Apocalypse #20: Doom 64

The forgotten middle child of classic Doom is a hidden gem

june gloom
9 min readMay 26, 2024

Initial release: Apr 4, 1997
Platform: Nintendo 64
Developer: Midway Games

For a brief, shining moment in the 1990s, Midway Games seemed like an American success story. Starting off in the late 1950s as a manufacturer of amusement equipment (hence the name) including early mechanical arcade games, they would eventually branch out into the nascent medium of video games, working closely with Taito, ultimately making big bucks with the American distribution of Space Invaders. For a time, Midway was king of the arcades; under the auspices of its parent company WMS Industries, Midway either developed or distributed Mortal Kombat, NBA Jam, Killer Instinct, Area 51, and several other arcade classics. They were no slouches on the home console end either, with multiple console ports of their big hits.

Somewhere around the same time Mortal Kombat was giving Congress heart palpitations, a bunch of guys in Mesquite, Texas put out a game for the young “IBM-compatible” PC platform that would really turn up the heat on the video game violence debate: Doom. Now obviously I’ve talked at length about the history of this game, but today we’re gonna go off in a different direction. Let’s talk about the unfairly forgotten middle child of the franchise: Doom 64.

It starts off in 1994 with the Jaguar port. Unlike many other console ports at the time, this one was developed directly by id Software themselves, with John Carmack personally doing the bulk of the programming. Even by 1994 standards, Jaguar Doom was inferior to the original — though it ran pretty decently thanks to Carmack’s heavy optimizations, it lacked music (due to the Jaguar running music and game logic off the same chip) and the game itself went through some pretty heavy stripping down to function on the more limited hardware. In spite of these issues, it was a big hit for the relatively small Jaguar audience.

Williams Entertainment, formerly Tradewest, had been picked up in 1994 by WMS Industries to serve as a sister studio to Midway. After serving as publisher for the Super Nintendo version of Doom, development of the PlayStation port had been handed to them. They built on the Jaguar version to create a port with its own distinctive identity, a loose mashup of Doom and Doom II with use of software-based colored lighting and an entirely new audio design by Aubrey Hodges to create a darker, scarier take on Doom.

Around the same time as the development of the PlayStation version began, so too did a far more ambitious project: The Absolution, a title targeting the Nintendo 64 with all new levels, new art, redone enemy designs, and of course the same audio design as the PlayStation version as Aubrey honed his craft for terrifying dark ambient soundscapes. Ultimately renamed Doom 64 in an attempt to avoid confusion (ironically leading people to assume that it was merely a port, as Quake 64 and Duke Nukem 64 were and as Quake II 64 was not) it was released under the Midway Games brand as Williams Entertainment was renamed in the interim. It’s all mostly the same people, though, creating a thematic throughline between PlayStation Doom/Final Doom and Doom 64 to the point that some people — myself included — originally saw Doom 64 as a sequel, specifically, to the PlayStation games. (For the record, I used to have a similar headcanon about Duke Nukem 64 -> Duke Nukem Zero Hour, and the PlayStation Duke 3D port Total Meltdown with Time To Kill and Land of the Babes. It’s a silly idea, I know.)

Doom 64 is a truly remarkable product. There are modern-day fan-made megawads that I wish had the same amount of thematic and design consistency. Between the three names on the mapper roster — Randy Estrella, Tim Heydelaar, and the infamous Danny Lewis, yes the guy behind that atrocious “Club Doom” songDoom 64 is a solidly designed journey through a forgotten military base and Hell itself.

Pretty much from the moment you turn the game on — whether that be your old Nintendo 64 cartridge, or the more recent remaster, or one of the various unofficial ports in between — you’ll see that Doom 64 is a very different experience from the original. Graphically it’s much crisper than what Doomers were used to at the time, with (at the time) high-resolution graphics making solid use of colored lighting to create an atmosphere. Some impressive fakery allows for the illusion of 3D floors. Scripted events, similar to Hexen’s ACS, allow for a variety of neat tricks, from watching a camera view to dramatically rearranging levels (as seen to impressive effect in “Breakdown”) to spawning new enemies in without the need to sequester them in their own chambers separate from the map.

What passes for a plot in Doom 64 is pretty simple. You’re Doomguy, and after having gone through so much Hell, you’re kinda not doing too hot, mentally, with lots of bad dreams. One day, years after the initial invasion, a forgotten relay satellite sends images from a long-abandoned and irradiated installation. Something is still alive down there, and it’s resurrecting all the mouldering corpses. You wanted a mission? For your sins, you’re given one — someone’s gotta go in there and put down the demons once and for all.

There’s not much else to go on. Where the military base even is, let alone who actually owns it, is up in the air — there’s little to no UAC branding in the game save for on bullet and rocket cases. An argument can be made that, as Doom 1 had you fighting on Phobos and Deimos, the moons of Mars, the military base is situated on Mars itself, and certainly some of the skies visible in parts of the game would support that. But it doesn’t really matter, does it?

What does matter is that, for a lot of reasons that are only partly technical in nature, Doom 64 feels like a throwback to the original. Levels are smaller, tighter and scarier; encounters tend to be in groups of 3 or 4 and rely more heavily on the Doom 1 roster (and hell knights, who make for a less beefy meat wall than barons.) Some of them have had behavior changes to go with fairly radical redesigns; the most obvious one is probably the pain elemental, no longer a goofy-looking cyclopean doughball but now a twin-mouthed horror that spawns two lost souls at a time; lost souls, for their part, are weaker, but significantly more aggressive, and explode upon death, which makes PEs dangerous up close. If you’re playing on -fast and turn off the lost soul spawn limit for pain elementals, they and lost souls become the game’s most dangerous enemies. For technical reasons, a few of the monsters — mostly from Doom II — don’t make an appearance: commandos, arch-viles, Spiderdemons, and revenants are all absent, though the latter’s rockets are an occasional feature. In their place are the nightmare imp, a half-invisible, purple imp who behave closer to the way regular imps do in Doom’s Nightmare skill level — they move faster and throw their fireballs faster. There’s also the Mother Demon, a monstrous cybernetic creature resembling a bigger, uglier, meaner arch-vile. She’ll throw a bunch of crap at you, but depending on how well you’ve explored, she’s potentially trivial…

About that. There are four secret levels in the game. The first available one, “Hectic,” is accessible in the first map, but it’s more of a special challenge than anything else, one that at this point is hardly necessary to surmount for the reward you receive, that is, access to a cheat menu. The other three, reached at various points throughout the game, all possess a Demon Key, an artifact that goes with a new weapon you find about halfway through the game. This weapon, variously titled the demon laser, alien laser, and the Unmaker (based on something mentioned in Tom Hall’s old Doom Bible,) is a creepy device made of skin and bone lashed to a large laser emitter. If you can find all three artifacts — each of which enhances the Unmaker in some way — you’ll be able to not only take down cyberdemons and the Mother Demon with relative impunity, but you’ll also be able to seal the portals from which monsters emerge in the final battle, making for a much shorter fight.

Doom 64 remained something of an obscurity for many years. It never saw an official PC port for a long time; N64 emulation was in its infancy at the time and even now isn’t perfect. Samuel “Kaiser” Villarreal has been instrumental in shepherding this thing to the widespread, official multiplatform existence it enjoys now, going all the way back to 2003 with The Absolution TC, an attempt at painstakingly hand-porting the game to the at-the-time ascendant Doomsday source port (which to be fair was the best possible option for recreating the atmosphere.) A few years later he would bring a more faithful implementation in Doom64 EX, a now-deprecated source port that required a ROM copy of the game to build an IWAD from. D64EX, with the promise of a new arena to build maps in, launched a small cottage industry of user maps, but by now the port with its essentially relying on piracy to function is deprecated. A few unofficial attempts at porting Doom 64 and the PlayStation versions to GZDoom have been made over the years, but it was the 2020 remaster alongside Doom Eternal that finally brought the game to a new generation. Using Villarreal’s KEX engine, the remaster is the first real, legal way to play the game since 1997, but the truth is, the engine itself is kind of… well, it’s shit, with hideously uneven performance and a lack of mouselook which might not be a dealbreaker for you but it sure is for me. You will take my mouselook from my cold gay hands.

But that’s okay, because we’ve got some other options. Doom64EX+ is the next stage of evolution for Kaiser’s original port. Utilizing the DOOM64.WAD included with the 2020 release, it has all the features of D64EX and the remaster and then some, with built-in support via the launcher for Doom 64 Reloaded — an attempt at “remastering” the game as it might have looked like on a 50meg N64 cart (or, possibly, the ill-fated 64DD) — as well as an old, old alpha version of the game. And if that’s not enough, there’s Doom64 Super EX+, intended to be a more modding-friendly source port with new features. And if none of these are to your liking, there’s always the many recreations in GZDoom. Or maybe you want something a little more oldschool? Then why not try Doom 64 for Doom II, which reinterprets the game as a vanilla Doom II mod? For an added bonus, combine it with one of the many Doom 64-izer gameplay mods and maybe a lighting mod to create a truly bizarre, alternate-universe experience.

Doom 64 has always stood out to me as far as commercial Doom games go. My copy was a hand-me-down from my cousin, who said it was too dark to play in the downstairs family room where his N64 was, and he said “don’t let your mom see it.” (I’d never.) I mentioned it to my aunt and she also said “don’t let your mom see it,” so, you know, I took that warning to heart. I’d played Doom before, mostly the first episode and the sequel, and Doom 64 seemed to best capture that feeling of playing “Knee Deep In The Dead,” in a way that more closely resembled what it felt like to play Doom 1 than replaying it has in the decades since. Its vision of hell is honestly scary, frightening even, full of dark fortresses and ruined temples that feel far more real than the abstract weirdness of Sandy Petersen or the carefully constructed arenas and racetracks of modern megawads (or, indeed, the reboots.) Critics at the time dismissed it as an inferior version of Quake, and indeed, it certainly seems to share a lot aesthetically with Quake, but it still maintains an identity all its own.

You should play Doom 64, in any way you can. While its haunted bases and dimly-lit caverns haven’t really led to a great aesthetic awakening among the Doom community — beyond a brief love affair with Quake in the late 1990s, the community generally tends to rely on the vanilla texture set for its hellish environs — it’s still one of the best commercial Doom games out there, a title that for all its obscurity understood a lot of what made the original game so compelling.

— june❤

Doom 64 is now available on Steam and gog.com.
This review has been crossposted, with individual map reviews, on my boomer shooter blog.

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june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]