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Patrick Hope: Older first-person shooters still appealing

By Patrick Hope

Oh hey, it’s Call of Duty day, which means it’s the latest chance for Activision to make enough money to buy themselves a small island. It’s been six years since the first Modern Warfare game took us out of the World War II era of shooters that had seemingly been going ever since Medal of Honor was released in 1999.

But before World War II dominated the scene, there were the crazy old days of FPSes, which is what we’re going to talk about today.

The first-person shooter genre has always been the game equivalent of the action movie. And like the action movie, it has changed substantially over time.

While we remember both the modern, special effects-driven spectaculars like everything Michael Bay has ever done and the old ’80s Schwarzenegger and Stalone action movies, we tend to forget that FPSes weren’t always filled with dark and edgy storylines and large setpieces. There was a time when the FPS was a genre based almost exclusively around shooting lots and lots of things.

Much like their movie counterparts, old FPSes were pretty thin on plot. They were simple things like “go to this castle and kill Mecha-Hitler” or “get revenge for those aliens shooting up your ride.”

Yeah, they weren’t going to be winning any Oscars, but you didn’t care. As long as you had a reason for fighting whatever it was you were fighting, that was good enough. And really, how many ’80s action movies have more complicated plots than “there’s a bad guy being dastardly, so the good guy has to take him out” anyway?

Where the older games really shine is in their arsenals. When you’re not required to have somewhat realistic weapons, this opens the door for some, well, let’s just call them creative, ways to destroy your enemies. Doom had the screen-obliterating BFG. Duke Nukem 3D had the melee weapon of Duke’s Mighty Foot. GoldenEye had the Golden Gun, which took out its targets in one shot, but could only hold one bullet in a clip. Turok has the well-named Cerebral Bore. Perhaps strangest of all was Rise of the Triad, which contained Excalibat. It was a bat that shot magic baseballs. Seriously.

You were never at a loss for unique weapons and there was always a sense of anticipation about what you were going to find next.

I can still remember playing Perfect Dark and being incredibly jacked up when I found out what the Farsight did (if you’re wondering, it has a function called “Target Locator” that allows it to shoot through walls). That awe is sadly missing from the more modern games. There’s an undeniable charm when the only limit in a major design decision like this is the developers’ own creativity, which keeps these games fun to come back to over and over.

But if there’s one reason you keep coming back to ’80s action movies, it’s the one-liners and facetious tone almost all of them take. And there’s no question that, by and large, old FPSes follow in the footsteps of their collective inspiration very well and do not take themselves seriously at all. They had silly names for the difficulty levels, like “Hurt Me Plenty” and “I am Death incarnate.” The protagonist might routinely quote “Army of Darkness.”

Even the most famous piece of advice ever to appear in a gaming magazine (PROTIP: To defeat the Cyberdemon, shoot at it until it dies) comes from Doom. Even as you mow down legions of aliens, demons or Nazis, there’s something to remind you that this is just a silly game and you’re not supposed to be taking it seriously. The lack of gravitas makes these games very easy to pick up, even now.

So what makes games like this appealing today? While they lack the production values of their modern counterparts, there is something to be said for the FPS games of old. They’re always there if you want a silly romp where you can shoot to your heart’s content. And there’s always something to be said for being able to carry 10 weapons at once or circle-strafe around your opponent while using a gun that shoots lightning bolts.

If you want to get away from the world of online multiplayer and campaigns that feel more like amusement park rides than games, you can’t go wrong with an old-school FPS.

Well, actually, you can go wrong. You could play Daikatana. But we’ll get to that one soon enough.