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
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

Yet, in some ways, Wolfenstein
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
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

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
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
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