The Ultimate Quake Playthrough: Part I - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

The Ultimate Quake Playthrough: Part I

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Having recently taken a romp through several of my old Star Wars games (specifically the Jedi Knight series), I marveled at the creative use of these early First Person Shooter engines. Star Wars licensees have been using FPS engines as far back as Dark Forces which used rendering techniques on par with the original DOOM, albeit with number of impressive little improvements. Digging through my aged collection of retail games, I decided to open up Ultimate Quake, which contains the retail versions of the first three games in the series. Interestingly, the only one I had played all the way through (without cheating) when I originally bought these games was Quake III Arena. I still play Quake Live, a modern variant of Q3A. However, I never got past the second episode of the original Quake, and I had essentially skipped Quake II altogether. So I decided it was high time to do a play through the whole boxed set.

The Caveats of Quake

In order to play Quake in a modern computing environment, some amount of alterations to the original experience are required. I had to use a source port and configured the game a little above the resolutions I used when Quake was released for DOS, but I found a port that let me play the game with unfiltered textures, which I purport to be the proper way to play Quake. The textures are designed for unfiltered software rendering. In my opinion, Quake requires the crispness of those big chunky pixels to be viewed with any kind of clarity. For inputs, I setup modern key bindings and went off to defeat evil on the default Normal (Medium) difficulty. I suppose I could have played on Hard, but it turns out Quake packs a decent punch, even today. I stand by my choice.

Quake's Design

Interestingly, most of the cast of enemies are introduced in this first episode. I don't know if this was a result of limited memory, limited design time, or internal team conflict, but episode one introduces us to Rottweilers, Grunts, Enforcers, Death Knights, Rotfishes, Zombies, Scrags, Ogres, Fiends, and the Shambler. This leaves only two other bad guys to be introduced in the remaining three episodes. One wonders if they packed all those bad guys into the first (free) shareware episode to ensure it was as impressive as possible (to fuel purchases of the full retail game) or if they had intended to create more creatures for the remaining ones and ran out of time. Perhaps both. Instead, Quake focuses on its strengths... strong architectural themes for each episode and varied level designs which dance between exploration puzzles, traps, and ambushes.

Dimension of the Doomed

Episode one, no doubt inspired by their previous hit game DOOM, begins with some familiar elements. Shotgun in hand, we proceed through a military style base with buzzing computers and lights, elevators and sliding doors. Military personnel have already been taken over by evil, and we're required to shoot down the resistance.


Futuristic Base Texture and Details Reminiscent of DOOM's early levels.

A lot of hand-holding occurs in the early levels. The critical path is linear, and puts all the basic gameplay components in front of us. Buttons to push. Doors to pass through. Exploding ammunition boxes are put next to enemies so we can experiment before accidentally blowing ourselves up. In short, it plays like DOOM. You can run and gun, and blast your way through. I think this must have been intentional, giving us a familiar opportunity to get our bearings, but it doesn't last.

When Ogres are introduced, we get our first enemy with multiple attack options. From a distance, grenades get tossed, and up close... the chainsaw quickly chews through our remaining health. This is where Quake's pace is established. Stay behind an enemy, and if you can't... it's time to bait their melee attack and get out of the way before they swing. Ogres move slowly and rely on positioning to keep their advantage. Once you figure them out, Knights come along with swords, charging you down and swinging in wide arcs, making it difficult get around them. Combinations of these enemies quickly create complex combat situations with multiple angles of attack.

Quake : House of Chthon

Quake Episode One Final Level: The House of Chthon.

By the time episode one ends, Death Knights and Shamblers with much larger health and stronger attacks have us back-tracking or looking for cover. If the player hasn't sorted it out yet... the Shambler also teaches that each enemy has different ammo tolerances. Shamblers shrug off rockets, but fall quickly against the Super Nailgun or the Thunderbolt. The final map presents a lovely rune sitting near a pool of lava. Grabbing the rune triggers a boss battle in which no weapons are of any use. A giant burning demon called Chthon emerges from the lava throwing fireballs. The player must run around on narrow walkways triggering devices which electrocute the enemy while being careful not to fall in the lava before the job is done. Once defeated, we can proceed through a portal to complete the episode. It's a strange encounter, but one which tantalizes the possibility that more interesting beasts may lie ahead for us to defeat.

Realm of Black Magic

Quake really got my gears turning in the episode two. The architecture turns to stone with glowing glyphs, with teleporters and traps galore. Capitalizing on every dimension of movement, levels turn into puzzles boxes where only the most attentive players survive. More like something out of the Saw franchise, each level literally unfolds, with panels opening up to grenade-launching Ogres, or Death Knights or Zombies with ranged attacks. Floors opening up onto lava. Spiked walls suddenly launch forward pushing the player into traps or ambushes. Many of these devices were introduced in small ways near the end of Episode One.

Quake_E2M7 : Shambler

A Shambler approaches with arms wide. Probly just wants a hug. I'm sure it's lonely in the Realm of the Black Magic

There is always a way out. Clever players who double back to look behind each panel, each wall and door, and each moving part can find secrets or the next part of the main path revealed. I found myself ramping up on the SaveGame feature in this episode. And since my memory of the second episode was foggier than the first, I died a lot more times trying to figure out how handle each room as I entered. Quake released before the advent of Auto-Save book-ending tough encounters. Survival required diligent data management.

The level designers kept me on my toes, seeming to know when I was going to rely too much on running backward firing automatic weapons. Just when that strategy proves most useful, they'll close the door behind, sealing off the room with a Shambler and lava pits on either side. No cover... just gotta be smart about where you save your game, charge in with the right weapon, and make sure you've got enough health to soak up a little damage. The Shambler's long arms makes it hard to bait the melee attack, but it can be done... once at least, if you have full health (preferably some armor along with it).

The distribution of health and armor is scant in a few places where they want you work on your skills... but for the most part, they planned out the items really well, making sure to leave a few scraps for the unlucky players who are walking into a challenging room ahead.

Realm of Black Magic, to me, is the hardest and most satisfying of all the Quake episodes. Hard to say favorite in a game this gloomy. But I definitely got put to the test, and I felt that even the most difficult challenges were fair. The difficulty level is balanced by the fact that maps really aren't very large. It may take dying a few times to learn the layout and anticipate the surprises. But when the critical path of each level can be cleared at a casual pace in around ten minutes, the potential rage-quitting is minimized. The Episode ends with a couple of Vores guarding a portal. They serve as the Boss encounter, with their player-following explosive projectiles. Luckily, I had some cover and chose the right ammunition, and dispatched them both without taking much damage. It was a confident end to a complex, grueling episode. Sadly, there was no giant demon waiting for us at the close, but I was eager to continue at this point.


Episode Three is a cakewalk. I had been playing only a couple levels a day to get through Episode Two trying not to get burned out on my Quake adventure. But the day I finished Realm of Black Magic, I started up the Netherworld and played through the whole episode within an hour. (I late discovered that one level in this episode is a hidden level, and therefore the main path has one fewer level than other episodes). Given the quick pace, I didn't retain any memorable moments. The environmental themes were less interesting, less cohesive than in Realm of Black Magic, and the challenges provided were stacked with more and tougher enemies but were fairly predictable by comparison to Episode Two. Black Magic had trained me up and I was no longer afraid.

So many Ogres.

Ogres galore with Chainsaws and Grenades aplenty. Note the delightful trails of square particles.

Vores and Spawns abound now. But Vores, I found, were always easy when there was cover to be found. Their explosive projectiles would always detonate on the wall or column I was hiding behind. So long as I stayed behind and only ducked out take one or two shots at a time, I could remain invulnerable.

Spawns were mostly an issue of navigation. They would take physics-defying leaps across long hallways and detonate when they touch you. The best tactic was to toss a grenade at them while they're at rest. If they've already spotted you, running around with nailguns proved effective. Most of the time their jumps were large enough that I'd pass around or under them as they flew by. I just had to tag them with enough nails to cause detonation at some distance. As a result, neither the Vores nor the Spawns provided much more challenge than the puzzling, unpredictable maps of Black Magic.

There were another couple of Vores at the end of Episode Three, a Fiend appears in your path just as the exit comes into view. The surprise got me once, and falling off the path while fighting the Fiend got me on the second try. But soon I defeated the final enemies, grabbed the third rune and hopped into the portal. Again, no giant demon. But I was ready for Episode Four. Surely, there had to be a giant boss somewhere.

The Elder World

The final episode turned out to be a bizarre selection the designer's most devious ideas. There wasn't any logical theme to it, aside from it being a place twisted by horrors beyond imagination. I don't count this as a downside. It's playful episode that tosses out logic in favor of wielding the full might of the designer's toolbox. Imagine the worst Dungeon Master in a game of D&D, one that revels in punishment, obscuring the path forward, testing the player's agility and cleverness. That's The Elder World. The most memorable level was the second-to-last, called The Pain Maze (E4M6).

The Pain Maze

The Pain Maze: returning to a room I already cleared of Fiends, it is now full of jumping Spawn. I died right after this screenshot was taken.

It's a level with rooms of ever-spawning monsters which established rules and then breaks them. All paths lead back to the start until you unlock a way forward. Stone alters appear with a prompt to shoot at it steadily in order to progress. I had to play this level several times to figure out how to get around the first altar. Bullets flying everywhere, a couple monsters lingering silently nearby, begging for you to blast away and trigger it. I did trigger it, several times... unleashed Vores in a small room with no cover other than Altar itself. My carefully honed anti-Vore skills could not hold up in there.

It should also be noted that the slow, cautious pace of Quake is again subverted here, providing too many monsters to effectively dispatch them all. There's plenty of ammo, but I found that one or two passes through any room was more than enough to empty my most effective ammo, leaving me stranded on the next room.

I had to charge ahead, guns blazing, avoiding as much damage as possible, and trying to beat The Pain Maze before it overwhelmed me. After that, the longest level, Azure Agony, took me a while to navigate. But it was only a matter of time. Short on puzzles, and with a number wide-open rooms with cover via connected halls, I was able to stay safe for most the map with only one or two areas forcing my Save-game skills to replay a challenge before moving on. At the end of it: no giant demon of any kind. When I saw the last rune, I thought it would be a trap, but alas. No. I exited and wondered how the game would end.

With all four runes in hand, I found a new pathway had opened up in the Episode selection area, and I made my way down to the hidden portal.

Shub Niggurath

This final map was the boss battle I was hoping for. Weapons, ammo, and armor provided... the rocky cavern opens into a lava pool with giant writhing creature in the center.

The Witch Mother: Master of Quake

Shub Niggurath, codename Quake, mother of all these bad critters, protected by a Shambler (and many more Shamblers and Vores would spawn when this first protector went down).

A gauntlet of Shamblers and Vores pursue. For each one killed, another spawns. The path winds its way around the chamber, with alternating cliffs of rock and opening into the lava pool below. Sadly, the giant beast in the middle doesn't really do anything but wait for death to be triggered, but there are plenty of Vore projectiles and Shambler lighting blasts being thrown around to keep you hopping. When the final moment comes, it is implied that player has chopped his way out of the great beast from the inside, ax in hand. Animation is minimal. The player simply stands in idle posture as Shub-Niggurath explodes into raining gibs. The conclusion is fairly satisfying, all things considered. A gory cinematic moment as reward for completion. It's as on-theme as one can get. And possible the best way to use the simple visual language of the game to give the player a moment to feel appreciated at the end.

Architecture as Gameplay

Quake is a hard game. Even on Normal difficulty, if you're going in blind with no experience or expectations about the level designs, there are many hours of worthy challenges available. Thankfully, difficulty can be adjusted up or down to taste.

The gameplay core is now standard fare. Less fantastic than current-gen games, but the world is solid. Made of large blocks, the structures are imposing and clear-cut. Collision with the world is mapped exactly to the structures shown. Memory constraints didn't allow for minor details to be modeled. Very few objects are ever in the way of smooth navigation of the space. There are no invisible walls. What you see is what's there.

Ogre Combat

Ogre Combat gets personal. Narrow passages often have Ogres tucked away waiting to swing their chainsaws.

The combat is brutal, and definitely pulls influence from a time when the hardest games were considered to be the most satisfying to play. Both traps and ambushes foster intervals of claustrophobic combat. Despite the large wandering environments, it's easy to feel that these levels are setup up not for our exploration, but to digest the player, eroding armor and health, depleting ammo gradually. Quake is as much about avoiding damage as it is about dealing it out.

Id's language of hints expanded in this game. For the first time, they were able to hide clues in every direction, viewable only from certain angles or locations. With the addition of jumping and swimming, the player is constantly encouraged (sometimes forced) to maintain a constant awareness of the geometry.

It shares some expectations in common with NES-era platformers. Much like in Super Mario Brothers, players have learn more than how to move and jump. Once the basic skills are established, it's all about learning the levels. Learning the best approach through trial and error. Many concepts are adaptable to future levels. But level design is the master. New combinations of familiar elements are what drive the action and keep potential boredom at bay. This is a much simpler approach than narrative-driven shooters, which focus on set piece reveals and require a myriad of other tools to create the impression of a big world and then encourage the player to take an expected path through it.

Quake bares itself completely to the player, making no demands about how to best navigate its paths. Despite the acid and lava hazards, there aren't really any ways to get lost or encounter a instant death scenario. A couple traps may crush the player to death, but generally all paths that can be found are navigable. Hazards can be avoided. Usually there are hidden ramps or secret passages under water or acid. Lava is less forgiving, but that's what lava is for.

Architectural Motifs: Arches and Doorways

Architectural Motif: Arches and Doorways

A final note on architecture: The strongest motif used throughout Quake (and its sequels) are Arches and Doorways that make a statement. Here's a brief selection of prominent areas which cry out for attention and often mark an important threshold for the player to see long before they can reach or pass through them.

Psychology as Gameplay

Many developers since have managed to generate fear or paranoia in their games. But few have turned that into a resource and a skill they way id did with Quake. Look everywhere, shoot everything. Always something behind you. Try not to fall. But if you fall and survive... explore. There is probably a secret or some health or ammo nearby. There is a rhythm to the moment-by-moment success and failure in Quake which has a positive, thrilling feedback to it.

There is also a kind of hope generated by the level design, despite the eerie, forbidding environments and the chilling, industrial despair of Nine Inch Nails' soundtrack. If you're still alive, whether the last turn of events went as intended or not, there is a path forward.

Most of the innovation in gameplay design is through misdirection. The greatest moments are when the level has provided all the clues and all the training required to predict an ambush, change the formula, putting triggers in an unexpected place.

In DOOM, item pickups or crossing over the threshold of a new sector would spring traps and spawn monsters. In Quake, invisible trigger blocks can be anywhere. One of the cleverest setups is the beginning of level The Vaults of Zin (E3M2). The player stares down a hallway at the prominently displayed silver key. As the player nearly reaches the key... the pillar it rests on is pulled down into the level, leaving only a tiny window showing the key resting in an inaccessible room below. Zombies spawn all around, and the player has to dash around quickly to locate a grenade launcher to take them out.

The Fourth Wall

There are number of non-game elements included in Quake to guide the player along or to offer an amusing reminder that Quake is a fantasy created by humans who seem to enjoy the relationship between developer and player.

The difficulty selection is done in-game via portals. On-screen text pops up to let you know exactly what these portals do, and more pop up near the Slipgates in the next area to let you know which episode you'll be launching. Following along in this early tutorial style, there are text prompts around every new mechanic (jumping, pushing buttons, discovering secret areas. Thankfully, these prompts avoided the modern annoyance of interruption, disappearing after only a second or two.

Most of the early traps are well lit, sometimes even spot-lit to make sure they are noticeable. These elements in particular have no real place in the game world. They're an obvious gesture on the part of the designer to give the player meta-information about world itself. It's fascinating how a static lighting cue can be so effective. In a world that teaches you quickly to be paranoid about odd details, the designers create a level of trust with the player through mistrust of the world. So long as you keep suspecting that odd details will harm you, odds are you'll find a (relatively) safe path.

Some of the moving parts in Quake go delightfully unexplained. While most elevators and lifts are anchored in the geometry, some platforms go sailing around without rails to hold them up. Water levels defy the law of communicating reservoirs. There'll be deep pools with rooms full of air inside them and paths out of the water. There are bodies of water suspended in air for that matter. None of that makes sense, but they're rare enough and usually done such aesthetic appeal that most players wouldn't question it. Many might not even notice in the mad scramble to stay alive. More important than aesthetic, the broken rules seem to support very specific navigation flow through the level. Each of these contrived exceptions are clearly planned out and provide some fascination about what magic might be at play to make it all work.

Quake's End of Level Stats

Quake's End of Level Stats hint at remaining content that went undiscovered.

In addition to the text prompts and strange physics-defying designs, Quake provides statistics at the end of each map (as DOOM did). These functions as both a performance review and a replay teaser, offering an honest appraisal and a numerical hint about how much content was left behind. There's also a psychological boost for players who manage to get all the secret areas and defeat all the monsters on the first play through a level. This is a more straightforward report than today's achievement and progress-bar collection meters. Keeping it as a summary report allows players to determine their own goals, to bask in their victory, and to decide whether 100% completion is even relevant to their experience.

The final out-of-game note left for players who finish the game and defeat Shub-Niggurath are also congratulated in a direct way, with a message that mixes in-world narrative and developer commentary.

Rendering Three Dimensions

As a visual experience, Quake might sit in a no-man's-land of pixelated, late-era DOS rendering for modern gamers. For others using modern ports, the textures can be filtered and lighting adjusted to taste. The modern options look like a blurry mess to me, but some clearly there's interest and value in being able to tweak all the settings. However, as a player and as a developer, I prefer to see the game as it was designed.

My specific distaste for modern texture filtering in Quake is that in the mid 1990s, the textures had to provide a lot more information than a single material. Modern textures tend to represent a single surface. Quake textures included sculpture, architectural details, cracks, rivets, embedded lighting, and sometimes lettering or labels. They had to deliver on a theme. When filtered, the game has a look of having been under nonstop acid rain for a century or two. All the details long since washed away. When pixelated, it's definitely not modern, but can at least be seen in focus and at a consistent level of detail.

Quake Texture Mode Comparison

On the left, modern filtered texture blurs all details and flattens distant materials into a smooth flat surface with very little contrast (default anistropy notwithstanding).
On the right, corners, details, and minor depth illusions (such as with rivets with little shadows) are preserved, albeit with big chunky pixels. (Click and zoom to see how default OpenGL filtering stacks up against the classic look).

As for color, the original Quake (for those who remember) earned the moniker of The Brown Game for a while, and for good reason. Most of the low-lit areas descend from bright reds and yellows into warm rusty browns before turning black in the dark corners of the world. Only certain areas of cool blue or pale off-white look smooth in the pre-baked lighting of the era. It's definitely a darker, murkier looking game than its predecessor DOOM. But it outshines its successor in terms of palette and lighting design which I'll explain in part II of The Ultimate Quake playthrough. Check back soon for the second article, where I'll detail my experience of Quake II!

Thanks for reading!

P.S. Did you play through Quake back when it was new? How does my experience line up or divert from your memory of the game? Have you NEVER played Quake? Thinking about giving it a try? Let me know in the comments.

Posted by Seth Gorden

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