A beginner's guide to boomer shooters, and how they inspire new-school FPSes like Witchfire
First-person shooters have a reputation as some of the biggest, dumbest games out there. It makes a sort of sense: Pointing a big gun at the bad guys and pulling the trigger doesn't take a lot of brainpower. However, in recent years, we've seen a shift away from the "stop-and-pop" cover shooters and military-inspired campaigns of the 2000s and 2010s toward a more retro-inspired style.
The Doom reboots are probably the best-known examples of these so-called "boomer shooters," but there are many more out there that are worth your time. You can even see the DNA in upcoming games like The Astronauts' Witchfire.
Even if you aren't a shooter fan, here's our guide to getting into the genre.
What is a boomer shooter, anyway?
The term boomer shooter has a rather nebulous origin, and it likely started as a joke. Online pedants often point out that the original first-person shooters were developed by Gen-Xers like John Carmack (born 1970) and John Romero (born 1967), not Baby Boomers. However, "boomer shooter" uses the slang version of the term boomer, as a stand-in for any older person who is closed-minded and out of touch—so please, direct those complaints elsewhere.
The precise definition of boomer shooter varies quite a bit according to context and audience. But the bottom line is this: First-person shooters of the '90s were fast, furious, and fairly tough. They featured large numbers of over-the-top armaments like rocket launchers, Super Shotguns, and purposefully-overpowered cannons like Doom's BFG. They emphasized enemy variety and skillful player movement, sometimes even requiring mobility quirks like Quake's bunnyhopping, i.e. jumping repeatedly to gain speed and momentum.
Most of these aspects were thrown by the wayside as the FPS genre became increasingly mainstream in the 2000s. Player characters slowed to a jog, weapons became more realistic in form and function, and popular series like Halo and Call of Duty limited you to two weapons at a time, both for balance purposes and because of controller limitations. Though there was nothing explicitly wrong with these changes, they did serve as an era-defining paradigm shift for shooters in general. Today's wave of boomer shooters is all about reaching back to the original era of shooters for inspiration, combining the best of the old with the best of the new.
How do boomer shooters differ from retro shooters?
One of the biggest misconceptions surrounding boomer shooters is the idea that they're simply wrapping retro gameplay up in a shiny new package. Though it is true that many of these games use retro-style graphics (like 2D sprites in a 3D world, or chunky low-definition models), they often feature mechanics or elements that were absent from their forebears.
Painkiller, one of the first boomer shooters, features creative alt-fires for its various weapons—including a shotgun that can also fire ice-bolts and its "shurikens and lightning" gun (a description popularized by Zero Punctuation). Painkiller also has RPG touches in the form of equipable cards and a transformation that makes you invulnerable for a short time, deepening the strategy the game requires of players. Given its stout difficulty, you'll need all the help you can get.
Some boomer shooters go even further, with Doom Eternal adding weapon-specific weaknesses to certain enemies and including boss monsters that require the player to adopt a more focused playstyle (such as the infamous Marauder).
And Eternal has spawned a number of maximalist shooters that focus on depth of mechanics, frenetic speed, and stout challenge, taking inspiration from other genres like character action games. One of the most recent examples of this strain is Turbo Overkill, which features chainsaw limbs and more visual noise than a hair metal music video. While boomer shooters hearken back to the old times for the sake of nostalgia, it's fair to say they're also pushing the genre forward in their own ways.
Where should I start with boomer shooters?
Two obvious entry points to the current boomer shooter craze are the original Doom and Quake. Though they were both made by id Software, they're quite different games. The original served as more of a direct influence on today's shooters, whereas Quake is more of a visual touchstone than anything else.
If story is more your thing, you can also check out Wolfenstein: The New Order, which combines the run-and-gunning of boomer shooter classics with a more stealth-focused approach. You might also try Slayers X, a deliberate throwback that uses its late '90s charms to tell a story of the game's fictional creator—a conceit used to great effect in the game that preceded it, Hypnospace Outlaw.
Or if you're looking for a game that combines a dash of boomer shooter DNA with RPG-style builds and a roguelite one-more-run approach, you should check out the upcoming Witchfire.
What is Witchfire?
Witchfire is an upcoming dark fantasy shooter from developer The Astronauts, a studio comprised partly of staff who worked on the original Painkiller. Though the game clearly has boomer shooter in its DNA, it's not a straightforward Quake clone. Witchfire is an ambitious project that combines classic FPS gameplay with loot, RPG elements, and good ol' spell-slinging.
Though many aspects of Witchfire are still under wraps, it looks like the sort of game the genre needs right now. Like Painkiller, Witchfire uses a firm grasp of the fundamentals to elevate the formula to the next level. The Astronauts have explicitly stated that Witchfire is not a direct follow-up to Painkiller—but judging by the trailers, the game's combat takes notes from the best of all shooters, and it's likely to please fans.
Witchfire creative director Adrian Chmielarz is quick to note that the game is not a traditional boomer shooter, citing its lack of genre staples like retro-style visuals, hip-fire only gunplay, and maze-like maps. Instead, he says that the team is trying to combine many different styles of game—from roguelites to From Software-inspired Souls-likes—to create a sort-of ur-shooter.
"In our collective memory, the original boomer shooters like Doom are all about juggling enemies, target prioritization, and generally hordes of the evil creatures," he says. "In reality, the vast majority of direct encounters were 1v1, 1v2, or 1v3. This really made things personal, and each kill felt more emotionally charged than if you were really mowing down dozens per second. We tried to replicate that and make each kill feel meaningful and personal."
Though Witchfire isn't a Painkiller-esque tribute to boomer shooters, Chmielarz says that all shooters owe a lot to the likes of Doom and Quake. "With Witchfire, we're taking things into a different direction. But we do remember our roots and the reasons why clicking heads works. All shooters have the same fundamentals, and it's boomer shooters. We're all children of Wolfenstein—or the 1973 game Maze, which is technically the first FPS ever made."
Tips for success
Though every shooter is different, there are a few tips that translate from game to game. For the most part, the key to success in boomer shooters is mobility. While other shooters might ask you to slow down and line up your shot, that's not really the case here. It's much more important to run and jump around to avoid taking hits. Perhaps the most fundamental move you'll use in every classic shooter is the circle-strafe—moving in one direction to avoid enemy fire while adjusting your aim to make sure the rockets hit dead-on. In contrast, bunnyhopping can be quite useful in certain games like Quake, but it's not applicable to every FPS, so try it out for yourself.
The next tip might not sit well with everyone, but it's one that's worth discussing. Today's developers try their best to support controllers and other alternate control schemes with aim assist and the like. However, these games were designed for keyboard and mouse first and foremost. If you can figure out a way to circle-strafe and bunnyhop with the best of them using a controller, more power to you—but if you can't, you should seriously consider learning how to use WASD. Not everyone is going to be able to learn how to use a mouse and keyboard just to play one genre of game, but I personally feel that it is a superior experience, and one I swear by to this day.
If you're struggling with the boomer shooters you play, there are a few things you can try in order to acclimate more easily. For one thing, new players tend to set their mouse sensitivity too high when playing older shooters. If moving your mouse only a few inches causes your camera to spin 360 degrees, consider lowering it or getting a larger mousepad. Similarly, you can always lower the difficulty setting if you're having trouble learning the enemies and the level layout.
Really, there's no wrong way to play a boomer shooter. If you're blasting bad guys and having fun, that's all there is to it.