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A Look At the Evolution of Retro Shooters and Their Engines

 6 June 2020  |   

I’m feeling nostalgic. Why don’t you join me so we can marvel at magnificent achievements of the FPS past? Apparently, I wrote an article on early shooter clones in 2006 - that’s 14 years ago! Ion Fury and the excellent retro shooter videos of GmanLives respiked my interest in the genre. According to GmanLives, I must have missed a lot of classic shooters back in the day. Since it’s never too late to relive those moments, let’s create a list based on Wikipedia’s List of first-person shooter engines - who knows I might have missed something good.

This is just a selection of shooters I highlighted. Most games listed below are available on Good Old Games and I highly recommend you to check them out.

TLDR; Scroll through the screenshots (use the ← → keys) to get an idea of the evolution of shooters.

1. Early 1990s: wireframes to 2.5D worlds and textures

1992 - Of course, there’s the Wolfenstein 3D engine. I did play Blake Stone and Rise of the Triad, but I can’t say I even finished one shareware episode. I was about eight years old and the maze-like levels didn’t really help there. All I remember was: hug walls and press spacebar! It’s mind-boggling that ROTT is running on a supercharged version of the Wolf3D engine.

Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold

The Wolf3D engine source is released on Github.

1993 - Next, id Tech 1, and the granddaddy of any shooter: Doom. It spawned a lot of so-called “doom clones”, some using the engine, others not. The best ones following it’s footsteps are Doom II, Heretic and Hexen. Again, I must admit that I did not play any of these games longer than a few hours - even though I dabbled in porting Doom to the Nintendo DS:

DSDoom (also spelled DS Doom) is a source port for the Nintendo DS, based on PrBoom 2.4.2. It was made by TheChuckster, WinterMute, and Jefklak.

Doom 1

I’m quite proud of that! If anyone is interested, I found a copy of the source code from 2007-01-04 you can download here: dsdoom v110r1. Comes without guarantees - it’s been 13 years…

Playing Hexen, the medieval shooter running on the Doom engine, boiled down to me constantly saying “what the fuck should I do?”. Something completely different than the holding-hands-games they release now.

The Doom engine source is released on Github.

1995 - Lucas Arts’ Jedi Engine, used for Star Wars: Dark Forces, and later again in the 1997 masterpiece Outlaws. I can still hear the cowboys yelling “Where are you marshall?” and I’m glad to see it’s purchasable at GOG.


1996 - 3D Realms’ Build Engine hits bullseye with Duke Nukem 3D. I really should also play Blood at some point, the gory crazy and seemingly difficult game from Monolith. Shadow Warrior re-used a lot of assets from Duke but managed to create it’s own appeal, and of course the recent Ion Fury runs on a beefed-up version of the same engine. In 1998, my dad bought me Redneck Rampage, a game where you shoot… chickens and pigs? Unlucky for me, I got stuck at some point searching for yet another keycard.

The Build engine source is released via Ken Silverman’s website.

Redneck Rampage

2. Mid 1990s: 3D models, beginnings of hardware acceleration

1996 - the Quake engine saw the light and introduced us to the real world of 3D environments. Quake could be rightfully called the spiritual successor of Doom. Hexen II runs on the same engine. I added Quake to my toplay list - I was to busy with Duke3D at that time. A lot of Build engine games were released in the shadow of Quake, missing the hype train…

The Quake engine source is released on Github.

Quake I

1997 - It’s worth mentioning that GoldenEye 007 and Perfect Dark set the tone for FPS games on the console, even if I did not play these on the Gamecube. Even split-screen gameplay was running smooth at that time!

1997 - Quake II was a forgettable game but the technical marvels of it’s engine were re-used in Heretic II (meh), Daikatana (a John Romero Failure), and Soldier of Fortune in 2000 - Raven Software’s way of convincing us you can dismember arms with a single shotgun shell.

The Quake II engine source is released on Github.

Soldier Of Fortune 1

1998 - Monolith created LithTech 1.0 to use in Shogo and Blood II. According to retro expert GmanLives, as good as Blood I is, Blood II was a total letdown. The engine will play a prominent role in the later years. Oh and v1.5 was used in Might and Magic IX - arguably the worst Might and Magic ever…

3. Late 1990s: 32-bit color, GPUs become standard

1998 - And then, there was competition: Unreal and Unreal Tournament outmatched the Quake II engine on all aspects. Deus Ex also runs on the Unreal engine. In that same year, Valve posed as the third major FPS player with the release of Half-life.

Unreal Tournament

1999 - Quake III Arena, powered by id Tech 3, revolutionized (team) deathmatches and multiplayer FPS games. It is also one of the most common used game engines of the early 2000s: Return to Castle Wolfenstein, Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, Star Wars Jedi Knight II, Soldier of Fortune II, Call of Duty - you name it, they use it. I played all of these and have to say that they all ran smoothly, even with my then mid-range desktop computer.

The Quake III: Arena source code is released on Github.

2000 - LithTech 2.0 powered No One Lives Forever, one of the most charming and lovable shooters of the early 2000s. I have so many fond memories of this game, including quotes such as “I must have a hole in my pocket!”. Inside jokes are the worst, indeed.

(Parts of) the LithTech 2 engine source is released on Github.

No One Lives Forever

4. Early 2000s: increasing detail, outdoor environments, rag-doll physics

At this point, I’m starting to doubt whether future shooters qualify for the keyword “retro” shooter. Pixels are far off and things are starting to look pretty realistic with rag-doll physics.

2001 - The Serious Engine was serious stuff (why so serious? got it?): trying to kill the player with hundreds of enemies in giant outdoor environments. Both the First and Second encounter got a HD remake in 2009 and 2010, powered by version 3 of the engine.

Serious Sam: The First Encounter

The Serious Engine was released as open source on Github.

2001 - Operation Flashpoint claimed to be a super-realistic warfare shooter. It did take all the fun out of playing a shooter game, but the fights in the woods were impressive, I guess.

2002 - My beloved Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield was made possible thanks to the Unreal 2 engine, also powering Unreal Tournament 2003. I can’t count the hours my friend and me played Raven Shield’s maps co-op. I still know almost every enemy spawn point by heart.

Rainbow Six 3: Raven Shield

2002 - In the same year, Digital Illusions Creative Entertainment released the first Battlefield game (1942), of which the engine will be reused for three more of their games, before switching to a proprietary engine.

2002 - Lithtech Jupiter, or LithTech 3.x, made No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.’s Way possible. Hooray for shader models! It improved in almost all technical aspects of it’s predecessor, but to be honest, I prefer the gameplay and humor in the original.

No One Lives Forever 2: A Spy in H.A.R.M.'s way

5. Mid 2000s: lighting and pixel shaders, physics

2004 - The Unreal engine got another update. v. 2.5, good for UT2004, the not-so-great Duke Nukem Forever (2011), S.W.A.T. 4 (2004), and much later, another masterpiece: BioShock (2007). As a Raven Shield super-fan, I was really looking forward to S.W.A.T., and it delivered, but the engine and load times were pretty bad on my rig back then.

2004 - PC Gameplay magazines were full of tropical screenshots: Far Cry was more a technical showcase for the CryEngine than it was a good game. And my graphics card almost blew up trying to run this thing.

The CRYENGINE-1 source is released on Github.

Far Cry

2004 - The guys at id were also busy, rolling out id Tech 4 for Doom 3 and Quake 4 a year later. The Wolfenstein reboot in 2009 also used tech v4. I skipped these games completely, being more involved with the Nintendo handhelds at that time.

Doom 3 was released under the GPL on Github.

2004 - It must have been an amazing year for shooters. Valve’s Source engine gave birth to Half-Life 2 and a shitload of spin-offs: Counter-Strike Source, Team Fortress II, Left 4 Dead and v2, Portal, … It looks like all three major engines kept their releases in sync. As a co-op player, I enjoyed Left 4 dead the most.

Left 4 Dead

2005 - Littech Jupiter got an update: version EX to be used with F.E.A.R. and the Condemned games.

6. Late 2000s and beyond: the approach to photorealism

I’m going to skip this period as it’s definitely not retro material. Unreal Engine 3 (Rainbow Six: Vegas, Turok reboot, Borderlands, Bioshock: infinite), lots of CryEngine upgrades, id Tech 5 (Rage, Wolfenstein: The New Order) and 6 (Doom reboot, Wolfenstein II: The New Colossus), …

To conclude

Anything beyond Left 4 Dead 2 is dead to me (you see what I did there?) - my PC and mid-range graphics card, even overclocked, barely managed to scrape by, and I was too hooked up on RPGs and handheld gaming. When I got out of university in 2007, I lost interest in PC gaming almost entirely - it may have something to do with me not upgrading my hardware (and getting a Gamecube and Wii).

Here’s a nice graphical summary in the form of a FPS family tree I found at reddit:

shooters family tree

Wikipedia does a better job at rendering a tree but it’s a bit complicated and not every game in there is that remarkable.

At least now I know what retro shooters I still need to replay. What do you call a “retro shooter”? Leave a reply in the comments below. In a next article, I hope to take another quick look, this time at the resurgence of retro shooters recently released such as Project Warlock and DUSK.

Categorized under: retro shooters doom