“Original and Best,” proclaims each tin of dayglo girder-juice IRN-BRU, surely Scotland’s finest carbonated export. The same slogan could happily adorn DOOM. Though by no means first on the FPS scene, DOOM represented the culmination of years of both programming expertise and artistic nous at id Software, blowing away forebear Wolfenstein 3D in every respect. Every aspect of DOOM gelled together seamlessly into one glorious surge - sat on the foundations of a revolutionary engine capable of rendering fast, fully-texture mapped environments were fluid controls, compelling level design with traps and ambushes galore, a kickass quasi-metal soundtrack and endless waves of devilish foes. Plus guns. Perfect guns. For all intents and purposes, and for the entirety of the game, you are a walking gun.
DOOM’s unuttered manifesto seems to say, “You’re here to shoot shit, so we’re gonna make shooting shit as thrilling as possible.” Even 20 years on, few FPSs can match the exhilaration and breakneck sustained tempo of its combat - tool up, enable autorun, discard inhibitions and the game becomes a perpetual adrenaline instigant. There’s a good reason Midnight Resistance’s shooter scoring system takes DOOM as a reference-level baseline - to my knowledge, no game since has scored over 0.8 DOOMs. Its iconic arsenal became a template for every FPS of the 1990s and beyond, with a frugal yet considered lineup ensuring every firearm remains in hearts and minds; a scant selection ensures no dilution of favoritism. I find it hard to become particularly attached to any of the myriad bullet-sprayers offered by a CoD, or a Battlefield (or even a modern-day GTA), being so numerous and disposable and nondescript - the sheer wealth of choice, the minor visual and characteristic differences rendering them wholly unmemorable. GoldenEye 007 was the forerunner of these modern mission-based military shooters, the first to offer a hugely expanded selection of weapons loosely based on real-world counterparts, and though I can immediately recall how it felt squeezing the Z-trigger and unleashing the devastating RC-P90, the zippy silenced PP7 or the paltry Klobb, none spring to mind with the same clarity or reverence as DOOM II’s signature double-barrel shotgun. All of the weapons in DOOM are one-of-a-kind stone cold classics, starting with the:
Smear-wipe into E1M1 and you're stood clutching this lowly piece, apparently all the marine vanguard left behind for Doomguy when they high-tailed it with all the high-tech killing kit. Despite superior firepower, those poor suckers were swamped and outmatched by Hell's minions, their corpses sporadically dotted around, curiously devoid of armaments, unable to be pillaged as customary in modern games. Still, things could be worse. The pistol isn’t bad for handling the initial rank-and-file thrown your way, provided they can be pinned down before counterattacking - zombified soldiers will drop after a couple of hits, but efficient crowd-control is out of the question. Aesthetically pleasing – the detailed, recognisable sprite immediately showing off the huge leap up from Wolfenstein 3D’s LEGO brick-looking firearms – the pistol has a neat recoil animation and a little pith, but relatively sluggish rate of fire - holding down the trigger slightly decreases accuracy, so repeated taps are recommended if you need to fall back to this - instances that see Doomguy at square one weapon-wise include starting a new episode, eschewing quicksave and restarting a map upon death classic-style, or being quickly set upon when spawning in deathmatch.
Though everything that game has to offer has been absorbed and regurgitated and dissected to oblivion, initially DOOM was inconsistent its mystery: the flakiest excuse of a premise coupled with a status bar that more or less presents all from the get-go - a shape sorter of unoccupied slots, ‘ARMS’ numbered 2-7 and manual descriptions foretelling exactly what is available to players, only the pistol highlighted upon starting: less a blank canvas, more paint by numbers. Alongside, enticing ‘BULL’, ‘SHEL’, ‘RCKT’ and ‘CELL’ counters, each with their corresponding accumulation and max load. This unveiled-from-the-outset presentation decision evokes an odd sense of prescience, turning the collection of guns and ammo into a treasure hunt, rare gems to be sought, boxes to be ticked. However, before the player discovers their first new toy, there’s always the chance they’ll run out of bullets.
Deplete your ammo reserves and, initially, you’re left wielding this: the humble knuckle sandwich, albeit with a spread of metal duster. Since Doomguy has to be within literal arm’s reach to employ this relatively puny attack, it leaves little scope for dodging, and players will be made mincemeat of confronting hordes without a ranged weapon.
That is, unless a Berserk Pack is discovered – a kind of steroid/PCP cocktail, akin to the potent Alien queen secretion-derived drugs depicted in Dark Horse Comics’ old Genocide series – in which case the fist is imbued with fury, souped-up tenfold: the screen drenched in scarlet rage-haze filter, enemies not so much sparked out as sparked inside out. Alongside the Quad Damage featured a few years later in Quake, id Software certainly knew how to the make the player feel malevolently-godlike, dishing out unstoppable levels of damage, reducing bad dudes to gloop.
Upon collection, this toothy power tool replaces the fist as melee attack, giving Doomguy a bit of bite at close quarters - holding attack revs the blade from a chugging idle to a high-pitched whine, ‘snagging’ struck enemies and hampering their retaliation. Something of a wildcat option, the chainsaw can be fearsome in certain situations but leaves the player vulnerable as they’re forced to stay basically static when dispatching individuals - DOOM popularized the run-and-gun circle strafe technique, essential to survival on higher difficulties, and this weapon doesn’t always play particularly well due to proximity and brief pauses required when chewing up enemies. Quite what a chainsaw is doing on a Martian moon is anyone’s guess, though – over a decade later, remake Doom 3 offered a cheeky order mix-up explanation as to how several units found themselves delivered to the UAC facility. Forgiving its cryptic inclusion, the appearance of a chainsaw was inevitable, given the influence of Evil Dead II on the DOOM development team.
Now, this is more like it. Pump action, best kept handy, "for close encounters" (so much of DOOM is indebted to Aliens - at one point early in development id’s intention was to create a tie-in product, though negations over the license were soon abandoned), capable of taking down an imp with a single point-blank shell, or knocking down groups of zombiemen a little further away.
The first shotgun pickup – either via a secret on the first stage, an early drop by the skinhead dudes on higher difficulties, or up a lift plunging into E1M2 – reveals the beauty of DOOM’s better-weapon autoswitching: none of the modern prompts suggesting you hold ‘B’ to swap this generic gun you’re holding for that generic gun salvaged off the floor… is that generic gun better? Who knows? You know who knows about guns? You know who knows which guns are better? Doomguy knows. Doomguy doesn’t ask for your permission to swap guns. Doomguy chooses the best available kill-catalyst, always. Glide over the chunky, bold, oddly floating weapon sprites (nothing in this game is subtle) and watch Doomguy’s expression on the status bar contort into a manic grin that wouldn’t disgrace Jack Nicholson. This little touch, as with everything in the game, is expertly tuned to give the player a tiny buzz - from the full-screen flashes and mechanical frog-ribbit sound effects as strings of health vials and armour boosts are grabbed, to the rapid fire gunshots as post-level tallies rack up, everything is a drip-feed of mini-elations: pure, compulsive arcade game bliss. In hindsight, it seems odd the game never actually graced arcades: the custom DOOM II cabinet mock-up depicted in 1997’s excellent hitman rom-com Grosse Pointe Blank is a sublime realisation.
Once this multi-cylindrical beauty is discovered (as early as E1M2 for the keen-eyed) the lowly pistol becomes all but redundant - they share the same ammo, but the chaingun is a far superior option with few downsides, capable of keeping swarms of foes in check thanks to a ferocious rate of fire. Spitting out round after round of belt-fed goodness, repeated hits make baddies do an awkward little on-the-spot dance, jerking back and forth with each impact (the “chaingun cha-cha,” according to the manual).
The chaingun evokes visions of similar hardware slung under Vietnam-era choppers, poking out from an A-10’s nose, looking like an especially lethal cigarette when surrounded by a customary shark-mouth paint job, fired blindly by Mac in Predator, whirring to life and cutting down rainforests faster than Nestlé. Stomping blood-soaked boots all over the then-emerging CD-ROM ‘interactive movie’ fad, DOOM is the most outrageous action scenes of late-‘80s/early-‘90s schlocky Hollywood sci-fi blockbusters made playable: the greatest melting pot of uncredited film licenses to date.
The only real weakness of the chaingun is its tendency to chew through ammo reserves when the fired continuously (pairing with a carry capacity-doubling backpack pickup is essential) - otherwise, it looks cool as hell, requires little in the way of nuance, and is indispensable when facing all but the toughest of foes, churning through the lower echelons of hell’s infantry with ease.
Ah, top dog of the shareware version, and the only weapon requiring a HANDLE WITH CARE warning. Like a lit firework, a safe distance must be maintained: every DOOM player has accidentally strafed directly into the face of an enemy while popping off a slew of rockets and immediately regretted it. Capable of felling even Knee Deep in the Dead’s Baron of Hell end boss double-team with a few well-aimed volleys, the rocket launcher demands respect due to its splash damage disposition. Human-sized demons will be obliterated, burst like sledgehammered watermelons if caught by a blast, the sickening thud-squelch and sight of that famous ‘slippy pile of meat’ gib almost certainly responsible for more mid-‘90s parents uttering “I don’t want you playing this” to kids sneaking an install on the family PC.
It’s impossible to talk about DOOM without mentioning violence. Though the blocky bloodbath looks primate now in an era of wanton CoD massacres and GTA choose-your-own-torture-implement-adventures, it was hugely controversial at the time and saw reignited scrutiny in the aftermath of Columbine. The link between video game violence and real-world acts has been debated ad nauseam with no real conclusions, and I’m not going to derail a celebration of DOOM to dwell on its depiction of violence, other than urge you to read Simon Parkin’s excellent piece asking how far is too far.
Major games’ path to retail tends to be broadly similar these days: preview hype from the press and a massive paid-for publicity push, followed by a triumphant disc/digital launch on major consoles/PC with very little true discernibility between formats: the rampant scrutiny over CoD Ghosts’ 1080p vs. 720p presentation highlights how homogenous multi-platform releases are now. Twenty years ago, first experiences of DOOM were far more fragmented, differing considerably depending on version. For the original PC release, shareware copies gradually trickled down from bulletin board systems and floppy discs passed between friends and colleagues, the eventual install base of the first episode surely dwarfing that of the registered version. Many players’ concept of DOOM probably terminates at Phobos Anomaly (“It’s not supposed to end this way!”) My first glimpse at the game was on a friend’s Sega 32X - in retrospect a bastardised version, with technical impediments infiltrating every element of presentation, the third episode entirely absent. Still, we were enthralled.
It was only when an older cousin brought a disc to a party at my parents and Knee Deep in the Dead settled in for its long residence on the family PC that I saw what I had been missing. Suddenly, console-owning friends plead to come around and check out ‘full fat’ DOOM: all glorious side-on animations of monster infighting, Pentium-powered smoothness and none of that brick-patterned windowed bullshit masking off a sizable chunk of the screen (apparently the 3DO version was even worse than the 32X’s: every manufacturer of the era clamoured to get DOOM on their console, whatever the ruinous truncations advertising hardware limitations). This was compounded further when DOOM ’95 (programmed by a team lead by one Gabe Newell) appeared and pals were wowed with a hi-res, albeit slightly-stretched version.
Still, I only played the freely available first episode time after time. The full three-episode DOOM was tricky to get hold of in the UK, I recall, not available in shops until Thy Flesh Consumed’s release - sending away for a jiffy bag full of discs from some far-flung American zip code as the post-game DOS window implored seemed unfeasible to a kid from a small village in the north east of England. Consequently, I’ve never come across a retail version of the original in real life, despite that box art of the marine’s hilltop stand, a demon in the foreground’s sly glance to camera etched in memory (stumbling onto its cameo inscribed on a dug-up ancient slab in Doom 3 elicited a squeal of pure joy). It wasn’t until years later I played The Shores of Hell, Inferno, heck even DOOM II - things moved on, I got Rise of the Triad, Duke Nukem 3D and Quake, becoming accustomed to full mouse-look freedom, and Phobos’ confined hallways took a back seat.
So, my hours clocked up wielding the cell-powered energy weapons only present in DOOM’s registered version are considerably less. And that’s a shame - the plasma rifle is surely the game’s slickest, quirk-free killing apparatus. Lay down some sustained fire and anything caught in the crosshairs bar the biggest bosses is dealt with promptly. It always feels oddly luxurious, a go-on-spoil-yourself treat to use: the sound the thing emits is ferocious, a high-pitched harpy screech mixed with ED-209’s guttural snarl as tsunamis of splashy plasma mow down everything in its path. Like the chaingun, the only downside is a propensity for chugging juice at freshers’ week peer-pressure speed: keep a close eye on that ammo counter.
Pumping out a big green bowling ball that ensures all strikes, no spares, the BFG9000 is DOOM’s smart bomb, realised as a bizarre, arcane crackling goo-spitting neutron tech abomination. As cool as Quake’s top-tier lighting gun was, it doesn’t hold a candle to the weirdness and power of the earlier BFG - click the trigger, wait a few seconds for the doodlebug glob to trundle towards hapless foes, everyone dies, job done.
Wide-eyed with wonder, I used to sketch this monstrous instrument out on school jotters before I even got hold of the game - that the id team would be brazen enough to call one of their creations a “Big Fucking Gun” cemented DOOM as comic genius to my schoolboy self, dabbling in the first flourishes of a lifelong love of gratuitous profanity.
Though the OTT BFG is the most destructive weapon available to Doomguy (and a clear inspiration for the multitude of wild and wacky WMDs sported by Turok a few years down the line), the pinnacle of shooting satisfaction would have to wait for the sequel.
Finally, my favourite. Everybody’s favourite. The super shotgun, exclusive to Hell on Earth. In an age when microtransactions encroach everywhere, it remains the only video game weapon worth shelling out for, with the £40 or so asking price for a retail copy of DOOM II remarkably good value just to get to use this gun. Implementing the double barrel shotgun only in the sequel was something of a master stroke, to the point where playing vanilla DOOM is tinged with a slight sense of loss in its absence.
The super shotgun exemplifies all the peaks of DOOM: a hint of tactics, knowing precisely when to unleash a payload for maximum payout, a sense of rhythm and aforementioned feel-good nugget elicitation (with the subwoofer-troubling thump and dependable click-clack as Doomguy casually slips in another couple of shells after each shot arguably the most satisfying combo of sound effects in the history of games), and of a vulgar display of power from behind the trigger - despite its unassuming rank on the status bar, the super shotgun’s crowd flattening, miniboss flattening prowess puts it on a pedestal.