A great Doom WAD is an emotional experience for me. I feel more invested in a good WAD than I do in 90% of videogames. The minimalistest story, some level design that makes me feel like I’m progressing and accomplishing something, a strong soundtrack — that’s all I need. The last one most of all. Really; music will make or break a levelset for me, and when is makes it, it makes it.
If you’re not a big Doom person, I wouldn’t blame you for not believing me here, but I honestly think the world of Doom WADs hides behind its humble exterior some of the most beautiful music in the videogame multiverse. Take the legendary duo Mark Klem and David Shaw, for instance. Klem’s work on Memento Mori II or STRAIN is some of my favorite WAD music ever: the slow, cautious build of “Simple Solutions” into pulse-pounding gloriousness; the soul-crushing sadness and hopeless struggle embodied in his “Woven Fear;” or the I-can’t-decide-whether-to-be-terrified-or-exhilarated duality of “Destiny” as it shifts disorientingly from climactic, final-level epic and discordant nightmare-fuel. (I’d link to all these, but I can only find the MP3 versions up on the web and I don’t think the new instrumentation works as well as the old MIDI versions. Do yourself a favor and just download the WADs themselves.)
There are tons more where those came from. But esselfortium and Jimmy91, who did the majority of the music for Back to Saturn X, look like they’re shaping up to be the new super duo. The soundtrack they came up with might not be quite there, but it’s stellar nonetheless. It’s funny, actually; the very first level of the WAD opens with what’s probably the best track of the bunch, this gorgeous piece that just builds and builds until I’m so filled with this achy, weird longing for I-don’t-know-what and I’m utterly in love with everything… I don’t know any other videogame that could put that kind of emotional fishhook into me right from the get-go. But that’s the nature of Doom music. It just does that to me.
I’d also have to give special mention to the music that plays in the recurring hub area, which I can only describe as haunting. But that’s enough about the music. I’m 350 words into this thing and that’s all I’ve talked about.
If we’re talking about things that are beautiful, I’ll get this out right now: Saturn X is the best looking WAD I’ve ever played. Yeah, I said it. You don’t need the fancy features of source ports to make Doom pretty; the proof is right here. Between a lovely, 100% new texture set and great thinking-outside-the-box level design, the whole thing feels crisp and fresh. But it’s also just in the intricate detailing and use of light. Had you told me this ran in vanilla Doom, I wouldn’t have believed you. If you look past the limited color palette and low-res textures inherent to Doom WADs, Saturn X looks better than most modern shooters. Certainly, it’s got aesthetic charm and level design way ahead of what almost every triple-A studio is churning out.
Back to Saturn X is one of those mods that makes me wonder — if the video game industry had never moved past the old 2.5D Doom-esque engines — what would modern first-person shooters look like? With all the level designer talent out there today, I’m not sure they could come up with something much better than whats been done here, by a team of volunteers organized on the internet no less.
Aside from an eye for detail, there’s a really kinetic feel to most levels that keeps them fresh and exciting. Oftentimes I didn’t actually have any idea where I was going, and despite some surprisingly complex levels, the map would guide me with an unseen hand right to wherever I needed to go. One of my favorite maps is the tenth, “A Proud and Booming Industry,” a delightful spree that, a couple minutes in, feels more like a dance than a videogame level. You know all the steps, and you slide effortlessly from one encounter to the next in dazelike fashion. To top it off, there’s a moment at the end where the action cuts out abruptly as you enter a large, empty room and suddenly snap out of your cheerful daze. Let me just say that the moment of suspense pays off in spades with one of the most stressful and unique fights I’ve played in a long time.
If you asked me to pretty please nitpick something so this review isn’t so lovey-dovey, I’d probably halfheartedly mumble something about all the weapons and monster types being thrown into the mix right from the start rather than being held back for effect, or the super shotgun being relied on too much, or maybe a bit of an overusage of revenants, which I’ve always liked peppered into levels very lightly rather than used in groups. My biggest concern, if I had to bring it up, is that as awesome as the new textures are, they seem a bit limited in what they can do, and about two-thirds of the way into the WAD, the levels were feeling a tad samey. Of course, that’s more than made up for by some really inventive design and cleverly choreographed fights. Although, there are also some painfully cheap moments where enemies are spawned directly behind you with no warning. Okay, so there’s more than a few flaws.
Map10 is a good example of a map that flows perfectly, but not all the bases of Saturn are so great at directing you. Locked doors often aren’t situated anywhere memorable — or in a high-traffic area — so after you’ve found the respective key, you’d better be ready for some wandering. It’s far from being the descent into the frustration and madness that it sometimes can be in other WADs, though. You can generally right yourself fairly quickly, and the levels are so pretty you almost don’t mind being lost for a minute or two.
I did also find myself cursing the names of the designers for other genuinely unfair encounters. Hitscanners above your field of view, or hidden in other hard-to-spot locations; run-ins with crowds of monsters in incredibly tight quarters with no room to maneuver; arch-vile fights with little to no cover…
The oddest choice, in retrospect, is probably the tram station you encounter eight levels in, which becomes a recurring hub level that you return to every three maps or so from then on out. But it’s odd because you’d expect a hub zone to be included in order to help create a real sense of connectedness between levels, whereas this one doesn’t make any effort in that area. It’s almost entirely disconnected from the rest of the game, with the player jumping on a tram car and expecting (reasonably so) to begin the next map on that same tram car at some new destination, disembarking, and entering the new map. Instead, he appears in a totally new location and, a few maps later, warps back as if by magic to the station so he can select the next tram line. The only time the station leads directly into the following level is the last time it’s encountered, so I’m not sure what the thinking was behind it.
That’s the extent of the nitpicks I could dish out. Any problems with Saturn X are in the details; they’re minor hiccups or odd little oversights, but the whole package is — and will remain, I’m betting — one of my favorite WADs out there. If the ultimate test of a WAD for me is whether I got a little emotional playing it, then Saturn X is a winner. I thought it was wonderful, and it filled me with both nostalgia and huge hopes for the future. You have to admit it’s a testament to Doom‘s unkillable nature that nineteen years after the game came out, we’re getting fan content for it that’s bigger and better than ever. Where do we go from here? Up, I hope.
Did I mention this is only the first episode? Episodes 2 and 3 of Back to Saturn X are due out… well, eventually.
Back to Saturn X hasn’t been uploaded to the official /idgames Archive, but you can download it here. It requires DOOM2.WAD and will run on vanilla Doom or on any source port under the sun. If you’re not sure how to get it running, this may help.