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Strafe is an intriguing, divisive attempt to deliver '90s nostalgia to video games

This kitschy new release delivers the aesthetic of early first-person shooter games to modern audiences.

Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

Do not attempt to adjust your computer screen: Strafe, the strangely pixelated game you may have seen on the internet in recent days, isn’t actually from 1996. Rather, it’s an attempt to combine the more chaotic, yet oddly comforting, aspects of ’90s gaming with a modern aesthetic and nostalgic marketing appeal.

Targeting ’90s kids and fans of first-person shooters, Strafe is trying to deliver the impossible: a game that feels dropped into our world from 20 years ago, but still appeals to modern gaming sensibilities — despite the fact that it lacks most of the mechanisms we’ve come to associate with satisfying gameplay, like plot, character development, and sophisticated strategy.

Or to put it another way: Strafe invites players to just kick back, shoot things, and enjoy how they bleed.

Strafe began as a widely hyped attempt to create the best — and bloodiest — shooter of 1996

In February of 2015, game developer Pixel Titans raised a relatively meager $200,000 on Kickstarter to bring Strafe to life. The campaign drew attention for a hilariously retro trailer that drew on cheesy ’90s gaming clichés and special effects to sell its audience on Strafe’s tone and aesthetic. To keep capitalizing on this wave of nostalgia, Pixel Titans also just released, in conjunction with the game’s release, an “official movie trailer” for Strafe, the film adaptation that never was for a ’90s game that never existed:

Billed as “the fastest, bloodiest, deadliest, most adjective-abusing, action-packed first-person shooter of 1996,” the game promises to deliver “auto-generating levels of pure mayhem” in a deliberately retro 3-D environment.

To understand what that means to a gamer, look upon this famous original screenshot from Doom, released in 1993.

Doom and other Strafe forerunners like Quake are among the first generation of first-person shooters (FPS), where the gameplay is entirely from the player’s point of view as you hold a gun and shoot things. FPS games like these also helped introduce 3D graphics to gaming — though as you can see, those graphics still left a lot to be desired.

Now apply that context to this random screenshot from Strafe, in which you can see how the basic concept of this early style of game play has been recreated: namely, things come at you, you shoot them, and they spray blood and body parts everywhere.


Strafe pits you against mutants, monsters, and humans in a kind of endless rogue run in which the only option is to shoot to kill. As you can see above, it’s essentially a pixelated bloodbath — an aesthetic that works precisely because it’s so artificial.

Strafe is essentially Brutalist: You’re dropped into a series of repetitive layers that all feature the same basic, bare layouts and fortress-like interiors. When you shoot things in the game, you’re rewarded with exaggerated blood spurts that look like exploding stalactites that fly everywhere and soak all that gun-gray metal in red. As our friends at Polygon note in the video below, there’s a practical element to all that blood and guts: It helps you know whether you’ve already cleared a room in one of Strafe’s endless randomly generated levels.

This hyper-artificial blood spray turns the whole game into a tongue-in-cheek callback to the days when early FPS games caused massive cultural handwringing for their violence.

This modern contextualizing of Strafe’s pixelated retro gore and cheery, Tarantino-esque blood spatter — combined with game mechanics that are designed to be deliberately awkward — makes the entire project feel fresh, even though it’s borrowing from old tricks.

Strafe is designed to be annoyingly difficult — but gamers are divided on whether that’s a good thing

Plenty of gamers recall with fondness the difficulty and repetitive mindlessness they experienced while attempting to play first-generation FPS games like Doom and Quake back in the late ‘90s. The game’s title, “strafe,” is actually a gaming term coined from those days, referring to the movement you make as you literally run in circles around your opponent attempting to fire off shots.

Modern gaming has moved beyond this rather rudimentary style of gameplay. But in Strafe, that rudimentary nature is a feature. To accomplish its goal of returning the player to the days when older technology hampered a game’s design elements, the game is designed to be intentionally cumbersome for the player. You’re given only one main weapon, and can only swap it out for temporary upgrades, many of which are designed for grunt work rather than efficiency. A winning strategy involves learning how to use your various weapons upgrades — many of which are deliberately designed to not work very well — against your opponents effectively.

Think of it as a high-end version of Flappy Bird — one where you know what you’re getting into, and the object isn’t necessarily to win, but rather to appreciate the clunky (and, in this case, violent) journey along the way.

This deliberately obstructive design has made Strafe a pretty divisive game, despite all of the hype it received prior to its May 9 release. On the one hand are gamers who praise its level of difficulty, and specifically its appeal to gamers who came of age on these first-generation FPS’s rather than their smoother-performing successors. “Strafe is so hard that I still haven’t come close to beating it. Don’t care,” raved Ars Technica reviewer Sam Machkovech.

But then again, the game’s frustrating mechanics have proven a turnoff for many players; it currently boats a mixed rating average of 62 percent on Steam.

And then there are those who enjoyed FPS games for something other than their more brutalist features, for whom Strafe’s random killing may not hold very much appeal.

The neat thing about Strafe, however, is that whether you love it or hate it, the attention it’s received shows that the recent wave of ’90s nostalgia that seems to be everywhere — from Stranger Things to Smashmouth remix albums — is having its day with the gaming industry as well. The results may be bloody, but they’re undeniably interesting.

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