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Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture

review by Wild Weasel - January 23, 2012

Masters of Doom is a notable departure from the majority of books that discuss the history of video gaming. Rather than documenting the medium as a whole - understandably a very broad, massive subject, especially taking into account every region and every platform - Masters of Doom instead focuses on being a biography of sorts, following John Carmack and John Romero as they work for software company SoftDisk, found id Software, and eventually have their fallings-out and go their separate ways.

This book is, in a way, about the games industry itself, albeit from the perspective of Carmack and Romero. The author, David Kushner, paints the Johns as polar opposites of each other - while their interests are similar in some ways, their personalities are as distant as they get, with Romero (the "rock star," as the book puts it) being more outgoing, somewhat aggressive, and generally a proud man, while Carmack is the hyper-intelligent, quiet, almost creepy "rocket scientist" (a title that rings true, since John Carmack does actually build rockets in his spare time). Throughout the book, the two Johns experience certain turns of the game industry, like the launch of Super Mario Bros. 3 for the NES, the Senate hearings regarding video game violence, and eventually even the Columbine High School shooting.

Kushner's writing does a remarkable job of capturing each time period in such a way as to not only provoke nostalgic flashbacks for those who remember them, but also to inform those people who might not know of some of the events that are described. Given that latter point, though, it should be said that Masters of Doom does not patronize its readers by stating the obvious, nor does it leave curious subjects unexplained. I like to consider myself well-learned on the topic of games like Wolfenstein and Doom, but there are some facts in this book that even I hadn't heard of before. The book puts a great amount of detail into the guys playing Super Mario Bros. 3, only for them to wonder how cool it would be if the game ran on their "borrowed" IBM-PCs. From that point, they set to work on recreating the entire first level of SMB3, complete with smooth multi-plane scrolling (something John Carmack put a great deal of effort into, as it had not previously been done on a PC at that point), with the resulting "Dangerous Dave in: Copyright Infringement" eventually being pitched to Nintendo as a PC port of SMB3 - Nintendo actually sent a letter back in reply, stating their disinterest in entering the PC gaming market.

The time frame that Kushner covers in this book is actually quite expansive, from both Johns' childhoods and how they individually discovered video gaming, how they met, their time making shareware programs and games for Softdisk Publishing, leading into id Software's golden age, and even up to the point where Romero bails on id Software to form Ion Storm. There is even an Epilogue chapter that covers Romero and Carmack's inductions in the AIAS Hall of Fame, some years after the closure of Ion Storm.

Overall, I would consider Masters of Doom to be a highly entertaining and quite informative read. While most "video game history" books cover the perspective of the consumers, this is one of those that covers from the developer's perspective and beyond. When I read it, I feel as if I was there.

Browse on Amazon.com

Quick Info:


  • David Kushner


  • Random House


  • May 2003


  • 352


  • 0375505245


  • 978-0375505249

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