This week saw the release of Wolfenstein: The New Order, so it’s time to go back and take a look at the Wolfenstein series’ breakout game, Wolfenstein 3D.
Hacked out in next to no time by a small band of programming geniuses, Wolfenstein 3D was incredibly influential, inspiring countless first-person shooters to come. Here are a few things you might not know about the game that solidified Nazi killing as one of gaming’s most popular pastimes…
1) The Wolfenstein series created a genre, but it wasn’t the first-person shooter. Wolfenstein 3D is often cited as the first game in the first-person shooter genre, which isn’t really true. It popularized the genre, but there had been other FPS style experiences before — in fact the guys at Id Software had made one of their own a year before Wolfenstein called Hovertank 3D.
Ah, but Wolfenstein 3D wasn’t the first Wolfenstein game! The first game to carry that name was a 1981 game for the Apple II called Castle Wolfenstein. Unlike Wolfenstein 3D, Castle Wolfenstein was a slow-paced strategic game in which you had to carefully sneak past and outsmart Nazi guards — in other words, it was a stealth game. The first stealth game ever in fact, so the Wolfenstein series did create a genre, just not the one you thought.
2) The makers of Wolfenstein 3D had nothing to do with the 80s games. Speaking of those 80s Wolfenstein games, the makers of Wolfenstein 3D had absolutely nothing to do with them. In fact, Id kinda, sorta stole the Wolfenstein name from the makers of the original games.
A small company called Muse Software (which went belly-up in 1987) made the original stealthy Wolfenstein games. Most of the guys at Id were fans of those games, and so they decided to do a “homage” to Castle Wolfenstein. During development they considered all sorts of fairly ridiculous names for the game like The Fourth Reich, Adolph’s Bane, Luger’s Run and Castle Hasselhoff until someone discovered that the Wolfenstein copyright has lapsed when Muse croaked, so what the hell, they just went with Wolfenstein. The story used to be that Id got the blessing of Castle Wolfenstein creator Silas Warner before naming their game, but according to more recent accounts by John Carmack, Id only approached Warner and got his thumbs up well after the game was finished and released.
3) Wolfenstein 3D was going to be a sci-fi game called It’s Green and Pissed. Before they settled on the WW2 theme, Id considered doing a tribute to Aliens called It’s Green and Pissed (those guys had a thing for, uh, hilarious titles). The idea would be revived after Wolfenstein’s success and become Doom.
It’s Pink and Pissed.
4) Wolfenstein 3D was originally a stealth game. Eventually Wolfenstein 3D would become a homage to Castle Wolfenstein in name and basic subject matter only, but originally the idea was to recreate Castle Wolfenstein’s stealthy gameplay from a first-person perspective. You could sneak up on guards, hide bodies, disguise yourself in Nazi uniforms and so on.
All of this was eventually cut when it dawned on the developers that simply running around and shooting stuff was more fun, although you can still see elements of stealth in the final version of Wolfenstein 3D. Unlike Doom, where enemies just rush mindlessly at you, Wolfenstein’s enemies actually walk set paths and you can, in many cases, sneak right by them — if you want a challenge, much of Wolfenstein 3D can still be played as if it were a very rudimentary stealth game.
It certainly seems like Wolfenstein’s title screen is a relic of the early stealth direction.
5) The game was thrown together incredibly quickly. Thanks to the programming genius of guys like John Carmack and John Romero, Wolfenstein 3D came together in an absurdly short amount of time. The entire game took around three months to make, and levels were being produced at a pace of one per day.
Making levels was so easy for the guys at Id that they pumped out a Wolfenstein 3D prequel (The Nocturnal Missions) and a sequel (Spear of Destiny) within six months of the release of the original game.
Id may have actually made this game in their sleep.
6) The SNES version of the game was censored to a ridiculous degree. Surprisingly, the first major port of Wolfenstein 3D was to Nintendo’s family friendly Super Nintendo. The game ran surprisingly well on the less powerful SNES hardware, but Nintendo demanded enough changes to fill the Ark of the Covenant.
All Nazi symbols (including Hitler’s moustache) had to be scrubbed from the game. All religious symbols too, so you picked up sceptres instead of crosses. Blood was, of course, replaced with “sweat” and the German Shepherds were replaced with giant mutant rats, because shooting hundreds of people is okay, but Nintendo don’t abide no puppy abuse.
Interestingly all this over-the-top censorship meant that this was the only version of Wolfenstein 3D officially released in Germany (they’re a bit touchy about their goose-stepping past). In fact, the German version goes a little bit further, replacing the sweat of the American version (humans sweat, and you can’t hurt humans in German video games) with green blood (it’s okay to blitzkrieg some mutants though).
7) Nintendo’s censorship may have led directly to the only unlicensed SNES game ever released. Super 3D Noah’s Ark from shady “Christian” publisher Wisdom Tree was the only unlicensed game ever released for the SNES. The title was clearly built using the Wolfenstein 3D engine, and scuttlebutt has long been that Id was so annoyed at all of Nintendo’s tampering with Wolfenstein 3D, that they gave the game’s engine to the notorious Wisdom Tree (they’d been putting out unlicensed NES games for years) for free. Of course Id has always denied this, because knowingly helping a company make an illegal SNES game would have landed them in all kinds of shit, but it certainly sounds like the kind of prank the guys at Id would have been into.
8) There’s a super-obscure official version of Wolfenstein that contains James Bond parodies and Christmas-themed levels. Wolfenstein 3D was officially ported to countless platforms, including the Acorn Archimedes, a short-lived computer platform that was briefly popular in British schools. This version wasn’t programmed by Id and contained all sorts of odd additions like an opening that parodies James Bond and special Christmas levels.
9) There’s a connection between Wolfenstein 3D and ID’s previous kiddie series Commander Keen. Before making Wolfenstein 3D, Id worked on a series of kid-friendly platformers under the Commander Keen label. Well, it turns out the ultra-violent world of Wolfenstein has a connection to Commander Keen — Wolfenstein’s badass eyebrow waggling protagonist B.J. Blazkowicz is actually the grandfather of Commander Keen protagonist Billy Blaze. So, that means Billy Blaze is Jewish. You know, just in case you ever wondered if Commander Keen was circumcised (sicko).
The helmet is clearly Billy compensating for something.
10) There are multiple abandoned contests in the game. Id integrated a number of hidden contests into Wolfenstein 3D. The most infamous can be found in Episode 2, Level 8 — the stage contains a particularly complex pushwall maze, and somewhere in the middle there’s a sign that says “Call Apogee and say Aardwolf”. Apogee was Wolfenstein 3D’s publisher and presumably whoever found the sign and called Apogee first would have won something (perhaps a swift kick in the pants knowing Id), but soon after Wolfenstein was released a variety of cheat programs were created, essentially ruining the challenge of finding the sign, so the contest was called off. Despite this, a number of later versions and ports of the game retain the maze and “secret” sign.
Another contest rewarded the top player on the score table with a secret code they could call in, but this contest was also called off on account of the cheat programs.
I hope the prize was an actual aardwolf.
11) There’s also a Pac-Man level. There’s a secret level in Episode 3 of Wolfenstein 3D that’s essentially a first-person version of Pac-Man, featuring giant Pac-Man ghosts that are freakier than any of the Nazis or zombies you encounter in the rest of the game. Sadly, more recent ports of the game replace Inky, Pinky and Clyde with Hitler clones for legal reasons.
12) The game’s title music is the Nazi Party anthem. That kind of pleasant sounding song playing over the Wolfenstein 3D title screen? That’s Horst Wessel Lied, the official Nazi Party anthem. This was actually the thing Germans found most offensive about Wolfenstein 3D — showing Nazi symbols was one thing, but nein nein nein, you do not play their jams.
13) One of the game’s later music tracks contains a Morse code message. One of the tracks that plays during several Episode 3 levels contains a variety of odd beeps and boops. This isn’t just random background noise, but an actual Morse code message. Here’s the translation…
TO: Big Bad Wolf
DE: Little Red Riding Hood
Imperative: Complete mission within 24 hours. Out.
14) You can play a classic Wolfenstein 3D level in Wolfenstein: The New Order. Want a taste of classic Wolfenstein 3D as your play through its latest fancy-pants sequel? Well, head to the top floor of the resistance movement’s headquarters in The New Order. You should find an old mattress — focus on it you’ll enter an HD version of the first level of Wolfenstein 3D!
15) You can play the entire game for free in your browser. Was that one level in The New Order not enough for you? Well you can play through the entire game for free right now. It’s an official thing put out by Id and Bethesda, so you don’t even have to feel guilty as you blast Nazis. What’s keeping you? Go play!
So there you have it, some factoids about the first FPS that really mattered. What are some of your memories of the Wolfenstein series? Know any interesting facts I missed? Hit the comments and let us know.
Thanks, as always to Joel Stice for lending me the Fascinating Facts format!