Doom 64

The unique Nintendo 64 Doom game has finally, surprisingly, made its way onto PC with an official Steam release – and it was worth the wait. 


All artistic media is a product of its time and place. Books, films, songs, paintings, comics, sculpture, theatrical plays and everything else all begin as a creator’s vision and can only ever become a reality through the many contextual restraints of budget, technological capacity, the creators’ own skillset, and if the ‘art’ is intended to be sold as entertainment to an audience – then also the audiences’ own preferences and tastes. 

We still get all of our media through this effect today, and in fact, many people (quite rightly) point out that while society is more technologically advanced now than ever, and never before have self-taught, independent, creators been more able to collaborate with one another or produce ‘crowd-funded’ content – the flip side of our Liberal-capitalist world is that every rational entertainment company is inherently motivated and self-interested in producing media as quickly and cheaply as possible, with no regards to ‘quality’ (subjective as that is) or audience satisfaction, so long as it remains broadly more profitable to do so.

Far more economically and artistically savvy people than I have written on, and debated the merits of, the art-commerce-politics relationship for hundreds, if not thousands, of years – because as long as their has been entertainment, there have been ulterior motives, societal contexts, and technological limitations inescapably attached to it [1]. The ‘bread and circuses’ of ancient Rome, Shakespeare as Elizabethan pop-history, the erroneous American white marble emulation of Classical iconography, and so on. All of which are fascinating subjects and worthy of endless discussion in their own right. But I want to note here in particular is how video games have been invented, advanced a thousandfold technologically, become an artform unto themselves, and subsequentially been integrated right into our global capitalist model as one of the highest grossing forms on entertainment on the planet – all within living memory, as a perfect microcosm of this wider phenomenon of entertainment. [2]       

The reason I bring all this up in the first four-hundred words of what is ostensibly a game review, is that through pure happenstance I happened to end up with a Steam copy of Doom 64 a few days ago. [3] And as much as I have enjoyed previous instalments in the series itself before, I ended up going into Doom 64 not knowing what to expect. I played through it, enjoyed doing so, and was delighted by a lot of the artistic design choices I noticed which set it apart from the two prior mainline Doom games – the 1993 original and 1994 sequel. Now, having taken a moment to look into the history of its production for myself, I feel like the only functional explanation for this game’s many lovely little quirks and holistic appeal lies in its strikingly unusual origins. So as much as historical and economic context as motivation for entertainment’s production is a topic ripe for discourse, I’d like to address herein how those factors can impact a game on the user-experience level, and specifically, how they’ve done so in the case of Doom 64.      

While the indie-auteur nature of the original Doom devteam (Carmack, Romero, et al.) is well known within gaming and PC development circles, and oft cited as the reason for the game’s innovation, unique style, and commercial success, by the time the powers that be decided to attempt an instalment of the game for the fifth generation of home consoles, most of the original designers and artists didn’t actually have too much to do with the franchise by this point. The right, or responsibility, of producing a Doom port for the Nintendo 64 eventually fell to Midway Games. A group not particularly experienced with the development of first-person shooters – rather, they had earned their fairly solid reputation as the creators of the Mortal Kombat franchise and the American distributors of Space Invaders and Pac-Man – so the endeavour didn’t seem like it would be beyond their capabilities if they put their mind to it.  

The first IdTech Engine represented a massive leap forward in the ability of software to simulate and render a three-dimensional environment on home computers back in 1993, even if, from the computer’s point of view the “3D” walls were just parallel 2D floors bending up at inexplicable ninety degree angles. In the years since then however, the FPS genre had moved on technologically. By 1997, shooter devs had managed to write new code and game engines capable of independent map triggers (Heretic, Hexen), pseudo room-over-room rendering (Duke Nukem 3D, Shadow Warrior, Blood), and even fully polygonal player and enemy assets (Quake). By the time Nintendo 64 was released, the original Doom was starting to look almost quaintly dated already, but Midway – for better or worse – was determined to faithfully bring Doom to the N64 in its original IdTech-running, no-jumping, hitscann-shooting form. Perhaps in order to appeal to the fans of the original, or perhaps in order to differentiate itself from the other major N64 FPS launch title, the fully-polygonal GoldenEye 007.      

The result is that what we ended up with is an emulation of early 90s PC gaming running on the significantly more powerful sixty-four bit architecture of the Nintendo 64 console, this, in theory, would allow the game to contain more level maps, an expanded colour palette, more weapons, and higher resolution sprites. Curiously, however, as the Nintendo 64 used cartridges (not discs like the Sony PlayStation or Sega Saturn) as a production cost-saving measure, a Doom game made for the system would also be held back technologically in some areas  by the size of cartridge-based memory – namely, in the size of the enemy roster, in how complex HUD animations could be, the implementation of a password-save system and not explicit savestates, and especially in how limited N64 cartridges were in storing music files and sound effects.    

The purpose of bringing all these factors up in a review is to illustrate exactly what I found so charming about Doom 64. Within this modern PC port [4] is replicated all the strange little features and unique quirks present on the 1997 console release, but with all the luxuries of a modern PC launcher like a stable high framerate, potential for modding – and with this Steam version, full Steamworks and Community integration. 
I could very easily have just said I personally like the new high-res N64 item designs, minimalised HUD, and the new upgradable ‘Unmaker’ laser weapon, or that I was somewhat disappointed by the lack of some features, like the Chaingunner enemies, the super-shotgun’s original reloading animation, or the iconic E1M1 theme – but all of that is merely subjective. I would rather just say what is different, and explore the reasons why, because the history of this game’s development is itself very fascinating. 

In short – it’s a good game, ported well, well worth a look at if your only experience with the classic Doom games were the original PC games and want to see an alternative interpretation of the concept. Hopefully too, the critical and commercial success of these sorts of 90s FPS rerelease-ports like this official Steam Doom 64, Shadow Warrior Redux, and Blood Fresh Supply will inspire even more studios and rightsholders to make their long-overlooked backcatalogues as easily available.

[1] For easily accessible introductory writing on this, look for Neil Postman’s Amusing Ourselves to Death or Marie Winn’s The Plug-In Drug.
[2] Pong debuted commercially in 1972, so only forty-eight years ago at time of writing. Technically interactive digital displays can be argued to date back originally to the 1940s, but video games as we know them are entirely a modern invention. Unlike essentially every other form of entertainment, which have roots in antiquity.     
[3] My Steam copy of Doom 64 came courtesy of an anonymous stranger I happened to cross paths with browsing an off-topic imageboard thread in the early hours of September 11th. How very serendipitous, but perhaps such benefaction is proof of the existence of altruism after all. 
[4] Steam’s Doom 64 runs on Nightdive Studios’ Kex Engine 4 emulating IdTech 1.