The Doom community has been a fountain of creativity for 25 years, and trying to pick out the best work from the impressive pool of talent is always difficult. Dare we say it, the various generations of Cacoward judges may have even gotten a few things wrong from time to time. We should know – you tell us so every year!
This list aims to both rectify the cases where history proved us wrong, and to highlight the best releases that were never quite able to make runner-up. It covers all past Cacoward years as well as the first 10 Years of Doom. Just to be clear, we are not rescinding any past awards, and we’re not re-evaluating anything that got recognition in the past – we’re just giving devoted Doom fans some supplemental material to stuff into their playlists. Anything on this list can be considered to have an honorary Cacoward or honorable mention – we’ll leave it to you to decide which.
Scythe X - Erik Alm (2009)
Ah, the unspoken promise that broke so many hearts. Imagine the Doom shareware coming out in all its E1 glory, then the full version never getting released. Erik Alm, the spiritual daddy of an entire generation of mappers, started working on a third Scythe megawad, what could possibly be more exciting? He even gave us the first 10 maps for a taste, back in 2009... and then he quit the scene. After teasing us with a radical thematic shift that went from silvery space stations to eerie green hellscapes in the last map, complete with new cool dehacked monsters! And even more of them prepared but unfinished, as seen by loading one of the secret mapslots... I demand a refund!
What we ended up with is still highly notable though. Scythe X as it exists is a set in which Erik goes back to small scale skirmishes like in the first episodes of the prequels, but presents a step up in intensity. It is a very frenetic, unrelenting set that doesn't let you breathe for all of the 10-or-so minutes each map takes. The maps look unmistakably Almish, all highly interconnected, small slick techbases with trademark metal borders until the teaser trailer for episode 2 radically changes the aesthetic and introduces a creepy new Pain Elemental. The intense pace over a coffee break's length can be considered a precursor to the likes of Unholy Realms or the first half of Resurgence.
Would Erik expand the scope like in S2, or would it stay compact until the last moments like S1? We may never know. On the other hand, even Romero came back to his old stomping grounds, so why shouldn't we dream of a full Scythe X...
Sunder - Insane_Gazebo (2009)
Similar to Skepland and Scythe X elsewhere on this list, Sunder was never 'officially' recognized in its own time simply because it was (and is) unfinished, its 14 grandiose epics projected to be joined later by an undisclosed number of further maps. As fortune would have it, this was not to be, and to this day there are still a fair few of us given to daydreaming over what might have been had Insane_Gazebo carried on The Great Work.
Nevertheless, for something incomplete, Sunder casts a very long shadow indeed. Aesthetically, it's perhaps most defined by its ominous sense of vastness, each map a surreal nightmarescape with a distinctly different theme, including a bizarre alien geode-cavern, a monolithic necropolis hewn of flesh and bone, and a titanic bronze crematory temple, among others. Through skilled use of scale, light and shadow, bold/focused texture schemes, and sinister brutalist-gothic architecture, Insane_Gazebo here developed a uniquely striking visual style that is unabashedly abstract, yet which also carries a very palpable sense of place; a macabre marriage of geometry and mood which has inspired creators of all stripes all across the PWADing landscape lo these past several years.
Sunder not only looks sinister, mind you--it also acts the part! Of course, creating an imposing playspace in the Doom engine is one thing, but credibly filling it out with action worthy of such scale is quite another, and in this regard the set has been equally influential. Renowned for its difficulty, combat in Sunder places a premium on understanding and engaging with the battlefield in addition to managing the monsters inhabiting it, with every fight carefully tailored to its specific venue, be it a massive open vault or scant crumbling ruins above an endless sea of fire. Thus, it's not just a set about killing literal armies of hellspawn through agility and force of arms, but through using your **brain** as well, and its signature elevation of the environment itself to Main Villain status remains one of its most impactful (and controversial!) legacies.
Jade Earth - Jodwin (2010)
Why didn’t Jade Earth get a Cacoward, anyway? We may never know. But if you show up on Doomworld and start a thread asking for the best individual maps ever made, or the best big maps, or the best adventure maps, someone will inevitably bring it up. And although the community as a whole has a bit of a love-hate relationship with megamaps, with many appreciating the grand sense of journey and scale and others deriding them as excessive, it can’t be denied that Jade Earth was one of the earliest, and one of the ones that’s left the greatest impression on players – and indeed, it’s still one of the longest maps in existence, taking nearly two hours to beat.
It’s not on this list because it’s long, of course. This map has just about every aspect of the craft down pat, from lighting to detailing, but it’s the perfectly smooth sense of progression – something many large maps have since sought to emulate – that really makes it shine. From backstabbing the first pair of Imps to the showdown with the Mastermind and the final battle in front of the elevator shaft, it achieves a fantastic sense of ramping up, with perfectly paced rising and falling action along the way for a feeling of cinematic progression and adventurousness that had previously been reserved largely for ZDoom maps. Set entirely in a base constructed deep underground, it also delivers a palpable sense of being closed in, a mood that’s augmented by the often oppressive use of space and the stark contrast between lit rooms and abyss-like caverns. If you’ve got the hours to spend, there’s nothing not to love about it – it’s simply a masterpiece.
Doom: The Golden Souls - Batandy (2014)
Doom: The Golden Souls takes some of the aesthetic of Mario 64, reconfigures some of Doom's gameplay, and then sets you loose on a quest to collect the titular MacGuffins so that the demons can't use their reality-bending powers for their own nefarious purposes. You'll journey through twenty different microcosms, almost all of them with their own unique themes and many drawing inspiration from Nintendo's games. My favorite vista plunges the player into a simple but beautiful alien landscape based on Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night but Castlevania and Donkey Kong Country also number among the universe's esoteric references. All of these entries are accessed as paintings within a giant castle hub where you can use your collected coins to purchase items like ammo and armor in a shop. It's a wonderful adventure and I'm all about blending Doom up with other universes, especially when they're a big part of the games I played during my childhood.
I like to think that I was pretty prepared for the 2014 season of the Cacowards but The Golden Souls was one of the works that I simply hadn't gotten around to playing and I was more than happy to let the rest of the panel decide its fate. It definitely had its flaws, the main one for me being the bullet sponge-type gameplay, but I think that it was worth the price of admission at its initial release and batandy has smoothed out a lot of those wrinkles since then.
A.L.T. - Clan [B0S] (2012)
As I tell my fellow Doomers incessantly whenever I have their ear, A.L.T. is my favorite PWAD of all time, bar none. There’s just nothing else quite like it. To borrow a phrase from @ella guro, who has written extensively about the megawad, it’s like playing a fever dream – a hallucinatory nightmare that begins with you witnessing your own death and ends with you actually dying, in which you have no control over your fate and are simply dragged along for the ride, every moment full of wonder and dread until you’re finally forced to surrender.
One the most basic level, of course, you’re simply battling hellspawn through cities, across rooftops, through cyberspace, and in other bizarre realms, ending up in some kind of immense hellish organ for a final battle, as per usual. On another level, you’re trapped among your own dreams and fears, watching your memories flash before your eyes, and eventually find yourself inside your own brain as it collapses, attempting futilely to escape as your demise closes in, with the whole 32 maps actually taking place in the single instant of your death. This second layer isn’t just in the story texts; the entire megawad is so pregnant with overt metaphor that each shift in tone or theme feels like something that’s happening inside of you, a window into your own mind. If you can approach it with the right mindset, A.L.T. is an incredible work of art that might stay with you forever. And even if you’re not interested in appreciating it on that level, it’s still too awesomely weird to pass up.