Welcome one and welcome all to Retro Freak Reviews’ third anniversary! Cue the confetti and the fireworks! It’s hard to believe that’s been 3 years since I started rambling about old computer games. And for this magnanimous occasion, we’ve prepared not only a review of a true classic, but perhaps of the most influential PC game of all times: Doom!
Doom is an FPS game made by id Software and originally released in 1993 for DOS. It was ported the following year for the Jaguar, Linux, PC-98 and the Sega 32X. It was again ported in 1995 for the 3DO and Windows (aka Doom95). In 1996, it was ported for the SNES/Super Nintendo and in 2001, it was ported for the Gameboy Advance.
After the initial success of Wolfenstein 3D and its expansion, Spear of Destiny (which we’ll review sometime in the future); John Carmack, John Romero and Tom Hall decided to work in a new game engine which would be known as id Tech 1 and inspired by horror-action movies, D&D campaigns and heavy metal, they decided to make an action game where an unnamed hero fights the forces of Hell.
Doom would be re-released several times as part of bundles, compilations and anthologies and ported to several other platforms throughout the years up to the present.
But before we get to the game itself, let’s first look at the covers:
This cover by the late Don Punchatz is as iconic as it gets with our unnamed Space Marine surrounded by demons (especially the cheeky one on the bottom-left corner). The equally iconic title art is just breathtaking. This cover looks like some heavy-metal cover and just oozes action and awesomeness. One small funny detail is the other Space Marine running in the background, which might make one think that Doom features multiplayer co-op, which is true (along with PVP deathmatches) but originally only through IPX connections. Online multiplayer was only added a year after the original release through the DWANGO service.
Almost every version and port of Doom features the cover above or a variation thereof, but one shareware edition had something a bit different:
Now this one is just weird. It features two cheeky demons over some planet, while the Space Marine is shooting at them behind some uninspired title art. Why not use the awesome original cover? We might never know…
Well, I think it’s time to rip and tear (and boot) this one:
The game starts with a title screen based on the aforementioned cover but focused more on the Space Marine (nicknamed Doomguy by the fans) then it immediately starts on a demo gameplay. If you press any button, it takes us to the main menu, where we can start a new game, load a previous game or just mess around with the options.
If we start a new game and after choosing the difficulty setting between 5 (it was originally 4 but a 5th setting, aptly named Nightmare!, was added later on), we immediately start at the beginning of the first level without any story or objectives (but then again, any level’s objective is to reach its end, killing anything that moves). The manual tells the story of how Doomguy, a Space Marine deployed in Phobos, finds himself the sole survivor of a demon attack when a teleportation experiment by the military goes awry and a literal gateway to Hell opens up instead, teleporting several demons to Phobos that kill everybody, except for Doomguy. Our mission in the 1st episode is to reach the teleporter and travel to Deimos (the teleporter original destination) to find out what happened. But of course, you need to deal with every demon and monster who’s standing on your way.
When playing, you have a big main screen with a bar at the bottom. In this bar you have your health points, your armor points, your available ammo, your face (whose expression changes according to your damage or when you get a new weapon) and any weapon and keys you pick up along the way. The main screen is huge and you can reduce it for better performance but if you’re playing Doom on a good computer, you don’t need to. You can even expand it even further and hide the bottom bar (although I personally don’t like it).
Then how do you take down the legions of Hell? With a kickass arsenal, that’s how! You start the game with a common pistol and if your ammo runs out, then you can punch demons and monsters to death and if that’s not enough, you can also pick up and use a chainsaw with infinite petrol. Other weapons you can pick up include the trusty shotgun (perfect for close-range), the Chaingun, the Rocket Launcher (careful when using it at close-range), the Plasma Gun and of course, the ultimate weapon, the BFG 9000!
My exact reaction when I first got it! I particularly love the Doomguy’s expression when you get a new weapon (which Mr. Johnson above does a decent recreation of). But you can also get powerups that’ll help you throughout the game. My favourite powerup might just be the berserk pack, which will increase your punching strength dramatically.
The original game is divided in 3 episodes (Knee-Deep in the Dead, In the Shores of Hell and Inferno). There are around 8 or 9 levels per episode (without counting the secret levels). The levels are well designed in their majority with a lot of secret areas to discover, different floors and locked doors for which you need to find keys for, which implies some backtracking. But don’t think revisiting previously cleared areas will be safe. And if you ever get lost, you can simply press the Tab button to reveal an automap of the current level and you can even grab an automap item which reveals the entire level, including unexplored areas.
At the end of each episode, you’ll find a boss. The 1st episode’s bosses are a bit easy (they appear in later episodes as sort of normal enemies) but the 2nd boss is where the difficulty ramps up (especially in the latter difficulty settings) and forces you to adopt a more active playstyle (basically shooting, running and strafing). In fact, Doom encourages you to not simply stand still and shoot, you need to be constantly moving, looking for cover and using the environment in your favour in order to defeat not all the toughest enemies but also rooms full of enemies in the harder difficulty settings. In other words, Doom isn’t just a mindless shooter as it encourages you to develop your skills to overcome challenges.
The 3 original episodes are well designed and all look different from each other. And as Doomguy goes deeper and deeper into Hell; the levels’ design, atmosphere and textures change accordingly to that with the 3rd episode, Inferno, looking downright gothic in comparison with the previous episodes.
But now let’s focus on the technical aspects of Doom and let’s start with the graphics. The id Tech 1 engine’s graphics were groundbreaking for the time despite the fact that it wasn’t real 3D as we know it but a pseudo-3D rendering engine that rendered textures in a 1st person POV. Each room, regardless of its height, had a ceiling texture (including sky textures in the “open” areas), a floor texture, wall textures and lights of different intensities. And it’s this dynamic lighting that I particularly like because it can transform any area into a moody and scary experience (combined with the right soundtrack and enemies), especially when you trigger certain spots and the lights go dim and you find yourself surrounded by enemies (although you can get light amplification visors that light up any area for a limited time).
The original graphics might now look a bit pixelated and aged but for the time, they were so advanced that a common 286 PC wasn’t enough to properly play Doom. You needed at least a late-model 386 PC for an enjoyable experience. And all this before the advent of 3D graphic cards! And the animation is equally good (although some of the larger enemies might jerk occasionally and there’s also some slowdown when encountering many enemies at once).
The soundtrack is also iconic, especially the 1st level’s theme, At Doom’s Gate. The soundtrack was composed by Bobby Prince and heavily inspired by popular heavy-metal songs and it varies between fast and tough to slow and moody themes that really contribute to the game’s atmosphere. There’s nothing more unnerving than exploring a dim-lighted area, hearing a slow music and finally jumping out of your chair when encountering an enemy right around the corner. And the sound effects, especially the guns conking, the explosions and the monsters’ grunts are equally great.
The game’s controls were originally by keyboard only (the famous arrow keys + Ctrl button scheme present in any classic FPS). It’s quite responsive and very easy to learn, although the strafing function (sidestepping right or left) wasn’t as intuitive as it is nowadays. A full mouse control scheme was implemented later on but it always felt weird playing an FPS using only the mouse. The classic keyboard scheme always felt better and easier to use. And there wasn’t any way to look up or down as the game always auto-aimed the nearest enemy, regardless if he’s above or below you.
Unfortunately I haven’t tried the multiplayer matches, although nowadays there are several fan-hosted servers which you can access using specialised source ports like Odamex, Zandronum or ZDaemon. Or you can also host your own multiplayer matches using other source ports or Dosbox. Take a look here on how to do it.
In conclusion, the original Doom might have aged a bit graphically and gameplay-wise, but it’s still lots of fun to play nowadays if you’re looking for fast-action FPS fun. Perhaps a more complex story with better cutscenes at the end of each episode would have been a nice addition but id Software always defended the mindless gameplay over any complex plot that might have burden it. Needless to say that if you like FPSes, then not only do I highly recommend it but it’s your duty to play it NOW! Hell, you can click right here to play the shareware version of the entire 1st episode on your own browser!
You can also buy The Ultimate Doom (that adds a 4th episode, Thy Flesh Consumed) bundled with Dosbox here at GOG.com or here at Steam. But for the best experience, I recommend using a source port (the id Tech 1 engine was made open source in 1997). There are several source ports to choose from but I recommend Chocolate Doom for a experience closer to the original or GZDoom for a more modern experience with better graphics, larger resolutions and WASD controls.
And as far as console ports go, I’ve only played the SNES/Super Nintendo version and the PSX Doom compilation (The Ultimate Doom + Doom II). The SNES version is inferior to the original version in every aspect with more pixelated graphics, censored content, some removed textures, inferior music and sound, and floaty gamepad controls. However the fact that Doom was even ported to a 16-bit console is a technical feat by itself, despite the poor results. The PSX version is perhaps superior to the DOS version as it improves in almost every aspect including a even moodier soundtrack and better dynamic lighting although it still feels weird to play an FPS with a gamepad, despite the controls being better now.
But our experience doesn’t end here! All the way back to Wolfenstein 3D (The 1st official FPS, also created by id Software before Doom), fan-made mods and levels (using the WAD format) were introduced and John Romero always defended this practice and made Doom even easier to mod and create WADs for, which still continues to nowadays, creating an active community which can be found at Doomworld or Doomwiki along with more info about the series. Doom was succeeded by 3 sequels: Doom II in 1994, Doom 64 in 1997 and Doom 3 in 2004. In 2016, a remake/sequel simply called DOOM was released. And in early 2019, John Romero released a 5th episode for the DOS version of the original Doom called Sigil for free.
Doom was without a doubt a paradigm shift that changed the gaming landscape by overlapping the PC gaming and console gaming worlds together for perhaps the 1st time. It brought about the advent of the PC as a gaming platform on the same level as any console of the time. Every consequent FPS was immediately called a “Doom clone” (although the best ones actually managed to put their own twists to the genre) and although it was surpassed by other FPSes like Hexen, Strife, Quake or Duke Nukem 3D, it still rode on top of the genre more or less until the release of Half-Life.
I don’t think I can say anything more about Doom that hasn’t been said a thousand times before, except perhaps to go and try it for yourself to see what’s the fuss all about. Maybe you won’t like it and that’s ok. But you can’t deny the impact it had on the industry itself.
And I think I leave it here and hope you’ve enjoyed this very special review. Thank you all for accompanying me in these past 3 years and hopefully this blog will continue for 3 more. I’d like to especially thank Neil Green from Retro Indie News, Florin from our Discord server, Longuizard from our Steam Curator page and Nenad Radunovic from Cola Powered Gamer for their unwavering support and friendship. Thanks guys, I love you all!
And thanks again for your support and remember to always keep on playing!