Retro Saturdays :: Episode 2 :: Doom

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You open your eyes to a huge metallic hallway. Disemboweled corpse of a space marine lies in front of you. Possessed soldiers armed with shotguns prowls nearby. A measly pistol and a torn armor is your only possession. Thrash metal kicks in. You lunge at your foes. Rip and tear….

Very few titles in the history of Video games have such an influence that it not only inspire a plethora of imitations but also, forge an entire new genre. Doom is the 1993 magnum opus of the American video game developer id software that basically defined the modern fps genre. Today on Retro Saturdays, we take a closer look at the PC classic, it’s impact and influence in the industry that set the standard for first person shooters for years to come.

Birth of Doom

It can easily be said that Doom was a product of its time. In the 90s, all you needed to have a good time was a few slices of pizza and video games. The then-trending action films with larger than life heroes, badass one liners, explosions bigger than a two-storey house and thrash metal scene were the progenitors of Doom. The guys at id software were basking in the success of their 1992 smash hit Wolfenstein 3D and was now the hottest studio on the market. Computers were evolving with more and more impressive hardware each month. The co-founder and programmer of id studios, John Carmack wanted to challenge these hardware and develop a title worthy of it. Designer Tom Hall wanted the studio to go back to their roots and develop the more kid-friendly Commander Keen series and not an ultra-violent title like Wolf 3D, while the rest of the team including the godfather of fps; John Romero disagreed and set out to brainstorm for a fresh idea to implement in Cormack’s new cutting edge graphics engine.

id were living the dream. They had all the creative freedom in the world and a constant pile of revenue coming in from the retail release of Wolf 3D. They need not look further for inspiration. 90s were the era of the action heroes. The initial idea was to make a licensed game based on the Aliens movie franchise, and some negotiations were made with 20th Century Fox. The plan was eventually ditched and John Carmack instead conceived the basic theme for the game: demons versus technology. Doom was the lovechild of Aliens and the team’s favorite horror B movie, Evil Dead II. The idea to include demons was also inspired by their most recent Dungeons & Dragons campaign, which had  demons overrunning the entire planet. The company told the press that Doom would be “Wolfenstein times a million!”. The rest is history.

Doom Engine – Emergence of a New Era.

Wolfenstein 3D was a massive step up in pseudo-3D graphics and technology. No other game at the time could provide the fluidity and smoothness of movement in a first person perspective like Wolfenstein did. As for their next title, the question that loomed in John Carmack’s head was this; “how do you beat Wolfenstein 3D?”. He was discontent with wolf engine limitations and wanted to target more demanding hardware at the time. The basis for his experiments was the Shadowcaster engine, a modified version of their own wolf 3D engine. Carmack was able to implement texture-mapped walls and ceilings, design more outdoor areas, improve the level architecture, construct walls at different angles, floors and ceilings of different heights and add platforms, stairs, windows and lift to the engine while implementing dynamic diminished lighting and a sector based map system (as opposed by the grid map systems of the Wolfenstein 3D and Shadowcaster engines) with wall angles other than 90°.

The team intended on having realistic graphics as opposed to a rendered one. Most of the sprites were drawn by hand, but some of the characters were digitized from sculptures. The sculptures were photographed from five to eight different angles so that they could be rotated realistically in-game, and finally touched up, colored and animated digitally with a program created by John Carmack. The shotgun and the pistol seen in the game are real-life photographs of toy weapons, while the chainsaw was borrowed from Tom Hall’s girlfriend.

The visuals of the game was inspired by the works of Swiss painter H.R.Giger whose bio-machinery themed art served to set the aesthetics and mood for the game,especially in the second episode. The game transitions from the metallic walkways of the Mars base, to the half metal-half flesh walls and satanic imagery of the of the invading hellscape, culminating in the barren hellish outlands with a stark focus on dynamic lighting and dependence on the varying creepiness of the soundtrack. Amidst all the high octane mobile gameplay, one is constantly under a feeling of dread and eeriness.

Thus Doom, an amalgamation of real life photographs, creativity and imagination was on it’s way to personal computers worldwide soon after and surprisingly holds up even today thanks to sourceports that enable that game to be highly customizable and playable on modern systems. Doom has aged like a fine wine.

The Story or Lack Thereof

Every good single player game needs a good story…or does it? Doom is one of the few testaments of time that proclaim that even if the story or lore is minimalist or even non-existent, a primarily single player game can make sure that the player has a damn good time. The programmer of Doom John Carmack had this to say; “story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important“. Whether I agree with it or not, (I clearly don’t) there is no doubting the fact that the lack of a well-developed story hasn’t affected Doom in any way.

Doom has a simple plot; its background is given in the instruction manual, and the in-game story advances mainly through short messages displayed between the game’s episodes. You play a marine who has been working alongside the Union Aerospace Corporation (UAC), a multi-planetary conglomerate and military contractor performing secret experiments on interdimensional travel on Mars. Some experiments go wrong and demons from Hell invade the space station, maiming or possessing all personnel. It is up to you to single-handedly kick demon butt back to hell….and that’s basically it. This has been the series tradition and has been kept intact even in the latest Doom reboot.

Hell and Back – The Gameplay

My parents did a few things they probably shouldn’t have done when I was a kid ; 1- Let me skip several school days consecutively for no reason at all and, 2- Let my 6-year-old self play Doom unsupervised for hours on end. I’m not regretting playing Doom for not even a second. Hell, if I were to go back, I’d still sit around, stare into a low resolution CRT monitor and murder demon denizens for hours and hours. But I can’t count the times that a cyberdemon or a Cacodemon invaded my dreams and turned them into awful nightmares several times a month.

Doom’s gameplay is simple but extremely addictive. From the moment you start the game, you are on a non-stop fast paced adventure to stay alive and survive hell. The term first person shooter defines the entirety of the gameplay. In one word, you shoot anything that moves and sometimes you’re not even that discriminating. The game originally came out with 3 episodes; Knee-Deep in the Dead, Shores of Hell and Inferno with each progressively representing the player character’s descent into hell. Each episode consisted of 9-10 levels each and allowed the player to choose to play in any order they wish (the episodes, that is). The 5 available difficulty levels named; I’m too young to die, hey, not too rough, hurt me plenty, ultra violence and nightmare points to the games aimed balance between pleasure and pain, sex and violence, and oh boy, nightmare is pure pain.

Most of the time, you will be running around shooting up demons in search of various keycards to get to the other parts of the map which will be locked off. On your travels, you will find secret doors, environmental hazards and most importantly encounter hellish beings that want to rip your flesh and call it a day.

Citizens of hell – The demons

Other than showing up in my nightmares and trying to eat me, the enemies in Doom can prove to be a challenge for even the most veteran space marine. They follow a hierarchy of rank and the progression with which they are introduced is done well. First, you got the UAC marines and engineers who have been possessed or zombified and will attack you with either a shotgun or machine gun. They pose little challenge to even your basic pistol. Then you have the Imps who are lesser demons that spawn in hordes (in higher difficulties) and can fire a projectile at you or use their claws at melee range. Then comes the bull like Pinky demons and the disembodied Lost Souls. Cacodemon is based on the beholder from DnD. The Spectres are the partially invisible counterparts of demons. Then there is the Barons of Hell, who serves as dual bosses to the first episode. Then comes the behemoth Cyberdemon, half goat-half machine who is the second boss and finally the Spider Mastermind, the hit scanning boss of Inferno, the guardian of hell. Since most of the enemies have been based on their real life clay sculpture counterparts, the attention to detail is something to behold, even today through the low resolution 2D sprites.

Tools of the trade – The weapons and item pickups.

You can’t spell Doom without the super shotgun, and even though it was only added in Doom II, the original still has a nifty arsenal to butcher hellspawns with. The weapon progression system introduced in Doom is still followed to this day. You have your basic fists which are better left unused unless you have a particular power-up picked up. You also start out with a weak pistol that should be reserved for…well, for nothing actually. You get your hands on a sweet pump-action shotgun very soon which will act as your primary tool for demon dispatching for the majority of the game. Then there is the mighty chainsaw, my preferred tool to slice and dice Pinky demons with. Then there is the rapid firing chaingun, better left reserved for mobs and Cacodemons. It’s orgasmic to turn Barons of Hell into smoldering pile of goo with the plasma gun. Rocket launcher and its explosive shots always come in handy. Then there is the mother of all overpowered guns : The BFG 9000: The “Big Fucking Gun”, Somewhat counter-intuitive to operate at first, but kills almost any monster in one shot. All of these weapons are satisfying to use even today and packs a nice oomph and bass for that extra point in satisfaction.

As for armor, there are two types of armor; a green armor pickup that decreases all third of the damage until depleted and the blue armor which decreases all damage by half. Then there are various health pickups such as health bonus, stimpacks, medkit and supercharge which either restores your health or boosts it beyond the default value.

Powerups are miscellaneous items that grants unique or combined powers or capacities to the player. Backpack adds x2 ammo capacity, Berserk restores 100% health, and provides ×10 fist damage, computer area map draws unvisited level areas in automap, Invulnerability, like the name, renders the player immune to damage for a short time. Light amplification visor grants you night vision for 2 minutes. Megasphere grants 200% health & armor (1/2 protection), Partial invisibility renders player half-invisible and last, there is the radiation shielding suit which protects the player from damaging floors.

If you run around the level like a headless chicken, chances are you will meet your doom fast enough (no pun intended). You have to know when to pick up which item and remember where each item is located if you need them later on. Plus the game constantly lures you in by spawning a huge assortment of items in the open, but as soon as the player grabs them nearby walls open up with an onslaught of demonic forces at your wake. So there is a bit of minor strategy involved.

Why You Should Play Doom

Aside from being a monumental title in video game history, Doom is just mindless fun. Tearing through the level, listening to midi renditions of the likes of Slayer, Metallica and Judas Priest, blowing holes in squishy demon flesh is a feeling not many games can provide. I mean how many games do you know that holds the record of being installed on more machines than Windows 95 itself? Apart from an additional 4th episode Thy Flesh Consumed, there are hundreds of mods ranging from quality of life additions to total conversions like the Western themed ‘Fistful of Doom’, the highly divisive Brutal Doom and the Super Mario Doom available today. If that’s not reason enough, the multiplayer mode which brought many-a networks down back in the 90’s can still be played using services like ZDaemon, Odamex and Zandronum. Hell, we’re talking about the game which literally gave birth to the term ‘deathmatch’.

Running Doom on modern hardware is easy as eating cake these days. Just make a quick visit to Steam or GOG and get ‘The Ultimate Doom’ for a meager sum, download a sourceport like zDoom or ChocolateDoom and follow the simple instructions. Now you’ll be able to add and tweak all sorts of scaling, lighting, shadows and other options in-game to your heart’s content.

The world was not at all prepared for a game like Doom back then. It’s an amazing story of how an amalgamation of pop culture, thrash metal, sci-fi horror went from being influenced to influential, it’s impact resonating even today. The legacy that Doom left behind caused dozens to follow in its footsteps and forged a new era of first person shooters that we see today. Doom is primitive, yet raw; old but not forgotten. Games like these only come once or twice per lifetime, and Doom is such a title that needs to be experienced at least once in every gamer’s life. Thus I’m glad that a portion of my childhood was spent on this gem of a title that id gave birth to and I cherish every moment with it, and still boot it up occasionally.


Indiannoob will be back next Saturday with another classic that needs to be put under our retrospective glasses. Till then, happy gaming and give good ol’ Doom a try.

 

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