INFINITE AMMO
PC Gamer|Christmas 2020
How ’90s shooters escaped their certain Doom with an indie retro revival.
Alex Spencer

If you tuned into 3D Realms’ Twitch channel this September, you could be forgiven for thinking you were peering through a portal into 1997. The publisher held the inaugural Realms Deep event, two days of lightning-fast frags and chunky gibs, weapon sprites, and the kind of character models where you could count the polygons by eye, all with a soundtrack that can only be described as ‘pumping’.

Dave Oshry, CEO of New Blood Interactive, describes it as “our own E3 for retro shooters”. It’s a party for developers who believe the first-person shooter was perfected by the turn of the millennium and, rejecting all those heretical texts which followed, have spent the past half-decade striving to resurrect the look and feel of the ’90s golden age. This might sound like a regressive way of making games – and it certainly can be – but this movement has produced some of the highest-rated games on Steam. And you can trace almost its entire history back to one unlikely game: Rise of the Triad.

It was the remake of a 1995 shooter that Frederik Schreiber, now VP of 3D Realms, admits was “an obscure, kind of unknown game to the masses”. And he should know – in 2013, along with Oshry, Schreiber was one of the game’s directors. The remake isn’t much better remembered, but it happened to mark the beginning of a broader revival, the names getting bigger with each release: Shadow Warrior, Wolfenstein: The New Order, Doom.

The release led – via a few cancelled projects and a lot of Duke Nukem-related lawsuits – to acquiring 3D Realms, the publisher behind so many of the shooters that defined his childhood, and reviving its reputation with games like Wrath: Aeon of Ruin and Ion Maiden, the first game in two decades to be made using the Build engine.

For Oshry, it was the reason David Szymanski, a fan of the remake, got in touch to share a prototype he’d been working on. Oshry fired up the one-room demo to check it out. “It was all there: the movement, the shooting, the interactivity,” he remembers. “You could flush the toilet!” This was Dusk, a Quakemeets-Doom horror shooter that’s generally considered a high watermark of this revival – and it transformed Oshry’s company, New Blood, into a purveyor of retro flavored delights.

RESPAWN

These two companies are the cornerstones of the indie retro shooter revival, but they’re far from the total of it. I could rattle off names (Prodeus, Hrot, Hellbound) like rounds from a chaingun, but the more important point here is: why, 20 years after its heyday, has this style of games returned?

“For years before I’d been frustrated no one was making games like this,” says Szymanski. He’d grown up with Doom and Quake, and modern shooters simply weren’t scratching the same itch. I hear a similar story from Thom Glunt, designer of another early outrunner, Strafe. “There were only a few throwbacks FPS games at that time,” Glunt says – and, while they borrowed the fast gunplay of the classics, all these shooters stuck to a modern graphical style. “I personally hated that. I wanted those beautiful, crunchy, low-poly vibes, and it felt like many devs were scared of it or didn’t see the beauty.”

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