I’m an advocate of the id Software influence in PC videogaming. Even if you don’t like them, any historical perspective on videogames has to accept that the FPS market, and therefore, id, are enormously important to the landscape of videogames today. I typically point to the sequence of work they did that pushed back technical boundaries, work like Wolfenstein, Doom and Quake, and of course, their surprise technical masterpiece, Commander Keen. Keen was an exceptional game, or were exceptional games, at the time, because of how they wrung smooth scrolling backgrounds and fast-loading levels from an EGA processor that was only slightly more advanced than a graphic calculator. It turned the 286 into a SNES, for at least one game, and that game was fun, interesting, bright and colourful as well. The game was also part of id’s meal ticket. Between Commander Keen 1, Marooned On Mars and Commander Keen 4, Goodbye Galaxy, they put this same engine to work in a few different ways – one of which was pursuing Tom Hall’s love of gore and horror films in the obscure work Dangerous Dave.
I’m not going to lie to you, I thought Dangerous Dave was an internal test name for the first rendition of the engine Carmack made and that was it. That three games came out under this label didn’t really surprise me – the id boys had an agreement with Softdisk that meant they had to release a game every month, and during this time some surprising and unremarkable games came out.
Dangerous Dave is one of those surprising and unremarkable games.
Most people remember John Carmack as the giant space brain of the id brain trust, but he was just one part of that geek machine. The other parts included John Romero, Tom Hall, and Adrian Carmack (no relation). These guys weren’t just four programmers working on games together, though, they were friends, insofar as the puissant alien thought-cloud that occupies the flesh of John Carmack could make friends. If you’ve ever read the book Masters of Doom you’ll find more details about it, but essentially, imagine Tom Hall as a primary art director never really emerging from the mindset of a twelve-year-old boy drawing bloody skeletons on the back of his schoolbooks. This isn’t to say there’s no place for that sort of thing – after all, it’s Tom’s obssession with excessive gore and ridiculous demonic imagery that powered the emblematic art direction of Doom. The problem is that it needs something to focus it.
Dangerous Dave is basically Ted Nugent vs Tom Hall’s Favourite Horror Movie tropes, and what results is a game that’s interesting for about four minutes and tiresome for the remaining hours of gameplay. The main thing the game has to offer is that every time you’re killed by a monster, you’re treated to a ridiculous death animation in a little cut-away box – you can see Dave being stabbed in the eye, having his head torn off, being sliced into ribbons, burned to death, die by falling onto sharp spikes, die by falling onto nothing, and so on.
I guess the best summary for this game series is that one of them opens with a stop sign showing ‘Warning: Dark Humor Ahead’ and a picture of Dave’s grinning mug while he holds a shotgun. Tell me, when is the last time someone warned you about humour that then turned out to be funny? Aside from one Dara O’Briain stand-up bit, I’m pretty sure that doesn’t happen.
They’re not bad games, but they’re certainly not good. They’re overshadowed by the superior Keen games, which had better designed levels with more challenge, a better save/progress system, and less need to tell you how edgy and cool they are. Back when these games were new, I definitely understand their appeal. On the other hand, these days, you can download dozens of good, low-demand platformers that aren’t plagued by problematic bugs, bad load times and repetitive, grindy, trial-and-error gameplay. There are better games, for the same price, and the historical curiosity is the only real reason to pay attention to these games at all.
Buy it if:
- You desperately need the gameplay of Commander Keen 1-3 and those and other much better games aren’t an option.
- You really like Tom Hall’s sense of humour.
Avoid it if:
- Your computer can run any of the better indie platformers.