I will never forget the first time I booted up the original Doom. It was around 2005 and someone had uploaded the shareware episode of the Doom to my high school’s computer network. Bear in mind that this was well before the widespread appreciation of retro-gaming, so to the teenagers that played it and could compare it with the likes of Halo 2, Call of Duty 2, and Half-Life 2, this game seemed positively ancient. Indeed, just the year prior id Software had released Doom 3 which was a technical marvel for the time. As such, it was understandable that most of my classmates dismissed the game at first glance. I, on the other hand, fell head over heels in love with the game. To this day it remains one of my all-time favorite games and one that I make a point to revisit every couple of years. Apparently, I am not the only one as Doom continues to attract new fans and continues to garner a large and passionate fanbase. This begs the question; what is it about this game that makes it so timeless? Why do new players continue to fall in love with this game despite its dated visuals, repetitive key card hunts, and maze-like levels?
Heavy Metal Apocalypse
One aspect of this game that I have always found appealing is its overall aesthetic. Doom is a pastiche of various pop culture influences from the mid-90s mashed together to create an experience greater than the sum of their parts. These influences include the space horror and marines from Aliens, demonic imagery, and heavy metal sensibilities that riff on the likes of Pantera and Metallica. What results can only be described as a sci-fi, heavy metal version of the apocalypse. The game’s visuals are like those of a heavy metal concept album cover brought to life. The game’s music further emphasizes this tone, combining driving beats with more sinister-sounding tracks. It’s all carefully composed to get the player pumped to kick some demon ass. Ultimately, despite its dated visuals and somewhat low-quality midi sound, this aesthetic shines through and is just as enthralling as ever.
Doom’s simplistic graphics also provide an unintended benefit to gameplay due to the fact that everything is highly readable. One issue that many modern games often struggle with is that because of the level of visual fidelity and density they can achieve, the player can be easily overwhelmed with too much visual noise during the heat of the action. This is even an issue that Doom’s own modern sequels have trouble with, but that the original deftly avoided. It is relatively easy to, at a glance instantly know exactly what you are looking at. For a game as fast-paced and intensely action-packed as Doom, being able to quickly process visual information during battle is essential, mainly because players are expected to change weapons and strategies at a moment’s notice to deal with different kinds of enemy threats.
Rip and Tear
Another key to Doom’s success is its overall gameplay — more specifically the brilliant way that the game’s weapon sandbox interacts with the diverse cast of enemies. Each weapon has its own strengths and weaknesses that must be considered and weighed against both the capabilities of the enemies that they are used against as well as the limited ammunition resources that the player has at their disposal. The chainsaw has unlimited ammo and can stunlock many enemies, but has a short range, while the chaingun has a high rate of fire but chews through ammo very quickly. The rocket launcher does heavy damage and can wipe out groups of enemies but is dangerous to the player due to the splash damage and ammo for it is usually hard to come by, making it best to save for more formidable foes. The shotgun is a good all-rounder that does a moderate amount of damage but lacks the stopping power to deal with larger mobs and spongier enemies, the plasma rifle is basically a more powerful version of the chain gun but its projectiles force players to lead their shots.
Each enemy type in the game is unique in terms of how they engage with the player. While all of them can be killed with enough bullets, dealing with them in an effective manner without taking too much damage takes skill and planning. Some enemies, like Zomiemen and Sergeants, use hitscan weapons that can quickly whittle away the player’s health and therefore need to be eliminated as soon as possible, while other enemies such as imps and Cacodemons fire projectiles that the player can avoid with careful movement. Combat in Doom is a frantic waltz of weaving between enemy attacks, prioritizing targets, considering what weapon is best for a particular situation, and keeping track of limited resources. The player is forced to make a constant stream of split-second decisions that, when done correctly, results in a dance of death that keeps the player on the edge of their seats. The experience is utterly intoxicating — a glorious hyper-violent ballet of sorts that few other games have ever even come close to replicating.
Just a Rat in a Maze
Doom’s level design is also on-point. While some have derided Doom for its use of maze-like levels and keycard puzzles, I feel that these elements ultimately enhance the game in a number of key ways. Most notable is how they enhance the game’s pacing by organically allowing for downtime by shifting the gameplay from pulse-pounding action to exploration. This is necessary because without occasional breaks the constant action would become tiring and the player would grow numb to it. Furthermore, exploration ties into resource management as the player is incentivized to scour levels for health, armor, and ammo. The game also sprinkles a handful of hidden secrets throughout each of its levels which not only adds a great deal of replayability, it also provides a means of alleviating the game’s difficulty by providing players with powerful weapons and rare power-ups. Overall Doom’s approach to level design might seem dull conceptually, but in reality, it serves an important function in pacing and are a joy to explore.
A Hell of A Time
If I had to sum up what makes Doom such a great game in one word it would be “focus.” This is a game that is hyper-fixated on creating a very specific experience and all parts of the game exist to serve that experience. What results is a game that cuts all of its fat and is absolutely unashamedly what it sets out to be. What it sets out to be is a bloody, ultra-violent power trip that keeps players on the edge of their seats from beginning to end. While undoubtedly low-brow in its ambitions, Doom is nonetheless a game that oozes artistry with every part of the experience being exquisitely crafted. Quite simply it is an absolutely glorious experience that even decades after its release few games have even come close to replicating.