The first-person shooter genre probably did more to change video games than anything else in the past 30 years.
Starting out with Wolfenstein 3D and exploding with DOOM, this genre is now so common that to imagine a world without it is not only foreign but also sheer madness.
So, as you can probably already guess, figuring out the best retro FPS games is pretty darn tough, let alone selecting just 10 of them to include on a list. I have tried my best and I am sure some of you will disagree with my list but that’s what makes life interesting. I have tried to include titles not only relevant to my life, but also the broader development of the genre.
Since many of these “retro” titles came out at the very beginning, I will try to acknowledge them for what they did to push FPS games forward and why that is a big deal.
Without anymore fanfare, here are the 10 best retro first-person shooters:
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10. Duke Nukem 3D (Developed by 3D Realms, published by FormGen; Ms-Dos 1996)
Being crude in a video game is nothing new for titles in the 1990s, and Duke Nukem 3D is actually pretty standard fare for its time. Nonetheless, there is something about playing an Alpha male takes-no-prisoners type that fits right in with the first-person shooter genre. Whether it was the adult booths and dancing girls that would show you their ta-ta’s on command, Duke Nukem 3D was not just some spectacle.
It also had some of the most epic, solid gameplay to hit the FPS genre up until that time. On top of being extremely fast paced, it was also intense as heck. At one point, Duke Nukem 3D was one of the biggest franchises in the world until the devs languished on the now-legendary-for-all-the-wrong-reasons Duke Nukem Forever. Of many of the games on this list, this is one that I can recommend wholeheartedly for modern gamers, as it has many of the conventions they would expect in an FPS with just the right touch of “retro” to make it compelling.
9. Doom (developed and published by Id Software; Ms-Dos 1993)
The game that really got the party going, DOOM is a title that needs no introduction. I do not even really know what to say about it that has not been said before. Yet that should tell you a lot about this game by itself.
To deny how influential it is, to both gamers, developers, video game history, and popular culture, is to engage in fantasy. DOOM became more than a video game for many people. For parents and authorities, it was emblematic of an imagined “dark turn” in youth culture. For gamers, it was one of the most terrifying and exhilarating experiences out there. For the industry, it was a moneymaker that would spawn as many clones as Street Fighter II. At one point, for example, there were more PCs running a copy of DOOM than there were running a copy of Microsoft Windows.
Many people credit this game with getting companies like Microsoft and others to take video games seriously as a moneymaker. And the really amazing thing about all of this is that you got the first part of the game completely free. That is right – you got to play ALL of the first episode of DOOM completely for free. It was called shareware and it was glorious. Now? DOOM is still here and, if you have played it in some form, you have likely tried the original. Like I said, what can I say? It is an amazing game.
8. Deus Ex (developed by Ion Storm, published by Eidos Interactive, PC 2000)
Action gaming and first-person mechanics mesh together in surprising ways in Deus Ex. This series is still ongoing somewhat so this probably does not require as much introduction as some other games.
A cyberpunk thriller, Deus Ex brought the neo-noir settings and conspiracy-theory-laden narratives of films like the Matrix into a game world that was believable and intricately crafted. Riding very high on the strength of its story, Deus Ex is also a very fun game even if it is missing a lot of the quality of life advances some of us would expect in this type of game, if it were released today.
7. Quake (developed by id Software, published by GT Interactive, PC 1996)
How do you make a sequel to the DOOM series? That was the question that plagued the gaming world prior to the arrival of Quake.
The reason why the hype was so big for Quake was because it was coming in full blazing 3D glory. In many ways, it was seen as a natural evolution of DOOM but it became its own thing entirely as the series progressed. That was probably because Quake’s improvements to multiplayer took what was a secondary component of the DOOM series and turned it into its own thing all itself.
There is no doubt that Quake is a weird game, but it is also super weird for me. Do not get me wrong, I recognize how much Quake helped push things forward at a time when DOOM was still printing money with its somewhat older approach at that time.
6. Timesplitters 2 (developed by Free Radical Design, published by Eidos Interactive; Cross-platform 2002)
Journey through time as you attempt to stop aliens from screwing up human history. If that is not enough to make you give this second game a look, I give up. Aside from its really original premise as a single-player game, Timesplitters 2 also had an outstanding multiplayer game component as well.
As you probably guessed from the premise, you travel to various epochs and attempt to foil the alien plot to undo the current human timeline. Should you play it? Yes, I definitely think this game is one of those that has not only aged well but still plays just as fresh now as then.
5. GoldenEye 007 (developed by Rare, published by Nintendo; Nintendo 64 1997)
This is the game that put console FPS games on the map and in a huge way. It also introduced those gamers to the joys and heartbreaks of multiplayer FPS gaming. Prior to the N64 and its four-controller setup, multiplayer in an FPS was a luxury only PC gamers knew. And what a world console gamers were missing out on ultimately. GoldenEye 64 changed all of that and in a huge way.
Featuring the iconic cast of the Bond movies, this game was also a great single-player game and did a beyond-excellent job of capturing that story and experience. So, overall, it is an amazing game from a legendary team of developers.
It might be tough for modern gamers to play – mainly because of the controls and how antiquated it might feel – but it is worth a shot from a historical perspective. I only worry that some might not see what all of the hype is about, given how common the GoldenEye format is now.
4. Half-Life (developed by Valve, published by Sierra Studios, PC 1998)
Telling a story always makes me happy, if it is done right. I am not even that picky about the type of story we have going. Because of this, the Half-Life series in general and the first game in particular were such a revelation for me. It felt very much like the interactive movies my friends and I always imagined in our wildest dreams.
After all, the highest expression of video games had to be like some kind of awesome movie, right? From the story to the graphics, the visions of tomorrow that dominated yesterday saw things like Half-Life as the future of gaming and gaming narratives. How right we were.
3. Call of Duty (developed and published by Infinity Ward, published by Activision; PC 2003)
It all began with a World War II fps from Infinity Ward that many thought was a copy of the more established Medal of Honor series by EA. But Call of Duty has morphed so far beyond its original 2003 incarnation that it is not only astounding, but it is also a strong testament to how much things have changed as far as fps games are concerned.
An epic narrative undergirded by the events of World War II, Call of Duty is a tour de force the combines cinematic moments with tight gameplay mechanics. Originally released only for Microsoft Windows PCs, Call of Duty later showed up on the PlayStation 3 in 2009 as Call of Duty Classic.
Unique to Call of Duty at the moment of its release is that it allows you to play from different historical perspectives on the Allied side. Switching between British, American, and Soviet viewpoints gives you a new historical appreciation of the scale of WWII.
2. Halo 2 (developed by Bungie, published by Microsoft Game Studios; Xbox 2004)
It is amazing that this is considered “retro” but, at this point, the writing is on the wall it seems. * Halo 2 is one of those sequels that, at least in my eyes, is better than the original and by a long shot.
Sure, both games have absolutely stellar single-player experiences. Where they differentiate from one another is in the multiplayer and, here, Halo 2 runs away with the competition. For those that played the first Halo on multiplayer, you know that, really, the only viable weapon was the pistol… In other words, the default weapon.
Pistol sniping separated the veterans from the casual gamers and it made Halo multiplayer a daunting prospect for noobs. Halo 2 upended this entirely with a balanced weapon loadout and multiple gameplay modes to give you variety. But that is not all. Microsoft also put a ton of effort into synchronizing the game with its Xbox Live service.
Again, things like this were common on PC but multiplayer console gaming was still a pain at this point. Not with Halo 2 and Xbox Live. An amazingly solid multiplayer game even today, Halo 2 is where the series hit the stratosphere in terms of triple-A recognition and has not looked back since.
Unreal Tournament (developed by Epic Games and Digital Extremes, published by GT Interactive; Microsoft Windows 1999)
Take the FPS experience and expand it into a massive multiplayer game. That is Unreal Tournament in a nutshell. From the acrobatic nature of its combat to the really cool weapons, Unreal challenged expectations about what a FPS was.
This game would probably be more recognizable to people who enjoy battle royale titles today because, in many ways, that is the premise behind Unreal Tournament.
The best part about all of this for modern gamers is that there is a dedicated community out there that still plays Unreal, which means that enjoying this game the way it was meant to be played is not impossible, like it is with so many other titles on this list.
Descent (developed by Parallax Software, published by Interplay Productions; MS-DOS 1995)
Hope you do not get vertigo easily! Descent is a wild ride and it is not just because of its awesome fusion of a side-scrolling shooter and a first-person shooter. You pilot a ship around mining tunnels while evading menacing enemies and traps. You can travel up down, left, right, and you have to navigate complex stages of interlocking tunnels that, frankly, really start to look the same.
Descent was really creative but it is also an acquired taste. I absolutely loved it but I would not recommend it to anyone who has not played an FPS before. It is just a bit too intense. Also, bonus points to Descent for making flight sticks have use outside of flight simulator games. That definitely made my experience a lot easier way back when.
Serious Sam: The First Encounter (developed by Croteam, published by Gathering of Developers; Microsoft Windows 2001)
This game started in development in 1996 and finally released in 2001. It is a narrative gem that brings some interesting gameplay concepts to the table. What I enjoyed most about it, however, was how cool its characters were and how novel their world was.
One of the most charming and “cool” game worlds I have ever visited, Serious Sam, unsurprisingly, spawned a port to nearly every platform out there and a series of sequels.
System Shock 2 (developed by Irrational Games and Looking Glass Studios, published by Electronic Arts; PC 1999)
Telling a story in games is not an easy thing to do. When it is done well, we remember the experience. When it is done poorly, we normally do not care as long as the game shows up and performs. If System Shock 1 or 2 completely ditched the story and relied purely upon its gameplay, it would still be one of the best titles out there.
The fact that it combines amazing gaming with a great narrative is just a bonus. And man, is the story here amazingly good. Telling a good yarn in an FPS is something that DOOM did not really attempt, aside from insinuation and vague clues in the marketing material and beyond.
System Shock 2 really goes out on a limb to flesh out the world that the first game staked its success upon and takes it to the next level.
1. Perfect Dark (developed by Rare, published by Nintendo; Nintendo 64 2000)
Take GoldenEye, add some improvements, and there you have it, Perfect Dark. For gamers back in the day that had worn out GE, thankfully this title came along. Again, a lot of the nostalgia for me focuses on the fact that you got awesomely intense multiplayer action in this title without the need for an online connection.
Even today, I have a hard time with games that require you to be online all of the time or even force you to play with others, even if you do not feel like doing that. The Rare masterpiece is representative of an era when multiplayer shooters reached a kind of zenith.
To go beyond Perfect Dark, you would have to move on to PC FPS games. And many of us did just that. As such, PD acts as a kind of transition between console gaming and the wider world of online PC multiplayer games.
So there is my list, retro folks! What do you think? Are there some titles I have left off that you would add? What about some of your favorite memories about these games? Please let me know what you think in the comments below, if you like.
Till next best-of list!