This interview for "Vintage to Retro" will be with Jrmhd91—I'll call him "JR" for short—an expert on classic Doom ports.
"From Vintage to Retro" interviews FPS players and developers. In terms of vintage FPS, the series covers includes single-player "Doom clones" and Build titles; to multiplayer frag-fests like Doom deathmatch, Quake arenas, and Unreal Tournament(s); to "pure," arcade-style shooters, "looter shooters" and FPS-RPG hybrids. In terms of retro FPS, it examines Dusk, Ion Fury and Prodeus, as well as Nightdive Studios' latter-day revival of classic FPS.
Click here to access the entire series and read about its research goals.
Nick: Hi, I'm Nick van der Waard. A Gothic ludologist, I write about horror in videogames. My specialty is Metroidvania, but I also research FPS.
JR, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?
JR: Any name works. It's all consonants after all. I'm JRM; I go by many names. I've always had video games as my go-to activity as I can't find anything better to do with my free time. Born and raised in the Bay Area, I've had a [more] unique experience than most in terms of daily life. Mechanics in electronics and video games fascinate me. Not much more to tell, really.
Nick: Great! We'll be covering a variety of FPS for this interview. I know you've played Doom. Have you played any of these other games, retro or vintage?
JR: So I am familiar with Prodeus back when the closed beta was going out. Done the first episode of Blood recently. Then I've done runs of Doom 64 of the Nightdive release when that first released. Outside of those, I've played Duke Nukem a few times. I'll get familiarized with Dusk and Ion Fury. I was told they're good but [currently] have no opinion on them. I've always come to Doom, then Fallout 3 and New Vegas if those count.
Nick: I'd say say the Bethesda Fallout games definitely count as FPS.
JR: Now that you mention it, I have played a fair bit of Chex Quest and T2... I can definitely go more in-depth with [those].
Nick: I've never played Chex Quest, but I've heard quite a bit about it. I suppose it was probably the inspiration for The Adventures of Square.
JR: That's an excellent game there. I'm sure you've heard of JimmySquared on Twitch. The guy is a mad composing machine who was heavily involved in that project.
Nick: You're one of the few people that speedruns Midway's Doom '95, and most "casual" Doom fans don't even know it exists! I know the game is somewhat laggy due to emulation issues, but the music, sound effects, and lighting are completely different. The levels are much darker, and the monsters and music sound more menacing.
How do you think Doom '95 compares to the original DOS version, and does it deserve more recognition than it gets?
JR: Doom '95—It's cold. It's dark. It's desolate. Whether you enter the moon base [or] back to Earth, the demons had long since taken [over]. There's no one left to save. No bounty to be had when [victory is] accomplished. The atmosphere from its lighting, the revamped sounds (which would be later used in Doom 64) to the gloomy ambiance—it all paints the picture that if you fail, nothing changes and Hell has officially succeeded and stopped its last oppressor. This is a great departure from the almost upbeat "I'm gonna kick some ass, rock n' roll!" mentality and play style that Doom was originally based around, so much so that Doom '95 is almost a different game entirely.
While I'm not at all down on what Doom is from the original programmers vision, Doom '95 just has a tone that shouldn't be ignored and could easily be classified as a horror title. It's for those [who] would definitely be second-guessing what's around the corner... compared to being a hulking tank and flying through rooms with firepower that dwarfs anything the demons could ever answer back with.
PC Doom is an all-around, campy good time. Fun and easy to pick up. Doom '95 just shows more of what it could be. If you want a new perspective on Doom, do yourself the favor and play it for yourself! It's nothing like Doom 3, I promise.
Nick: Doom 3... I enjoyed aspects of it for almost being creepy. But Doom '95 is terrifying from beginning to end.
JR: It was certainly welcomed in Doom 3, even if the execution of it wasn't entirely there.
Nick: Do you think the tone shift in Doom '95 largely has to do with Aubrey Hodges's music?
JR: Hands down the top reason for the atmosphere. Aside from Doom 64, we would not have the more sinister elements [in] any other game from the franchise.
Nick: Midway eclipsed Doom '95 when they made Doom 64. This N64 game used the same music and sound effects, but had wildly different sprites and levels (traps, lots of traps). Doom 64 was released for free with Doom Eternal pre-orders, and Hugo Martin reportedly loves it.
How do you feel about Doom 64? Does it feel unnecessary given its similarities with Doom '95, or do its unique levels and balancing make it feel like its own game?
JR: I may be biased in answering that, but again, it was a welcomed change of pace. It really played at a more sub-conscious level—that when you entered the depths of Hell, it was obviously not meant for the livings to see: interpreting voids and dealing with unknown runes and relics that may have belonged to something greater. It's absolutely warranted to give Doom 64 the Doom title, though, and I can hardly imagine it being a standalone title due to [its classic Doom lore].
Nick: Between the initial DOS shareware, the original PC episodes, and the many different ports (including Midway's) onto other platforms, what's your favorite version of classic Doom?
JR: Playstation, always and forever. We've talked about its atmosphere—the revamped sounds, lighting and ambient music (if you can even call it music). Any other port pre-2001 was just a lesser shell of PC Doom. PSOne had a complete make-over and it's stunning.
Nick: Old games are "classic," but they aren't perfect. One example are gimmicky weapons. Duke Nukem 3D had several instant-kill weapons for larger, nastier foes, including the shrinker. A more modern equivalent would be the Crucible vs the Tyrant, in Doom Eternal.
One outcome of gimmick weapons is "impotent bruisers." Lots of enemies that look tough, but die easy. Does this design approach hurt FPS gameplay in your mind?
JR: It all depends on the situation. Now if you had a devastating "click and kill" weapon, it's the obvious choice for what is otherwise an unfair fight. Generally you would get a weapon like that in the late-game (assuming the game itself was designed well) and for the sake of progression, well-placed situations wouldn't hurt the core gameplay as a whole. To me, it's a blemish having insurance that takes a fair amount of the edge off, and I would rather take the time to do without it if I can.
Bottom-line is, don't make the player use something that lessens the action if it means their survival.
Nick: Yeah, so long as it's optional, but other methods are totally viable, then I'm on board with extra big guns.
JR: I almost forget that I have a BFG in Doom 2016 or Eternal. 1) The ammo is its own pickup and doesn't share the plasma ammo. 2) It's a map-deleter when used correctly. That isn't fun.
Nick: An alternate approach is raising the number of cheap/powerful foes, thereby necessitating over-powered guns. The BFG is probably the famous big gun. However, that weapon feels optional—at least in casual playthroughs—because the monsters aren't that dangerous. Not so, in Shadow Warrior. The hero Lo Wang can use the personal nuke, a single-use weapon that kills everything in a certain radius. This weapon isn't optional because of the game's sadistic design. There's far too many cheap (and invisible) enemies that can kill Lo Wang in one hit. This all but forces the player to abuse the nuke just to survive!
In your opinion, is this approach ever fun?
JR: It honestly feels like a cop-out for bad design choices made in the production of Shadow Warrior. A necessity is just that—necessary. If you need to use OP weapons in a given part of the stage, make it just for the shock value, not "Do this if you want to continue." It's pure spectacle and nothing more.
Nick: I think it works better with shoot-'em-ups like Raiden, honestly.
JR: If only for a momentary break, absolutely. Even when used for boss battles to shorten the time of fighting them, it's not an "end all" option at one press of the button. Granted you wont be saving all of them for boss battles and even then the supply is limited.
Nick: Bullet-sponge enemies are a classic problem. For example, without a "1-hit kill" weapon, the stone gargoyles from Blood are hard to deal with. These take forever to die. To compensate, the player can simply crouch to negate their attacks, and shoot until the gargoyles are dead. Nevertheless, it's boring.
Can you think of any "bullet sponges" from FPS games that you especially despise?
JR: The Marauder is undoubtedly my biggest gripe in Doom Eternal, seemingly absorbing even the heaviest of firepower. It isn't enough to just have a lot of HP [health points] and armor. The Marauder holds an impenetrable shield negating any attack prior to them attacking you. This makes it a game of "wait-and-see." Once you learn the pattern, it gets to be redundant—with how much you still need to throw at the Marauder before he finally dies.
In Fallout 3, the Super Mutant Masters and Behemoths were always an issue for me. There is a candy store of artillery at your disposal, but even with God-tier weaponry and explosives early on these guys can still prove to be a tiring experience. If you happen to walk into the wrong part of the wastes, suddenly there's anywhere from 2-6 of them beelining towards you with weapons that will melt you in seconds. Game Over.
Nick: Another old school FPS issue is awkward controls. The original Doom had mouse support, but was largely pointless due to the lack of a Y axis and auto aim. The player couldn't look up or mouse aim, and the default control scheme was inverted: If memory serves, the player moved with their right hand (the arrow keys) and fired using the left Ctrl key.
Eventually FPS largely adopted the mouse + WADS control scheme. Personally I don't know anyone who uses a mouse with their left hand (and I'm left-handed). So the WADS control scheme makes a lot of sense to me. Do you ever use the WADS scheme when playing Doom on PC? Or would you still opt for a controller?
JR: These days, as someone who played on controllers up until very recently, I would absolutely vouch for KB+M when playing these older titles; the range of movement is infinitely better than what a controller would be able to give. I can understand it's crippling to play on controller at best, and outright impossible to use at worst, going from one peripheral to another.
Use them if you got them.
JR: I've definitely had people mention Future Shock as a must-play (Skynet not so much). I'm still having fun with the original Doom games, but probably will look into them by 2030!
Nick: James Cameron inspired a lot of FPS games—not just with the Terminator movies, but also Aliens. Aliens inspired id to make Doom; it also launched FPS like Alien Trilogy and AvP. For better or for worse, pretty much every FPS in existence leads back to Aliens.
Were you aware of the Aliens connection regarding Doom when the game was new?
JR: I have known about it and it absolutely has the aesthetic: unknown creatures from an unknown world, praying on the humans who built [colonies] on planets and moons outside of Earth. The parallel is uncanny.
Nick: Have you played Aliens Trilogy or AvP and if so, does either hold a candle to Doom?
JR: I'd like to believe that Aliens is far more fleshed out in terms of its presentation and thrills, while Doom is simply a parody in its actions. If anything, does Doom hold a candle to Aliens? I've briefly played the Alien games through the Playstation and Saturn and thought they were lackluster. I do have Alien: Isolation on the ready, expect a playthrough of that in the near future!
Nick: Oh, I think you'll enjoy that one (don't tell Under the Mayo, though). It's more survival horror than FPS, but remains good fun (especially in the haunted house department). I especially recommend the survivor DLC. Less campaign stuff, and straight to the wholesome gameplay.
Nick: Doom is the classic "pure" FPS. The player can move through the levels, but most of the gameplay is centered on shooting enemies. Some games, like Midway's Terminator 2: Judgment Day, are even more arcade-y.
T2 is an arcade style game, or the purest FPS: No movement; nothing to do but shoot (or avoid shooting friendlies). You mentioned playing a fair bit of it yourself. Did you play it on an actual cabinet back in the day, and does this make the experience more fun?
JR: Arcade cabinets in my town were scarce, so I made due with the T2 home port and light gun for the Genesis. I personally always enjoyed having more action to do in a game. Player movement is the biggest. While having a fixed-angled camera or on-rail shooters can be a fun time— especially in an arcade setting—for me there's more to be desired if I can't physically move on a map, whether it's top-down, from the 1st or even the 3rd person.
Nick: I think the only light gun I had access to as a kid was for Duck Hunt.
JR: Which ain't bad, considering it was an early mainstream adaptation from the arcade to at-home gaming. They certainly had their time back in the '80s, '90s and 2000s, with very few titles coming into relevance today.
Nick: One of the Build engine classics, Duke Nukem 3D was a 2.5D game. The player could actually jump, and the levels featured more detail and interactability than Doom did.
Provided they're done right, can these additional elements one-up "pure" FPS; or are shooter-focused FPS like Doom and Serious Sam better off without them? In other words, can waves and waves of enemies trump enemies, RPG-elements, and Half-Life-style puzzles and platforming?
JR: Whether it was due to limitation or a desire to focus on the shooting alone, giving the player more reasonable mobility only enhances the immersion. You're still a human in these games, right? While crudely done in games like Quake and Duke Nukem 3D—you'd expect the avatar to pop over ankle high ledges instead of getting stuck on them—Doom makes you feel like a massive "brick," sliding around the map. As for stat-building or light puzzles in an FPS, having them as a second thought and not a primary focus can still make an otherwise barebones genre into something much more—by today's standards anyway.
Nick: Doom is a very mod-friendly game, and has hundreds, if not thousands, of "reskins." Today these are called "mods," and often feature gameplay changes to boot (re: Brutal Doom). Back in the '90s, however, they were called "Doom clones." These were effectively games that looked and played very similar to Doom. Quasi-3D levels, a wide array of guns stored on the horizontal number keys, and projectile and hitscan enemies to contend with.
I remember Dark Forces (and for the Mac, no less) and Heretic. However, one of the best Doom clones was Chex Quest, apparently. The game actually came inside Chex cereal boxes, and spawned a number of sequels.
Did you play this game growing up? If so, what about it appeals to you?
JR: It's the '90s. Getting games without the knowledge of early internet boards was uncommon for me and most of my friends. Suddenly there's a computer game that comes in a box of cereal. What?! I'm sold.
The fact that Chex Quest was a Doom reskin and designed to be less violent didn't matter. It had its own plot, weapons and monsters. Such an overhaul [beyond anything] I'd known before. I [also] think it's genius to take a known IP, build on its revolutionary engine and open it for anyone to utilize; then, freely distribute it with maybe not the most exciting of breakfast cereals. Sure made me want my own box of Chex once word got out!
If I were to suggest a fun game, one without any gratuitous blood and gore to someone that was my age back then, Chex Quest is where I would point them to.
Nick: Perhaps the most famous FPS hybrid, Half-life puts the player in a cinematic, but contained narrative, while also including platforming and puzzle elements. Other '90s FPS hybrids focus more on the RPG side of things. Strife introduced quest lines, NPC dialogue (the voice-acting is pretty great) and different endings. Deus Ex mixed combat and stealth. And the System Shock and Bioshock games melded sci-fi horror with various playstyles (mutation, hacking and weapon mods) against various enemy types.
Is there anything about these types of games that appeals to you, or do you prefer Doom's more straightforward approach?
JR: Any game that has evolving character and enemy attributes [is] a huge plus in my book. Being able to build upon a weapon, armor or character itself is far more engaging and allows for more replayability. Bioshock and Fallout are great examples for FPS titles that allow for prolonged development in character customization and style of play.
Nick: Another FPS hybrid was the "looter shooter," arguably made famous by the Bethesda-era Fallout games like Fallout 3 and New Vegas. The company essentially took the RPG-heavy, isometric formula and inserted it into a FPS game. Shoot enemies, get loot. Looter shooter.
You mention how you always come back to Doom, followed by the Bethesda Fallout games. What makes the latter so much fun to play specifically?
JR: It's essentially a giant sandbox. Left to your own devices, you're allowed to access 90% of the game, to go wherever you please. It doesn't just give you a corridor with a handful of enemies; it's designed around discovery the first time around. In later playthroughs you can find many other ways to go about it. Do you talk your way through a portion of a quest or go in guns-blazing? A mix of the two, or not at all? There is no "wrong" way to do it in most cases. You may even find unique loot that benefits you later on. To me—with the obvious notion that I will take down any aggressors with a specific character build and assortment of weapons to master—no one playthrough is the same.
Nick: It's really fun when the gameworld supports different viable builds. That's one reason I love New Vegas. The game was buggy as hell, but patched and modded it allowed for tremendous flexibility in terms of character builds.
JR: I remember getting New Vegas when it first came out in 2010 and playing nothing else for over three years. With the amount of items and boosters you can give yourself, whether temporary or permanent, I just wanted to see if you can play the game with added challenges. You ever fight and kill a deathclaw with just your fists? It's not easy but eventually you can... and live to tell about it.
Nick: I remember trying a lot of different builds. I felt so happy that Explosives and Big Guns actually felt viable, whereas in Fallout 3 not so much.
JR: Truth. It's not as good to use as a focused build, especially early on (not that you can find or afford a Missile Launcher or a Gatling Laser right away without some heavy setbacks). While Fallout 3 nailed the atmosphere (nothing but rubble, charred vehicles and decrepit hovels for the inhabitants), New Vegas gave the land more color and toys to play with, and was loaded with even more things to find the more you carried on.
Nick: The complexity of pro-RPG FPS have garnered small, but dedicated groups of fans over the years. So much so that people have clamored for their return. Nightdive studios answered the call, re-releasing games like Strife, Blood, and Doom 64.
Old games run on DOS, an outmoded OS. To get them to work on modern systems, the games must be emulated. This is an imperfect process, and is prone to bugs. Do any of these games play differently than you remember, if you played any of them back in the day?
JR: Games that were made in the DOS days were only designed for that specific platform. It's sad that they can't simply be carried over, bugs and all. Understandable that developers may just use a source engine and maybe sprinkle on some extra features and call it good. Being that the game runs on later platforms is all that [most] would ask for in a re-release [anyways]. It does feel jarring when I play a game like Doom 64 and remember the gameplay being much slower. Now it's running far smoother and cleaner than ever. Great for having a refined version to play on, but [this still] detracts from how it used to feel. Sometimes this isn't always for the better.
Nick: Blood is a great game, but kind of got buried over time. The game was originally re-released on Steam as One Unit Whole Blood (2014). Issues with the game apparently led fans to re-emulate the game—no small feat considering the source code was never released. This resulted in many reverse-engineered "ports." I've tried two, BloodGDX (2017) and NBlood (2019), but apparently there are quite a few more. Atari, the owners of the game's code, eventually commissioned Nightdive to create Blood: Fresh Supply. Nightdive had a rough start, according to Civvie. However, the game was quickly patched, and has since been patched four times. Feedback surrounding the patches seems mostly positive.
You mentioned playing Blood for the first time through Nightdive Studios. Did you know about the issues with its elusive source code before playing the game?
JR: I know that it was not an easy game to replicate on any new hardware, and that there may have been some legal issues surrounding its licensing that prevented any growth to accommodate future platforms.
If I'm not mistaken, Blood: Fresh Supply runs through DOSBox on Steam, yes? If only as a base to make the game display.
Nick: Yeah. It uses DOSBox.
JR: Not the greatest way to re-release the game, but even bundling it in a neat package saves a lot of players the hassle of configuring for themselves.
Nick: Fun fact: There's an NBlood version available on the Switch.
JR: Is that right? Whether Nintendo gave it the greenlight or it's "homebrew," the enthusiasts out there that want a game for a specific platform will get on it, as long as the tools are there.
Nick: You mentioned playing through Blood's first episode. What are you impressions so far? Do you plan on finishing the entire game?
JR: I do like the perverseness of the atmosphere, deeply rooting itself into sacrilege and the cheeky quips from the main character. It also has a heavy puzzle factor in Blood's level layout, that (to my detriment at least) can have me hitting a lot of walls before finding out how to progress. Not really my idea of a good time to clock a few guys then scour all over the map. However when the flow is there, it makes for an unmatched experience. I will definitely come back to Blood when my speedrun projects start to stagnate.
Nick: Retro FPS usually attempt to recreate the audio-visual feel of older games, usually with modern control schemes and quality-of-life mentalities. Some games, like Ion Fury, are even made by vintage game companies (3D Realms in this case).
A big component to retro gaming is nostalgia, especially with movie franchises. Cameron's Terminator has seen a videogame revival with Terminator Resistance, but also upcoming fan game Tech-Com 2029. Of the two, Tech-Com has spent more time in the oven, but has a smaller dev team; and the makers of the game have painstakingly recreated various props, sets and even actors from the 1984 movie.
Does the desire for nostalgia (re: Easter eggs) overshadow good game design in your opinion?
JR: Nostalgia can easily be taken as "how it used to be, so it should be" mentality which, if done through nostalgia-goggles, can make for a very uninspired product. If done in excess, it stops having its own identity and just becomes a parody. If it was meant to be its own thing, a wink and a nod is fine to include; if you're bear-hugging a franchise into your own work however, you can't expect to stand, not if it was meant to be seen in a different light.
Still, it'd make for a hell of a resume entry if that love letter does reach an interest to those who inspired it in the first place!
Nick: Hey, recreate The Terminator's original footage because you don't own the rights and Cameron's a happy camper.
JR: Right, there's some legality issues no doubt if you're basically rewriting it in your own words. There's few examples where that actually got a creator's attention. Christian Whitehead, who lead the Sonic Mania release through Sega, was just a rom-hacker back in the day Otherwise fan works have either been largely unnoticed, or threatened with Cease & Desists. [Breakout projects like that] just can't happen 99% of the time.
Nick: I only recall a DMCA happening with AM2R, honestly. But I'm sure it's happened a lot more than that.
JR: Basically anything owned by Nintendo is grounds for stomping out fan-made works, even if it surpasses their own. Mario Battle Royale was big when it first came out, Nintendo put that down and made their own. Pokémon Uranium is a good example, too.
Nick: Yeah, I'm not a big fan of their practices. They tend to lock their IPs in a vault and sit on them, even if they'll never sell them again or have anyone see them.
JR: It's because of them that we have to emulate and preserve the games that were originally released, but that's a whole other story to tell!
Nick: Adventures of Square looks similar to classic Chex Quest, but behaves in true 3D. Have you spent much time with the game?
JR: I played a good bit of it when it was relatively new, when it was only a single episode and still had the original sewer level design. Loved it to death. I would put money down for a proper physical release like a few Doom reskins have in the past. Anything that can turn the bloodbath of Doom into a jellified kids game just makes it more appealing [for a] wider audience. The Adventures of Square hit all the right notes.
Nick: Does it improve on the classic FPS formula—not just Chex Quest, but also Doom?
JR: It certainly adds what was [fundamentally] missing in Doom. And that goes into the later Doom titles and FPS as a whole. Still, Doom was the foundation for [what came after] and did [that role] well.
Nick: What reasons might a newer generation have for playing old school games like Doom when the FPS is constantly being improved upon? Or, do they not make 'em like they used to?
JR: It's always good to go back to a genre's roots,(even if it's not the first FPS ever); and while Doom is limited and simplified mostly because the tech wasn't there, it's still fun to play. The base game only has the original episodes—with a simple storyline and dozens of maps to explore. But the community is as active as ever and has been since the mid '90s, pushing out new stories, maps, weapons, monsters. If you can think it, it can be made through Doom. Assuming you enjoyed what you've played by id, there's enough mods and conversions out there that will last you lifetimes.
And that's just Doom I'm talking about! The same goes for Quake, Duke Nukem 3D, and Fallout. You'll never grow bored if you enjoyed the game previously. If anything, Doom should be looked at and played just for the sake of curiosity. Plus obtaining the game is like $5. It's a steal—more so when they go on sale!
Nick: Speaking of mods, have you played Brutal Doom? Sort of the opposite of The Adventures of Square, I feel like.
JR: I have and.. it's okay. Brutal Doom is basically synonymous with anyone new just getting back into Doom, or for those wanting [a modern take on] an old game engine. It's very well made, don't get me wrong! It's excess of blood splatter, crude taunts and cheesiness can make for a good time alone or with friends. There is so much more out there that excels in what Brutal Doom has achieved, though.
Nick: Personally I think "AEUHHH????" is the best Doom mod.
JR: Oh dear. As a seasoned player, not sure how I feel that I can still recognize levels in that mod. Tim Allen be praised!
Nick: You mentioned learning about Prodeus when the closed beta was going out. Did you have a chance to play the game yourself during the beta? If so, what are your thoughts on it?
JR: Yes, I was given a link for the download through Steam—three levels if I recall correctly, and [the game] really distinguished itself. The pixelated look felt reminiscent of Quake. That definitely had me excited, as I would be more familiar with its mechanics than a more modernized FPS title—your Bioshocks or your Call of Dutys. Don't typically play those.
Nick: Prodeus is still "early access." The developers are continuing to add polish and content. Does this approach remind you of the old Doom shareware days—in terms of watching and waiting for a game to get made, piece by piece—or does it feel like it's own animal?
JR: That's tough to answer since I would argue that if a game isn't finished, it really shouldn't be released at all. Unless the players want to be a part of its development (the open or closed betas), it's very important that, should devs take the "early access" approach to their games, they absolutely consider the general consensus of fixing its flaws or finding components to add or remove. I'd trust the Prodeus team to do this like id did when fine-tuning their own game.
Nick: Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions for me, JR. Where can we find you these days?
JR: If you are interested in everything retro and console Doom related, you can find me on my Twitch channel and on Discord (Jrmhd91#7466). You can see all the games I speedrun on my Speedrun.com profile and hope you like some of the games I play! Thank you for having me!
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