Thursday, July 12, 2018

CH Retro Episode (RETROEPS.WAD)

Chris Hansen did a lot of work for Doom II and then ended up helping out his brother in arms, Paul Corfiatis, with making a megaWAD for the original. I don't know whether he was craving the creation of classically-themed maps prior to 2002: A Doom Odyssey but somewhere while hacking it out he was bitten by Phobos Fever. This project began life as a single level titled CH_RETRO in 2001 and after a lot of positive feedback it was expanded to a full Knee Deep in the Dead replacement as the similarly-titled CH Retro Episode. It was ultimately released after 2002ADO was finished but during the same year - 2002.

Like so many other episodic expeditions, RETROEPS does not have an actual plot. Its action completely accommodates the original story, not that doing so is hard to do given how little information the player is actually fed between the user manual and the end text. It hits all the major beats by starting out on a small, straightforward map and gradually ramps up complexity before the iconic Baron of Hell showdown prior to getting your ass throttled in a pitch-black murder room. That's pretty much all you need, I think, if you're cruising around for some KDitD-style action to calm the shakes.

Hansen also borrows distinct elements from id's official mapset but he does an interesting job of inverting or otherwise playing with the reference material. Most of the homages occur in E1M6, E1M1, and E1M2, likely the first levels to be created. I noticed elements that were derived from Knee Deep in the Dead while still recognizing each one as being some sort of twisted echo. The process is at its most obvious in "First Contact", the simplest of the outings to parse. The rest is well within the Phobos theme but the window dressing begins to deviate with stuff like inaccessible structures used for world building, trick key doors, and rockets hidden inside barrels.

Thematically, it could easily stand in for KDitD. All of the textures and architecture are there with a healthy amount of height variation and interconnectedness. The end result distances the set from the sort of dungeon crawler Doom that is exemplified in the Deimos episode. It's not a perfect emulation of Romero's work, of course. There are a few flats that belong to the second episode and some of the details are decidedly Hansen's like the scrolling tech panels behind the slatted grating. I would rather play a hundred different takes on the Phobos aesthetic, though, than an equal number of technically perfect iterations based on John's design.

I think the combat will be the biggest sticking point and the thing that sets it apart from mapsets like the equally lauded Fava Beans. RETROEPS is pretty fucking hard in spots while still staying true to the types of monster used and in general the kinds of employed encounters. Hansen just doubles down on the immediacy of each threat and doesn't restrict himself from dumping enemies on the player by way of teleporter traps. On several occasions I was sent running deeper into the installation only to find increasingly oppressive monster placement. E1M5 is the strongest example of this phenomenon and really a turning point for the PWAD in general. It also marks the moment where Hansen starts diverging from the original soundtrack, pulling in "Donna to the Rescue", "Deep Into the Code", "Nobody Told Me About id", and "untitled".

CH Retro Episode is one of the best Knee Deep in the Dead replacements I've played. I enjoy its little indulgences that stray away from the format and love picking my way through its labyrinthine laboratories. Its combat feels like a natural extension of the Phobos format without ramping up to the extent of Double Impact. I can't wait to see how he moves into the Deimos style.

by Christian Hansen

First ContactE1M1
Definitely throwing off some strong "Hangar" vibes. All of the normal elements are there but tweaked in different directions. The blue recessed floor is on the outer edge of the room, for instance, and the toxic fluid in the outdoor area is a ditch instead of a pond. While the original reveals its complexity as you unearth its secrets, though, this is about as straightforward as it gets. Except for maybe the exit door opening via a walkover trigger.

E1M2Computers and Electronics
As with E1M1, this owes a lot to "Nuclear Station" but I enjoy the way that Hansen has spun its various aspects, from the opening area to the key balcony and its one-way horseshoe to the relatively open tech portion. Very cool and the title is pretty accurate. There are a lot more monsters but the threat level is still fairly low, though you do have to dig a little bit to get a shotgun in hand. Or just rush the semi-secret, I guess. The circuitry that dominates the eastern portion of the level is definitely my favorite segment.

A large, toxic lake that you will have to tip your toes in and a bunch of peripheral areas. Some of them lead you on longer adventures. The secret ones take you through the dark places where the UAC ran cables and other tech guts essential to futuristic installations. Demons appear in a big way and the flavor of the day is claustrophobic ambushes with a speckling of player exposure as the monsters sometimes get a window to you before you get to catch a glimpse of them. The lights-out ambush on snagging the yellow key is one of my favorites but the secret exit chamber has a nice, somewhat complex arrangement because of its elevated imps. Some neat architecture in the regular exit room. I really enjoyed digging through the map to find the secrets in order to reach the alternate exit.

E1M9Strategical Offensive Array
If this level owes anything to the original "Military Base" then its essential components have been reassembled at the fundamental level into a linear obstacle course. It still manages to be interesting through the ways that you slowly open up the sections of the station, turning dead-ends into thoroughfares. The monster placement is relatively unremarkable and feels mostly incidental outside of the thorny large outdoor area that dominates the southern portion and a few traps involving demons and specters. I mostly appreciate the way you progress, sort of like unwrapping a Christmas present before revealing the final layout.

Command CenterE1M4
This is a really fun one. The left half is dominated by a series of toxic pools and trenches and you're encouraged to jump down into just about all of them to explore. I like the forced platforming to the lower ledge in order to get from the southern central room into the middle one with the soul sphere. The pistol start is kind of hot but mellows out and actually drives you to use the chaingun a bit. I also enjoy the fact that the wing behind the southern yellow key door is entirely optional, though it does net a rocket launcher and backpack. The final fight is appropriately climactic while still fairly forgiving as a flow of monsters from the south end are supported by wandering shotgun guys and imps stationed behind the grates that mark the periphery. Very cool.

E1M5Chemical Processing Plant
Hansen begins to shine through with a cinematic opening setpiece. You tread a long catwalk in a toxic cistern overlooked by two guard towers on either side unleashing cover fire. Once you muscle your way across the pool, you open the next door only to find an eerie indoor passage cut by atmospheric lighting. I won't spoil what happens next but it's a masterful explosion of action and the player is ultimately exposed on three different fronts. The rest of the complex is fun to explore and includes a nuclear crossroads maze that's probably derived in part from "Central Processing" but far more deliberate and devious in its progression. I also like the lights out transformation in the blue key room.

Primary BaseE1M6
First released as the standalone CH_RETRO, this one has gotten a makeover. The important changes aren't visible from an automap comparison and involve turning a quasi-secret nukage escape chamber into a mandatory blue key wing and other layout tweaks made to gently lead it away from the original non-linear design. I should have known better with that yellow key exit hallway door but it got a pretty hearty laugh out of me. The combat is essentially the same. Lots of claustrophobic ambushes and a couple of big fights, the latter mostly centered around what happens after you enter the southwestern yard. It's not too dangerous provided you don't try to rush through all of the hitscanners.

A massive, labyrinthine complex that's chock full of monsters. The 220 beasties come at you constantly through initial placement, carefully metered monster closets, and shocking teleport ambushes that demonstrate the very real threat of shotgun guys on multiple fronts. The large toxic chamber to the northeast is one of my favorites for its neverending cavalcade of creepers featured in its combat and the depth of its secrets. I'm also a fan of the passage glimpsed at the western edge of the level, a fantastic example of worldbuilding. The attempt at increasing the map's virtual depth shows Hansen again playing his own game as opposed to Romero's.

Old Habits...E1M8
There are a few novelties in this setup of the Baron encounter. The opening deluge of imps and specters is a disorienting and overwhelming battle when combining the walkers with the teleporters. The actual finale is just drawn-out circle strafing and deft maneuvering as you herd four goat men while whittling them down with the shotgun and chaingun. If you're not careful you'll fuck up and be robbed of the privilege of being massacred by the token type 11 sector ambush. The final layout looks like a pentagram, which is definitely DoomCute, and the gargoyle pillars convey a budget echo of "Tower of Babel". It only figures since Hansen picked its music for this slot.



  1. Good to see that Doom 1 is sill having some Wads on the working, even for a minisode.

    BTW, bro, any chance you are planning to cover TNT: Revilution? Just curious. :)

    1. I don't get the first half of this comment since it couldn't have anything to do with RETROEPS given that it was published more than 15 years ago.

      I am planning to cover TNT: Revilution alongside the rest of the 2017 Cacoward mentionees but it will be later rather than sooner. My current agenda includes Doomworld's Top 10 of 2002; the complete works of Chris Lutz (and, where the two of those coincide, NokturnuS); Doom mods; stuff that I promised I would review; old stuff that I actually begged people to upload; the complete catalogs of Malcolm Sailor, Mark Klem, Sam Ketner, and Michael Krause; sniping off releases from people whose work I've almost exhausted; requests; cool stuff from 1994-2001; cool stuff from 2011-2016; and more. I start to stress out just thinking about it!

    2. I forgot to mention building my bridge to Plutonia 2. The run up to Kama Sutra will be much, much faster.