As we have seen time and time again throughout video game history, first-person shooters and World War II practically go hand in hand. Nearly every game aiming to have any semblance of historical feel typically sets itself firmly within that time period. It’s easy to do this too because few modern global conflicts in history have been marked with such clear lines of good and evil. Nazism, in any form, is unanimously considered the benchmark for any menacing villain. The simple thought of “What gamer wouldn’t want to embody a virtual soldier to defeat the greatest evil in history?” is what fueled developers to produce WWII era games like hot cakes after 1999’s Medal of Honor. It’s a trend that only recently faded away as franchises like Call of Duty moved to more modern conflicts taking place in the Middle East.
Using WWII as a backdrop for FPS games extends far beyond being a simple “fad” however. Sure, the mass proliferation in the 21st century stemmed directly from how popular the concept was, but the idea extends back to when the genre first became popular. It all started with 1992’s Wolfenstein 3D, the singular game that gave birth to the most popular genre. If Doom is the father that gave these games a mainstream appeal, Wolfenstein 3D is the grandfather that showed scrappy youngsters how to really fight evil with a variety of guns (both were also developed by id Software). Wolfenstein 3D also just happens to be entirely set within the WWII era, making one of the most horrific global conflicts in history the cornerstone that the FPS genre was built upon.
While the Wolfenstein series technically started off in 1981 with the stealth game Castle Wolfenstein, Wolfenstein 3D is really when the series as a whole came to form. It introduced a named protagonist, an overarching story, and necessary mechanics to show people what a FPS game was all about. You play as William “B.J.” Blazkowicz, a son of Polish immigrants with Jewish ancestry who joins a special branch of the US Army to investigate occult activity in Nazi Germany. His mission takes him into the bowels of the Third Reich as B.J. is captured by the SS and must escape by any means necessary. Along the way, B.J. uncovers the terrible truth behind the regime. The Nazi’s are activity creating undead soldiers and developing destructive chemical weapons. With a small amount of weapons at his disposal, B.J. fights the Nazi’s in Castle Wolfenstein. He even fights Adolf Hitler himself with the ruthless dictator in a robotic suit that has four chain guns for arms.
To put it mildly, Wolfenstein 3D was a game changer for the industry. While it wasn’t the earliest FPS game out on the market by more than two decades, it showed the world what a legitimate shooter from the hero’s point of view was all about. It was an aggressive action packed adventure that pitted your singular protagonist against a seemingly never ending wave of enemies. The action was appropriately reminiscent of classic side-scrolling shooters like Contra. This alone laid the groundwork for an entirely different genre of gaming. By experiencing action from your character’s perspective, you actually feel like you’re involved in the story. Even though Wolfenstein 3D was held back by its own technological limitations, future FPS games would use the first-person perspective to create extremely eye catching settings that feel even more alive.
It also helped that Wolfenstein 3D didn’t particularly tie itself to actual events. Yes, the setting of WWII is completely real, but undead soldiers and Mecha-Hitler? Notsomuch. This alone has helped the Wolfenstein series remain different while other franchises took the spotlight. Call of Duty and Medal of Honor attempted to be as realistic as possible. The former especially has done this to become the premier FPS game on the market. Wolfenstein instead took the concept of extensively reported proposed Nazi super weapons (wunderwaffe, meaning “wonder-weapon”) and completely ran with it. Hitler at one point was actively researching how to create a sun gun, for example. Why not go a step further and detail Nazi’s investigating mystical artifacts, robotic power armor, and otherworldly demons? These are just some concepts explored in Wolfenstein 3D, the 2001 reboot Return to Castle Wolfenstein, its 2009 sequel Wolfenstein, and the recently released Wolfenstein: The New Order.
Personally, it’s tough for me not to clump both the Wolfenstein and Doom series’ into the same category. Both were groundbreaking FPS games that defined the genre that followed, but both also escaped my notice most of my gaming life. The exact moment I got into FPS games was exactly when Wolfenstein faded into the background. Halo especially took my attention when it came out in 1999, and even before that I had GoldenEye 007, Perfect Dark, and Medal of Honor, to name a select few. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was the first legitimate attempt to revitalize the series in nearly ten years but the public as a whole had moved on to hotter items. To this day I have yet to touch a single entry.
Wolfenstein: The New Order is receiving more attention than I’ve seen for the series in many years. The wave of positive reviews over the past week paint this new installment as the big franchise reviver. And in all honesty, it really should be. The Wolfenstein series has played a massive role in industry development and it deserves to be held to the standard today’s hits constantly reach. It’d be unreasonable to expect the series to suddenly become the next massive item with a single release though. This is, however, a step in the right direction. There’s no reason why an influential series like this shouldn’t be as popular as the very franchises that spawned from its ideas.