Wolfenstein 3D

Wolfenstein 3D

Mail order cover art for the DOS version
Developer(s) id Software
Publisher(s) Apogee Software
FormGen (Spear of Destiny)
Distributor(s) Apogee Software
Director(s) Tom Hall
Designer(s) John Romero
Tom Hall
Programmer(s) John Carmack
John Romero
Artist(s) Adrian Carmack
Composer(s) Robert Prince
Brian Luzietti (Mac OS)
Series Wolfenstein

Release date(s)
Genre(s) First-person shooter
Mode(s) Single-player

Wolfenstein 3D is a first-person shooter video game developed by id Software and published by Apogee Software and FormGen. Originally released on May 5, 1992, for MS-DOS, the game was inspired by the Muse Software video games Castle Wolfenstein and Beyond Castle Wolfenstein. In the game, the player assumes the role of Allied spy William "B.J." Blazkowicz during World War II as he escapes from the Nazi German prison Castle Wolfenstein and carries out a series of crucial missions against the Nazis. The player traverses through each of the game's levels to find an elevator to the next level or kill a final boss, fighting Nazi soldiers, dogs, and other enemies with knives, pistols, and other guns.

Wolfenstein 3D was the second major release by id Software, after the Commander Keen series of episodes. In mid-1991, programmer John Carmack experimented with making a fast 3D game engine by restricting the gameplay and viewpoint to a single plane, producing Hovertank 3D and Catacomb 3-D as prototypes. After a design session prompted the company to shift from the family-friendly Keen to a more violent theme, programmer John Romero suggested remaking the 1981 stealth shooter Castle Wolfenstein as a fast-paced action game. He and designer Tom Hall designed the game, built on Carmack's engine, to be fast, violent, and unlike other computer games on the market at the time. It features artwork by Adrian Carmack and sound effects and music by Bobby Prince. The game was released through Apogee in two sets of 3 episodes under the shareware model, in which the first episode is released for free to drive interest in the rest. An additional episode, Spear of Destiny, was released soon after as a stand-alone retail title through FormGen.

Wolfenstein 3D was a critical and commercial success, garnering numerous awards and selling over 200,000 copies by the end of 1992. It is widely regarded as having helped popularize the first-person shooter genre and establishing the basic run-and-gun archetype for many subsequent games, as well as showcasing the viability at the time of the shareware publishing model. FormGen developed an additional two episodes for the game, while Apogee released a pack of over 800 fan-created levels. Id Software never returned to the series, but did license the game's engine to numerous other titles before releasing the source code for free in 1995, and multiple other games in the Wolfenstein series have been developed by other companies since 2001.


In-game screenshot of the PC version, showing the player character firing a submachine gun at guards

Wolfenstein 3D is a first-person shooter presented with pseudo-3D graphics. The game is broken up into levels, each of which is a flat plane divided into areas and rooms by a grid-based pattern of walls and doors, all of equal height. Each level is themed after Nazi bunkers and buildings, though the level layouts are not based on any real or fictitious locations. To finish a level, the player must traverse through the area to reach an elevator. Groups of levels, typically ten, are grouped together into named episodes, with the final level focusing on a boss fight with a particularly difficult enemy. While traversing the levels, the player must fight Nazi guards and soldiers, dogs, and other enemies while managing supplies of ammunition and health. The player can find various weapons with which to shoot enemies—and their ammunition—placed in the levels or can collect them from dead enemies; weapons include a knife, a pistol, a submachine gun, and a rapid-fire chain gun. While the levels are presented in a 3D perspective, the enemies and objects are instead 2D sprites presented from several set viewing angles, a technique sometimes referred to as 2.5D graphics.[1]

The player's health is represented by a percentage starting at 100, which is diminished when they are shot or attacked by enemies. If the player's health falls to zero, they lose one life and start the level over with a knife, a pistol, and eight bullets.[1] The player begins each episode with three lives and can gain more by finding extra-life tokens or by earning enough points. Points are scored by killing enemies or collecting treasures scattered throughout the levels.[2] Secret areas containing treasure, health refills, or ammunition can be found in hidden rooms revealed by activating certain wall tiles that slide back when triggered. Points can also be scored by killing all enemies in a level, collecting all treasure, finding all secret areas, or completing a level under a par time; the player's completion ratio and speed is displayed when a level is completed. The original version of the game allows the player to save their progress in the game at any point, though in many of the game's ports the player can only save the game between levels.[1]


Wolfenstein 3D is divided into two sets of three episodes: "Escape from Castle Wolfenstein", "Operation: Eisenfaust", and "Die, Führer, Die!" serve as the primary trilogy, with a second trilogy titled The Nocturnal Missions including "A Dark Secret", "Trail of the Madman", and "Confrontation". The protagonist is William "B.J." Blazkowicz, an American spy of Polish descent, and the game follows his efforts to destroy the Nazi regime. In "Escape", Blazkowicz has been captured while trying to find the plans for Operation Eisenfaust (Iron Fist) and imprisoned in Castle Wolfenstein, from which he must escape. "Operation: Eisenfaust" follows his discovery and thwarting of the Nazi plan to create an army of undead mutants in Castle Hollehammer, while in "Die, Führer, Die!" he infiltrates a bunker under the Reichstag, culminating in a battle with Adolf Hitler in a robotic suit equipped with four chain guns.

The Nocturnal Missions form a prequel storyline dealing with German plans for chemical warfare. "A Dark Secret" deals with the initial pursuit through a weapons research facility of the scientist responsible for developing the weaponry. "Trail of the Madman" takes place in Castle Erlangen, where Blazkowicz's goal is to find the maps and plans for the chemical war. The story ends in "Confrontation", which is set in Castle Offenbach as he confronts the Nazi general behind the chemical warfare initiative.

An additional episode entitled Spear of Destiny was released as a retail game by FormGen. It follows Blazkowicz on a different prequel mission trying to recapture the Spear of Destiny from the Nazis after it was stolen from Versailles. FormGen later developed two sequel episodes, "Return to Danger" and "Ultimate Challenge", each of which feature Blazkowicz as he fights through another Nazi base to recover the Spear of Destiny after it has been stolen again as part of a plot to build a nuclear weapon or summon demons.


A simple raycasting rendering similar to the Wolfenstein 3D engine. The red dot is the player's location. The orange area represents the visible portion of the world within the player's field of view.

In October—December 1990, a team of employees from programming studio Softdisk calling themselves Ideas from the Deep developed the three-part video game Commander Keen in Invasion of the Vorticons, the first game in the Commander Keen series. The group, who worked at Softdisk in Shreveport, Louisiana, developing games for the Gamer's Edge magazine, was composed of programmers John Romero and John Carmack, designer Tom Hall, artist Adrian Carmack, and manager Jay Wilbur. After the release of the game in December through shareware publisher Apogee Software, the team planned to quit Softdisk and start their own company. When their boss, Softdisk owner Al Vekovius, confronted them on both their plans and their use of company resources to develop the game—the team had created the game on their work computers, both in the office after hours and by taking the computers to John Carmack's house on the weekends—the team made no secret of their intentions. After a few weeks of negotiation, the team agreed to produce a series of games for Gamer's Edge, one every two months.[3]

Ideas from the Deep, now formally established as id Software, used some of these games to prototype ideas for their own games.[4] Adrian Carmack used these games to push his preferred, dark art style, while John Carmack began to experiment with creating games with 3D computer graphics, which until then was largely the purview of flight simulation games such as Wing Commander (1990). Carmack found that this was largely due to the limitations of personal computers of the time, which had difficulty displaying a fast action game in 3D due to the number of surfaces it needed to calculate. During 1991, he experimented with limiting the possible surfaces the computer needed to display, creating game levels with walls designed only on a flat grid rather than with arbitrary shapes or angles. He also took the unusual approach of creating the displayed graphics through ray casting, in which only the surfaces visible to the player were calculated rather than the entire area surrounding the player. After six weeks of development, Carmack had created a rudimentary 3D game engine that used animated 2D sprites for enemies. Id Software then used the engine for the April 1991 Softdisk game Hovertank 3D, in which the player drives a tank through a plane of colored walls and shoots nuclear monsters.[3][5] In the fall of 1991, after the team—sans Wilbur—had relocated to Madison, Wisconsin, and he had largely finished the engine work for Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy, Carmack learned about Ultima Underworld: The Stygian Abyss, a role-playing game in development by Blue Sky Productions.[6] Ultima Underworld was planned to display texture-mapped 3D graphics without Hovertank's restrictions of flat walls and simple lighting.[6][7][8] Deciding that he could add texture mapping without sacrificing the engine's speed or greatly increasing the system requirements as Underworld was doing, Carmack enhanced the engine over six weeks from Hovertank 3D for another Softdisk game, the November 1991 Catacomb 3-D.[5][6] Upon seeing the game, Scott Miller of Apogee began to push the team to make a 3D shareware action game.[6]

Tom Hall and John Romero in 1999

In November 1991, with the second Commander Keen trilogy of episodes nearing completion and their contractual obligations to Softdisk almost finished, id Software sat down to plan out their next major game. Designer Tom Hall, who initially wanted to do a third Keen trilogy, recognized that Carmack's programming focus had shifted from the 2D side-scrolling platform game series to 3D action games. After an initial proposal by Hall of a sci-fi game, "It's Green and Pissed", Romero suggested a 3D remake of the 1981 Castle Wolfenstein. The team was interested in the idea, as Romero, Hall, and John Carmack all had fond memories of the original game and felt the maze-like shooter gameplay fit well with Carmack's 3D game engine, while Adrian Carmack was interested in moving away from the child-friendly art style of Keen into something more violent. Encouraged by the reception to his idea, Romero expounded on it by proposing a "loud" and "cool" fast action game where the player could shoot soldiers before dragging and looting their bodies. The core of the gameplay would be fast and simple, for Romero believed that due to the novelty of a 3D game and control scheme players would not be receptive to more complicated, slow gameplay.[9] He felt the game would occupy a unique place in the computer game industry, which was then dominated by slower simulation and strategy games. Adrian and John Carmack were excited by the prospect, while Hall felt that it was enjoyable enough, and that since he was the company's designer that they could return to his ideas at a later date.[10]

Initially the team believed that they would be unable to use the Wolfenstein name due to trademark issues, and came up with multiple possible titles, only to discover that the original developer, Muse Software, had gone out of business several years earlier and let the trademark lapse, leaving them the option to name their game Wolfenstein 3D. The game met with immediate approval from Scott Miller of Apogee, who considered id Software his star developer, and he paid id a US$100,000 advance on the project. Mark Rein, who had been brought on a few months prior as id's probationary president, also sold the idea of doing a retail Wolfenstein project to FormGen, which had published id's December 1991 Commander Keen in Aliens Ate My Babysitter, overcoming the publisher's concerns over Wolfenstein's proposed content. This put id in the unique position of selling simultaneously to the shareware and retail markets.[11]

John Carmack in 2006

Romero and Hall designed the gameplay and aesthetics; Romero wanted the goal to be "to mow down Nazis", with the suspense of storming a Nazi bunker full of SS soldiers and Hitler himself, as well as dogs, blood "like you never see in games", and straightforward, lethal weapons. Hall designed the levels while also adding collectible objects in the form of treasure and food for health items.[11] Carmack added a few features to the Wolfenstein 3D engine from Catacomb 3-D, including support for doors and decorative non-wall objects, but primarily focused on making the game run smoother and faster with higher-resolution graphics.[5][11] Romero in turn worked on building a game with the engine, removing elements of the initial design, like looting enemy bodies, that he felt kept the game from playing smooth and fast. The team ensured that the presentation of the game created the atmosphere that they wanted, adding violent animations by Adrian Carmack for enemies being shot and music and sound effects by Keen composer Bobby Prince to make the guns sound exciting.[11]

As development continued, id Software hired their former Softdisk liaison Kevin Cloud as an assistant artist, and moved the company out to Mesquite, Texas, near where Apogee was located.[11] Scott Miller of Apogee was pleased to have his star developers nearby, and agreed to not only increase their royalty rate to 50 percent, but have Apogee create their next game for Softdisk, ScubaVenture, so that id could focus on Wolfenstein. The game was intended to be released using Apogee's shareware model of splitting the game into three episodes and releasing the first for free, with ten levels per episode.[12] Upon finding out that the team was able to create a level in a single day, however, using a modified version of the Commander Keen 2D map editor, Miller convinced them to instead develop six episodes, which could be sold in different sized packs.[5][12] Around the same time, the team changed members and structure: id fired probationary president Mark Rein and brought back Jay Wilbur, who had stayed in Shreveport, to be both their CEO and business team; Bobby Prince moved into the office temporarily to record sound effects, while Adrian Carmack moved out of the office to get away from the noise.[12]

As the game neared completion, FormGen contacted id with concerns over the violence and shock content of the game; id, in response, increased them, with Adrian Carmack adding skeletons, corpses, and bloody wall details, and Hall and Romero adding screams and cries in German, along with a Death Cam that would show a replay of the death of the final boss of an episode. John Carmack, meanwhile, added in walls that moved when triggered to hide secret areas, a feature that Hall had been pushing for months but which Carmack had objected to for technical reasons. Hall also added in cheat codes, and wrote a back story for the game. In the early morning of May 5, 1992, the first episode of the shareware game was completed and uploaded by Apogee and id to bulletin board systems. The other episodes were completed a few weeks later. The total development time had been around half a year, with a cost of around US$25,000 to cover the team's rent and US$750 per month salaries.[13]


The first episode was released by Apogee and the original trilogy of episodes made available for purchase on May 5 as Wolfenstein 3D, though the purchased episodes were not actually shipped to customers until a few weeks later. The second trilogy that Miller had convinced id to create was released soon after as an add-on pack titled The Nocturnal Missions.[13] Players were able to buy each trilogy separately or as a single game.[14] In 1993 Apogee also published the Wolfenstein 3D Super Upgrades pack, which included 815 fan-made levels, along with a map editor and a random level generator.[15] A retail Wolfenstein episode double the length of the Apogee episodes, Spear of Destiny, was released through FormGen on September 18, 1992. FormGen later published two mission packs titled "Return to Danger" and "Ultimate Challenge", each the same length as Spear of Destiny, in May 1994, and later that year published Spear of Destiny and the two mission packs together as the Spear of Destiny Super CD Package. Id released the original six Apogee episodes as a retail title through GT Software in 1993 and produced a collection of both the Apogee and FormGen episodes released through Activision in 1998.[16]

There were two intended promotions associated with the original Apogee release, both of which were cancelled. A pushable wall maze led to a sign reading "Call Apogee and say Aardwolf"; it was intended that the first person to find the sign and carry out its instructions would win a prize, but the quick creation of level editors and cheat programs for the game soon after release led id and Apogee to give up on the idea. Additionally, after completing an episode the player is given a three-letter code in addition to their total score and time. This code was intended to be a verification code as part of a high-score contest, but the sudden prevalence of editor programs resulted in the cancellation of the contest without ever being formally announced.[17]

Since its initial release, Wolfenstein 3D has been ported to numerous other platforms. These include the Super Nintendo Entertainment System (1994), Mac OS (1994), the Atari Jaguar (1994), Acorn Archimedes (1994), 3DO (1995), Apple IIGS (1998), and the PC-98 (1998).[18][19][20][21] The Super NES and Jaguar ports were developed by id themselves, while the rest were produced by other companies.[22] Later releases include the Game Boy Advance (2002), Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network, and an iOS version programmed by Carmack himself (2009).[5][18][23][24][25] These ports' sound, graphics, and levels sometimes differ from the original—the Super NES version notably replaced the blood with sweat, dogs with rats, and removed all Nazi references, although the core gameplay and aesthetic are retained. Many of the ports include only the Apogee episodes, but the iOS port includes Spear of Destiny, and a 2007 Steam release for PC, OS X, and Linux includes all of the FormGen episodes.[18][26] Bethesda Softworks, whose parent company bought id Software in 2009, celebrated the 20th anniversary of Wolfenstein 3D's release by producing a free-to-play browser-based version of the game in 2012.[27]


Id had no clear expectations for Wolfenstein's commercial reception, but hoped that it would make around US$60,000 in its initial release month; the first royalty check from Apogee was instead for US$100,000.[13] PC Zone quoted shareware distributors as saying Wolfenstein 3D was the top shareware seller of 1992.[28] By the end of 1993, sales of the Apogee episodes of Wolfenstein 3D as well as Spear of Destiny had reached over 100,000 units each, with the Apogee game still selling strongly by the end of the year as its reach spread without newer retail titles to compete with it for shelf space.[22] Over 20 percent of its sales were from outside of the US, despite the lack of any marketing or non-English description and despite the game being banned from sale in Germany due to its inclusion of Nazi symbols.[13][22] The Apogee episodes' sales vastly exceeded the shareware game sales record set by the developer's earlier Commander Keen series and provided id with a much higher profit margin than the sales of its retail counterpart.[22]

Wolfenstein 3D won the 1993 "Best Action/Arcade Game" award at the Shareware Industry Awards[29] and a Codie award from the Software Publishing Association for Best Action/Arcade Game. It was the first shareware game to win a Codie, and id (with six employees) became the smallest company to ever receive the award.[30] Wolfenstein 3D was noted as one of the top games of the year at the 1993 Game Developers Conference,[31] was named by VideoGames & Computer Entertainment as the Best Action Game and Most Innovative Game of 1992 and by Compute! as the Best Arcade/Action Game,[15] and Computer Gaming World named it the magazine's Action Game of the Year in 1993.[32]

Wolfenstein 3D was well received by reviewers upon its release. Chris Lombardi of Computer Gaming World praised the "sparse [but] gorgeous", "frighteningly realistic", and "extremely violent" graphics, as well as the "immersive" sound and music. Noting the violence, he warned "those sensitive to such things to stay home". Lombardi concluded that Wolfenstein 3D, alongside Ultima Underworld released two months prior, was "the first game technologically capable of creating a sufficient element of disbelief–suspension to emotionally immerse the player in a threatening environment", stating that they knew of no other game that could "evoke such intense psychological responses from its players".[33] The game twice received 5 out of 5 stars in Dragon in 1993; Hartley, Patricia, and Kirk Lesser termed it "definitely one of the best arcade games ever created for PC", highly praised the graphics and sound, and said that the "fast-paced action" could keep players enthralled for weeks if they were not concerned about the violence.[2] Sandy Petersen, in the first "Eye of the Monitor" column, claimed that "there is nothing else quite like Wolfenstein" and that it had "evolved almost beyond recognition" from the original 1981 game. He enthusiastically praised the speed and gameplay, calling it "a fun game with lots of action" and "a fun, fairly mindless romp", though he did note that at higher difficulty settings or later levels the game became extremely hard.[1] The Spear of Destiny retail episode was also rated highly by Computer Gaming World's Bryan A. Walker, who praised the added enemy types, though he noted that it was essentially the same game as the shareware episodes.[34]

The early ports of the game also received high reviews, though their sales have been described as "dismal".[35] The four reviewers of Electronic Gaming Monthly called the Super NES version a good conversion that retained the good music, huge levels, and overall fun of the original game and dismissed the censoring in the version as inconsequential.[36] The magazine rated the Jaguar version similarly, commenting that the graphics and audio were superior to other versions of the game, but criticizing the faster movement of the player character as making the game less fun to play.[37] A GamePro review of the Jaguar port was highly complimentary, saying Wolfenstein 3D "set a new standard for PC gaming" and that the Jaguar version was the best to date, and better than the original due to its increased graphics and sound capabilities.[38] Major Mike of GamePro commended the 3DO version's complete absence of pixelation, fast scaling, "rousing" music, and high quality sound effects, but criticized the controls as overly sensitive. He concluded that the game, then over three years old, "still packs a punch as a first-person shooter".[39] Maximum, on the other hand, while stating that the 3DO port was better than the original and as good as the Jaguar version, felt that the game was so aged compared to recent releases like Hexen: Beyond Heretic and the PlayStation version of Doom that a new port was pointless, with the game now "somewhat tiresome and very, very repetitive".[40] A reviewer for Next Generation asserted that Wolfenstein 3D was "still as addictive as it ever was" but essentially agreed with Maximum, contending that anyone interested in first-person shooters would have either already played the game on another platform or "moved on" to more advanced games in the genre.[41] A more modern review by Daemon Hatfield of IGN gave the PlayStation Network release of the game a warm reception, saying that while it was "dated and flawed", it was "required playing for any first-person shooter fan".[42]


Wolfenstein 3D has been called the "grandfather of 3D shooters",[43][44] specifically first-person shooters, because it established the fast-paced action and technical prowess commonly expected in the genre and greatly increased the genre's popularity.[43][45][46][47] While some prior computer shooter games existed, they were generally scrolling shooters, while Wolfenstein 3D helped move the market towards first-person shooters.[44] The game has also been attributed with confirming shareware distribution as a serious and profitable business strategy at the time;[22][43] VideoGames & Computer Entertainment claimed in September 1992 that the game "justified the existence of shareware", and in July 1993 Computer Gaming World claimed that it "almost single-handedly" demonstrated the viability of shareware as a method of publishing, leading to a wave of other shareware first-person shooters.[31][48][49]

During development, id approached Sierra Entertainment, then one of the biggest companies in the industry and employer of several of their idols, with the goal of seeing if they could make a deal with the company. After viewing Commander Keen and an early version of Wolfenstein 3D, CEO Ken Williams offered to buy id Software for US$2.5 million and turn it into an in-house development studio. The team was excited by the deal, but had felt there was a large culture clash between the two companies during their visit to Sierra and were hesitant to accept; Romero proposed asking for US$100,000 in cash up front as part of the deal rather than solely accepting payment in Sierra stock as a measure of Williams's seriousness. Williams refused, which id interpreted to mean that Williams did not truly recognize the potential of Wolfenstein 3D and the company, and the deal fell through, causing id to decide to remain an independent company for the foreseeable future.[11] By the end of 1993 just before the release of their next game, Doom, the success of Wolfenstein 3D led id to receive "five calls a month" from investment companies looking to make id a publicly-traded company, which were all turned down.[22]

After the game's release, id Software licensed the engine to other developers, like the Commander Keen engine before it, as part of a series of engine licensing deals that id has made throughout its history;[50] games using the Wolfenstein 3D game engine or derivatives of it include Blake Stone, the Capstone Software games Corridor 7 and Operation Body Count, as well as Super 3D Noah's Ark.[51][52] Apogee intended to produce an expansion pack in 1993 titled Rise of the Triad: Wolfenstein 3D Part II, designed by Tom Hall using the Wolfenstein 3D engine, but during development the game was changed into a stand-alone title with an enhanced engine, Rise of the Triad.[53] Additionally, Softdisk produced three sequels to Catacomb 3-D in the Catacomb Adventure Series using the prototype Wolfenstein 3D engine from that game.[54] Although Wolfenstein 3D was not designed to be editable or modified, players developed character and level editors to create original alterations to the game's content.[5][13] These efforts led id Software to design later titles like Doom and Quake to be easily modifiable by players.[5] The source code for the original Wolfenstein 3D engine was released by id in 1995; when making the 2009 iOS port, Carmack used some of the enhancements to the engine made by fans after its release.[5][16] The game's technical achievements also lead to numerous imitators such as Ken's Labyrinth, Nitemare 3D, Isle of the Dead, The Terminator: Rampage, Lethal Tender and The Fortress of Dr. Radiaki, among others.[55]

Although id Software did not develop another Wolfenstein game, as their development focus shifted to Doom shortly after release,[13] and has never returned to the series, multiple Wolfenstein games have been produced by other companies, sometimes using game engines developed by id. The first of these newer Wolfenstein games was Return to Castle Wolfenstein in 2001, a reboot of the series, and the latest is the 2015 Wolfenstein: The Old Blood.[56][57]


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