The year was 1997. The FPS was still in its infancy, recently leaping into a 3D future with the release of Quake. It was the next logical step after iD's Doom duo, a technological leap that inspired even more imitators and propelled the industry to where it is today. Midway, wanting to take advantage of the one consoles that could run FPS games at the time, licensed out iD's older franchise for Doom 64. The game was a hit, but not at the level of its PC forebearers, and the game faded into obscurity. Both iD and their fans were happy to leave the Doom name in the past and move on to something new. It was a very different time.
2020's release of Doom Eternal proves that fans now love nothing more than playing in the past. I don't mind that kind of thinking when it produces fast-paced adrenaline-fueled shooters like that one. The game's debut also brings along an official port of Doom 64, the first rerelease for the title since its debut. Without context, many have assumed that the game was just a console rerelease, following in the tradition of so many PC ports to Nintendo's first 3D machine. Once you actually dive in, you find Doom's missing link, a direct connection between Hell on Earth and 2004's moody reboot.
The first thing you notice about Doom 64 is its unique graphical style. While still using a modified Doom engine, 64 completely revamps everything in terms of visuals. Cacodemons go from floating red meatballs to horned strongmen. Imps and Pinkies gain terrifying detail, as does their fiery realm. The chainsaw goes from a standard piece of hardware to a double-sided blade. There's even a new invisible Imp with greater stopping power to go alongside the Spectre. This is still the Doom you know and love, but with subtle tweaks that ensure that players are both frightened and exhilarated.
Part of the reason many may have assumed that Doom 64 was a rehash was that it purposefully looks like a greatest hits collection. Although not split into episodes, you spend roughly a third of the game on Earth before venturing to Hell, and the game makes a point to note that the demons are trying to lure Doomguy back. This story is about Doomguy sweeping up the remnants he left behind in the previous titles. The demons have regrouped, setting up traps based on your previous knowledge with the games. So many Megaarmors and power-ups exist solely to make you fall into a pit of danger with no obvious way to safety. Thank goodness for quicksaves.
Thankfully, once you really get into it, you realize how unique Doom 64 truly is. The soundtrack is completely different from its predecessors, trading shredding guitars for incidental music and the screams of the damned. You might be exploring a castle and hear thunder roaring in the distance, or the echos of a beast's snarl through an open sewer. Doom 64 tries to get back to the horror of the franchise, trying to pair it with the over the top action instead of rejecting it. You still have a Super Shotgun, but the demons have upped the threat. When played in the right setting, there are still moments of genuine terror throughout this power fantasy.
Of course, since this is still Doom, you have the arsenal you'd expect moving over from Doom II. In fact, it feels like most of the weapons got a buff over what came before. The doubled barreled shotgun is effective against almost everything, and even the chaingun can ravage Zombies and Imps with a few bullets. This changes somewhat on higher difficulties, but a player just looking for a fun time will find plentiful ammo and plenty of chances to clear rooms of foes. It feels appropriate that the only time enemies truly feel powerful is when they overwhelm or sneak up on you. It feeds into the game's loose narrative, and that might be lost if you go for the hardest modes.
Speaking of overwhelming, some of the level design leans into the "Tricks and Traps" mentality hard. I don't mind hunting down a secret every now and then, but there are times when normal progression comes to a screaming halt because you couldn't find a single hidden switch behind a pillar five rooms back. Having to circle a level six or seven times to find what you're looking for is never fun, and there is less of that here than in Doom II, but it's still prevalent.
However, when Doom 64 breaks away from this mentality and themes levels around its combat, it trumps anything else official the series has to offer. Even though this was developed by Midway rather than in-house at iD, you can feel the influence of what came before, the iterative improvement that can only come as a successful series finds its grove. It's a real shame that we never got Midway's canceled sequel, which may have made this game less of an obscure classic and more the FPS classic it deserves to be.
As far as Bethesda's reworking of Doom 64, it's in the best hands possible. Brought to 2020 by Nightdive Studios and the creator of the amazing Kex Engine, Doom 64 feels like a native PC game that was never released. Even if you look past the awkward controller, it would be extremely difficult to go back to the Nintendo version after sampling this improvement. Both controller and mouse setups run as smooth as other Doom ports, and there are plenty of great quality of life options. From adjusting the brightness to adding an autorun feature, this is the definitive version of Doom 64, achieving the ultimate goal of any rerelease.
As a game, Doom 64 never truly got a chance to shine, overshadowed by the rise of four-player splitscreen deathmatch. No one was clamoring for its rerelease, and not many celebrated when that rerelease was announced. That's why this version of the game is so important. It's a second chance for Doom 64 to take its rightful place among the retro FPS greats. It deserves to be the third in a trilogy of genre-defining shooters. Its tricky gameplay and moody environments still hold up extremely well, better than most games of its era. If you've never experienced Midway's vision of Hell, you may find a game here that's Eternally more fun than any modern FPS.
TechRaptor reviewed Doom 64 on PC via Bethesda.net with a copy purchased by the reviewer.