Geek Trivia: First shots fired

Which two video games are the leading candidates for the earliest documented game of the first-person shooter (FPS) genre?

This month marks the 13th anniversary of a watershed moment in the history of PC video gaming. On May 5, 1992, Wolfenstein 3D was officially released for the PC, initiating the first-person shooter (FPS) genre of video games to the PC platform.

Created by id Software, which would go on to produce the other groundbreaking and hyperpopular FPS games Doom and Quake, Wolfenstein 3D has been widely hailed as ushering in a new age of video game graphics engines, as well as the oft-criticized three-dimensional FPS games those engines made possible.

For the uninitiated, first-person shooter refers to a genre of video games played from a first-person point of view. (The character you play isn't visible on the screen; instead, you view the game through the character's own perspective, as if you're looking through his or her eyes.)

In FPS games, the primary method of gameplay involves eliminating enemies with a variety of weapons, usually firearms. Not surprisingly, FPS games have endured much criticism for their intense, stylized, and/or gratuitous violence. However, despite—or perhaps because of—this criticism, FPS games consistently rank among the most popular titles on the market.

Yet, in some ways, Wolfenstein 3D was nothing new—even in 1992. Many earlier games had already pioneered the complex 3D ray-casting technology used to create the game's environment. The notion of an action-oriented shooter game also wasn't exactly innovative—the classic Asteroids games were shooters, for example—nor was the first-person perspective truly new, as many driving and role-playing games offered this feature long before Wolfenstein 3D.

Indeed, it was the novel combination of these three aspects in one game on the PC platform that distinguished Wolfenstein 3D. The company released an introductory "episode" of Wolfenstein 3D as shareware, which saw the game spread like wildfire across the budding online communities of the day, exposing a staggering portion of the PC gaming community to its first FPS.

It's a common misconception, however, that Wolfenstein 3D was the first FPS developed for any platform. On the contrary, the FPS genre was almost 20 years old when Wolfenstein 3D debuted. In fact, at least two FPS video games made their first appearance in the early 1970s.


Which two video games are the leading candidates for serving as the earliest documented game of the first-person shooter (FPS) genre?

Maze War and Spasim, both of which published working versions in 1974, are arguably the two earliest known FPS video games. Both feature a first-person perspective, pseudo-3D game environments, and an objective of shooting opposing players.

Which of these two came first? Maze War is the likely candidate, with development beginning sometime in 1973.

However, exact documentation of the "publish date" for Maze War isn't available, despite the fact that the game (also known as The Maze Game, Maze Wars, or Maze) got its start at the NASA Ames Research Center for use on Imlacs PDS-1 computers. From there, it spread to numerous platforms and organizations—notably MIT and Xerox—and somewhere along the way, its birthday was lost.

Of the two, Maze War is also the most similar to modern FPS games. Players wander through a 3D labyrinth environment, firing shots at other players, which appear as eye-like avatars. Versions of Maze War are still available for the Palm operating system, and the program's underlying logic inspired a number of early video games.

Somewhat ironically, it was a university—and not NASA—that developed the space simulator called Spasim. Unlike Maze War, Spasim had a well-documented debut in March 1974 on the PLATO network at the University of Illinois.

In simplest terms, Spasim was a rudimentary combat flight simulator. Players flew their craft from a first-person perspective in a 3D combat zone, while firing at opposing players rendered as wire-frame space ships.

The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

This week's quibble comes from a Classic Geek, the May 4, 2005 reprint of "Personal success," originally published on April 21, 2004. TechRepublic member Data Geek (great alias, by the way) echoed the comments of several members by suggesting an origin for the classic Altair personal computer's name.

"Altair-4 was the name of the planet in the classic 1956 sci-fi movie, Forbidden Planet. The movie is full of references to technology, and the planet's past inhabitants, the Krell, were a tech-savvy lot. I'd say the name came from the movie."

Alas, while I myself am a fan of this sci-fi spin on the Bard's The Tempest, member M_P_Rudas had my back on this one.

"[Altair developer] Ed Roberts may not remember it now, but back in '76, he himself said that Star Trek was the inspiration [for the computer's name]—his daughter suggested the name while watching an episode."

And, just to be thorough, member T. E. Walker offered episode details.

"The only episode I know of [that] mentions the Altair system is 'Amok Time.'
"Production: 34
"Original Airdate: Sept. 15, 1967
"Stardate: 3372.7
"And it's the episode where Spock needs to go home to mate, resulting in the fake death of Kirk."

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.