My review as ‘Doom’ gets a reboot
I have to admit the headline above is intentionally misleading, because it makes this missive look like a review of something new rather than a look at something old. But although Doom has indeed been rebooted, this is not a review of that reboot. Rather, it’s using the reboot as an excuse to offer up my retro reminiscence through the Doom mania of the mid-1990s through my own personal lens, the only period of time which I could be considered anything close to a “gamer.”
Although I have a deep affection for the classic video games of the 1980s and ’90s, I can probably not be called a “gamer” — even though I’ve probably played hundreds of hours of video games. (I won a trip to Florida in 1993 by absolutely crushing my competition in a high-scoring contest of the original Super Mario Bros., although that’s a whole other tale for another time.) In my mind, “gamer” represents a more modern definition that implies multiplayer shooters, RPGs, or at the very least sports. Wii Bowling — probably not so much.
Yes, I own three versions of Nintendo, going from the 8-bit original to the second-generation 16-bit Super, and then skipping several generations to the original Wii, the latter for which I own perhaps three games and would break out usually only for (mostly drinking-based) parties back before my kids (and my friends’ kids) were born and we had time for such things. But I don’t consider those platforms ones that would make me a “gamer,” and besides, my game-playing days were left behind with those early-generation Nintendo games in my teenage years.
Except, of course, until Doom. Technically I was still a teenager (18, 19), when that whole craze fired up, but that period falls into the category described as “college” rather than “teenager.” Doom, and by far especially Doom II, was huge. And the Internet, which was just becoming available as a mainstream service around this time in 1995, coupled with this kick-ass game, was a revelation in gaming. I lost more hours after 10 p.m. into that game in 1995 than I probably care to think about.
The first time I saw Doom was at a demonstration at my high school’s computer club in early 1994. I remember it was this 3D game that was far more amazing than the at-the-time benchmark, Wolfenstein 3D. I distinctly remember my classmate’s demo, because it played at perhaps five (5) frames per second; hardware would come a long way over the next few years. After I arrived on campus at the University of Illinois, which was tech-savvy and offered broadband Ethernet-based Internet in our dorm rooms before “broadband” was a lexicon-based word (I believe we had T1 lines) and 90 percent of people were still on dial-up, I was reintroduced to the world of Doom, and this time to multiplayer Doom, since we had easy 24/7-access to network computing. (Do you remember something called Trumpet Winsock? This allowed you to easily connect Windows 3.1 to the Internet before TCP/IP was built into the front-end of the OS.)
Doom of course was notable for a lot of things. The gameplay was very fast, provided you had the right hardware. The narrative was extremely simple — kill demons, acquire items and ammo, and get your ass to the exit — and did a great job of staying out of the damn way. The game was gloriously dark and violent in an over-the-top and cheeky way; each demon had its own specifically gory way of dying. It had a great single-player experience with five skill levels. (I would never play below “Ultra-Violence” level, but was “Nightmare” ever an even remotely plausible game to play through, or just the creators’ joke to absolutely pummel you into oblivion as quickly as possible?)
And it had straightforward gameplay rules, probably as a result of the technical limitations of the time. I haven’t played many games in the last 15 years — and I’ve never so much as touched a PlayStation or Xbox controller — but I gather they are anything but straightforward. I wouldn’t know how to play a video game today, and certainly don’t have the time to learn.
No, the innovation of Doom — and especially Doom II — was to take a limited number of fairly straightforward rules of the game engine and use them creatively to buld the illusion of a fully realized, immersive 3D world. The level designs were extremely inventive and always, above all else, extremely playable. As a true 1990s Doom geek, I created a few Doom deathmatch levels (WADs) using the freeware level-design tools of the time. The one serviceable deathmatch level I made (Trigon, if anyone out there has a copy and wants to send it to me) and released to the Internet was unfortunately lost in my PC ether, having somehow been overlooked and not survived the various hard-drive transfers I made over the years.
Of course, four-player deathmatch was the true innovation. But unless you were on a LAN, the only plausible way to do multiplayer was to play two-player modem-to-modem. I had done this, but I couldn’t be tying up the phone line for hours at a time, and I especially couldn’t use it with long-distance rates. But then a freeware DOS program called iFrag was released, which allowed you to host a chat-like room to find other players on the Internet and then launch the game as if you were playing on a LAN. (Internet game servers were definitely not a thing in these days.) This was the true rabbit hole down which many college gamers disappeared for a number of months.
In a way, iFrag was a microcosm of what the Internet would become — a place where like-minded people find each other to engage in myopic activities while shunning those who don’t meet their elite standards. In the case of myself and my fellow dorm mates, we were especially dismissive of other players with excessively high “pings” (millisecond values reported by iFrag and representing the latency of prospecitve players’ Internet connections) and we would kick those players out of our hosted games, lest they slow everything down to an unplayable crawl. I made a few online acquaintances by playing these games. I remember playing one guy named “Phenylalanine” on many occasions; I believe he went to Penn State if memory serves. Naturally, I played under the handle of “Jammer.”
We would all enter those deathmatches looking for the glory of domination, trying to take down our opponents as quickly as possible. I became quite good at this, but far from the best. I could hold my own with other pretty-good players. And it was funny how these mini-clubs came up with their own rules. Naturally, anyone who used the BFG-9000 in a deathmatch was instantly labeled a cheat and a loser, as this was awful sportsmanship, like fishing with dynamite. (Most hosted games were headlined with “NO BFG” to drive the point home.) Players who would spray endless streams with the plasma cannon were labeled “hosers” — also annoying losers about which to make a mental note not to play again. The true deathmatch sportsman relied mostly on the super shotgun (we always simply called it the double-barrel), which was the ultimate in precision-fragging efficiency. If you were good, and played against someone who was less good (but who also thought they were good), nothing would make them madder than taking them down time and time again with a series of dead-on double-barrel shotgun blasts, turning their whole screen red. Ah, what fun. Ah, what a waste of would-be study time stretching into 3 a.m.
In slightly more recent years (and by recent I mean somewhere around 2003 or so), I found the Doomsday port to be the best thing to happen to Doom since the release of Doom II. It took the original maps, re-rendered them in high-resolution and more realistic 3D interaction (including the ability to look up and down), and replaced all the original character sprites with 3D polygon models — all while remaining completely faithful to the original game. It was a bravo effort and upgrade of a classic game. It’s the only way I will play the original Doom games these days, when I (very occasionally) break them out. I never played Doom 3 and wasn’t interested based on the few times I saw a friend play it. It seemed to go in the direction of atmosphere and more elaborate object-based puzzle-solving instead of raw action and exploration-based puzzles, and that was just not my idea of what Doom was.
With Doom having been released with its eponymous reboot last week, I found my interest piqued in a gaming world I’ve nearly completely ignored for the better part of two decades. Not piqued enough to go play the game, mind you (like I said, I don’t have the luxury of that kind of time), but enough to go seek out some reviews and see where they went with the reboot. Based on some of what I’ve read, they modernized the game while keeping the spirit the same as the original. Sounds like a great choice. I wish my time was unlimited so I could give it a try. But the truth is, you can’t home again. I will play Doom only in my memories, and when I break out Doomsday on my PC from rare time to time.
If you made it to the end of this, I congratulate you. Clearly you are a veteran of the 1990s Doom wars. As gaming goes, for me with so little relative overall experience ever since, those were the days. The only days.