I'm in The House of Chthon, the narrowest and most lava-filled level in Quake. It's a one-on-one deathmatch, and my opponent—[FU]Frost—is trying to rocket-jump up to my position on the second level. I spam grenades, leaving a trail of bombs to slow his pursuit as I backpedal. A quad damage power-up appears at the far end of the map, on an island in the middle of the lava. It's the ultimate worm-on-a-hook—he abandons his rocket-jumps and beelines it for the quad. But I stay put. I switch to my rocket launcher and pop a missile at the floating quad icon seconds before he gets there. As soon as he reaches the island, my rocket smacks his feet, careening his body into the liquid fire—instant death.
Text pops up on the screen: “[FU]Frost turned into hot slag.” These customized phrases mock you after every death. Earlier, when I backed up onto my own grenade, I read: “Havoc tried to put the pin back in.”
Quake plays as a standard, early-'90s FPS: collect keys, kill everything that moves, scour for health packs and advance to the next stage; but its level design still shines in 2011. It might've been corner-cutting on id's part, but the fact that every single-player stage is also a multiplayer map generates some thrilling layouts.
The first single-player level, Slipgate Complex, emphasizes vertical maneuvering and multiple escape routes; you can also find every weapon in the game (except the Lightning Gun) somewhere on it. And the Gothic castle motif means plenty of high ledges and nooks to rain down death from above.
Rocket-jumping existed before Quake—Doom technically had it—but this game was the first that begged players to exploit it. Blasting your way up the columns across the Slipgate courtyard and tossing down a hail of rockets onto unsuspecting foes is euphoria. It's equally entertaining watching other players attempt the same thing only to detonate them-selves half-way up the columns with a poorly timed rocket.
I load up the map with a friend online. After routinely abusing the column trick, my opponent intercepts me with the business end of his Super Nail Gun (which shoots literal Nine Inch Nails ammo). I respawn, dodging and flailing my way to the Pentagram of Protection power-up. I pluck it from the rafters, but temporary invulnerability isn't enough. I want to humiliate my enemy. So I sprint to a wall across the hallway and blast it, opening a secret door to the quad damage. The other guy hears the door noises and comes to trap me, not real-izing I'm quadruple-powerful and invin-cible. As his 'nades explode harmlessly around me, I brandish my axe—swinging quadruple pain into him with each chop as he gets stuck in a corner trying to flee.
I go back to House of Chthon in single-player. There's now a molten monster (Chthon himself) bathing in the lava, lobbing globs of heat at me. Emptying 40 rockets into his face (where a face should be, at least) does nothing. I die four times before trying another approach. I hop to the top level and trip a few switches. Two pillars descend into Chthon's pool, but they don't do anything. I eat one of Chthon's magma grenades and get knocked into the lava, but I spot another button as I die.
I restart, lower the columns again and jump over to that third button and activate it. Volts surge through the pillars, zapping the lava demon dead.
Quake is punishing—there's no tool-tips or dynamic balancing to make boss fights a breeze. I load a secret level after microwaving Chthon—Ziggurat Vertigo. Trent Reznor's grunge-electric soundtrack grinds in the background. I ride an elevator and press a few runes, hoping that they'll open a door to a Ring of Shadows. Nope—it's a trap. Something resembling a blood-drenched Yeti materializes and decimates me from behind with heat-seeking lightning bolts. The death-text reads: “Havoc was smashed by a Shambler.” I reload my game only to realize I saved right after the Shambler appeared. Oh god.
Each time I reload, he wallops me, over and over. Quake is old-school tough, and there're no autosaves or checkpoints—if you botch a save, your only option is to start the entire level over. It's cruel, but the accomplishment you feel in pushing past a level feels so much more significant than, say, BioShock's no-consequence Vita-Chambers.
Fix it till it's broke
Then again, lack of difficulty isn't why Quake's modern versions (Quake 4/Enemy Territory) never caught on. These sequels introduced things that didn't make sense in Quake's fiction—vehicular combat, little encouragement of player-acrobatics, generic “random alien planet” level designs and the removal of secret areas.
Quake is better off for being created in a time where that stuff wasn't possible. Instead, you simply discover the best weapons, rocket-jump and bunny hop through vast castles, seek out the hidden power-ups and go bonkers spraying rockets from the hip.