Demon of the Well
I feel like posting some episode summations, too.
E1 -- Knee Deep in the Dead - Probably the most popular span of levels in all of the Doom universe, Romero's first episode is both a fitting introduction to the game and a textbook on the basics of satisfying map composition. Indeed, it has been elevated more or less to deific status, and like most things that reach that level of acclaim, the reality doesn't quite live up to the legend. As many of the club players observed, the layouts are flowing and interconnect well, but generally not as freeflowing as most odes to the episode seem to hold; indeed, most of the maps progress in a very basic, linear path (esp. in comparison to some of the later episodes), with only the secret areas representing major diversions. The same holds with most other accolades commonly attributed to the episode: it uses height variation consistently, but seldom in a way that makes a huge impact on the way players fight and traverse the installations; it pays more attention to texture composition than the other episodes, but is hardly a tour de force in cleanliness/thoroughness, etc. etc. Of course, the major drawback is that it's essentially zombies, imps, and demons the whole way--there's only so much you can do with such a limited toolset, no matter how nuanced your designs. All that being said, due to the internal consistency and strong identity in its construction and creative vision, KDiTD still holds up fairly well even to modern eyes, whereas the other episodes all have at least a map or two that appear rather dated in the here and now; while it's seldom little more than an appetizer these days, KDiTD is almost always palatable, never a chore. Of the game's three/four episodes, it has never been and is probably never going to be my favorite simply because it is so elementary (and it also represents one of the themes I am least interested in seeing new interpretations of, given that it is already one of the most-imitated styles in the history of PWADing), but playing it always serves as a reminder of many of the fundamental aspects of idtech1 architecture/setting that make games running on the engine (and Doom in particular, of course!) so compelling.
E2 -- The Shores of Hell - This is still probably the episode that is most difficult for me to make up my mind about. It has several of my favorite maps from the game (E2M2, E2M4, E2M6), but these tend to alternate with some of its biggest misfires (E2M1, E2M3), and of course E2M9 is perhaps the least well-aged map in the game. In truth, this seasawing rhythm between intrigue and disinterest doesn't seem as troublesome to me as it used to, as I've come to think of internal inconsistency as being a hallmark of the Deimos atmosphere, which I've come to appreciate much more over the years (I suppose it might be worse if it were entirely inconsistent, but it's not; this being the Tom Hall-isode lends it some semblance of cohesion in design). It occurs to me that this episode is also probably the most low-key from a combat perspective (at least as regards monster population relative to map size), which would likely be an issue for me in a modern PWAD, but the original game is just so easy throughout to begin with that it doesn't seem disproportionately simple to me, and I'm able to ignore the uneventfulness and just focus on the atmosphere of maps like Deimos Lab or Containment Area. I suppose I could say that while it's easy for me to see that E2 is heavily flawed in some ways (and recall that my initial assessment of it was fairly unkind), its virtues have become much more apparent to me as my tastes have changed over the years.
E3 -- Inferno - E3 has usually been my favorite part of the game, and indeed it is currently (and probably will remain so indefinitely at this point); both back when I first played the episode, and just now at the tail end of 2013, I found it easy to appreciate how this episode is both heavily internally varied and yet still cohesive as an overall experience. Each map in E3 is starkly different from the one that came before it, and in most cases, from all of the maps in the rest of the game (though E3M3 does feel a LOT like E2M5 to me, as mentioned earlier in the playthrough), and yet it hangs together well thematically, a testament to there being method in Sandy's freewheeling sort of madness. Gameplay in this episode still holds up reasonably well--to modern sensibilities it's not at all a difficult trek (and in fact it's the easiest in the game on Nightmare! mode), with its lower numbers of hitscanners reducing the attrition affect, but while it's not difficult to win the battles here they still manage to feel violent through simple volume, in the same way that the best parts of E1 do. It also occurs to me that E3 has by far the most tactically interesting selection of pistol-starts in the original game, which compensate to some degree for even very sedate levels like E3M7. While hardly comprehensive, I feel that E3 represents the largest and most varied selection of all the many different tools--and things that can be made with them--that Doom offers, and for that reason alone it has always had a special mystique for me, similar to what many folks attribute to E1. Also, it's Hell! I love Hell, particularly the general Doomy conception of it, and 'Inferno' is a solid representation of one of Hell's thematic strengths--again, it is quite thematically varied, with House of Pain seeming vastly different in mood and decor from Pandemonium or Mt. Erebus, and yet all of these different sub-themes sit fairly well next to another. A mistake that modern PWADs often make in dealing with Hell is not to take advantage of the opportunity it affords to nonchalantly cram a bunch of starkly different themes into one episode (rather than having to be stuck with a lava/blackrock theme the whole time, for example); Sandy's relatively short attention span vis-a-vis aesthetic motifs hardly holds Inferno back, indeed, it seems natural here.
E4 -- Thy Flesh Consumed - At one point fairly early in my Doom career, I went through a phase where I categorically referred to this episode as my favorite from the game, simply because the combat within it, which is comparatively more challenging than that of the other episodes, kept me on my toes better than the already-memorized setups of the older episodes. In broad form that's still true, of course, but in all of the years since that time, I've come to feel that combat isn't everything (though it's still often the main thing!), and if it's going to try to be, it needs to be pitched at a much higher/tighter level than most of what's here to capture my imagination in the same way that this one used to (incidentally, I feel like my taste in gameplay is now much more defined/settled than it was back then, somewhat ironic in that I'm now probably a lot less picky and more well-rounded in terms of the types of situations I can deal with). You might say that of all the episodes, this is the one that has aged least gracefully--it is the most internally inconsistent of the episodes both in terms of thematics/aesthetics and in terms of gameplay, of course a natural consequence to some degree of its much more varied authorship. Some of the maps here are still very compelling and stand as game highlights (e.g. E4M1, E4M6), but some of them feel like they're flat-out filler (esp. E4M4), which is a charge I generally don't feel like leveling even at the worst maps earlier in the game. This somewhat tackier, jerkier progression is probably emphasized by the episode's glitchier, less polished nature in comparison to its forbears, e.g. the unreachable secrets in E4M3/E4M7, the numerous small (but very obvious) errors in E4M4, and so on and so forth, all topped off by the 'fuck it we really don't care' ending. Ironically, despite my early infatuation, I would now say that I find this to be the low point of the original game, perhaps a testament to the importance of small, less immediately pressing details in design.
It'll probably be a few years before I return to this IWAD again (a few individual maps from it notwithstanding), but it was good to reacquaint myself with it, and to see how other players feel about it.