You can always depend on Nazis as bad guys. They look sinister as all fuck and can be easily dichotomized into foot soldiers and terrifying crazed racist boss guys. They used to provide a sort of campy evil retirement home for British character actors until Harry Potter came along and ensured that a generation of aging thesps would be able to buy that cottage in Bournemouth after all. Thanks to Indiana Jones, there’s also no plan so deranged and over-the-top that we won’t assume someone in the Nazi high command would probably have given it the green light. Hell, when you’ve got Himmler on your team there’s enough crazy mystical bullshit for pretty much anything.
These days Nazis are somewhat out of vogue as antagonists and zombies have taken over as the go-to bad guy of choice. They have the advantage of offering idiot script writers even less of a challenge than flicking through an English to German dictionary for half an hour, and they don’t require the hiring of any actual actors – which is a good way to keep costs down. Added to which there’s an apparently bottomless pit of mindless nerds willing to fork over cash for anything with a zombie in it, a facet of the world I like to call the Michael Bey effect. This is where we get the pop culture we deserve and in the process turn people like Michael Bey into multi-millionaires for the privilege of having him shit directly into our brains every couple of years.
Wolfenstein 3D has both Nazis and something that looks a lot like a zombie with a mauser embedded in its chest. It gave the FPS the chain gun and includes Hitler in a mecha suit as the final boss of the chapter of the game called ‘Die Fuhrer Die’. In geek terms this is more cool shit than most nerds can actually handle. Faced with that much raw entertainment potential most of them won’t be able to cope unless Zach Snyder is allowed to ruin it by making it look like a music video aimed at autistic howler monkeys. It’s therefore something of a relief to discover that the granddaddy of the FPS genre’s graphics haven’t aged nearly as well as those of Doom. Once the textured walls were done there wasn’t enough processing power available to do the floor and ceiling as well so some levels have some extremely garish colour schemes. A couple of times the vivid hues of the ceiling made me worry that the game had crashed in some way. The enemies seem less than entirely impressive with animation kept to a bare minimum and each yelling out their signature catch phrase the second they get wind of you as though they’re auditioning for a part in the new Fast Show series.
Wolfenstein 3D is basic. Start the level, find the guns, kill the Nazis, find the exit is the mantra. Sure there are a couple of keys to be found and secret doors and a few power ups but they’re barely more than window dressing. The story is that the original game was to have considerably more variation with stealth sequences and cunning ways to distract guards. Presumably someone pointed out that no one real actually likes stealth games except for a few people with severe mental health problems that cause them to buy Metal Gear Solid games over and over again even though they are, without exception, complete rubbish. Also there’s not much more distracting than being shot in the face by a massive machine gun.
The basic nature of Wolfenstein 3D does allow the game to focus on making its limited gameplay as compelling as possible. Its full of tension, a palpable sense of fear. No regenerating health here, if you want to recover you’ll need to find a med kit (or chow down six or seven roast dinners in what is now known as the ‘Eric Pickles’ approach to first aid). Every time you die you have to start the level again from scratch with only a pistol and a few bullets, this makes dying a serious (but not overwhelming) issue and encourages you to treasure your machine gun and chain gun because once they’re gone they can be a swine to get back again. The levels are large, big mazes apparently designed by giving an etch-a-sketch to a rabid drunk and taking note of the results. You’re slow enough that large open areas can be deadly when more than a few enemies are in sight making large chambers an exercise in agoraphobia. Creeping through the narrower corridors you panic every time you are presented with a fork. Choose the wrong one and maybe you’ll trigger a guard you’ve already passed and then end up caught in between two bad guys when the sound of shooting triggers more. Wolfenstein 3D is full of these moments and is more than happy not to throw guards at you at all for large swathes of time, ramping up the tension as you pad through empty rooms convinced that its all going to go wrong at any moment. Like the best games the atmosphere is generated by the act of playing the game, not by cut scenes or horrible environments. Its generated by being simultaneously the hunter and the hunted.
Despite the maziness of the game and the simplicity of the environments, it’s not too hard to find your way around. The developers make good use of the different wall textures to aid navigation and there are enough environmental objects to suggest different areas of the game are kitchens, treasure stores and barracks. Each chapter has a few unique wall textures too which gives the various areas of the game a slightly different feel. Like a lot of older games Wolfenstein 3D focuses on doing one thing as well as it possibly can, mining all the gameplay it can out of its core concept and design. It does get repetitive once you’ve beaten the first three chapters that comprise the original game you’ve seen everything the game is ever going to throw at you and then it has to fall back on a rapidly escalating difficulty level to keep the challenge going. This is a shame since the original game is, if anything, slightly too easy but there’s still plenty of fun to be had from the other chapters and the sequel Spear of Destiny. Wolfenstein 3D obviously isn’t as good as Doom but that’s only like saying being pissed in a hot air balloon isn’t as good as being pissed in a spaceship. Even if one is clearly better than other that doesn’t mean they aren’t both brilliant.