You know those awful parents in game shops that idly hand over cash for videogames whose covers depict horrific acts of murder, war, theft and misogyny? The same ones that then hand over the plastic cases to their rabid, eleven year old offspring who can’t wait to get home for a bit of the old ultraviolence? Horrible, aren’t they? That’s what I’d say. I have regularly made the observation to friends and colleagues, decrying the ancient belief that all games are for children and begging for more rigorous censorship lest we turn our young people into dysfunctional, violence worshipping husks.
As I was thinking about writing something for Doomcember, however, I came to a staggering realisation. I was once one of those eleven year olds and my own father was once one of those parents. I was eleven in 1995 when the SNES port of Doom was released. By that time Doom had been out on PC for a couple of years and it had seeped into popular culture so much so that it was even referenced in an episode of Friends (surely there is no greater indicator of 90s mainstream acceptance). I had seen it running on PCs in Nottingham’s branch of Laser Quest, which doubled as just about the only decent arcade for miles around and I remember staring at it with awe. These powerful machines were so unattainable and this game was so ahead of its time that my tiny mind just couldn’t comprehend it. I could not foresee a day when someone as lowly as me might be able to worship at the altar of id.
Imagine my glee when I saw that cover sitting on the front of a SNES game box in the local Woolworths. I had to have it. I can’t remember what reason I had for purchasing it, but I don’t remember getting any resistance from my father (thank God he didn’t know any better) and before I knew it I was at home, rabidly removing the grey plastic cartridge from its box. I was part of possibly the first wave of children-being-bought-age-inappropriate-games and I was bloody loving it.
I must have played the first level of the SNES Doom port a hundred times. If I think about it carefully I could probably map out the entire level even now, almost twenty years later. I can certainly remember the music. The written word doesn’t lend itself too well to mimicking 16-bit game themes; otherwise I would type it out here for all to see. If you’ve played the game that will be unnecessary though as by mentioning it I’ve no doubt set it off on an endless loop in your head. It’s testament to the power of Doom that even that vastly inferior port - with its enemies that could only face forward and its levels that were mere approximations of their PC counterparts - can stay in my brain for nigh on twenty years.
But what of the mystery mentioned in the title? Well I’m getting to that.
I played through Doom’s opening levels with glee. I slowly advanced from the pistol to the shotgun and beyond (forgive me for not remembering the exact order of weapon acquisition), blasting away monstrosities on two, four and zero legs. I cleared a handful of levels and found myself ready to advance to the next stage. There was only one way to go – towards a pit in the floor. I threw myself in, ready to take on whatever was there. Turns out I wasn’t ready to face whatever was there, however, as what was there, in the depths of that dark pit, was a horde of enemies so numerous and at such close quarters no human being could hope to beat them all. I watched my health deplete to nothing. I died. I restarted.
Not to be perturbed, I decided I must have missed something. There must have been another door to go through or another coloured key to collect. No one would programme a game to be impossible, would they? So in I went again. There were no other doors. There were no keys. There was just the pit and the snarling, evil death it held within.
Something must be wrong, my childish brain thought. There are clearly levels beyond this one but I seem unable to access them.
I tried again. Pit. Despair. Torment.
It would be a few more years before my family would get a PC with internet access so I couldn’t just nip online to research this problem. I looked through my collection of gaming magazines and found nothing. So I went downstairs and explained to my dad that this wonderful new game I had acquired was broken. I explained my predicament and was met with a frown. Maybe we had purchased a defective cartridge? This would not do. Consumers had rights after all. Who could fix this problem?
Not fully appreciating the impossibility of us buying a cartridge that was somehow programmed differently to its mass produced counterparts, we set about finding answers. This quest took the form of my dad phoning the complaints line listed in the game’s manual. God knows who he was phoning in those days. Clearly not the game’s developers, but more likely the distributors. If my understanding of the 90s games industry is sound (which it definitely isn’t) that probably meant a terraced house in Surrey, staffed by three people. I sat on the stairs and watched him grow increasingly irate as the poor woman at the end of the phone failed to understand our problem or offer any sort of solution to it. It wasn’t something they’d encountered before. That shouldn’t happen. Is your son playing it right?
I can’t remember what happened after that. I know that we never got a solution to the problem. I know that I kept the game but never touched it again, so dejected was I by it defeating me. And now here I am, aged almost thirty and still unsure as to why my experience of Doom was so short lived.
Now before the real Doom nuts start lambasting me for my idiocy, I know full well I could Google this problem and I’d find the answer in mere moments. Instead I’ll settle for someone telling me the answer here, or I will go on not knowing. It’s been almost twenty years, why not go twenty more? I strongly suspect that what happened was a result of choosing to play the game on its easiest difficulty. This did not occur to me at the time, as I always played games on their easiest difficulty settings. Why would anyone want to make it hard for themselves? It does seem to make some sense now though, as these were still days when competence was expected for progression in games.
I never solved the mystery partly because memory of it was only brought about by seeing Andi’s tweet asking for Doomcember contributions. ‘I have nothing to contribute there’ I thought, ‘my only real experience of Doom was that SNES port from the mid-90s’. And with that, all the memories came flooding back and I realised this was my opportunity to put a twenty year old mystery to bed. So please, people of the internet who have knowledge beyond my own, solve my mystery and help the frustrated eleven year old within me come to terms with his gaming ineptitude once and for all.
Luke Parkinson can be found hidden away on the internet under the magnificent hacker alias @unstoppablebeef.