The 10 most influential games in FPS history

The first-person shooter genre is, in many ways, the driving factor in graphical innovation and immersion. The first-person point of view that defines this genre demands a certain level of realism, requiring ever more powerful hardware and more efficient game engines.

According to the 2017 ESA report, shooters made up 27.5% of all games sold in 2016. They are the single largest percentage when sales are divided by genre, even more than sports and role-playing combined. Eight of the top 20 highest selling games were FPS games. Shooters are clearly the eight hundred-pound gorillas of the gaming world, but where did this genre come from? What games helped shape this genre and its direction?

Just like any other artform, there are games that you should know about so you can understand the history of the genre. Unlike the side-scroller genre, which has a much longer history, the FPS genre is relatively young, so we can make the list without publishing a book.

The list below contains the most influential titles in the FPS genre. I’m intentionally leaving out rail shooters and light gun games. While I love some of those games dearly (House of the Dead akimbo, baby!), they are built around the arcade experience, rather than the immersive PC / console FPS experience. Also, as a genre, they haven’t evolved much over the last 20 years or so, while the opposite can be said about FPS.

Wolfenstein 3D - 1992

Released by ID Software for MS-DOS, this is the great grandpappy of the modern Wolfenstein franchise, all World War II shooters, and the FPS genre as a whole. While there are earlier games (like Maze War and Spasim) that could be considered first person shooters, Wolfenstein 3D’s speed and violence defined the FPS genre. You played BJ Blazkowicz, WWII-era American spy, as he escaped from Castle Wolfenstein, a Nazi prison. You aimed using the point of your gun using only the keyboard. Mouse aim? Reticles? This was the original George Bush era, son, we didn’t have reticles back then. Only Zack Morris was allowed to have a cell phone, modems were dial up, and Kurt Cobain was still alive.

The environment was composed of very simple repeated texture tiles, and the enemies were 2D sprites placed in 3D environments, a practice now referred to as 2.5D graphics. Your health did not regenerate, and you had to find food to heal yourself. Luckily, 90s video game Nazis liked to leave roasted chicken legs lying around.

Wolfenstein 3D was distributed using a shareware model. Software developers would release a significant chunk of their game for free and encourage users to copy and share it. If you wanted the full game, you would purchase a software license through the mail and they sent you a handful of floppy disks with the complete game, also through the mail. Lose those disks, and you were out of luck. Have fun buying the game again!

Why This Game?

Without Wolfenstein 3D, the FPS genre as we know it may never have existed. I don’t expect it to hold up well with contemporary audiences, but it’s worth an hour or two of your time to see how we got from point a to point b. While it looks charmingly retro compared to today’s shooters, this game was considered tremendously violent and transgressive at the time. That is, until…

DOOM - 1993

Released by ID Software, the follow up to Wolfenstein had vastly improved graphics, enemies, and environments due to an entirely new engine. The plot was simple - demons are invading a Mars moon colony, kill them all. If video games have taught me anything, demons and Nazis are the two enemies you never need to feel bad about killing. It upped the ante over Wolfenstein in almost every way – gore and speed, with bonus satanic imagery!

You’re still aiming using the point of your gun, and despite areas with varied elevations, you can’t look up or down. If you need to shoot something above or below you, you use the keyboard to line up the point of your gun with the relative location of your target, and pull the trigger. Your character automatically shoots up or down. It was a bizarre compromise that allowed for multi-tiered levels, but it made sense at the time. Mouse control was added later, but looking up or down still wasn’t an option.

Why This Game?

Later games like Quake and other challenging “skill-based” shooters owe a great deal to Doom’s frenetic, high speed combat. Also, its multiplayer deathmatch and cooperative modes were the beginning of what we understand as modern multiplayer. Doom’s fantastic level design helped inspire legions of gamers, game designers, and modders for a generation.

Looking back, it’s amusing to think how annoyed I get about laggy broadband connections. Have you ever tried to set up an IPX network for Doom multiplayer? That was way, way too much for me at age 10.

System Shock - 1994

System Shock, created by Looking Glass Technologies and published by Origin Systems, was influenced more strongly by the Ultima game series than previous shooters. In SS, you play a hacker fighting an artificial intelligence named SHODAN which is attempting to exterminate humanity and install itself as a sort of god figure.

It’s a much slower, more thoughtful game than Doom, and like a lot of great pieces of art, it was ahead of its time.

Why This Game?

While this game only sold 170,000 units, and was considered a financial failure, it went on to influence many future games. It spawned a sequel in 1999, and members of its development team went on to create later classics such as Deus Ex and Bioshock. You can still feel its influence today, in games like the Prey remake. Also, Nightdive Studios successfully Kickstarted a remake in 2016, so you won’t have to suffer through blocky 90’s graphics and gameplay to experience this bit of gaming history.

Quake - 1996

Another release from ID Software, Quake built upon the gameplay foundations of Doom. You played as a guy named Ranger, another “sole survivor” type of hero, tasked with defending humanity from a slew of alternate dimension baddies. What did Earth do to piss off its dimensional neighbors so much that everyone is trying to destroy it, man? Riddle me that.

Why This Game?

While Quake won’t be winning any awards for its plotline, its multiplayer mode was hugely influential. Quake gave us rocket jumping - the act of self-damaging with a rocket launcher in order to propel yourself to otherwise inaccessible areas. It also gave us strafe jumping, which was initially the result a mathematical error in the game code, that allowed users to exceed their normal top speed by jumping, strafing, and turning at the same time. These sorts of exploits resulted in wild, highly mobile gameplay and a large survivability / skill gap between pro players and their less experienced counterparts.

The Quake engine and its ID tech successors formed the basis for many games over the years, including Medal of Honor: Allied Assault, which had its own impact on the FPS genre.

Quake’s moody, atmospheric soundtrack was also created by Nine Inch Nails frontman Trent Reznor, back when celebrities were almost never involved with video games.

Duke Nukem 3D - 1996

Duke Nukem 3D was Duke’s first foray into the FPS space. Previously, he was a hero of the 2D side-scrolling, child-safe variety. Once unleashed into a 3D world, he became a font of juvenile jokes, patron of strippers, and gory murderer of aliens. 3D Realms took the “make your parents mad” ball from Doom, ran it into the end zone, spiked it, and did a touchdown dance. I loved it at thirteen years old and shake my head at my younger self for doing so as an adult.

Why This Game?

Most of the games are on this list because they influenced games that followed. Duke Nukem 3D is on this list because of how its sheer zaniness pushed the limits of FPS. Jet pack? Freeze ray? Shrink gun that allowed you to crush enemies underfoot? Steroids? Microwave gun that made baddies expand and pop? Double-barrelled rocket launcher? Yes. All of those things. Combined with a level editor, mouselook (introduced by Bungie for Marathon in 1994), and a multiplayer mode that turned the absurdity up to 11, Duke Nukem 3D stretched the boundaries of what an FPS could be.

GoldenEye 007 - 1997

Largely following the plot of the GoldenEye movie, you play as James Bond, undertaking a series of spy missions in the most famous first-person shooterfor the Nintendo 64. Do you like playing FPS on consoles? If so, you owe a debt of gratitude to GoldenEye 007. The N64’s analog stick looked bizarre to me at the time of release, but after a few rounds of GoldenEye, its purpose became crystal clear, and has been included on every game controller since. 

Why This Game?

Before this N64-exclusive title, FPS ports were clunky, awkward, half-baked things. GoldenEye 007 was designed specifically for N64, and helped introduce multiplayer FPS to an entire generation of gamers. It started “couch multiplayer” for FPS games, and it gave me many profanity-laden nights of fun with friends. It was remade for Wii in 2010, but didn’t make nearly the impact of its predecessor.

Unreal - 1998

In Unreal, you play a crash landed prisoner on an alien planet where the Nali (the cool aliens) have been enslaved by the reptilian Skaarj (the jerk aliens). With its fast gameplay, it competed directly with Quake and its sequels. Unreal Tournament was a college dorm favorite of mine, and even though I was hilariously bad at it, it’ll always have a special place in my heart.

Why This Game?

While there hasn’t been an Unreal / Unreal Tournament game since 2007, the Unreal engine and it’s successors, have powered an impressive number of titles as varied as Gears of War, X-Com, Rocket League, Batman: Arkham Asylum, and Life Is Strange.

Half-Life - 1998

In Half-Life, you take on the role of Gordon Freeman, a scientist at the Black Mesa Research Facility. To start his no-good-very-bad work day, a lab accident rips a hole to an alternate dimension, allowing a nigh-endless stream of monsters to murder the bejesus out of his colleagues. When you attempt to escape, you’re attacked by the very soldiers you thought would save you. It’s the kind of day that makes you want to hit someone with a crowbar - and in HL, you get to, a lot.

Why This Game?

HL had fascinating and realistic AI behavior that we now take for granted. In previous shooters, you could hide next to a doorway and strafe in and out of cover, slowly pecking your brick-dumb enemies to death with gunfire. Imagine my astonishment when I tried this against HL’s marines and they threw a grenade in my lap. When I bolted out of cover, I was promptly gunned down. Yay for modern infantry tactics!

While the original HL used the Goldsrc engine (a heavily modified version of the Quake engine), Half-Life 2 utilized the Source engine, which was the basis for many popular games, including Team Fortress 2, which shaped modern team-based shooters like Overwatch. Counter-Strike started life as a HL mod in 1999 and grew into one of the largest e-sports in the world. Counter-Strike: Global Offensive is still being played today, with about 550K daily players on Steam at the time of writing.

Halo: Combat Evolved - 2001

In the original Halo, you played Master Chief AKA John-117, and you fought the Covenant, a group of alien religious fanatics trying to exterminate humanity. Master Chief goes on to fight the Flood, an alien plague that the Covenant’s predecessors tried and failed to exterminate. 

Released by Bungie Inc., Halo’s addictive gameplay, great level design, and vehicle combat, combined with terrific competitive and cooperative multiplayer helped launch Microsoft and the original XBOX into the console wars.

Why This Game?

Much like Goldeneye 007, Halo set the tone for how shooters on consoles would look and feel for a generation. The Halo franchise is huge and helped sell the original XBOX and every XBOX system afterwards. If you like Destiny, Halo was the foundation it was built on.

The spectacularly popular Red vs. Blue, created using Halo’s multiplayer mode by production company Rooster Teeth, was many people’s first introduction to Machinima.

It should also be noted that Bungie’s previous game, Marathon, released in 1994 as a Mac-exclusive, was the first FPS to have “mouselook” - the 360-degree free look we all know and love today.

Medal of Honor: Allied Assault - 2002

“Dude, it’s just like a movie!” was once considered high praise for a game. When MoH:AA was released, Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy invasion sequence was still a fresh memory. MoH:AA’s exciting depiction of this battle was incredibly impressive at the time; I have to say, I loved it. Even my grumpy, non-gamer dad was impressed. While it looks a bit cheesy by today’s standards, it still sounds incredible. Notice the intentional lack of music, much like the Saving Private Ryan sequence, the only soundtrack is the shattering, endless gunfire. Listen to it on a good pair of headphones for the full impact.

Why This Game?  

Vince Zampella and Jason West, the lead designers on MoH:AA, went on to create a tiny development team called Infinity Ward, and are responsible for a lesser-known game series called Call of Duty. You might’ve heard of it.

You can see these cinematic sensibilities (for better or for worse) throughout the modern military shooter genre. The advancement and perk systems in Call of Duty’s multiplayer have influenced many other shooters’ multiplayer modes, from Titanfall to Mass Effect and Battlefield.

Those are the most influential games in the first ten years of the FPS genre’s evolution. Did we miss anything? Do you have some stories you’d like to share about your experiences with these games? Let us know in the comments!