The unlikely origins of the first-person shooter

Ahead of the release of Rage, we chart the evolution of the first-person shooter, from its most primitive days to the present…

With id Software’s Rage creeping up on us like a demented mutant with a hatchet, we thought it was high time we took a look at where the FPS came from. It’s a strange story of wizards, dinosaurs, precursors to the Internet, and arcade cabinets featuring incredibly detailed machine gun attachments. There’s controversy, wireframe graphics and explosions aplenty, so come with us now as we experience the unlikely origins of the first person shooter.

No kiss kiss, some bang bang

Some people say that it started with a floating eye in a maze. Others will tell you that it actually began in the far reaches of space, where wireframe spaceships refreshed their positions once a second, blinking in and out of existence as they battled for supremacy over a planetary system. Whether Spasim (an abbreviation of space simulation) or Maze War came first is one of those long lost, probably unanswerable, questions of videogame lore.

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Both of them can lay claim to a release around 1974, although only Spasim has documents to confirm that fact. It’s the sort of thing that, in a hundred years time, will form the basis for bizarre tech legends and Saturday matinee TV movies. Whichever side of the argument you come down on, there’s no denying the effect both titles had on the future of videogames.

Spasim was played over the hugely influential PLATO network, a forerunner of the world wide web that introduced most of the concepts we’re familiar with today, including online gaming. No PLATO, no web, no 3D games. It’s not quite as simple as that, but we’re tracing the history of the FPS, so let’s pretend that it is.

First person walkers and stabbers

If Spasim and Maze War prepared the seed bed for the FPS games to come, then among the first of the flowers to grow was 3D Monster Maze for the ZX81. Released in February 1982, it was the first 3D game available on a home computer. Whilst it was in the first person perspective, it didn’t feature any shooting, but instead tasked the player with staying one step ahead of a hungry tyrannosaurus rex.

Essentially, the game is a digitised form of hide and seek, with text prompts appearing on screen to let you know whether you’re getting closer or further away from the rampaging dinosaur. You could move forward, left or right, and your only weapon against the beast that chased you was the fact that you were quicker than it.

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Escaping the maze led you into another maze, which led into another maze. Even when you completed all the mazes, you were either thrown back in to keep playing, or your computer reset itself. 3D Monster Maze further cemented into the consciousness of the game playing public a set of elements we now take for granted – keyboard control, corridors and monsters.

Not long after 3D Monster Maze, DynaMicro released Dungeons Of Daggorath. Daggorath continued the maze-based gameplay, but introduced a raft of different swords, enemies and strategies into the mix. Like most games of the time, it had its roots firmly set at the fantasy end of the spectrum. You fought monsters in a dungeon with a sword, and had to eventually kill an evil wizard. One thing Daggorath did introduce was a new sort of health system.

Instead of the abstract concept of hit points, your heartbeat increased when danger was around. It was even possible to pass out from over exertion, which left you open to attack from the terrible things that lurked inside the dungeon. Dungeons Of Daggorath then, had taken the baton from 3D Monster Maze and added new levels of violence, tactics and more than one type of monster.

It would be another ten years until Wolfenstein was released, but things were already falling into place. There were a few things missing though. Chief amongst them, shooting.


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Videogames have always been about shooting things. If you’re playing a videogame right now, you’re probably shooting something. Stop it and pay attention. Atari’s Battlezone, released in the arcade in 1980 and still a cult classic now, was an FPS of sorts. In it, players controlled tanks, depicted using vector graphics, and had to shoot pretty much everything that moved. There were no corridors, no changing weapons and few of the other things that we recognise as essential pieces of the FPS jigsaw today, but it was FP and there was definitely S-ing. Your best bet for first person slaughter in the 80s though, was the light gun game.

Duck Hunt led the way with its duck hunting shenanigans, but if you were a real man, or wanted to pretend you were in an action movie, then Cycle Shooting and Operation Wolf were the games for you. Unlike other light gun games, which offered a fixed perspective, these two gems saw you scrolling through the world, shooting bad people and rescuing hostages as you went.

Of the two, Operation Wolf was the most successful, spawning three sequels and a cult following. Its massive machine gun arcade controllers are still easily recognisable today. While you had no control over the direction you were heading in the game, the first-person perspective still made it feel like you were the star of the show, blowing up corrupt regimes and gunning down unruly trees as you stormed towards justice and victory.

I love it when two decades of innovation come together

It was in 1992 that most of the elements we know and love finally came together to create Wolfenstein 3D. Of course, there’s been plenty of innovation since then, with mouselook and console FPS games making id’s first attempt look decidedly old fashioned, but there’s still a lineage from the huge, blockbuster games of today, all the way back to the first clumsy multiplayer titles, with their vector graphics and single frames of animation per second. Even now, more features are being added to the FPS genre, but all of them have a rich and interesting ancestry, with roots as far back as the birth of the gaming industry.

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Wolfenstein drew on a huge back catalogue of gaming culture, taking parts from other successful titles to build something entirely new. That’s something that id is still doing today, and with Rage just around the corner, any gamer worth their salt should be getting excited about what the grand masters of the FPS genre can come up with next.

Rage is due out on the 7th October for PlayStation 3, Xbox 360 and PC.

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