Take your own birthdate, add a decade, and you’ll most likely find the release year of the games you first loved – the ones which set your expectations for fidelity, framerate, and back-of-the-box features. Anything before that? Those are games that require an active, cognitive effort to appreciate. Enjoying the relics that pre-date your own interactive awakening takes an act of forgiveness – a deliberate forgetting of all the iteration that’s taken place in a medium driven by breakneck technological advancement.

Unless, of course, you’re talking about Doom. id Software’s seminal FPS, which today turns 30 years old, is uniquely exempted from the accelerated degeneration that afflicts all other games. Though it is the musket rifle to Modern Warfare’s thermal-scoped submachine gun, it needs no historical contextualisation or explanation. Successive generations have sat down with Doom and not only understood why it was fun in 1993 – they’ve felt it. This geriatric shooter still stands up among the many games it has spawned and influenced, as engrossing on the Nintendo Switch as it was on DOS.

Doom's beloved shotgun can decimate an Imp... if you go for the chest.
Doom’s beloved shotgun can decimate an Imp… if you go for the chest.

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That’s partly down to what Doom didn’t do. Unlike its contemporaries, id Software eschewed storytelling, which would have exposed the tight limitations of its 3D worlds. Half-Life and the birth of interactive first-person cinema was still half a decade away, while cutscenes were in their infancy with Wing Commander. Instead, the studio merely wound up its space marine protagonist like a mechanical toy, and set him loose in a series of stages set across the moons of Mars and Hell itself.

id Software took a similarly minimalist approach to its engine and feature set. That’s in stark contrast to, say, System Shock – another influential and important first-person action game that released the following year, but often slowed to a crawl and overwhelmed the player with menus upon menus.

Successive generations have sat down with Doom and not only understood why it was fun in 1993 – they’ve felt it.

Where System Shock was stuffed to the gills with cutting-edge physics, highly-detailed graphics, complex character manipulation and audiologs – ideas that gestured messily towards the future of gaming – Doom did nothing it couldn’t deliver on. It offered singular focus: a slick method of sliding around corridors while simultaneously unloading ammo into demons, all at over 30 frames-per-second. id’s in-house tech genius, John Carmack, was a born minmaxer. This was a man who had thrown out ceilings and floors to ensure Wolfenstein 3D ran like a racecar, and he brought the same efficient attitude to Doom – alongside plenty more power.

That clean, punchy approach to Doom’s tech is also reflected in its design, which was headed up by John Romero. While there may not be any explicit narrative driving the conflict, combat encounters arrive in distinct beats. All meaningful progress towards a level’s exit – opening doors, pushing buttons, stepping into dark rooms – is met with explosive resistance. And these spikes in activity are spliced with moments of tense downtime – in which you suck up ammo and health packs, or listen for the gargle of zombified soldiers behind false walls.

In its recent Half-Life documentary, Valve described its weapons as “orthogonal” – at right-angles from one another. That’s something Doom did much earlier, and to potent effect. Every murder tool fills a unique role, and is best applied in specific circumstances. The chaingun interrupts the cadence of a cacodemon’s fireballs, letting you get the upper hand, while the chainsaw keeps the maw of the pinky at arm’s length. The simple shotgun, meanwhile, grants you the perfect amount of stopping power to fell an imp, so long as you hit it square in the chest.

It’s a refreshing change from the stacked armories of today’s live-service and looter shooters. Modern Warfare 3 and Borderlands may feature just as many distinct weapon options as Doom across the entire spectrum of their loadouts – but those distinctions are fractured across hundreds of guns, each distinguished only by tiny stat tweaks and attachments.

Doom’s potent weapons are a refreshing change from the stacked armories of today’s live-service and looter shooters.

Likewise, as modern shooter levels have become more homogenous and characterless – a consequence of development teams growing into the hundreds and thousands – the personality of Doom’s stages has become ever more alluring. In each one you can feel the hand of a devious designer, as well as their leg, tripping you up.

Take the perspective trick that ends Doom’s fourth mission, Command Control. You enter the final room with what looks like a clear run up the stairs to the exit door – before you realise there’s a gap in the middle of the gangway, only visible once it’s practically beneath you. You can almost hear the cackles of designers Tom Hall, Sandy Petersen and Romero as you tumble back down to ground level.

Somehow, 3D still feels novel when you play Doom. Something about the soaring pace of oncoming fireballs induces the urge to physically dodge, as if you were in VR. And the fact that you can hit enemies at any height, despite your inability to look up or down, turns this flat FPS into a fundamentally vertical experience. Few shooters have as much fun with towers and windows today.

Even the quirks still hold up. While you never lose more than a level’s progress when you die, there’s a background roguelike structure at work in Doom. So long as you can progress without losing a life, you’ll get to keep your burgeoning arsenal between stages. It’s an incentive to tread with caution and fight hard for your life. And to uncover the secret areas – which allow you to bypass the campaign’s power curve and get early access to the shotgun or chainsaw.

Doom loses some of its focus in the final episode, Thy Flesh Consumed, which takes you to Earth as the demons invade. That’s because it was added later, and made up partly by levels designed by fans – among them Tim Willits, who eventually became id’s studio director. But this flawed goodbye marks an important transition. It’s been a long time since Doom belonged entirely to id Software. Rather, it’s become a tool for public invention, fuelling the creations of modders for decades. It’s that endlessness, combined with some extraordinary fundamentals, which ensures Doom not only never dies – but never gets old.

Jeremy Peel is a freelance journalist and friend to anyone who will look at photos of his dogs. You can follow him on Twitter @jeremy_peel.





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