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The weirdest shooters of the '90s

Not every FPS can be as grounded and reasonable as gunning down a million demons. The success of Doom saw developers trying just about every conceivable shooter concept that each new engine could render, from distant worlds to odysseys into breakfast and bible stories. We got Star Wars. We got Duke Nukem. But we also got some strange, strange games as Doom became the template of the day.

Here’s 10 of our favourite weird and wonderful shooters from the 90s, up to the dawn of the 2000s for good measure. And no, there’s no Redneck Rampage or its ilk. Trying to be funny is never as funny as the games that pull it off without meaning to, or are just plain strange.

Chex Quest

Chex Quest is one of the most famous promotions ever, at least in the US. In the UK, we don’t even have the cereal, never mind three different Doom total conversions to try to persuade our young minds to pick it over the likes of Coco Pops or Rice Krispies. The game itself is visibly Doom, but with a whole new set of levels and graphics, where you play the Chex Warrior—a man whose armour looks like a golden waffle with a beer belly—as he fights the evil Flemoids, because phlegm is exactly what you want people thinking about in relation to a crunchy cereal. 

The whole thing was of course very kid-friendly. Instead of killing enemies, the Chex Warrior did like Link in the old Legend of Zelda cartoon and simply teleported his enemies back to their home dimension. Still, kids who knew the Doom cheat codes could squeeze a few more levels out of the game than planned, minus any of the hellish visuals.

X-Men: The Ravages of Apocalypse 

For most of history, a superhero license has been a big flashing ‘stay away’ sign for discerning gamers. Ravages of Apocalypse was no different. It’s so bad—an X-Men game that, just for starters, doesn’t let you play as one of the X-Men. Instead you’re some random cyborg working with Magneto of all people to go and rescue them, as well as blast through endless clones of Wolverine, Cyclops, Rogue and co. until you’re sick of them. Also, despite Apocalypse supposedly being the baddy, the ending reveals it’s actually Mr Sinister.

What earns it its place here though is that it’s somehow an official game—licensed, sold in shops, etc—that was released as a Total Conversion for Quake. Yes, rather than pay the million bucks or whatever to actually license the engine, everyone involved just said ‘bring your own copy to run it on’.

Needless to say, this new way of avoiding licensing costs never really took off, and anyone unfortunate enough to fall for it this time found X-Men more fun as a frisbee than an FPS.

Super Noah’s Ark 3D 

There are many stories about Super Noah’s Ark, especially on SNES. For starters, it began not as a happy religious game, but a Hellraiser license. This is true. Another story is that id Software gave the makers the license to the Wolfenstein 3D engine as revenge for Nintendo messing them around during development. This is not true. Creators Wisdom Tree paid for it like anyone else, albeit very much at the end of its life, with Doom replacing Wolf3D as the shooter de jour. Still, Wisdom Tree's Hellraiser game just wasn’t to be, so Super Noah’s Ark 3D was more or less raced out the door just to do something with the engine.

The result is… shockingly… Wolfenstein. Sure, you’re Noah, shooting animals with food to put them to sleep, but other than that it’s largely a reskin. Largely, because while people claim the levels are the same, they’re actually not, and the PC version has some features Wolf lacked, like an automap, floor and ceiling textures, and strafing. The ‘sproing’ of food hitting animal faces though… that’s the same, and more than weird enough to earn a place here.

I.M. Meen

Wouldn’t it be great to learn while you played? As anyone who’s ever been forced to endure an edutainment game thrust upon them by well-meaning parents would reply: NO!

But sometimes they're unforgettable experiences. Never mind the game here: I.M. Meen is all about the opening cutscene, in which an evil wizard/librarian/vaguely human thing sings and dances around to make it quite clear that he hates children. It’s just… incredible. And if the animation looks familiar, yes, it’s the same team, Animation Magic, responsible for those infamous Legend of Zelda CD-I cutscenes (and the much better ones in Warcraft Adventures, thanks to Blizzard's high standards).

The game itself is part bland shooter and part English homework, where the gimmick is that you’re correcting Meen’s self-insertion fan-fiction for no real reason while trying to escape his clutches. The sequel, Chill Manor, did much the same gimmick with history, though again is most memorable for its villain, an elderly woman, waving her bottom in your face while singing “My nasties will distract you ‘till I’m done!”

To be clear: You’re not dreaming. This exists.

Mortal Coil 

Mortal Coil is actually quite a cool idea for a game. You’re a team of four, and can swap between each character, watch through all of their eyes at once, set paths and otherwise lay out basic tactics long before the likes of SWAT 3 and Rainbow 6. It doesn’t work very well. It doesn’t really work at all. Still, they tried, and that’s what matters. As for the rest of it, that’s why it’s here…

The intro alone deserves a spot. It’s the longest cutscene you’ll see outside of a Metal Gear Solid game, kicking off with a shot of our heroine in the shower, before emerging stark naked to answer a videophone call, and then getting cross with the guy on the line for getting an eyeful. The insanity only builds from there, including superior officers getting kicked hard enough in the balls to turn them soprano. And once you actually start playing, you discover that any members of Team Mortal Coil who die turn into giant grey penises. 

Oh, and to make it even weirder, the readme encourages you to re-record the dialogue and put yourself into the game with lines like—really— "Looks like the Beatles reformed. I guess you're a DUNG beatle!” Ten out of ten for moxie, but there’s a reason ‘Mortal Coil clone’ never entered the gaming lexicon.

Forbes Corporate Warrior

This game meant business. Literally. In what has to be one of the strangest licensing deals in PC history, Corporate Warrior doesn’t sit you in front of spreadsheets or a strategy empire, but throws you headlong into a futuristic internet where companies battle for profits in virtual online arenas. "There are no borders, no countries, and just three rules. Supply what your customers demand. Elevate your stock price. Constantly refresh your cash stream."

What this actually translates to is using weapons with names like ‘Ad Blaster’ and ‘Marketing Missile’ to shoot at competitors and drain resources from points on the map, with every action draining your valuable funds. This upgrades a bar that shows the variance between whatever it is you do—the game never actually tells you what your company makes—and the grade of whatever it is that your customers demand. Really though, every business transaction quickly boils down to ‘shoot a laser at it’, so it probably doesn’t matter much. You can even bring enemies onto your side by shooting them with, I swear I am not making this up, ‘an Alliance Harpoon’.

Ultimately, I’m not sure what message anyone was meant to take from this game, but ‘be more careful with your money’ is absolutely the only one anyone was actually likely to.

Catechumen 

Religious games tend to be a whole new level of weird and wonderful, and Catechumen certainly doesn’t disappoint. While not as crazy as, say, The Zoo Race (because literally nothing is), it tries! It’s a Roman era-themed shooter that starts with the obvious stuff, like replacing the ‘life’ meter with ‘faith’, but then reveals that the whole Roman army has been taken over by demons and it’s your job to run around with the Master Sword from the Zelda games, zapping the Satan right out of them. At this point they fall to the ground worshipping while a strident ‘Hallelujah!’ plays in the background. Continuing, you can upgrade this mighty sword of instant conversion and/or demon’s bane, most notably to a sceptre that’s basically a rocket launcher, complete with splash damage. 

It’s unknown whether the engine was chosen because it was literally called ‘Genesis3D’, but it seems unlikely. Still, an amusing coincidence at least. Catechumen would also spawn a sequel, “Ominous Horizons: A Paladin’s Calling”, said to be the most expensive Christian game ever. It cost $1.6 million to make, and supposedly sold just 50,000 or so copies, killing the company. 

The Terminator 

These days, you think Bethesda and you probably think The Elder Scrolls and Fallout. For a while though it was also the master of the Terminator license—the good, like Future Shock, the bad, Terminator 2029, and this, a shooter that really should be better known. The whole game is one big round of cat and mouse, where you can be either Kyle Reese trying to protect Sarah Connor from a younger looking Arnie, or the Terminator trying to find her and do what Terminators do best. It’s a rare case of a movie license being built around the movie instead of just slapped onto an existing game, and a surprisingly complex one for the time.

The Terminator has stores, for instance, where you break in and get supplies. Getting too much attention brings the cops into the mix. Items like running shoes help you move faster. Perhaps the best bit though is that as Kyle Reese, you can even go into a drug store and buy a pair of condoms. Too bad this doesn’t in fact cause the space-time continuum to fold in on itself. Not only would that be hilarious, it would have spared us all sitting through Genisys.

Isle of the Dead 

What could be better than a Wolfenstein 3D game set on a beautiful jungle island instead of those dark damp caves? If you answered ‘a Wolfenstein 3D game that murders you every ten seconds’, you win a prize. Your prize is Isle of the Dead. May whatever gods you believe in have mercy on your soul.

The shooter part is terrible. The world is a huge linked maze, and also terrible. The worst part of Isle of the Dead though is its delusion of also being an adventure game, with comic-style death sequences everywhere you go. Accidentally step on a small mark on the ground and see yourself hoisted into the trees to be eaten by wild dogs. Try to open a box and BOOM!. Almost-impossible-to-see tripwire. And then there’s the zombies themselves, ranging from green She-Hulk types who I’m pretty sure are not based on the sexy bikini lady on the box, or the answer to the question ‘what if Duke Nukem really, REALLY abused the steroids?’ Finally, just to add a little injury to the insult, it’ll let you get all the way through… only to leave you trapped because you don’t have the flare gun from near the start of the game. Grrrr!

Virus

It’s not often that a company invites you to install their Virus on your PC, but that’s what Sir-Tech tried in the 90s. The gimmick was that you were flying into your own PC, courtesy of a Descent style spaceship armed with the equivalent of Norton lasers and McAfee missiles, to destroy the supposed virus at the middle of it. No, there was no virus. None of your files were at risk. However, the gimmick was still pretty clever—levels procedurally generated based on your file system, and decorated with images found in your directories. Needless to say, a game probably best not played in the family room, unless you were very comfortable or sure that your journey wouldn’t take you through Porn Valley or Somehow Repeatedly Mistyped AltaVista Search Country.

Much later, there would be a game called Lose/Lose that took Virus’ concept a step further, with every alien in the game representing a file on your hard drive—shoot it, and delete the file. There would also be a funky Doom mod where sysadmins could literally kill network processes, with the creator idly pondering a whole ruleset for a very different kind of administration tool—one where important processes could be bigger and tougher, or different levels of sysadmin could be given weapons according to their rank. Somehow, it never ended up taking off as a tool. Pity. Doom was big, but it wasn't quite big enough to reshape the worlds of games and systems administration.