Claws and Saws
Likening Doom's player-character to a racecar and its maps to tracks is a solid analogy, in the right context. Doomguy is no Formula One car, and E1M1 is no Australian Grand Prix. The game's abstract maps have more in common like the war-torn settings of Carmageddon, its protagonist a tricked-out war machine armed to the teeth.
The developers at id had made a special point of touting Doom's arsenal in the press release they threw together in early 1993, promising to scratch itchy trigger fingers with a veritable armory of machine guns, missile launchers and—especially tantalizing—"mysterious supernatural weapons."
To Doom players who had followed the game's development from that first press release to its network-crippling arrival in December 1993, the only thing mysterious about supernatural weapons was their absence in the final product. John Romero was glad to dispel confusion. "We had this demonic hand that was called the Dark Claw. That was going to do some kind of evil attack. We decided not to do that."
The Dark Claw worked more or less how its name indicated. Doom's artists painted a demonic hand that could be severed from monsters and wielded by players. That component is alive and well in "Sergeant Mark IV's" Brutal Doom mod, which lets players employ the Revenant's homing missiles and the Mancubus brute's flamethrowers among other otherworldly armaments. For organizational reasons, id left the Dark Claw on Doom's bloody cutting-room floor.
"We decided to keep it to seven keys," Romero explained. "The BFG is the really cool, ultimate weapon, and that was enough for us."
Confining Doom's weapons to the first seven numerical keys on the player's keyboard was crucial to balancing the game. Players should never have to strain to reach a key, or look down at their desk in the middle of a firefight. In the same vein, id's team endeavored to arrange weapons by purpose rather than in a hierarchy. "With Doom 1, the weapon design was really important," Romero explained. "It was important that new weapons never nullify previous weapons in any way. There should be no reason why you wouldn't want to use a previous weapon."
Consider the pistol and the chaingun. Both consume the same bullets, squeezing either trigger prompts the game's code to play the same sound effect, DSPISTOL, and both guns inflict between five and 15 damage. The only difference is in how they dish out pain.
Fire once, and the pistol expends a single shot. The same action looses two bullets from the chaingun. Hold down the fire button and the chaingun shreds even the toughest demon until players let off the trigger. Why, then, should players ever bother pressing the 2 key to draw their pistol if they have a chaingun at their disposal?
"Even the chaingun, which uses pistol shots, doesn't nullify the pistol because it shoots fast, and you might be down to your last shots and you need to shoot just a couple of times. That keeps the pistol useful," Romero said.
In Doom, even the weakest weapons serve a purpose. Some write off the fist as a last resort. Pick up a Berserk Pack, however, and the fist packs a literal punch of between 20 and 200 damage—10 times its normal value. Up close, the gnashing teeth of the Pinky prove ineffective against the chainsaw's steel links. It's less practical against most other demons, especially those with ranged attacks such as the Imp, who has ample opportunity to throw fireballs as players rush up to them, or the Baron of Hell, who slashes at players while the chainsaw chews away. Doomguy's life bar was built to outlast Imps, but a race between their chainsaw and the Baron's claws rarely ends in the player's favor.
The chainsaw may seem like a one-trick pony, but one of the game's toughest monsters falls prey to its close-range capabilities. Cacodemons face players at all times once engaged—except when players bury a chainsaw in their scaly flesh, causing them to expose their backs as if attempting to fly away.
Romero confirmed that the behavior is emergent, the result of a glitch as opposed to purposeful design. All players have to do in response is to keep walking forward with their finger clamped down on the attack button, making that "1" key useful all through Doom and Doom 2.
Getting up close and personal with a Cacodemon is a risky endeavor that should only be attempted when no other monsters are around to harass players. Still, it's a risk worth taking. Carving up a Cacodemon conserves rockets and energy cells, which are in shorter supply than bullets and shotgun shells.
"Both the chainsaw and the shotgun were added at the same time because of Evil Dead," Romero said. "We loved the movies. Evil Dead 2 is a remake of Evil Dead, basically, and those were awesome weapons. The thing about Evil Dead that really matched out game was that our game was really dark humor. That movie is all dark humor and horror, and we felt like our game was a little like Evil Dead, so those weapons made perfect sense."
If any weapon could be said to define the original Doom, it would be the shotgun. Every Doom player's most trusted sidearm, the shotgun is flexible enough to be effective in most scenarios. Powerful enough to take down an Imp in one shot at close range and a Pinky in three, accurate enough to snipe monsters and explosive barrels from afar, and while its rate of fire is on the slow side, it's not so slow that brandishing it against a dozen enemies is a death sentence.
Fans have extolled the shotgun's versatility for decades, but they would be remiss if they neglected to admit how it appeals on a purely aesthetic level. The echoing boom of its report, the bloom of fire as pellets explode outward, and sheen of polished steel and wood as the shell ejects, the player's gloved hands cock the hammer, and a new shell slides into place.
Doom's shotgun is more than a weapon. It's an institution, the template from which virtually every other FPS shotgun is derived. Romero confirmed that id's developers knew as much long before consumers adopted it. "It was just the right balance between something like a rocket launcher, which is too much, and a pistol, which is not enough," he said. "In doing a sequel, the idea for Doom 2 was, what's the best part of that first game? When you make a sequel, make those first parts better."
With Doom 2, id Software revamped the original game's level design and added nearly a dozen monsters to its bestiary. The team approached weapons more conservatively, adding a single new weapon: the combat shotgun, known affectionately as the super shotgun.
Nearly three times more powerful than its single-barreled brother, the super shotgun fires twin barrels for between 100 and 300 damage depending on proximity. Yet it complements rather than supplements the shotgun. Firing twin barrels means twice as much ammo expended per shot and an even wider spread of pellets, rendering the regular shotgun more efficient for sniping.
"We felt the shotgun was the best weapon in the game," Romero explained. "We have these seven keyboard keys we don't want to mess with. Seven is a good number; it's like a phone number. We'd already double-used the 1 key for the chainsaw and fist, so we decided to double-use the 3 key for the shotgun and super shotgun. We're keeping it simple: we're not doing a whole bunch of new weapons, just doing the one we think everybody will love."
Supernatural weapons fell by the wayside in favor of the development team's desire to invent the ultimate weapon. The BFG 9000 reigns supreme in terms of raw firepower, but id didn't want players to jump right from real-world fare like shotguns and chainguns straight to the pinnacle of futuristic tech.
"The thing about Doom was that we were going to mix some weapons we had already, with near-future-type weapons," said Romero. "So the player is shooting something they understand, and then they can look forward to some even cooler stuff. "
The rocket launcher accounts for one leg of that bridge. It's based on bazookas used during World War II, and that alone makes firing it a thrill. To most players who experienced Doom for the first time in 1993, shooting missiles was something they read about in a textbook. A computer game sold on floppy disks made it possible.
The plasma rifle is the next and final step in the progression toward id's big freaking gun. It operates similarly to a chaingun, spraying a stream of laser energy that puts players on even footing with heavyweights like Barons of Hell, and the Cyberdemon and Spider Mastermind bosses.
Hefting the BFG 9000 for the first time, most players can't help gawking in wonder. It is, indeed, like a chunk of metal ripped from the hull of a spaceship. The weapon's maiden implementation, a spread of green-and-red energy balls, ended up a tad too futuristic.
"We thought it looked like Christmas when it came out, and it also slowed the game way down because we're talking about hundreds of these sprites that would fly out. That would hurt the frame rate," explained Romero.
As a workaround, id rolled the Christmas ornament-like orbs into a huge green orb that obliterates all but the toughest enemies in a single blast. Enemies outside the player's direct line of fire do not escape unscathed. Upon making contact with a monster or any surface, the giant orb generates lots of smaller orbs that automatically appear and inflict massive damage on using a technique known as ray tracing.
Ray tracing traces light's path in a virtual space and simulates its collision with objects. Instead of manifesting all the individual energy blasts, firing the BFG causes 40 invisible projectiles to fly out in a cone-shaped area in front of the player and connect with monsters. As soon as the single, visible blast makes contact with any object, the 40 projectiles strike their targets.
"The second version of it is the one that you see, and it's doing what the original would have done if those little balls had hit everything: basically we just throw out a bunch of tracers in the room and do massive damage to everything," Romero said.
The Real Deal
In writing Doom, id Software had one goal: to make the best game in the world. That ambition guided them during every step of the development process, right down to their determination to craft a panoply of weapons that served players well from the first second of Doom through the last.
Romero believes that id achieved its goal. He gleaned pride and satisfaction when the shareware version of the best game in the world graced the covers of magazines and the demo disks packaged in their plastic wrapping. He still views it as the best game ever, but not just because of its weapons, or its levels, or any one thing.
"You go to the store, you see a box, you read the back, and you're like, 'Oh my god, this looks so great,'" said Romero. "Then a lot of times you install it, play it, and you feel let down, and they marketed it so well on the back of the box. For us, it was about: do you remember what you thought about when you were looking at the back of the box? Make sure that you make that. Fulfill that dream. Our box wasn't as cool of a marketing box as EA's or LucasArts' boxes, but we let the game speak for itself."