Late to the Party: Doom (1993)

Oh, DOOM. The game that codified most of what we know about the first-person shooter, the infamous “violent game” that had players blasting demons from Hell into giblets. It’s a legendary part of gaming history that’s always felt that way, from its ramshackle development to its energetic gameplay to the controversy it engendered. Its amazing ability to be ported to seemingly every machine under the sun didn’t hurt much, neither. It’s been such an inescapable part of video game culture and lingo since it came out that it takes on a unique air: not a game but an experience. An overwhelming, domineering one, no less. Seems everyone around has played it and tore through its demons, secrets, and Martian moon bases.

Except for me.

For a long time in my life, there really wasn’t ever going to be a way for DOOM and I to get close enough to see eye to eye. Even on a base physical level, getting a copy wouldn’t have been easy. I never really played PC games beyond a few RTS games, and I got more into gaming in 2005, a period where classic DOOM had started moving to the low point in its cultural presence.* Plus, I spent a long time in a bit of a phase where games that seemed to “rely” on violence felt juvenile and cheap – albeit still targets of an illegitimate moral crusade that had to be stopped. So DOOM remained this kinda elusive thing, both this paean to excessive violence and the first target to defend when the Jack Thompsons of the world came to knock at the door. It felt more like a dumb but ultimately well meaning relative, always happy to repeat the same question about why people go to the movies when “the streaming” is available. And if my initial biases were right, then wouldn’t the pop cultural osmosis give me everything I needed from the experience as it is?

DOOM 3, which had come out a year prior, took a different, somewhat controversial horror emphasis. The first movie released in 2005 to terrible reception. Most importantly, the influence and attitude of the series was starting to be subsumed by modern military shooters like Call of Duty. I had systems that could play DOOM, but playing it just never came up as an idea.

So I did check it out, but only through spinoffs. Most of them deemphasize the metal influence, the cheap Satanic imagery, or the science fiction to be more bland action-horror (the recent direct to video film DOOM: Annihilation, which came out late last year to no reception, being the most recent). They’re virtually all bland and uninspired, with the exception of one demented comic book tie-in, and that seemed noticeable. DOOM was supposed to be this big, crazy, controversial, nasty thing, right? Sure, adaptations and spinoffs are what they are (and this industry knows that painfully well), but could it really live up to all that hype if the material based on it was so banal?

Years later, DOOM got a fancy 2016 reboot that strove to turn back the clock on almost every innovation the FPS had gotten since 1993. It sounded exciting upon its release, especially as a counteragent to a lot of the more irritating tics shooters had picked up since the mid-Nineties. After spending almost a decade watching shooters congeal into a stew of banal modern military escapades, that dumb, gory wackiness was almost a savior. I played it a year later (albeit not to completion), and after so long, all the hushed comments and praise the original game got made sense, if by proxy. DOOM 2016 was energetic and enlightening about the fun of a genre I’d all but entirely written off. It was loud, intense, and largely only suffered when it came to newer gameplay mechanics like weapon upgrading. But it wasn’t the original. Actually trying it stayed in the back of my mind for a while, and when this series was announced, it seemed like a perfect choice: iconic, big, but older and mostly unfamiliar.

I made two decisions before playing DOOM ‘93. First, I played on the lowest difficulty setting (of the ones the game openly provides, not God Mode or anything from codes). Only going on one difficulty setting isn’t a fair way to judge the game itself, but the game provides it in the options, and I’m a terrible shot even in the best of shooter circumstances. I still found it challenging, fortunately, especially as the game went on and ramped up the intensity of the encounters. The other is something I found more important, which is to make running the default over walking.

DOOM was a famously “fast” game. Since it came out, the ensuing decades have made shooter protagonists move slower and slower, often just sticking them into cover shooting for most of the game. DOOM ‘93 made walking the default (with you holding down a button to run), but I followed what I understand to be fan preference and flipped the script. This makes the game feel utterly different from almost anything else, with the Doom man zipping through areas at a speed that’s almost hard to control at points. I’ve dodged fireballs from imps, only to run back into them. I’ve dashed across the game’s labyrinthine maps and crossed radioactive pools with a speed that feels like it should be a wonderful mod, not a “normal,” studio accepted way to play. Comics writer Grant Morrison once suggested that the first Superman comics were written and drawn with so much energy that the actual panels struggled to keep up with its hero. Something close to that is here, too (another apt quote would be from AV Club writer Patrick Lee, who described moving in the 2016 DOOM as sliding in socks across a kitchen floor. You even slide a bit here!). It’s a trip, and the wild strafing you do whilst engaging zombies, pinkies, and imps never loses its energy. Even the damn maps are nuts, letting you zip around the level with abandon while in the map mode. It didn’t quite feel like it was real at first.

And if that mechanical design is impeccable – and it absolutely is – it’s matched by style. The aesthetic isn’t exactly new or unique on its own, but the bloody, metal, pentagram covered world is still really cool. DOOM as a series has always been kinda weird about what it is (perhaps a consequence of the first game rejecting a complex plot during development). It’s this cosmic sci-fi horror take on Hell set in outer space, but it’s also coated in heavy metal and scored to a cascade of gunfire. The Metallica style logo says it all; it’s a game about throwing up the horns at bullish “Pinky” monsters and Spider Masterminds. It’s lead to a number of spinoffs – Dwayne Johnson vehicles, Mormon propaganda novels – that try to capture one part or another and never feel “right.” But it’s just about perfect here. The monsters are gross and terrifying, the situation is claustrophobic, but you’re still taking it all in eyebrow-raising stride. Bobby Prince’s mixture of metal, techno, and creepy ambience for the score gets at this so well.

And what’s odd – or at least surprising – is that it has a style of design I rarely find outside of Nintendo games or certain indies, in that playing the game feels visceral and tactile. The zombie men with their hitscan guns are normal and familiar, but the way the imps’ fireballs lazily float across the map feels so different…so different and real. Dodging them is exciting in a way that’s hard to really describe, especially with a vocabulary for first-person shooters that’s oriented around modern, realistic weapons. There’s a neat tactical benefit to it beyond just “not getting hurt,” in that the fireballs can hurt other enemies, but the way it impacts your movement is enough. The imps in Doom 2016 also have fireballs, but those are faster, which oddly makes strafing around them less intense. Playing it now, I’m kinda struck at how infrequently this feeling comes up in modern shooters. It feels so good moving past them, but seeing them come to you has this tension that’s not really matched by a lot of games that aren’t Superhot.

It isn’t all perfect, I’ll confess. The experience does feel less “vital” over time as you go through each Martian base. The maps remain imaginative and the enemies wonderful, but the game’s design means it can really only just shuffle its seven main enemy types in different patterns. That never stops working – the enemies are always great – but it does suffer from a lack of more unique experiences. A couple more boss fights would help, though the game has issues there, too. The Cyberdemon is a visual marvel of sci-fi horror, but its fight – you trade rocket launcher attacks until it falls down – is both bland and slow, not falling in line with the game’s own style. This was a problem that also plagued DOOM 2016, though that was compounded by longer levels and a greater “encouragement” placed on finding secrets. Here, where levels are expected to take as long as a Homestar Runner episode, these elements are much less onerous. Really, most of the issue I had was in trying to make this deadline.

I’d also be remiss without pointing out how functionally, I can’t really experience this game the “right” way by a historical metric. Id Software used a novel way of distributing DOOM, giving out free copies of the game’s first episode to retailers and selling the complete package online. It was an early example of online distribution, and it led to a massive jump in ports and an expanded release in 1995. Ultimate Doom included a fourth episode, “Thy Flesh Consumed,” that acts as a sort of light interquel between Doom and Doom II, which had been released a year earlier. That’s the version Switch owners got, so for me, it’s harder to distinguish it as distinct as a player. “Thy Flesh Consumed” is just a weak point in general for me. I can see why it’d enchant repeat customers in the Nineties; its levels are harsher and more demanding. But the open-ended maps are mostly comically large lava pits you have to cross again and again, and without new enemies the game mostly pits you against massive hordes. Even poor Cyberdemon becomes just another enemy at the end of at least two levels, the second of which (six of nine total) made me decide to ultimately put the post-game down. There’s only so much it puts on the levels in the name of taking things further before it becomes unsatisfying. But the lack of context doesn’t do the game justice. I was playing it as just another level, not as the treat for double-dipping supporters it was.

Over the years, the legacy of DOOM has defined both an entire genre and the people involved in its development. It’s touched everything around it. And while I got the why of that from a secondary place in the way I can see how the first three Silent Hill games influenced video game horror, playing it finally makes me understand in full. It never stops feeling big and powerful and full throated. The light arcade-y design – every short level tracks your time, felled enemies, and discovered secrets – is infectious; I didn’t care about hitting every secret but smiled each time I did. And from a ludic perspective it’s given me an appreciation less for the “old way of doing things,” which I’ve always valued, but the actual products of the era. For all my games writing and criticism, I’m terrible at playing games of the late Eighties and early Nineties beyond short bursts. Most of that’s the difficulty curve, but part of it’s just me being used to the polish of more modern experiences. But DOOM is insanely polished as it is. It’s frenetic and responsive and still has a ton of modern conveniences, most appreciably a liberal saving system and that crazy interactive map. I guess it’s a bit…humbling for me, in that respect?

But the most I’ve taken away from DOOM ‘93 is just how iconic it is, almost purely so. Every single enemy, every copy and pasted piece of wall tiling, every sound effect feels special. It’s like a violent, pixelated Parthenon, an object of pure cultural power. The shotgun especially feels like the apex of the kick and bassy sound of video game firearms, despite being one of the genre’s earliest entries. There have been incredible evolutions in what a “shooter” can be over the past twenty-six years, and we’ve seen first-person games expand into puzzlers, brawlers, horror games, and nonviolent narratives. But DOOM really is fully formed, to the point where even its old graphics only feel slightly retro. It never once stopped living up to the shadow it cast.