RISE OF THE TRIAD / Apogee / PC
From 1993 to 1996 there was a sort of "arms race" in the PC FPS genre, as everyone tried to one-up each other with new features. During this period, it was totally fine for a game to be a blatant Doom knockoff, so long as it had at least one or two killer new features that Doom hadn't managed to offer yet -- things that seem relatively simple now like jumping, looking up and down, etc. were a big deal and could really drive sales if bolted onto an otherwise very samey experience.
Rise of the Triad was Apogee's only real attempt to get back into the forefront of the genre during this period, before they would morph into 3D Realms and outright win the arms race with Duke Nukem 3D in 1996. If the whole thing looks and smells a little Wolfenshtein-y, there's good reason; it actually began life as Wolfenstein 3D II and is an elaborate hack/modification of the original game's engine! We do know that the original release of Wolfenstein II was canceled so as not to conflict with the launch of Doom (which Apogee was originally going to publish before iD went independent with it), but likely the decision to not return to it as a Wolf 3D sequel was that iD took the rights to that property with them when they split (since Apogee was never really more than a distributor for their games).
Keeping the game a Wolfenstein sequel also might have limited it in terms of tone. Other than Sorceror Hitler and Mecha-Hitler at the very end of it, Wolf 3D played things pretty straight and serious. It would be kinda hard to reconcile that tone with many of the neat ideas that Apogee wanted to put in this one -- trampolines, flying, God Mode, Shrooms Mode, Dog Mode, Elastic Mode, etc. Changing the whole thing up to a campy individualized property basically gave them the freedom to go nuts, which ended up being a big part of this game's charm.
Aside from being known for Trampoline Nazis and crazy power-ups, RoTT also quietly introduced a laundry list of features that had previously been missing from FPS games. While there still wasn't a jump button, RoTT introduced more stacked vertical levels than any previous game and let you soar through them both with the trampolines and with the flight power-up that effectively serves as a magical jetpack. Death traps like fireball-shooting walls and moving medieval Cuisinarts are also a major part of the game, and while there really wasn't any technical reason earlier FPS couldn't have added these, RoTT was the first to bother to do it on a large scale, including large movable wall columns that functioned as obstacles and traps. And a lot of these traps have their own little death animations for your character that the camera moves out from your view for! There are also tons of subtle advances here in lighting and in the use of textures. And it's the first game I can remember that used thumbnail screenshots with each of your saved games.
As impressive the general resume, the multiplayer-specific innovations were even better, making this game the top choice for deathmatch among the most hardcore of the PC Master Race until Duke 3D hit. For starters, it upped the simultaneous LAN player count to 11 -- Doom 2, which was released later the same year, had a cap of four. It's also the first FPS to come up with a "capture the flag" multiplayer mode. Wisely, the new trampoline and flying features also allowed you to land on people's heads for a Mario-style kill. And then, of course, there's the gibs. You got the satisfaction of either exploding or burning opponents in a loving level of detail that nothing else of the time was even close to matching. And the raw amount of map settings was off the charts for the time.
Though the game has a very substantial single-player campaign, it's still stronger in deathmatch. Combat is kind of a joke in all but the hardest modes, with guards only posing a challenge when they pull typical '90s FPS cheese like silently popping out of a wall or crevice behind you. And the level design is the standard '90s FPS "poke around for the colored keys", though RoTT's advances in engine capacity actually sometimes work against it here as later levels are a little too labyrinthine and tedious for their own good.
The biggest overall downside as compared to other period FPS, however, is the limited weapons inventory. You get a pistol to start, and a double pistol and machine gun permanently once you find them (which doesn't take long). All of these have infinite ammo, even on the hardest modes. But that was likely done to counterbalance the fact that there isn't much else to pick up. The final of the four weapon slots is reserved for one of the rocket launcher varieties. Some of these are quite cool, like the Flamewall that incinerates everything in front of it, or the magical baseball bat that lobs exploding balls. But you only get to hold one of these at a time. The majority of the single-player game ends up being pecking away at samey guards with the same ol' machine gun.
Like pretty much all of the '90s FPS roster, RoTT has not aged well and is admittedly kind of tough to go back to and enjoy after being spoiled by modern conveniences. You kind of have to have grown up with these games (and got your degree in Alt-strafe control mechanics) to appreciate it now. But I do also feel that it's fairly underrated and underlooked, getting overshadowed in its own time by the phenomenon of Doom. The silly cut-loose style is a nice contrast from most over-serious and grimdark FPS, yet many of the industry heavyweights were involved with it and it doesn't lack for quality design. Killer soundtrack too
* Demo version
(full first episode)
* Interesting internal info
from 3D Realms developers