Hurt Me Plenty: A Doom Retrospective

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Some games age more gracefully than others, largely because our memories are pretty good at playing tricks on us. Classics from the ‘00s, ‘90s and before rarely look or play quite like we remember. Doom, however, is almost like the Dorian Gray of videogaming, in that its gameplay never seems to age a day and its graphics upscale gloriously to high resolutions. You mark my words, in a dusty attic somewhere there’s a picture of a Cyberdemon getting older.

My first experience of Doom could probably be described as something of a false start. Having just gotten Playstation aged about 11 or 12, I came home from school one day to find that one of my dad’s work friends had leant me both Doom and Final Doom. Although already a fully committed joypad-wielder by then, I had little concept of what was going on outside my narrow field of experience.  I had no idea what these two games even were, let alone their cultural significance.

I don’t recall all that much about my time with them, save for the fact that I just warped from level to level via passwords, cheating my way to full weapons and ammo and invincibility like some psychopathic space tourist. Back then, the Internet had yet to make the hints and tips guides that came with the gaming print media of the day redundant, and luckily I happened to have one that contained everything I needed to remove any challenge at all from either of the games. I made no attempt at all to play them properly.

Despite my teenage PC gaming chops and penchant for first person shooters, I never went back to Doom until the original Xbox port of Doom 3 came out in 2005. I purchased the Special Edition, which not only included quite possibly the coolest steelbook I’ve ever seen, but also had on-disc ports of the original Doom and Doom II. This time, I did at least try to play them without cheating after seeing off Doom 3’s campaign, but only got a few levels into Doom II before moving onto other things.

Indeed, it wouldn’t be until I decided to fritter away the last of my Microsoft Points (remember those?) on the Xbox 360 iteration on a whim one day that I would play Doom as nature intended – from start to finish – for the first time.

It was a revelation. The game had, and still has, aged remarkably well; the satisfying push-pull of the moment-to-moment shooting and incredible level design shone through, as did the varied and imaginative MIDI soundtrack and distinctive graphics, the latter of which requiring only a modicum of enhancement to remain servicable. The fact that id Software were able to achieve so much with so little and not have it relegated to unplayable ‘museum piece’ status after all this time is a testament to their collective genius. Finally killing the Spider Mastermind at the end of episode 3 was pure catharsis, although I never did finish the devilishly hard Thy Flesh Consumed expansion episode. 

My next brush with Doom would come years later, having bought the complete classic Quake, Doom and Hexen collection during a Steam sale.  Unfortunately, the Steam versions of Doom, Doom II, its ‘Master Levels’ and Final Doom run in a virtual Dosbox environment which Windows 8 doesn’t like, and none of the fixes I found online worked. Luckily there’s a ton of fan-made source ports out there, which allow Doom to run on newer operating systems, and with many optional gameplay and graphical enhancements to boot.

I tended to enjoy them in as purer form as possible for the most part, settling for just increasing the resolution to my computer’s native and activating mouselook, but I did take a look at some mods, such as the childishly violent, but undeniably fun, Brutal Doom. It’s simply amazing what some people have been able to do with the game; available for download are all sorts of homegrown creations, from Simpsons-themed replacement sprites, to first person takes on Mario Bros. to completely original curiosities.

Vanilla Doom has lost none of its own gravitas, however. The game’s eerie atmosphere still makes you dread whatever’s waiting around the next dark corner. I always liked how Doom, Doom II and Final Doom’s levels follow a standard naming convention whereby they become more occult-sounding as you progress, drawing heavy inspiration from the Christian interpretation of Hell. The original Doom, for example, starts off with likes of The Hangar and Command Control, moving onto the altogether more sinister sounding Halls of the Damned and Spawning Vats before plunging headfirst into references to the Bible and Dante’s Divine Comedy: Dis, Limbo and The Tower of Babel, for example. Interestingly, the names of Thy Flesh Consumed’s levels, and indeed, that of the episode itself, are all lifted directly from the Bible.

All this and increasingly demonic ambiance as you progress really feel like you’re on a journey to Hell, and the climactic final battles of all of these games are well worth the build-up. The aforementioned MIDI soundtrack complements the on-screen grisliness perfectly, and includes some truly standout cuts. Sign of Evil, composed by none other than American McGee, remains a personal favourite.

It’s not hard to see why Doom was so phenomenally successful. It was ported to a great many formats in the years immediately following release, from the 3DO to the Jaguar, to the 32X to the PlayStation. Each version has its own quirks, and reading about what was changed between versions and the compromises necessary to get Doom running on many of these consoles is fascinating. As of today, resourceful fans have gotten Doom running on a smogasboard of different hardware – even a Canon printer.

Doom may rank among the most important videogames in history, having effectively created the first person shooter genre as we know it today, but is still weighed down by a ton of moral baggage. Back in 1994, the church didn’t take too kindly to the game’s satanic imagery and game was banned altogether in Germany. It would also be at the centre of its very own moral panic 5 years later in 1999, when it emerged that one of perpetrators of the horrifying Columbine massacre had been a prolific Doom player. Copies of some of the WADs (levels) he created are still available online, and serve as a truly haunting journey into the mind of a clearly unhinged individual, far more disturbing than any of id’s own pixellated violence. But the less said of that, the better.

There’s been relatively little new Doom since that original clutch of releases in the early to mid ’90s. Doom 3 was a great game in its own right, but put more focus on a Half-Life-style narrative than fast-paced action.  It came, went and had relatively little impact on the industry at large, save for its engine popularising certain graphical effects such as unified lighting and shadowing, in stark contrast to the seismic shift its predecessors brought about.

But, the time you read this, a new reboot, titled simply, Doom, will likely be gracing store shelves everywhere.  Action once again takes centre stage, with proceedings seemingly a happy medium between the series’ storied heritage and necessary modern concessions. It may not “set the world afire”, like its forebears, but it’ll certainly be a welcome change from the near-future neocon power fantasy of Call of Duty, Battlefield and the like.

The original Doom remains utterly timeless, and essential playing for any gamer worth their salt. Few games have stood the test of time better, or had as far reaching impact on popular culture. Moreover, it is the antithesis of everything there is to loathe about modern gaming: there’s no DLC, season passes, pre-order bonuses, microtransactions, day one patches, regenerating health, quick time events, reloading or quick-scoping at all to concern yourself with, just running, shooting and, of course, a that ever-present horde of enemies between you and the exit.

Go.

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3 thoughts on “Hurt Me Plenty: A Doom Retrospective

  1. A great post, I have a similar history with Doom, I did not get a PC until well after its initial success and got into Quake etc. before going back and discovering its mastery. I think what made it so great was its simplicity layered with decent sprites and responsive controls. Every first person game before it, from 3D Monster Maze to Wolfenstein 3d, had been somewhat clunky and limited. Doom just got so much right and was genuinely fun to play. Its legacy should never be undermined and all the generic FPS’s that come out today owe so much to the technology and game-play id Software implemented with Doom. Will never forget the first time I saw the BFG9000! I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on Goldeneye and its importance to reinventing the FPS genre for consoles if you get the time.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I may look at GoldenEye and/or Halo in the future. They’re probably the single most important console FPS’ ever, instrumental in altering the long-held perception that the PC was the genre’s true home. Apologies for the dual reply, apparently pressing return submitted what I’d written so far rather than giving me another line.

    Like

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