Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Doom - Mountains of Fun (Part 2)
How a bunch of garage developers used their teleportation powers to reach across the console-computer divide and pull me into their world.

I was amazed by what these machines could do, but I was honestly intimidated by the vastness of this new world to which they were allowing me access. About the only thing that made sense to me was their propensity to play video games, a couple of which James' friends had already installed on his hard drive. Among them was the original Doom, which I was seeing for the first time. 

The presentation was a bit different than what I was used to, and controlling the action with a mouse felt strange at first (I hadn't used one since Mario Paint), but I was thrilled to finally be playing the genuine article, which was superior to the SNES version in many ways. It moved more smoothly. Its floors and ceilings had actual textures. The graphics in general had more pep to them. Using the number keys to quickly swap weapons felt more intuitive. The monsters had physical dimensions and could be viewed from all angles. There was overall better visual clarity for scaling objects. And you could even save some ammo by coaxing the different monster breeds into fighting one another, which became my absolute favorite thing to do (it was fun to see how a cacodemon matched up against, say, a Baron of Hell)! The only thing I missed from the SNES version was the reverberant, bass-heavy music, which I preferred to the original's tinny-sound compositions.

James revealed that I was playing the "shareware version" (a term I didn't fully understand at the time), which for some reason didn't feature the second and third episodes. I wasn't too broken up about it, though. No--it was fine with me if my only option was to replay that phenomenal first episode over and over again!

When my parents caught wind of how much I was enjoying using James' computer, they decided to buy me one of my own for my birthday the next year. They got me a Windows '98 machine, which promptly found a home on the folding tray in the left corner of my L-shaped den. Once James and I finished setting it up, we agreed that it was a requisite to immediately install Doom (the full version, which had come into his possession somehow), since it was intrinsically linked to the platform. The problem was that we couldn't understand DOS language. We knew that we wanted to install Doom on C drive and place it in an appropriately named directory, but we kept backing out of the installation process when DOS would inform us that the "\doom" directory "didn't exist" and needed to be created. For whatever reason, we interpreted this as DOS asking us if we wanted to replace the C drive, itself, and irreparably alter the operating system ("'Create C,' you say? Absolutely not!").

Somehow, we eventually got it to run. I mean, we hadn't the faintest idea what a "Sound Blaster" or a "Port Address" were or what "IRQ" and "DMA" stood for, but they probably weren't anything important, we figured. "No to all of it," we'd say. "Away with ye, meaningless text! Let us play our Doom!" 

That the two of us managed to go 18-plus years without blowing up the house is frankly a miracle.

Doom was more than six years old by that point, but it was still as relevant as ever--truly the Super Mario Bros. of modern PC gaming. In fact, playing Doom on my very own computer in the den I'd since monopolized reminded me a lot of the first time I played Super Mario Bros. on my brand new NES, when I finally had games that I could call my own, and I could do with them whatever I pleased. At least at first, not much about my approach changed; I stuck mainly to Episode 1 and simply adjusted the difficulty whenever I felt the need to mix it up (though, I avoided the "Nightmare" difficulty in this version, since it featured continuously respawning monsters whose persistent presence diminished my ability to meticulously explore stages).

Thanks to the game's highly desirable quick-save function, I felt more comfortable playing through the successive episodes, which I came to appreciate as I grew more skillful. In time, as I started to master the art of Doom, it became a sign of dishonor to even consider using quick-saves for anything other than emergency breaks.

Soon, three episodes of Doom weren't enough for me. I wanted more. I needed more. I moved on to Doom II: Hell on Earth, which I'd sampled on James' computer a few months before. It wasn't enough. In the weeks that followed, James and I went out and bought The Ultimate Doom, Final Doom, and Master Levels for Doom II. I'd play them constantly.

I'd gotten so immersed in the scene that I even thought to dabble in WAD creation. I downloaded DoomEd and spent hours trying to comprehend its programming language; try as I might, I couldn't get a handle on the processes for constructing functional multi-level stages or anything that involved moving walls or platforms (my vectors would never connect with my voxels, or whatever), so I settled for building simple stages that were comprised of maybe two or three rooms as connected by single doors. 

My most recurring creation--and a shining example of my OCD--was what I called "The Pit of Death." Basically, I'd construct an enormous square room and load it up with several rows of neatly aligned monsters, the formation sorted by type and the ranks arranged according to size order (pistol-wielding zombies up front, Cyberdemons at the rear); I'd position them so that they'd be facing forward, away from the hero, who'd find temporary refuge atop the tall, weapon-filled pillar standing directly behind them. Invincibility orbs would be placed in each corner, and the exit switch would be placed in the center of the northern wall, in plain sight. Though, my intention wasn't to create an easily beatable stage; rather, it was my hope that awakening the monster horde would result in a chaotic scene wherein they'd unintentionally strike each other and begin fighting amongst themselves. In the meantime, I'd grab me some invincibility and a bag of popcorn and have fun observing how the different enemy types matched up against each other (specifically Cyberdemons and Spider Masterminds, the latter of which held a slight edge in victory-total).

I gave up on WAD-creation after exhausting the concept. "Leave it to the experts," I figured.

Doom was a revelation--a sign that the young upstarts, and not complacent industry veterans, were ready to take us on a journey to new and wonderful worlds. To places we'd never before dared to venture. I can't imagine what the industry or my personal gaming sphere would look like without id Software's contributions. 

I'm glad to have discovered Doom when I did--on the SNES, thanks to my brother--but there's a part of me that wishes that I could have experienced it when it was making its greatest impact on the computer scene in the early 90s. I really feel as though I missed out by not being there. That's not a knock on the SNES version, which I hold sacred; it was a great product for the time and for the technology, and it was the main reason why I became a fan of those early-90s shooters and DOS gaming as a whole. Going back to it now, I can see why it's an object of derision: Its sprites and textures are overly pixelated. The controls are rough (shoulder-button strafing is laggy, and having to cycle through weapons with a single button is a big inconvenience). I keep getting stuck on walls, which becomes irritating when all I want to do is swiftly flee from danger. The AI is compromised a bit, the monsters now unable to walk down stairs (which prompted James' well-remembered quip: "They can take over a whole planet, but they can't walk down a flight of stairs."). And it's missing five stages.

But I'd still consider it a superior SNES game. It's a compromised version of a classic, sure, but in no way a disgrace. At the least, I think its more-sinister-toned music holds up well and compares quite favorably to its PC counterpart's. 

Really, I'd call Doom's one of the best video-game soundtracks of all time in any form; it's some of the best aural augmentation you'll ever hear. That the composer allegedly ripped off the works of Metallica, Pentera and other heavy metal bands is disappointing but forgivable given its quality. My personal favorite track is the E1M5 theme Suspense, which is so appropriately evil-sounding that it makes for the perfect background accompaniment when you're plotting a mass takeover of all of the world's hibachi steakhouses. Or is that just me?

I had planned to use the conveniently available The Ultimate Doom as the source for my PC screenshots, but I found that its version of Doom was too darkly shaded and lacking that old-time DOS feel. So I decided to look around and see if I owned an original version of the game. While digging through my trusty file cabinet, I found a generic jewel case with the words "Doom '95" written on it in black marker; the "Date Created" for all of the files was "September 30th, 2000," which was about the last time I was real heavy into Doom. It's only then that I came to the realization that almost 20 years had passed since I was introduced to modern computers (where did the time go, man?).

In that moment, I was suddenly nostalgic for the late-90s era of computer gaming, and I found myself reminiscing about those summer days when I'd spend entire afternoons mowing down imps and cacodemons. This was usually the way I'd reminisce about the NES and the Game Boy--childhood systems that shaped my life--so it was weird to find myself waxing nostalgic for a platform I didn't believe to be as formative--especially not for a 20-something me. Turns out I was mistaken; the fact that I'm writing this record-length piece today is proof that the 90s-era computer scene indeed left a deeply indelible mark on me.

Save for a handful of other first-person shooters, one of which I'll be discussing soon, Doom and its derivative-but-fun sequels remain the only games in the genre I actually enjoy playing. I tried to get into Quake in the mid-2000s, on the recommendation of VGMuseum site-owner Mek, but I found it to be too complicated; once you added in aiming on the y-axis, it seemed, I turned into a flailing monkey boy who couldn't hit goddamned thing. I'd wind up returning to Doom, which was far more accessible and just as great. It still is. Hell--I'd take Doom over all of these modern shooters any day.

Doom II, Final Doom, Master Levels, Doom 64, and even the series' progenitor, Wolfenstein 3D--there isn't a game in Doom family I haven't liked. But none of them will ever resonate with me as strongly as the original Doom--a timeless work dreamed up by a bunch of kids who wanted to challenge industry norms, impress the world, and show us that the little guy held just as much sway in the big, bad video-game industry. They succeeded on all fronts, their labor of love spawning a successful genre that, for better or worse, would one day become synonymous with computer gaming and indeed an entire era. For me, their baby is a brilliantly designed, wondrously atmospheric masterpiece of a game and everything I love about the medium. Whether it's that I play it once every three years or every ten, Doom will continue to remain a presence in my life going forward.

Doom and its creators took the industry and a generation of enthusiasts on a voyage to the depths of Hell (speaking in terms of both its subject-matter and the industry-altering litigation it sparked), and I was lucky enough to have been a passenger on their ship.

I look forward to our many return trips.

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