This review contains an endgame spoiler.
Wanting to participate in the time-honored tradition of playing something thematic and/or frightening for Halloween, I recently finished up Return to Castle Wolfenstein for the PC. I played it at night, in my basement, noise-canceling headphones on, with a single lamp lighting the room. Although it's not a horror game per se it does have some of those elements. I had hoped it might scare my pants off, but it turns out the only one who lost their pants was the end boss's resurrector, the Nazi psychic Marianna Blavatsky.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein is one of those games that helped usher in a new era for its genre. Specifically, it rewards a metered, stealthy pace. It even includes a few stealth maneuvers that allow the player to go beyond a simple don't-let-the-enemy-see-you kind of approach. Crouching and moving to reduce the noise of footsteps, using silenced weapons, and leaning to peek around corners without being seen are all techniques that players need to familiarize themselves with in order to survive. The first level nearly requires stealth as the player's character escapes a prison cell armed with little more than a knife. These mechanics aren't without their problems, but they did a lot to depart from the more frantic arena-style shooters of the '90s.
Next, graphics. RtCW uses the id Tech 3 engine which was developed in part by the venerable John Carmack, a developer known for pushing graphical boundaries on the PC. The game looked great for its time. I specifically remember critics oooh-ing and aaah-ing over the effects from the flamethrower. And I have to say that I think RtCW still looks great today, especially when using the ioquake3 engine based upon the open-sourced id Tech 3 and modernized to allow for quality-of-life improvements like widescreen resolutions. Playing through the game, the graphics seldom struck me as old or outdated. Do they look as seamless, smooth, and detailed as modern first-person shooters' graphics? Of course not. Do the physics hold up? Definitely not. Do I care? Nope. I'm a retro gamer at heart, stuck in the '90s and early 2000s, and I like it that way.
Beauty in the eye of the beholder
If you're young (< 30 in my experience), you might notice that the attractiveness of members of the opposite sex (or same, if you prefer) tends to diminish as their age increases beyond your own. Now in my mid 30s with two small children, the same thing has started happening to me with younger women. And before you say anything, we're keeping it legal here.
I first noticed this phenomenon as I plodded through my graduate degree program. I had just turned 26 when I started it. When I finished I was 32 and had already had my first child. During that time, I found my attraction to the 18-22 year old undergrads on campus declined with each passing year. It's not that there was a dearth of physical attractiveness among incoming students, it's that other factors like their mannerisms and clothing amplified their youth and inexperience. In short, I found them less attractive because it didn't seem like they could relate to me. Women in their mid 30s, even those with kids, had become more attractive. I probably wouldn't have given them a second glance as a 26 year old.
Which brings me back to RtCW. The end of the game is ridiculous. Your character has been sent back to Castle Wolfenstein to stop Blavatsky from trying to raise Heinrich I, an undead 10th century tyrant, from his enchanted prison. It's like a fucked up Disney plot. When you arrive, you're presented with a cutscene that, well...
Why on earth is she dressed (or not, actually) like that?! Is it a requirement of the ritual? Did they even make lingerie like that in the '40s? Don't get me wrong. Teenage me wouldn't have complained, nor probably did the rest of the demographic id Software targeted with this game. That doesn't mean it makes any sense.
What's funny is that Heinrich doesn't seem to get it, either. After asking who she is and receiving the answer that she only lives to serve him—could this be any more of a wank?—he responds by turning her into a decrepit zombie! What gives?
The thing to remember about Heinrich is that he's old as dirt. He's not looking so good himself. So what does sex incarnate 1,000 years his junior do for him? Exactly nothing. His baseline for attraction has shifted much, much older...to necrophilia.
Back in my day
I recently got a Nintendo Switch, though I haven't played through any games on it yet. It's the first console I've owned since the PS2 and original Xbox. I haven't built a rig to keep up with PC gaming since 2003. I know the Switch isn't a powerhouse among modern consoles. Its games aren't the hottest, graphically, but they're undeniably pretty. And for that I'm worried that I'll have the same reaction to their dolled-up looks and modern sensibilities that Heinrich has to Blavatsky. Am I going to be put off by their youth, even if their physics are better and their textures higher res?
Maybe I should just take off these rose-colored retro nostalgia glasses.