20 years on: A nostalgic look back at Doom

Twenty years ago this week, Doom was unleashed on the world – the PC game, that is. On 10 December 1993, id Software programmers John Carmack and John Romero made the game available on an FTP server. I remember furiously trying to log on to the server in my dorm room for several hours, but it was only later in the evening that I was able to download the game onto my 486DX2-66 PC. To this day, I consider myself lucky I graduated college, given how much I played it while simultaneously trying to make sense of computer science algorithms and problem sets.

Like all games of the era, Doom ran in DOS, not Windows, and supported VGA graphics at 320 x 240-pixel resolution. That same year introduced the PC gaming world to The 7th Guest, Wing Commander III, Betrayal at Krondor, and Star Wars: Rebel Assault, ushering in the CD-ROM age. Doom wasn't a CD-ROM game, though; instead, it also proved the business model for downloadable shareware, giving you the entire first episode of the game (all nine levels) for free, but requiring you to buy the game outright to play episodes II and III.

The backstory involved the two moons of Mars, Phobos and Deimos. In the game, you are a space marine imprisoned for... who cares? No one ever cared. The plot was thinner than prison soup. It didn't matter, because the play mechanics were completely addictive.

For example, the way the game handled different heights was brilliant for the time. Unlike Wolfenstein 3D, Doom would put monsters at different heights from the player; you could jump up and down to different places. The thing was, you didn't have to aim up or down, just left or right; the game handled that for you. Gamers can argue the merits of a proper aiming system, but Doom's frame rate on a reasonably fast PC coupled with the auto-height aiming meant that you played the game extremely quickly – especially if you played with the keyboard like I did, instead of with a mouse.

Graphically, the game excelled for its time. While Mac fans pointed to Marathon's higher resolution, Doom had a much faster frame rate, full texture mapping, and a stereo sound field that clued you in on the presence of nearby monsters, which could be frightening if you played with the lights off like me.

The science fiction and horror-themed Doom was far from the first first-person shooter. It wasn't even the first from id Software: That honour goes to Wolfenstein 3D, which arguably was more significant from a historical perspective. But Doom was the shooter everyone played. Not just then, but later, too: With the exception of some graphics routines written in assembly for outright speed, Carmack and Romero coded Doom in C, which made the game much easier to port to other platforms – especially once the source code was made available under the GNU General Public License in 1999. If it seems like every device you've owned has a version of Doom available – perhaps even the microwave in your kitchen – this is the reason.

A game of guts

Doom was also a pretty shocking game, from the gruesome depictions of blood (new at the time, but commonplace today), to the fact that one of the main weapons was a chainsaw. The rocket launcher was slow but powerful, and usually reduced your enemies to a pile of exploding guts. And then there was the BFG9000 – with "BFG" standing for exactly what you think it does – that vaporised nearly everyone on the screen simultaneously, once you waited for it to juice up and fire.

Doom was also famous for its hyped-up soundtrack, which I listened to blissfully on a dual sound card setup through a small mixing board: A Roland SCC-1 Sound Canvas IDE card for the music and a SoundBlaster 16 for all the gut-busting sound effects, gun sounds, and explosions. Various gaming magazines interviewed Bobby Prince, who composed the soundtrack and became a cult hero along with Romero and Carmack, and was one of the main reasons I got into composing audio for computer games in the late 1990s through mid-2000s. I briefly met Bobby Prince at the 1999 Game Developers Conference; it was like meeting Bono, except for game sound nerds.

And then there were the LAN parties, thanks to Doom's deathmatch mode. You could argue that Doom played a large part in putting local area network gaming on the map. People would lug their beige desktop PCs and CRT monitors to someone's house, set everything up, and play together in the same room. Doom even gave rise to a modding community that developed additional levels and skins. My favourite by far was Aliens-TC, or Total Conversion, which essentially let you play the movie Aliens using the Doom engine. It was unbelievably scary.

The story of Doom was later detailed in Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture, which you can still buy on Amazon. Id Software continued its run the following year with Doom II: Hell on Earth, which offered 30 extremely well-designed levels and an entirely new soundtrack, and Doom III, which took another 10 years to come out in 2004 but featured a brand new, much more sophisticated engine. (There was also a terrible movie in 2005).

So a tip of the hat to id Software is in order for a game that may look super-dated now, but sure as heck doesn't play that way – at least to this old-school PC gamer.

And if you've had your fill of nostalgia, and want to see the best contemporary games, then check out our best video games of 2013 feature.