John Romero and the wiz-kids of id Software’s 1992 mega-hit Wolfenstein 3D is without a doubt one of the single most important games in history. And while the Wolfenstein name today is one of the most recognized trademarks in the business, its inspiration and signature should be found 40 years ago, this September, at the very dawn of personal computing.
Throughout the ’70s pioneer and programmer extraordinaire, the late Silas Warner had been developing games and educational software for mainframes. During the time he became one of the major contributors to the PLATO network and when personal computers started appearing in people’s homes in the latter part of the decade he went on to write some of the earliest microcomputer games.
In the spring of 1981, while completing a remake of his mainframe game RobotWar for the Apple II computer, Warner started working on a new design idea, that ultimately would become his most notable contribution to gaming.
I’ve earlier written an article about Silas Warner, his first games, and his journey to Muse Software, here.
Warner, inspired by Stern Electronics’ 1980 multi-directional shooter Berzerk, a game he had played at his local 7-Eleven, started out with the basic concept of a character moving around maze-like corridors. While gameplay like this had been seen countless times before, Warner would go on to add various interesting components to the core gameplay mechanics resulting in a completely different experience than seen earlier, planting a small seed for a completely new genre.
To steer around the overused sci-fi and space-themed setting, Warner chose a World war II setting inspired by the epic 1961 war movie The Guns of Navarone, where an Allied commando unit was to infiltrate, destroy, and escape a seemingly impregnable German Nazi fortress.
Warner’s maze-like corridors made up of 60 rooms occupying five different floors became the Nazi stronghold, with the titular name Castle Wolfenstein. With the setting defined he developed a gameplay focusing more on avoiding or disarming enemies than simply wrecking your way through with guns blazing.
The main objective, survive to progress through the stronghold, collect secret war plans for Operation Rheingold and reach the exit, all while dealing with Nazi guards and their deadlier SS counterparts.
By disguising yourself as an SS officer you can fool the basic Nazi guards but not the SS guards. You can hold guards at gunpoint, examine and steal items from their inventory. Killing guards leave behind ammo, grenades, bullet-proof vests, and keys for opening up chests scattered around the castle containing useful things like ammo, uniforms, secret war plans, and not so useful items like Bratwurst and Schnapps.
Warner employed the same dual control scheme like Robotron: 2084, using dual paddle controllers or key-sets, one set for moving the other for aiming, this required some getting used to
With all the mechanics and elements in place, Warner essential created what could be considered the first example of stealth-based gameplay on personal computers – A genre that six years later would be popularized by Hideo Kojima’s Metal Gear, deriving many of the core mechanics from Warner’s game. Later titles like Metal Gear Solid and Thief, albeit focusing much more on stealth, would become multimillion-dollar commercial successes in the genre.
While Berzerk, the game that inspired Warner, featured a 30-word digitized vocabulary, made possible with purpose-built powerful coin-op hardware, microcomputers at the time had no dedicated hardware for this.
Warner and Alan Boyd, an audio engineer, had earlier created The Voice, one of the first utilities enabling digital speech output on the otherwise audio-handicapped Apple II computer whose speaker was limited to 1-bit output. By code the voltage could be switched on and off, generating clicks from the speaker each time the state was toggled. Turning the signal on and off quickly enough, different pitches could be produced. This innovative speech technology, build upon the great work of Bob Bishop, was used to create the dramatic, and unforgettable, German guard voices.
Warner voiced the German guards, who would shout out SS, Achtung, Schweinhund, Halt, Kaputt, and other commands in German, depending on the situation. The crude, heavily distorted grungy German speech alongside the guard’s boot-stomping noises added a whole new dimension to the gameplay.
Castle Wolfenstein, with its eerie and suspenseful atmosphere, became one of the earliest examples of how sound design would come to play an essential part in game design.
Warner spent six months developing Castle Wolfenstein. When released for the Apple II in September of 1981 it was not only a technological marvel but also a brilliantly designed game with revolutionary mechanics.
The very first release of Castle Wolfenstein, published for the Apple II by Muse Software in September of 1981
If you managed to complete the game by escaping with or without any secret war plans, Allied High Command might give you a promotion, determining the difficulty of any future generated castles. With eight Difficulty levels ranging from Private to Field Marshal alongside some randomization, gave the game great replay value.
Fairly early on changes were made to the cover artwork and the floppy label was more professionally done, I’m not sure if any changes were made to the game. This was also released in 1981
Castle Wolfenstein quickly became a hit and reportedly grew into one of the best-selling games in the US at the time. A port for the Atari 8-bit line of computers was completed and published six months later, in the spring of 1982.
Castle Wolfenstein was ported to the Atari 8-bit and published in 1982-83, using both the original artwork and John Benson’s soldier artwork
In 1983 Castle Wolfenstein was released, in a boxed format with the now-iconic soldier cover artwork by John Benson, for the Commodore 64, alongside a repacked version for the Apple II and Atari 8-bit. A version for the IBM/PC was released in 1984 featuring CGA graphics and digitized speech through the internal speaker.
Castle Wolfenstein was picked up by low-cost and mass manufacturer Main Street Publishing in 1985-86 and re-released as a budget release, sold nationwide in retail stores like Sears, Target, and Kmart.
In 1983 Castle Wolfenstein was ported and released in a boxed version for the Commodore 64, alongside re-released version for the Atari 8-bit and Apple II, all using John Benson’s artwork
Castle Wolfenstein would remain Muse Software’s best-selling title, from its release date to the company’s demise years later.
In 1984, Muse Software released Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, a direct sequel. While this was largely the work of Eric Ace and Frank Svoboda III, most of Warner’s work and assets were reused. Warner was at the time mainly focused on Know Your Apple training software and the Commodore 64 conversion of the original.
Beyond Castle Wolfenstein’s storyline was based on the real-life and unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler, Operation Walküre, led by Claus von Stauffenberg, in July of 1944.
Overall the game played very similarly to its predecessor but new features were added. The guards now used a pass system, where the player was periodically ordered to show the correct pass (a slightly similar system was used in Warner’s second game, Escape from 1978), or offer a bribe. Without the correct pass or an unsuccessful bribe, the guard would attempt to activate the bunker alarm or kill the player.
Dead guards could be dragged through rooms to conceal them, block passages, or even gain access to objects.
Silent kills with your dagger replaced the grenades featured in the original game. A health system was also added giving a better indication of your well-being. If wounded, you would start limping. Finding and using first aid kits would mend this.
The audio system included an increased spoken vocabulary and a greater variety of sound effects. The visuals were slightly improved for the Apple II and IBM/PC. Atari and Commodore versions utilized the graphics from the original.
When successfully completing the game, the player was rewarded, with a typically movie-like scene, with Hitler’s bunker exploding behind the player, escaping in the foreground.
Beyond Castle Wolfenstein was developed simultaneously for the Apple II and Commodore 64 and released in 1984. Both using a large portrait of Hitler and Benson’s solder as a smaller element
While Muse Software saw quite a lot of success with its software and games, and especially the Wolfenstein titles, the company never managed to get a firm grip in the explosive personal computer market. By 1985 the company faced major financial troubles, going from, at its peak, a team of 40 employees in 1983 to only six within the course of two years.
After filing for Chapter 7 bankruptcy in 1985, Muse Software was bought by Jerry Herskowitz’s Variety Discounters Company. In 1988, retired army veteran, Jack Vogt acquired the Muse Software name, and its IPs, including Wolfenstein. Vogt would, for a time, continue to run and sell most of Muse Software’s products.
By the early nineties, modern gaming was being forged. The now more than a decade-old 8-bit technology was being exceeded by new and extremely powerful machines. Developers like John Carmack, crafting impressive sidescrolling and 3D game technology on the x86 platform, pushed the IBM/PC into new territories, making it the dominant gaming platform.
In early 1991 John Carmack, John Romeo, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack established id Software. Here Romero proposed a Wolfenstein game utilizing their 3D technology. Both Romeo and John Carmack were big fans of Warner and his Castle Wolfenstein.
In 1992 id Software acquired the rights to use the Wolfenstein name for a modest $5.000, after their business guy Jay Wilbur had tracked the remaining assets of Muse Software.
While the team initially wanted to use many of the groundbreaking mechanics by Warner, they ultimately stripped it from anything remotely stealth and in the process created the fastest 3D shooter the world yet had seen, spawning, just like Warner’s Castle Wolfenstein, a completely new genre – But that’s all a story for another day.