What’s Awesome, Doom?: Memento Mori II

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Doom turns 21 tomorrow.

That’s right — my baby is gonna be old enough to drink. Before it turns to a life of debauchery and sin, though, I thought we’d take a look back at the baby pictures. Or the toddler pictures, more like.

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Doom, 2.5 yrs old (July 1996)

This is Memento Mori II, one of the earliest — and greatest 32-level megaWADs of all time. What can I say about it that hasn’t been said before?

I have to confess that I didn’t play the Memento Mori twins when they came out in ’96. I didn’t touch them until 2002 when I first got into PWADs. But even then, finding Memento Mori II was a revelation. Now it’s been twelve more years; replaying it in 2014, does it hold up?

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Way more so than the original Memento Mori, I think. I went back and played both this month, and while MMII feels no less inspired or clever than its predecessor, it does feel far more skillful and polished. I’d even say modern in some ways.

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This is the type of WAD that the messy, scatterbrained, but undeniably endearing Reverie calls back to. But like Reverie, you have to go in expecting flaws. Expecting something not quite there in terms of the sensibilities we now have about WAD design. Whether that turns you off or not is up to you.

Looking back, I think there are three common threads to MMII‘s warts, and they’re pretty common among all mid-’90s WADs. The first is huge-featureless-room/long-pointless-hallway syndrome.

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I think I can see my house from here.

But whatever — even if they look bland and take a little too much time to traverse, they don’t make the map any less fun. The other two do.

Some traps, especially in later levels, become stupidly cheap, and in a few cases I simply refuse to believe they’re survivable without prior knowledge of what enemies you’ll face and where they’ll be coming from. Lastly, there are a number of maps that don’t give you the proper weaponry to deal with the enemies you’ll face. They’ll provide maybe a shotgun and chaingun and then ask you to shoot through mobs of cacodemons and barons. My understanding is that an SSG or plasma gun can often be found in a secret, but finding secrets shouldn’t be required to make a map fun.

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Both of these are pretty easy to address, though. Turning the difficulty down helps with the problem of traps (and you probably should anyway, because Ultra-Violence gets sadistic by the last stretch), and the guns and ammo quirk can be fixed by carrying weapons over from previous maps. For once, yeah, I do recommend against pistol-starts. Bumbling around a map with 0 bullets, shells, and rockets, but 300 cells and no plasma gun gives me the sense Memento Mori II wasn’t designed specifically with pistol-starts in mind.

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So those are the flaws. Not turned off yet? Great! In that case, here’s some stuff for you to look forward to:

Can we just talk for a moment about the fact that there’s a part where you fight a cyberdemon while balancing on the lines of a pentagram, over a pit of lava?

Or about that one room that looks like a plain, empty brown box when you enter, and then completely re-forms itself and fills with monsters?

And that there’s a level where you prep missile silos for launch in order to destroy an orbital platform overrun by demons?

Sure that bit is only explained in the accompanying text file, but how badass is that level description? I love that a story was included at all, and especially that each map gets its own briefing. You don’t have to read it, but it adds context to whatever you’re doing, and I’m always a fan of that.

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Of course, the story doesn’t always… make sense, and it’s clear that the blurbs were written by different people — maybe even the level authors themselves — because they really run the gamut. Some tell you nothing, and others are dang novels. Typos are everywhere. And the content ranges from stuff that doesn’t take itself seriously (map04’s description mentions a “Duck Nukem” who was sent to the area before you and whose cool one-liners weren’t enough to save him), to genuinely intense and epic (map27’s gets you mega hyped for the map, and once the music kicks in after a few seconds of almost-silence — geez).

I also appreciate that the first “episode” takes place in Hell and works backward into tech environments from there. That’s one part where the story makes no sense, though. You’re sent to Jupiter’s moon Io to deal with generic demonic invasion #29, but from the start of the WAD, you’re very clearly already in Hell.

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After that first stretch, there’s an entire sewer EPISODE, which defies all sewer level conventions and is actually quite good (especially map07). At 12, you reach the “city” and from there it stops being clear what the theme is trying to be. It’s nice and slow at introducing enemies, seemingly by episode — and one detail you might not notice: there are no cybernetically enhanced monsters until you start seeing human technology in the level design. The demons actually in Hell are purebred hellspawn — no filthy earth science to be found in them!

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Whichever section you’re in, from beginning to end, MMII is a joy to play. There are so many authors involved with so many ideas that every encounter feels unique. There are too many cool fights and brilliant tricks to list here. Try out map15 and see if you aren’t in love immediately. Or 23. Or map17, where the design, gameplay, and music come together in such a way that I vividly remembered it twelve years later, and was salivating to play the whole WAD just for that one level.

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The midi in that level is one of the finest ever composed for Doom. Mark Klem and David Shaw (the super duo) composed a unique track for every single level, and not one of them is anything less than great. I think it’s something about the two of them working together to bring out the best in each other, because the original Memento Mori‘s soundtrack, which only Klem worked on, isn’t half as good as this one. And their work for STRAIN is just as much of a masterpiece as Memento Mori II. If only they were still the super duo of Doom tunes…

But I’ve gone on too long. Memento Mori II. Play it. You can’t call yourself a Doomer if you haven’t.

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Memento Mori II requires DOOM2.WAD and should run in vanilla Doom or any source port under the sun. If you’re not sure how to get it running, this may help. And for more awesome WADs, be sure to check these out!

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