DOOM is an incredible game that is famous for running on everything. The game’s code only takes up 2.39 MB (it takes a little bit more to run it), and it’s method of recording player inputs as demos instead of video (enabling anyone to play a demo of another player’s run in a time when recording games as videos and uploading them usually looked like pixelated garbage) made it extremely popular among people who love speedrunning games competitively.
All that said, the original version of the game, run on an emulator, functions really well. What about the ports to other platforms?
Firstly, to ‘port’ anything in software terms means getting it ready to operate on a different system than the one it was first designed for. It’s the process of making the software portable.
Getting DOOM to play on anything is a trivial matter now. But back when DOOM was new and super cool, it wasn’t so easy to move it to handheld game devices or consoles. Picture a game made for the computer – you play it with your keyboard and mouse. To get it ready for the XBox or the Playstation, the developers of the game have to change how it handles inputs. They may also have to change textures (XBox plays on a TV screen usually, which is larger than a computer screen) and how the game handles loading. That takes work. And games weren’t an object of respect at that point. They were time wasters, something to keep the kids indoors if it was too hot or too rainy outside for them to play. A significant number of people involved in the game making process felt that anything they helped produce just had to be playable, it didn’t have to be good. The gradual dropoff of Atari and the ocean of shovelware games lost to time gradually changed that attitude, but DOOM ports to other consoles were an unfortunate victim of it before that happened.
Porting to other consoles was like rebuilding the game, and if you don’t respect the game, you’re going to build a facsimile of it good enough that kids will buy it and stop there.
Take the port to the Super NES, made in 1996 – the game literally does not have the functionality of saving. You have to beat each episode (episodes consist of nine levels each) in it’s entirety in a single sitting. Bizarrely, some of those episodes won’t let the player alter the game’s difficulty, so playing through on Easy the whole way through is not going to happen. It might still have been better than the Sega adaptation two years later, which cut several textures as well as a full episode altogether to make room for the rest of the game! Yeah, you could save, but at what cost? Meanwhile, the Atari’s port to the Jaguar console managed to make a passable copy of the game at the expense of only five levels and a lot of texture. But it could run multiplayer if you had a second Jaguar, so that already made it leagues more attractive than other ports at the time. Not that it was good, it sounded bad and it looked sort of ugly, but it was better.
Of course, DOOM had good copies as well! DOOM is surprisingly functional as an app on the Apple store. You can’t jump in DOOM, so the controls remained simple enough that players could still see most of their screen back in 2009 when the app released. To go just a couple of years after most of these ports to 2001, Nintendo’s Gameboy Advance made a surprisingly playable copy of the original game. The Playstation version from 1995 did a fantastic job of catching the spirit of the game instead of cutting things for time, even adapting some of the music and lighting so the console could handle it better. Eventually, XBox released a version of the game where you could play multiplayer and everything was 1080p in 2006 as part of the XBox LIVE Arcade, and even the Nintendo Switch can play DOOM now.
This isn’t counting emulators that allow the player to play the game on their home computer as if it were the original – the hardware most computers have by default means the game runs as well as the emulator does.
You can see which companies understood the appeal of the game they were porting, in the sense that the companies who went out of their way to make a good version of a simple violent videogame are still mostly competitive today. With the exception of Nintendo and their first chopped up version of the game and Atari’s functional multiplayer version, gaming companies who pushed DOOM to the side ended up pushed aside themselves.