Monday, July 8, 2019

Max Saga: Escape From Skull Dungeon (MAX1.WAD)

by Mike "Impie" MacDee

Valley of the Gwangi might have been a pretty esoteric reference for the Doom community. Derceto put Impie's oeuvre back in the fold by drawing on Alone in the Dark, a PC survival horror game. His aborted Max Saga pulled from another property, this one the Mighty Max line of toys. Ol' Maxie even went on to have his own kickass cartoon series, which I still remember fondly. The toys were typically little clamshell playsets shaped like monster heads and the backs of the packages had small comics. I didn't know that they were originally British but I was fortunate enough to have a ton of them during my childhood. Not Skull Dungeon, though, which this level is sort of inspired by. Mike's first entry is more like Gwangi's Palace insofar as it is a Doom II MAP01 replacement for any limit-removing port.

The story doesn't explicitly intersect with the demon slayer multiverse except for the usage of id's bestiary, understandable since Impie hadn't yet moved on to his army of total conversions. There's a cheeky element to his proffered plot which draws a subtle comparison between the player - behind the keyboard or the plastic playset - and a capricious, petty god. This deity forces Doomguy / Max to "wander space and time, battling supernatural evils for [its] amusement". On this particular occasion you're in Austria during World War II, taken captive by the evil Dr. Gore and his army of horrors. Your goal is to destroy his laboratory and resultant creations and then Escape From Skull Dungeon.

The level looks familiar if you've played through the fifth episode of Strange Aeons. Mike stitched MAX1 together with Gwangi's Palace in order to make its E5M7, "The House of Dagon". It's a decidedly different experience, of course, because SA's bestiary functions a bit differently than Doom II's. Not to mention where you happen to start. This is a pretty weird opening, too, because the only way to leave the starting room appears to involve getting one of the next door zombies to open the bookcase from the outside. If you kill them before leaving then you're going to be locked inside where you'll rot with the half-chewed carcasses. The trapped cell is one of several features that also appear in the physical Mighty Max playset.

This is basically a castle / installation level. The combat is pretty simple, pitting you against Doom II trash. MacDee's MVP is the revenant. It's the toughest monster type that you'll fight apart from a mancubus mini-boss. The skeletons are pretty common, too, and they have a lot of staying power since most of your gunplay will be with the shotgun and chaingun. It's not uncommon to run into them two at a time and in places where dodging their rockets feels fairly awkward. The dinner table is a big one but they do a good job of surprising you in a variety of places. The only other truly threatening enemy is the chaingunner for the typical reasons.

The scrappy combat and low-key weapon selection makes the bestiary continue to feel dangerous. You do start out with a Berserk kit at the beginning, though, and you get access to both a rocket launcher and a plasma gun partway through. The latter two feel more like powerups since you have limited ammo for both but that's not a bad thing and it gives you more options. I just wouldn't use them to blast away the multitude of imps attacking from the windows. And there will be quite a few. Interspersed with the occasional commando, of course, because they're the ideal low-budget area denial monster.

Skull Dungeon's combat makes for an effective connective tissue but the micro-mansion is pretty fun to explore on its own terms. Its architecture is perfectly serviceable and it has rugged badlands outdoor landscapes, the sort that you might expect around a mountain stronghold. Some of the best features are found in the basement laboratory. I didn't understand what "The House of Dagon" had to do with reviving the annoying Men of Leng. It makes way more sense here since you are activating Dr. Gore's experiment and reviving the tormented corpses into sluggish cyber-horrors. One of my favorite bits is the soul sphere secret. It sends you on a very long trip but it's worth it considering how hurtful those revenant rockets can be.

This is a small, entertaining castle level with a "hidden" laboratory. The combat might feel a little sluggish since it leans so heavily on the shotgun and chaingun but the short level is better for it. The choice of monsters is pretty much tailored to the regularly available weapons, too. Not as interesting perhaps as Impie's future work but it's a decent adventure all the same.



  1. Heh. I watched "Valley of Gwangi" over the weekend, as it happens, for the 4th or 5th time overall. First saw it when I was about 7 or 8 years old :)

    1. Ahah. I haven't seen it myself outside of when it was shown as a ridiculous background during a Whose Line Is It Anyways? segment.