It’s the new century! The future has arrived. The Xbox and Gamecube try to wow people, which in hindsight will be a fruitless effort. The PC, meanwhile, is enjoying its last few years before the dark ages. Arguably, some of the greatest stuff came from around this period. One such game was Serious Sam: The First Encounter.
First person shooters were in a time of transition. Half-Life, which made my list too, had effectively changed the landscape. After its success, any game attempting to be a straight shooter with no plot was going to be met with some resistance. Quake 3 and Unreal Tournament dodged that issue by simply focusing on the multiplayer, but everyone else was in a bind. There was no choice but to adapt, right? Maybe not. Croteam, a then-unknown Croatian developer, chooses the opposite direction. And in crossing the line, they create awesomeness.
Serious Sam, which really should be well known at this point, is what happens if you take Doom, strip the boring parts and feed steroids to the good parts. Which means, no more looking around for keys in labyrinthine maps – don’t get me wrong, looking for stuff in labyrinthine maps can be pretty good, just look at System Shock, but it’s not what I’m looking for in a straight shooter. And to compensate for the lack of keys, you insert a lot more monsters. It works. Much better than one could have expected.
Part of that is due to the concept of “arenas”: you aren’t just killing all these monsters in corridors, often you are thrown into a large closed area and swarmed with enemies. Survival at these times requires an adrenaline rush that few other games can give you. Sam’s trademark humor might have helped a little bit too, but it wasn’t especially present in this game yet. In fact, this was a semi-straight shooter, with few jokes and merely some peculiar monsters and stage design. It certainly wasn’t as crazy as MDK, or its own sequels.
Despite that, it’s my favorite in the series, and I mean a series almost entirely made up of awesome games (we don’t talk about Serious Sam 2 around these parts), so that’s saying something. I should also mention the great pumping-up soundtrack and the quite attractive visuals, but in the grand scheme they don’t feel all that relevant – although props should be given to Croteam for creating an engine that managed to run well even on fairly old PCs despite the number of enemies on screen. The extensive customization options will help you obtain the best quality and framerate too. If you are looking for an entry point into the series, or even just if you are looking for a great time shooting some skeleton horses, Serious Sam: The First Encounter hasn’t been topped yet.
Playing today: now this is one widespread game. After its success, there have been several conversions, upgraded ports, remakes and all that jazz. Let’s proceed in order. First thing first: let’s say you want the original game. In that case, Steam (and GOG) have got you covered. The Classic version will run just fine, although you might have to tinker around the .ini files a bit to activate Vsync properly. Another option is to buy Serious Sam Reloaded, which is an update to the two original games, but I can’t honestly suggest it until they fix a current issue with controls latency. It might not be a big deal to many, but I’ve played this game for years and I can notice the difference imediately.
If you fancy something a bit more modern, Croteam released in 2009 an HD remake called Serious Sam HD. It’s got better graphics, extra shiny, leaderboards, and just a little bit of weird physics. They will screw you up a little in the beginning, but the game is fine. The best idea would be to buy both TSE and TFE at once, which will give you access to a “Fusion” DLC, meaning you can play all of the first game’s levels directly from the second game. There are advantages to this, such as getting a better score on the cumulative leaderboards, but maybe I’m the only one who cares about this. These games are almost always on sale, so wait a bit and you’ll grab them for peanuts.
If you are a console-only player, well, you still have a couple options. A game called simply Serious Sam was released on the Xbox, which is also backward compatible on the 360 (framerate is a bit iffier though). It’s a compilation of the first two games, which are played back to back. The game compensates for joypad controls with some generous auto-aim, and you are also given a lives system, which works quite well. Modesty aside, as an expert, I was able to finish the Xbox version on the highest difficulty with more than a hundred lives to spare.Your other option is an Xbox 360 port of Serious Sam HD. I never tried it myself, but I heard the framerate is not that good. If possible, stick to the Xbox original. Still, if that’s not an option, don’t let things stop you and get SSHD on the 360.