The N64 had a curious relationship with first person shooters. Despite Nintendo slapping their ‘seal of approval’ on every release, ensuring that nothing particularly naughty made it onto their cartridge-based dream machine, there were plenty of ultra-violent FPS games to choose from throughout its lifespan. Some of them were the absolute best of their day, and the ease of creating a well-controlled 3D shooter for the system played a huge part in the switch from FPS games being something only for the high-end PC gamer to the billion selling war-fetishist console mega-games they are today.
This was a time of great change. Turok: Dinosaur Hunter AND Goldeneye had both been released in the year before Doom 64 came to market, and as such, it was seen as something of a relic of the past, something from the first wave of the first person genre. This was the the time of the brave new world of 3D, jumping and being able to look up AND down. Even id Software themselves were taking this to the next level, with their latest engine powering the phenomenal Quake II in 1997.
Of course, Doom was never about being able to look around and precision aim at monsters from afar, but with everyone looking forward to the next big FPS a quick look at reviews from the time of release, it took a lot of heat for these issues. Jeff Gerstman when he was over at Gamespot gave it a 4.832 or whatever ludicrous decimal place system they use over there, but proceeds to call it ‘the best Doom game to date’ in the opening paragraph. What? Better than the three chapters of the original Doom, Jeff? That’s high praise indeed! It is almost like ‘Doom’ became a dirty word in the late-nineties, blinded as we clearly all were by these glimpses of a completely 3D future. The thing is Doom is, was, and always will be ace, and the fact that this was a truly great Doom game was almost completely overlooked.
Despite the satanic themes and darkened corridors, Doom was never particularly scary. Tense, absolutely, and when the occasional Imp gets the jump on you, it’ll make you jump, but the original games were way too action-packed to truly be frightening. Doom 64 is different. Doom 64 is a much darker game than what came before it, more in line with Carmack and Romero’s original vision. As well as the darkened colour palette, the jump in technology helped, allowing for improved lighting, shadows, effects like fog and more detailed textures, such as mesh. The monsters also received a 64bit redesign, turning them from the iconic, pixelated sprites that pestered you in the corridors of the original to hulking, meaty hellspawn covered in gore and made largely of teeth. Also gone are the MIDI heavy metal tracks, instead replaced with a brooding ambient score much more reminiscent of Trent Reznor’s Quake soundtrack, or, in the case of a couple of levels, some crying babies over the top of droning synths.
It is also a lot more violent. Blood splatters off enemies from every hit, there’s far more detail in the sacrificed corpses you find littering the halls of hell. Even the weapons you pick up have been redesigned to look nastier - there’s blood stains on the fists and the chainsaw is now a two-bladed shredder of flesh. Nintendo have had a strange relationship with the old crimson over the years, especially during the N64 era. They used to insist on slapping their ‘Seal of Approval’ on every title released for the console, and got the hump over bad language or sexual themes. Gore, however, didn’t appear to bother them. See, for example, their bizarre version of Duke Nukem 3D, where not a naughty word crosses the Duke’s lips, and no matter how many times you tell a stripper to “shake it baby” and throw a dollar her way, her clothes remain exactly where they are. Despite this, the sprite redesigns are full of extra gory detail! Bodies found lying around suddenly have bones sticking out of their wounds and all sorts of added nastiness. All this from the company who ditched the blood in Mortal Kombat only a few years earlier.
Despite lacking the services of map making genius of Romero and Sandy Petersen, Midway’s creations for Doom 64 are right up there with some of the best in the series. The improved engine allows for rooms on top of rooms, something impossible with the original Doom engine, allowing for a some more devious puzzles and mazes. Keeping with Doom series tradition, there’s also some more ‘fun’ maps, secret levels dedicated to a particular mechanic or massive arena battle, such as the map ‘Playground’, which pits you against increasingly more ludicrous waves of enemies, with surviving them all the only way to win. Another standout is ‘Cat and Mouse’, a stage where you begin staring directly into a Cyberdemon’s backside who immediately turns and gives chase. Other than a couple of fireball-throwing imps in cages, it is just you and it inside this maze, like Theseus and the Minotaur, and to defeat it is to finish the level.
One of the most interesting aspects of Doom 64 is that it, allegedly, began life as something entirely different - an FPS simply called ‘The Absolution’ - only to have the Doom license added to it after higher ups decided that it’d have a better chance of selling with the name attached, so the game was retrofitted with the classic Doom enemies and weapons. The reason why Hell and satanic imagery doesn’t feature as strongly as the original games is due to ‘The Absolution’ using different assets and it also would explain some of the changes to the weapons. A unannounced sequel had begun the early stages of development when it was cancelled, citing the Doom engine looking ‘dated’ as the reason, and the move to fully 3D shooters. A shame.
The best way to experience Doom 64 here in 2012 is through a mod. Some enterprising people have ported the maps to Doom 2 and are available for free here. There’s a few changes, as they’re not using the modified Doom 64 engine, but those of you jonesing for a new chapter to this classic shooter, this is well worth your time.
Midway created a game that has far more in common with the original Doom games than id software’s own Doom 3, which instead shared more similarities with games like System Shock, Half Life and Resident Evil. Improved graphics and engine, as well as a few new features and weapons achieved the task of making Doom feel fresh again in 1997, yet maintaining the spirit of the series in the shadow of this new dawn for the first person shooter.
This was the real Doom 3.