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Wolfenstein retrospective: From castle storming to the new world order

by Steven Wong, shacknews.com, May 15, 2014 8:00AM PDT

The word Wolfenstein is practically synonymous with high action and technological innovation, as well it should. The series has seen a lot of changes since it first hit the Apple II in 1981, and not just in added dimensions. Today, we chart the thirty-year history of Nazi killing action to see how the game has radically evolved, and whether the new Wolfenstein measures up.

Castle Wolfenstein, 1981

Developer/Publisher: Muse Software
Platforms: Apple II, MS-DOS, Atari 8-bit family, and Commodore 64

The original Wolfenstein released for the Apple II by Silas Warner of Muse Software in 1981, and it was later ported to other systems. This 2D top-down shooter was a stealth game that took place in a World War II setting. Players were challenged to infiltrate the castle by sneaking past guards, impersonating Nazi soldiers, and killing enemies when necessary. Then they had to locate the plans and make their way back through the maze to escape alive. Each successful escape raised the player up one rank, which made each new playthrough more difficult.

A standout feature, given what Wolfenstein would eventually become, was that shooting enemies was generally discouraged. Firing a gun used up ammo, which was scarce resource, and raised alarms if another guard was present. There were two types of soldiers: SS Stormtroopers and Guards. Stormtroopers weren't very smart. They would only react to loud sounds or if they spotted you wandering around without a uniform, but they wouldn't look at you twice if you wore a disguise. They were also quick to surrender, and wouldn't leave a room to chase after you. In other words, they knew exactly where their jobs began and ended, and didn't deviate from it. SS Guards, on the other hand, could see through disguises and would chase players from room to room. They were also a lot tougher to kill, requiring multiple shots or a grenade to take out.

Another aspect of the game included the fact that, with the exception of the outer frame and stairs, all the walls could be destroyed with grenades. Sometimes you would need to blow up wall in order to access a secret area. But you had to be careful, because treasure chests could be destroyed too, and one of them might contain the War Plans. Blowing up a chest with ammunition in it caused a secondary explosion so big that it ended the game.

Castle Wolfenstein and its sequel is considered by many to be a prototypical stealth game, a genre that wouldn't become popular until a decade later in the 1990s.

Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, 1984

Developer/Publisher: Muse Software
Platforms: Apple II, MS-DOS, Atari 8-bit family, and Commodore 64

Beyond Castle Wolfenstein is the direct sequel to Castle Wolfenstein. Released in 1984, the game was simultaneously developed for both the Apple II and Commodore 64, with DOS and Atari 8-bit versions to follow. Players had to once again make their way through a secret Nazi bunker during World War II. This time, the goal was to retrieve a bomb that an operative left inside and plant it outside the room where Hitler was holding a secret meeting with his senior staff.

The sequel kicked up the challenge by requiring players to show passes to guards, which differed from level to level. If the player didn't possess the correct pass, they could opt to bribe guards, but they only had enough money to pull this off twice. If a guard caught you without the right pass or any cash, then they would either try to kill the player or activate a bunker-wide alarm.

Other changes included trading out the powerful grenades from the first game with a dagger, which could be used to take out guards without attracting attention. Dead bodies could then be used dragged around to conceal them, gain access to other areas, or block areas off.

Wolfenstein 3D, 1992

Developer: id Software
Publisher: Apogee
Platforms: PC

Wolfenstein 3D is the game people most people today think of when they hear the word Wolfenstein. Developed by the upstart video game company id Software, Wolfenstein 3D created the first-person shooter genre with the roaring whir of chaingun. Muse Software, the originator of Castle Wolfenstein, went bankrupt years before and the copyright lapsed. This gave id team the freedom to program any type of game they wanted using the Wolfenstein name. So, they went wild with it.

It’s tough to overstate the importance of Wolfenstein 3D. There was no such thing as a first-person shooter until the game hit the shareware scene in 1992, and the sounds of dying Nazi soldiers screaming “Mein leben!” filled computer speakers. John Carmack developed a game engine that allowed players to move around in a 3D maze. Although the technology was cutting edge for its time, the concept was relatively straightforward. Instead of sneaking around and donning disguises like in the original games, players took the role of William "B.J." Blazkowicz. His singular mission was to escape Castle Wolfenstein while leaving a trail of dead Nazis in his wake and occasionally uncovering secret treasure rooms. Sure, you still had to keep track of ammo and health, but carpeting the floor with corpses wasn't just an option -- it was encouraged. Later on, after a successful, blood drenched escape, Blazkowicz would engage in missions against the Nazis, which was really just a pretense for more unadulterated bloodshed.

The game became an instant classic that was ported to a variety of systems, including the SNES, GBA, and more recent platforms like the PS3, Xbox 360 and iOS.

Spear of Destiny, 1992

Developer: id Software
Publisher: FormGen
Platforms: PC

Spear of Destiny was developed as a prequel to Wolfenstein 3D. Its plot involved getting the legendary Spear of Longinus, the weapon that pierced the side of Christ, from Hitler's clutches. The game played identically to Wolfenstein 3D, but with some performance improvements, and reused most of the previous game's sound and artwork. However, Spear of Destiny had some better structure. The game could be divided into four distinct blocks where Blazkowicz had to fight his way through a section and confront a boss at the end. There were also more occult themes found in Spear of Destiny, including a battle with the Angel of Death and an army of Spectres.

Unlike Wolfenstein 3D, Spear of Destiny was never released as shareware. Two mission packs, titled Return to Danger and Ultimate Challenge, were released in 1994, but they weren't marketed well and subsequently sold poorly. Collectively known as The Lost Chapters, these expansions featured a total of 42 additional levels, with new textures, enemies, and upgraded looks for old foes. The Lost Chapters are now included with the Steam release of Spear of Destiny.

Return to Castle Wolfenstein, 2001

Developer(s): Gray Matter Interactive. Nerve Software (multiplayer)
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: PC, Mac, Linux, PS2, Xbox

Wolfenstein sort of fell into the background after id Software rocked the gaming world with Doom and then blew it up with Quake and its subsequent follow-ups. The gaming world was hit with a slew of shooters that covered a variety of settings and themes, all with increasing complexity that pushed hardware performance to their limits. It seemed only natural that Wolfenstein should be revisited and upgraded with the latest technology. Thus, Return to Castle Wolfenstein was developed.

Id Software took on an advisory role while Grey Matter Interactive and Nerve Software worked on the game. Return to Castle Wolfenstein was a series reboot that featured B.J. Blazkowicz as a special agent that wages a one-man war against an army of Nazis. Occult themes from previous games were fully embraced, as the player infiltrated the SS Paranormal Division.

Previous games were strung together with a vague sense of story that tied the chapters together while lending greater purpose to the Nazi slaughter. Id also needed some way to explain why there were mutant soldiers and spectres inside a Nazi compound along with Hitler in a mechanized armor. Return to Wolfenstein, on the other hand, strove for a fully fleshed out plot. So, in addition to Nazi super soldiers, mutants, and a host of twisted science experiments, Blazkowicz had to fight against a horde of the undead. All of it led to a epic boss fight with an undead Saxon warrior prince named Heinrich I.

The game was generally well-received, but what really caught people's attention was the multiplayer, which involved Axis and Allied teams battling against each other. Each player selected one of four classes and had to work with their team to either destroy or defend a series of objectives before time ran out.

Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory, 2003

Developer: Splash Damage
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: PC

Enemy Territory is a competitive multiplayer game that was originally supposed to be part of a retail expansion for Return to Castle Wolfenstein, but there were problems with the single player campaign development. So, the multiplayer component ended being released as a standalone freeware game in 2003, dubbed Wolfenstein: Enemy Territory.

Fighting as either Axis or Allied soldiers in a World War II setting, players had to work together to destroy or defend objectives. The game originally came with six maps, but the modding community soon set to work creating hundreds more. Enemy Territory is still considered by many as a classic favorite, and it went on to inspire further games, most notably Splash Damage's Enemy Territory: Quake Wars.

Wolfenstein, 2009

Developer: Raven Software. Endrant Studios (multiplayer)
Publisher: Activision
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360, PlayStation 3

After a long hiatus, it came time for another sequel. Simply titled Wolfenstein, players once again took the role of Blazkowicz battling against paranormal Nazi forces. He discovers a mystical medallion that's powered by a crystal called Nachstone. With it, he could access The Veil -- a barrier that stands between this world and a dimension called Black Sun. Players could upgrade the medallion with a host of abilities to combat both Nazi soldiers and supernatural creatures from Black Sun.

However, it became clear the series had taken a wrong turn with Wolfenstein. Technically, it wasn't a terrible game, but it was bland and utterly forgettable, which was unheard of for a Wolfenstein title. Gamers had seen almost twenty years of first-person-shooters, with many that took place in a World War II setting. Beyond that, the series had strayed too far from its Wolfenstein 3D roots, which emphasized over-the-top splatter-fest action. Instead, the game took itself way too seriously and stuck to a hum-drum dual world gimmick that had players to solving puzzles instead of painting the walls red.

There weren't a lot of first-person-shooters released in the summer of 2009, but even the low competition wasn't enough to boost sales. Wolfenstein would all but fall into obscurity once Batman: Arkham Asylum released a week later and stole the spotlight away from almost all other games.

Wolfenstein: The New Order, 2014

Developer: MachineGames
Publisher: Bethesda Softworks
Platforms: PC, Xbox 360/One, PlayStation 3/4

It's been over twenty years since Wolfenstein 3D first blasted its way onto the gaming scene. Thirty since the original Castle Wolfenstein snuck onto the Apple II. Now a new Wolfenstein, under the direction of a new developer and publisher, is looking to step in and shake things up.

In Wolfenstein: The New Order, B.J. Blazkowicz fights in an alternate reality World War II, where the Nazis have access to power suits and cyberdogs. An explosion puts him into a vegetative state for a decade, and he wakes up in to a world where the Nazis won the war and control everything using superior technology.

Whether or not it will properly revive the Wolfenstein series remains to be seen, but it looks like it might hit all the right notes. Players will be able to choose between stealth style gameplay, which gives a nod to the 1980s versions (right down to the throwable knife), or pick up the biggest gun they can find and run with it in the classic shooter fashion. There are also plenty of secrets and treasure to pick up. Meanwhile, the crazy story, complete with Nazi themed Beatles music, prevents the game from taking itself too seriously.

Blazkowicz, like the series itself, is emerging from a torpor. Now we're seeing if all that time out of commission has impacted his capacity for kicking ass.