Apocalypse #17: Master Levels for Doom II

Like the works of the Old Masters, this one belongs in a museum

june gloom
10 min readMar 16, 2024

Initial release: December 26, 1995
Platform: PC, Sony PlayStation (sort of)
Developer: id Software, various

D!Zone. Demon Gate. H!Zone. Magic & Mayhem. Duke!Zone. DukeXtreme. Q!Zone — and heaven knows what else! The golden years of the first person shooter were marked by two things: one, the beginning of mainstream, popular internet usage, and two, the cottage industry of shovelware compilations. The internet was not in widespread usage in the mid-90s and most people who did have internet were on dial-up; as such, if you owned a copy of Doom or its brethren, and you wanted get more out of your game, but you didn’t have decent internet or even internet at all, these compilations, frequently boasting thousands of maps and often coming with editing tools packed in, were often your only recourse. Often downloaded in bulk from online FTP servers and places like cdrom.com, these were maps from the wild and woolly days of map design, with limited tools and extreme variance in quality. (I myself had a copy of Q!Zone, which rather than a disparate series of maps scraped from FTPs instead claimed to be four complete episodes for Quake. Whether these maps were actually designed by WizardWorks rather than just farmed off an /idgames mirror somewhere and jammed together into a campaign, I couldn’t tell you.)

The funny thing about these compilations — aside from some fantastically goofy cover art — is how frequently they inflated their actual content on the cover. The various D!Zone releases, for example, claimed between 150 to 3000 levels for Doom and Doom II, but as far as anyone can tell this was purely a marketing gimmick — either generously rounding up from the actual count, or counting maps with both Doom and Doom II versions twice. Often these compilations didn’t include the text files written out by the map authors, while others included them but expressly ignored any rights the authors might have asserted such as not having their game distributed as part of a commercial product. This also possibly violated id Software’s own EULA; when it became clear that their attempt to gain control over user mods and editing tools like DEU wasn’t going to work, id Software gave up and decided to work with the community instead. Part of that effort would eventually result in Final Doom; but what we’re here to talk about today is something else entirely, the black sheep of official Doom releases: Master Levels for Doom II.

As a product, Master Levels has a complex history. id Software didn’t seem to have a clear vision of what they wanted; the initial impetus seemed to be to release a competing product to the likes of D!Zone, but conflicting reports suggest that id always intended to release a showcase of what was deemed the best mappers at the time. In the end they did both; Master Levels is twenty levels (well, plus a secret) not released anywhere else by mappers handpicked to contribute to the product, and included with it is Maximum Doom, an id Software-sanctioned shovelware disc that possesses many of the same dubious qualities as anything that WizardWorks or the like could have put out: about 1800 maps, many of them duplicates, some of them not even for Doom but Heretic instead, a few containing copyrighted material, and of course many of the maps are missing text files. Community archivist FunDuke did his best to catalogue it all years ago, and Herculine has tackled the works of the Masters that for one reason or another didn’t make the cut.

Which brings us back to Master Levels. Something to remember is that “Master” in this context doesn’t mean high difficulty (TEETH.WAD not withstanding,) but rather the perceived skill of the authors. Ultimately the project came to be coordinated by id Software’s Shawn Green, who had been doing scrapes of wad archives and had downloaded about 500 maps from the internet and early services like America OnLine and Compuserve. From this perusal of the community offerings, he selected six (well, seven if you count Teresa Chasar) authors, each of them a one-time big name in their own right. In alphabetical order:

The late, great John “Dr. Sleep” Anderson, a game designer and writer whose Doom work helped him break into the industry with early development on Blood (back in the Q Studios days — it’s unclear how much of his early work made it into the final product) and level design on Kingpin. The maps presented here make up the bulk of his incomplete episode, Inferno, modeled after the work of Dante Alighieri but with a humorous twist. Two levels were released for free; they were enough to get Anderson noticed and recruited for Ultimate Doom and the Master Levels project. (Side note: “Crossing Acheron” was considered good enough to get put on Doomworld’s 100 Best Wads list back in 2003.) One level was converted from Doom II to Doom 1 and placed as E4M7 of Ultimate Doom’s retail episode, Thy Flesh Consumed. The final level, “Lethe,” was never released; the most we’ve ever seen of it are some screenshots on Anderson’s website, but he seemingly retired from Doom in 2004 and eventually passed away in 2018 of pneumonia. (As a sweet side note, in 2022 someone found out that John Anderson, who he had never known, was his biological father, and upon discovering Anderson’s legacy in the Doom community, chose to get acquainted with the game to better understand his father. Thus we have “OCTATE,” the freshman release from Blake “Mr. Hypnos” Brown-Anderson, crafted specifically as a tribute to the good doctor. I’m not crying you’re crying.)

Jim Flynn only has two maps in the set, culled from his Titan series, and it’s difficult to really pigeonhole him just based on his contributions, with “Titan Manor” being a besieged haunted house with a vague gesture towards creating realistic spaces and “Trapped on Titan” being a rollicking Sandy Petersen-esque rampage with more focus on combat than aesthetic. But he’s mostly important for another reason, that is his being a member of Team TNT and one of the developers of Boom, one of the earliest big source ports for Doom. While Doom modding was possible with DEHACKED, it was Boom that laid some of the earliest foundations for what can be done with idTech 1 in the likes of GZDoom and its contemporaries — its new editing features are subtle, but add a lot, like animated switches, deep water effects, silent teleporters (which go a long way towards making more realistic levels) and proper elevators.

Christen David Klie is no stranger to the commercial Doom sphere, having previously taken the lead on The Lost Episodes of Doom, a quasi-shovelware Doom 1 expansion developed largely for the purposes of selling a strategy guide. His Master levels are big steps forward over his earlier work, but they still reflect the technical realities of his workflow, as his machine simply wasn’t good enough for sprawling, expansive levels, and so he focused on smaller, faster, largely straightforward adventures. At six maps he has the most representation in Master Levels, but he didn’t stop there, with six more rejected from the project only to wind up in Maximum Doom. He also was a contract designer alongside Anderson (and Richard “Levelord” Gray) on Blood, and eventually would serve to do level design on LucasArts’ Outlaws and Rogue Squadron.

Sverre André Kvernmo has the most distinctive maps in the collection, in my opinion. The four of them (with a fifth, secret level) each have something striking about them, whether it’s the quasi-realism of “Bloodsea Keep,” the punishing claustrophobia of “The Express Elevator to Hell” (plus the willful absurdity of “Bad Dream” and its method of access,) the intimidating monolith of “Black Tower,” or the unsettling vibe of “Mephisto’s Mausoleum,” they all stand out even amidst the likes of Anderson or Klie’s maps. What’s more is that they very nearly missed the window for Master Levels; part of Kvernmo’s bizarre Cabal series, they were actually planned for public release, but a previous choice for the project — nobody knows who, but KMX E XII has a few theories — dropped out, allowing Kvernmo to submit several of his levels, a task that for him was a mighty feat. Kvernmo is still active on Doomworld under the name Soundblock, and has tenures with Ion Storm and Xatrix Entertainment under his belt, among others.

Tom Mustaine is another well-known name from this era of Doom, with contributions to Final Doom and Icarus: Alien Vanguard as part of Team TNT, and Perdition’s Gate, a mapset co-designed with his father that which missed the window for inclusion with Final Doom, and so was later released alongside Hell To Pay, a megawad designed by Wraith Corporation, a mapper collective that intended to sell Hell to Pay under license by id Software — it was a weird time, okay? He would later go on to co-found Hipnotic Interactive (better known as Ritual Entertainment), creators of Quake Mission Pack I: Scourge of Armagon, the SiN series, Blair Witch Volume III: The Elly Kedward Tale, and, of all things, the underrated “Deleted Scenes” single-player campaign from Counter-Strike: Condition Zero. With a resume like all that, you’d expect a bigger showing in Master Levels, but oddly enough, he only has one, a frantic fortress fight in “Paradox,” which he created after id rejected his first submission, a rather shameless remake of Doom II’s MAP14, “The Inmost Dens.” It’s not a bad map in all honesty, but I think Tom’s real strength was in his music.

And last but not least, we have Tim Willits, an actual honest-to-Palutena id Software employee. Say what you will about the guy — and people have opinions — but his levels, co-designed with his sister, the perpetually undercredited Teresa Chasar, are great fun, not the most challenging but solidly designed with some nice aesthetics that would fit snugly in Doom or Doom II’s level set. Which is probably why one of their levels is in Ultimate Doom.

Despite this stunning array of talent, Master Levels remains something of the odd one out in the Doom canon. First there’s the fact that for a long time it was difficult to find, though nowadays it’s included in most digital distributions of Doom II. There’s also unusual structure — instead of a single episode or megawad (like some of the contributors believed their maps would become part of) the levels are all disparate, loose .WAD files, able to be played separately. There’s no new music at all — and, in fact, most of the maps are assigned to MAP01, so expect to hear “Running from Evil” a lot, unless you use the MIDI pack, which has its own quirks. And finally, I’m just going to have to say it — there are some great maps here, but overall it’s a mixed bag. There’s nothing in here that’s outright bad, but “Trapped on Titan” for example just can’t measure up to, say, “Black Tower.”

Despite the loose nature of the maps’ actual release, they have had some episodic arrangements in re-releases. The first console release of Master Levels was on PlayStation, as part of the PlayStation version of Final Doom (which itself was a weird mishmash of thirty levels selected from Master Levels, TNT: Evilution and The Plutonia Experiment, heavily favoring Evilution.) In practice, it’s basically the same deal as the original PlayStation Doom, with colored lighting and new music and sound effects for a scarier atmosphere. Later re-releases of Master Levels would include most or all the levels, with the PlayStation Network version being probably the definitive version with all the levels arranged in a roughly alphabetical order.

Of course, if you’re interested in playing the PC originals for yourself, you have a couple of options. You could, of course, just load each wad individually into your source port of choice (or even just DOOM2.EXE on DOSbox, if you’re kinky like that.) Or if you’re a GZDoom user, there’s the Master Levels Menu Interface, which functionally replaces the old DOOM-IT launcher that was bundled with Master Levels. (You could also just use any one of the existing launchers — I use Doom Launcher but ZDL seems to be the more popular option.) Or maybe you want to combine them into an episode? The easiest way to go about that would certainly be either Blzut3’s tool (which lets you select from a variety of level orders, the one I use is curated by community superstar Xaser,) or JPL’s WadSmoosh — a tool that combines all the commercial maps into a single massive IWAD with each entry selectable as its own “episode.”

You could also play Works of the Masters, which is effectively a mod for WadSmoosh that, combined with legal copies of Ultimate Doom, Doom II and Master Levels, creates a similarly Frankensteined mega-IWAD that adds several of the rejected and otherwise unused or free levels from these mappers to recombine all these maps into episodes, with the most notable example being the complete Inferno collection with a conclusion by Xaser’s tribute map, originally designed for the Ultimate Doom the Way id Did project and modeled after that lone screenshot of “Lethe” from Anderson’s website. It’s up in the air how well that plays with the MIDI pack, though.

At the end of the day, it’s my professional opinion that Master Levels stands better as a piece of Doom history, a sort of snapshot of what the community was like in those early days, than it does as an actual game. While with the right ordering it’s certainly fun as an episode — I wouldn’t play it any other way, and indeed that’s what I did when replaying for this review — it’s functionally a museum piece. But it’s a museum piece that still packs some punch, if you’re willing to give it a chance. How about it? You want to prove yourself a Master of Doom?

Master Levels is included with Doom II on Steam and gog.com.

This review has been crossposted, along with level reviews, to my boomer shooter blog.




june gloom

Media critic, retired streamer, furry. I love you. [she/her]