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Review: Wolfenstein 3D

At a Glance

ESRB Rating: M - Mature Audiences
My Rating: Adults - 18+
Genre: First Person Shooter
License: Shareware / Commercial
Release Year: 1994
Review Published On: January 6th, 2021
Played on: Thaddeus

Available from:

Gamer's Gate, Humble Store, Steam

Save System:

Depending on the source port you're using, you may be able to save your game at any time, or just at the beginning of a level.

You can pause the action by pressing ESC.

Summary of
Major Issues:

Despite its primitive graphics, there is a lot of blood in this game. You're also spending the entire time killing Nazis, so you can expect to see their paraphernalia, including swastikas and Hitler himself.

Some levels also appear to have supernatural enemies, but the manuals point out that it's all smoke and mirrors.


[view screenshot]
The battle is on

[view screenshot]
Mein leben!

[view screenshot]
Oh, I feel terrible now. :(

Game Overview

While Doom is known as the grandfather of the First Person Shooter genre, it wasn't the first. In fact, it wasn't the even first FPS made by id software. That honor falls to Wolfenstein 3D, which has also retained a large fanbase over the years.

Unsurprisingly, Wolfenstein 3D is much more primitive than its successor. The limited color palette is one of the more obvious examples, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. At this point in time, there was no way to create changes in elevation, so Wolfenstein has no steps, no platforms, no bridges, and so on. The levels are entirely flat.

New players are also likely to be surprised to learn that your ammunition supply is shared by all of your weapons. From a practical standpoint, this meant that the only real difference between the different guns was their rate of fire: if you ever run out of bullets, then none of your guns are usable.

Another major difference in the gameplay is that damage is calculated in an unexpected way. In other games, each weapon does a different amount of damage or works in a different way. Here, the amount of damage the target receives is dependent on how far they are from the shooter and whether or not the shooter and target were moving. Thus, in this game, standing still and firing at close range will do much more damage than firing while running around.

This mechanic also has a nasty side effect: getting ambushed by a guard can quickly kill the player, regardless of how much health they currently have. Now, while the level design does try to trap the player to some degree, the enemy AI is what really makes it interesting. Guards in nearby rooms can hear the gunshots and shouting from any fight you get into, and can start coming after you before you've even seen them. This includes opening doors -- even locked ones -- to reach the player.

As you can probably guess by the name and references to guards, this game takes place during World War II. You're playing as William "B.J." Blazkowicz, an American spy, who has been tasked with shutting down various projects the Nazis have been secretly working on. And since you'll be exploring various Nazi facilities and strongholds, you're going to see a lot of swastikas, pictures of Hitler, and other Nazi paraphernalia in this game. You'll also find skeletons and blood in the various prison cells, so it's not like they are shown in a positive light.

Now, it's obvious that a lot of people still love this classic game. I mean, getting to shoot Cyborg Hitler is definitely a perk for many many people. But I'm not a fan, and you might be surprised to learn why. It's not the gameplay, or the story, or the lack of modern features. It's that I never could stomach shooting the guard dogs in this game. They don't look threatening to me. More to the point, they look a lot like a dog I knew when I was little. Hearing them yelp and seeing the blood that pools around their little broken bodies just makes my soul hurt.

Points of Interest

Gaming history
While some of its mechanics didn't carry over into other games, Wolfenstein 3D effectively codified what would define the First Person Shooter genre. Interestingly enough, the engine developed for this game would later be licensed out to other developers for use in their own pseudo-3D games, such as Blake Stone, Corridor 7, and... Super Noah's Ark?
Full 6 Episodes!
Like most other Shareware games, Wolfenstein 3D's story was split into multiple episodes or chapters, with the first chapter made available for free. To get the full version, you'd need to register your copy. Today, you'll probably just buy the full release and skip the shareware version altogether.

There are two main story arcs, each of which comprise three levels. Oddly, these are presented as episodes 1-6, instead of two separate stories. The confusing thing about this is that 1-3 are the main story arc and 4-6 is a prequel story. This make the chronological order of the episodes 4,5,6,1,2,3. Episodes 4-6 also feature a different and very detailed tileset, which is somewhat jarring when viewed alongside the rest of the game's graphics.
Now, whether or not you'll discover this little surprise tends to depend on which source port you're using to play the game. In level 2-8, you can find a weird object hidden behind a movable wall. Instead of being a normal object that you'd find in the game, it looks like floating text that reads "Call Apogee and say Aardwolf!".

This was originally part of a promotional campaign, but the swift appearance of third party level editors resulted in it being scrapped. After all, anybody with the level editor could "find" the hidden clue and win the prize, which was rumored to be free games or prize money.

New players are still finding it today, and it's become a problem for Apogee and Wolfenstein forums. If you find it today, please just enjoy the weird surprise and move along with your game.
Lack of updates
Unfortunately, unlike Doom and other extremely famous games from the DOS era, this game wasn't updated as time went on. This means that the current releases of the game are just running it using DOSBox or some other DOS emulator, and new features are completely absent. On the plus side, you can use fan-made tools like ECWolf to provide better keybinding and a few other conveniences.

Concerns and Issues

A whole lot of Nazis
Wolfenstein 3D has always been somewhat controversial. Sometimes it's because you're shooting human beings, but a lot of the time people complain about about the large amount of Nazi imagery that's present throughout the game. Some countries, Germany in particular, are rather sensitive about this sort of thing, and forced their editions of the game to be censored.

Of course, there are also people who have had some odd ideas about this game. For example, I've seen people claim that the player character is a "heroic Nazi", or that this game portrays the Nazis as the heroes. Both of these statements are false, and I'm not sure how someone can misread a game's storyline so badly.
Evil science
In real life, the Nazis performed some pretty notorious experiments on people, and this is reflected in this game in a couple of ways. Firstly, you have the mutant enemies. They were once living people (possibly US infantry, judging by the uniforms and haircuts) who have been brought back to life as mindless killing machines by the evil Dr. Schabbs. There's also a an easter egg regarding this: if Dr. Schabbs kills you during his boss battle, the player character's face in the HUD changes to show that he's become yet another mutant zombie in the Nazi's forces.
A little occult references
In exactly one level, you're encounter the famous "Hitler's Ghost" enemies. These are levitating robed figures that resemble Hitler, and they throw fireballs as their main attack. However, this game's manuals and other materials made it explicitly clear that there's nothing supernatural going on here. These enemies are, in fact, puppets that are hung from the ceiling via a thin string. Their fireball "spell" is created via a chest-mounted flamethrower.
Some blood and bones
This game's technical limitations prevent there from being very much in the way of realistic gore, but there is some. Most of it is found scattered throughout the levels, though some enemies bleed more than others. Bleached white skeletons and bones appear the most often, though you can also occasionally find a puddle of blood laying on the floor. A lesser-known detail about these puddles is that if your health is low enough, you can slurp them up for a small health bonus.
Killing a real person
It's rare for a video game like this to include a reference to a real person, let alone include them as an actual character. Adolf Hitler himself makes an appearance as the boss of the third episode, and I'm a little conflicted about what to think about this. I mean, he was easily among the ranks of the most horrible men in history, but is it really okay to kill a fictional version of him?

Ultimately, I'm not sure games should include real people as enemies; there's just something that feels off about it, regardless of who you're shooting.