Sunday, August 14, 2011

Master Levels for Doom II

as featured in Super Serials




This article serves as an index for my reviews of the Master Levels for Doom II as well as a brief overview of the relevant material as is my wont. Those wanting a far more thorough documentation of the Master Levels can find it here, containing interviews, walkthroughs, and other technical stuff. I'll try to hit the important notes. At least, I'll try to hit the notes that are important to me.

id Software superstar Shawn Green contracted a number of authors based on around 500 levels he had downloaded from various sources on the Internet. Those chosen were Christen David Klie, Tim Willits, John "Dr. Sleep" Anderson, Jim Flynn, Tom Mustaine and Sverre Kvernmo, who was a last-minute addition (as one of the original authors, who remains unknown, had to drop out). Mustaine didn't have any solo levels available at the time, but he was the lead contributor to a deathmatch compilation, #1DWANGO.WAD. Finally, as mentioned in the unofficial FAQ (and in the relevant .TXTs), Tim Willits' sister Theresa Chasar was co-designer on both WADs traditionally credited to him, ATTACK.WAD and CANYON.WAD.

The scope of the project was kind of nebulous. Some of the authors believed that they were possibly contributing to a single, cohesive megaWAD for Doom II while others believed the project was mainly a showcase of what authors could do at the time. Green and Romero insisted that the project was never anything more than a collection of 20 (heh) PWADs, feeling like a nod toward the Doom community, which had virtually exploded upon the release of stable map editors. Green didn't really direct the participants in any way except to maintain design standards and rein in the difficulty. The end product is an assortment of high-quality single level replacements from some of the best and brightest of Doom's architects. They vary greatly in size and difficulty but I believe that they're all worthy additions to any WAD collection.

Of course, the original Master Levels for Doom II came with Maximum Doom, id's own version of the shovelware compilations other software companies had been putting out. id themselves so much as admitted they barely put any thought into the collection, probably about as much thought as the average shovelware production. The patron saint of oldstuff, FunDuke, documented the product about as thoroughly as humanly possible, the fruits of his labors available here. Unsurprisingly, every author who took part in the Master Levels has a number of WADs available on Maximum Doom, excepting Kvernmo. His submitted material consisted of excerpts from a megaWAD he was working on, the Cabal, and was thus unreleased at the time. Privately, I wonder if the mysterious project drop-out has his levels on the disc as well...

"Master" doesn't denote the level of skill required to play these WADs (well, most of them anyway). Rather, it indicates a level of skill involved in creating professional quality maps for Doom II. I would stand any of these offerings up against any map from Doom II. There's a broad variety of styles to be found in these levels as well as other works from the same authors. It's no wonder that five out of six of these authors went on to work in the gaming business, Willits and Mustaine most famously.

Christen David Klie is the master of fun, disposable gameplay. All of his works are restricted in size and monster content as they were optimized to run on his less than optimal computer. He represents the antithesis of Eternal Doom and beyond, which is amusing considering that two other authors of the Master Levels, Sverre Kvernmo and Jim Flynn, are known for their larger, more involved maps (some of which appear in the collection). The smaller size allows Klie to get away with gameplay elements that would typically result in a smashed keyboard or thrown mouse, among them being certain death traps. His Doom II magnum opus, BF_THUD!, exemplifies level design as popcorn. His Master Levels showcase this style but with a noticeably higher production value, no doubt due to working with id directly.

Tim Willits executes a style that feels in some ways similar to Klie's, focusing on smaller maps with fun, disposable gameplay, only with more attention to aesthetics. Much of Willits's official Doom work appears to have been in tandem with his sister, Theresa Chasar, such that it's difficult to tell who was responsible for what when it's not specifically stated. Generally, however, you can expect plenty of fighting and the use of all three keys, on top of decent if not great texturing and detailing (though their earliest Raven maps are a bit rough around the edges). While the combined efforts of Willits and Chasar never reach the sheer spectacle of maps like Kvernmo's Black Tower, their efforts have a solid workman-like quality that stands shoulder to shoulder with much of what id produced.

Tom Mustaine's work isn't that well-exhibited outside of commercial releases, but the man is just as much a Master as the other authors. His works lack any sense of pretension; he seems comfortable sticking to smaller maps with tighter gameplay and a very strong handle on aesthetics. In fact, I'd go so far as to call him the master of MAP01. ParadoX, his sole Master Level, is in a bit of a different cut, being a bit larger and featuring some understandable symmetry given the fact that it's based around a castle keep, but it's no less enjoyable than his works present in the several megaWADs he's contributed to (Memento Mori, TNT Evilution, and Perdition's Gate). Historians note that MAP01 and 17 of Evilution are Master Level rejects, eventually published by id in another format. Fans of Mustaine will find Perdition's Gate to be a cornucopia of delights, featuring compact level design and fantastic vistas you won't see otherwise.

John Anderson's use of lighting and detailing made him one of the earliest icons of amateur Doom mapping. His levels are commonly a mixture of marble, mortar and metal, sometimes eschewing one element altogether. Anderson's gameplay is generally uncomplicated with instant-reveal traps and clever teleporters being the norm, rather than presenting you with fights that look difficult on their face. If you try out the latest versions of his freeware classics, Dante's Gate and Crossing Acheron, and find them enthralling, his Master Levels are essentially the same (with some great twists). It's a shame that he never finished his small plan of works, with Lethe still unreleased (and Chiron, ahem, "downgraded" to Ultimate Doom), but if any mapper's levels were worth including in the Master Levels, Anderson's would be the ones.

While Jim Flynn may not have pioneered the Eternal Doom aesthetic, he certainly pioneered its style of gameplay. Flynn's maps are with few exceptions massive with a host of puzzles to solve, oftentimes venturing away from Doom's run and gun playstyle. He also brought a unique sense of aesthetics to the table, using strange texture combinations in a consistent manner, evoking a surreal experience. The majority of Flynn's work is available outside of the Master Levels, but his two submissions are triumphs of adventure and gameplay, respectively, and I can recommend no greater author for Doom players who count themselves as explorers. Additionally, Flynn stands among the Team TNT developers responsible for the Boom engine, making him one of the grandfathers of many of the source ports currently kicking around.

Sverre Kvernmo strikes an odd balance between John Anderson's tight, gorgeous levels and Jim Flynn's expansive, puzzle-filled maps. I would also hazard to say that no other author has such a difference between their commercial work and what is freely available. His freely-released Cabal levels lack the polish of his Master submissions, which while excellent, fail to compare to his wonderlands found within Eternal Doom. His maps also rank among the most challenging of his peers, as evinced by such encounters as The Express Elevator to Hell. He uses a broad variety of traps in ingenious manners in addition to making monster battles that are just difficult in a straightforward manner. If you want a professional-grade map that kicks you around without the solution being too obscure, Kvernmo's your man.

For more info on the Master Levels for Doom II, you can check out the wiki (pretty handy stuff). Doomworld forum superstar Herculine did a pretty thorough retrospective on her blog. It's good for some Second Opinions, not that you need any because you either have the Master Levels already or are going to get them right this second, mister / miss!


This project is part of a series on

(Thy Flesh Consumed)(Shadow of the Serpent Riders)
Doom IIHexen: Beyond Heretic
Master Levels for Doom II(Deathkings of the Dark Citadel)
Final DoomChex Quest
TNT: EvilutionThe Plutonia ExperimentStrife: Quest for the Sigil
Console DoomThe Wraith Corp MegaWADs
Doom 64Perdition's GateHell to Pay
No Rest For the LivingHACX


  1. Thanks for the mention. I've always felt that it's a shame more of the maps by the "masters" didn't get included in the final id release. Whenever I play them I also play through the other maps I mention in my blog, using a MAPINFO lump to put them all together like one huge MegaWAD.

  2. did you know that modifying those commercial wads is illegal? bitch please don't do it!
    use Master Levels Menu Interface if you want to play them correctly using ZDoom!

    1. It's not illegal to modify the Master Levels as long as you don't distribute any copies. Technically, there is nothing stopping you from making modified versions of the original Doom and Doom II levels, as long as they require the IWAD to play (PWADs). They just aren't allowed on the archives due to quality control issues (as a lot of early maps were just modified IWAD levels).

  3. Well it's just about the only legal, non-freeware Doom expansion I haven't posted something about, so I might as well drop my two cents in here.

    I think the Inferno levels and Paradox are the highlights for standard Doom gameplay, and Sverre's maps stand out as the best more complex, somewhat out of the ordianry levels. I kind of think Chris Klie's maps sink to the bottom of the pile though they have redeeming features. And Tim Willits'/Jim Flynn's maps fall in the middle I think (former being standard type maps, later being more puzzling levels).

    PSX Final Doom includes the PSX-converted Master Levels, and I think if it was bundled with PC Final Doom, it would have been a pretty solid addition even though it isn't a full 32-level megawad (though some of the rejects could have been used to make it one, not counting Tom Mustaine's since those were transferred to TNT).

  4. I have a question: Can you add a review of "Best of Maximum Doom"? I would like to play through some of best Maximum Doom wads that came with Master Levels CD as in next few weeks once school is over, I will start playing Master Levels (after I finish Final Doom first of course) and after I finish Master Levels, I think of doing some Maximum Doom wads as well, but only good quality ones. Can you recommend me a list of wads here? What I was thinking is the other levels that the masters did when they did Master Levels, such as Inferno series. Is that correct? I want a full list of "BEST OF". This of course when you have some time! Thanks.

    1. "What I was thinking is the other levels that the masters did when they did Master Levels, such as Inferno series. Is that correct?"

      Great news! At the top of this article, beneath the list of the 20 official Master Levels, is a list of every other PWAD those authors made, and they're almost all reviewed on this site. As far as "Best of Maximum Doom", I had an idea to "roll the dice" and play one of the other maps on Maximum Doom on occasion, but I have no intention of doing the whole thing.

    2. Good! I think I will dig out through the whole CD and find only the ones mentioned here (Acheron, Dante, Recant, etc) but only if the mentioned wads are on CD. Still I think I will be able to find 20 or so decent wads to play, because I want to play them on Chocolate Doom, as this is how I do original wads.

  5. Just for another view on it, I don't like Master Levels overall, and don't recommend it. My favs of the bunch are Tom and Tim's levels. But while I find those good, I don't find them must play, and this to me is deserving of the relative obscurity it has.

    Not on par with the other official releases or countless user releases in my book.

    1. i think that the master levels are a pretty good cross-section of the community circa '94-95, though it misses out on the genius of The Innocent Crew and the then prolific Holger Nathrath / Bjorn Hermans team. from what you have posted elsewhere, though, i can see why you have no love for them.

  6. I just got these levels a week ago but before I start playing, I wanna ask 2 questions. Both are for sorting purposes.

    1. In terms of the created/published aspect of these levels, which one was made first, then second, then third, and so on?

    2. In terms of level difficulty/progression, which level should I play first, then second, then third, and so on?

    1. 1) I don't know if we'll ever know what the chronological order of the levels was. I think that some of them were already underway, if not finished, before becoming part of The Master Levels.

      2) This was the order i used when I played through, though i had the tim / Theresa levels and mustaine's map switched

      ATTACK / CANYON (Tim Willits / Theresa Chasar)
      PARADOX (Tom Mustaine)
      VIRGIL / MINOS / NESSUS / GERYON / VESPERAS (John W. Anderson)
      MANOR / TTRAP (Jim Flynn)

    2. which is to say, i think this is a pretty good order, and is basically the same as when i played them, the only exception being the order of ATTACK / CANYON and PARADOX