Osiris - Glen Payne and Marshal Bostwick (1996)
There's been a lot of love for Egyptian-themed PWADS in recent history but Osiris was among the first. Bostwick and Payne pulled in a ton of assets including textures, a haunting soundtrack, and monster sprite edits in order to bring the ruins to unlife. It makes for a harrowing experience as you battle your way through creepy corridors and overrun techbases alike. Oh, one thing I forgot to mention... Osiris isn't just an Egyptian-themed level; it's also loosely based on the Stargate property. Nothing recognizable apart from the Stargates themselves, of course, but it gives the set some variation in appearance as well as the sense of a much larger adventure. Its classic-style gameplay and essentially defanged arch-vile may come as a breath of fresh air for those players who are chafing under the yolk of the community's ever-escalating difficulty bar.
Osiris had the misfortune of being published during the golden age of the Doom community when interest was at an all-time high. Quake was new but its existence had not yet dethroned Doom as far as modding for idtech was concerned. It's difficult to pick ten awards and only natural that some things would get lost in the glut of high-profile project releases which tends to overshadow concurrently released but smaller selections. Osiris's grim atmosphere is superb, such that I can still recall the trepidation I felt when exploring its chambers. Today, it continues to stand as proof that Bostwick and Payne are masters at making the ancient feel truly alien.
Vrack 3 - Fredrik Johansson (2003)
Vrack 3 is another one of those things where you always assume it must have gotten an award at some point, and then you look it up and realize it didn’t. To be fair, its prequel, Vrack 2b, was named as one of the top 10 wads of 2001. But the last map in the trilogy is the most impressive, and a huge step forward from the previous installments.
The Vrack series as a whole has inspired countless imitators – many of which, like Huy Pham’s Stargate from Deus Vult 2 and lupinx-Kassman’s Interstellar Sickness from Community Chest 4, are considered masterworks in their own right. The reason, I’d wager, is that Johansson’s derelict high-tech space station floating in a starry void was one of the most unique and compelling settings created in the first 15 years of so of the community’s history – and Vrack 3 was the map that really brought it to life. Shuttle bays, control rooms, conveyors, fancy moving projections, lethal laser forcefields – it’s all there, coupled with atmospheric lighting and one of the most complex layouts ever created at the time. With its stunning attention to detail, beautiful texturing, and incredible level design, it still feels almost like a modern map, and that’s a damned impressive thing to be able to say about something made in 2003.
No Chance - Death-Destiny (2009)
These days, Death-Destiny's name is hardly mentioned outside of the challenge sphere, but his influence-to-content ratio is unworldly. If the late '90s had Malcolm Sailor, the late '00s had Death-Destiny, a solo artist who appeared in the late '00s and released a handful of single maps -- some standalone, some for community projects -- before disappearing, suddenly, as innovators are sometimes prone to do *cough* Insane_Gazebo *cough*.
The direction of much of the Hard Stuff in the '10s owes a lot to his Mucus Flow-inspired aesthetic, the way he distilled set pieces to their purest components, and his genius in making the repetitive cadence and rhythm of encounter reveals an artform in itself. Channeled through Darkwave0000 (jokingly rumored to be D-D himself) and Ribbiks, as well as the many they have inspired, his style lives on.
No Chance is hardly the quintessential Death-Destiny work in concrete terms. That honor would be more fitting of the epic Disturbia, the understated Grime, or the artful Elysion. But it sure is his most iconic. On the surface, its trappings are familiar, the fire and brimstone look borrowed straight from Scythe's hell episode. But in 2009 it was a revelation, a hard as balls wad considered inconceivably difficult saveless on UV. It served as a precursor for the eventual normalization of ultrahard stuff, and the rise of maxers who could beat what was originally considered "hard" seemingly while clipping their fingernails or filing their taxes.
Would Doom be nearly the same without Death-Destiny? Two words.
Invasion 2: Upper Decks - Andy Chen and Claude Martins (1994)
INVADE2 is a fantastic journey through the good ship Inquisitor, which has been swallowed up by a much larger and horrific Hellspawn-built starcraft. Your mission is to finish out the Captain's self destruct initiative in order to destroy your captors from the inside and then escape. It includes recognizable and detailed locations like a shooting range, med lab, bridge, and engine room, and even takes the time to let the player step into the Satanic spaceship in its H.R. Giger-inspired glory. Andy and Claude poured a ton of work into their INVADE series (including animated prologues and epilogues for the first two entries, released as separate downloads) and it really shows here in the environment detail and some of the special effects. The confines mean that the combat tends toward the claustrophobic but I would happily play dozens of corridor shooter Doom levels if they boasted INVADE2's sense of adventure.
The Invade series managed to miss Doomworld's radar back during the top 10 countdown which is a shame considering how easily INVADE2 holds up, even against many of the works released today. As a single level it wasn't among the earliest contributions to the scene so the wow factor wasn't as pronounced and since it never made it to full episode status it didn't have a lot of momentum going into the following years. It's a definite must-play, though, especially if you've ever doubted the community's potential in its infancy.
Zaero: Episode 1 - Steven Searle (2005)
Here’s one you’ve probably never heard of. Zaero E1 didn’t get a lot of fanfare when it was released in 2005, possibly because the author projected three more episodes that never ended up getting released. But a quick look at its reviews and ratings on /idgames suggests that it’s a hidden gem in the truest sense – practically everyone who stumbles across it falls in love with it, or at least appreciates its rock-solid design.
Zaero is named after an unofficial Quake 2 expansion pack, and the atmosphere and environmental design are Q2 all the way. This set of three dark, grungy techbase maps lays the mood on thick, and it emulates Quake 2’s greatest strength – the sense of realism, of crawling your way through a real place – while thankfully sticking to Doom 2’s gameplay. One thing that really stands out about it is the understated use of ZDoom features in a time when the port’s best mappers (and for the record I do mean best, with no disrespect intended) were known for an everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach. It uses a small set of custom monsters, but it uses them tastefully and consistently. It has special effects and transparencies, but it doesn’t throw them all over the place. It maintains a focus on cohesive design while letting its nicely interconnected layouts and casual but steady gameplay do the talking, and that’s what makes it such a pleasure to play all these years later.
Nova II: New Dawn - Various (2015)
I haven’t encountered many people who are familiar with Nova 2, and it’s not hard to guess why – it’s a full 32-map megawad that never received award recognition, and it’s a community project. It’s a gamble to commit to something like that, and as a result, people tend not to realize that it’s one of the most creative and high-quality CPs out there.
It’s not perfect, sure. But if you’ve ever wished you could play a mapset as well curated and thematically diverse as Community Chest 4 but without the magnum opus fatigue, or a mapset with the wild sense of variety of Community Chest 2 but better quality control, then you may find Nova 2 is the best of both worlds. Though most of the mappers were relatively new at the time – hence the title – the veterans running the project put a ton of time into helping everyone grow as mappers, and the resulting combination – the uninhibited enthusiasm of new mappers along with the finely honed knowledge that comes from experience – makes it one of the most satisfying grab bags you’ll ever come across, with a huge array of settings, combat styles, pacing, and map length. Even the weakest maps in the set have charm and don’t drag down the overall quality too much, but the best are outright sexy, and the megawad includes some of the best maps to date from names like an_mutt, tourniquet, cannonball, and Pinchy. It’s a megawad that’s well worth committing to.
SkePLand - Vladimir "skepticist" Monakhov (2011)
Skepland was a relatively low-key release that didn't make waves around the general population, but it certainly shook the more hardcore segment of the playerbase. At the height of the Plutonia-revival/vanilla resurgence craze skepticist sought not to imitate the challenges of the Casali bros, but to update them to where the community stood in 2011. The author specifically states that his maps strive to create difficulty by careful design and efficient enemy placement, not by slaughter-style monster count. That alone makes it a pioneer of an emerging genre, but there's more.
In a particularly Russian fashion, the wad isn't just a series of deadly Kaizo traps you need to train in order to succeed. It is, at least theoretically, FDA friendly. That means "first demo attempt", and while it's highly unlikely you'll make it through in one piece on the first attempt, it is possible with quick wits and reflexes. And if you do bite the dust, it is recorded for everyone's amusement and you continue from the start. The saveless playthrough appeal is a trend that rose into prominence in the following years, so not awarding one of the earliest (deserving) representatives was a missed opportunity. Then again, it was originally released as just two maps with a third one added later, and true fans kept waiting for more additions that never came. Now that we know there will be no more sugar, we can properly appreciate skepticist for his trailblazing wit.
The Inquisitor 3 - Shadowman, Big Memka, and Guest (2016)
Those of us who were Cacoward judges just last year remember how difficult it was to judge this one. I think I was the only one who made it more than five hours in (and trust me, five hours barely scratches the surface of this massive quest), because certain balancing/design decisions make it very difficult to get past the early humps in the gameplay. You spend most of those first hours with nothing but a melee weapon, and the amount of health you get vs. the number of monsters you’ll encounter on higher difficulties makes it hard to avoid trekking back to the temple in town for a health refill every ten minutes.
It’s a hell of a neat game, though, if you can get past that. Drawing heavily from Diablo, Inquisitor 3 painstakingly recreates the tone and mechanics of an action RPG inside the Doom engine, complete with towns, sidequests, tons of optional exploration, and a large and flavorful bestiary. The story and the atmosphere are its crowning achievements, gradually building up toward an immense climax as you traverse the vast, beautifully detailed maps, each presenting its own unique locale. And as you get farther in, building up your arsenal and developing your skills to focus on spells or weapon sets, the gameplay becomes a lot more manageable as well. Like kmxexii, I strongly recommend choosing a lower difficulty setting to avoid the worst of the grinding – but if you stick with it, Inquisitor 3 is a deeply rewarding experience.
RYLAYEH - J. S. "Psyren" Graham with J. Otey (2006)
Rylayeh (sic) was Graham's 2006 followup to Crimson Canyon, a Cacoward winner in 2005. A broadly similar but more ambitious project, Rylayeh is a meaty 10-map episode set in and around R'lyeh, sunken (yet chronically risen) elder necropolis of H. P. Lovecraft's "Mythos" fame. Now, as we all know, being slimy/nighted denizens of The Internet as we are, Cthulhu is most assuredly one baaaad motor-scooter, not to be messed with by the likes of mere mortals. But then, Doomguy is certainly no Gustaf Johansen (though he is arguably something not unlike Randolph Carter with a sawn-off shotgun, come to think of it....), and what ensues is a grand demon-slaying adventure in an unmistakably Doom-y idiom.
Strictly speaking, Rylayeh is not the first (nor the last) WAD to attempt to depict R'lyeh in idtech1, but it remains probably the most stylized/convincing to date. The presentation uses a focused set of custom-tweaked assets intuitively blending assorted recolors and stock textures most naturally fitting the theme for a suitably dark, dank, foreboding look, but it's the geometry that really carries the look off, with strange quasi-fractal architecture and drowned-baroque styling abounding. Indeed, in some ways Rylayeh is rather ahead of its time, many of the main structures or even entire layouts being both fixed at and constructed from bizarre angles and dizzying cacophonies of planes, versus the largely practical cardinal orientation of many WADs of its own day. Its level designs are complex, labyrinthine, highly vertical, highly abstract; both conveying the theme and fitting the engine like a glove.
....But of course it's the killing that really makes Nodens (and me, and you) smile. Rylayeh is a remarkably bloody WAD, in a joyous, approachable sort of way that suits its dense design to a tee--think Knee Deep in the Dead on shoggoth-grade steroids, and you're at least halfway there. The levels are positively replete with hordes of popcorn monsters (particularly gratuitous zombie-platoons) that make an excellent complement to the strange geometry, swarming towards you relentlessly only to be soundly repelled by your superior arsenal--minutes-long multi-kill sprees are commonplace, and the crunchy, chewy, powder-burned goodness of its moment-to-moment gameplay should warm all but the most eldritch of Doomed hearts. SSG fhtagn!
Eternal Slumber Party - TimeofDeath (2014)
TimeOfDeath: "cyb two-shot as mundane" trailbazer, creator of idiosyncratic concepts and challenge maps, defender of EXITDOOR as a viable structural texture. At first blush, TimeOfDeath's distinction of having released the most maps to idgames without winning a Cacoward might seem dubious, but at second blush, does it matter? I'd offer, "No". His output is as fragmentary as it is prolific -- individual releases consisting of a few maps, often unambitious judged on their own, and offerings scattered across community projects. Compilation wads have historically not been awarded Caco spots, for logical reasons.
But the first ESP, which is sort of a self-curated TimeOfDeath "Greatest Hits of circa X to circa Y", would be -- if it were eligible -- every bit deserving of either a main award or honorable mention most years. ESP is a varied set of maps in an innovative, well executed, highly personal idiom. They are designed to shine with foreknowledge: maps made to be studied, to be practiced, and to be run. They reward skill. One of the core tenets of TimeOfDeath's approach is situating difficulty in execution and consistency, rather than maximal lethality. So as impenetrable as they might seem, they offer a good outlet to cut your teeth and learn -- not just specific techniques, but also how to manage your emotions over a long saveless run.
Also at the center of TimeOfDeath's approach is mapping what one truly enjoys at an experiential level. No matter how dissimilar one's style or particular avenues of enjoyment, that is a lesson he offers all mappers.