- The early 1990s saw the rise of first-person shooters, with games like Doom and Pathways Into Darkness making a significant impact with their level design and intense gameplay.
- The mid-1990s brought even more iconic shooters like Quake and Duke Nukem 3D, introducing full 3D capabilities and creative weapons that shaped the genre.
- The late 1990s saw the emergence of consoles as a viable platform for shooters, with games like Goldeneye 007 and Doom 64 offering unique gameplay experiences and pushing technology further.
Since they burst onto the scene in the early 1990s, first-person shooters have rocketed to the top of the gaming stratosphere. For a time, it felt as though a new genre-defining shooter was just around the corner, ready to take the gaming world by storm, whether it be a fast-paced arena shooter like Quake or methodical and tense like Rainbow Six.
Like with any video game genre, there are always certain years that players look back on for being huge for one reason or another. Perhaps there was a seminal hit that was released to critical acclaim, changing the landscape of FPS forever, or there was a series of strong rapid-fire releases, each being special in its own way.
8 1993 – Knee Deep In The Dead
Doom – Pathways Into Darkness
- PS4, Xbox One, Switch, PC, Stadia, PS3, Xbox 360, Xbox (Original), PS1, Sega Saturn, Super Nintendo Entertainment System, Android, iOS
- id Software
- December 10, 1993
1993 was a seminal year for first-person shooters largely for one reason – id Software’s Doom. While it was not their first foray into the genre, it was easily their best and most successful to date. Doom combined great level design, iconic art design, rippin’ weapons, and a killer soundtrack into one ultra-violent package whose influence reverberates to this very day.
Lesser known, however, and yet still successful was Bungie’s Pathways Into Darkness. While it could never hope to be as much of a mega-hit as Doom, it was nonetheless a hit for the Macintosh at the time and gave the fledgling developer capital with which to build a bright future.
7 1994 – A Shock To The System
Marathon – Doom 2 – System Shock
Doom 2 System Shock Platform(s) Sega Saturn, PS3, Switch, PS4, Xbox 360, PC, iOS, Android, Game Boy Advance, PS1, Xbox One PC Developer(s) id Software Looking Glass Technologies Released 1994-10-10 1994-09-23
The very next year after the first Doom released saw some pretty heavy hitters starting to come into play. Bungie had returned with a new IP entitled Marathon, which boasted many improvements over not only its predecessor, Pathways of Darkness but the Doom games as well. Doom 2 is the obvious big hit for this year, taking the formula of the original game and just adding more content but also greatly improving the multiplayer functionality, something that was novel at the time.
System Shock (which just received an excellent remake by Nightdive Studios) was a massive leap forward technologically as it incorporated things like physics, dynamic lights, jumping, y-axis looking, and even some light RPG elements. 1994 was also a big year for shooters in terms of story design, as both Marathon and System Shock were way ahead of the curve in terms of in-game narrative presentation. Both titles utilized computer terminals, which allowed the player to both learn about their respective worlds and also interact with the principal characters of each story.
6 1996 – Kicking Butt In Three Dimensions
Quake – Duke Nukem 3D
Quake Duke Nukem 3D Platform(s) Sega Saturn, Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X, Switch, PS5, PS4, PC, Xbox One, Nintendo 64 Sega Saturn, PS Vita, PS3, Switch, PS4, PC, iOS, Android, PS1, Xbox One, Nintendo 64, Genesis Released 1996-05-22 1996-01-29 How Long To Beat 6 Hours 9 hours
Between monster hits like Quake and Duke Nukem 3D, 1996 was already an impressive year for shooters. There were also games like Marathon 2 and Strife, however, which while not as novel as the former two titles, were positively received as well. Quake is an important game for the FPS genre because it introduced full 3D capabilities. Sprites were officially a thing of the past as players would battle fully realized three-dimensional monsters as they power through Quake’s eldritch corridors.
Duke Nukem 3D is itself still considered one of the very best “boomer shooters” because of its creative weapons, interactivity, excellent level design, and, of course, the lovably crass Duke himself, among other things.
5 1997 – Dawn of the Console Era
Quake 2 – Goldeneye 007 – Doom 64
Quake 2 GoldenEye 007 Doom 64 Platform(s) Xbox Series S, Xbox Series X, Switch, PS5, PS4, Xbox 360, PC, PS1, Xbox One, Nintendo 64 N64, Xbox One Nintendo Switch, PS4, PC, Xbox One, Nintendo 64 Released 1997-12-09 1997-08-25 1997-04-04 Developer(s) id Software Rare Midway Games
The late ’90s was when things started to really pick up for the shooter market. It’s at this point that consoles begin to emerge as a viable platform for the genre with titles like Goldeneye 007 on the N64. Goldeneye set a precedent for shooter combat that remains even to this day, with its slower movement and context-sensitive damage areas on players and enemies.
Doom would also see a console release in the form of Doom 64, which was somewhat of a bold twist on the IP at the time in that it featured NPC allies, a story, and an ambient soundscape in place of sampled metal music. On the PC side of things, Quake 2 exploded onto the scene, revolutionizing the look and feel of the franchise and pushing technology even further. It also further popularized competitive multiplayer Arena Shooters as a subgenre.
4 1998 – A Moment of Xen
Half-Life – Unreal – Rainbow Six
- PC, PS2, Linux, macOS
- November 19, 1998
Despite it being somewhat of a calmer year for the FPS market in terms of release quantity, 1998 is often considered to be a watershed year for the genre for one simple yet good reason: Half-Life had released this year. Aside from revolutionizing narrative design for shooters and pioneering things like physics and level design, Half-Life is notable for having been a popular modding platform. Many current developers got their start making mods for the original Half-Life.
Valve’s Sci-Fi classic wasn’t the only important release of that year, however. Epic made a name for themselves with the first Unreal title, which was powered by the soon-to-be industry standard Unreal Engine. 1998 was the beginning of the Tom Clancy era as well, with the release of Rainbow Six, an early tactical shooter that emphasized precision over speed. All three games would spawn successful franchises that continue to this day.
3 1999 – New Trends and Old Friends
Unreal Tournament – Medal of Honor – System Shock 2
Unreal Tournament System Shock 2 Platform(s) Dreamcast, PS2, PC, macOS, Linux PC Genre(s) Shooter, Action Action RPG, FPS Released 1999-11-30 1999-08-11
The year is 1999 and some of the best multiplayer shooters ever have just been released. Unreal Tournament and Quake 3: Arena are two pillars of the Arena Shooter sub-genre, even contributing to the rise of competitive gaming as a whole. This was also the year that Team Fortress Classic, a class-based shooter with well-defined roles for each player, would see an official release from Valve. Team Fortress, however, would occasionally be compared to an increasingly popular mod for the original Half-Life that was released the same year, Counter-Strike.
While this year was very strong for competitive multiplayer shooters (both Arena and Tactical alike), 1999 would also see the release of System Shock 2, a massively ambitious sequel that would improve on every element of its predecessor. Not only were the simulational elements much more advanced, but the game effortlessly blends several different genres simultaneously. This year also saw the release of the first Medal of Honor game, which depicted WW2 in a way it had never been before and is credited with having begun the early 2000s trend of WW2-themed shooters.
2 2000 – A New Era of Gaming
Deus Ex – Timesplitters – Perfect Dark
Deus Ex Perfect Dark Platform(s) PS2, PC Xbox 360, Nintendo 64 Released 2000-06-23 2000-05-22 Developer(s) Ion Storm Rare, the initiative, Nintendo, Crystal Dynamics
The dawn of the new millennium saw some serious heavy-hitting games released. Deus Ex was released to universal acclaim, with most citing its simulational elements, intricate combat, and open-ended world design, which featured side objectives alongside the main story. It is widely regarded as a cross between an RPG and an FPS due to incorporating things such as skill leveling alongside traditional gunplay, among other things.
Timesplitters and Perfect Dark are both renowned console games from this year (the former, a PS2 exclusive; the latter an N64 exclusive). Perfect Dark is considered a spiritual successor to Goldeneye in many ways but also improves upon it in terms of graphics and content. Timesplitters is actually somewhat similar to both games visually. However, its level design is what sets it apart, since each of them follows a pattern of diverse genre pastiches that include Sci-Fi, Crime, and Horror. It also has a level creator, which was novel for the time.
1 2001 – Combat Evolved
Halo: Combat Evolved – Return To Castle Wolfenstein – Red Faction
Halo: Combat Evolved Return To Castle Wolfenstein Red Faction Platform(s) Xbox (Original), Xbox 360, PC, Xbox One Microsoft Windows, PS2, Xbox (Original), macOS, Linux PS2, PC Released 2001-11-15 2001-11-19 2001-05-22 ESRB M For Mature 17+ due to Blood and Gore, Violence m M For Mature 17+ due to Blood, Violence
2001 was a pretty great year for console shooters because not only did the original Xbox launch, but it launched with Halo: Combat Evolved. What truly set it apart from other console shooters boiled down to the fact that the game was cleverly designed – down to a mechanical level – around the use of a controller, making it a masterclass in gameplay synergy. Halo: Combat Evolved proved to be such a big success that it’s credited with launching Xbox as a brand, proving that console shooters could be just as good if not better than the PC greats of that era.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein was another strong release from this year, as it reimagined the original game as an action/stealth shooter with killer art direction and atmosphere. Both Return and Halo had well-designed and popular multiplayer components, although the latter was limited to split-screen and LAN. Volition would come out with the first Red Faction game, which was notable for its engaging story, smooth graphics, and never-before-seen terrain-altering technology (which carried over to the game’s multiplayer).
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