The first-person shooter has gone from strength to strength over the years, but for many of us who have been gaming for a long time, the modern stuff just doesn’t have the same “feel” as later titles. There are many reasons for this, ranging from an emphasis on cinematic presentation over focusing on gameplay to simple matters of level design — but the fact is, ’90s first-person shooters are a distinct breed.
With that in mind, then, that sounds like a good opportunity to pick out some favourites! And just to make things a bit interesting, we’re specifically not going to include the biggest names in here. Specifically, that means no Quake, no Doom, no Wolfenstein 3D, no Duke Nukem 3D and no Half-Life. You all know they’re good already so you don’t need us to tell you that. So here are five of the best ’90s first-person shooters that don’t get talked about quite so often.
The Catacomb Adventure
Predating Wolfenstein 3D by a year, the three “Catacomb Adventure” titles, as they are collectively known, are excellent first-person shooters with a fantasy twist and a very distinctive sense of atmosphere to them through minimal but effective use of sound. They also take clear inspiration from dungeon-crawling role-playing games with the addition of collectible treasure and scrolls with clues on them to find. Negotiating the levels of the three Catacomb Adventure titles often requires deciphering these scrolls and figuring out what they’re telling you to do — as well as using your imagination a bit with the text-based room descriptions and messages the game delivers as you explore.
The three Catacomb Adventure titles are actually the third, fourth and fifth Catacomb games; the first two were developed by id Software, with the first (simply known as “The Catacomb”) being a top-down action adventure, and the second (“Catacomb 3D”) transplanting its action into first-person perspective. All of them are worth playing — particularly Catacomb 3D, which is arguably the first ever example of what we know today as the character-based, texture-mapped first-person shooter — but the three Catacomb Adventure titles are the highlight of the series.
Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold
Running on an enhanced version of the Wolfenstein 3D engine that allows for textured floors and ceilings, JAM Productions’ Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold is an excellent sci-fi adventure with non-linear level progression, a strong sense of adventure and some welcome quality of life features that became standard practice for many subsequent games.
Taking on the role of the eponymous sci-fi secret agent, it’s your job to infiltrate the facilities of the evil Dr. Goldfire and prevent his world domination plans, splattering as many mutants as possible along the way. But cool that itchy trigger finger for a moment; Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold features friendly characters that you can talk to! Yes, scattered around Goldfire’s installations are various informants posing as scientists on his staff; unfortunately, you have no means of knowing if a scientist is friend or foe until you approach them, which provides a fun feeling of tension to proceedings.
Blake Stone: Aliens of Gold features well-designed levels and an excellent automap feature that makes tracking down secret areas considerably less trouble than it was in the original versions of Wolfenstein 3D. Add to that a varied selection of enemies, meaty weapons that are immensely satisfying to use and the ability to travel back and forth between levels you’ve already unlocked? You’ve got a top-tier first-person action adventure on your hands.
Raven Software’s Heretic is good, but it’s obviously heavily built on the conventions that Doom established; many of the weapons in Heretic are direct fantasy equivalents to their sci-fi counterparts in Doom, after all! Its sequel Hexen, meanwhile, shakes things up completely by offering several different character classes, hub-based gameplay and a strong focus on exploration. The latter aspect in particular provides a strong feeling of classic dungeon-crawlers — there’s a lot of pulling switches, hearing sounds a long way away and then combing levels to figure out what on Earth changed when you pressed that button.
By the time Hexen came out in 1995, some critics were already starting to express concern that first-person shooters were stagnating somewhat, and that it would be nice to see something beyond simply “get weapons, kill enemies, reach exit”. That’s exactly what Hexen provides; while its exploration-centric focus can be a bit of an acquired taste for those accustomed to more straightforward gameplay, it’s worth taking the time to get to know.
All the Build engine first-person shooters were great in their own way, but my personal favourite was Blood, a horror-themed title that paid particular homage to Bruce Campbell titles such as Army of Darkness. There were a number of reasons for this: its distinctive Lovecraftian atmosphere; its varied levels that blended believable real-world settings and more outlandish fantasy; and its wonderfully creative array of weapons.
In Blood, you can stab people with a pitchfork, fire a flare gun into their chest, light a stick of dynamite with a cigarette lighter and burn someone’s face off with a deodorant can and that same lighter. And that’s all in just the first couple of levels; as the game progresses, things get more and more ridiculous. The blood keeps flowing, the bodies keep piling high and the fun keeps coming. Okay, the narrative setup is shaky at best, non-existent at worst, but it doesn’t really matter; this is a game that revels in getting you into ridiculous situations and then inviting you to blast your way out via the most chaotically violent means possible. A consistent delight.
When Half-Life came out, it was praised the world over for its immersive storytelling and the fact that it never broke out into a cutscene to help its narrative unfold; you were always part of the action. Because I’ve always been an arbitrary sort of person, I actually found myself preferring SiN from Ritual Entertainment specifically because it featured cutscenes and non-interactive segments. While I respected Half-Life for what it did, SiN’s broader narrative focus made me feel like the game was much more “epic” in scale.
It also felt very much like a spiritual successor to Duke Nukem 3D thanks to its interactive environments and banter between its main characters. And since by the time SiN first came out in 1998 we’d already been waiting for Duke Nukem Forever for a couple of years, it very much scratched an itch that many gamers had at the time.
SiN is noteworthy for, among other things, its non-linear progression; taking certain actions in one level will cause different things to occur later in the game, and in some cases can even change the locations you visit over the course of the story. This means that two playthroughs of SiN have the potential to be a bit different from one another, providing plenty of replay value and long-term interest — that is, if the satisfying gunplay and interesting level design doesn’t already have you hooked!
Some of the links on this page are affiliate links, which means we may earn a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking on them. This doesn’t cost you anything, but helps support Retro Unite!