Doom RPG

Everything with a screen should run Doom.

Statement offered without qualification or disclaimer. On December 23rd, 1997, Christmas came early, as John Carmack released the source code for the original Doom engine, free for non-commercial use. The game assets (textures, sprites, levels) weren’t released into the public domain, but paired with a free-to-distribute copy of the shareware .WAD file, you can legally port the engine and play the first episode of Doom on any device your heart so desires. I feel strongly that should be every device on which it’s even remotely feasible to do so. I’m not alone – in the last 20-or-so years, besides the obvious choices like iPods and Nintendo DSes, ingenious individuals have made Doom run on printers, digital cameras, thermostats, ATM machines, toasters* – it’s truly a great time to be alive.

Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal / smbc-comics.com

The “It runs Doom” demi-meme is well documented in other places, and I’m not looking to rehash all that, but I think it’s important to establish why, in 2007, it was so important to me that my Samsung SCH-A930 clamshell phone ran Doom (because A: everything with a screen should run Doom, and B: it had a screen).

That phone was maybe my favorite that I’ve ever owned. It had an external display, dedicated media keys, and removable memory, so you could load up a microSD with MP3s and have a perfectly serviceable music player without ever having to flip it open. Granted, the ‘Play’ button had a tendency to attract accidental pocket-presses, and the default ‘play all songs in alphabetical order by title’ behavior assigned to it meant my pants frequently emanated the opening chords to Turbonegro’s All My Friends Are Dead at inopportune times – but is that really a flaw, or more of a feature? It had an interesting form factor where the camera lens was built into the hinge, and you could rotate it to either be a front-facing or rear-facing camera. That was great because front-facing cameras were still kind of a ‘Cadillac’ feature in 2007 – the iPhone didn’t have one til 2010. Phones that did have a front-facing camera usually had the ‘good’ camera on the back, and a lower-quality one on the front (and really, that’s still the case); being able to take selfies at full, glorious, 1.3 megapixel resolution was a big deal to a 23-year-old that was as pretty as I was in 2007.

Or as pretty as I thought I was. Get a haircut, hippie.

But could it run Doom? The answer is “yes, of course”, because everything (besides a Super Nintendo, somewhat ironically) can run Doom. But here’s the seedy underbelly of “It runs Doom” – the part nobody talks about – playing Doom on most things besides a PC kind of, well, sucks. If we’re being really candid here (and if you can’t be candid on the internet, where can you be?), even on a PC, playing Doom the 1997 way (no WASD, no mouselook) is clunky and awful challenging, taking that experience and porting it to unintended hardware usually veers off into unplayable. In most cases, making the thing run Doom is easy in comparison to actually playing Doom on it once it’s working. As much as I loved my Samsung clamshell, it was no exception – the ticky little keypad just wasn’t made for circle-strafing hellspawn while raining down shotgun blasts.

As part of the marketing for 2005’s Doom 3, id Software teamed up with mobile software developer Fountainhead Entertainment to create a Doom-like experience tailored to mobile phones. An interesting bit of trivia, Fountainhead Entertainment’s founder and CEO was one Katherine Anna Kang – former Director of Business Development for id, and wife of aforementioned Doom developer and id OG John Carmack. id eventually absorbed Fountainhead entirely, renaming it id Mobile, and Kang took the role of President of the newly-appellated company – partially predicated, I’m sure, by the success of Doom RPG, the result of that 2005 collaboration.

Doom RPG website circa 2005

Even now, mobile is viewed as kind of the red-headed stepchild of gaming, but in 2007 it wasn’t even part of the family yet; we were still a couple of years off from Angry Birds and Candy Crush. There had been some attempts to get people to replace their handheld gaming devices with phones, most notably the ill-fated Nokia N-Gage, but for the most part, ‘mobile games’ meant Snake. A ‘real’ game from a ‘real’ developer coming to phones was a novelty. It had a trailer and everything.

I was never much for paying for things like ringtones or wallpapers (I always kind of enjoyed making my own – I could probably do a whole other post on converting MIDIs to RTTTL to load on my Nokia 3210 around the turn of the century), so Doom RPG may well have been my first mobile purchase. Sitting bored in the McNamera terminal of the Detroit airport in April of 2007 during a 3-hour layover, I got up off my $1.99 and bought it.

Doom RPG was critically well-received and for good reason. It felt Doom-y enough to scratch the nostalgia itch and provide the gratification of fragging-on-the-go, but the RPG-inspired elements like tile-based maps and movement with turn-based combat made it a lot more suitable to a mobile phone’s less-responsive inputs. I played it in the terminal, I played it on the airplane (remember when they used to make you keep your electronic devices completely off for what seemed like an eternity after take-off?), I kept playing it after I got home. What I’d originally thought would be a fun little diversion for an afternoon turned into a recurring fixture of my gaming time.

My Samsung clamshell was put out to pasture sometime in 2009, and with it went Doom RPG. That was the last time I ever played it. Until now.

It turns out there is an active emulation scene for the Java Micro Edition (J2ME) platform those 00’s mobile games ran on, and Doom RPG itself is currently living in that twilight zone of abandonware – it’s technically still copyrighted material but there’s no fiscal impetus for anyone to actively enforce it – so it’s not that hard to come by. I grabbed a copy of the open-source J2ME Loader for my current Galaxy S7 from Google Play, and away I went – it was surprisingly easy to get running, I spent more time tweaking settings for aesthetic reasons than compatibility ones.

If you’d like to crib my settings, I took a screenshot of them; it runs great, and, all things considered, looks pretty good. You may have better luck using the “Phone” keyboard layout (not “Phone (arrows)”) for punching in terminal key codes, though. It’s been nice to have Doom RPG in my pocket again, graphically it was intentionally retro even at the time, so it’s aged pretty well, and the gameplay is as solid as it ever was. It’s also refreshing to play a mobile game from before they were all about time-gating, ad impressions, and herding you towards microtransactions. Plus, now I can not only say my phone runs Doom – it runs Doom RPG, too.

* I know, it’s not really running on the toaster, but I still felt like it deserved an honorable mention.

One thought on “Doom RPG”

  1. I am not really a gamer ever. one of the only video games I ever enjoyed (on PC) I have not been able to find the version I played in 2010ish?
    It is a classic.

    Going to try and get it on my phone now!
    thanks Matt!!
    -Bri

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