I hadn’t anticipated how boring Rise of the Triad would be in 2023. I loved it in the 90s, and not just because I was a kid of low standards. Guess there were adults in the 90s who liked it too. But in 2023? Well, there’s a lot of things I admire about it, but playing it the way it’s designed to be played – without cheat codes I guess – is novelty that fades after, oh, 10 minutes approximately.
But it is okay. This new Ludicrous edition is essentially a preservation effort on the part of Nightdive Studios, and as badly as it has aged, Rise of the Triad is worth preserving. Its first shareware installment was released in December 1994, almost exactly one year after Doom’s shareware debut. It sits at a strange threshold in the history of first-person shooter design, because while its texture work and enemy design may contain flame for Doom, it’s otherwise heavily limited by the 3D engine. Modified Wolfenstein that makes it work.
This means that each level has a fixed wall elevation and a single floor and ceiling texture. The cards are made from squares drawn on a grid, so there are no diagonal lines. The level design differs from Wolfenstein and its ilk in that although the elevation of all walls on a given level is fixed, the engine at least allows for different elevations per level. So while one level might have towering walls with a gorgeous exterior skybox, the next might have the cloistered, cavernous vibe of a Wolfenstein level. However, one cannot lead to the other seamlessly.
It may take a while to time out this limitation because Apogee has some fun ways to hide it. There are steel platforms, for example, that vary in elevation (you’re basically standing on sprites rather than geometry). There are also circular stair carpet sprites that can move vertically and horizontally. There are also, oddly enough, jump pads.
Doom 1993 had acclimated fans of first-person shooters to expecting levels to vaguely resemble real, albeit fantasy, locations. Doom E1M1 looked a bit like a hangar. E1M2 looked like a nuclear power plant with some suspension of disbelief. That wasn’t always true – a lot of Doom levels don’t make sense – but id Software had the power to create stairwells, adjust lighting on a fairly granular level, and create level furniture. semi-realistic from geometry.
Rise of the Triad has none of these benefits. The result is one of the most surreal first-person shooters of the 1990s. Levels bear no resemblance to real-world spaces, and there’s clearly little effort to try. These are sprawling, Byzantine, labyrinthine hellscapes strewn with obstacles (gunfire, ground arrows, crushing walls) and, yes, stepping stones.
Most of the time, these levels don’t even make sense as video game spaces. They twist and weave meaninglessly, with no thought to the world of any internal coherence or elegance. Viewed from above, many of the cards look like languid classroom doodles. It’s extremely easy to get lost looking for keys to unlock doors, and although the game ostensibly takes place in an island fortress inhabited by dangerous cultists, you don’t get an island vibe: you do get 3D Maze vibes. . Or, oddly, Commander Keen’s vibes.
The parallels are too fun to ignore: Tom Hall was the director of Rise of the Triad and also one of the creators of Commander Keen and Wolfenstein. The level design in both cases was also absurdly maze-like and not at all like – even slightly! – to a real environment or even possible to imagine. And too bad: the technology was not really up to scratch. But in Rise of the Triad, this presents itself less as a limitation than as a sensitivity. Along with obstacles, moving platforms, and jump ramps, Rise of the Triad also has an abundance of pretty useless collectibles, making the environments even more volatile like cartoons.
But the game is not bad. His arsenal is vast and impressive. His annoying sweeping weapons – a pistol, two pistols and an absolutely pissweak MP40 – are just there to help you out until you find one of the many missile weapons including rocket launchers, heat seekers and – my favorite – the flame arrester, which shoots all enemies in its path. The problem is that without those missile weapons, the gunplay is incredibly weak, and unless you’re playing cheats (I recommend) you’ll sometimes be caught off guard.
Another fun albeit minor advancement is enemy behavior. Some bad guys can steal your ballistic weapon if you get too close, while others will kneel down and beg to be spared (better kill them, since it’s a trick). Others play dead waiting to ambush, and there’s even a guy who can catch you in a net. Oh, and there are fun bonuses too, like the one that can turn you into a dog. There are also five playable characters, whose health pools and run speeds vary.
Rise of the Triad was actually a Wolfenstein sequel for a while, and if that ended up being its destiny, it would have been a huge step up. And make no mistake: Rise of the Triad was a bit of a revelation in 1994, even with Doom breathing down its neck. It was funny, it was weird, and there were some ridiculous gibs.
But should we play it in 2023? Only the most patient will make it to the end, especially given the extremely cryptic late-game boss fights. My recommendation is to use a cheat code to unlock all weapons and roam the maps marveling at the peculiar landscape. Think of it as a museum piece rather than a game to play from start to finish. He inhabits a particular gray area between Wolf and Doom, an area that has never been cloned or rehearsed, and for that reason alone, it’s worth experiencing once.
It’s currently on Steam and includes all expansions, a level editor, and a new episode made by Nightdive Studios and New Blood. Also included is Return of the Triad, which is a total conversion mod for ZDoom that pays homage to the original.