We Are In A Boomer Shooter Revival, And It’s Amazing
The 1990s saw many evolutions for video games; the dawn of handheld gaming, ushered in by the Game Boy; the transition from sprite based graphics to full 3D modelling; the decline of the Arcade machine as home consoles dominated the domestic space; and the birth of the most dominant genre in gaming - the first-person shooter. Commonly referenced as the first FPS game, id Software’s Wolfenstein 3-D was a turning point that birthed a whole new genre of possibilities, but it wasn’t until their next game that it really took off. A year later, in December 1993, they released DOOM, the granddaddy of them all.
Before the term FPS became common in the gaming lexicon, they were typically referred to as DOOM clones. Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, Blood, Shadow Warrior etc. all were stuck with the tag at first - though perhaps understandably as they followed the same formula popularised by DOOM down to a tee. The term didn’t stick around for too long however. As the FPS evolved through the 90s and into the early 00s - thanks to titles like Goldeneye 007, Half-Life, and Deus Ex - the DOOM clone tag faded out of favour and was replaced with what we use now.
Though recently, a new term has been canonised as the de-facto way of referring to the model of shooter that DOOM inspired. Boomer shooters. Where the term originated from exactly is unknown, but I’ve heard two common interpretations of it: firstly is the general sentiment of calling anything old ‘boomer’, whilst the other refers to a slang term from 90’s games called ‘gibbing’ which is the act of blowing (booming) the enemies into chunks of gore. Whilst it may be an inherently silly term, it’s effective at communicating the subgenre it refers to, so don’t expect it to fade into obscurity anytime soon.
What Is A Boomer Shooter?
Aside from bearing some semblance to the original DOOM, one of the first things that stands out is the frantic pace of the combat and movement mechanics. Boomer shooters are fast-paced experiences that will see you bunny hopping, air-strafing, and rocket jumping around open arenas, whilst taking out varied rogues galleries of enemies. Another commonality between them is a whole cast of creative weapons to use, with the super shotgun acting as a uniting thread across nearly every game in the genre - plus, did I mention no reloads?
I would be amiss without mentioning the typically simple structure of these games, that tend to be light on story and split into distinct levels and chapters. Many of the games make use of environmental storytelling to some degree, and save narrative exposition for between chapters. The level design is also characterised by non-linearity, with items like keycards (or a similar analogue) used to progress through locked areas, with an abundance of secrets to find.
Overall, there are many things that set boomer shooters apart from other FPS games, and aside from some mainstream successes like the DOOM reboot, they’ve largely been relegated to the indie scene.
When Did The Revival Start And Why?
There was no single catalyst for the revival of the boomer shooter, but one of the biggest turning points was without a doubt the release of the DOOM reboot in 2016. Despite hesitation from fans - and outright rejection from others from its announcement to its release - once it came out, it was a critical and commercial hit. Players were stunned at how the game managed to meld classic shooter philosophies with more modern design sensibilities, all without forgetting its heritage as a DOOM game.
It retained the vital speed and intensity of a boomer shooter, but brought it into a AAA mainstream market. Everything was there: a cast of explosive weaponry, hordes of demons ready to be slaughtered, a heavy metal soundtrack that spurred forward the action, and a surprise metanarrative that pushed back at the previous decade of single-player FPS stories. It’s important to acknowledge games like the Shadow Warrior reboot and the Rise of the Triad remake that preceded DOOM, but their effect on the culture wasn’t as far-reaching
Another huge factor in the return of the boomer shooter is a publisher synonymous with this genre, New Blood Interactive. Since being founded in 2014 they have released three of the most successful and acclaimed shooters of the last several years: DUSK, AMID EVIL, and ULTRAKILL. The former two have been released in full as of writing this, whilst ULTRAKILL is still in early access but with the distinguished honour of having the best ratio of positive to negative reviews in Steam history.
Each of their titles handle the boomer shooter territory in different ways. DUSK goes for a classic, chunky pixel look and horror atmosphere, with a lot of inspiration from The Chasm in particular. AMID EVIL sets itself apart from the rest with a fantasy theme, drawing from Hexen and Heretic with creative weaponry like a trident that shoots chain lightning and the Celestial Claw which sucks planets out of the cosmos to hurl them at enemies.
Lastly, ULTRAKILL adds elements of character action games like Devil May Cry, scoring the players’ missions based on their overall style, kills and time. Despite their differences, they all unite under the banner of the boomer shooter, and have helped to bring these experiences into the spotlight for a new generation of gamers.
The last contributing factor is the recent boom in the creation of indie games that emulate older periods of video game history. Boomer shooters haven’t been the only re-emerging trend from an older era, with CRPGs and PlayStation 1-inspired horror making big comebacks in recent years.
The absence of these experiences for entire generations has been missed by a niche but important section of the market, and with developers able to finally create these games and promote them, the consumers have chosen what they want.
What Does The Future Of Boomer Shooters Look Like?
In an interview with VG247, DUSK developer David Szymanski, stated “we’ve kind of peaked as far as saturation for boomer shooter throwbacks goes,” and while that’s not necessarily a claim that the genre is returning to the grave, it’s an indication that its time as part of the indie scene zeitgeist could be ending. It’s true that the excitement isn’t really the same these days, with more and more of them coming out. Like any good trend in gaming, it can be overdone, similar to the WWII shooters of the 00s and open-world zombie games of the 2010s.
However, the sheer choice available in the indie scene, compared to the relatively finite amount of AAA releases, has the power to halt oversaturation to the point of sickness, leading me to believe boomer shooters will continue on, carried by the quality of the genre's best. They may not be able to ride on the wings of nostalgia as it’s fleeting, but as long as good video games forged with love and passion are being released, they’ll find an audience.
Plus, there is plenty to be excited about regarding the future of the boomer shooter.
ULTRAKILL is still in development and its hordes of dedicated fans are awaiting the completion of Act II and III, and if the quality of the first is anything to go by, ULTRAKILL may genuinely be a contender for the greatest FPS ever made. Another early access title that burst onto the scene this year was HROT, taking place in 80’s Czechoslovakia, it features a more dialled back design philosophy, with fewer enemies and resources as a metaphor for Soviet scarcity.
The AMID EVIL expansion Black Labyrinth is nearing completion, the demo for Postal: Brain Damaged just debuted to good fanfare, while upcoming titles like Fashion Police Squad, ROBOBEAT, and KINGDOM of the DEAD show all the creative ways the genre can evolve and change, nearly 30 years on from its inception. Contrary to Szymanski’s comments, boomer shooters aren’t at the tail end of a revival. We are still very much in the middle of a renaissance, and my super shotgun is loaded and ready for whatever’s next.