Rise Of The Triad: Ludicrous Edition Review – Past Blaster

PC gaming in the early 90s was dominated by big boxes and thick manuals, much as it had been in the 80s. There was no publicly available Internet. Software patches were a rarity, and even then it had to be pretty damned catastrophic to warrant one. There were also a lot of scolding messages in those manuals about software piracy, how the publishers were against it, and you were a terrible person for making it happen. Yet there was a movement by small and hungry dev studios to beat the big boys with a novel approach: shareware. Introductory slices of a game which were given away on BBS forums or (later) sold cheaply in thin boxes or plastic sleeves, often passed around, and with the exhortation to buy the full game from the company once you reached the end. Id Software was one of the leading names in shareware, particularly with Doom and Wolfenstein 3D. A more prolific studio was Apogee, which brought the world games like Commander Keen, Duke Nukem, and their signature first-person shooter Rise Of The Triad.

Rise Of The Triad: Ludicrous Edition is a modern remaster of the classic shooter. Containing all of the episodes from the original release, along with the unofficial sequel, Return Of The Triad, you play as one of a number of special agents for HUNT (High-risk United Nations Task-force; don’t think about it too hard). Trapped on San Nicholas Island by a crazed cult bent on destroying Los Angeles (again, don’t think too hard about it), you must navigate labyrinthine levels, figure out switch puzzles, and blast the holy hell out of everything that moves to save L.A. and probably the world.

When gamers subsist only on Cheetos and Mountain Dew…

Nightdive Studios is to be commended for making a thirty year old “2.5D” engine look good. Yes, everything looks rough and pixelated, much as it did when Rise Of The Triad first came out. The key difference is that this is how the game looked on its original release. It’s supposed to look old because it is old. The effects are pixelated. The enemies are distinct but still kinda vague on fine details, exactly as they were before. But now you’re seeing it all running smoothly on modern graphics cards. Return Of The Triad looks a little better, running off zDoom instead of the original Wolfenstein 3D variant Apogee employed, but even so you still see the limitations of the tech. You’re not looking at actual 3D objects, but 2D objects which can be bent and transformed to give the illusion of 3D. If there’s any downside, it’s that one might actually start getting a bit motion sick after a bit. I don’t remember having that problem when I was younger, and it’s definitely not happening in other FPS games I play, so this may be a small side effect some players will want to watch out for.

The sound and music in Rise Of The Triad were decent enough back when it first came out, and Nightdive has wisely preserved those sounds. They’re not earphone splitting, they’re not subtle, they’re what you’d get if you were dealing with a 16-bit Sound Blaster sound card with 2.1 sound channels. The music is very much a product of its time and likewise well preserved. It has the same kind of limitations that the graphics do, in its own way, which makes the tunes a pleasant reminder of how game music used to be. And if you’re so inclined, you can just sit and listen to the soundtrack through the “Jukebox” option in the pause menu. Just be prepared for some highly weird pieces (a bombastic chiptune version of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen” isn’t what most people expect in an FPS) along with some very 90s-style themes.

This place is just a nightmare of OSHA violations.

Gameplay in Rise Of The Triad has always been compared (rightly or wrongly) to Doom. In some respects, the observation that ROTT isn’t quite as good as Doom is well founded. The original Doom was almost a perfect exercise in gameplay flow. You run, you gun, you maybe get brutally murdered, but it didn’t try to be subtle or complex. ROTT, on the other hand, has always felt more complicated than it had to be. In some respects, you see how Apogee tried to advance the state of the art at the time, presaging the sort of cleverly constructed action-adventures which would come about a decade or so later. Hidden switches, jump pads, enemies who play dead, there are a lot of elements which ROTT first brought up and which would become standard in later shooters. But at the same time it was trying to be a clever shooter, it was also leaning hard into the “mindless” twitch shooter mechanics and not quite getting those down as well as Doom. As a remaster, Nightdive didn’t fiddle with the gameplay mechanics, so you get to experience the same sense of low grade frustration you might have felt thirty years ago. It’s fun, to be sure, but it’s the sort of fun that is best taken in small bites. The same can be said for Return Of The Triad. Despite using a ported version of the Doom engine, with all the improvements that a massive fan community can squeeze in after almost thirty years, it doesn’t quite play as well as Doom. It’s a subtle sort of feeling, and it’s one that is hard to define after decades of gameplay. There’s very little in the way of actual narrative or environmental storytelling. All of the clever elements feel both interesting and half-assed. The different characters have different attributes to them, but no distinctive character arcs. Everything’s just the same as it was before, which is as much benefit as liability.

Ultimately, Rise Of The Triad: Ludicrous Edition is a well preserved slice of aged cheese. Gamers who enjoyed the original release and have wanted to play it again without crazed gyrations of configuration files and arcane execution switches are going to be well served. As a piece of gaming history updated for the present day, it shows off a classic game, warts and all. This is retro gaming at its best, and occasionally not quite at its best. Younger gamers and those who didn’t pick it up when it first came out will need to temper their expectations about a lot of elements. The included map editor will at least let players of all stripes perhaps appreciate the technical limitations the original developers were working under, and the multiplayer option can make for a nostalgic “LAN party” feel. Nightdive should feel proud about their efforts in preserving gaming history, and players who appreciate that history will certainly want to grab Rise Of The Triad: Ludicrous Edition for its historical value if nothing else.

Axel reviewed Rise Of The Triad: Ludicrous Edition on PC with a review code.

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