In a strange turn of events, two entirely different visions of our technological future hit gaming shelves in the past week, each pointing to completely different definitions of impressive. Microsoft unleashed their Xbox One X with promises of 4K-enhanced sugarplums dancing in the eyes of the gaming elite. The other, in all seriousness, was the surprising port of Bethesda’s DOOM reboot for the Nintendo Switch.
It’s surprising for two reasons: one, we didn’t even know it existed until a few weeks ago and, more importantly, nobody thought a port of the original 2016 game was even possible on Nintendo’s hybrid console, or foolish enough to think silicon flat hardware could handle a graphical powerhouse like it.
And yet… that’s a phrase you’ll hear a few times during this review of DOOM Switch (which is what I’m calling it) as how you’ll grade this improbable port depends largely on your managed expectations. First, best not concern yourselves with pixel-counting, resolution genital measuring; DOOM Switch isn’t a game that benefits from such idiosyncratic technical mumbo-jumbo. This is bound to frustrate many of those eggheads who base performance possibilities on specs alone, while their more buoyant peers are likely to fist-pump at the raw achievement on display.
Before we dive in, let’s talk about the actual game, which is partly why you’re reading this. For those who missed out on the original PS4, Xbox One, PC edition released only last year, it was awesome. Actually, it was more than that – DOOM was a terrific throwback to the glory days of early first-person shooters that functioned like one, stripping away much of the excess melodrama and pointless grind and nonsense sucking up the joy of most modern shooters. Here was a game that unapologetically let you chainsaw potbellied chaingun-touting beasts and showered you in presents for doing so; to the victor goes the spoils, and DOOM was all about the spoils.
Did I mention how damn good it looked and played? My goodness, the game set poor consoles and even lesser PCs into overdrive with buttery-smooth framerates and near pitch-perfect controls. Just as critical was the game’s emphasis on reaching the symbiotic sweet-spot of experience AND performance, which meant its kinetic, thumb-twitching gameplay was never secondary to those killer graphics. When we talk about DOOM, we talk about how amazing it played and how well-structured the whole thing was. Even imagining such a thing on Nintendo’s itty-bitty Switch – a console that sometimes had trouble rendering its own Zelda masterpiece – was madness. Madness, I tell you!
There are two prime examples of this happening before, both of which, curiously, involve ports of DOOM once thought impossible at the time. The first was the original DOOM for the SNES, which hit Nintendo’s dying 16-bit champion during its last hurrah back in 1995. The entire shareware game was basically there, albeit laggy, slower, and pixelated beyond anything Mode 7 could help. Heck, there was even online multiplayer – yes, online multiplayer on the SNES – if you stacked the XBAND modem right underneath. Unfortunately, DOOM SNES might have done all of these things, but did none well, and the end result was a crushing disappointment.
The second, with a much happier outcome, was the miraculous port of DOOM 3 on the original Xbox console. When id Software announced the glorious return of the franchise much of the excitement was drowned out by the sad fact that your PC – any PC, really – probably wasn’t going to handle it, meaning a major upgrade or completely new system was necessary. Less than a year later Vicarious Visions, the developer who squeezed Vigilante 8 on Gameboy Color released a near-perfect port for Microsoft’s HD ready console, complete with online co-op and multiplayer. This was an excellent port that accentuated what was possible on Microsoft’s “Not PlayStation” hardware.
DOOM for Switch falls somewhere between the two, with impressive results. Incredibly, the full game is reproduced here, meaning every level, monster, weapon, enhancement, explosion, cinematic, and frantic battle is rendered in respectable glory. The original game blazed along at 60FPS, and while the magicians at Panic Button can’t change the laws of physics, you’ll get a fairly consistent 30FPS with occasional dips into the high 10s during the most monster-filled battles. Ironically, DOOM may be one of the few games that actually benefits from CPU slowdown – you’ll almost appreciate the chance to breathe before losing your entrails.
The compromises feel more like those justified omissions us old-timers used to feel, but rarely do these days, back when a hit arcade game would get ported to a home console. The original Street Fighter 2 on SNES is the best example really; we can nitpick all day about what this version hasn’t got or what it can’t do well, but what’s the point? Speaking of pointless, don’t even bother looking at screenshots of DOOM Switch; they simply don’t do justice to what’s taking place on hardware that wasn’t even a twinkle in the developers eyes when they imagined bringing DOOM back from the dead.
While everything is reduced, nothing is prohibitively so, as long as you’re playing on the Switch’s capable mobile screen. Docking, however, only heightens the significantly grainier visuals and muddied textures, though at least you’ll be able to read the HUD easier. To quell your fears, this Nintendo port isn’t anywhere like the abominations the poor little Wii received during its lifetime; you might be getting a somewhat compromised version of DOOM, but one that still looks, sounds, and plays remarkably like the real thing. DOOM Switch is still very much big-boy DOOM.
Even better, all the bonus DLC and online multiplayer makes are available from the start. Arcade Mode gives the game entirely new life with its destruction-focused, point-getting mayhem. DOOM is one of those rarest of FPS games that benefits from multiple playthroughs, giving you one more reason to take this version for a spin. I wish I could say more about the multiplayer, but it was never the original game’s most impressive feature and the same holds true for the Switch; it’s here and relatively lag-free, at the very least. There’s no SnapMap editor, though, which is pretty much the only feature that didn’t make the trip over.
Also, don’t even think about getting this one digitally if you aren’t packing a larger microSD card and a healthy amount of onboard storage. Those visuals – and multiplayer modes – don’t come cheap as you’ll need plenty of free gigabytes to enjoy them. If DOOM Switch points to the future of big-boy games on the console, you’re going to need a bigger boat.
It’s not a perfect port, but you probably already guessed that by now. There are bugs and technical glitches worth mentioning, though the worst offenders are surprising, which aren’t the visuals but the sound design. DOOM Switch seems to output severely lower-fi samples throughout, another victim of the scaled-back assets being squeezed onto a single cartridge. I prefer to play the Switch with headphones, even when docked, and I’ve never had sound issues that plague this version of DOOM, a game where ripping open a demon’s skull sounds like a ripe cantaloupe on a crisp summer’s day.
More often than I’d liked, sound output would diminish – or drop out entirely – during gameplay, leaving me hanging which pinkie or pumpkin wanted to tear me apart. What’s worse is this obvious glitch only affects gameplay – pause the game and you’ll get full stereo output for navigating those awesome menus. A checkpoint restart, which happened often due to my overall terribleness, fixed the issue momentarily, until it would eventually glitch out again. These issues duplicate when sound outputs to actual speakers, so it’s not a headphone issue but a real internal glitch. The differences can be stark, like listening to a lower-samples MP3 and a higher-rate version. The sounds are all there… just missing that extra crunch.
Also, I’d be remiss for not mentioning the controls, or should I say controls. There’s no getting around the fact that Switch Joy-con analog sticks aren’t optimal, which means you’ll need a Pro Controller for best results (which slightly negates the whole portable angle), or full Puppy Dog Joy-con mode (if you must) for accuracy. Full tablet mode isn’t terrible, but you’ll die more often and it makes pinpoint aiming a chore. There’s even motion-controls for glory kills, which can be disabled. You should probably disable them.
And yet…(there’s that phrase again) even with the full understanding the experience can be severely compromised, most of these concerns get tossed right out the window when factoring in the Switch edition’s killer feature: the Switch itself. The fact you’re getting a fully playable version of DOOM that’s completely portable may be reason enough to get excited, even if you’re a DOOM vet and played every previous version to death (raises hand). That it delivers nearly the exact same experience as its beefier brothers in doing so is really something.
This being the Switch, you can easily switch the game to a larger screen and benefit from the increased viewing area and – I’m almost certain – slightly better performance. But if you actually wanted the game on a stationary screen you’d probably have it elsewhere. If you wanted the slickest, faster, most badass version of DOOM than the Switch version simply isn’t for you. You’re here for the mobile thrills and monster kills, and that’s what you’ll get.
It’s really something that the worst version of DOOM is still lightyears more fun than nearly every other shooter out there, which only further proves how great the original game was. DOOM Switch is a very big deal; pick it up to marvel at the technological wizardry cradled in your sweaty hands; stay for the addictive gameplay and marvelous game design, all of which is present and accounted for. The 2016 DOOM reboot forced and industry to rethink what a compulsively playable FPS could look like in the modern age; DOOM on Switch will likewise have the same effect to what’s possible on Nintendo’s little console, which may be a lifeline for struggling developers.