The Hidden Magic of Doom on PS1
Exploring Doom’s most horrifying entry
One of my earliest memories is staying up way too late with my Dad. Watching him play Doom in a dark bedroom with the volume down for my sleeping Mom. A CRT screen was our portal into another world, where we crawled through techno-dungeons hunting for keys. Every step forward elevating my terror as I waited for hordes of pinkies to rush us as soon as he touched the holy red keycard. Both of us trying — failing — to contain our fear lest we wake my Mom. The oceans of blood, fleshy skin walls, and hanging human bodies haunted my thoughts for years afterword.
It was all so awesome.
The creatures, more weighty and terrifying than anything I’d seen before. Their snarling sounds reverberated off the chunky metal walls. That slimy searching sound lit my young mind up with visions of a creature of the deep lurking through the pools of green acid. Our only protection from those creatures the roar of our shotgun beating back the demons.
Every monster was scary to me. Every encounter life or death. I tried to play through it on my own many times throughout my childhood and never even reached the Barons of Hell. To this day the part of Command Control where you have to run through acid makes me sweat. As a child, every little thing seemed so important. I’d hunt each wall for secret buttons, sure that somehow the monster growls I heard were signaling to me in Morse code. An atmosphere of terror ran through each piece of Doom. For me, the game was a horror that you were meant to explore and survive. Not the heavy metal action slaying fest that I now understand Doom to be. The terror and dread I felt formed the base for why I loved the game. Only when I was feeling especially brave would I dare to pop the top on our gray PlayStation and go find the silver disc of DOOM. It’s even scary to look at!
That font and the fuzziness around the M rating sincerely intimidated me. Go boot up the game on the Internet Archive and try to tell me that the logos alone aren’t scary. If those aren’t enough for you, the pixelated flames with Aubrey Hodges masterpiece score are sure to set the tone.
Which brings me to Aubrey Hodges, the unsung hero of horror in Doom.
Last year, the original Doom, Doom 2, and Doom 3 were all re-released on the Nintendo Switch as an unannounced surprise in the middle of QuakeCon. And for me it was such a surprise. I owned every Doom game on PC, but I’d never bothered to mod the originals with modern controls. With Doom released on the Switch I had no more excuses left to keep me from finishing what we started.
Neither me, my Dad, or my brother were ever able to get far enough in to beat the game. Our Dad would tell us tall tales of how crazy it got, and I would find the level passwords of the penultimate stages. But I was only ever a tourist in these levels. I knew I couldn’t beat them and that they had mechanics I didn’t understand. What’s up with the floor pentagrams? What are those glowing wall-skulls? Who is hanging up body parts like they’re fridge magnets? Now, I could rip and tear my way through the whole game! I bought the Doom re-release that night, cranked it to Ultra Violence, and walked to Doom’s Gate.
But it wasn’t what I remembered.
What was this music? I recognized it, but only through the cultural osmosis of being in the gaming community. I banged my head to it and flew through the first stage with glee, but something was wrong. It was as if my childhood memory was right there, but everything was two feet to the left. Then I realized —
What the hell is that! I can’t even listen to the PS1 version for too long before I start to get chills. This isn’t the soundtrack for Rambo action-hero blood fest, this is Alien, this is sweat and fear.
Aaron Seeler and Aubrey Hodges’ Nightmare
The difference lies in the variety of ways Williams Entertainment tried to beef up the PS1 port.
To update the look from the original, their team updated the Doom engine’s lighting to overhaul every level. Pools of nuclear waste reflect light turning entire areas a sickly green, while other rooms sport new fixtures that gradate between dark and light. All the darkness added on PlayStation sticks with me as the biggest graphical improvement. As a kid, the lights would flicker in the middle of an adrenaline-fueled shootout and I would lose all sense of direction for a moment. Adding an element of chaos and fear to the fights that isn’t represented in the original.
Once you’ve got the Doom shuffle down you can outmaneuver most anything— but darkness takes that from you. All your deathmatch rounds don’t matter when a pinky is charging and the only light to see with is your own muzzle flash. My favorite moments in this game are often a result of the enhanced darkness. Firing blindly into a black mass of demons only to hit an exploding barrel that briefly reveals how screwed you really are is delightful.
When the PS1 released, you may remember that it sported a distinct Sound Processor Unit which allowed technical improvements for audio. At the time, it was a rarity to give dedicated audio support. Many systems just ran audio processing through the CPU. Aaron Seeler, the chief architect behind the port, used the new technology to create a reverberation effect within Doom’s levels. He added an echo and spaciousness to the sound that defines the PlayStation version.
That reverberation went hand in hand with Williams Entertainment’s biggest risk — completely changing the sounds of Doom. It took me awhile to really wrap my head around this change. Can you imagine if The Master Chief Collection remastered Halo with entirely new sounds for everything? People would lose their minds! But Seeler’s team did it anyway, and it completely blows away the original.
If you haven’t had the chance to play both games, the original release’s sound effects are all over the place. Some are good and only got a higher quality version on PlayStation. While others, like the infamous imp whose death sound is an edited camel, got completely changed. The result is a tonal shift away from hyped-up 80’s action toward seclusive tension that changes the game more than you’d think. There’s something about the reverberation combined with the new sounds that sucks you in to the experience. I remain shocked at how immersive a game with 16-bit graphics can be.
Which finally brings me to Aubrey Hodges’ work on Doom. Williams Entertainment brought him on to do an entirely new soundtrack, which might be even riskier than changing the sound effects. Doom fans love Bobby Prince’s Black Sabbath inspired soundtrack, and I can’t imagine something like this happening today. For a company making the port to make such massive changes to the game is practically unheard of. If this had gone over poorly Williams Entertainment would’ve been crucified by the Doom fanbase for ruining a masterpiece.
But it didn’t go poorly.
Hodges created an experimental ambient soundtrack that oozes isolation. The whole thing is on Spotify and I highly recommend it. From that opening synthesized slide on the main theme to the spine-tingling ripple of Phobos Anomaly’s Mutation. The whole thing is fantastically creepy and it makes exploring the halls of Doom an entirely new experience.
Because of this soundtrack I grew up never knowing that Doom was meant to be a cheesy blast through hell. His eerie soundscapes transformed it into a sweaty dash for survival where you are only a man — not the Doom
Slayer, not BJ Blazkowicz, a marine. Sure, you do the same things and eventually beat back the forces of Hell. But the feeling is completely changed by the musical tension Hodges creates. I always felt acutely aware that I was alone, and surrounded on all sides by monsters that have slaughtered everyone else.
To me, Aubrey Hodges and the Williams Entertainment team are as much a part of my love for Doom as id Software is. If you’re interested in sharing in my nostalgic love of PS1 Doom, I highly recommend seeking it out. Besides emulating a PS1, your best bet is to check out the recently re-released Doom 64 which uses all the same sounds along with another terrifying original score from Hodges.