Saturday, 26 September 2009

Catacomb 3D

When people talk about "the first First Person Shooter" often the discussion turns to Wolfenstein 3D (unless they're educated and then it usually involves Maze War). This is fine, because Wolf 3D is a great game, but there were FPS games before it. And good FPS games at that, such as...

Catacomb 3D, one of the early works of id Software. Of course it shouldn't really come as much of a surprise that id Software were behind a revolutionary FPS - they did make Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. What is a surprise is how good this FPS game is, despite having to rely on the wonderous 16 colour EGA palette.

Like Wolfenstein 3D, there were two 2D titles that pre-dated the 3D era, however unlike Wolfenstein these were actually programmed by John Carmack, so Catacomb 3D really is a "true" sequel to those games. The engine was an improved version of that used in id's earlier title "Hovertank 3-D", except unlike Hovertank that was very primitive, Catacomb 3D introduced textured walls to the FPS genre. It also uses the legendary Commander Keen 4 menu, complete with a "skull and bones" themed version of the Paddle War minigame. And Bobby Prince re-used some of the music from Keen 4 as well. You could cite it as laziness, but at the time there were many games that didn't actually support music, so surely it's a step up from that... even if most of the game uses the same eight second track.

Gameplay is very much as you'd expect it to be. It's Wolfenstein 3D with simpler graphics/sounds. There aren't any moving blocks, however there are still secret rooms - you just need to shoot the walls instead. Weapons are limited - you mainly just use your magic shooting hand for everything, however you can charge it up to cause more damage - a feature that wouldn't return to FPS games until many years later. There's also "bolts" and "nukes" which can cause more damage with the expense of having ammo and it also takes the unusal ruote of naming every corridor game.

You've got a face like in Wolf 3D and Doom, but unlike those games where it's only there for fun, in Catacomb 3D it acts as your health meter. You can also play with the mouse, though as with Wolf 3D and Doom it isn't used for aiming, it's just for moving slowly, which doesn't really work.

One of the problems with Catacomb 3D is narrow corridors. In Wolfenstein 3D, walls act like... walls - if you hit one at an angle while you continue to walk, you'll just drag yourself along the wall's face and eventually get somewhere. In Catacomb 3D, your character will stop when he hits a wall and the game will make a noise, so you'll have to make sure you're lined up perfectly with the corridor as you walk through or it will slow you down. Here's a diagram if you have no idea what I'm talking about, and if you're still clueless, play the game.

There are other things that Catacomb 3D is missing - enemies for example will ALWAYS look in your direction. This was limited to only the bosses in Wolfenstein 3D and became very uncommon after the release of Doom, but if you look past all these obvious flaws, you've got yourself a great FPS game. It may look and sound worse than what Nintendo/Sega were pumping out in late 1991, but the technology was way ahead of its time. Besides, this was the game that fueled the FPS genre, and even if it's not quite as good as id's later works, it's worth a download. It's certainly more download worthy than the likes of Hovertank 3D anyway. Hovertank's nice but it's so simple you do often wonder whether you can put it under the same genre as your Team Fortress 2s and Calls of Duty.

Softdisk didn't let this engine go to waste when John Carmack left - they created three more Catacomb games with it - Catacomb Abyss, Catacomb Armegeddon and Catacomb Apocolypse. Though these three are slightly better in places, they lack music, and the slower pace makes them slightly inferior games. I guess they were just following the trend of other Softdisk titles. After that, the Catacomb franchise (minus the Nemesis character which I sad before appeared in Dangerous Dave 3 and 4) was left to rot. A bit sad I suppose, but I guess the likes of Hexen and Heretic filled the gap a bit better, as well as numerous other fantasy FPS games since.

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