My frame of reference for the DOOM series (I’m just going to capitalize the D from now on) exists in a time somewhere between 1994 and 2000. Doom II was one of the few full-version computer games we had back then that I was keenly interested in, and I played it was the only one. Of course, at some point, my taste for Doom and similar games (Wolfenstein, Duke Nukem 3D, etc) waned and I moved on to newer, fancier computer games.
Doom 64 doesn’t have the greatest reputation. It’s not particularly hated or anything, but the internet’s collective opinion is that the original games are better. In the interest of finding out for sure, I made sure to play through the entirety of the Xbox port of Doom so that I could have more than faded memories to make a comparison to.
The original Doom is fantastic. It’s a simplistic game that doesn’t even let you look along the vertical axis, but it felt much more satisfying to play than most modern first-person shooters. The first two chapters are breezy fun, the third dials it up to push your abilities, and the fourth (an add-on scenario) is simply there to beat you into the ground. What’s most remarkable is that Doom feels really great to play with a controller, as opposed to the keyboard controls (sans-mouse) that I was shackled to in my youth.
Having completed the entirety of Doom for the very first time, and having enjoyed roughly 95% of it (there are some really cheap traps later on), I was riding high and expecting Doom 64 to be a similar experience.
But then it turns out that Doom 64 is poop from a butt.
My very first mistake was playing on a difficulty level that was too much for me. I had chosen “Hurt Me Plenty” on Doom, which is the default setting and equates to what the “Normal” setting would be in other games. Doom 64 phrases it differently, where the equivalent is “I Own Doom.” Sure, it’s the default difficulty, and also a statement of fact. Why would I choose any other setting?
Assuming that it is, in fact, the average difficulty setting, Doom 64 is a brutal game. I was killed twice before I was able to finish the first stage. Secret doors containing monsters open silently behind you. The Average Joe Zombie has a very accurate shot. Rooms are filled with up to eight monsters.
None of this is helped by that fact that playing similar games on an Xbox 360 controller and then an N64 controller is like going from a fork to chopsticks. I figured that all my N64 playing over the last few months would have eased me into the controller, but it turned out to be a massive source of woes for me. I blame it entirely no having used the vastly superior 360 controller immediately beforehand, and it really shows how difficult it can be to adapt to different controllers.
I need to make it very clear though, that Doom 64 lets you customize your controls any damn way you like. Every function is remappable, and you can make changes to your control scheme at any point. It’s a really handy feature, as the default control setup is kinda weird. The only downside is that custom setups aren’t saved, and you have to remap all your buttons each time you power on.
The next big gripe about Doom 64 is the general atmosphere. the graphics, for one, are much darker and more bland than in the PC games. This is to accommodate a generally more horror-focused aesthetic. Doom has always been “scary” in that it incorporates monsters and gore, but the first two PC games were more about stright-up action than trying to frighten you. Doom 64 has this all backwards. The PC games have interesting, colourful visuals, while Doom 64 is awash in browns and grays.
I do appreciate that the team tried to make the graphics more detailed (which they are!), but they killed a lot of the character in the sprites by removing most of their colours.
The sound design has also gone entirely to pot. Doom’s characteristic heavy metal MIDIs have been replaced with subdues, spooky ambiance tracks. This is wrong. Wrong, wrong, wrong. More importantly though, the monsters barely make any sounds unless they’re attacking you. Being able to hear monsters lurking about was a very important part of Doom; you would usually know when a monster was lurking about by the hisses and growls echoing through the halls. Now, pretty much every encounter is a surprise, and monsters will be able to sneak up behind you with no problem at all.
So after having painfully made my way through one and a half stages, I quit, took a week-long breather, and started up again on the next rung down the difficulty ladder, “Bring It On!”
Let me also take an aside here to mention that Doom 64 does not save your game. It uses passwords, which is kinda bonkers. The nice thing is that the passwords save your state (health, armor, guns/ammo) as well as which level you’re on, which is nice. If they only saved your level, it would be a massive pain in the hiney to tackle later levels with only a pistol. No saving is still a big pain though, as mid-stage saves saved me a lot of time when going through the original game. Having to restart a level from the beginning after each death is a little disheartening. I hate sounding like a spoiled brat, but that’s what I am.
Not everything about Doom 64 is bad, though. I really like a lot of the level designs, they feel a lot bigger and more ambitious than in the older games. I suppose that stands to reason though. It’s not like a lot of games get smaller and humbler with each sequel. It’s really just too bad that the designers didn’t seem to have many good ideas for traps. It seems like they decided early on that having enemies appear out of thin air behind you was going to be their bread and butter. Still, the actual architecture of the stages is usually impressive, and I enjoyed navigating and solving them.
Doom 64 features the usual Doom weaponry, including Doom II’s super (double-barreled) shotgun and the totally sweet double chainsaw. It also has a new weapon that’s unique to only this game: the Unmaker. It’s an alien-tech laser gun, which doesn’t seem all that impressive at first. However, if you take the trouble to find the secret stages, each one contains a collectible artifact that adds to the Unmaker’s power. The first one speeds up its fire rate, and the second and third give it double and triple beams respectively. Even if you only find the one artifact, the sped-up Unmaker is a pretty awesome gun, burning through even Barons of Hell like a hot knife through butter. It’s pretty great.
The monsters in Doom 64 may at fist appear to be new, but really, they’re mostly your old favourites with fancy makeovers. Some are pretty familiar, like the standard zombies and the pinkies, but you probably won’t recognize Doom 64’s imp as an imp until you’re already choking down fireballs. Cacodemons and pain elementals have likewise gotten new sprites that barely resemble their older incarnations. The one new monster is barely new at all. Nightmare imps are just translucent blue imps, with purple fireballs that fly quite a bit faster than the standard imp’s. Doom 64 does have a unique final boss, the Mother Demon. She’s ugly and can tear you apart in record time (that also works the other way around with a powered-up Unmaker), but she looks pretty dumb. Kinda like a big, fleshy bug, if you ask me.
In the end, Doom 64 is caught in a weird place. On one hand, I really like a lot of the levels. On the other hand, pretty much everything else is different in a bad way. It’s reminiscent of Doom, but it doesn’t really feel like Doom, if that makes any sense at all. There really isn’t any reason to play Doom 64. Regardless of whether you’re looking to play a Doom game or an N64 shooter, there are a handful of better choices out there. Even if you’re intent on playing through the entire Doom canon, you might be better off trying one of the fan-made PC ports. Poor Doom 64 just isn’t quite the game it should be.