Thursday, November 12, 2015

Skulldash (SKULDASH.PK3)

The vast majority of PWADs we see don't really muck with the core format of Doom. Even when we throw true three-dimensional geometry and custom monsters and weapons, you are still working your way toward a finish line of some sort, whether it's a literal line or an exit switch or the death of the Final Boss. Skulldash, a Zandronum megaWAD developed by Joshua O'Sullivan aka "Dragonfly" and released in 2015, has these same conceits, but there is a significant change in what it means to complete a level that shares one aspect of 2014's Doom: The Golden Souls. Specifically, you've got to pick up a certain number of collectibles to make it to each exit. The difference is, you're on a time limit, and when your hourglass runs out, you're dead.

It's also been a long time in development; seven years, to be exact. That explains the project's name, considering it was originally in production for the now defunct Skulltag port, which changed over to Zandronum in 2012. I wonder what kind of improvements the author was able to bring to the project as more and more ZDoom code was backported? Or, perhaps, if there were any changes to be made at all? I'm not familiar enough with its history to know what Skulldash can do that it couldn't have done some seven years ago. But, I do know that what we have is a breath of fresh air. Of course, Skulldash doesn't really have a story, since it's strongly associated with strictly arcade-style gameplay, and nothing could really explain the action without being really silly. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

The base idea, as I've pointed out, is that you're on a timer which kills you once it's expired. Each level has a number of skull tokens - collectibles - that you have to pick up to make it to the end. 75% (as of this writing) gets you access to the exit, but grabbing everything (which may involve secret tokens) gets you a shiny + next to your check mark and a powerup that really just gives you some extra starting health in the next level, usually a soul sphere. Health is the only thing you can carry over between maps, and you'll always start out with 100% at the least. Some of the tokens have colors, which give you bonuses when they're picked up. Red and green grant 25% health and armor, respectively, while the rare yellow coins are worth 100% armor. Blue tokens grant you bonus time, ten seconds worth, but you can also get bonus time by completing level objectives. I say objective because I can't come up with a better word for it, usually involving completing a particular fight or reaching a particular point in the map.

The core gameplay of Skulldash is introduced in the tutorial level, "Educational", and twists are delivered one after another on a level-by-level basis (jumping, crouching, jump pads) with what feels like the same careful pacing that's usually afforded to the way monsters are introduced to Doom II. O'Sullivan is always throwing these gimmicks at the player, and they do a lot to keep the levels from feeling like race tracks, but that same careful pacing leaves me feeling like it hasn't quite grown into the monster that it could be. The largest and most complex map of the set, "Maltreatment", is the final level of the fourth tier, with a whole 'nother set of maps that follow. I was expecting to really dig my teeth in, but the last set goes by much faster than I would have expected. Of course, this issue may be rectified in the community map pack that Dragonfly is currently soliciting, so who knows?

Speaking of gimmicks, there are some pretty outlandish scenarios tied up in the bonus levels, which underlines Skulldash's often experimental gameplay and underscores why they are, after all, bonus maps. The first, "Vibetech", is pretty normal. The second, though, is a network of jump pads on pillars where a wrong move results in instant, electrifying death. The third is a straight up punch-out with the juggernaut, a test of patience and exploitation that is just as likely to turn less determined players off. Thankfully, the following two - which includes the super secret level - are full of good, clean fun. Gimmicks in normal levels include elements like low gravity, slippery ice, and opening up alcoves based on the color of the last special coin you collected.

Most of the other gameplay changes will be familiar to players experienced with Zandronum. You're expected to jump and crawl in several spots - more jumping than crawling - and I believe there are several spots that can only be accessed via rocket jumps. If not, well, it's always an option! There are weapons specific to the port for you to play around with (the minigun, railgun, and grenade launcher) as well as powerups like the turbo sphere and time freeze. You'll also see several of the runes, two of which have entire levels constructed around them, including a fairly devious usage of Rage. The red armor, which encourages rocket jumps, appears in several locations, but it's hardly a staple.

As for the Skulltag monsters, ehhhhh. Almost all of these guys are just higher-HP variations of the originals with faster and, sometimes, stronger attacks, and HP soaks are the last things you want to fight when you're under a time limit. It does manage to offer an interesting dynamic, though, where players may elect to avoid slaying the bigger bads and endure their cover fire since the measure of their success is in skull tokens rather than completion percentages. I did enjoy the boss arenas, with the lava golem's being the best in terms of his integration to the level and the Gate Keeper offering a unique situation given your available weapons and the Rage rune. The Dark Inquisitor and Overlord felt lackluster in comparison, though the former worked pretty well in the inevitable boss gauntlet in the final level.

The only complaint I can throw at Skulldash's level design is that its two core concepts - collectibles and time limits - may seem at odds with each other. The deadline meters gameplay and forces the player into more reckless behavior, which come naturally for some, but the real bastard coins require more time to puzzle out, creating a sort of methodology of just finishing a level and then going at it a second time using your knowledge to build a route and give you enough time to hunt for the things you missed. And, uh, that's perfectly within the realm of what Dragonfly has created - arcade-style action that nudges the player to think like a speedrunner and does half of the thinking for you by laying out bright, shiny routes with tokens.

And that's why "Maltreatment" is my favorite level of the set, because it pushes what the player can easily accomplish within the time limit and has lots of other little things that you're going to have to puzzle out before you can just waltz out with a 100% victory. Heck; I was STILL missing secrets when I made my full clear. A considerable number of these maps have pretty obvious routes and flow almost effortlessly with the only thing you need to watch out for being the little "Gotcha!"s that you miss along the way, like coins tucked away on tiny ledges set ever so imperceptibly below the platforms in the levels occurring at great height. I would love to see a pack of maps in the same spirit as "Maltreatment", or "Abandonment", or "Divider", something to really put my brain through the wringer while still carrying the myriad themes explored in the set.

But if fast, disposable gameplay is your thing, well, you've come to the right place. Skulldash offers it in spades, supposing you aren't one of Doom's terminally lost players. It looks like Dragonfly isn't done making levels for it, either, judging from the Community Expansion Pack. I'd love to see him take a run at this again with a more... expansive approach. Until then, well, you could always refine your routes to get the fastest possible time.

by Joshua "Dragonfly" O'Sullivan et al

The HubMAP01
A relatively nondescript techbase rendered in green. I mean, it looks immaculate, but there aren't a lot of visual hooks. The presentation is spot on, though, with large square portals that show what you're about to jump into and little box monitors that display your progress in the level - a red X for not finished, an orange checkmark for exited, and a green checkmark with a plus for perfect (exited with all tokens). The only real problem is that you're dumped back at the beginning every time you complete a map, which wears on a bit considering how fast most of these levels play. Well, they feel fast.

A fine tutorial level to get you into the thick of things. The geometry is simple, allowing players to focus on coming to grips with picking up those dastardly tokens and learning what the bonus tokens do. Once you're immersed, it's off to the races with a short, naturalistic canyon level that also clues you in to the fact that you're allowed to jump. None of the monsters are that dangerous, being the low tier zombies, imps, and demons. It also explains some more Skulldash phenomenon before kicking you out.


Yellow SubmarineMAP02
Now you're in for it. The shotgun is a bit of a ways away from the start, but it's better than pistol whipping zombies and imps. It's a really straightforward blastfest that introduces a few other particulars, like the jump fans and the time bonus from the keycard. All the health is pretty strong encouragement to play as aggressively as possible. No real standout encounters; just meat. However, the setting of an underwater submersible is pretty cool.

MAP03Ancient Treasure
This vague ruin is a nice way to turn up the heat on the player, with a basement / cavern featuring a platforming segment and several secret coins that force you to look high... and low. It also shows that the author is willing to give you time bonuses for achieving objectives, like beating the ambush in the backpack room and making your way to the island in the deepest reaches. The cacodemon and lost souls are welcome surprises this early in the game. The exit guardian is just a bigger, redder demon, but I imagine that it might be a bit of a shock your first time through.

Clifftop BaseMAP04
This level is exactly what it says it is, but it continues to throw curveballs at the player. This time, one of the coins must almost assuredly be acquired via a rocket jump, which the secret red armor - hidden off the beaten path - will be instrumental in acquiring. The author also gives you the combat shotgun, rocket launcher, and forces you to walk like a cat down the top of a wall while being harried from a few monsters below. I mean, you could always just jump off and take them out, but you'll miss out on all that time. The belphegor works as a sort of mini-boss, but the open space and combination of SSG / RL make him a total chump.

by Joshua "Dragonfly" O'Sullivan and "Slyor 64"
A level within ice caverns, using appropriately slippery surfaces as well as deep water, which you'll have to navigate for one of the secrets. Again, it's not too hard, but I kept coming up one coin short. I'm thinking that it's something I should have found in the larger, western wing, tucked into a corner, but kept passing up. The nightmare imps feel like a nice switch-up, given that they're about as tough as a demon but with fast fireballs. The meat locker full of zombies, not so much.

An odd mix of "Breaking the Law" and a vibrant color scheme of black marked with bright white lines. As a bonus level, it's a huge break with the rest of Tier 1, since it's stuffed with revenants and features no less than three arch-viles, two of which must be fought in a pretty cool outdoor arena that will be re-purposed for your encounter. The textures add a lot of visual confusion to the action, which makes some of the ambushes that much more effective. Thankfully, there are no secrets to get hung up on, so enjoy the ride.


MAP06The Citadel
A nice slice of gothic citadel. It's stuffed with low-tier monsters, except for an arch-vile (not counting that Baron of Hell), and plays pretty smoothly considering it's mostly built out of wide-open hallways. I like the leg of your journey behind the red key door, since it has a few fake-outs and a decent teleporter ambush, as well as a tiny secret annex. Those little red token cubby secrets would almost feel dirty had I not guessed at their existence... and completely missed the lowered fence that lets the Baron into your turf.

Starting to feel a bit of the challenge in this haunted mansion, filled with spectres, stealth-monsters, and shadows. The layout is pretty open, letting you tackle the various sections in the order of your choosing, but your freedom is a TRAP, and the lack of time bonuses means that it's tuned pretty tight compared to the past adventures when you're going in blind. It doesn't help that the stealth monsters inspire some measure of caution. You'll do much better with a route in mind, especially considering the interaction between the library switch and the walled-in circle in the catacombs.

MAP08Time Warp
This metal and wood level has an interesting gimmick; all of the enemies are frozen in time to begin with, so as you make your way to the core, you can see most of what you're going to be up against. There are a few surprises, of course, but nothing that crazy. It settles the map into two pure elements - the race to the switch that kicks things off, and the race back, through the now snarling meat. Stuff gets a little tricky in the courtyard area at the top of the stairs, but it's nothing you can't handle.

Water StationMAP09
by "Capt. J3"
A mostly straightforward installation built onto the side of a water-filled quarry. Action inside the base goes pretty fast and has an instance of precarious platforming, but nothing serious. When you lower the shield and step outside, you'll have to face down cacodemons and arachnotrons, and probably end up in the water, which you'll discover is very deep. Its secrets are thankfully scintillating instead of sinister, so enjoy the open air (and water) and do some exploring.

MAP23Lava Sanctuary
A scripted boss fight against the Lava Golem. The dude is an HP soak, but that's fine, because he has a pattern you can play against and summons in a few waves of trash enemies for you to deal with during those moments when the scenery spams fireballs everywhere... from cover, of course. His main attack is avoidable, it's just making sure you stay out of those spaces where lava might fall on your head... and not cocking up too bad with the grenade launcher. The outer ring opening up gives you a lot more space to play around in, but you've still got to deal with the incumbents.

The ShockerMAP29
Uhhhhh, well, this certainly is unique! This level has no monsters, but it has a bunch of square pillars that also serve as jump pads, and an electrified floor that fries you dead if you land on it. After the first twenty or so deaths you get used to bouncing between pillars. There are a couple of switches you'll have to navigate to that are built on the edges of the grid, but getting down the bouncing is the only challenge you have to confront. This may come as a shock, but some players are going to hate the shit out of this. As for the rest, the elders tell of a young ball much like you...


MAP10Jungle Altar
This time, going for a bit of a Plutonia vibe, though not really in the monster placement, which is mostly weighted toward hitscanners, imps, and demons, as befits another tier opener. The one arch-vile is easily picked apart with the railgun. The main difficulty is that, as short as this level is, it's also pretty interconnected, which means that there are a smattering of coins that will be easy to miss as you race around under the time limit. Besides the secret in one of the connecting hallways, I had totally waltzed by the balcony overlooking the starting area. Still not sure how to feel about those super shotgun zombies...

To Hell and BackMAP11
A bloody trip through an infested marble outpost. It's two courtyard battles bookending a trip through a blood-drenched cavern. The first yard isn't that tough, but it's still flush with monsters, as opposed to the mancubuses and Spiderdemon that you'll have to confront in its mirror image to the west. The cavern is pretty action-packed and lets you really cut loose with the railgun, which until now has been something you're usually handed when you're just about ready to end. Just make sure that you get everything you can before take the plunge out of the first area, because there's no going back. Pretty fun.

A small, brick and metal ruin. It wasn't until partway through my second playthrough that I realized what the gimmick was... Most of the secrets in this level are hidden behind transparent, colored walls. You have to change the color of the liquid that pervades the levels in order to cross their thresholds. If it isn't immediately obvious to you, grabbing a bonus token changes the color to match the shade of the coin you just picked up. This isn't a huge deal except for the golden liquid alcove, since there's only one token of its type in the level. As for the action, it's a healthy mix of belt-fed minigun antics, combat shotgun dancing, and - at the end - some careful rocket spam against successive pairs of belphegors. A really fun gimmick, here.

Black DeathMAP13
This one's in sort of a Null Space style, which sort of gives me something like a Mario Kart haunted house track vibe once you throw in the collectibles. It's a pretty action-packed level with one pretty clever secret that feels obvious in retrospect, especially since you're sent back to the level's beginning if you happen to fall off at any point. The demon rush followed with arch-viles is a highlight as far as set piece encounters go; it's simple and the dynamic geometry (pillars) adds a bit of verve. The eastern building is more straightforward. Since there aren't many bonus targets, the time available is mostly what you get. Cool little level.

MAP25Emerald Inquisitor
A very straightforward boss fight. The opening is a pretty humdrum clearing of the demons, after which the showdown starts. The Inquisitor isn't a nuanced opponent since the key to avoiding his attacks is just dodging to the sides. The main thing is switching to hitscan weapons when he takes to the air, because nailing him with rockets is not as easy. His backup consists of waves of cacodemons, which are easy to tether to him due to his splash damage attacks. They're also pretty effective at supporting you if you choose to do so.

A boxing match with the Juggernaut. There is no time limit, but the dude hits pretty hard, and you'll realize early on that your punches aren't having much effect. The trick is to let him walk into the maximum range of your punch, then strike and backpedal to just kite him. At 75% health, you'll get a couple of medikits to fix your fuck-ups. At 50%, the author stops teasing you and hands you a berserk pack. I kind of get the dramatic shift, but you still have to punch him down from 100% to get your fix. There is a tell you'll have to watch for since it heralds the Juggernaut's charge attack and keeps the fight from becoming an entirely stale kiting experience.


MAP14Feelin' Blue
A tight, techbase level themed in blue that starts off with a lot of chainsaw action. Considering all the demons and blood demons that you'll have to fight, it's an effective weapon. The action is a little claustrophobic, but nothing bad. The combat shotgun is really useful, but it's in a secret annex accessed via teleporter. It's also the site of a real bastard of a hidden coin; I'm lucky I noticed it on my playthrough or I'd be wracking my brains. The belphegor surrounded by barrels is pretty DoomCute.

Heated HeightsMAP15
A pretty cool map that's based on pillars set in a giant cauldron of lava. It's an obstacle course with tons of coins tucked away in strange places. It's also well-routed, with a pretty natural flow with some shortcuts baked in, like the pillar that lowers and raises after the "Chasm" catwalk. Most of the monsters are imps throwing fireballs at you from a good way away or easily-slaughtered Doom II trash. The main danger comes from how reckless you'll be playing to stay in time... and craning your head over the sides of the buttes to look for that last token.

This level is actually divided into two different tracks, so to speak. You can pick either one to start with; I'd pull for the green area because the plasma rifle comes easy and it feels like a shorter, straightforward run, as long as you pass up the waterfall cave until after exiting out the back of the base portion. "Divider" has a lot of mid-tier monsters to soak up your ammo; it's easy to get locked into a groove with the combat shotgun and lose precious time, especially with the dense network of caverns that makes up the red zone. The tight timeframe makes rooms like the cacodemon / Hell knight cage to the southwest feel that much more awkward, like getting stuck in a sand trap or something. Ditto for that huge pack of demons to the northeast... though you can slay them all from the crawly-cave, for what it's worth.

Things finally come to a head. "Maltreatment" is the size of an ordinary Doom level, featuring 170-ish monsters, a sewer maze full of spectres, a large outdoor courtyard featuring a poised slaughter fight of low-tier beasties, and lots of interconnectivity from room to room. It's also got a boat load of tokens, some of which are accessed via somewhat dastardly secret placement. I think that it's possible to lock yourself out of the one in the western yard if you flip the switch next to the blue armor as soon as you come across it... But I only found five out of the eight secrets. The action rarely lets up since you're so pressed for time, but bumping into high-HP monsters like hectebuses, blood demons, and death imps start to feel like real time sinks... not that you're obligated to slay everything. The first experience is pretty worrying, but once you learn the map, you can really dig in and get enough time saved up to go hunting for the last few coins. Demanding, but rewarding.

MAP24Keeper of the Gate
The Gate Keeper is a Cycloid Emperor of a different color. You are given the minigun and combat shotgun at the beginning of the fight, as well as a Rage powerup, which makes you attack superfast. These two factors unite to breed false confidence. The Keeper has a retaliatory strike that fires gray power spikes in just about every direction, which will quickly fuck you up if you get hit with it, and if you hang around and attack him head on, you will, because another thing he does is teleport to a destination near your location. The opening is a game of cat and mouse, where you chip away at his health without exposing yourself too much. Once you hit 80%, though, the monster closets start opening up, revealing health, ammo, and backup. You can turn that radial counterattack spam against the boss by having him clear out his supposed allies and even turning them on him, since he's too keen on you. Just bide your time and take advantage of a prime infighting opportunity and, more than anything, don't get cocky. It's... pretty fun, actually.

The NightclubMAP31
After the past two bonus levels, this is refreshing. It's a nightclub staffed by UAC marines that put on a dance show. It's a cool visual, and continues throughout the level after the demons have invaded. The combat is pretty straightforward, with the only real threats being hitscanner attrition and the awkward revenant fight behind the DJ table, but the setting is pretty neat. A sweet indulgence.


MAP18Medieval Madness
Opening things up with a fairly unique theme, a regular castle complete with surrounding village. I mean, the cottages are basically props, but they add a bit to the setting. The action is kind of pedestrian and condensed into a couple of really simple routes, like running the battlement - which has coins tucked in between some of the crenellations, thankfully marked with a slightly different wall texture - and clearing the main yard, which is mostly about chaingun suppression fire vs. the various zombies. The Cyberdemon / demon fight is kind of cute, and it's good that some more trash spills out once it's done, but the most dynamic encounter is what's waiting in the exit room, since your enemies have two potential avenues of attack.

Sector 13.37MAP19
Continuing to switch things up with a low-gravity setting that takes place on pillars in the void. The gimmick doesn't add much, since you would have achieved the same effect by teleporting between the islands, except this puts the player's motion purely within their agency. The action is pretty light, though the exposure due to the setting means having to deal with fireballs from afar, a wandering pack of cacodemons, and a couple of revenants in the center. The western installation turns into a minor slaughter with a pack of demons you're encouraged to slay with a rocket launcher, afterward mopping up with your other armaments.

MAP20Treetop Tokens
A cool little level with a lot of platforming (which some players will hate). The treetop theme is neat, but it leaves me wondering what kind of levels we could see if they were divorced from the tokens and time limit... The biggest danger is falling off and losing your place once you're teleported back to the beginning. Otherwise, you should be fine, and the railgun lets you take care of the biggest HP soaks (the cacodemon wave and the belphegor) rather quickly. A fun, fast play.

Definitely not what I was expecting... Dragonfly hands you the "Strength" powerup, which I assume doubles your attack power, and lets you go on a blastathon through what feels like a bunch of trash monsters when you're slinging that much power vs. revenants and dark imps. Of course, you're not any more resilient, so it just turns the level into a super-quick play as you one-shot pain elementals and other nasties. The standout fight for me was on the outside of the castle where you pick up the rocket launcher, since you had some revenants out in the open. The scripted imps to demons to arch-viles battle has a nice hook, but your Raw Power removes most of the pressure. Now, I did like a lot of the acrobatics required to get the tokens, particularly the stuff based around the starting area. Again - fun and fast.

MAP26The Bloody End
Well, for the first time of the set, we take a trip into organic Hell. It's a sort of claustrophobic experience with a couple of semi-hidden coins, but should be a quick blow-through to the boss arena, where you take on a few waves of normal enemies before... the gauntlet. All three of the previous bosses at once. It's easy to pick out the lava golem, since he's slow and his attacks are pretty easy to dodge, which will then let you balance between the inquisitor and the gate keeper, which is really a wash since both of them are incredibly deadly if you're distracted... though perhaps more so the inquisitor, since the worst thing the keeper does at range is his counter attack. The final boss isn't too interesting since he easily falls prey to the classic combat shotgun and circlestrafe maneuver. Powerful projectiles blow up his breath weapon, which removes some of the efficacy of the grenade launcher / plasma gun, so just hammer him and dodge those Devil May Cry red lightning balls. It's kind of a relief after surviving the gauntlet.

Just a pleasant pan through the hallways of the hub, and a teaser, in case you hadn't already figured out what was up with the elevator in Tier Five...

Of course, no one could build a hub level without wanting to fill it with enemies. This is a slaughter romp through some familiar hallways done up in a corrupted fashion, which hands you a "rage" powerup and at some point the BFG and has you go to town on scads of big bads. Just about anything goes by quick with the belt-fed BFG, but the overlord stuffed in the cave will still come as a shock. Just good, clean fun.

This post is part of a series on
Doomworld's 2015 Cacowards

The Top TenBest MultiplayerRunners Up
SunlustDon't Be a Bitch RemasteredDoomed Space Wars
ErkattäññeChaosCore CTFCrumpets
SkulldashBest Gameplay ModPrime Directive
Swift DeathDoomRL ArsenalPinnacle of Darkness
BreachMordeth AwardOl' No Name
ValiantChaosCore CTF32in24-14
50 Shades of GraytallMockaward
Sheer PoisonInstaDoom
dead.wireMapper of the Year
Return to Hadrondannebubinga


  1. Hi, couldn't find any other way to contact you other than commenting :)

    Just wanted to say that I fucking love this site. Me and a few members of my family on the other side of the world have had a weekly dooming session for a while now and we use this site to decide what wads to play. It's handy as fuck.

    Cheers, keep up the good work :)

    1. @Dragonfly (I'm assuming you're Martin Grenfell above), does the Vibetech here actually have a direct relation to the one in the PCCP2?

    2. Dragonfly's name is Joshua O'Sullivan, dude. It's literally in the third sentence of the review. Pay attention.

    3. hey brandon if you're still not going to read the words that i write i suggest that you LURK. MORE.

  2. I think map28 Vibetech looks like some (virtual reality) map from A.L.T. by [B0S].

    1. yeah, now that you mention it, it kind of reminds me of "Memoris Spiritus" by Falcor with its high contrast color scheme

    2. Wait a minute, Vibetech is a Pcorf Community Project 2 map (also a secret level there). What's going on here?

    3. Vibetech appears to have been made for PCCP2, but retrofitted for Skulldash shennanigans, which explains why it's the most normal of all the "bonus" levels

    4. Vibetech: "Thankfully, there are no secrets to get hung up on, so enjoy the ride."

      I might have to look this up, because the PCCP2 map I'm thinking about has 2 secrets. I'll also ask Dragonfly (below his comment).

  3. Strangely, nearly a decade ago Joshy (of Speed of Doom fame) contributed a map called Skulldash to the "Ten Community Project" on the ZDoom Forums. I'm reasonably certain it used the time limit, grey skulls and blue skulls (although not as coins), almost as a proof of concept for what has been done here.

    I'd need to replay it to verify this though, as I don't think I've touched the map set since we released it... Which was probably around 2008.

    1. after looking at it appears to me that Joshua O'Sullivan of Skulldash, not to be confused with Josh Sealy, was the contributor to TEN. i haven't had a chance to peek at the levels, and the screenshot links are all dead, but one of the gimmicks mentioned in the thread seems similar to the colored forcefields of "Liquidation"

    2. There we are then - I thought it seemed odd that there were two people named Josh with the same idea. Mr O'Sullivan seems to have kept a low profile since prototyping his idea there!