15 Classic FPS Games That You Should Know — The First Three Periods (1992-2003)
The concept of a game about shooting from a first-person perspective ain’t new. It was born with Jet Rocket by Sega in 1970. There have been almost four dozens of first-person games from 1970 up to 1992.
Wolfenstein 3D was the first shooter to become ported to many platforms. It was released in May ‘92. It became highly popular as a consequence
I separated the ages of FPSes into periods I personally have noted. In this article, I’m going to call these periods “ages”. In my view, an age ends and a new one begins when a game with a ground-breaking concept appears. A game-changing game, so to speak.
For those who are new to FPSes it may be difficult to grasp how they revolutionized the video gaming world. Proof of this are the many games on this list. They continue to fascinate many video game players. To the point of still having communities. In their communities, players and developers share their enthusiasm and produce source ports.
Source ports and graphical mods can improve greatly on the original games. Many modern graphic effects can be added. These make the ported and modded games look in ways we couldn’t dream of twenty years ago.
I picked five classics from each age. The ones that don’t have source ports can be played with an old version of Windows or with DOSBox. Many were also ported to other platforms, especially consoles. Also, some are still in the market, twenty years on.
I’ve used italics to denote a game that must have made its way into this list but didn’t.
The First Age (1992-1996)
Doom was the first game to twist the coolest traits of the style that Wolfenstein 3D started. Some people call this game abstract. A lot of Doom’s level design is admirable even today. But it has maps that go too over the top. Sadly, it strays from the original concept. A science fiction and horror concept finely expressed in the beginning levels.
I don’t remember precisely which levels. I think they began somewhere around episode two.
There were maps that were just too abstract. Others resembled another genre of video games. Like platform and side-scroll arcades converted to an FPS format. They don’t gel well with the rest of the game. Maybe that’s the only weak point of this pillar of the history of FPSes.
But even if just for the trivia factor. Visiting those crazily designed levels of the original Doom carries some value. Even if it’s just to stop for a moment, and ask oneself what were the developers smoking when they designed them.
Doom is one of the classics that still has a lively community. It shows in the number of source ports available, that allow for it to run on modern computers.
Doom Source Ports
- Doomsday Engine
- Chocolate Doom
2. Doom II: Hell On Earth (1994)
It shows a great improvement over the first one. It has an uninterrupted flow of fun. For many years Doom was the king of FPSes because of Doom II. It took years to the rest of the shooter industry to catch up with it. Because Doom II had semi-open environments and swarming waves of enemies. Two things that shooters of the mid-nineties generally lacked.
In the mid and late nineties, the quantities of enemies in FPSes was relatively modest. And the scenarios were indoor corridors and rooms. Unlike Doom II.
In the second Doom, scares were less. It was more action-oriented, given the nature of its many pseudo-open-environment maps.
I couldn’t put this game in the first place. Even if I would have liked to. Because the terrain won over the original was somewhat ruined by the poor execution of a few maps. Those maps intended to be recreations of urban settings. The end product was quite anti-climatic. It stopped my suspension of disbelief.
Other than that, Doom II quite shows that the original could be easily improved. It was achieved by dumping the scares. By mercilessly whipping the player with incessant frantic shooting moments. Moments that required sophisticated tactics. And not just tactics. It lent itself to the incorporation of strategies. Strategies involving objects like med-kits ammo. An improved experience over the mere killing of waves of mobs in a corridor.
Doom II Source Ports
Most if not all source ports of Doom should work for Doom 2. I played it on Risen3D.
3. Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995)
Dark Forces should be recognized as the most innovative among first-age first-person shooters. It introduced a lot of stuff that wasn’t available until later.
Crouch and jump capabilities were the most obvious ones. It was influenced by Lucasarts’s other gems. Mostly graphic adventures. It shows in the puzzles’ difficulty, which I think is slightly harder than the puzzles of other FPS of the same era.
Anyhow, this game was inspiring. Because like most other games on this list, it wasn’t a Doom clone. It took where Doom left off. I dare say that the level design is credible even today. Except for the missions where natural rock formations are involved.
4. Heretic (1994)
It wasn’t as simple as Doom in a sword and sorcery setting. Heretic was the fantasy response to Doom. It showed that a medieval setting could be used. And that the fun would stay the same.
As features that Doom lacked was the ability to carry an inventory.
Even though it has been more than twenty years that I played this game, I can’t forget the coolness of some of its levels. The geometry wasn’t much different from Doom’s. Still, the maps’ layouts looked somewhat more consistent as a whole. Also, they lacked the awkward transitions from credible to non-credible of the Dooms. Because it is done in a medieval setting it’s decidedly a feat of design. Especially if you consider that the quantity of maps is massive.
5. Rise Of The Triad (1994)
I didn’t play it in its heyday. I remember that ROTT, Descent and, Quarantine were the three of the most popular classics I missed.
Around 2004 I remembered it and installed it. Only to recall very vague memories of it. Picking from very deep in my memory I remember that I played to it briefly. I must have had the same sensation I had in the 2004 sight of it.
I thought that coming from Apogee, it was going to be something in league with Wolfenstein 3D and Doom.
When I saw the mobs, and the overall weirdness, and its excessive ways I thought it was too much over the top for me.
When I started playing these games I also chose them because of their realism and immersion. What Rise Of The Triad was to me in the style sense was kind of a hodgepodge. A lot of stuff that was a bit disparaging to see together.
Its structures resembled platform games. Even the overblown soundtrack. Nothing made sense to me when I was younger.
Rise Of The Triad was difficult to classify with its odd items and maps. It blew my mind and overwhelmed it. I never could get into it. It was boredom caused out of total disinterest. A disinterest provoked by the incapability to make any sense of it.
A game that was going to be Wolfenstein 3D’s sequel. Because of business reasons had to become a separate intellectual property. A game in which the mobs had the faces of its developers. Everything about it was bland for me.
But when I picked it up recently I regretted not having played it.
It’s Apogee alright. The mechanics of the wolf engine are there. I felt very at home with it. I actually enjoyed it, like eighteen years after its release. Not because of any kind of nostalgia. But because something classic like it can only get better with the passing of the years.
You must make an effort and see past the outdated graphics. Come to appreciate it. You’ll realize that no study of the golden age of FPS is complete without knowing the original ROTT.
ROTT Source Ports
- Gl Rott
- Icculus (Linux)
- Dr Lex’s ROTT Port (Mac OS X)
- ROTT DS (Nintendo DS), PSP (PlayStation Portable), ROTT DC (Dreamcast), ROTT for GP2X, ROTT Dingux (Dingo 320), ROTT X (XBox), ROTT for GP32, ROTT for WIZ, ROTT for Pandora, ROTT for Amiga OS 4.0
First Age Honorable Mentions
- Wolfenstein 3D (id Software, 1992)
- Catacomb Abyss (id Software, 1992)
- System Shock (Looking Glass Studies, 1994)
- Marathon (Bungie Software, 1994)
- Descent (Parallax Software, 1995)
- Witchhaven (Capstone Software, 1995)
- Hexen: Beyond Heretic (Raven Software, 1995)
The Second Generation (1996-1999)
The offer of the second age of first-person shooters is exponentially bigger than the first age’s one, I had a hard time choosing just five.
1. Quake (1996)
Although in this era real, fully 3D games appeared and ruled it, there wasn’t a lot of them yet, and Quake outpaced all other games in this department since it was released early in this age’s timeline.
There wasn’t anything like Quake before it. Its graphics, that today can look very clumsily-designed and dated, but in 1996 they were maybe the coolest graphics in a PC game ever.
What made Quake’s graphics so cool was the fact that it was the first FPS to have true 3D graphics, not 2.5D like all its predecessors.
Not only that, but its anachronistic mixture of medieval castles with relatively modern — and sometimes futuristic — technology and weapons was well executed.
Its narrative, which borrowed from Lovecraft and the theme of multi-dimensional paradoxes and teleporting travel from Doom’s back-story, made a lot of sense.
It’s difficult not getting emotional with Quake, but after all, it marked a before and after it, it is the first real 3D FPS.
Quake Source Ports
- Ultimate Quake Engine
2. Blood (1997)
What Wolfenstein 3D, Doom, and Quake did for gameplay mechanics (i.e., revolutionizing the market) and video-game genre — establishing the FPS genre — Blood did for the evolution of video-game narrative and niche-specific genre.
Blood is a monument and a love letter to horror fandom. Its back-story is so greatly fleshed out, that one really gets involved with Caleb’s (Blood’s snarky protagonist) quest, and cares about what happens to him.
It wasn’t the same with the plots of all the FPSes that came before. The back-stories of the FPSes that came before were lighter, more ambiguous, or more open to personal interpretations.
Blood changed all that, adding a dramatic story dimension much more developed than the plots of the games that came before.
Blood did pander to the fanbase in a huge way. Doom and Quake were spooky, granted. Also, both of them were considered science fiction AND horror. But Blood was a totally different beast altogether!
It had science fiction elements, but they weren’t obvious and ubiquitous like in Doom, and to a lesser extent Quake. No, understandable anachronisms aside, Blood was circumspect in staying inside its time frame; a potpourri of alternate-reality 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s.
I think the highest point of 2.5D FPSes was Duke Nukem 3D, but all the niceties that made Duke 3D stand out were a given in Blood, even more so, they were bettered. Gibs and blood were greater, and gorier, than in Duke3D, to give just one example.
Returning to the analysis of Blood’s genre, it seems that in the beginning, first-person shooters were very liberal in picking genres.
Blood was no different. Blood was horror and weird-western with a tad of teslapunk science fiction here and there. The difference was in the balance of the three genres, weird-western and teslapunk were markedly the sideshows. They were sublimated to the main themes of classic horror it featured.
Blood has references to dozens of horror works in its maps, as well as in Caleb’s one-liners, and, as unoriginal as this may sound, when there weren’t horror first-person shooters, visiting Morningside Cemetery (from the Phantasm movie), Crystal Lake (Friday the 13th), The Shining’s hedge maze, or finding Freddy Krueger’s personal effects lying around in a room with an Elvira Mistress of The Dark calendar on the wall was the pinnacle of horror-infused coolness.
Blood Source Ports
They appear on the web as work in progress for years now, and there isn’t a completed one yet.
- Transfusion II
3. Kingpin: Life of Crime (1999)
Kingpin exudes style by every pore and it’s one of those games that you can take as a signpost marking a before and an after in the story of FPS games.
This game goes beyond where all its predecessors went. When one thought the genre-mixing, so characteristic of back-stories, was getting hackneyed and trite, Kingpin did it again but in astonishing ways.
To begin with, it was one of the first, if not the first, squad-based FPSes. When no squad-based FPS did exist — at least not single-player ones — it was extremely cool to hire helper NPCs and steamroll the enemies down with their help.
The pastiche of genres was expressed not so much in the themes as it was expounded on its settings, a show of style by itself. The story transpires in a retro-fit city of Art Déco, Brutalist, Victorian and Gothic buildings, just like Bioshock would be on later years minus the Victorian style.
It’s one of darkest, cruelest FPSes that ever existed, and the one in which most profanity is spoken.
And along hiring of helper NPCs with the money you looted from mobs, there was the possibility of buying equipment and even modding one’s weapons; a thing that was beginning to appear, as shown by the weapon modding available in Unreal, Half-Life, and SiN.
Life of Crime was also one of the first FPSes to introduce localized damage boxes; a head-shot did definitely more damage than a shot to the chest. All this peppered with the mobs’ insults, and the player’s option to taunt the mobs.
I think the makers of Kingpin wanted to make it a dominant video game in the market, and they went all the way in trying to achieve it, even licensing Cypress Hill’s songs for the game’s soundtrack.
4. Duke Nukem 3D (1996)
Duke Nukem 3D, like Blood, was a game based on the Build3D engine.
The high level of interaction possible, the capability of crouching, miniaturizing oneself, jumping and flying, the gore, the raunchiness of the environment, and the freedom to break most of the stuff around gave the game a depth of immersion that no previous FPS had.
Worth of mention is the introduction of random one-liners by the playing character that was hilarious, for instance: “I’m gonna get medieval on your a**es”, or “It’s time to kick a** and chew bubble gum, and I’m all outta gum!” and cool, that it won its players’ hearts in no time.
Although Duke is a mercenary for the CIA, this fact posed no moral dilemmas when weighted against the premise of the game: an alien invasion of the Earth and the originality of its weapons, its highly detailed maps, and its compelling story-line.
The orchestration of all its over-the-top elements makes this game an all-time, undying classic.
Duke Nukem 3D Source Ports
- Chocolate Duke3D
5. Outlaws (1997)
As time passed, first-person shooters started to get more genre-specific. Outlaws was the first successful western-themed first-person shooter.
It runs on the Jedi engine, and when it was released this engine was dated; if judged by the standards that Quake had set one year before.
But Outlaws was special because its 2.5D graphics were cell-shaded, and the animation-style art was sweet.
The maps are challenging and fun. Some are designed with a view to making the player use sophisticated tactic and strategy. This, as opposed to a more linear approach of always going forth, and then backtracking by a devoid of foes map, when pass-card X or key Y need to be found.
There are maps when you enter a town and the next thing you know is there are foes everywhere. In these maps, you have to entrench yourself where you are, and start killing until you can advance a bit. Then you must try to find a new tactical position nearer your objective than the last one.
I’ve read somewhere that Spielberg and Lucas do movies thinking them in a way as to have at least a couple of scenes that feel like theme park rides. This way of doing things is implemented in Outlaws because there are levels that feel like a theme-park ride.
This became common, but I think Outlaws was one of the first games that did this. The game’s back-story is very professionally fleshed out and expounded with animation cut-scenes. That’s always a good thing to have in a game, especially a second age FPS like this one when a rich back-story was the exception and not the rule.
As much as I would have liked making a bigger list to include some of the games that follow, I wanted to narrow down the ones I think are musters to only five for the sake of convenience, but now I’m realizing it’s going to get harder because the gamut of first-person shooters kept on growing.
The following ten honorable mentions from the second age are games that weren’t as popular as the five I just mentioned, but nonetheless, they deserve a revisiting if they weren’t played in its heyday.
- Strife (Velocity, Rogue Entertainment, 1996)
- The Terminator: SkyNET (Bethesda Softworks, 1996)
- The Terminator: Future Shock (Bethesda Softworks, 1996)
- ZPC (Zombie Studios, 1996)
- Killing Time (Studio 3DO, 1996)
- Powerslave (Lobotomy Software, 1997)
- Quake II (id Software, 1997)
- Realms Of The Haunting (Gremlin Interactive, 1997)
- Blood II: The Chosen (Monolith Productions, 1998)
- SiN (Ritual Entertainment, 1998)
The Third Iteration (1999-2004)
Besides the classification, I chose of grouping first-person shooters by age. I like also to separate them between those that can be considered old-school as opposed to those that I see as new-school. Serious Sam is the first “new school” FPS I played.
What’s the difference I make between the two schools?
Roughly, if a game involves a lot of backtracking, keys, switches, and puzzles, and at the same time, it doesn’t have a lot of enemies I’d call it old-school.
New-school would be any FPS with huge open areas, next to zero puzzles and relentless waves of enemies coming at the player and making the game-play very fast-paced, and the shooting very frantic.
1. Serious Sam: The First Encounter (2001)
This game is fun from start to finish, especially for the radical change in game-play pace to what we’ve been accustomed; because there weren’t a lot of frantic FPSes before Serious Sam.
As I said, we had a taste of the future with Doom II, with their relatively open maps and a high count of relentless mobs. But before Serious Sam frantic shooting in FPSes was hard to come by.
The weapons in this game are great, and once you have them all it’s great to rely on a different weapon for each type of mob.
But there are many instances in Sam’s journey when the lack of weapons and ammunition force the player to make do with the less destructive weapons. Or to perform all kind of acrobatics and evasive movements to cope with the barrage of mobs.
2. Halo: Combat Evolved (2001)
What to say about Halo that hasn’t been said already? Not much, besides it being another example, maybe one of the most important, of games which were released many years ago that still seem to be aging extremely well.
Now, what Halo brought into the single-player FPS world that wasn’t exploited before was the ability to drive different types of vehicles.
Of course, there were games, like Necrodome, Shadow Warrior or Redneck Rampage, that had some kind of vehicle-manning feature. Still, none of them in the extent of Halo and none of them was as popular as Halo.
Another ground-breaking innovation was the regenerating shield, but nowadays one can find the waters very divided pertaining this kind of things. It’s disappointing that the shield-regeneration of Halo has been done to death by other games after it.
For many Cortana may be just Windows 10 assistant. In Halo, there is a computer/hologram helping Master Chief in his adventures of the same name. Halo’s Cortana was the inspiration for Windows 10 assistant, but her involvement in Halo’s storyline is practically non-existent.
Cortana is not a bot supporting the player, or something like the AI of System Shock 2 or the one from Tron 2.0, she’s only an assistant AI helping Master Chief remotely.
While Halo aims to be somewhat true to UFO and space alien lore, it has its own take on the grey and reptilian alien UFO lore legends; making the game’s version of the aliens (The Covenant) and their agenda feel totally evil.
3. Return To Castle Wolfenstein (2001)
We thought Castle Wolfenstein would be everything that Wolfenstein 3D and Spear of Destiny never were.
What we got in return, nine years later, was pretty much more of the same, but with an updated engine and graphics to match.
Without taking into account the maps in exterior locations, all its design elements are okay for its time. The back-story is greatly improved over the original and it’s very interesting. It’s about the Nazi’s and the occult.
This game has one aspect that didn’t age well. Its textures and the way the soil and grass are done in open maps are terribly unsatisfactory. We will see this finally changing around three years later, with CryTek engine and Far Cry’s lush vegetation, where the grass is not just a 2D texture but an actual 3D object.
4. Gunman Chronicles (2000)
Gunman is a total conversion of Half-Life. That’s the reason it goes in the fourth place of this list. If Gunman Chronicles had its original engine, I’d have placed it higher up because this game shows its designers’ intelligence and good taste in the niche genre they chose for it.
Gunman Chronicles’ is a space western, and this fact is expressed in a convincing and engaging way. It’s a gripping, long journey to kill The General, who strands the player in a backwater planet.
I can’t stop thinking that the whole Half-Life mod scene (including Counter Strike) has been kind of redeemed by this game. I thought the plot was way, way more interesting and epic than the plot of the original Half-Life.
While I played Half-Life almost until completion, I did it with a grudge towards it. I can’t see why it’s considered by many the best FPS of all time.
Yet, Gunman is a totally different cup of tea. It’s the narrative, style and looks Half-Life never had: over the top, genre-heavy awesomeness.
This game also has a very sophisticated weapon modification system that is yet to be overcome by a better one; something I didn’t see happen yet, not in an FPS at least. It’s superior even to Kingpin’s weapon mod system.
5. Clive Barker’s Undying (2001)
Conversions, licensing and franchises from other formats, be it book, movie, comic, or whatnot are a thing. Yet, genre first-person shooters produced by the masters of other formats was kind of novelty in the early two-thousands.
In the nineties, we had William Shattner’s TekWar, but that was a conversion from the mid-nineties TV series. Undying, is worthy of its place in this list. Because Clive Barker, the acclaimed creator of the Hellraiser saga, designed it. And it shows.
Someone as much accomplished as Barker, and with a quite different background than your run-of-the-mill video game designer couldn’t keep with the structured trends. The consequence is a game that plays like any other FPS, but goes beyond, incorporating a high-quality back-story and original mechanics.
I can’t remember, off the bat, another game with a set of spells to match the playing character’s set of fire and melee weapons, but Undying has it.
Like many other games of the early two-thousands, it suffers from very poor skinning and art in general of the outdoor locations, but the indoor ones look okay to this day.
It goes without saying that this game is a must for fans of horror in general and fans of FPS horrors in particular.
- Team Fortress (Team Fortress Software, 1999)
- Alien versus Predator (Rebellion Developments, 1999)
- System Shock 2 (Irrational Games, 1999)
- Tom Clancy’s (Ubisoft)
- Medal of Honor (Dreamworks Interactive, 1999)
- Unreal Tournament (Epic Games, 1999)
- No One Lives Forever (Monolith, 2000)
- The World is Not Enough (Eurocom, 2000)
- Jedi Outcast (Raven Software, 2002)
- Vietcong (Pterodon Illusion Softworks, 2003)
- Postal 2 (Running with Scissors, 2003)
- Tron 2.0 (Monolith, 2003)
- Nosferatu: The Wrath of Malachi (Idol FX, 2003)
- Call of Duty (Infinity Ward, 2003)
I hope you enjoyed this list. Its main objective was picking the essential fifteen of the first three ages. Most if not all of these games can be played in a web browser in archive.org or similar sites, like for instance classicreload.com.
© Martin Wensley 2019
Photo Credit: Joshua | Ezzell