“Stretched before you is a path of perpetual torment… A path through DOOM…” Such are the closing words of Doom 64: the first part a fitting summation of our current crisis, the second, for me at least, something of a prescription. As the coronavirus pandemic has confined us to our homes, beached us on gloomy isles of sensible distance from friends and loved ones, it’s difficult to make out the path stretched before us. Certainly, if you are given easily to feeling cooped-up, it contains no small measure of torment. If, however, you are the homely sort, and have been avoiding the leer of a looming backlog—films unseen, books unrifled, video games laying undisturbed in Steam libraries or stacked in piles—now is your moment. Many have been playing Animal Crossing: New Horizons, a sun-brightened solution to the woes of self-isolation, allowing people to wash up on one another’s private shore. Not for me. I have chosen to darken my days with Doom. Why not? Sooner or later, we all have to face our demons.
Doom 64 was originally released in 1997, for the Nintendo 64, and was developed by Midway Games. Outside of id Software, I can imagine no more fitting a studio to bring us fresh Doom than the one behind Mortal Kombat. Both series were coated in the same slime of controversy, both emblazoned with BBFC certificates and threatening, according to the concerned, to curdle young minds and move them to shadowy deeds. I invite you to start up Doom 64—which is now available in remastered form, courtesy of Nightdive Studios—and see if you can’t catch a glimpse of what the doomsayers of the nineties were so worried about. The early levels are low-lit, rancid, and cramped; they give off the impression of guts brought low by gone-off food. Long before you even get to Hell, as you move through the brushed chrome of the UAC corridors, there is no respite from the dinge. If you sponged down every surface, you would end up with a bucket of blackened suds and a hallway no less corrosive to the touch.
The Nintendo 64 brought to Doom a host of advantages. The game ran on a retooled version of the id Tech 1 engine, souping up its creaks and soldering on some much-needed horsepower. Your foes, the usual demonic morass, were given upgraded sprites, and they moved in grimy stop-motion flickers, yielding the rubbery detail of toys. The sound, which the adverts boasted of being “CD-quality,” featured an enriched choir of grunts, rasps, and metallic clanks, plus the distant drone of Aubrey Hodges’s industrial score, and the clicks of loaded weaponry (covering evocatively for the lack of reloading animations). The real boon, however, was the lighting, not for its capacity to illuminate the chambers of the game’s world but rather to provide greater gradients of murk. Long before the flashlit horrors of Doom 3, there was Doom 64, which understood that we might fear Hell all the more if its fires were doused.
It isn’t often that a remaster takes on the texture of a good deed. Nightdive has done an excellent job—pulling the game into the Kex Engine without losing a drop of its dank, cavelike atmosphere—but it has also righted a 23-year wrong. The game has been unavailable for that span of time, entombed on the Nintendo 64 with no way, through official channels, to sample its treasures. That sound you can hear is the chuckling congregation of PC players who have been excavating Doom 64 through source ports, like Doom 64: Absolution and Doom64 EX (the latter of which supported vertical aiming and the ability to jump), since 2003.
But the Doom-devoted out there who have waited all these years, and parted with the £3.99 necessary to play the remaster, have reasons of their own to chuckle. Beyond the cache of comfort upgrades, such as superior widescreen aspects and 3-point texture filtering emulation, there is The Lost Levels: a mini-campaign comprising a pack of new maps, binding the mythology of its hero—vaguely, it must be said—to that of the recent releases, 2016’s Doom and this month’s Doom Eternal. More than any of these tangible improvements, something deeper is at work. Nightdive’s efforts, like any good remaster, bear the spectre-faint trace of something lost: in this case, paper.
To play Doom 64 is to be borne away on backdrafts of nostalgia for the means with which it was first delivered. Who needs a portal to Hell when you have one to the past? Heading home, after buying the game, meant cradling a cardboard box, whose edges would whiten and bloat with the battering of time. The thrills that you had purchased would be vouchsafed via high-speed silicone, but they came packaged with a booklet. That last relic, now practically worthy of its own wing in a museum, was often read on the way back—a form of papery foreplay—and it divulged that most dismissable of ingredients: the story. Notice, in the remaster, the marks left behind by the instruction manual: the passwords revealed at the end-of-level screen, to be scrawled in the “notes” section; and the interstitial text briefings, which hint at the presence of a plot beyond the immediate carnage—one laid out in its now-absent pages.
Strangely enough, the instruction booklet grimly presages the current state of the series’ star, whose backstory and inner anguish are sifted through in Doom Eternal. Let me direct your attention to the section entitled “The Story So Far,” which probes the mental wellbeing of the marine you play as: “Your fatigue was enormous,” it begins, “the price for encountering pure evil.” It goes on to mention the “tests and treatments” carried out by “stupid military doctors,” and states, as if in reference to the endless snarling of new sequels, “The nightmares continued.” The blockbuster franchise cares not for fatigue, no matter how enormous, and Doom 64—a dumb name, which people assumed meant yet another port—was lost for years in its churning wake. In preparation for its re-release (I confess: I was more excited for it than I was for Doom Eternal, which came out on the same day) I played through 1993’s Doom and Doom II, and was left with a similarly psychiatric impression of Midway’s efforts. Doom 64, with its grime-caked palette and anxious, rusty soundtrack, seemed to be the result of a second developer dredging up the darker contents of id Software’s id.
So it was that, over the last week or so, rather than lift my eyes to the sun—which has emerged with a mocking zest—or, God forbid, drive myself into the outside air, I was compelled to plunge further into Hell, seeking catharsis. Is there any to be found there? I will leave you with this description, from the old manual, of the radiation-sealed UAC installation that you breach in the game’s opening level: “The planetary policy was clear. An absolute quarantine was guaranteed.”