I first wrote about Doom back in 2004, and even then, it was one of the few games I kept finding myself coming back to. Doom’s release in 1993 truly felt like a paradigm shift. In the same way that Super Mario Bros introduced smoothly side-scrolling platformers, and Mortal Kombat popularized one on one fights with large digitized characters, Doom’s fast and detailed first person action represented a truly new way to make and play video games. Riding a combination of violence paranoia, previously unseen graphics, and home 386/486 PCs becoming affordable, Doom was an almost perfect storm of hype, controversy, and whiz-bang effects that made it a must-have title.
And my mother wouldn’t let me play it.
I would have been 11 when Doom was released; a perfectly impressionable age to get whipped into a frenzy by effusive articles in every gaming magazine I could get my hands on. My mother believed it was awful – likely tipped off by the same broadcast news that got The Simpsons banned from the house because Bart was a poor role model who *gasp* talked back to adults – but this only raised Doom’s mystique and credibility. I’m sure I covertly installed and uninstalled the shareware episode a few times, and I would eventually play the whole campaigns of 1 and 2 at a neighbor’s house, but Doom was so much more than a forbidden fruit for me. As someone fascinated by early 90s virtual reality, and who never quite embraced the gameplay of the ubiquitous 8 and 16-bit platformers, I welcomed the first person shooter with arms outstretched. Doom was my jam.
However, what was exciting for me was surely just noise for gamers that preferred witty adventures or involved RPGs. And in the mid-90s, Doom’s noise was loud. Beyond the plentiful coverage in gaming press, there were Doom mods, Doom ports, Doom clones, Doom novels? Meanwhile, the talk of Doom being a “murder simulator” was making the hobby look bad during a period where it was increasingly looking like U.S. government involvement and censorship was inevitable (if the Brutal Doom mod was somehow released in 1993, I’m certain it would have killed the industry stone dead). I’m sure to most people Doom looked like something gaudy or exploitative designed by immature 20-something headbangers – an endless killing field that only called upon the hyperactive reflexes of a seven-year-old who’s had too much Pixie Stix and Mountain Dew.
But we’re talking about the game that would become the flagship first person shooter here. If all Doom had to it was “shoot them before they shoot you,” it would have been forgotten long ago – handily replaced by Quake and consigned to the bargain bin of history alongside simple quick buck clones, like Operation Body Count, The Hidden Below, and Terminator: Rampage. Doom has layers to it, built off a sterling game engine that combined the speed of id’s own Wolfenstein 3D with the environmental detail of first person RPG Ultima Underworld. Doom was fast enough to create sharp combat action, and detailed enough to create memorable locations.
Levels are still fairly abstract, of course – rooms seem to have no real purpose, while level names like “Command Control” and “Nuclear Plant” promise uses that in no way come across in-game – but those rooms are recognizable and unique when compared to Wolfenstein’s simple mazes and repeated textures. Varying height allows for ledges and stairs, while lifts can move the player among multiple floors. Floor and ceiling textures combine with windows and non 90-degree angles to create defined rooms and zones. Lighting can be defined differently for different areas and increased dynamically, creating sections with flickering lights, disorienting strobes, or moments where the lights snap off while the beasts come out.
To put it another way, Doom is the first FPS with graphics advanced enough to tell a story with its environment. The earliest example is the very first level’s first door – a dead space marine lying in front of it hints that an ambush waits on the other side. Windows frame an isolated weapon or powerup, encouraging you to search for secret doors to get there. A massive room of storage boxes in the second mission of Episode 2 suddenly gives way to your first look at the green marble of Episode 3’s Hell levels – the first suggestion that the two worlds are merging. Even some throwaway pillars of flesh in Episode 3’s “Pandemonium” are one of many scenes that get referenced and expanded upon in the first Doom novel. The fact that you can actually recognize levels described in the book is a testament to the engine’s new abilities. You weren’t going to be pulling off a sightseeing tour with Wolfenstein 3D’s tech.
This was the stuff that fascinated me about Doom. The ability to walk freely inside artist-created worlds just hadn’t been possible in platform titles, or even cutting-edge games like Myst. I kind of just accepted the violent gunplay as the price of admission. It wasn’t until I started playing on the harder difficulties in college that I started to pick up on what was so addicting about Doom’s unique take on enemy encounters and overall strategy. The 2016 remake coined the term “combat puzzle,” and while that game really expanded on it, the roots are absolutely present in 1993 Doom. There’s five pillars to Doom’s gameplay that I think explain why it’s stayed relevant and popular, even to this day.
First is how the level design and the enemies interplay. Contrary to its action slant, the most dangerous thing you can do in Doom is fire a weapon. Monsters either activate when they see you, or when they “hear” you shoot. Pop off a shotgun blast and now everyone nearby will come to life and start looking for you. While every enemy (especially the weak zombies) can be handled on their own, things easily get out of control when they swarm you. To this day, Doom remains one of the few games that can and will post the kind of enemy numbers in one area that it does – rooms of 20-30 mixed enemies are not uncommon, with even more taking potshots from ledges or windows. One of the quickest, surest deaths in Doom comes from being surrounded.
Doom’s three level designers took this knowledge and ran with it, designing their maps to create traps and ambushes that spring on the reckless. The colloquial term is the “monster closet” – an enclosed area off the main room or hallway, stuffed with baddies and set with a door that springs open on a trigger. Say there’s a key lying in an empty room. As soon as you pick that up, the closets open, the enemies see you, and they charge forward. Closets frequently open behind you to refill previously-cleared hallways, releasing demons that come searching when they hear you battling in the next room. A teleport pit in “Unholy Cathedral” even baits you into shooting a single Imp to lure a whole unseen crowd into packing the room. You’re never as alone in Doom as you think, so your hackles are up when entering just about every new room.
Second, there’s the simple controls. Doom doesn’t ask you to jump or look around. A generous auto-aim helps you on the horizontal, and actively lifts your shots for you on the vertical. You just have to worry about navigating and shooting, and it’s a big part of what lets Doom get away with its slick, speedy gameplay. It’s a perfect bridge between previous flat, single-plane FPS games and the more complicated awareness and aiming of Quake and similar true-3D worlds. Doom still controls like an arcade game, and it’s fun to pick up, play, and rock and roll.
Third, there’s Doom’s weapons. I’ve written about “tactics” in FPS games before, and every time I do, I imagine eyes rolling somewhere, like I’m pretending to be some international Hard Man with 53 confirmed kills. But almost like an RPG with elemental weaknesses, Doom truly does introduce a purpose to which weapon to use and when. The chaingun can prevent a floating Lost Soul skull from charging at you. The shotgun can slay multiple weak enemies up close. The chainsaw stops a charging pink Demon dead in its tracks. The plasma rifle can keep a floating Cacodemon from returning fire. Exactly six rockets reliably drop an otherwise sturdy Baron of Hell.
Slight randomization of damage means a monster may need one more shot than you were expecting to go down, which works to keep your confidence unsteady. But in general, you’re given good reason to conserve one ammo type while maximizing your effectiveness by using another weapon. On top of all of this, Doom consistently packs so many groups of disparate monster types together that you’re always having to think and switch gears. It’s unlikely one weapon will win every fight, with almost endless combinations of enemy types and terrain making encounters unique.
Fourth are traps within the level design itself. Crushing ceilings rumble unexpectedly to life and squeeze your life away if you get caught. Narrow ledges running over toxic pits threaten to drop you into the soup. New passageways frequently open as floor triggers are hit or switches are flipped. Doors can lock behind you, cutting off your escape from charging foes. There’s almost always one more bad guy hiding behind the Exit door to jump out at you. It’s surprisingly tense stuff. You were already on edge, expecting demons to leap out, but now there’s a chance that the level itself is going to change on you. One of Doom’s hardest-taught lessons is that hardly anything will be handed over without a fight.
Finally, the monsters themselves deserve a mention. Their abilities are different enough from each other as to require a different approach in defeating them, while their artwork carves a nice balance between medieval concepts of the Satanic and modern techno-horror. The fact that you gun down so many of them and they can always remain a threat – yes, even the wimpy rifle zombies – is a testament to their design. Being able to kill an Imp with a single shotgun blast doesn’t mean much in a dark room full of them, with dangerous explosive barrels also crowded around. Different breeds of monsters also fight each other if accidentally hit. They’ll shoot at you with no regard for their brethren between you, so you’re encouraged to kick off these monster brawls and take some of the heat (temporarily) off you.
Other FPS titles just didn’t have these layers of complexity, either because the tech wasn’t there, or because they believed shooting dudes in a maze was enough. Many “Doom clones” that followed wouldn’t either, preferring to focus on straight action and gore, or more realistic levels without the thoughtful combat. Even Duke Nukem 3D, labeled the “Doom Killer” at the time, didn’t have the same kind of challenging interplay between different enemy types and various weapons – you mostly just used whatever gun you had ammo for – the levels were amazing, but the strategy was absent. Doom really did earn it’s place at the top of the 90s FPS landscape.
Doom features great sound with a relatively new emphasis on stereo. You can accurately pick out where shots are coming in from and react accordingly. The idle croaking of imps or moans of zombies can be heard through nearby walls, giving further anticipation that they’re nearby…somewhere. The sound of doors opening in the distance are the best clue that you’ve opened a secret path and should investigate. The sounds of the weapons are right on, and amazingly don’t seem repetitive, considering how you’ll be hearing them more times than anything else. Built in pitch-shifting even changes monsters’ alerted growls and pained howls among a few different options, vastly increasing the variety of these noises while still ensuring you know what enemy type made them.
Bobby Prince’s high-quality MIDI music plays in the background, based on what kind of level has been designed. There are thumping action beats (often based off of popular Metal riffs) for heavily populated, mostly open levels, and quiet stalking music for more cramped, trapped levels. They match and set the mood of each level quite well. The fact that he composed a unique track for nearly every level in the game is also extremely commendable.
If nothing else, Doom is a great collection of intense, memorable gameplay. There’s moments of terror, such as firing a chaingun into a seemingly-endless mass of Imps moving in from the shadows down the hall, their faces only briefly lit by the gun’s muzzle flashes. There’s moments of sweet revenge, such as slugging through a series of tough fights and then unloading a rocket into a crowd of weak zombies, vaporizing them instantly. There’s moments of real calculation, such as spying a red key at the end of an empty room. You know it’s a trap – but can you evade all the monsters it will spawn and make off with the prize? It’s smart gameplay, it’s plenty fun beyond the simple blasting of demons, and even some of the cheapest shocks or cruelest traps can incite a respectful smile at catching you off guard – provided you’ve remembered to save, of course.
Multiplayer also deserves a special mention. 4-player deathmatch and 2-player co-op options helped add tremendous value to the pack. This is the game that both introduced and popularized the arena-style deathmatch – essentially virtual laser tag – that would go on to dominate multiplayer modes throughout the industry. Corporate intranets were particularly well-suited to networking four players together, and complaints about lost work hours are somewhat legendary. For dial-up players, services like DWANGO sprout up to become the forefathers of modern online gaming services, complete with in-client server browsers and chat lobbies. Doom brought gamers together regardless of physical distance, and encouraged the growth of a whole internet gaming structure that Quake would later make great use of. Doom’s in-engine ability to record and play back gameplay demos as small information files also encouraged the growth of the “speedrun” scene.
Doom also popularized the modding scene with the availability of level editors, along with easy distribution by packing maps and assets into self-contained “WAD” files. Independent modders could churn out levels in their free time with full legal clearance from id, while distributing them globally through BBS servers, websites like Doomworld, and FTP archives like /idgames. The ease of downloading a single file ensured interested parties could quickly access a modder’s work, while the popularity of the game ensured those levels would have an audience. These WAD packages could be anything from single maps to entirely new episodes, to “Total Conversions” replacing art and monster behavior to form new games running on the same engine. Everything in popular culture at the time, from the Teletubbies to Aliens got (unauthorized) Total Conversions. Enterprising companies like WizardWorks even saved gamers dial-up fees by releasing WAD compilations on discs, while more than a few modding guides made their way onto store shelves.
That’s a lot of great things to say about Doom, but are there any flaws? As the first game in the series, this is still a proof of concept, while the refinements in Doom II really make the gameplay soar. Most notable is the reliance on low-level enemies throughout the episodes. You will, by far, see Zombies and Imps repeated the most, with the Demon, Cacodemon, and Baron of Hell making up the only heavies in the roster. There’s clearly spots for middle-tier baddies that don’t get filled until Doom II, and a lot to the “combat puzzle” challenge that doesn’t get explored until these additional pieces get added in.
Overall, the first Doom is not particularly devious. Monsters can’t spawn via teleport here, which means that getting pinched between two Demons or Barons in a hallway is rare compared to later sequels. Crushing ceilings get much faster in the sequels. Mazes are limited to sections of levels here, not the entire level itself. You’re rarely asked to run through toxic goo, and are given generous health when you are. At worst, you’re going to start a level under attack before you can even save, but its always only a couple of guys and nothing like, say, Ultimate Doom‘s second level.
This means a lot of Doom aficionados view the first game as too easy. If you’re a first time player, I don’t know if this is going to matter to you or not. It’s worth considering that keyboard controls were still the main way to play when Doom was released, so modern strafing and precision mouse controls tend to spank a lot of the challenges as designed. The later games in the series will give a more significant challenge if that’s what you’re looking for, or be aware that it only gets harder from here if you’re already struggling with this one.
Also, while there is more to Doom than just shooting monsters, shooting monsters is no doubt the focus. If you’re not interested in this brand of violence, then you’re not going to appreciate any of the “extras” I listed above. Much like Wolf 3D, there’s no real plot to speak of. Any development throughout the episode is contained only in the occasional text screen explaining where your burly Marine is heading to next. Though Tom Hall actually wrote a very elaborate backstory in his design document, plot wouldn’t really show in the series until Doom 3, and to mixed results at that. Other games like System Shock would do more with the first person shooter, but Doom surely built a strong gameplay foundation for others to follow.
That’s Doom in a very wordy nutshell. If you haven’t played it before, maybe now you have some encouragement to take a look. For better or worse, it’s certainly one of the most influential titles in gaming, and following Apogee’s shareware model (the first 9-level episode was distributed as a free demo), as well as Doom‘s subsequent port to every device known to man, both ensured the game got into the hands of anyone who wanted to play it. Its fast, simple action, smooth engine, impressive effects, multiplayer, and modability all helped it stick around. If you’re playing an action game from the last 20 years, with friends over Xbox Live, PSN, Switch, or enjoying the unique benefits of gaming on a PC, some part of that game owes its genesis or refinement to Doom and its community.
Simply, there was nothing like it at the time. Full of action, scares, and tons of fun, it was also a graphical powerhouse that changed the direction of the industry almost single-handedly. And don’t let the 90s talk of a lazy “murder simulator” fool you – there’s some smart design and clever traps here.
Additions and extra tactics aside, you still had to be down with the fundamental gameplay of shooting demons in the nuts. Plenty of folks didn’t care for the keycard hunts either. A solid start still worth playing today, but Doom II’s additions are the real MVP.
ONCE YOU BEAT THE BIG BADASSES AND CLEAN OUT THE MOON BASE YOU’RE SUPPOSED TO WIN, AREN’T YOU? AREN’T YOU? WHERE’S YOUR FAT REWARD AND TICKET HOME? WHAT THE HELL IS THIS? IT’S NOT SUPPOSED TO END THIS WAY!”