When it was originally released, Serious Sam was a throwback to an era and a style of game that never really existed, but should've. Intended as a response to the increasing complexity and sophistication of first-person shooters, Serious Sam took the lean, tense corridor-crawling and overwhelming monster encounters that defined early first-person shooters like Doom, sped it up, and turned up the crazy. It made for an experience that suggested what all first-person shooters would be like if the genre had grown up in arcades instead of on the PC.
Now the mad eastern bloc scientists at Croteam have used their latest technology to remake Serious Sam: The First Encounter. Despite a higher resolution, cleaner textures, and better particle effects, the experience is, for all intents and purposes, unchanged. The passage of time makes it feel even more like an alternate history throwback than it did originally, but the relentless gameplay philosophy is just as singular and exhilarating as it was nearly a decade ago.
As a response to more, uh, serious games like Half-Life and System Shock, there's a lot about Serious Sam that is intentionally very stupid, not least of which is the fiction. I'm not even going to explain it here, partially because it's not really relevant, and partially because I do not believe that even the developers at Croteam want you to care about backstory or character motivation. Their primary concerns are very apparently shooting and monsters, so all you really need to know is you're a dude that shoots monsters. Also, you're in Egypt, kinda? Or at least an Egyptian-themed level in a videogame.
The setting seems designed specifically to remind you that you're playing a video game. The same thing goes for your weapon selection, which includes a grab-bag of six-shooters, shotguns, tommy guns, rocket launchers, and some exotic high-end firearms. While the weapons are archetypal, the monsters you face seem like they were each plucked from other, wildly different games. They're consistently absurd, though the headless screaming suicide bomber with big black Snidely Whiplash bombs instead of hands remains the gold standard for awesomely ridiculous character design in this and all other games.
Structurally, Serious Sam couldn't be more straightforward. It's a long string of corridors and open arenas that fill up with monsters that you have to murder before you can move on to the next area. There is, on a very rare occasion, a button to press or some item to collect before you can progress, but the genius of Serious Sam lies in the quality of the shooting and the quantity of the monsters. Individually, most of the monsters in Serious Sam are extremely manageable, but you're almost never pitted against just one enemy, or even one type of enemy. I'd say that different enemies and different combinations of enemies can require different strategies for success, but honestly, everything just moves so fast that there's no time for you to formulate strategies. No, situational awareness--a factor that hinges largely on the game's distinctive sound design--and the ability to circle-strafe backwards are the most significant keys to success in Serious Sam.
And yet, no matter how good you are at dodging and shooting hordes of enemies, there's an underlying spite to the way Serious Sam is designed that will constantly keep you on the ropes. Monsters will always spawn at the most inopportune time, and if you see a big pile of health, armor, and ammo sitting all unassuming in the middle of a room, you can bet that you're going to be knee-deep in machine-gun-wielding scorpion guys and hairy cyclops monsters as soon as you approach it. There's some checkpointing, but the game's quick-save feature puts that responsibility primarily in the player's hand. It's telling that, in the Xbox Live Arcade version, the quick-save feature is mapped to the Y button by default for easy access. Obviously the PC version, with full mouse and keyboard support, is the ideal way to play Serious Sam HD, but the game still moves plenty fast on the 360, and an appropriate amount of auto-aiming assistance keeps the gamepad from being a significant liability.
I've got a whole lot of admiration for Serious Sam, yet it's a game that I enjoy in concept more than I do in practice. I love the deliberate left-field designs of the monsters, and there's a purity to the way it approaches first-person shooting action that I wouldn't want to change, yet the game is so brutally intense that my frayed nerves and trembling hands can only handle it in half-hour chunks at most. Maybe that's Serious Sam's fault, or maybe I'm just not serious enough.