I Coleman Rips Into His Own Favorite Game
Oh, man. This is gonna be a hard one, guys. Anyone who’s followed the channel, this series, or the Hey Poor Podcast for any period of time now knows that I love Doom in all its forms. It’s the game that got me into gaming, and despite everything I’m about to say in the next 2000 words, I love the first game as much as any other. But, at the same time, it’d be pretty hypocritical to make a show criticizing things people love and leave everything I love exempt, and since the game’s 23rd birthday was last week, it’s time for us to be honest with ourselves: the first Doom actually isn’t very good.
Like most of the games we talk about in this feature, it’s important to acknowledge the context of the original Doom’s 1993 release. The game gets its name from this scene in the film The Color of Money, where a champion pool player asks Tom Cruise what he’s got in the case, to which Cruise replies:
What follows is absolute carnage as Cruise’s character completely dominates the pool table, and that’s basically what happened in December of 1993. It was installed on more computers than Windows 95 and was credited with a worldwide decrease in productivity as workers played so much Deathmatch that it started clogging up servers. Not only did it popularize the first person perspective and more or less create the shooter genre from whole cloth (even though Wolfenstein 3D technically did it first), it also introduced 3D graphics (even if it cheated a little), dynamic lighting, using stereo sound to help you locate demons by the noises they made, texture mapping, and online multiplayer, and it did all this while still running smoothly on most computers. There isn’t a PC game today that doesn’t owe some part of its existence to the innovations made in Doom, and that’s indisputable fact.
As for the game itself, don’t get it twisted: when I say it hasn’t aged very well, I don’t mean it’s not worth playing in 2016. It absolutely is. The fast-paced action still feels fresh and fun as ever, especially if you play it on a source port that allows for mouselook, jumping, and higher resolutions. What’s more, the incredible modding community is still making great content every year, so even if you get tired of the base experience, there’s always something new to discover. But just because it was the first, and because nostalgia is a hell of a drug (hell, that could practically be the alternate title for this series), die-hard fans often insist that the first game in the series is still the best, and…it isn’t. Not even close.
Let’s start with level design, something a lot of people insists the first game still does best. I wholeheartedly disagree. When I think great classic Doom levels, I’m thinking about Doom II – the cleverness of “Tricks and Traps,” or the difficult but exciting masses of monsters in “Refueling Base”, or “Dead Simple”, a level so good and so immediately recognizable that both Doom 64 and The Plutonia Experiment expansion had to try their hand at making versions of the map themselves. I could go on, but you get the idea – you might dismiss it as “gimmicky”, but every level of Doom II has an identity, it’s memorable as being something very different and exciting. The same’s true of its expansions, which gave us such brilliant maps as Plutonia’s “Hunted” or Evilution’s “Wormhole”, possibly my favorite map of any iD-sanctioned classic WAD.
But with the original game, there’s…I dunno, “Slough of Destruction”? It’s shaped like a hand. That’s cool, I guess. I mean, sure, I’ve played the game enough now that I know all the maps by memory, but other than the boss maps they’re all really samey. Episode 1 is all gray-and-brown techbases with boring, easy monster fights, Episode 2 is basically more of the same but with occasional Weird Shit thrown in, and Episode 3…well, we’ll get to Episode 3. Suffice to say that, while each episode in the game has a distinct feel, the levels in those episodes feel mostly identical to one another.
A big part of that has to do with the monster design. Now Doom as a series is famous for its monsters – it’s part of why I in particular love it so much. There’s so much creativity there, and it’s something we don’t see as much in modern games. Most of them just involve shooting slightly different guys with guns, and even modern iterations of the Doom games haven’t been able to come up with anything particularly exciting. Doom 3 at least had the Bruiser and the Cherub, both of which I like in different ways, but its other new monsters are either terrible (ticks/trites) or just variations on the Imp (ditto Doom 4’s Hell Razor). Mostly they rely on the originality of the classic games. Oh, wait, I’m sorry, I meant they rely on the originality of Doom II.
See, part of the reasons fights in Doom 1 feel so samey is because all the monsters serve the same purpose. Other than the bosses, each of whom appears once outside of secret levels, there’s only three monsters: zombie, fast melee attacker, and monster that shoots a projectile and scratches you if you get too close. The only real difference is the amount of health each monster has, and the episodic structure slows the pace of monster introductions to an absolute crawl. Without Cacodemons or Barons of Hell, there’s nothing in the first episode of Doom that offers any real challenge. And remember – those monsters weren’t withheld because it was good for the game. They were withheld because the first episode was shareware, and they wanted to convince you to buy the later episodes, the ones that are actually fun.
Meanwhile, Doom II’s monsters fill a wide variety of roles, forcing you to address each one in different ways. Not only are the first game’s more exciting boss monsters now introduced as recurring enemies (allowing the actual boss battle to be something truly spectacular), but we introduce monsters like the Revenant, whose projectiles home in on you, or the Commando, a zombie that is a serious threat even in the lategame, or the Mancubus and Arachnotrons, both of whom not only have eye-popping visual designs but rapidfire attacks that you have to counter by hitstunning just before they start shooting. And not forgetting – never forgetting – the fearsome Arch Vile, whose very presence changes everything about the nature of the fight you’re in. Someday I’m gonna do a whole feature just on why the Arch Vile is such a great enemy.
All this variation explains what I think is the number one reason the first Doom game pales in comparison to its superior sequels. With simplistic levels that prioritized aesthetic over gameplay and monsters that all require the same strategy to take down, any challenge in the original Doom has to come from somewhere else. As a result, the only difficulty in Doom 1 comes from a lack of ammo. That’s it. None of the encounters are challenging in and of themselves – at best it’s just shooting bullet sponge Barons while they occasionally chuck a green snot bomb at you. But over and over again, Doom pulls the same trick of putting you in a fight you just don’t have the ammo for. And while that’s fine, I guess, when it’s one trick in a toolbox, it’s really frustrating when that’s the only thing the game does to make things hard. Because not having enough ammo doesn’t feel like a challenge. It feels like the game’s withholding what you need to actually solve the puzzle. I know how to kill the Cacodemons in E3M1 – I could do it easily if I wasn’t having to pick away at their health with a pistol. And I will kill them, eventually, but only after twenty John-damned minutes of doing the exact same un-fun thing.
Doom II almost always gives you plenty of ammo (“Refueling Base” is the only place I ever run out, and even then only on Ultra-Violence), but it’s still challenging because the fights force you to think in interesting ways. You have to take down a Spider Mastermind without any cover from its machine gun, or deal with huge numbers of monsters at once, or an Arch Vile’s resurrecting things and you have to kill it quick. If anything, Doom II is more difficult than the first game, because it actually requires strategy and thought, not just the patience to pistol your way through the Cacodemons.
And the second game does get frustrating at points, there’s no denying that – I like walking across teeny-tiny platforms in “The Chasm” as much as anyone else, which is to say, not at all. But Doom II’s frustrating levels have nothing – nothing – on Doom 1’s frustrating levels. Let’s not beat around the bush here. I’m talking Episode 3 – Inferno. A lot of games have tried to represent hell a lot of different ways, but few other games have had the balls to make Hell something that’s truly unpleasant to experience for the player.
Besides the aforementioned Cacodemon encounter, we have crap like “Limbo”, a giant map with only 36 monsters where you have to run around hitting switches, or the secret exit being accessible only by cheating or killing yourself with a rocket jump before we’d figured out how to make rocket jumps fun, or pointless keys that don’t open anything except secrets that aren’t tagged as secrets. Or worst of all, the absolute nightmare f*ckfest that is “Unholy Cathedral”, the worst map in any official Doom game, AKA, “Hey, randomly jumping into identical teleporters and backtracking until you figure out which one takes you where you actually want to go is totally fun, you guys!” My hate for this level can barely be put into words – I must have played it a dozen times and I still can’t remember the order of those accursed teleporters. These days, whenever I hate myself enough that I feel compelled to replay this episode, I always skip this map, because fast-paced action games should have fast-paced action, not the world’s least interesting teleporter puzzle.
Admittedly, people aren’t wrong when they say Doom 1 has better atmosphere than the second game. Levels actually represent what they’re supposed to be and have a cohesive sense of progression – you go from a futuristic tech base on Mars that’s actually laid out somewhat realistically to a similar base that’s starting to become corrupted by Hell to a horrific realization of the underworld itself. The intermission screens also give the game a really nice sense of progression, making it feel like you’re going through this epic adventure. Meanwhile, Doom II’s maps were obviously designed with gameplay in mind first, then organized more or less in order of difficulty and given some name like “Industrial Zone” to make it seem like this map belonged in the city section.
But, at least in my opinion (which is what the show’s about, by name), none of that really matters. Sure, Doom 1’s maps work together to tell a story, kinda. But other than Todd Hall and the crackpots at Edge Magazine, who the hell (haha) cares about the story in Doom? From the beginning, it was supposed to be about fast-paced action. Doom II delivers on that action, with gameplay that’s varied, fun, and challenging in all the right ways. Doom 1, in comparison, just feels like a slog. Sure it was good for its time – hell, it’s still good now, but it’s been outclassed in every aspect by the later Doom games. I mean, you wanna talk atmosphere, both Doom 3 and Doom 64 do atmosphere far better than the first game, and that’s without sacrificing gameplay (and if you still think Doom 3’s bad for some reason check out this video.)
This episode was a painful one to write. Sometimes it can be hard to be honest about the things you love, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a good thing to do now and again. And even though the original Doom still holds an important place in my heart and the hearts of gamers all across the world, that doesn’t change the fact that, compared to its sequels, its mods, and even clones like Heretic, it really isn’t very good. And that’s my professional opinion.
Oh, and Doom 1’s not very good for multiplayer, either. Unless you like getting lost in the freaking TELEPORTE-