Remember when cell phones had buttons? Whoa, whoa, don’t strain yourself too hard there, gramps. It was a long time ago. While the phones of the early 2000’s weren’t particularly powerful, or particularly “smart,” they still needed games. At the same time, id Software was still out to put Doom on every device with a computer chip, and John Carmack loved a good challenge. It was, in many ways, an inevitable pairing.
Except, Java-based phones weren’t beefy enough to actually run Doom. Some compromises would need to be made. The result is the Java ME and Blackberry-exclusive Doom RPG. Eschewing attempts to replicate the original on underpowered hardware (like the Duke Nukem J2ME port), this is its own game and its own take on the story. It’s a lot better than you would expect, and even more surprising, a lot funnier.
The plot here is the same it’s always been – bad times at the UAC base on Mars, you’re the lone, unnammed marine left to clean up – only now there’s an effort to expand and actually showcase that plot. NPC characters are frequent and chatting with them offers backstory and level hints. Emails can be read on computer terminals that offer level clues and additional narrative. It’s obvious someone was hoarding equipment and running unauthorized experiments, but how does that explain the demons running rampant and how can they be stopped? Two reoccurring characters, Dr. Jensen and Dr. Guerard, make up the main cast and are at odds with each other. You’ll run into both throughout the game, and it actually does a respectable job at casting suspicion back and forth between them. Who can you trust? Who’s the enemy? Well, the demons are the enemy, but who let them out??
There are ten levels in total. Taking a page from the Doom Bible‘s original game concept, these levels are connected by a central hub named Junction. A medic and a store are located here, while color keycards unlock access to later sectors. Progression is kept fairly linear, but you can return to any previous level or choose the next one to go to within unlocked sets. You earn XP for kills, and enough XP grants you a new character level. You’ll never allocate skill points, but each level you gain boosts your stats uniformly in areas like health, defense, and killing power. High level players will waylay monsters in a single hit, making the stat increases feel palpable.
Demons are taken part and parcel from Doom II. The two new addition are a boss and the Hellhound – a demon doggie using the same sprites as the guard dog from Wolfenstein 3D. Like brawling games of old, all monsters get palette-swapped and renamed to create tougher versions of themselves for more variety. There are around three difficulty levels for each monster, usually working their way up to the original color they were in the PC games as the toughest variant. They retain their PC abilities here, so the Pain Elemental still burps out flying skulls and the Arch-Vile does indeed resurrect slain enemies. Even though it plays differently, it still feels like authentic Doom.
Weapons are also carried over from Doom II, with some special additions for the RPG. The aforementioned axe is your melee weapon, also used to smash open locked doors and supply crates. The ability to crit on some attacks means any weapon can be deadly enough to be useful, while certain enemies have noticeable weaknesses against specific weapons – axes on zombies, shotguns on imps, etc. A fire extinguisher lets you blast flames to open up paths and grab free XP. It’s a little thing I can’t fully explain, but I really like that the extinguisher is deployed like a weapon. It’s fun to call it up and press a button to “psshhht” flames into oblivion. Finally, a dog collar lets you capture attacking Hellhounds and sic them on other demons. Yes, seriously. He’ll even take damage for you as a loyal meat shield.
Gameplay works on a turn system that is always present, but essentially invisible until you’re in combat. You are only allowed to rotate in 90-degree increments and move one square at a time on a defined grid, with each move acting as your “turn.” Movement thus feels a whole lot like 80s dungeon crawlers, and while it’s no comparison to the fluid action of PC Doom, it works as well as it did in those early first person games. Keeping track of where you’re headed is fairly easy despite these restrictions. The combination of an automap and fairly advanced architecture (no levels full of exclusively identical textures) help make navigation pretty straightforward. Occasional decorative sprites help areas feel functional as well.
When enemies do show up, they’ll move under the same grid and turn restrictions. You have all the time you want between turns to plan out chess-like strategies, switch weapons, and try to bring your enemy in firing range without exposing yourself. Neither you nor your foes can attack unless they can draw a straight line to you. If you can back up or use corners to force them to spend their move lining up, you can use yours to take the first shot. You can even pass your turn with the 8 key, if you’ve positioned yourself favorably and just want to wait for your opponent to stroll into your line of fire.
You shoot with the 5 key and each shot uses up a turn. This means melee enemies that your shot hasn’t taken out will keep coming or biting. Again, rotating or switching weapons doesn’t use up your turn. Shooting Pinky demons until they get next to you, then finishing them off with the axe becomes a pretty effective strategy. Limited ammo is also a serious consideration. You won’t pick up enough in the levels to carelessly rock and roll, while ideally, you’ll want to save your cash to buy stat upgrades at the shops instead of ammo packs. Trying to match the right ammo to the right enemy helps a bit here, but many don’t have obvious weaknesses. The ability for both you and enemies to miss and dodge further ups ammo usage, as does a range of damage to kill an enemy type rather than an exact number. Two shotgun blasts put down the last one, but this one might take three.
While the turn-based structure allows for some tactical thinking, in practice, you’re going to take a lot of unavoidable hits. Enemies will match your pace if you try to run, with some actually getting to move and attack within the same turn. You’re never going to outrun them or pop out from cover before they’re able to move in and simply block you. Doom RPG knows and expects this, so that’s part of why your stats are allowed to get so ludicrously inflated. It won’t take long to get buff enough to shrug off rockets, while various health consumables help you stay alive even longer. A bottomless inventory lets you collect these health kits and eat them when you need them. Unlike ammo, these are plentiful enough that I never needed to buy any and could spend that cash elsewhere.
Secrets are plentiful, and just like its PC progenitor, Doom RPG loves to show you an item out of reach and taunt you into figuring out how to get there. An automap can be referenced at any time and there’s a terminal in each level that will fill the map in for you. Unlike the original, Doom RPG doesn’t try too hard to hide its secret walls. They’re obviously recessed if you’re paying attention. Using them will open up side areas usually stocked with goodies. Doors that aren’t locked with keys are locked by code numbers (that you enter with the phone keypad, natch) which free up the designers to hide them in riddles or a deep stack of archived emails. I particularly liked the one where the level architecture itself spelled out the code to proceed, and there are four secret terminals throughout the levels that each give one piece of a “super secret” door code in Sector 6 (it’s worth it, and it’s not the BFG).
This also plays into some light, optional backtracking. Many areas have doors that can’t be accessed without knowledge or keys gained from future levels, and the rewards are generally worth remembering their location and returning to. Enemies and most powerups reappear upon return to an old level, meaning you can beat up on underleveled enemies for XP and cash if you want to make future levels a little easier for you. Grinding is never required, thankfully, but it’s there if you want to take advantage of it. Otherwise, those foes are weaker than you now, making it easier to steamroll through to the door you now have key for.
I also can’t emphasize this enough; the copious text messages and NPCs mean Doom RPG is funny and clever in ways the PC originals couldn’t be. The dog collar is one of many ways this game doesn’t take itself entirely seriously. A tech complains how a password of “1234” is completely in violation of the UAC manual. A fantastic setup to trying to blow up a door with explosive barrels ends with the door itself breaking the fourth wall to taunt you. A technician informs you you’ll need to do some “hardcore SQL hacking” to get a passcode. It’s also lousy with pop culture references in terminal messages. A tech slacks off on work because he found a 100 year old copy of Doom. A secret door opens with the code of original Doom’s release date. A scientist is baffled by a broken terminal giving a “PC LOAD LETTER” error.
Proper scripting lets this game tell a better story than the originals could. A scientist crawls into an overloading processor while you work together to conduct emergency repairs. Characters can be triggered to respond to new events – a maintenance worker tells you to check a terminal, you do, and when you return he’s in a new location with new dialogue. There’s an effective chase sequence that puts this to impressive use. There’s a running gag with characters that seem to teleport ahead of you and preemptively hand-wave any questions about how they got there first. Monsters will teleport in to previously cleared areas, just to keep you on your toes. Commendably, they rarely teleport directly in front you, instead preferring to replicate the “monster closets” of the PC game.
Any negatives to the game are mostly technical ones. For starters, the obvious – this isn’t really Doom on a mobile phone. If you were expecting a fluid action with free movement, you stand to be disappointed. The advanced architecture that made Doom famous isn’t present here either. Everything sits on a flat plane. While walls can and do connect at angles other that 90-degrees, and the maps themselves can get rather complex, there’s nothing here that can compare to the PC original. There’s no music during the levels, and sound is generally sparse. Neither you nor enemies make any noise – only the tinny sound of gunshots get played in battle. Likewise, the only noise when exploring the levels is the same repeated chime every time you pick up something.
This is also a tough one to get playing today. If you have an Android device, you’re in the best situation. Multiple emulators on the Google Play store can translate the Java instructions without much fuss. If that device is a phone, you’re even closer to the experience as intended. There are J2ME emulators for the PC, but I wasn’t having luck with any of them. Most projects seem to have been abandoned long ago. The ones reported to work the best are just developer environments that can run finished games for “testing” as a by-product. If you’re serious about this and Android isn’t an option, it may actually be worth buying a cheap Java phone – provided there are other Java exclusives that interest you too. Whatever you pay will be less than the headaches of trying to get it emulated elsewhere.
It seems obvious to say it, but Doom RPG wouldn’t have worked as well without having the original game to base off of. You need expectations set for the RPG to subvert, which it does pretty brilliantly. While it’s a shame it never ported to any other systems, it’s so suited to the mobile format that it’s hard to imagine it working as well elsewhere. To put it another way, this stands as one of the best mobile games even today, while it would be a novelty at best on PC. It’s not the Doom-on-a-phone you might expect – it’s actually much, much more – and Doom fans owe it to themselves to give it a try.
Fits Doom into the style of old dungeon crawlers surprisingly well. Self-aware winks and nods are legitimately funny. NPCs and basic scripting tell a dynamic story effectively. Light strategy elements keep turn-based, tech-restricted battles interesting. Can save anywhere.
Big for a mobile game, short for a Doom game. Fairly easy overall with no difficulty options and only a challenge to get a vague “Master” skill rating. Doesn’t replicate the experience that made Doom famous, but this is a turn of the century mobile phone.
Where are the rest of the Marines in your unit? ….They only sent you? We’re doomed! — Scientist