Doom 64: The Underrated One

Doom 64. It’s seemingly one of the more divisive games in the Doom community, with some hating it more than Doom 3, which…I find a bit hard to believe but here we are. That said, I personally think Doom 64 is underrated and one of the best games put out in the series even if idsoft themselves weren’t the ones that made it. And thankfully, courtesy of Nightgive Studios’ Kex Engine, we now have a legitimate way to play it on PC in glorious widescreen at 60 FPS, and with new levels to boot! So let’s talk about why I think this is a great game even if it wasn’t on the best console:


GENRE: Classic FPS on a questionable console

Doom 64 admittedly didn’t have the best time when it came out. 1997 was a time when things were changing for FPSes, and sprite based ones were starting to fall out of favor. Quake had just hit PCs a year prior. Turok was *the* FPS on the N64 for singleplayer action, and Goldeneye would dominate the console’s FPS scene shortly after in August, a few months after Doom 64’s release.

It also doesn’t help that in development, this Midway Games developed Doom spinoff was called “Doom: The Absolution” but was renamed Doom 64 due to N64 branding or something of that nature. A lot of people probably assumed it was just an N64 port of the original Doom and thus overlooked it.  Doom: The Absolution would have been a much better title, but that aside, this was not just a Doom port to the N64, it was so much more than that.

Doom 64 was a sequel to Doom 1 and 2, taking place after Doomguy wrecked a good chunk of hell by killing the Icon of Sin. Unfortunately, Doomguy somehow missed one particular demon best described as “An Archivile on Crack.” This Mother Demon (The antagonist and final boss of Doom 64) proceeded to revive all of the hellspawn Doomguy had slain, not only bringing them back, but making them tougher than ever via mutation (Hence the new sprites the game uses). Hell resumes its invasion and Doomguy is called back into service to deal with the demonic threat yet again. Pretty straightforward stuff. But Doom 64 manages to somehow be refreshing and new compared to Doom 1 and 2, even if it does re-tread a lot of familiar ground. To be honest, it’s probably my favorite of the classic Doom games, moreso than even Doom 2 in terms of campaigns. Doom 2 may be the foundation a lot of the best map packs and mods were built on, but in terms of just the campaigns of each game, Doom 64’s is a lot of killer and minimal filler, with nothing on the level of The Chasm or Downtown in terms of bad level design.

So, the first thing I have to bring up about Doom 64 and what sets it apart from its PC cousins: The atmosphere. A lot of people talk about Doom 3’s horror atmosphere, which was alright for what it was. But Doom 3 sacrificed the faster paced action and higher monster counts we’d been accustomed to, making a slower paced horror FPS out of Doom. Doom 64 aims to give us an atmosphere that’s horror-ish but not entirely scary admittedly, but it tries. And what’s important is that while it may not be scary, it does set a good atmosphere while maintaining what classic Doom players love about the series: Simple run and gun FPS action with lots of things to shoot.

The first thing you’ll notice starting up Doom 64 is that it is dark. Not Doom 3 dark, but definitely darker than Doom 1 and 2 ever were. There’s also environmental lighting effects that add shades of color to a room in a way Doom couldn’t do. It’s not modern 3D lighting effects by any stretch of the imagination, but the colored light effects are put to great use in setting the mood for Doom 64’s levels along with its music, which is less music and more a sort of ambient soundtrack that sets the mood. Players of the Playstation 1 version of Doom may recognize this music style, as it’s by the same composer of that port: Aubrey Hodges. And while it may lack the “Midi Metal” element of the classic Doom games, Doom 64’s ambient style soundtrack goes great with its darker atmosphere and mood. 

The atmosphere and mood is probably what makes me appreciate Doom 64 so much, because something about it just feels right for the kind of game Doom was wanting to be: A game about fighting the legions of hell, but something about it always felt so upbeat on the PC games compared to Doom 64. 

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about the mood Doom 64 sets, but how does it play? Well, a lot like the PC games, but with some tweaks here and there. The first thing that you’ll notice if you’re a Doom veteran is that the guns feel slightly different this time around. The pistol feels just a tad faster than it used to (for the few seconds you’ll use it before you get a shotgun). The shotgun also feels slightly faster, but that may just be an illusion of the mind due to the fact the shotguns lack reload/pump animations this time around (Due to cartridge space issues, I’d assume). The chaingun is most definitely faster, by around 50% or so, making it a MUCH more effective trash sweeper and means to lock down enemies that are easily put into the pain state. The chainsaw is easily double the attack speed it was in PC Doom, making it *THE* weapon of choice for killing Pinkies and Lost Souls up close. The rocket launcher feels mostly the same but now has some added kickback that actually pushes you backwards when you fire it. Normally not a huge issue but a few levels are designed around making the rocket launcher absolute hell to use because you’ll be on narrow paths over precarious falls. The plasma gun fires slower, but does more damage per shot to make up for it: I assume this change was due to console limitations as well. The BFG feels about the same as you’d expect, maybe a BIT weaker than it used to be, but honestly that’s okay because the BFG doesn’t get a lot of use once you find Doom 64’s exclusive gun, but we’ll get into that in a bit.

The level design of Doom 64 is admittedly focused on smaller, more compacted levels than the PC, probably due to console limitations, but despite those limitations, Doom 64 has in my opinion some of the best maps of any classic Doom game. Why, you ask? Well, the atmosphere, as I mentioned, but also the use of the colored lighting effects which helps give each map and each room in that map more identity than you could have in the original Doom. You can have flashing red alarm effects, green glowing rooms for radioactive areas, bloody red hazes for parts of hell, it all just looks so darned good and honestly makes me want to see Doom 1 and 2 given some kind of remaster treatment to this effect, maybe there’s a fan made one and I just haven’t found it.

The levels also make good use of verticality in some cases, like one map having a giant dark pit full of Specters you have to climb your way out of by finding narrow stairways along the pit’s ledges. Another has you climbing a spiral while dealing with a ton of pain elementals, giving you an intense, upward hill firefight. But what really makes Doom 64 special in my opinion is some of the more creative level scripting that does things the original Doom just couldn’t due to engine limitations.

A good example of this is the Terraformer, Map 2 of the campaign. At one point you activate a device inside a room, then watch outside as a massive crushing machine pounds open a new path for you to take underground to continue exploring the map. Traps are another good example, with your usual crushers, some collapsing floors, walls that close in to leave you feeling trapped and closed in, and two of the most evil traps Doom ever had: Dartgun Traps and what I call “Revenant Traps.” Dartgun traps continually fire small dart projectiles that damage you, but can be avoided with proper movement and timing. “Revenant” traps fire a barrage of homing fireballs at you nonstop, and are absolutely EVIL and probably one thing I didn’t like about Doom 64. Sure, they’re only used in one level, but unkillable homing turrets that just keep shooting you until you escape the room they’re in is just kinda awful.

Now, one thing I have to give special mention to about Doom 64’s campaign? The secret levels. Because in my opinion, Doom 64 has the best in terms of rewarding the player. In most older FPSes, you don’t really get much out of visiting secret levels beyond some extra enemies, MAYBE a gun a bit earlier than normal, and maybe some extra ammo/health. Overall, they’re more there for extra things to kill, but don’t really reward you as a player for finding them beyond going ‘Hey, have more stuff to shoot.’

Doom 64 on the other hand, makes the secret levels absolutely worth finding due to how they tie into the exclusive gun to this Doom entry: The Unmaker. Found for the first time in the first secret level, the Unmaker doesn’t seem like much when you first try it. A laser gun with a slower fire-rate than the Plasma gun, using the same Cell based ammo. The Unmaker is far more than this though, as secret hunters will discover. In each of Doom 64’s hidden levels is a special Demon Key, and they have a very notable effect on your Unmaker. Each one upgrades the gun’s performance. The first increases its rate of fire. The second makes it fire two lasers at once with a further fire rate increase that rivals the plasma gun. The third gives it three lasers at once and fire rate that makes it feel like you’re firing a single stream of laser instead of rapid firing several, and it absolutely MELTS anything you’re aiming at. With all three Demon Keys, the Unmaker rivals the BFG in terms of firepower, making it the best way to deal with any larger threat like a Baron of Hell. Getting a major upgrade for the Unmaker by finding each of the secret levels and then finding the secret Demon Key in them means Doom 64’s secret levels actually reward you for finding them and scouring them for all their hidden goodies, something I absolutely loved about this entry.

Now, the one area I admit the game can be a bit divisive even for fans of the game is probably the monster design. The original Doom’s monsters were created by making actual physical models for them, then digitally imaging them and editing them for Doom itself. Doom 64’s have more of a pre-rendered model turned 2D sprite look about them, and some of the new monster designs are kind of questionable. Cacodemons have these weird stubby arms. And Pain Elementals? Yeah, they have two mouths now, which means two lost souls spawned at once…Augh, WHY. WHY. Also, some monsters just don’t make the cut in Doom 64, which admittedly is a shame because some of them would have probably made for more interesting level designs. The Chaingunners, Revenants, Arch-viles, and Spider Masterminds are all absent from this entry. And like Civvie 11 said, the Pain Elemental should have been the first thing to go.

Another thing about Doom 64 that’s different, but I personally kind of like, is that the campaign sends you to hell VERY quickly. Doom 1 and 2 tend to have a lot of tech stuff for around half the game or more before truly sending you to hell. Doom 64 sends you there on Map 9 of its 25 map campaign! That’s right folks, more than half of Doom 64 is in hell itself! And given the moodier atmosphere and soundtrack, I think this is a great fit.

Another thing I appreciate is that while there is some wandering around for switches and keys, the overall smaller level design means you aren’t spending nearly as much time re-treading old ground in the form of massive empty corridors for extended periods of time. Doom 64 makes good use of its limited level space by giving you great fight setups with plenty of things to shoot, it’s not shy at all about using a large number of monsters in each level. Easily more than Doom 2’s campaign overall, even if it doesn’t quite hit Plutonia levels of high monster counts. Combined with the much more rewarding secret hunting due to secret levels having a good long term reward to them, and no maps that hit Chasm or Downtown levels of “Why is this a thing” it’s easy to see why Doom 64’s campaign is so good. It’s a lot of killer, and some (but minimal) filler, focused on constantly keeping you in the action while setting that mood that Doom 1 and 2 couldn’t quite do.

And in case you’re itching for more content, the PC version of Doom 64 has 6 entirely new Lost Levels (which I admittedly haven’t tried yet) to give you even more ripping and tearing fun and carnage! 

So at the end of the day, is Doom 64 worth your time as a Doom fan? I’d say it absolutely is due to its great levels, ambient soundtrack, and great atmosphere that doesn’t quite hit proper horror levels, but absolutely sets a mood of dread no previous Doom entry at the time did. 

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