Looking Back At… Doom 64.

It wasn’t that long ago I wrote about my dislike of Doom 3. So to sort of counter the aggressive tone I had for that game, I’m taking a moment to look back at the Nintendo 64 version, also a game I never quite appreciated at the time but perhaps do more now. So let’s go back to Hell one more time…

 

It would be quite easy for anyone to dismiss Doom 64 as a bit of a cheap knock-off.

Indeed, at the time in 1997, many did (myself included). There were a myriad of reasons for this, not least the expense that came with a Nintendo 64 cartridge. Doom 64 was decidedly old-style Doom, at a point when the Nintendo 64 was pushing titles like Turok and Goldeneye. Rather like Doom 3, Doom 64 was an unashamedly old-school ideal in an era when the first-person shooter genre had new and far more exciting blood on offer, and was demonstrating examples and ideas that would come to later define the console First-Person shooter. Doom 64 was nothing new, or even that exciting. It was Doom.

Of course, let’s be frank here, Doom 64 did not begin its life as a Doom game. Midway at the time were making a new FPS for the console called “The Absolution”, which was more or less going to be a genre-knockoff of the Doom franchise. Somewhere along the line they came to realise that with more and more first-person shooters pushing the boundaries on the Nintendo 64 and coming up with exciting additions and mechanics that were distancing themselves from the traditional, old-style Doom template, they came to the conclusion that to release this game on its own as a brand new IP would probably have seen it get a bit of a critical and commercial mauling. It just wasn’t modern or crisp enough to cut through the competition, it had nothing new to add to the genre. They likely felt the only way to lend the game and the engine they had created any gravitas at all was to give it some brand recognition, hence the use of the Doom name. It wasn’t meant to be a Doom game, but ended up having to be one to attempt to recoup the money they had spent on it.

This is perhaps most notable in the actual engine that they used. For Doom 64 was most certainly noticeable and differentiated from its PC, SNES and Playstation versions by the very nature of its graphics engine and the almost animated, cartoon-like effect that it granted proceedings. In reality, this divided many who had quite liked the sharp, realistic for the era stylings of the Doom franchise. Making it appear to be more cartoon-like than its predecessors was seen by purists at the time as rather sacrilegious. But the engine was, despite its colourful ambitions, also meant to do much of what the Doom franchise was known for, and despite some re-used visual assets that many felt didn’t quite match the overall visual aesthetic, it pulled off the tense, dark atmosphere with more competency than many gave it credit for.

The lack of multiplayer however, especially for the Nintendo 64, was seen as an unforgivable oversight by some, to others – it was a single player experience that matched the design principles of its predecessors.

Indeed, what is most striking about Doom 64 is for all its origins, how faithfully true to the Doom brand it came across as. Despite having to create new enemy looks to match the engine, they are all there and instantly recognisable. All are as faithful to their original designs as was possible, with things like the Cacodemon looking perhaps more sinister and evil than before. There was even a weapon in the game that was only ever in Doom 64; The Unmaker. Mentioned in the original Doom design guide, the Unmaker was an upgradeable laser weapon. Doom 64 was the only Doom game to ever feature this weapon, despite the intention and will many times over to find a way to fit it into more titles. The map design and the layouts of each level were classic Doom; intelligent and thought out, not cobbled together with nary a thought for the consequences. It would always spring you with big crowds of enemies when you least expected it.

You do have to doff your cap to some of what the engine could do…

Which is definitely something I remember Doom 64 for. The “Mob Swarm”. As more enemies than you’d expect come pouring out at you, almost seemingly without end. The map designs were near-perfectly pitched to take full advantage of the idea of just dumping a legion of hellspawn on top of you; as well as often having clever traps and surprise moments pulling you from apparent safety into the bowels of a map filled with nasties eager to tear our heroic Marine apart. Doom 64 was never unfair, but more than the Dooms that came before it, it had the power and the engine to try new tricks, new surprises and new ideas that had never really been put into the genre before. Sometimes they did get rather too carried away, but the excitement that this built up throughout its 32 maps was something more recent Doom titles failed to match. They were giddy with the power, drunk on the technology. Whilst it didn’t really do anything new for the genre, it certainly pushed new ground for the Doom series and that, surely, is the point of a game such as this? Sometimes all you need is to advance the brand, not reinvent it.

Does Doom 64 have a legacy? Well, they did plan a Doom 64 ‘Chapter 2’ (Valve were certainly not the first to this concept!) but by the time they could seriously contemplate it, you had the likes of Turok 2: Seeds of Evil (1998) and Quake (1998) on the market and these brilliantly imaginative, expertly-crafted takes on the first-person shooter genre just made Doom 64 look hideously archaic. The engine looked comical, and many had remarked on its over-saturated colourful tendencies. It left them cold when they felt Doom should have been darker and grittier. But as for a legacy – it was still Doom. And in spite of the fact it began life as a bit of a rip-off of the series it ended up becoming a part of, it did plenty of things that were somewhat quite revolutionary at the time, such as force physics, separate sky animations and independent lighting/shadowing. In spite of the limited capacity of the cartridges that saw some content cut, that they could pull off something like this was quite incredible.

And in that, it does deserve to stand with its Nintendo 64 FPS contemporaries. Whilst they all pushed their own new grounds and had their own sense of identity, Doom 64 was more of a technical revolution. A quieter one, not quite as imposing or as obvious to the naked eye but an important and defining moment in and of itself. Where others wanted to explore the limitations of their genre, Doom 64 was an lesson in quiet reflective contemplation, looking at improving its insides rather than its outer image. It was Doom. It is Doom. It may not be Doom as people expected, or have started life as Doom, but it is Doom. A clever, unique take on the formula. Nothing revolutionary on the outside, but having a quiet personal revelation on the inside.

It was definitely more colourful than Doom had been.

For all of this though I must confess I didn’t like Doom 64 at the time. But it is with the benefit of hindsight that you find that some games are stronger, and have important tales to tell. For Doom 64 was and will likely always remain a divisive game. There is no right or wrong way to look upon it; just reflect upon it not so much as a brilliant game as a brilliant engine. Whatever your interpretations of the outer layers and the way the game plays, and how it looks, it’s those little internal revelations that the game had that sets it apart.

And unlike Doom 3, which was retro for the sake of it, Doom 64 was forward-thinking, but constrained by its limitations. Which is why I have more respect for Doom 64. I understand that the 64-bit cartridges weren’t roomy enough for them to do all they wanted. I understand the engine was never designed to be a Doom game. But what it was able to do, and what it was trying to do, makes me appreciate what it actually is, even though I never much cared for it. Doom 3, which came in 2004, limited itself to the past in spite of its technical powers and prowess. I can’t respect a game which in the process of trying to be something else loses sight of what it could potentially do. It makes it a lesser experience.

For all its quiet changes, it was and is still fundamentally Doom. Others at the time sought to change the world. This did of course mean it never could compete against the mechanical gameplay changes of its contemporaries, all racing to see what new things they could do – but sometimes this doesn’t always work, does it Daikatana? And that’s the point to make here. Daikatana came three years later and was technically and mechanically a worse game than Doom 64. It lacked sophistication, design and the technical fluidity that Doom 64 had, and had in copious more quantities than Daikatana could ever have dreamed of. As people went overboard, went too far, Doom 64 remained a testament to the ideals of simple, honest-to-goodness design. It laughed as people tumbled down past it, those who had forgotten that games still need to have design principles, engines that weren’t made from cardboard and duct-tape. It had reminded us all that sometimes it isn’t always inherently obvious how stalwart a position something has until its rivals fall past it. At which point you do begin to appreciate what it is, what it does and why it exists.

It took later, reckless N64 games to remind us how solid Doom 64 really was. And how brilliant it really was. Even if we didn’t quite like the game, we could look at it and applaud it, realising that whatever our personal take on the game itself that credit should go where credit is due.

Doom 64 was never quite brilliant enough to stand tall in the N64 FPS genre, but it was good enough to survive its collapse at the end.

That’s not a bad legacy to have…

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