We all love a list, so every Tuesday we’re posting one, on a variety of retro-themed topics! Feel free to share your own favourites down below — and let us know what other lists you’d like to see on future Tuesdays!
As a gentleman of a certain age, I take great umbrage with some classic games of my youth being described as “boomer shooters”, but I have to admit it is quite helpful to distinguish these games from today’s first person shooters. Because the best boomer shooters provide a very distinct experience from today’s Call of Duties, Battlefields and the like; they offer much more frantic, high-speed action with considerably less focus on realism and plausibility.
For the most part, they’re pure power fantasy — and that’s what makes them quite so enjoyable. The best boomer shooters don’t make logical sense if you stop to think about them at all, but they offer a wonderful sense of being a lone hero up against overwhelming odds. And that, really, is the basis for some of the finest video games of all time!
So today we’re going to take a look at ten of the best boomer shooters. Some of these are obvious choices; some less so. And while some of the best boomer shooters have actually been released in more recent years thanks to indie developers latching onto the subgenre, today we’re keeping things strictly retro.
So lock and load, and let’s check out the best boomer shooters that retro has to offer!
The grandaddy of them all — though it’s worth noting that Wolfenstein 3-D wasn’t actually the first ever first-person shooter. It is one of the best boomer shooters out there, though, featuring a distinctive blend of dungeon crawler-style labyrinths and fast-paced Nazi-blasting action — plus an absolute ton of levels to take on between those included in the original, the sequel Spear of Destiny, the “Super Upgrades” official expansion pack (which features ten levels by your Editor, don’t you know) and the myriad custom levels made over the years.
For the ultimate Wolfenstein 3-D challenge, play it in “arcade-style” mode — don’t save your game, respect the number of lives it gives you and try to obtain the best score possible in a single sitting. And don’t forget to check out some of the ports of the game that aren’t on PC, too — some of them have some notable differences such as new weapons and levels!
Nab yourself a copy of the original and its sequel for PC here.
A game that has arguably aged a little better than its spiritual precursor Wolfenstein 3-D, Doom is responsible for many of the things we take for granted in today’s first-person shooters — including competitive multiplayer. But it’s the single-player experience where Doom shows itself to be one of the best boomer shooters out there.
Exquisitely designed levels that really allow the designers’ personalities to shine through; varied weapons, each of which are useful in different circumstances; a genuinely menacing atmosphere; and some enormously satisfying challenging encounters to work through. Doom still feels just as fresh today as the day it first appeared — and that perhaps explains why it still has such an active modding community, as well as some excellent console ports on today’s platforms. You can even take it on the go with you thanks to the Switch version!
If you don’t already own multiple copies of Doom like most people, nab the PC version here. It is also available for a variety of consoles!
Rise of the Triad
Originally intended to be a sequel to Wolfenstein 3-D, Apogee’s Rise of the Triad is one of the best boomer shooters out there simply because it’s absolutely batshit crazy. Completing abandoning all semblance of realism with its floating platforms, drunken missile launchers, ability to transform into a dog (and God) and deadly traps, Rise of the Triad is an energetic, exciting experience from start to finish, featuring one of the best MIDI soundtracks you’ll ever hear.
While the engine technology is more primitive than Doom, the level designs are still varied and interesting — and there are plenty of them, too. And if you can get the multiplayer up and running, there are a load of really fun modes to try your hand at — not just deathmatch. Definitely one of the best boomer shooters out there — and one of the most frequently overlooked, too, so be sure to give this one a shot.
Pick up a copy on GOG.com here.
Heretic was Doom, but fantasy. Its spiritual successor Hexen took that concept and really ran with it, making for an experience that felt much more distinct than its predecessor thanks to its hub-based levels, dungeon crawler-style puzzles and varied character classes to play as. This is one of the best boomer shooters out there thanks to how very different it feels from the other games that were around at the time — it was proof that the genre could be more than just fighting your way from a start point to an exit.
While some of the puzzles can be a little frustrating — particularly when you hit a switch and have no idea where in the vast level something has changed — Hexen is an atmospheric, enjoyable game that will scratch that fantasy itch while still providing fast-paced first-person shooter action.
A vastly underappreciated game thanks to being based on relatively dated tech — the Doom engine — back when it was originally released, Strife has had a bit of a renaissance in more recent years. It’s even had a rereleases on Nintendo Switch, allowing a whole new audience to discover that this is actually one of the best boomer shooters from back in the day.
In some respects, it’s a little unfair to call Strife a “boomer shooter”, since it also features some significant RPG-style aspects such as interacting with characters and raising stats. But it also has plenty of its own frantic blasting action, so it absolutely counts as one of the best boomer shooters. If you never gave this one a go back in the day, you can easily rectify that right now thanks to the “Veteran Edition” released by Night Dive Studios!
Grab a copy of the Night Dive remaster here.
Duke Nukem 3D
While its more recent sequel Duke Nukem Forever had what can politely be termed a “mixed” reception — hey, I actually rather enjoyed it — there is absolutely no debate over whether or not Duke Nukem 3D is one of the best boomer shooters out there. Acting as a wonderful showcase of 3D Realms’ “Build” engine and the impressive degree of interactivity it offered, Duke Nukem 3D remains a highly enjoyable game today for its fantastically designed levels, imaginative weapons and varied hordes of alien bastards to make pay for shooting up your ride.
While some take umbrage at the less politically correct aspects of Duke Nukem 3D’s humour today, the game was always intended as an exaggerated parody of ’80s and ’90s action movies and the excesses to which they went. Take the game in the spirit in which it is clearly intended — not at all seriously — and it’s clear that said parody is right on the nose.
Pick up a copy of Duke3D here.
Another game which went a little underappreciated back in the day but has become a bit more recognised in recent years is Blood. This also used the Build engine seen in Duke Nukem 3D, but instead of parodying action movies, it took aim at horror movies — particularly the sort of low-budget, held together by sticky tape feel of them, primarily seen in its wonderful arsenal of improvised weaponry.
Blood is absolutely one of the best boomer shooters out there — and possibly the only one in which you can set fire to your foes using a lighter and a can of deodorant. Pity the sequel didn’t quite live up to expectations — but we’ll always have the original.
Start your fight against Tchernobog here!
Yep, another Build engine game, another genre to parody — in this case martial arts movies — and another game that is one of the best boomer shooters of the ’90s. Taking full advantage of the highly interactive levels it was possible to create using the Build engine, Shadow Warrior features some truly memorable encounters and challenging setpieces to negotiate. And it was arguably the first first-person shooter to make melee combat an actually practical option; protagonist Lo Wang’s sword was deadly if used appropriately.
In more recent years, Shadow Warrior has enjoyed some modern reboots — these are well worth playing in their own right, but quite different from the original game in many ways, though they still feel like authentic successors. It’s an interesting exercise to compare and contrast the original and the newer versions — so if you’ve got some free time on your hands, why not give ’em all a go?
Pick up the “Redux” version here, or grab the “Classic” version for free.
Quake is actually quite an interesting example because while there’s never been any doubt that it’s one of the best boomer shooters in existence, back when it was first released there was a certain amount of cynicism over it. It felt a bit too much like Doom to some players and reviewers, and the fancy new 3D engine wasn’t enough to distract from the fact that you were still just shooting monsters, collecting keys and trying to find the exit.
But the trajectory first-person shooters have taken over the intervening years since Quake’s original release means that Quake’s high-speed action actually feels very fresh and exciting today — and well worth spending some time with. Pick up the new Quake Enhanced version from Bethesda and you get all the official expansions from back in the day — plus two newer ones, too. That’s a whole lot of game to enjoy.
The most recent entry on this list, Painkiller is noteworthy for adopting a somewhat different approach to many of the other best boomer shooters. Rather than being a 3D take on the “run and gun” formula, Painkiller instead challenges you to clear a series of monster arenas before moving on. It works extremely well and provides some incredibly frantic action to enjoy — all accompanied by some delightfully thrashing heavy metal music in the background.
Even the narrative is pure metal — after suffering a car crash, protagonist Daniel Garner is trapped in purgatory and must fight his way through hordes of demons if he hopes to ever see his wife in heaven. Better get practicing, though — since that happy reunion will only finally occur if you can beat the hardest difficulty in the game!
Kill the pain with a copy of Painkiller here.
So those are our picks for the best boomer shooters out there — but as always, this is far from an exhaustive list. What are your favourites from back in the day — and how about the more recent homages to this type of game, too? We’d love to hear from you, so drop us a message in the comments below or via the usual social channels and let’s talk classic blasters!
Some links on this page are affiliate links, which means if you click through and buy something we may receive a small commission. This costs you nothing and helps support Retrounite!