Software developed Wolfenstein 3D and released it to retail back in 1992. The game was a massive success, having even been attributed to the proper invention of the first person shooting genre. It implemented ray-casting technology, which had been used in earlier games before, and is still the basis for modern first person shooters today. But Wolfenstein also garnished a lot of controversy upon its release, due to the game’s inclusion of Nazi symbolism and excessive violence. It was prominently banned in Germany, and when it came time to port the game to the Super Nintendo, the Japanese gaming giants, being at their most draconian in terms of censorship at the time, even had id Software change the attack dogs into giant rats; as Nintendo were not comfortable with publishing a game, which involved shooting dogs. The original publishers of Wolfenstein 3D, Apogee Software, tried to capitalize on the success of id Software’s game with Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold back in 1993, but sales figures for that game made for progressively disappointing reading, as Doom was released by id Software a mere week later.

Doom is considered by many people across the world to be the most important and iconic first person shooter of all time. Not only was it instrumental in popularising the genre for years to come, but it has also had a massive impact on the video gaming industry in general, and has been made for almost every single video game platform ever since. Doom and Mortal Kombat have also been attributed to the establishment of both PEGI (Pan European Games Information) and the ESRB (Electronics Software Rating Board), establishing the system of telling people what video games were appropriate and what wasn’t appropriate for different age groups.

Meanwhile, on the Macintosh, Bungie Software released Marathon in 1994 and following it, subsequent sequels. The series established the inclusion of several new features in the genre including vertical aiming, freelock, dual-wielding and dual-function weapons, different multiplayer modes, friendly NPCs and further emphasis on story. However, the game that would be considered as the last great sprite-based shooter, would be Duke Nukem 3D, released by Apogee (then called 3D Realms) in 1996 and met with huge success. But like Wolfenstein 3D, Duke Nukem 3D and it’s titular character garnished a lot of controversy, due to Duke’s derogatory and tasteless attitude towards women, and how women themselves were portrayed in the game.

Shortly after the release of Duke Nukem 3D, however, and following the release of the game Doom II: Hell on Earth as well as several spin-offs, id Software released the highly anticipated game Quake. As iconic, intense and gory as Doom, Quake centred more around online multiplayer play, and was the first shooter to have a following of player clans, and would later inspire the creation of the long-running annual LAN event QuakeCon. It was after this when Nintendo prominently and affectively capitalized on the success of the genre with the release of Rare’s Goldeneye 007, which went on to become the best selling Nintendo 64 game in America. The first landmark console-exclusive first person shooter, it was universally acclaimed for its single-player levels and its multiplayer levels as well as its inclusion of sniper rifles, elements of stealth and players being able to execute headshots; effectively pioneering the tactical first person shooting sub-genre.

Coming up to the mid-stages of the fifth generation of gaming, Half-Life was released in 1998, heavily based on Quake’s graphical technology. The same gaming engine was employed by 3D Realms, for a time, to assist in the development of Duke Nukem Forever, but this, as well as several other major factors resulted in a 15-year development cycle, and the game was eventually released as late as 2011, and panned with universal criticism. However, whilst previous shooters focused on visceral gameplay and had weak plots, Half-Life had one of the more standout narratives of any game in general, whilst featuring no cutscenes and staying in the first-person perspective. The game was met with an overwhelming response from both gamers and critics alike, and would become one of the most popular series’ in video game history.

The genre would be taken to even greater heights than before, despite many people eagerly anticipating the release of Duke Nukem Forever, at the beginning of the sixth generation of gaming. At E3 1999, Bungie Software, who had previously developed the Marathon series, unveiled Halo, which was originally to be a real-time strategy game. However, when Microsoft bought the company in 2000, it was later re-developed as a first person shooter, and released as a launch title for the original Xbox. Considered a modern-day premier first person shooter, and like Half-Life, it featured a deep and meaningful story, which had been missing from the genre prior. But unlike Half-Life, there was heavy use of cutscenes involved. The game was a runaway commercial success, and its sequel, Halo 2, would further help to popularise the online multiplayer genre as well as Xbox Live. In the same decade, a number of shooters were released for many different platforms, including Crysis, Deus Ex, PlanetSide, Far Cry & Far Cry 2 and Doom 3. A theatrical adaptation of Doom was even released in 2005 due to its immense popularity and cultural impact. There was also Metroid Prime released for the GameCube back in 2002, but whilst it was met with commercial acclaim, and indeed, I consider it to be one of the best games of all time, Nintendo don’t officially classify it as being a first person shooter; instead having taken to calling it a first person action-adventure game, as it does play out less like a first person shooter and more like a Metroid game.

However, the back end of the decade and the first half of this one, whilst it has seen the genre been taken to even greater heights than ever before, has also seen, in my opinion, a decline in its artistic value. The Call of Duty and Battlefield series’ have both taken the world by storm, regularly featuring on prominent sales charts and loved by so many people around the world. Though I whistle in the wind, I am disappointed of the lack of variety and creativity involved in the development of these games, and I don’t think I’ll be able to fully understand why they have had the impact they’ve had on the community. However, there have been a few decent standout games in the genre amidst all that, such as Borderlands, Fallout 3, Rage and Halo: Reach; so I don’t consider it to have completely declined artistically.

My hope for the future of the first person shooting genre is that more imaginative titles like Tower of Guns are released as opposed to the generic ones, which unjustifiably take interest away from a lot of excellent games in other genres during the Christmas rush. Indeed, the likes of Dishonored, Enslaved and Disney’s Epic Mickey have all fell through the cracks amidst the sales of Black Ops and Ops II, and to me, it’s pretty disdainful to think about.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *