In 1993, id Software defined the first-person shooter genre with Doom. In 1994, they perfected it with Doom II. Yet even as the FPS format was first beginning to take shape, a studio called Peninsula Gameworks produced a shooter for Mac and PC that felt like a relic from another time.
The reality was that Spectre VR – the second sequel to 1990's Mac classic Spectre – actually did belong to another time. Doom, its sequel, and its imitators approached the task of combat viewed from a first-person, three-dimensional perspective by going the visceral route. Players climbed into the head of a lone warrior, getting in close and reducing enemies to piles of gore, literally getting blood on their hands... or at least their avatar's hands, that is. Spectre's approach hearkened back to the classic arcade. All the way back to 1980, in fact, and Atari's Battlezone.
To be precise, Spectre VR's creators very deliberately patterned their shooter after Battlezone. The game's first-person perspective dropped players into the cockpit of a sleek futuristic tank. The graphics rendered the world and everything in it as a conscious imitation of Battlezone's vector-based graphics, with simple, colorful polygons and razor-sharp lines glowing against a field of black. It even imitated the distinctive typefaces of other Atari vector titles like Tempest. Spectre VR was retro before anyone knew what a "retro game" even was.
Despite its fundamental similarity to Doom, the two games felt nothing alike. Spectre VR was all crisp polygons and neon glow set in vast, open arenas – the polar opposite of Doom's dank, claustrophobic military bases. Enemies consisted of triangles that exploded into smaller triangles upon being shot, not demonic abominations that fell to bloody pieces. Spectre's mission objectives amounted to little more than capturing flags in an arena. It was the product of a simpler time, updated to take advantage of the Macintosh's graphical horsepower.
Spectre VR had another advantage over its arcade inspiration besides mere graphical horsepower: Networking. Battlezone, by simple virtue of being an arcade game from 1980, could only offer solo play. It wasn't even the kind of game others could crowd around to watch, since Atari's Ed Rotberg designed it to be experienced through a viewfinder. Spectre VR, on the other hand, could use Apple's speedy (albeit fussy) AppleTalk networking protocol to allow LAN play for several people at once. In fact, this was the main feature Spectre VR offered over its otherwise-similar predecessor, Spectre Supreme.
Spectre VR hasn't aged nearly as well as Doom, to be honest. If its simplistic play and relatively slow pace felt dated in 1994, they come across as downright archaic now. Even so, it had a place in its time – a valuable demonstration that shooters didn't need to present themselves as bloody heavy metal album covers designed to make your mom angry in order to be fun. Besides, in an age where so many developers look back to the early '80s for aesthetic and mechanical inspiration, Spectre VR's backward glances made it curiously ahead of its time, too.