Ben Hardwidge reminisces about id’s early 1990s action blockbuster
In February, id released a trailer for the new Wolfenstein game. It’s full of the robot Nazi alt-history nonsense you’d expect from the franchise, but there’s a hint of something else right at the end. If you pre-order Wolfenstein now, you get access to the Doom IV Beta. I don’t have a lot of hope for Doom IV.
It’s been nearly ten years since Doom III, and that was a tedious slog, but the announcement prompted a load of Doom memories.
Doom wasn’t, as some people think, the original first-person shooter, but it was the FPS that first made the genre really work.
Doom was also notable for having a free demo version that offered a surprising amount of play time, the whole first chapter of the game (Knee Deep In The Dead), in fact. This version came free on various magazine cover disks, or you could buy it for a few quid.
This was a long time before hardware 3D acceleration (although a Doom OpenGL patch came out later), so performance was wholly dependent on the speed of your processor. I had a 20MHz 386 at the time, which met the minimum system requirements, but the frame rate was so bad we’d say it was seriously unplayable today.
The only way to get it to run even vaguely smoothly on such a machine was to set it to low detail, and then decrease the screen size; a feature that gave you a mini screen of the Doom action in the middle of your monitor, surrounded by a grey-blue wall effect (pictured). Even this was enough for me to invite friends over to see the game in action, enthralled by the fact you could see yourself loading the shotgun when you ran out of ammo.
The action was barely discernible at these settings. Demons and enemy grunts just looked like people who have been pixellated beyond recognition on the news, and the small screen didn’t show up the scenery much either. Yet, I still loved it. Doom may have looked primitive on my setup, but it was a whole new experience – a real-time 3D game that oozed atmosphere and blasted out a corking soundtrack. The latter was a key facet of Doom. The MIDI soundtrack, based on thrash riffs from the 1980s (look up Metallica’s No Remorse), even sounded good on an Ad-Lib card, but it sounded even better on the Yamaha DB50XG I had at the time.
Doom marked the crossover between first-person shooters and the 16-bit console era. At this time, people expected different levels, each with a specific soundtrack, much like you’d see in Sonic the Hedgehog. This was before first-person shooters had stories or movie-style soundtracks – it was just all about the action. And that’s why I still hold a lot of affection for Doom today. There’s room for storytelling in first-person shooters, but only if it’s done well.
BioShock Infinite got it right, but Doom III definitely didn’t.
With its all-out action, ingenious level design and genuine scares, Doom became a classic very quickly. It might have started out on the PC, but it ended up being ported to almost every computer or games system available, including the SNES and Amiga – someone has even made a ZX Spectrum version you can see on YouTube.
Doom offered a style of instant gratification that you sadly don’t see in first-person shooters now – even Serious Sam didn’t get the balance of enemies right for me. Sadly, the last game to successfully carry on the id FPS tradition was Quake II. Would people still play a story-free, fast-paced action game with a stomping heavy metal soundtrack today? I know I would.