Apollo 11 Situations: John Romero on Porting Doom and Wolfenstein 3D

id Software's co-founder recounts converting Wolfenstein 3D to Super NES in three weeks, how the studio viewed ports of its games, and more.


Working at id Software in the 1990s was like working inside a bunker, only with more pizza, soda, and video games. The studio started small and remained small through development of Commander Keen, Wolfenstein 3D, and Doom. After Doom's release in December 1993, John Romero turned his attention to scouting for opportunities to collaborate on external projects related to id's games, namely strategy guides and ports.

Romero set aside time to talk with me about multiple ports of Doom, as well as a wild three-week period spent converting Wolfenstein 3D to the Super Nintendo.

David L. Craddock: The interesting thing about Doom ports, for me, is that they were faithful to the original game. The versions on SNES, Jaguar, and 32X were missing bits and pieces here and there, but they were still Doom. Then came the PSX port. It's my favorite port. It's missing some geometry and levels, but it adds so much: new levels, new lighting, new audio. What was id's level of involvement with this port relative to the others, and why was it such a different type of port--still Doom, but more its own thing?

John Romero at the 2018 Videogame Executive Forum.
John Romero at the 2018 Videogame Executive Forum.

John Romero: Midway had been around for decades. We respected Midway. Other companies that worked on Doom ports, we didn't know them that well. But Midway was known as a quality company back then. Jay Wilbur and I drove down highway 45 on the way to Houston. They had an office probably halfway to Houston, two hours down highway 45. [Video game producer and director] Michael Gottlieb was there. That was the first time I met Michael. We met so we could talk about Midway working on ports of Doom.

We decided that because we trusted Midway, we wanted them to do their own thing. That's why they had the freedom to add colored lighting, add a whole new soundtrack--just do what they could do with Doom to make the PlayStation version more special than the other versions, which were straight ports from the PC. Even the Jaguar version, which we did [in-house], we didn't do anything special with it. We just wanted to make sure it ran as fast as the Jaguar's chip could allow.

For PlayStation, we decided to give Midway creative license. They did a really great job on the audio and level design. We were very happy with it.

Craddock: That set the stage for Doom 64, then? Because that was another instance of a game with "64" appended to the title, but instead of a port--like Quake 64 and Duke Nukem 64, for instance--it was a completely different game.

Romero: Yeah. With Doom 64, because the PlayStation port was a great job, we decided to let them really go all out with Doom 64. They could do what they wanted: make it a different story, not even on the same narrative path. That's what they did. They wrote a whole new engine, completely new levels, higher-res graphics for characters.

To make sure it was a fast game on the N64, Aaron Seeler, the lead programmer, came down to Texas. We got him an office on our floor. That way he could ask [John] Carmack questions anytime he got stuck. It was almost an embedded port job. Aaron was a super-nice guy and very dedicated, just so focused to make it really good. He was like us: a great programmer who worked really hard. We liked seeing that Midway had programmers like him.

Doom's PlayStation box art.
Doom's PlayStation cover art.

Craddock: How important were ports to id? You've told me in the past that you were pushing to do more work with external studios so that id would continue to grow.

Romero: For sure. It was ports, hint books, and making sure they were high-quality. I think Sybex came out with one of the first [guides for an id game], and it had these black-and-white pictures. I thought, No way am I ever doing this again. I asked Jay, "Could you get in touch with Prima? They're high-quality." Prima did the Hexen hint book first, and they did an amazing job.

The cool thing was Prima Publishing was located in Rocklin, California, where I grew up. When I went home to visit my parents, I went over to the Prima office and hung out with them for a while.

But the ports of Doom were... [laughs] There were a bunch of them. Even Sega, when they were doing the 32X version, it was iffy. The 32X didn't have a very powerful co-processor. [Author's note: Sega's 32X add-on for the Genesis commandeered the Genesis as a co-processor.] Sega sent an engineer over with a motherboard that was the prototype of the 32X. He laid it out on our pool table, hooked up a monitor to it, and we got to look at the code. Carmack got as much information out of him as he could give about the processor, and then gave the engineer suggestions to make the blitter [circuit or coprocessor that moves and processes data quickly] go a little faster.

That's how Sega got the 32X version running. It didn't have a very large [on-screen] view. It was very under-powered.

Craddock: I was even more surprised Doom existed on the Super Nintendo. I found that version in a bargain bin at my local K*B Toys for, like, 20 bucks. I remember it came in a red cartridge. I also remember it wasn't very good, simply because the SNES was so old by that point.

Romero: We didn't even think to do a Super Nintendo version of Doom. That hardware was absolutely not made for 3D. It was kind of like the Amiga: the Amiga was doomed to not play 3D games back then. Super Nintendo was good for horizontal scrolling, parallax effect, all that stuff, but Mode 7 was as crazy as it got.

So we were really surprised when a Doom cartridge for Super Nintendo showed up at the office. We were like, "What?" We plugged it in and ran it, and were like, "Oh my god. Doom is on the Super Nintendo." Sculptured Software in Salt Lake City had decided they were going to port Doom. They reverse-engineered it and sent it to us, and we said, "Um. Okay. We'll get this published." That was probably one of the rare times when a company decided to do a port and then just did it for free.

We were really surprised. We didn't think the Super Nintendo could do it, but incredibly, that was so many people's first exposure to Doom. When that cartridge arrived in our office, my dad lived in Salt Lake City. I'd lived there for a little bit. The next time I went to see my dad, I went to Sculptured Software's office to say hi and compliment them on their work.

So, I went, but I didn't tell anyone [from the company] I was coming. I just showed up. The woman at the desk thought I was there for a job interview. [laughs] I met the Mortal Kombat team there. Sculptured was one of the best Super Nintendo developers around, and they'd gone over what they needed to do for Mortal Kombat.

I was walking down a hallway with some of those guys, and I noticed this door. There were generally two people per room back then, and on this door, I saw the name Peter Ward. Being an Apple II nut, I knew Peter Ward had made one of the coolest Apple II games, called Black Magic. I knocked on the door. This guy opened it. I said, "Are you Peter Ward?" He said, "No. Peter's sick today."

I said, "Oh my god! Well, can you tell him John Romero came by and said Black Magic was incredible?" The guy said, "No. Way. You played Black Magic, too?" I said, "Yeah, and South Pacific Quest. He [Peter] won't believe I played that, and it was really fun." It was one of Peter's first games. I said, "Peter is badass."

I never heard from Peter. He stayed in Salt Lake City and worked for a few companies there.

Craddock: Peter wasn't able to come to any of your Apple II parties?

Romero: Nope. I never heard from him. We did hold another Apple II party before we moved to Ireland. There were a couple of people who were kind of obscure who I got to meet. There was one guy, Hunter Hancock, who wrote one game in his entire life; it was called Cyclod, published through Sirius Software. [Author's note: Cyclod was Hancock's only original game, but he also converted Sneakers, a Space Invaders clone, to the Atari 800.]

I also met Stuart Smith, the guy who wrote Ali Baba and Adventure Construction Set.

Craddock: At what point did Sandy Petersen jump on board to re-engineer Doom's levels for the SNES port?

Romero: I don't quite remember. When [the port showed up in the office], it hadn't been published yet, so there was still time to modify stuff. Sandy was the right person to do it.

It was funny: We [didn't do many ports in-house], but we did do Wolfenstein 3D for Super Nintendo. That was a time-crunch job. Have I told you about that one?

Wolfenstein 3D's cover art on SNES.
Wolfenstein 3D's cover art on SNES.

Craddock: No.

Romero: Oh my god.

Craddock: [laughs]

Romero: When Wolfenstein 3D came out, that was the first time we'd seen one of our games blow up like that. Around the same time, Imagineer, this Japanese company, calls and talks to Jay. They want to publish it on Super Nintendo, and they would give us $100,000 down to start. It was like, "What?! This is amazing!" Now, Wolfenstein 3D made something like a quarter of a million the month it came out. With no advertising. Everything was just insane, and another $100,000 sounded cool.

We knew that we ourselves would not be doing the port, because we were busy making Spear of Destiny. Also, we were working with Atari to do a signature character for them, the way Mario and Sonic were Nintendo's and Sega's signature character. We created this character called Pounce. We were also working on porting Wolfenstein 3D to Lynx. I think I still have some of the graphics for that.

So we didn't have bandwidth to do this Atari character, and the Super Nintendo [port of Wolfenstein], and Spear of Destiny. There were only four or five of us back then, plus Jay and Kevin [Cloud]. So we contacted a programmer we knew, who had been around forever in the industry. He was as technical as it got. He'd programmed the Super Nintendo, the Mac, the Apple II--everything. We contacted him and he was super-excited about the SNES port. We gave him all the assets, and continued working on our own thing.

We kind of forget about it. Then, it was March of '93 or so. Seven or eight months had passed. Imagineer came back to Jay and said, "Is the Wolfenstein 3D port done yet?" Jay said, "Oh. Shit." He ran to us and said, "Guys, what's the story with the port?" We said, "Oh. Fuck."

Craddock: [laughs]

Romero: We tried to get in touch with the port guy, and for a while we couldn't. Then one day his wife answered the phone and said, "He's sick," and all kinds of bullshit excuses. We hung up and said, "We have to do the Super Nintendo port as fast as possible, because this guy can't or won't do it." Now, we were busy making Doom at that point. We stopped all work on Doom and had to learn how to program a Super Nintendo. Learn about the graphics: what format they're in, the layout of the screen, all that shit.

To convert the whole game over, we couldn't have dogs [due to Nintendo's family-friendly] policies. We made them rats. We did all this shit, and it took us three weeks. We were on turbo speed. We needed to get back to Doom, so we had to port Wolfenstein as soon as possible. It took three weeks in crunch mode to get it done. That was the first time we'd had to do that kind of crazy bullshit.

We went home to sleep, but came back in. Those were 16-hour days. We had to get back to Doom, so we worked really fast. Adrian [Carmack] had a process where he could take the game's VGA art and convert it pretty quickly. He didn't have to do too much special stuff other than resizing, and making sure the overall feel of textures was similar to the PC version. John had to create the engine. I think he may have done it in C, which then got compiled into assembly language. The renderer was written in 65816 assembly language; that controlled the hardware. That's when he figured out how to do the blitter quickly with a piece of hardware that was not made to do that, so he could help the Sega guy [with the 32X port of Doom].

Craddock: As a kid, I didn't have a Jaguar, but I remember the marketing hype. Atari promoted it as the first 64-bit console. What did you think of the hardware?

Romero: Yeah. The next [port] was the Jaguar version of Doom. It was probably another three weeks to a month of work, something like that. It wasn't a big crunch. Shawn Green came into my office and stayed there so he could code as well. Carmack was doing the renderer; Shawn and I were doing everything else. That was kind of fun.

The Jaguar was not 64-bit. I think the address bus was, but we had no control over that. It was like, "Nice try, Atari." It was really 32-bit.

Craddock: That's on par with Sega's "blast processing" marketing, although that did exist, just not exactly in the way they advertised.

Romero: [laughs] I know. We tried our best. It was not a bad version, but the PC blew everything away back then. I don't remember that port being too tough. I think Jaguar's resolution supported Doom in its native 320x200. If that worked, that meant everything else would be a lot easier.

Craddock: These experiences sound like game development in a nutshell: Every day you face new problems, and you need a solution for all of them yesterday.

Romero: Yeah. It was an Apollo 11 situation, basically. Except we weren't going to die. [laughs] 

Hyped for Doom Eternal? Check out Countdown to Doomsday for even more Doom-related features, videos, and more.

Long Reads Editor

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Stay Awhile and Listen series, and the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults. Outside of writing, he enjoys playing Mario, Zelda, and Dark Souls games, and will be happy to discuss at length the myriad reasons why Dark Souls 2 is the best in the series. Follow him online at davidlcraddock.com and @davidlcraddock.

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