Gear Games Retrospective: Quake (1996, FPS) Celebrates 15 Years

A few weeks ago I looked back at Duke Nukem 3D in anticipation of the arrival of Duke Nukem Forever, which I subsequently reviewed as well. However, Duke Nukem 3D wasn’t the only shooter released in the first half of 1996 – on June 22nd 1996 a whole new era in first person shooter gaming was born with the release of Quake! In celebration of that milestone I take a look back at this legendary FPS game from id software.

The Hype
Rage through 32 single player levels and 6 deathmatch levels of sheer terror and fully immersive sound and lighting. Arm yourself against the cannibalistic Ogre, fiendish Vore and indestructible Schambler using lethal nails, fierce Thunderbolts and abominable Rocket and Grenade Launchers.

The Reality

id Software is unique in the gaming industry. Its games literally defined the generations of the shooter genre until recent years when Unreal technology from Epic has started to dominate the multiplatform development cycle. But for a decade, we had Wolf 3D and Doom defining what it meant to be a first-person shooter, then Quake taking the game into full 3D with expanded controls and online gaming integration, and Quake III opening up the concept of a truly flexible licensed engine and forever killing the need for in-house game engine development.

After Wolf 3D and especially Doom, folks wondered what other tricks id might have up their sleeve. Doom II was really just more of the same, which was fine for 1994 since it took the core of Doom and made it bigger and better in every way. But since id was looked at as the leaders of the ‘FPS revolution’, fans looked for the ‘next big thing’. And that arrived in late June of 1996 in the form of a little game called Quake.

Quake arrived to massive fanfare and critical acclaim. While I have played bits and pieces through the years, it has been a while since I actually played end to end and so I wondered how it played after 15 years.

What I found was a game that holds up to modern standards even better than Duke Nukem 3D!

At first blush Quake elicits a ‘so what?’ response to folks like my kids who weren’t born when it arrived and therefore see the lack of story, enemies without personality, and so on as the mark of a time gone by. Indeed, for many of us in 1996, after the thrill of the graphics wore off we were asking how this was really revolutionary? But discovering that required us to look at two things: level design and multiplayer.

First, in terms of design the quality of the core game shines through almost immediately. As I mentioned, my kids were initially unimpressed … but after seeing the ways the levels were set up and how the gameplay evolved in novel and exciting ways that are still thrilling today they finally ‘got it’. Quake marked a radical departure from the 2.5D world – this was no longer a genre dominated by straight-on encounters with the Z-axis added as a gimmick.

There are a few different ways to play Quake. You can still play the old version on CD just fine on Windows, and if you buy the game on Steam you get access to that version as well. The screen resolution scales extremely well but doesn’t support widescreen formats. The Steam version also comes with GLQuake, a remake of the Quake engine using the OpenGL engine. This version allow much better graphics and screen compatibility, and while the original was created by id Software the community has taken control of it.

For this playthrough I used my original Quake game folder and GLQuake on Mac OS X. I also loaded up Quake and GLQuake on my PC through Steam (the Steam version doesn’t support Mac OS X) just to see the differences.

One of the huge hype factors with Quake was the music done by Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails. In fact, if you look at the image below of the ammo box for the nailgun you’ll see it uses the NIN logo.

Why was that a big deal? First off, most games were still using MIDI sound from a internal soundcard, which was very limited in fidelity and programmability. Using actual music files meant the game required a larger hard drive installation and also more memory and speedier processor to run … but also that it sounded amazing!

But since all games now have great graphics and wonderful sound, why would I put Quake head-to-head with any game released now, and call it much better than games like Crysis 2? Design. Design of levels; design of gameplay; design of the engine.

Quake was originally conceived as a medieval first-person game where the protagonist wielded a giant hammer, and with architecture based on Aztec temples similar to what was seen in Serious Sam. Eventually the team moved to a standard first-person shooter concept in terms of the protagonist, weapons and gameplay … but the conceptual design had a great impact on the atmosphere and layout of the various maps.

Similar to earlier games you play an essentially cipher protagonist who was sent through a portal to defeat an evil known as Quake, who has sent enemies into human territories using slipgate portals. You start each of the four Episodes in an over-run human base and eventually find the portal to take the battle to the enemy.

Structurally the game is yet another level-level-level-boss affair, with four episodes of eight levels each. What differentiates the feel of the game is the sense of progression – when you enter a new area it makes sense that it looks different and the enemies go along with the level. You keep all items from level to level after you enter a portal, but not between episodes since you need to start fresh (not quite ‘go through naked’ like in Terminator, but the FPS equivalent).

The levels are large and fairly open, but most importantly they take full advantage of all three dimensions in a way no other game did before. You would never know where enemies might shoot at you from, and with the addition of grenade-like weapons the ability of enemies to harass you from any angle was unprecedented.

When Quake came out originally I continued using my keyboard-only gameplay setup … and today I have absolutely no idea how I managed. I actually stuck with that style through Jedi Knight and Mysteries of the Sith, and again … no idea how I managed. The reason I can’t imagine it now is because these games – starting with Quake – ASSUMED you had a mouse. While Marathon, Dark Forces and Duke Nukem 3D offered ‘mouse look’ and offered some support … Quake, Unreal, and the Jedi Knight games were built around a vertical scope of events that made keyboard-only play much more difficult.

When paired with a solid gaming mouse, the action of Quake is fast and non-stop. You almost always see an enemy in the distance as you start a level, and once you fire your first shot things don’t quiet down until you complete the level. Well, that isn’t completely true: enemies are specifically placed and do not respawn, so once you clear an area you are free to go back and explore all you want.

And like so many games of the era Quake actually rewards exploration. There are secret locations on nearly every level, with some being tiny rooms with advanced weapons or ammo dumps and others being entire areas to check out with enemies and so on. Many developers have stated that this type of content is simply too expensive to include in games now … so we have to enjoy the ‘good old days’ of hidden items and unnecessary areas to explore!

One reason that the scope of the game was limited to level-level-level-boss shooter was that Carmack was simultaneously developing the TCP/IP networking infrastructure for the game, the first of its kind. The result was that while Doom was mostly a single-player game that was also fun in LAN parties, Quake lived a long multiplayer life because suddenly you could play people worldwide over the internet! And the map design made it fun and also challenging to compete against increasingly skilled players!

The final thing that really made Quake such a success – and provided it such a long life – was that the engine was made to be extended and expanded and modified and reworked and manipulated in pretty much every possible way. Team Fortress was originally just a multiplayer mod (short for modification) for Quake, HeXen II used the Quake (id Tech) engine, and the original Half-Life used a modified Quake engine called GldSrc.

RetroGamer Perspective: Quake is a great retro-shooter in that it will play on pretty much any computer – I have run GLQuake on a netbook as well as a gaming computer!

– Digital Download / CD version? – While you might be able to scare up a CD version from eBay, the Steam version with standard Quake and GLQuake included is the way to go.

– Installation Notes: Installation is the downloadable version is very fast and a single-click operation on Steam.

– Disk Space Requirements: full-install of the Steam version takes 56BM.

– CD Required to Play? No

– Control Considerations? GLQuake defaults to the now-standard WASD + mouse control scheme.

– Is it ‘Netbook-Friendly’? Definitely – the Steam version is <60MB and will run on pretty much anything.

– Will it run with Integrated Graphics Yes!

– Special Considerations for running in Windows XP / Vista / Win 7? No – even ‘Quake’ from Steam is really WinQuake, and runs perfectly on Windows 7 64-bit.

– Compatible versions for other OS such as Linux or Mac OS? Yes! As seen in my screens, much of this was played using GLQuake on Mac OS X Snow Leopard!

– Notes on the Digital Version: The Steam version is Windows-only for some reason, so I had to use my old CD copy of the game and pull the game folder.

Current Outlook & Future Prospects: I continue to be amazed at how well many of the games from 15 years ago hold up today. Graphics updates such as eDuke32 or GLQuake make it so that the visuals aren’t a problem, so the design and gameplay shine through. I don’t see that changing – and look forward to loving this game when it turns 20!

Conclusion: Quake was hailed as landmark shooter in 1996. Too often those types of games end up as ‘tech demos’, great engines but disappointing games – sort of like Unreal II. But Quake, in spite of not moving the core game elements forward as far as originally intended, was and still is an incredible game. It was worth playing in 1996, and if you missed it then it is still worth grabbing in 2011!

Review: Quake

Where to Buy: Steam

Price: $9.99

What I Like: Top notch shooter gameplay; excellent level design; eDuke32 and HRP fan-created wrappers make the game feel thoroughly modern; every bit as fun as it was 15 years ago!

What Needs Improvement: It might take a bit to get past the fact that this is still a level-level-level-boss structured game.

Source: Personal Copy

And as a final treat here is a video of John Carmack at the launch of the QuakeWorld event in 1996!

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2 replies

  1. Descent predated Quake as a fully 3D first person shooter (sort of…), introduced more than a year before Quake, heck Descent II was released before Quake. The graphics engine was an early portal engine, based on the level geometry being built from “mutant cubes” (basically convex 6-sided polyhedrons). The level design was competent, but nowhere near the quality that id software’s designers achieved.

    Descent was very popular at the 3D graphics chip company I was working for at the time…

    • Descent was a blast! Though it had a mix of 2D and 2.5D and 3D stuff in order to work on various computers at the time, and is first person but not quite in the FPS way … regardless, it was a technical marvel and a blast of a game!