There's a fascinating graph that can easily be found on Wikipedia here that studies the usage of the terms "Doom clone" and "first person shooter", looking at their respective usages in Usenet posts between 1993 and 2002. The phrase "Doom clone" looks to have been conclusively defeated by "first person shooter" by late 1998, which interestingly coincides with the release of Valve's Half-Life. But like the secretive Trystero in The Crying of Lot 49 (I'm sorry, that's the second Pynchon reference in two posts – I'll try and cut them down) the phrase was not quite defeated, but merely forced underground, along with the games that remain lumbered with the label.
To be honest, the fact that mainstream magazines and the game-playing public labeled games like these as "Doom clones" was a bit unfair. The games weren't exactly carbon-copies of the massively successful id classic, many didn't even use its influential engine – it's just that the early competitors to Doom were sometimes looked down upon and have been largely forgotten today – even when some of them were brilliant in their own right.
So what defines a Doom clone? Well, by my definition a Doom clone is an FPS released between 1993 and 1998, which use sprites for their characters and objects and generally have Doom-esque technology to work with. Some games on the list are still famous today – others have fallen into at least partly undeserved obscurity. Because of the relatively primitive engines they use, they can often be difficult to get working on modern operating systems – but where possible, I'll offer some advice as to how these games can be played in 2008 (remember that DOSBox will theoretically run them all). Incidentally, for those who have yet to experience the joys of Doom itself, it can be found in a Collector's Edition on (for example) Amazon, and there's a guide to getting the game to run under XP over at the excellent Doom Wiki here. For now though, on with the list – from #10 right up to #1...
#10: Chex Quest (1996)
Hilariously, Chex Quest was developed entirely for the purposes of marketing a US breakfast cereal in 1996. Consequently, it was largely non-violent and marketed towards children, allowing the kids to play as an anthropomorphic piece of cereal that was tasked with fighting off an insidious alien invasion. Despite having only five levels and having most items from Doom directly translated into cereal-based versions, it gained a downloadable sequel, Chex Quest 2, in 1997 and bizarrely, also developed a cult following. For its audacity and amusingly insane idea of removing the ultraviolence from the grandfather of the FPS, Chex Quest gets in at #10. Of course having done what it did way back in 1996, Chex Quest and its "makers" were way ahead of their time – now giving away free games with cereal is pretty normal – I remember a Kelloggs one by the name of Mission Nutrition from my youth which is now incredibly obscure (deservedly). It just goes to show that breakfast really is the most important sinister marketing opportunity of the day. Should the need to play this piece of marketing history take hold of you, there's a site here that contains what you need to know. In the mean time, see it in action in this video of the first level.
#9: PowerSlave (AKA Exhumed) (1996)
You've got to give some credit to a game that was largely inspired by a 1984 Iron Maiden album. Unsurprisingly the inspiration is rather more famous and easy to get hold of than the inspired. PowerSlave actually also went by another name, Exhumed, as if to belatedly dissociate itself from Dickinson's outfit. Featuring the alluring combination of ancient Egyptian themes with guns, PowerSlave was released for the Sega Saturn, and then the PS1 and PC, and it was developed by the ever-so-famous Lobotomy Software. Interestingly, the game ran on the Build engine, a more powerful version of which was also used in... another game or two we may come to later. There are plentiful videos of the game around, including this one, the first in a series of speedruns. I haven't got the faintest idea how to get the game running, short of buying a Saturn or a PS1 and an old copy. If anyone has a clue, do comment and let us know. In fact, comparing the videos for Chex Quest and PowerSlave, can you believe it's the former that has a cult following? Sometimes people just can't see greatness when it's staring them in the face. Tsk.
#8: Killing Time (1996)
Killing Time has the dubious honour of having been developed by the much-maligned 3DO, creators of the similarly much-maligned Army Men series of so-called games. It shares a bit of the Egyptian theme with PowerSlave – you play as a 1930s PI hunting down the now-deranged Tess Conway on Matinicus Island, a real island off the coast of Maine. Conway has turned the island into a haven for the undead using her experimentation with the enigmatic Water Clock of Thoth. Cue much shooting and general carnage. The game was notorious for some of its then-horrifying enemies – meat-cleaver lobbing zombie chefs, and so on. There's a theme that runs through most of these Doom clones – if you tried to develop them today, they'd most likely get banned for their ultraviolent content. Killing Time is definitely amongst those. It had some quite impressive special effects for the time, and deserves kudos for its original 1930s setting and oh-so-witty title. Its intro video can be viewed at your leisure here.
#7: Rise of the Triad (1995)
Here's a fairly famous one. Developed by Apogee Software (later renamed to one 3D Realms) on a bodged form of id's own ageing Wolfenstein 3D technology, the coolly-named Rise of the Triad was released in 1995 and has a developed a reputation as one of the more gratuitously gory entries in the Doom clone canon. ROTT was designed by Tom Hall (whose famous "Doom Bible" was the legendary design document upon which Doom itself was based) who unfortunately was lumbered with a few technical limitations left over from Wolf 3D. Generally all the walls run at 90 degree angles, and the floors and ceilings are all of uniform height. In other respects, though, Apogee managed to push the engine surprisingly far, at least far enough to power the judicious gibs. Inventively, ROTT also featured a choice of characters with different statistics and different comedy names, including one Ian Paul Freeley. Due to originally having meant to be called Wolfenstein 3D II: Rise of the Triad, there were some Nazi Germany allusions, but generally speaking ROTT was its own game, themed around an evil plot being hatched on San Nicolas island - making it the second game in our list to take place on a real island. Curious. ROTT now stands as a slightly obscure thing sandwiched between famous things - it was in some ways the inheritor to id's own classics, and Tom Hall was to go on to Anachronox and Deus Ex amongst other things. Apogee/3D Realms also went on to bigger things, as we shall see. Again, I don't know how to get ROTT working on XP, but if you do, get in touch. There is a video containing the game's intro here though.
#6: Shadow Warrior (1997)
It's those cheeky 3D Realms chaps again. In 1997 they were hoping that their new game would build upon the success of Duke Nukem 3D - and Shadow Warrior, starring their new ninja character Lo Wang, was that game. Running on Ken Silverman's Build engine, Shadow Warrior was extremely advanced by comparison to almost any shooter that had gone before. Because of games like Shadow Warrior, by 1997 the term "Doom clone" was looking decidedly old-fashioned. 3D Realms were pioneering all kinds of new and clever ideas, many of which were packed into Lo Wang's ultraviolent adventure. The game was packed (in true 3D Realms style) with huge numbers of tongue-in-cheek gags and comments from the talkative Lo Wang ("You're not half the man you used to be!") and popular culture references. It was an amazing cocktail, but perhaps surprisingly Shadow Warrior failed to emulate Duke 3D's success and consequently its expansions were canned, but luckily resurfaced later. The story sees Wang fighting off his former employers, a sinister Japanese corporation who have brought legions of misshapen beasts into the world. There's a video here, and a site here that gives some very handy info about getting Shadow Warrior to run (as well as Blood and Duke 3D, both of which we'll come to later)
#5: Heretic (1994)
And so we come to the oldest game on our list. While FPS grand-masters id were working on Doom II, their great friends Raven Software were working on something very different - Heretic. Hugely advanced for the time, (having innovations even Doom II didn't have) Heretic was also stylistically different to anything else around here. A fantasy FPS, Heretic let you play as Corvus, and tasked you with hunting down and destroying the villainous Serpent Rider D'Sparil. Heretic had an inventory, and also allowed you to look up and down. It would also be the first of four games in the series, the sequels confusingly titled Hexen, Hexen II, and Heretic II (I can think of one series with more confusing sequel titles - the Rambo series). With Heretic, Raven proved that a fantasy FPS was feasible, that there were more technical innovations to be squeezed out of the Doom engine, and that they were soon to be respected as one of the great FPS developers - helping them establish their ongoing relationship with id. Thankfully, Heretic is still pretty easy to get running. All you really need is a Doom source port like Doomsday or zDoom which also has support for Heretic. As per usual, here's a videp
#4: Star Wars: Dark Forces (1995)
A licensed game? In a top ten list?! Yes sir, Star Wars: Dark Forces surely deserves a place. Like Heretic, Dark Forces spawned plenty of sequels, starting with Jedi Knight, and then Jedi Knight II in 2002. Dark Forces was a bit of a curious Star Wars game because you couldn't get a lightsaber - whilst you play as ex-Empire soldier and Rebellion hero Kyle Katarn, Kyle hadn't become a Jedi by the time Dark Forces takes place. Instead, you're forced to use various classic Star Wars guns as you attempt to destroy the Empire's insidious Dark Trooper project, a secret weapons program that could crush the Rebellion before it gets off the ground. Despite some fairly horrendous sewer levels (also found in Doom II, of course, as well as Strife) Dark Forces was a surprisingly successful foray into FPS territory by LucasArts. Interestingly, it also features no blood - but then again, it's hardly Chex Quest either; those damned Stormtroopers get what's coming to them. If you know how to get it working under XP, let me know. Last time I played it, it was a very long time ago, and it was also in French - don't ask me why. Obligatory video!
#3: Strife (1996)
There's been a bit of a lack of old-fashioned proper sci-fi in this list, it seems. Doom was sci-fi (albeit very silly and not well thought out sci-fi, but still - that was hardly the point) and so was Strife, which was released in 1996 by its developers, Rogue Entertainment. Strife depicted a bloody war between two factions in a dystopic environment. The Order are a crazed religious cult who have seized control of the planet - the only alternative to them is The Front, a militant resistance group you become affiliated with early in the game. Using words like "affiliated" should signal that Strife was far from an ordinary Doom clone, or even an ordinary FPS. There were tens of named characters, you could trade with NPCs, indulge in dialogue trees with various people, use multiple firing modes and types of ammo on some weapons, and the game used a hub environment system not unlike Quake II's. The plot was surprisingly intricate, featuring betrayals, horrendous conspiracies, and all centred around the player's quest to acquire a massively powerful weapon that could turn the tide against the vicious Order and their sinister overseers. Difficult to describe, Strife influenced a massive number of games in a way you can't really understand unless you experience it - the list of games that owe something to Strife includes such greats as Half-Life 2, Deus Ex, Halo, Dark Messiah of Might and Magic, and tons more besides. It's an underrated classic, which whilst not quite escaping its Doom engine roots, did a huge number of things very very right indeed. It can be run using zDoom, to which I linked earlier. Here's a video - the game's intro.
#2: Blood (1997)
We've heard a bit about which of these Doom clones is bloody and which aren't bloody, but I can bloody well tell you, they don't get bloodier than Blood. Released in 1997 by Monolith (who went on to develop Aliens vs Predator 2, Tron 2.0, No-One Lives Forever, F.E.A.R. and a lot else besides), Blood is still hugely respected. It was really a homage, it lots of ways, to the classic 3D Realms games - it's vampiric anti-hero, the remorseless horror film-quoting Caleb, had much the same popular culture quoting tendencies exhibited by butch 3D Realms heroes Duke Nukem and Lo Wang. At the start of the game, you wake up as Caleb in a grave - an atmospheric start if ever there was one - and vow revenge against the evil god Tchernobog, the source of your woes. From then on Caleb moves through his world's twisted, ultraviolent version of 1928, killing virtually anything that moves in his sadistic and insatiable quest for vengeance. Like Duke Nukem 3D, Blood was built on the Build engine, allowing Caleb to see himself in mirrors (and in the Plasma Pak version, smash mirrors, allowing psychotic mini-Calebs to pop out and attack him) and various other technical enhancements. Caleb's primary enemies were the hooded Cabal, and he dispatched them with one of the best arsenals yet seen in an FPS - including a flare gun, dynamite, voodoo doll, pitchfork, and Tommy gun. But Caleb's deadliest weapon was surely his collection of cinematic quotes - he was alive - "AGAIN!" - and he wanted a whole world of scum to know it - right before he blew them, gibs splattering everywhere, all over the damn shop.
#1: Duke Nukem 3D (1996)
I didn't do a very good job of keeping my #1 secret, did I? To some it would have been pretty obvious before I'd begun. Ken Silverman's Build engine, married with the talented bods at 3D Realms, ended up creating by far the best shooter since Doom in the form of Duke Nukem 3D in 1996. The star of the show was the super-manly killing machine Duke Nukem, who was a huge homage to Arnold Schwarzennegger and was voiced by the now-legendary Jon St. John. Duke's mission was to defend a futuristic Los Angeles - and the world - from a malevolent alien race. With a set of guns to rival Blood's (including a shrink ray) Duke fought his way through strip clubs, Japanese villas, and a space station, annihilating everything in his path, stumbling across a felled marine from Doom, and coming out with quotes largely robbed from Bruce Campbell film Army of Darkness. And now, we await Duke Nukem Forever, and try not to think of the many cruel jokes levelled against Duke's long-awaited return. Perhaps when Duke comes across the dead Doomguy (and says, "That's one Doomed marine."), that was the very moment when the FPS began to become a genre in its own right, having moved out of Doom's shadow. Perhaps after all, that's what we have Duke to thank for. I for one can't wait for him to come back - and when he does, those alien bastards are going to pay for shooting up his ride. Oh, yeah - a video.
Some people say that today is the time when games, and the FPS, are at their best. I'm not sure I agree. Whilst we've had some astonishing shooters in the last few years, very few have been as imaginative, original, funny or damn well made as some of those that followed in the wake of Doom. And yet a lot of people look down on some of these games - or can't see past their dated technology. The truth is that these games don't just show the way into the past, but also into the future - I for one would rather see another quality wise-cracking character like Caleb or Duke than another mind-bendingly boring git like whatever the guy from Crysis was called. The sense of humour, the sense of adventure has fallen out of fashion in the FPS world these days - but I think that by looking back to Doom and its followers - and they are followers, not clones, after all - we can see how we can marry modern game technology with wit, verve and style. To the past, and to the future...