The nostalgia for the golden era of first-person shooters started almost as soon as that era had come to an end. As early as 2001, Return to Castle Wolfenstein and particularly Serious Sam contained elements that were conscious throwbacks to earlier times. Recent years have seen a glut of retro FPS games that display their 1990s influences openly. Lately, the term “boomer shooter” has come to describe these games.
The glory days of the traditional FPS - with all its secret areas, rapid movement, minimal story, and emphasis on straightforward action - were around 25 years ago. The generation that grew up with games like Doom II, Duke Nukem 3D, and Unreal aren’t quite boomers exactly, but are of an age that might make them vulnerable to a nostalgia cycle. However, any suspicions that the retro revival is merely a blip should be dispelled by Realms Deep 2020.
Taking place on the weekend of September 5th and 6th, Realms Deep was the first of its kind - an online gaming show focused almost exclusively on retro-style shooters. As the name implies, the event was masterminded by 3D Realms, venerable developers of Duke Nukem 3D. However, this isn’t your daddy’s 3D Realms, as the company was bought out in 2014 and is now, somewhat incongruously, based not in Garland, Texas but in Aalborg, Denmark. A few famous faces from id Software’s history showed up, including John Romero. Also prominent were New Blood, flag bearers of the retro FPS revival with their games including Dusk and Amid Evil.
There were also a host of smaller developers and publishers represented, including numerous games made by individuals. The sheer scale of Realms Deep demonstrated the huge and enduring appeal of a simpler, more pure form of shooter. The rise of the bloated, linear military shooters of recent years is a phenomenon that is much lamented by many players. While the games demonstrated at Realms Deep vary in their style and level of potential, they are all rich in imagination, speed, and a refreshing simplicity. Notably, the focus of most games was very much on single-player experiences: something central to the design of FPS games in the ‘90s, but much less so in today’s environment of DLCs and loot boxes.
The first highlight of the event came right away. Taking up their hosts’ privileges, 3D Realms opened day one of the show with what promises to be their flagship title for 2021: Graven. The company had a trailer and a generous helping of gameplay ready to show off. The game is being pitched as a spiritual successor to Raven Software’s Hexen II (1997), hopefully without that game’s frustratingly circuitous puzzles. Set in a fantasy world, the game boasts a high degree of interactivity and a heavy focus on exploration.
Also in the Hexen-influenced fantasy FPS mould, New Blood launched their trailer for Amid Evil: The Black Labyrinth, a forthcoming prequel expansion. Developed by Indefatigable, Amid Evil is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the new retro FPS boom, due to its unique visual style, fluid gameplay, and consistently engaging level design. The expansion will detail how the game’s protagonist - the “Champion” - obtained the Axe of the Black Labyrinth and his heroic title. New Blood promise new levels, enemies, and “insane” new weapons. The release date is of course merely “soon”, but more Amid Evil is an unambiguously good thing.
Also coming “soon” are more games from New Blood. Gloomwood is a stealth-oriented first-person game heavily inspired by Thief - its ingenious, diegetic inventory system which takes the form of an in-game doctor’s bag was a surprise hit of the show. There’s more to the game than that though, with emergent gameplay and an oppressive atmosphere, and a mixture of melee combat and gunplay. Very much on the other end of the spectrum is ULTRAKILL, an extremely hectic and fast-paced shooter which just released into early access. Remarkably made by just one person, ULTRAKILL has won high praise both for its demo and its early access release. Both games have had free demos available for some time, a New Blood trademark.
New Blood also promoted for the first time their upcoming new shooter for 2021, Fallen Aces. With an 1940s noir setting and unusual comic book-style graphics, the game - developed by Trey Powell and Jason Bond - brings to mind both Kingpin (1999) and XIII (2003). Based on the trailer, it appears that melee combat with fists, knives and metal pipes will be as large a part of the combat as gunplay. The game uses high-resolution sprites for its characters as opposed to 3D models, differentiating it from the style of XIII.
Speaking of Kingpin, it’s worth noting that both that game and another FPS built on the Quake II engine, SiN, have been remastered. Kingpin Reloaded and SiN Reloaded have been given a reworking by Nightdive Studios - the current masters of this kind of thing - and will be released by 3D Realms in the coming months. Both games were originally B-tier shooters, both severely undermined by their technology, which had rapidly become outdated, and the release of heavy-hitters like Unreal and particularly Half-Life. These remasters should provide the perfect opportunity to give the games a reappraisal. At the very least, it can be expected that SiN won’t take minutes to load a level, as it was notorious for doing back in 1998.
3D Realms closed the show with confirmation of something fans of Ion Fury have been hoping for - an as-yet untitled expansion for the game due in 2021. Developed by Voidpoint, Ion Fury is easily one of the best retro-style shooters of recent years. The first game released using the venerable Build engine for two decades, it recaptures and even expands the glories of the “Big Three” Build engine games: Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, and Blood. Details about the expansion are scant, but it appears to include a driveable vehicle section. That’s reminiscent of a Duke Nukem 3D mod released back in 2013, which incidentally was a better version of Duke Nukem Forever than Duke Nukem Forever was.
There was much more to Realms Deep than game announcements - for example, the interviews with figures as varied as Tim Willits and Doom MIDI wizard James Paddock are well worth watching. In a deathmatch segment featuring ‘90s FPS guru Civvie, 3D Realms even managed to make the 2013 Rise of the Triad remake look vaguely fun. But the forthcoming games expected later in 2020 and into 2021 indicate that boomer shooters are in full bloom. The audience for these games is large, and perhaps growing - publishers like New Blood in particular are building a loyal following for the consistency of their output. One encouraging aspect of the retro boom is that there’s something for every kind of ‘90s shooter fan - games built on new engines and on old engines; games with more and less realistic art styles; and games with themes spanning cyberpunk, fantasy, crime and horror. The quality of some of the games we’ve seen lately creates a palpable sense that the next classic is just around the corner.
It’s a strange thought, but after another 25 years have passed, it may well appear that more classic FPS games were released in these last few years than during the entirety of the 1990s. Realms Deep documented a rising wave - whether it has yet reached its full height is yet to be seen.
I write about classic science fiction and occasionally fantasy; I sometimes make maps for Doom II; and I'm a contributor to the videogames site Entertainium, where I regularly review new games.