Until relatively recently, DOOM 64 has been an obscure piece of both the Nintendo 64 library and the DOOM franchise. Originally developed by Midway Games in 1997, critics overlooked it in favor of Quake, Goldeneye 64, and other fully 3D contemporaries. Dated graphics (in this case, 2D sprites and the aged id Tech 1 engine) did not sit well at the time, and the title implied that it was just a DOOM (1993) port – even though it wasn’t.
After being delayed to March 19, 2020, alongside DOOM Eternal, Bethesda worked with Nightdive Studios to release an official modernized port. The game offers a more horror-based atmosphere while retaining the classic FPS action of its predecessors.
Story – As DOOM As DOOM Gets
As typical of pre-Half-Life retro shooters, the story is pushed to the side in favor of gameplay. If you really want to know what led to the first level, you need to read the manual (which, oddly, does not come with the Steam release).
It turns out that the events of DOOM II did not stop Hell’s onslaught. A powerful entity, the Mother Demon, escaped detection due to its extreme radiation levels. The demon single-handedly resurrected dead carcasses into evil hordes, and it’s up to you to stop this monstrosity.
Both the manual and in-game intermissions have a notably dark and serious tone. Compared to DOOM 1 & 2’s notes of anticipation, 64 pours a lot of edge. Thankfully, that edginess complements the rest of the game pretty well. When the gameplay is the main attraction, it’s hard to ask the story for more.
Gameplay – Old Guns With Fresh Flavor
Right upon starting the game, I must say: there are a lot of unskippable logos. Yes, I can see that Bethesda, id Software, and Nightdive were involved in production. Yes, I now know that they used the Kex engine and FMOD. No, I do not want to sit through five logos every time I start the game. You can stop them by deleting the “movies” folder in Steam installations, but I shouldn’t have to manually remove them in the first place; they should be skippable out of the box. This may seem petty, but it truly is annoying to sit through 35 seconds of logos – a lot more waiting than you’d think.
Once you get past that, it will feel very familiar if you’ve played prior DOOM entries. You move around corridors, gun down whatever stands in your way, flip switches, and find keys to unlock the exit. Movement is momentum-based; it takes a few moments to build speed and change where you’re running. Also, there’s no jumping. Not that the level design calls for it; this isn’t Duke Nukem 3D or Quake.
Speaking of which, the levels are as maze-like as ever. 64’s layouts are not as abstract as other retro shooters, though; they mainly focus on organic effects and centerpieces. Environmental features such as caves look more realistic, and buildings actually look like buildings. Neither of those aspects detracts from the labyrinthian hallways, and while they have a lot of backtracking, they’re fun to navigate and battle in.
The layout variety can leave something to be desired, however. At least two-thirds of the game boils down to dark castles and citadels. Don’t get me wrong – they all look cool and imposing while mostly playing fine, but the repetitive aesthetics remain notable.
Another standout level aspect is the traps. DOOM 64 contains quite a few – from arrow turrets in the walls, crushers from the ceiling, bunches of enemies teleporting around you, to homing missiles. I found them to be neat, if a little annoying, variations to the levels.
On the other hand, I’m not a fan of the inescapable hazard pits. They hardly pop up, but only one of them didn’t resort to jerkish placements or constant danger. In Blood Keep, the last room has a battle with Lost Souls. However, once you kill them, the floor around the perimeter collapses into a death pit. There wasn’t a clear sign of a falling floor, which almost led to a questionable death. At least you can save mid-level thanks to the re-release, but those few bits of level design are still lousy.
That’s not to imply that every trap is jerkish. On the whole, the levels themselves play really well, thanks to the aforementioned mazy yet organic structure. Items and power-ups hardly feel out of place, and there’s a decent amount of reward-filled secrets for observant marines.
The monster roster continues to be big. Zombiemen, Shotgunners, Imps, Cacodemons, Hell Knights…most enemies from DOOM II make a return. It would have been nice to see all of them, but I assume the original developer, Midway Games, couldn’t due to storage limitations on the N64 cartridge.
The enemies themselves are generally straightforward. Zombies have hitscan attacks, Imps throw fireballs, Demons charge forward, Lost Souls annoy you to no end, Hell Knights act as stronger Imps – you get the idea. They march towards you to kill you. That doesn’t mean that they’re without a strategy. For instance, Pain Elementals and Arachnotrons are fairly tanky but can easily be stunlocked with the chaingun. It may be repetitive, but such different approaches usually keep the action interesting.
I say “usually” because I take issue with the amount of tankier enemies – at least on higher difficulties. It wouldn’t be annoying if ammo for stronger weapons was plentiful, but the opposite holds true. By the last few levels, I got tired of Hell Knights and Barons of Hell constantly blocking my path. Perhaps I was too conservative with my non-shotgun ammo, but regardless, a lot of fights felt drawn out.
Throughout the game, you receive a wide variety of weapons to play around with. You start out with the weak pistol, then receive other guns – each with its own use-case scenarios. The chaingun mows down weaker foes and stunlocks certain others, the rocket launcher gibs large groups and kills beefier mobs good, the super shotgun cleaves weak and strong foes alike, and of course, the BFG9000 blasts everything in sight. The two shotguns lack pumping and reload animations, though, and this can also be attributed to the original release’s storage limits. While this has no bearing on gameplay, it can look jarring nonetheless.
That would be the end of it, but 64 has a party trick up its sleeve: the Unmaker. You typically get it in The Bleeding, but it starts out as a much crappier hitscan version of the plasma gun. However, you can upgrade it by finding the Demon Key in three secret levels. With just two keys, the Unmaker goes from useless to absolutely busted. It doesn’t hit as many monsters as the BFG, but boy, howdy does it shred them apart. A perfect reward for keen perception.
Graphics and Audio – Dark and Creepy
Just because it’s not fully 3D doesn’t mean it looks bad. Quite the opposite – the combination of detailed textures, dynamic lighting, and realistic layouts make for highly appealing set pieces. The hell-based levels especially nail the sinister tone: dark skies, dimly lit spaces, and gothic architecture. Even the initial industrial levels have impressive colors and lighting. Admittedly, I found a lot of areas too dark for my liking, but that’s what the settings are for.
Meanwhile, the sound design further adds to the tone. The “music” is more ambient and atmospheric – filled with whirring, howling, thunder, and distant baby cries for that gloomy feel. You may prefer the melodic rock & metal riffs from previous entries, but 64 provides some great creepy vibes.
In addition, the sound effects seem a lot more realistic. Weapons sound beefier; it’s satisfying to hear loads of punch. Monsters sound more gritty and grumbly overall. It might feel samey and even generic, but personally, I like how they further add to that signature tone that the game tries to make.
DOOM 64 was reviewed on Steam.