Saturday, September 15, 2012

DOOM Console Port Roundup

DOOM! No other four-letter (family-friendly) word has had such an impact on the video gaming industry. It's the game that brought first-person action, multi-player online gaming, and fan-created mods to the masses. It's the game that turned me into a die-hard PC snob for a long time, too. After all, no chumpy little toy console could possibly handle the double-barreled BFG telefragging awesomeness that is Doom, right? Well, I'm going to find out, as I play through the Doom console ports I've collected over the years.

DOOM for Atari Jaguar: Doom was quite a get for Atari's final game console. A launch title released less than a year after the PC original, Doom for Jaguar no doubt moved many consoles by itself, and for good reason: It's a very good port. Written by the great John Carmack himself, the Jaguar version looks and plays very much like the PC original. It makes some concessions to the more limited Jaguar hardware, though. There are fewer levels than in the PC version, and they are generally less complex-looking. (Fewer variety in the wall textures, missing objects like lamps, computer screens, etc.) A few enemies, like the big bad Cyberdemon are no-shows too; he's replaced a bunch of Hell Barons at the end--a major disappointment in my opinion. There's no background music at all, which is weird. Evidently the Jaguar had a problem doing math and playing cheesy midi synth-metal tunes at the same time, so music is only heard at the intermissions between levels. Oh well, Doom is best played over Slayer's Hell Awaits, anyway. The Jaguar controller's otherwise pointless numeric keypad is actually put to some good use here. You can directly select the weapon you want by pressing its number (1 for chainsaw, 2 for pistol, 3 for shotgun, etc.) instead of cycling through them one at a time. You can't save your game in the level, but the Jaguar version will remember the last level you finished, and it will let you start a new game from there, even if the console is shut off.

For the most part, things move along smoothly in the Jaguar's Doom. The action does tend to chug a bit when too many characters are onscreen at once, but never so much that it's unplayable. All in all, I'd say the Jaguar version is much like playing Doom in low detail mode on a slow 486. That's no small feat considering that, in 1994, even a slow 486 would have cost two to three times as much as the Jaguar. The sound effects are lifted intact from the PC version, and they sound just as good. There doesn't seem to be any loss of fidelity.

Finally, it's worth noting that this version actually supports two players with a second Jaguar console, a second television and a Jag-Link cable. Though I bet I could count on one hand (after chainsawing all my fingers off) how many multi-player Jaguar Doom sessions history has witnessed, it's still a neat feature to have.

DOOM for Sega 32X: The 32X add-on was Sega's last desperate attempt to breathe life into the elderly Genesis console. It shows too, as this thing is a kludgy mess! Fully decked out with the Sega CD and the 32X, the Genesis needs three separate AC adapters, a special video cable between the Genesis and the 32X, another video cable from the 32X to the TV and finally, an audio cable from the Sega CD to the television. All to play games that were mediocre at best; mind-numbingly awful at worst.

The 32X port of Doom falls pretty close to 'at worst.' It's still Doom, but so much of it had to be chopped down to squeeze into that train wreck of a game console that it's just not worth playing. At first glance, it looks a lot like the Jaguar version; the wall textures, level layouts, etc look basically the same. However, all of the action takes place in a small window in the center of the screen. If you've ever wanted to shoot zombies through a keyhole, this is your game. The frame rate is all over the place; at times, it moves faster than the Jaguar version, but when more than a couple of enemies are on screen at once, the 32X version turns into a slideshow. Even more levels are missing in 32X Doom, including the entire 3rd chapter, Inferno. This means the BFG 9000, Doom's ├╝ber-gun introduced in Chapter 3, is MIA here--even though it's mentioned in the manual! It is technically in the game, but there's no way to get it legitimately; you have to enter a cheat code, and 32X Doom punishes you with a bogus ending if you do.

You may notice while playing 32X Doom that everything appears to be facing you all the time. This is because the developers included only the front sprites for each object and character, so you can never see their sides or backs. Because of this change, it's impossible to sneak up on enemies, and more important, it's impossible to cause them to fight each other. One of Doom's most endearing qualities is the monster infighting. Watching an imp turn around and napalm some poor zombie for his bad aim is sheer gaming joy. To take that away is to rip out the very blackened heart and soul of Doom.

The last bite of this particular shit sandwich is the background music. It's awful! Buzzy, bleepy, atonal & badly-mangled versions of the original Doom tunes dominate the 32X version's BGMs. Some sounded so awful, I was getting concerned there was something wrong with my television. At least, mercifully, 32X Doom lets you shut the music off without losing all of the sound.

DOOM For SNES: Compared to the 32X version, Doom for the Super Nintendo is downright elegant. Just drop in the unique, blood-red cartridge and you're playing Doom! Well, almost. Though you don't need the same byzantine mess of wires and adapters to play the SNES version, it makes even  more compromises to try to run on a platform that just can't handle it.

The levels in SNES Doom resemble the PC version more closely than the previous versions, in layout as well as general appearance. The game is once again divided into three distinct chapters, and to my knowledge all of the PC version's levels are present here. Too bad getting through them is such a slog. Like the 32X version, SNES Doom is played in a window instead of full-screen. In addition, the resolution of that little window is lowered to the point where distant objects look more like stacks of Legos. Many of the characters' animation frames are missing, such as when imps throw fireballs or pinky demons take bites out of you. The floors and ceilings have no textures at all, and are simply flat-shaded. Once again, only the front sprites are included, so no sneaking by or inciting demonic civil war. Finally, the sound effects are Edison wax cylinder lo-fi. Despite all of these compromises, it still runs infuriatingly slowly.Your character turns like an oil tanker, when he acknowledges input from the controller at all. When more than two or three bad guys are on screen, the frame rate drops so low that SNES Doom becomes nigh-unplayable. Perhaps to atone for this sin, the developers essentially eliminated to the need to aim your gun. Now you just have to point your weapon of choice in the general direction of the enemy to hit him. Unfortunately, that same advantage is also extended to the enemy, who will take amazingly accurate pot shots at you from clear across the level. This, combined with the lousy frame rates make SNES Doom painfully difficult and not at all fun to play.

Ironically, the one redeeming quality of SNES Doom is its background music. It's by far the best of the lot so far, and it sounds even better than the PC version's. I know I've mentioned this in the past, but the Super Nintendo's sound capabilities continue to amaze me with its fidelity and versatility. Too bad the rest of the console isn't nearly up to the task of playing Doom.

Final DOOM for Playstation: Final Doom started out as an expansion pack built by a fan group called TeamTNT; a group that's still going strong today. In 1995, shortly before it was to be posted online, Id Software bought Final Doom and developed it into a full-blown retail release. With 64 levels in total, Final Doom is nearly as long as Doom and Doom II combined, and is a damned sight harder than both of its predecessors. In its flimsy boilerplate of a plot, humanity's pitiful remnants have once again decided to dork around with inter-dimensional gateways on Jupiter's moon, Io. Of course, demonic shenanigans ensue so you, the universe's unluckiest space marine, are sent to deal with them and save Earth from another invasion.

The Playstation version of Final Doom keeps the story and most of the levels intact, but dials down the difficulty. It's still no walk in the park, but now it's no more challenging than the later levels of Doom and Doom II. The controls in this version are the best so far. Using the top left & right shoulder buttons in concert with the D-pad, you can circle-strafe, which is a feature sorely lacking in the previous versions. This addition alone makes Playstation's Final Doom the best of the bunch so far, in terms of overall playability.

Unfortunately, it also suffers in presentation. I expected the Playstation version, running on 3D-accelerated hardware, to be the best-looking one of the bunch, but it's really not. In fact, in many aspects, it looks worse than the Jaguar version. The textures on the walls are very low resolution, disintegrating into a jumbled mess of blocks when viewed up close. The Playstation's notorious lack of texture perspective correction is a real problem for Final Doom, since nearly every object in the game is a texture. Without it, object move around in a very jittery fashion with respect to your point of view, and they often appear to float over the backgrounds. Again, despite the graphical compromises, this game really chugs when several enemies are on screen or you're in a large open area. There are a few eye-candy tricks not present in the PC original, such as transparent enemies and colored lighting effects, but for the most part it's uglier and slower than the PC version, which was rendered without any special hardware.

The sound is another sticking point for me. Nearly all of the sound effects are different from the PC original, as well as all of the others. The new sound effects certainly don't sound any better than those in the PC version. I know it sounds nit-picky of me, but here's the problem I have: Doom's sounds are a huge part of the game's experience. Every type of hellish critter in the game makes some kind of unique alarm noise when it spots you, and a veteran Doom player can tell exactly what he's up against by listening for those characteristic grunts and growls. Juggling the sound effects around unnecessarily ruins that element of strategy, at least until you get used to them. The background has been completely changed as well. Those synth-metal tracks have been replaced by moody, atmospheric, down-tempo dirges that sound like they belong in a Silent Hill game. They're not bad; they just seem out of place in a game that relies so heavily on fast-paced action.

Oh yeah, one last thing: You save your progress with yet another too-long, incomprehensible password. Dammit, the Playstation sported memory card slots precisely to put an end the scourge of game passwords!

DOOM 64 for Nintendo 64: This last version isn't a port of Doom, it's a complete re-imagining. The characters, weapons, levels, and even the game engine received a complete overhaul in Doom 64. Unfortunately, it was released in 1997, in Quake's shadow, so it received little fanfare or love from the critics. Being the consumate Doom snob that I am, I was prepared to turn my nose up at it too, but it has really grown on me. Frankly, this is a very good game.

The plot is again paper-thin, and I don't know where it falls in the official canon--if there even is such a thing. It involves the Doom Guy heading back to Mars to wipe out some mother demon, or something. In short, you shoot monsters, you grab keys, and you run toward the exit, like in a proper game of Doom.

As I mentioned, this is a complete overhaul. All of the levels are unique to Doom 64, and they contain much more detail than even the PC version. The redesigned game engine is now truly 3D, and it supports much more complex-looking levels, light-sourcing effects, rooms that can exist on top of other rooms, etc. The textures in the walls, floor and ceiling are much higher in resolution than the PC original, and since the N64 supports a primitive form of anti-aliasing, they don't devolve into a mess of blocky pixels when viewed up close. The objects and characters are still sprites, but they've been completely redrawn, and rendered in a higher resolution. In short, this is about the best looking Doom there is.

Good news on the gameplay front, too. Despite the vastly improved graphics, Doom 64 runs smooth as silk, with nary a slowdown in sight. It seems you're almost always fighting in tight quarters with few enemies on screen at once, but I saw nothing that would suggest Doom 64 couldn't handle a wide-open, monster-packed arena. In fact, the title screen features loads of hellspawn fighting it out on a gigantic DOOM logo, and it looks very impressive.

Unfortunately, the sound effects are once again a drawback. They're straight out of the Playstation version, but they sound much more lo-fi and muffled here, perhaps due to space restrictions on the cartridge. The music is also the same ambient, dread-inducing spooky tune as the Playstation, though it seems to fit the slower pace and more claustrophobic feel of Doom 64 better. The N64 controller is ill-suited to shooter games in general, but you can remap the buttons as you see fit. Unfortunately, it doesn't save your custom button config anywhere, but it will save your progress between levels if you have a memory pak plugged into controller 1. Rather surprisingly, there's no multiplayer at all in Doom 64Goldeneye gave us four player split-screen ass-kickery the very same year it was released, so I don't believe for a second that the N64 couldn't handle it. Including multiplayer support would have probably gone a long way toward making Doom 64 a more memorable title.

So what is the best version of Doom, anyway? Well, for my money, I'd say the best version is the one the fans created for themselves, and the one that's still being made today. Doom was designed from the ground up to be easily modified through the use of massive resource files, called WADs. These WAD files, easily edited and readily shared across the fledgeling World Wide Web, led to a groundswell of fan-created content for Doom, ranging from home brewed levels, like the aforementioned TeamTNT's to novelty levels, like this recreation of the Stauf mansion from The 7th Guest. Some fans even created total conversions, which were WADs that turned Doom into an entirely different, original game. In short order, Doom had become much more than a game; it was a canvas upon which countless modders expressed their own creativity, and in doing so, it laid the groundwork for amazing fan mods, like Team Fortress and Counterstrike.

Incidentally, I dabbled in modding myself, way back in my Glitchy adolescence. I've dug up and posted my very own WAD file, wherein I've replaced the sounds in the shareware episode with whatever I found hilarious back in the early 90s. Check it out here. You can download a modern version of the Doom binaries for Mac and Windows here.

Thanks for reading my review! Next week, I take a look at one of the most fascinating experiments in video game history: Atari's Swordquest competition.

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