90s FPS vs Reboots

A Blast from the Past special

On Doom's 25th Birthday, FBT compares the Doom-era to its reboots in yet another of his excuses to replay old shooters and bitch about new ones.

Happy Birthday Doom! Thanks to you, FPS is one of the most successful genres in gaming. As I’m fond of saying, Doom was gaming’s Jaws moment, the moon landing; it was bigger than inventing the wheel, discovering fire, evolving opposable thumbs. It was the Big Bang of gaming, and I cannot understate this - the Doom era was the Rat Pack to modern FPS’s One Direction.

What became known as the Doom era lasted until Half-Life. Five or so glorious years of carefree shooting. While both Doom and Wolf managed sequels after Half-Life, the era was over - until 2011 when Duke Nukem Forever finally (crash) landed. What followed was a sudden resurgence; between 2013 and 2016, Wolf, Doom, Shadow Warrior and Rise of the Triad were rebooted; I avoided them all as cynical cash-ins on marketable names after the horrible DNF; it ruined it for everyone. But now they’ve transcended their origins to become new franchises. They must be doing something right. Am I being a Doom-era snob?

For me, the only way a reboot is going to work is by recapturing the spirit of the original; it has to take me back to the first time I heard an Imp growl and the hairs stood up on the back of my neck. That’s a tall order for the modern reboots; I have a hairy back now. But, why do the new games have such big reboots to fill? What is it about that era that I hold so dear? Can the original Rat Pack still pack the Vegas Sands or have they been reduced to Cannonball Run II? We all know Doom is the Chairman of the Board, but who is Dean Martin and who’s Peter Lawford? And who from the remakes is Harry Styles and … the other guys?

Dosbox is at the ready and I’m all out of gum.

The Past - Wolfenstein 3D

Like everyone, I was astounded by Wolf wayyy back in 1992 as I mowed down ‘Mutti!’ crying Nazis. But even then it looked a little basic. It was the work of mad genius, but I never felt like I was there. I was exhilarated but I was never in it, never connected to it. It’s the one I went back to the least, quickly overtaken by Doom; I can’t imagine this has aged well at all.

Yeah, this has aged; I want to bang on about the good old days, but this isn’t the good I was hoping for. I’m smiling, I’m enjoying it, but that’s mostly my memories talking, remembering that time - literally, I just remembered I played this on a Time Computers PC.

The missing floors and ceilings, a compromise to keep BJ moving make the game samey and impossible to disappear into; it’s just corridor, room, Nazis, repeat. It’s bright and cartoony, and while levels change, W3D really is a proof-of-concept. FPS had never been done properly before and it feels wrong to moan but Wolf is a tutorial. It’s also over 25 years old and still deserves respect, but that adulation is for what it did for gaming, not what you do in the game.

More than any other Doom-era game though, Wolf kept going. Aside from the sequel, there was Return to Castle Wolfenstein, where BJ goes Call of Duty, followed by Wolfenstein, which no one talks about. Then, the Castle laid dormant until Machine Games moved in.

The Blast - Wolfenstein The New Order

This is what Hollywood calls a Soft Reboot, continuing story elements but resetting the world. Whatever it is, it’s a shame it’s called Wolfenstein. Had it just been The New Order, I might have liked it more. After an opening that sees BJ leaping between crashing planes, getting chased by huge mecha-dogs and taking down Nazis in intense trench fights, our hero takes shrapnel to the head and gets stuck in a locked-in state just long enough for the Nazis to take over. Waking up, BJ regains his considerable strength, links up with the hottie nurse that’s been sponge-bathing him and joins a rebellion in this new world order. I mean, Wolfenstein New Order.

The one thing I can’t get past with W:TNO is BJ’s internal monologue. It’s like listening to Max Payne’s Podcast. BJ never shuts up with his introspective mumbling and now he’s all emotional and awkward? Soft reboot is right. When he gets shot I expect him to shout “I’m a vegan”. BJ should be Austin Powers or Demolition Man, a man out of time but with a unique approach that this new world needs; having BJ on ice for a decade meant W:TNO had an opportunity to explore the differences between the original bad boys of FPS and the modern sensitive heroes. It could have been a great commentary on how shooters have evolved, but instead, BJ is just an arm in a theoretical world run by Nazis. And it’s horrible.

Scenes like infiltrating a concentration camp just feel ... off for a game that originally ended with us fighting Hitler in a mecha suit. People in fly-infested bunks, emaciated and crying for food isn’t Wolf – a scene in a cattle-train with screaming people bound for the camp while catching a glimpse of an uber-bitch Nazi holding a baby by its ankles and brandishing a whip is a grave moment – but nevermind ‘cos BJ’s dual-wielding machine guns, piloting mechas and popping into space; is this a Tarantino-style revenge shooter or Schindler’s List The Video Game? Early on our hero takes a chainsaw to a tight-lipped Nazi and that’s fine, but when BJ falls asleep and dreams an original level I’m reminded of why I’m supposed to be here – fun. There’s not much of that in this new world.

W:TNO is, actually, an incredible game. Its compelling stuff and there’s some great characterisation; BJ and the nurse have an awkward romance (and some hefty sex-scenes) and the resistance are all believable. But it’s not Wolf – even though I was unimpressed with W3D and this is immeasurably a better game, it’s Wolf in-name-only.

The Past – Doom

To explain the effect Doom had on me; Doom was the game that got me back into gaming after I discovered girls instead. Doom is better than girls, that’s how influential it was.

Still, eventually I got bored with it. I started to find the levels wearying, the designs too stark once the initial shock wore off – it was the Clones’ fault. Blood, with its storyline and style, Duke and SW with their humour and self-awareness, Doom started to feel samey. But now… whoa. This is FPS. I give up on girls all over again.

I can bitch about the blocky creatures, the repetitive art design, the never-changing slog to find keys but the thing is … the levels are timed to the pixel like some satanic ballet; every single creature is a classic, the art design is perfect, and it’s never dull finding keys – seeing that end-board with the location replaced with a red splash; I did that. Every now and then a level reminds me of some 1990s song, tv show or hangover, but Doom is so well judged I forget I’m playing something 25 years old. Rather than become cute like Wolf, it’s still an intimidating, dangerous game. This is how you do it.

That ‘Doom feeling’ isn’t in its dark corridors; it’s something you get while playing. id knew they were on to something and it’s that enthusiasm you feel, it’s still palatable now. It’s somehow got charisma. See, Chairman of the Board.

I should follow with Doom 3, as it was a ‘soft reboot’ but I don’t want to. DOOM 2016 was the real reboot, it promised to recapture that Doom feeling. Let’s see if it’s better than Girls.

The Blast – DOOM

The reboot is 68Gb; the original was 28mb – I have mp3’s bigger than that. Surely, with that much weight to it, with this legacy to emulate, it’s a better game experience? Nope.

It does look so real it makes you feel uneasy – but weird uncanny-valley realism doesn’t make a scary game; it’s urgent and shouty, the creatures so busy posturing that it becomes a grind. Doom was a moshpit – DOOM is commuting in rush-hour. It’s a punishing game but missing the recklessness, the way the original would hype you up enough to consider punching a Hell Knight. By missing the sense of excitement, fun, the sheer bravado of the original it’s just a frantic shooter, closer to CoD Zombie than Doom. You just spend all the time surviving arena battles and that wasn’t where the original’s intensity came from.

Further missing the point of the original, in firefights we have ‘glory kills’ where a dazed imp or whatever can be brutally killed up close during a QTE. Meh. Half the time you’re so swamped you can’t reach the downed guy anyway and an incessant glowing and flashing is just annoying. Doomguy didn’t have time for this kind of crap and it gets worse - the original has secrets but this time Doomguy is also hunting for fricking collectables as well as suit upgrades, and weapons can be improved by completing challenges; Doomguy didn’t need those, he already was the best. He was John Maclane, John Spartan, John Matrix, John Rambo, John Wick. Not John from accounting who needs all the help he can get. How do you misjudge a character who didn’t even have any characterisation?

Doom was the daddy of shooters; DOOM is doing a dad dance. There’s nothing new here; this is not the good-old-days and it’s not giving the modern era a kick in the ass the way Doom did. This isn’t a reboot of the original, it’s a reboot of the original’s reputation. It’s just marketing. It’s infuriating – so much so, my original playthrough ended in a rage quit and so did this replay. The biggest mistake though is unlocking a classic-era level. That’s just triggering me to go back to the original again. I should have played Doom 3.

The Past - Rise of the Triad

I was not a fan of RotT when it came out. The cheap-looking digitised effects, the blocky movement of the enemies, and the basic level design – plus, we’re assaulting an enemy base, why has it got coins floating everywhere - and platforming?! This is a First Person Shooter not First Person Mario. RotT felt like a thrown together cash-in clone.

It’s not got any better. There are some advancements like character selection and enemies faking their deaths or begging for their lives while bleeding out, but the world looks cheap and digitised like an arcade rail shooter. There’s an interesting deviation when it comes to weapons though – you get infinite bullets and dual-wielding and alternative explosive/magic weapons instead of an arsenal, but it feels easy – endless bullets or rockets; more than a match for what I’m facing. Traps, trampolines and floating coins mostly.

About the only fun I have in this game is watching the enemies fall into their own traps. Why is this castle so insanely dangerous? The trampolines let you propel yourself forward or back but rather than a new shooter mechanic it’s only there to collect more of those bloody coins. There’s power-ups but in Doom they’d give you health bumps, invincibility or let you punch like a rocket, here we can turn into a dog. It’s bordering on a kid’s shooter.

I had it mind RotT was a subtle parody but it’s not, it’s just childish and not in a juvenile way like Lo-Wang’s antics. It’s just horrible. It’s not a clone – because it’s nothing like Doom. For the first time I’m actually hoping the reboot strays from its source material.

The Blast - Rise of the Triad

Well, this follows the original pretty closely. Great. The one time I wanted it to deviate … And then … this is a contender for best reboot of the bunch. RotT is the only one to actually remind me of the era; it captures that wild attitude, the unexpected mayhem.

There’s so much carnage to be had, but rather than DOOM’s scraps or Wolf’s atrocities, this is just mad fun. The weaponry works better this time and even the traps, as nonsensical as ever, are fun to navigate and trick baddies into. It’s no longer a kid’s game, it’s a big kid’s game. This is what I remembered. I’m having the same fun I had 20yrs ago.

RotT has really pulled out all the stops - not to reinvent the genre but celebrate it. It doesn’t have any of Wolf or DOOM’s big-budget shininess or epic-ness, and maybe that’s why it’s so good. It’s bolted together, low-fi, smoothed over and a bit cheeky – I’m gonna go play it again. This feels weird but, a reboot wins this round?

The Past - Duke Nukem 3D

Doom might have been the biggest and best, but it was unrelatable; a nameless arm that was knee deep in the dead? Doom gave FPS a reputation, but Duke gave it a personality. I loved Duke. To me he was a perfect parody/love-poem to the Arnie and Sly heroes of the 80s meets Roger Moore-era Bond. And his game was equally awesome. Freed of Dungeons, Castles and Hell, Duke shot through recognisable locations filled with interactive stuff while spouting movie quotes and quips, and women swooned. He was my hero.

DN3D has so much going on unlike the minimalist Doom (or the cluttered RotT); I’m having a great time drinking from toilets, using jet-packs and air-vents, and playing with myself in a time when men were men and women were strippers. Oh.

Admittedly, the flashing strippers and porno theatre feel a little schoolboy ‘look, boobs’ now, but Duke does tip the strippers and doesn’t make lewd comments – if you shoot them Aliens appear to kick your ass, and it’s not like DN3D created strippers or porn theatres. Not the strongest argument and I’m just trying to convince myself but perhaps Duke isn’t all bad. But that unfortunate element aside, it’s fun to inhabit a super-cool ultra-hero, modern games don’t really do this anymore. Come on!

Thing is, DN3D’s distractions hide a fairly generic shooter and that really comes to the fore once we leave earth for a space station. Away from a real world you realise level design is not 3DR’s strength and they covered it with novelties; aside from the interactions, Duke did have the most varied weapons – who can forget shrinking and stomping enemies? And you never get over the first time he finishes that space boss, pulls down his pants and takes out the newspaper … Still smirking like a schoolboy. But as a shooter, it’s not that cool.

DN3D is great fun but it isn’t up there with Doom’s experience. It’s a bit of a Michael Bay game, shouting without saying anything, but it was a real leap forward for FPS, environment-wise and Duke is still my hero. He needs some sensitivity training, but still. And then …

The Blast – Duke Nukem Forever

Duke Nukem Forever will go down in history for many reasons. Okay two reasons; it’s huge development cycle and being irredeemably shit. Those alien bastards.

The only possible defence you could mount for DNF is its satire; if you’re offended by it, you’re the joke. There are elements that bolster that argument; scenes, references, dialogue and bits of silliness clearly send up Duke and his reputation but you can’t just go ‘it’s parody’ and excuse a level where we search a strip club for a vibrator to have sex with a stripper. Or the “Alien Abortion” game. Or the Glory Hole. Or the twins Duke is dating. Or that sequence. I’ll get to it later (and not much further).

As a game it sucks. It’s graphically uneven and for every fun sequence like a shrunken Duke navigating the Duke Burger there’s dated, uninspired levels – and that doesn’t mean DNF is the throwback I’ve been looking for because they’re either confusingly non-linear or rail-shooter straight with crappy scripted sequences. It’s like playing Steam on shuffle.

Duke is the worst victim though. It’s either mocking him or deifying him and when we meet his incestuous, maybe underage twin girlfriends we don’t think ‘rock n roll’ we think Duke’s a groomer. He’s arrogant now rather than cool and whereas his ego was justified in the original and even a little playful, now he’s just a dumb, misogynistic jock dickhead rewarded for deeply unpleasant behaviour. Thanks DNF, you made me dislike Duke.

So, I reach the infamous level. An Alien nest, where Duke gamely kills women before aliens can burst out of them – fine, that’s in the original and makes some sort of sci-fi horror sense. Except in the original they were cocooned and muttering Aliens’ ‘Kill me’; here they’re topless hotties and that’s not all that’s on display. Duke finds random boob growths in the walls and can give them a hearty slap for a reward – while saying “strange silicon lifeform”. It’s not juvenile, it’s not commentary, it’s just … embarrassing. But then Duke finds his girlfriends, similarly cocooned. As they beg forgiveness for being raped and make abortion jokes, Duke quips ‘looks like you’re … fucked’ – No Duke, you are. Fuck this. Rage Quit.

I don’t get how this happened. More so than BJ, Duke would have been an ideal character to parody moral-choice worrying lead characters, and it’s so offensive I want to believe that was the intent. But without some context, some wit, this is up there with Custer’s Revenge.

The Past - Shadow Warrior

Shadow Warrior wasn’t a Doom clone it was a Duke clone. FPS was moving fast and SW was an innovator at the time. But in retrospect, Lo-Wang was a backwards move.

Lo-Wang is not Duke. We could forgive Duke as he was riffing off the macho alpha males of cinema, but Lo-Wang is a misogynistic asshole. Terrible dad-jokes, repetitive lines (“Time to get erased hehehehe”) and some of the creepiest reactions to female NCPs this side of Benny Hill's Madcap Chase, Lo-Wang is more No-Wang. There’s moments like a showering woman returns his flirt with machine-gun fire but mostly he’s cornering static buxom anime girls and making sexual overtures that would make Austin Powers blush. It’s clear 3DR were trying to be controversial for controversy’s sake after the accusations levelled at Duke and when he’s not being creepy he’s tittering at everything; we’re playing the class clown here. When you want a silent hero it’s not a good sign.

The game itself is a mixed bag. The levels are a lot richer and have greater depth than Duke’s, with recognisable locations and Japanese imagery, but there’s a lot of backtracking and the fights are boring and repetitive. It’s got no direction, no urgency and Lo-Wang’s clowning doesn’t cover the faults the way Duke’s cool did. There’s some major improvements though; 3D creatures, vehicles, multi-depth design, alt fire and puzzles; all of it wasted on an uninspired game and a git of a hero.

A reboot of this is going to terrible whichever way you approach it - modernising a guy who should be on the sex-offenders list is going to be a tall order. Lo-Wang Forever?