Hailed by many as one of the forefathers of first person shooters today, id Software’s Doom is a title that needs little introduction. Initially lighting up PC’s in 1993 and 1994 before making its way across the vast field of home consoles available at the time, the simple story of a stranded space marine determined to make it home was destined to become a classic. However, despite the accolades the game received in its heyday, something peculiar occurred in the years that followed. Unlike classic side scrollers like Super Mario Bros.3 and Mega Man 2 that command respect when brought up in conversation, Doom has encountered the opposite scenario. Honestly, I can’t count how many looks I’ve gotten for bringing the game up when the subject turns to the FPSs, even from game store employees who advertently or inadvertently tout their knowledge of video game history like a name tag. Is it such a stretch to connect Halo to Doom? Does Doom have the computer equivalent of cooties? When did it acquire this case of cooties and why wasn’t I notified? I can totally understand puzzled looks when pulling an obscure and downtrodden title like SaGa Frontier out of the hat of video game reminiscence, but this is a game that had an immense cultural impact.
This leads to the inevitable question: do fans of first person shooters even savor their games? This is not to insinuate that all fans of the genre are fickle or shallow, but this is the feeling one gets from some of them and members of the industry. Still, as bright and shinny as games have become, there is something to be said about the beautiful simplicity of Doom. In fact, I’d go as far to say that I’m more impressed with what id was able to do back then when compared to what developers are currently capable of now. Such admiration may teeter on the edge of fanboyism, but it’s not limited just to the gameplay and the world built around it but to the music as well. However, before one can explore what it brings to the experience, one must explore the rich tapestry behind it.
Robert Prince: Composer, lawyer and… rapper extraordinaire?
One of the most interesting aspects about the music of Doom and Doom II: Hell on Earth is the use of “sampling” by composer Robert Prince. Sampling, the process of lifting recognizable riffs, beats and notes from previous works to bolster new works, became a relevant topic with the emergence of rap and hip-hop in the early 1990’s. As would be expected, this practice has led to numerous lawsuits centered on copyright law and intellectual property. Although it may not seem like it, the music of both games is loaded with beats and riffs lifted and inspired from various heavy metal outfits like King Diamond, Pantera, Slayer and even Metallica. Utilizing his past experience as a lawyer, Prince was acutely aware of how far he could encroach on these original works before a legal line was crossed. Clever as these small musical asides may be, they account for little of what the music has to offer.
Doom (Original PC MIDI)
Odd as the comparison may seem, the original PC MIDI of Doom reminds me of the NES. Both are quite primitive in the sound department, but that’s about all they have in common. More often than not, NES music has a certain rustic quality to it that makes it charming. This fails to be the case with Doom's crude functionality. However, in the heat of the moment it doesn’t detract from the experience as the infamous “At Doom’s Gate” quickly proves. Regardless, there are certain times where it seems like Prince wrote the bulk of these tunes without considering the limitations of the format, or that they were conceived using a completely different and superior sound spectrum before they were retrofitted for use in the game. This results in lows that don’t sound low enough and percussion that doesn’t sound punchy enough. While some tracks like “Kitchen Ace (and Taking Names)” and “Sign of Evil” lose out because of this, there are those that make out like bandits. The thin nature of the sound greatly adds to a fleet footed piece like “I Sawed the Demons” and the electronic nature of the instruments only enhances the drive that helps “Deep into the Code” define a level like Pandemonium. In the end, the means used to present Prince’s devilish depiction of Phobos, Deimos, and Hell is unimpressive, but it does little to dilute its impact.
Doom (Doom Music)
Cut and dry as it may sound, Doom Music’s greatest advantage happens to be its greatest shortcoming; namely, that while the enhancements to the overall audio quality are nice, they are meager. The aforementioned “Kitchen Ace” and “Dark Halls” are some of the best examples, their beats still remaining a bit too shallow despite what the additional reverb brings to the table. It’s this that makes the inclusion of “Sinister” and “Suspense,” tracks that are dead ringers for the names assigned to them, no-brainers since they are predisposed to revel within such tweaks. As important as is it to present this side of the score to the listener, the improvement is moot since the game’s MIDI had no real problem presenting them to begin with. Still, when it comes to really changing something to the point where it is undeniably notable, nothing surpasses “At Doom’s Gate.” In a love it or hate it move, the track has been infused with (higher sampled) sound effects. Hearing these classical noises in such clarity is a hoot – especially when the shotgun coincides with the percussion – but with it being the only track presented in such a fashion, it’s understandable why it feels like an unwelcome intruder. Be that as it may, while the story of the original game’s music would appear to have reached its conclusion, rest assured it’s only just begun.
Doom (The Super Nintendo Port)
Much like Capcom’s Street Fighter Alpha 2, Doom also happens have some strong links to the 16-bit arena. Like the aforementioned one-on-one fighter, id’s incarnation of the game on the fading SNES is of little note beyond its uncommonly superior soundtrack. Really, beyond the slight stumble in “At Doom’s Gate,” the Super Nintendo’s SPC700 fixes nearly every deficiency outlined above. Topping off the curious, bouncy bass in “The Imp’s Song”? Check. Fulfilling the need for more piercing percussion in “Kitchen Ace”? Affirmative. Giving gritty life to the mournful cries heard throughout “Sign of Evil”? You bet. Adding that slight mystical edge to “They’re Going to Get You” and “The Demons From Adrian's Pen”? Done. Evening up the intensity within “Facing the Spider”? No problem. The list goes on and on and on. It is a bit of a let down that “Deep into the Code,” “I Sawed the Demons” and “The End of Doom” had to be cut due to memory limitations, but whoever was responsible for the sound programming at Sculptured Software during this port’s development deserves a round of applause for adding the finishing touches to Robert Prince’s vision.
Doom (The PlayStation and Saturn Ports)
In one final stop before tacking the music of Doom II: Hell on Earth, we explore what happens when one does a one eighty with the musical identity of a game/series. So, what does happen when you replace Prince’s presidio-rock with a newly concocted ambient score? You change the object and feel of the game substantially. Gone is the in-your-face concept of shooting everything that moves and in comes the idea that slow, methodical cautiousness will win the day. It’s like night and day, it’s like North and South. Anyway, while I’ll be the first to admit ambient music is not my thing, some of these pieces (like the one that presides over the Halls of the Damned) stir an interest in me even though I favor Prince’s work. Those that don’t however should do themselves a favor and check out this work by Aubrey Hodges.
Doom II: Hell on Earth (Original PC MIDI)
With Doom II, Robert Prince would find himself not only musically depicting the forces of Hell, but depicting the havoc they were raising on the earth itself. Crawling with dark, moody and action packed numbers, this soundtrack is home to the same kinds of compositions as the original, but differs in two major ways. The first is the improved usage of the MIDI, which makes itself apparent from the outset and gives the listener the impression that these tunes were written and programmed with the limits of the format in mind from the beginning. This makes signature moments like the clunk of the percussion in “Running from Evil” feel as if they were a choreographed part of the track from the beginning. This doesn’t seem to be born out of the game’s need or use of slightly more advanced hardware (than its predecessor) either, meaning it appears to be the result of a composer finding out what works and what doesn’t. Lows are appropriately low, beats sound thin when they need to sound thin and thick when they need to be thick. The other aspect that’s been added to the formula has to do with the increased track length, the gothic “Into Sandy’s City” providing an appropriate illustration. Within its nearly five-minute time frame, the core composition repeats a total of three times, but in switching up the leads and instruments on each repeat an illusionary amount of girth is created. It’s hard to tell how much this really adds to the experience, but with the music of the first game succeeding without such a support structure it falls behind the other improvements to be found here.
Doom II: Hell on Earth (Doom Music)
Just like the selections from the original game, the music of Doom II doesn’t gain much from its upgrade either. In fact, there is even less to gain since the in-game versions have such an advantage in the sound department, but then who is going to complain about improving them even more? The main attraction here lies in the trifecta formed by “Running from Evil,” “Doom” and “Into Sandy’s City” when they’re taken in as a whole. Great tracks like these combine with key levels and bring the game’s subtitle “Hell on Earth” to life. There's a lot more at stake with the remaining picks however. Where's a sadistically fun and entertaining track like “Between Levels”? There’s no room for such a scrumptious anomaly but there's room for the long and monotonous “Opening to Hell”? Please. This musical backdrop is the least memorable thing about The Icon of Sin, although in Prince's defense I think any piece of music would get lost in a level with such a congested boss situation. Regardless, with the track representation being twelve to eight in Doom’s favor, a weak link is a weak link.
Final Doom: TNT Evilution (Original PC MIDI)
Before wrapping up this journey through space, hell and earth, it feels appropriate to comment on an even less represented chapter of Doom's musical history. Unlike its spawn-of-Satan counterpart The Plutonia Experiement, the TNT Evilution campaign of Final Doom contained a handful of new compositions from the members of Team TNT. Unfortunately, while some of the details about this score have been lost to the ages (composing credits for all these tracks aren't known) this work deserves a quick nod. Powerful compositions like “More” (credited to Tom Mustaine) and “Death’s Bells” drip with a flavor that would initially suggest Prince’s involvement. Other tracks like “Smells Like Burning Corpse” and “Into the Beast's Belly” feel like the spiritual successors to “Kitchen Ace (and Taking Names),” but it’s the slow, almost jazz-like burn heard throughout the Steel Works ("Cold Subtleness") that delightfully challenges everything one has come to expect from the series musically. Needless to say, it you like what you hear on Doom Music, TNT Evilution is another mandatory pit stop.
While most will obviously question the value of a release that bears little improvement over the material it recreates, those that explore and become enamored with the music of Doom and Doom II: Hell on Earth will find little reason not to acquire this sole, official record of Robert Prince’s contribution to the PC phenomena – if they can find it. Still, such rarity should not deter anyone from tracking down and listening to the in-game MIDI that’s been derived from the game itself in lieu of such an acquisition. That said, Doom Music is not just a fragment of a soundtrack that paints the portrait of the hostile world the Doomguy has been thrust into; it’s the soundtrack to the hostile world you have been thrust into when you play the game.