It’s a fact of life it’s fun to virtually shoot things. Nazis, alien hordes, demons, each other – it doesn’t matter. The gaming medium is just built to make first-person shooters feel good, with not much more satisfying than a perfectly-timed headshot or launching a rocket into a horde of enemies.
As a genre, FPS games started off humble before turning into one of the most massive genres in gaming history with countless titles that have become household names. Call of Duty is and always will be a best-selling juggernaut. Valorant and Apex: Legends draw in tonnes of competitive gamers across the globe. Destiny 2 has the live service market locked down with no signs of giving up the key.
However, before these amazing, modern games that we sink hours into came about, countless classic games refined the point-and-shoot mechanic to perfection. This list honours the best of 'classic' FPS games in a vaguely chronological order, with an emphasis on a variety of series rather than sequels. While you could reasonably argue that many of the titles listed below have been bettered by the successors, without them, the genre would certainly be a lot poorer.
The original Nazi-hunter would mark the beginning of id Software’s dominance of the genre throughout the 1990s. William “B.J” Blazkowicz blasted his way through bunker after bunker with a submachine gun, pistol, and – our personal favourite – the chain gun. While ‘3D’ was in the title, Wolfenstein 3D was actually put together using 2D sprites in a clever way to make it appear 3D. The best part? Killing mecha-Hitler at the end of the game. Blazkowicz made a triumphant return to the genre in 2014 with the most recent entry in 2019, so we think we’re about due for another Nazi-slaying romp.
While Wolfenstein 3D was great, id Software made a name for itself with the first Doom. Many consider it the true grandfather of the genre. Doom improved upon Wolfenstein 3D with more varied locales set in Mars and Hell. Faster paced gameplay with stunning monstrosities like the Spiderdemon and awesome weapons like BFG9000, Doom captured the essence of what every '90s kid wanted to play, and those '90s kids grew up to play 2016’s stellar Doom and 2020’s DOOM Eternal, making the franchise an everlasting classic. Who knew blasting demons on Mars and in Hell was a recipe for massive success?
Fun fact: System Shock is the spiritual predecessor of many stellar FPS, including BioShock, 2017’s Prey, and the Deus Ex series. Set in a massive space station, System Shock laid the framework for a slower-paced and immersive shooter when its peers were all about that adrenaline rush, though much of the game was spent whacking mutants with a lead pipe. Truthfully, System Shock dabbled in the action-adventure and horror genres as well, relying on you to explore to advance the plot rather than completing set objectives. SHODAN, the truly diabolical AI that hindered your progress, has gone down as one of the best and most terrifying villains in gaming. The game is currently being remastered for modern systems.
The Star Wars universe makes for better games than the movies, and we'll duel anyone who disagrees with lightsabers. One of the early examples of this was LucasArts’ Star Wars: Dark Forces. Derided as a Doom clone with a Star Wars coat of paint at the time, Dark Forces did a lot better than its progenitor: multilayered level design and the ability to aim up and down, for instance. Also, Star Wars blasters are just more fun to shoot than shotguns. Dark Forces would spawn a franchise, including a sequel that had spectacularly cheesy FMV cutscenes, but it was more of a first-person lightsaber game rather than a shooter. In 2023, we need another Star Wars FPS not named Battlefront.
Many schoolboys told tales of the crude Duke Nukem 3D, but few had parents that let them play it. With absurd and childish humour, Duke Nukem’s third outing and first FPS game certainly didn’t help the genre gain respect. Nonetheless, it was an important milestone. Great environments and a long single-player campaign with plenty of player choice on tackling each mission allowed it to stand out from its peers just as much as Duke’s one-liners about strippers and kicking ass did. A sequel would linger in development hell for over a decade, and by that time, Duke’s humour was less funny and a bit more sexist and gross. Regardless, there’s no denying Duke Nukem 3D is a classic.
Demons? Nazis? Aliens? Stormtroopers? Nah. Give us dinosaurs. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter probably has the wildest plot on this list; tasked with stopping a Big Bad Warlord from collecting the pieces of the Chronoscepter, Turok travelled to seven open-ended stages to collect the pieces himself. Along the way, he gunned down raptors and dimetrodons. And raptors and dimetrodons with guns. Also demons. And aliens. Okay – Turok: Dinosaur Hunter might’ve had similarities with others on the list, but it still released as one of the most unique and interesting titles early in the Nintendo 64’s lifespan. This is another title which spawned a very successful series.
You’d think the Nintendo 64 wouldn’t be home to the era’s best FPS, but looking back, that’s definitely the case, thanks in large part to developer Rare. The highlight of the N64’s FPS games was GoldenEye 007, which had it all: a lengthy single-player campaign to sink hours into and four-player split-screen co-op to sink even more hours into. Campaign levels such as Facility and the climatic Cradle have gone down as some of the most memorable in the genre. Creative game modes like the Man with the Golden Gun and a bevvy of Cheat Options, such as DK Mode and Paintball Mode, also made Goldeneye 007 the de-facto party game to play with friends in 1997.
One of the first successes of the tactical shooter genre, Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six brought thoughtful maturity to the FPS. Those used to running and gunning through Nazis and demons would find themselves dead quick, as the Rainbow operative you controlled died to a bullet or two. You quickly learned the planning stage before each mission was the key to success, as most missions lasted only a few minutes but could take multiple attempts to clear. Organising teams, classes, and planning out how best to tackle set objectives like extracting hostages alive or disabling bombs did a remarkable job at making you feel like a special operative.
Another fun fact that we forgot about until doing research on Medal Of Honor: Steven Spielberg wrote the story after watching his son play GoldenEye 007 and directing the classic war film Saving Private Ryan. It tried to do the impossible in 1999 and portray war in a mature way on the original PlayStation, and it managed to succeed. Taking control of an American OSS operative, you tackled several missions on route to the dissolution of the Nazi party, such as destroying a hydro plant used to make atomic bombs. Medal of Honor would have a ton of sequels, but its real legacy was the popularisation of the World War II FPS genre that still thrives decades later.
If Doom was the grandfather of FPS games, id Software’s Quake grandfathered the arena shooter. It was the series that introduced us to the likes of bunny hopping and rocket jumping. In 1999, Quake III Arena nixed a traditional single-player campaign to focus on multiplayer and arena-based battles versus bots. No shooter up until this point had truly captured online multiplayer, but id Software’s third Quake title managed to spawn a massive community that still exists to this day. Custom maps. Player-made mods. Competitive tournaments around the globe. These would all become staples of the genre.
Much like Goldeneye 007, Rare’s Perfect Dark knocked it out of Area 51 with both its single-player campaign (that included co-op!) and its multiplayer, improving on its spiritual predecessor in just about every way – with a bit less Pierce Brosnan. Taking control of Joanna Dark, you tackled a wild plot filled with lizard creatures set in 2023(!). Luckily, you also had a massive arsenal of fun-to-use weapons like the deployable Laptop Gun and the powerful SuperDragon. Even better, you could take all these awesome weapons and gadgets into multiplayer. The bots were more than serviceable, and if you didn’t like how some game modes played, each match was highly customisable. Some modern FPS could learn a thing or two from Perfect Dark.
Taking a page from System Shock – in fact, Warren Spector had a hand in both games – Deus Ex leaned into role-playing elements as much as it did first-person shooting, which in turn necessitated a more strategic mindset than its run-and-gun forebears. Frontal assaults often wound up getting protagonist JC Denton killed, so stealth, hit-and-run tactics, and creative use of skill points and mods to outfit weapons became a necessity. It was one of the first but most definitely not the last FPS that emphasised player choice to tackle any given situation, such as avoiding combat entirely, and showed once again that the genre wasn’t restricted to frenetic, twitch-based gameplay.
Mars makes for a great FPS setting, it seems. Instead of demons, however, Red Faction saw you take control of Parker as he and other miners rose up against the tyranny of the Ultor Corporation. Red Faction had what you’d expect from an FPS of the time: good graphics, vast array of weapons, and a lot of faceless soldiers to shoot. It was the GeoMod mechanic, however, that set Red Faction apart from its peers – destructible cover cranked to 11. GeoMod allowed you to blow holes through pretty much any surface, literally blasting your way through the walls of levels and blowing up enemy cover. Impressive, given that it came out way back in 2001.
Developer Bungie single-handedly made the Xbox a worthwhile console to buy with Halo: Combat Evolved – it was just that good. With a mind-blowing, innovative campaign that saw the now iconic Master Chief taking on the Covenant – and in one of gaming’s biggest twists, the Flood – and a System Link feature that allowed gamers to get together with massive LAN parties to play one of the most satisfying and addictive FPS multiplayers ever made, Halo changed the genre forever, to the point where the groundwork it laid is still being copied to this day. Bungie went on to make amazing sequel after amazing sequel and before pioneering the live-service shooter with Destiny.
Metroid Prime recently got one of the best remasters we’ve ever seen. It helped that Retro Studios created one of the best hybrid FPS to begin with, using an iconic Nintendo character that hadn’t before left the 2D plane. While many games have translated from two dimensions to three, few have done it as well as Metroid Prime; with ample amounts of puzzles and secrets that require upgrades to Samus’ suit, exploring the intricate Talos IV made for a one-of-a-kind experience. The staples of the genre were there: a HUD with health, ammo, radar, and a mini-map, yet Retro Studios still managed to capture that exploratory Metroid feel while releasing one of the best FPS you could play in both 2002 and in 2023.
The TimeSplitters series had a unique premise we’d love to see again. In an attempt to stop the alien TimeSplitters from altering human history, you travelled to different time periods and assumed the role of a person from that era. In TimeSplitters 2, this included a CyberJock in 2019’s NeoTokyo and a killing robot in 2315. It had all the FPS hallmarks: co-op with a friend, lots of weapons, and some great levels with three different difficulties. Like many FPS on this list, multiplayer reigned supreme, with an arcade mode that could support up to 16 players on system link and highly customisable modes like Deathmatch. Thankfully, Publisher Deep Silver is said to be working on a new entry.
While other multiplayer-focused FPS featured smaller, arena-like maps to battle in, Battlefield 1942 lived up to its name and innovated in the process. In massive 32 versus 32 bouts on huge maps filled with planes, tanks, and other vehicles to operate, Battlefield 1942 emphasised teamwork more than its contemporaries; going off alone often meant death, which meant fewer ‘tickets’ for your team and eventual defeat. More than any other FPS on this list, it really did capture the feel of a real battlefield, providing PC gamers with one of the best FPS experiences that would serve as the progenitor of many sequels and spinoffs.
Call of Duty reigned as king of the multiplayer FPS world for quite a while, and it started with the original in 2003. Picking up where Medal Of Honor left off, Call of Duty also showcased World War II, except this time it hopped between multiple viewpoints. With excellent sound design, AI-controlled squadmates, and enemies that reacted differently each time you played, it gave gamers one of the best representations of the deadliest conflict in world history. Believe it or not, multiplayer was not the focus here, with the single-player campaign on the frontlines. It would go on to win multiple Game of the Year awards.
Half Life II has such a stellar reputation behind it that writing why it deserves a spot as one of the best feels redundant. When it came out in 2004, many considered it the greatest game ever made, and nearly two decades later, many still do. Immersive and haunting (looking at you, Ravenholm), it showed how evocative an FPS could be. The true star wasn’t Gordon Freeman, but rather the Gravity Gun he wielded; flinging debris at the Combine was something far ahead of its time in terms of in-game physics. It’s wild we haven’t gotten a full-fledged sequel. Like, we still don’t know what’s up with the enigmatic G-Man all these years later. C’mon, Gabe!
The original Far Cry for Microsoft Windows heralded another leap forward for FPS as a whole. While the mission structure was linear, Far Cry put you in the role of Jack Carver on a massive tropical archipelago. Missions allowed you to tackle them however you wish; stealth, sniping from afar, ramming through the front gates with a rocket launcher, and so forth. Two decades later many FPS still experiment with this style of gameplay, especially the later Far Cry titles that have continued to drop players in vivid locales to explore and blow things up at their leisure. Built as one of the first games using the PC-melting CryEngine, Far Cry took home multiple awards in 2004 for being one of the best-looking games, too.