Saturday, 6 June 2009

Ken's Labyrinth

The first person shooter is still a relatively new genre. Unlike most others, older consoles and computers simply could not handle them, so even though arguably early FPS games are a graphical mess with all that pixelation, they stood out from the crowd just due to the fact they were first person shooters, and nobody had really seen one before.

During the early 90s there was no doubt that id Software ruled the roost. They had brought us Wolfenstein 3D, were about to revolutionise the genre again with the massively successful Doom, and would later produce another top FPS Quake.

But id had rivals. Rivals that wanted a slice of the FPS pie for themselves. Rivals such as Epic MegaGames, who were taking the PC games market by storm. Epic would later have some major success with the Unreal franchise, but it did dab in some FPS titles before then. And so, enter Ken's Labyrinth.

Having seen the success that was Wolfenstein 3D, Epic probably wanted a chance to better it. Ken Silverman, who later went to go work for Apogee and create the build engine (used in games such as Duke Nukem 3D) gave them a game he coded almost entirely from scratch - Ken's Labyrinth.

Ken's Labyrinth was the first FPS game I ever played. It would have been '96-ish when I got my hands on it, and amazingly it ran perfectly on our old underpowered DOS computer. Sure it didn't have soundblaster, but Epic made sure we weren't left without sound and had the entire game's musical score blurt out the built in PC speaker instead. So it's possibly the first game I had where music played from beginning to end.

If we take this as our FPS timeline

Wolf 3D -> Ken's Labyrinth -> Doom -> Duke 3D -> Quake -> Unreal -> etc.

you can see where the Labyrinth fits in. It's technically more impressive than Wolfenstein 3D, but not by much. The graphics are slightly better in places and it was the first FPS game to allow you to interact with scenery (aside from Wolf 3D's "moving blocks"), though truth be told it's a very boring game in comparison to id's gem. A kid's version perhaps. It has the same "untextured ceilings and floors" and sprites are always the same no matter which direction you view them from. Also even today, fourteen years after release DOSBox struggles to have both music and sound effects running at the same time. It boasts more enemies than Wolf 3D too, but since the enemies have less animation it's really up to you to decide which is better in that area.

The game is split into three episodes, as was the style at the time. The second is notable for having the rather annoying dog "Sparky" follow you about getting in the way. It would be a long time until friendly NPCs would be following you in FPS games again. Thank god most of them have more brains than this thing who either gets in your way or gets lost.

But despite this Ken's Labyrinth is a challenging title. Having played Wolfenstein 3D since, I can't possibly recommend this over that, but again, another childhood defining game here. Plus, it's freeware nowadays so you can't really go wrong. That first level's theme has been lodged in my brain for a decade and a bit, perhaps it can find another home in yours too. Plus, you get to fight Ken Silverman which predates all that "shoot the head of John Romero" stuff in Doom II.

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