August 21, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

One day they’ll be on every anger-management curriculum: first-person shooting games, those cathartic Doom-style wonders that give you a fix of really big guns, ammo, villains, and entrails. They’ve come a long way since they arrived on the scene eons (i.e., six years) ago. Compared with current top sharpshooters — GT Interactive’s Unreal and Activision’s Sin (downloadable as a free preview version at http://www.activision.com and due commercially in the fall) — the pioneers were crude, but they had charm. More important, they inspired even the meekest player to get up close, personal, and violent with their computer diversions. Herewith, the evolution of this unkillable species.

— CRO-MAGNON MAN When id software released Wolfenstein 3D in 1992, no one had seen, or played, anything like it: At last you felt like you were the hero, seeing the game through his eyes instead of moving him around like a chess pawn. Rising out of the primordial ooze of id’s 1990 shareware game Commander Keen, Wolfenstein featured the over-the-gun-barrel viewing perspective, labyrinthine battle arena, and sheer overkill of modern shooters. Even more crucial, its plot — you blow away Nazi troops in search of Hitler himself — was a masterstroke as moral as it was commercial, neatly sidestepping the ethical dilemma (does this stuff inure you to violence or flush it out of your system?) that haunts the genre.

— HOMO DEATHMATCHIS Doom, id’s follow-up, was the plasma gun heard round the world. Whisking you to an alien realm filled with gun-toting mutants, the game moved more than 17 million copies, made a cameo on ER, and gave gut-spewing gore a whole new medium of expression. But its most significant features were the death matches that enabled distant game players to blow each other away over a computer network, and tools that allowed fanatics to custom-make their own Doom worlds (best hack: Simpsons Doom, which pasted Bart’s mug over enemy monsters). Evolutionary offshoots of Doom also began to show up: 3D Realms’ Duke Nukem added bikini babes to the mix, and LucasArts’ Dark Forces featured the likes of Star Wars cult bad guy Boba Fett.

— HOMO POLYGONALIS Id continued to pump up the graphic realism with 1996’s Quake, in which marooned space soldiers fight off inhospitable aliens. Evolutionary developments included the ability to jump (handy, that), smoother animations, and technology that increased the number of gamers who could play in an arena at one time to 16. Expert Quakers skulked about the networks, pouncing on unsuspecting novice soldiers.

— MODERN MAN The graphics improved threefold in Quake II, making possible effects like translucent smoke oozing from the barrel of a gun. Even better, Sin introduces artificial intelligence — angry grunts who chase you even when you scamper into another room — and immersive campaigns that actually make you care about the plot. Sin‘s not as graphically sharp as Unreal, which uniquely allows you to interact with the environment by, say, shooting down rafters onto unsuspecting enemies (we didn’t say save the environment).

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