WW2 #36: Silas Warner’s Wolfenstein

Before Wolfenstein was 3D

june gloom
5 min readMay 15, 2024

This review was originally posted to Twitter on March 10, 2020.

Castle Wolfenstein on the left, Beyond Castle Wolfenstein on the right

Initial release: September 1981 (Castle Wolfenstein)/Summer 1984 (Beyond Castle Wolfenstein)
Platform: Apple II/Commodore 64/Atari 800/DOS
Developer: Muse Software

Before Wolfenstein 3D, before Metal Gear, there was the late, great Silas Warner. No discussion of the stealth genre or the Wolfenstein franchise is complete without at least a cursory mention of Warner. He was a celebrity in computing circles of the early to mid 80s, akin to Shigiru Miyamoto or John Carmack in more recent decades, though Warner shied from the spotlight. Though he was a master programmer with a deep understanding of the computer technology of the day, much of his celebrity is down to Castle Wolfenstein, an early shooter inspired by the arcade game Berserk, and the classic World War II spy film The Guns of Navarrone.

The basic premise of the game is simple: you are an Allied agent, thrown into a dungeon in a Nazi castle during World War II. Armed with only a pistol stolen by another prisoner, it’s your job to escape, ideally finding the Nazis’ secret battle plans on your way out. Though it looks very primitive by today’s standards, Castle Wolfenstein was a technological revelation, boasting such features as rudimentary stealth and even voice acting, which was particularly impressive given that the Apple II had extremely limited sound capabilities. The Apple II’s audio worked by programs sending an electric current to a speaker to generate noise. Change the frequency, you change the noise. It was an extremely primitive, limited technology, with no method of playback of waveform or synthesizer sound. But in the late 70s it was discovered by programmer Bob Bishop that if you attached a cassette drive to the Apple II (common for storage purposes at the time) you could use it to play back recorded audio, digitized through the computer itself. To that end Bishop released software to do the job for end users. The result was scratchy, but intelligible. Warner would improve on the concept a year later, and for Castle Wolfenstein he took advantage of his parent company Muse Software’s association with a recording studio to record some lines. So when you hear Nazi guards shouting a distorted, unrecognizable “ACHTUNG!” in Castle Wolfenstein consider that the Apple II wasn’t supposed to be able to do that. It’s a miracle of programming prowess that you can hear voices at all.

And that’s not all. The game boasts a ton of features that would later be recognizable in the Metal Gear games. Guards have regular patrols, you can hold them up and search them, you can even slip on a uniform and escape the castle unnoticed! Crates scattered throughout the game feature everything from ammo to random junk (such as Eva Braun’s diary) to explosives to alcohol, which if drunk throws off your aim for a while. Picking the locks takes time, and draws suspicion if you’re in uniform — or you could shoot it, if you don’t mind the attention. The castle itself is basically a featureless maze, procedurally generated similar to a roguelike, though in this game layouts are persistent and saved to disk until you either generate a new one, or if you make the mistake of shooting a box of explosives.

The main issues with the game largely come down to the controls. Movement and the direction you face are two different things, and playing on keyboard can be a nightmare. Movement uses QWEADZXC, and aim is IOPK;,./ — with S for stop and L for fire. That’s right, once you’re moving, you don’t stop until you hit something or if you press S. And if you walk into a wall, there’s a horrible squeal and the screen goes blooey for a second as you’re stunned — and guards are still on the move. It’s not the best design decision. It’s possible to play with joysticks, though you would need two to do the job. that being said, it’s an interesting predecessor to the concept of twin stick shooters; I can’t help but feel like a remake of this game would be uniquely suited to modern gamepads.

A few years later, Muse Software would release Beyond Castle Wolfenstein, which greatly expanded on what you could do in the game. The basic premise is that you’re to infiltrate Hitler’s bunker, place explosives at the door to his conference room, and get out. To that end, you arrive already in uniform, and must navigate a bunker full of suspicious SS goons who will frequently demand to see your pass — and you’d better show them the right one out of a total of five. If you don’t, they confiscate it, and you’ll have to find another. Alert the guards and an alarm will sound, and you’ll have to deactivate it yourself to get them to stop coming after you. You can also drag dead guards around and out of sight of patrols, knife guards in the back, and even talk to commanders seated at desks to get hints.

While this game isn’t as iconic as its predecessor, it boasts a much deeper core gameplay despite generally playing — and controlling — the same way. It looks significantly better, too, with more detail on the guards, and somewhat better-sounding voice clips.

Silas Warner was never really happy with his celebrity. As he continued to work in the industry after the collapse of Muse Software, he would meet fellow programmers who were big fans of his work, which always made him uncomfortable. Despite his size (6’9" and 300 pounds) he was a gentle giant, socially awkward but sweet, admired by all who knew him. He was absolutely brilliant, a programming wunderkind for his day, who would help shape the burgeoning games industry. All the more tragic that he’s obscure now. He died in 2004 at the relatively young age of 54 after a few years of health problems, which had forced him to retire from working with computers. So there’s nobody left to speak for him except his wife, Kari Ann Owen, who he happily spent his last few years with.

But despite his obscurity today, his legacy can be seen throughout the four decades-plus since Castle Wolfenstein’s release. Aside from a litany of programmers and designers citing Warner and his game as inspiration, there’s also, of course, Wolfenstein 3D, a game with its own legacy.

Of course, neither of these games are fun to play today. They’re far too clunky and primitive, and outclassed in less than a decade. Yet they were incredibly forward-thinking for the early 1980s. Suffice it to say that the Castle Wolfenstein duology, despite its inaccessibility, is among the most important games ever made. Silas Warner basically invented a genre, and for that he deserves far more recognition.

-june❤

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june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]