Monday, February 21, 2011

Top 10 Video Game Levels

One thing that seems to be vanishing from video games is the concept of “levels.” Mainstream games have moved from progressing through a series of linear, isolated environments to embracing open-world sandbox gameplay, which is sort of good and sort of bad. Yeah, there’s something to be said for a game where you can explore everywhere at will, but I hope that doesn’t completely steamroll the old-fashioned level structure, because who wants to play a game where every area you visit looks the same? I don’t. Sorry, Modern Warfare, but I’d rather skip merrily around a series of outlandishly different in-game zones than trudge wearily from one identical colorless environment to another. Growing up with 2D and 3D platform games, I was big on levels, or worlds, or whatever you want to call them. In honor of that, I’m going to give you my all-time favorite levels, worlds, zones, stages, and areas in games I’ve played. These locations all managed to wow me with their uniqueness, their visual beauty, their innovation, their immersive ambiance, their entertainment value, or some combination of the above. Here are...


(Note: This list was written in 2009. I’d probably change/update it if I had to rewrite it today, but it’s still good as it is.)

Amateria (Myst 3: Exile, PC/Mac)
With its pre-rendered landscapes and open-ended concept (you write world in book; world becomes real), the Myst franchise always leads the pack when it comes to gorgeous and unique levels. Case in point: the Amateria Age from the third game, in which you are deposited onto a beautiful island composed of hexagonal stone columns and vaguely Oriental architecture. Amateria’s puzzles are seriously cool and all fit together like a giant pressure lock, as you manipulate energy marbles through a series of pathways and obstacles. The entire world is one big puzzle, and a top-notch one at that. And did I mention how lovely it is? You can almost smell the salty air. Yeah, it’s very linear, but I’ll take a one-way path through photorealistic environments over a free-roaming adventure with crude, sub-WoW graphics (FUCK you, Myst 5). Amateria was achingly creative and deeply satisfying: solve the giant marble run and you get to ride through it yourself, sealed inside a marble. Best...reward....ever.

Anything with Brambles (Donkey Kong Country 2, SNES)

Speaking of pre-rendered graphics, I’ve always been a fan of the shiny, Matel-on-crack environments from the original Donkey Kong series, and my favorites have to be the bramble levels from DK Country 2. They were an absolute bitch to play -- pretty much every solid surface could kill you -- but just look at them! An endless, tangled maze of giant thorns stretching away in all directions. Surreal, dreamlike, as if you stood in the dark heart of Mother Nature. With the aid of barrel cannons or your friend, Squawks the parrot, you could ascend to the very heights of this lethal Eden, emerging victorious from the thorny womb. And then...there was the music. Stickerbrush Symphony, people. One of the greatest pieces of video game music ever, and half the reason I love the DKC2 bramble levels so much. The music plus the visuals plus the challenge equals ambient gamer nirvana.

Black Velvetopia (Psychonauts, PS2/Xbox)
Welcome to Spain! That is, Spain as imagined by a hopeless romantic with artistic passion and a serious screw loose. Every environment from Psychonauts is wonderfully imagined and realized, but the true visual fireworks come when you leap into the mind of frustrated painter Edgar Teglee and find yourself navigating narrow, neon-lit streets where lovely señoras wave from the windows and giant playing cards form a tower to the sky. This level was absolutely fucking gorgeous and I want to hug Tim Schafer for exploring the concept of an environment that is literally a painting come to life. Not only is it lovely, it’s funny, too, poking fun at Spanish clichés as you battle goofy luchadors and receive advice from a series of talking dogs in sombreros. Do the dogs play poker? Of course they do! Perhaps weirdest of all is that fact that the whole level is an idealized hallucination born from a neurotic dude’s traumatic memories of high school. Brilliant. Psychological healing doesn’t get any more engrossing than this.

Castle Salazar (Resident Evil 4, Gamecube/PS2/Wii)
Welcome to Spain....again! Okay, so you’ve spent some hours roaming the desolate countryside and you’re getting rather sick of angry backwoods peasants. Suddenly, looming on the horizon is this massive stone edifice, a monument to classical European decadence. What follows is survival horror gold. Ruled by a squeaky-voiced midget in a Napoleon hat and crammed full of chanting, heavily tattooed religious cultists, Castle Salazar takes everything that’s ever been good about the Resident Evil games and throws it in a glorious blender. It’s fun to look at, it’s challenging and awesome to play through, it’s absolutely hilarious at times (giant walking statue, lol) and terrifying at other times (stalked by invisible man-insects, EEK). In other words, it personifies the campy, old-school horror feel of RE4. Yeah, there’s one shitty thing about the castle, and her name is Ashley Graham. Dodging zombie suits of armor as the helpless teenage twat...not fun. But that doesn’t make me love the opulent, tongue-in-cheek killfest of Castle Salazar any less.

The Forbidden Land (Shadow of the Colossus, PS2)
This is the one entry on my list that encompasses the entire game, and it totally deserves to be here for the sheer hours I’ve spent in it. Shadow of the Colossus takes place wholly in the Forbidden Land, a desolate peninsula long abandoned by humankind and accessible only by a miles-long bridge leading to a massive temple. You must explore this haunted place, its ruined cities and deep canyons, its forest glades, caves, deserts, and cliffs, to find and defeat the sixteen colossi. I’m always amazed by how serene the world is. No people, nothing to fight or kill other than the colossi, just the howl of the wind and the cry of distant birds. The graphics are so-so with a lot of unfortunate bloom effects, but that doesn’t really distract from the incredible ambiance. There are many locations in the Forbidden Land that have no real purpose beyond being a quiet little secret spot for you to find. It’s not for the impatient gamer, but for people like me who value atmosphere, it’s a video game world that’s a dreamy delight to get lost in.

Gruntilda’s Lair (Banjo-Kazooie, N64)
Ahhh, the overworld -- the hub from which every other area of the game is gradually unlocked. All the older 3D platform games had one, and my favorite is a labyrinthine cave complex owned by an evil witch with insecurity issues. Many overworlds simply exist for the sake of convenience, but Gruntilda’s Lair had real personality and was just as challenging to explore as the levels themselves. It was huge, for one thing, and filled with hidden nooks and crannies. To access a level, you had to find both the level entrance and the magic jigsaw puzzle that unlocked it, and there was plenty more to discover as well. I found it genuinely rewarding to uncover more and more of the place, and since Gruntilda the witch was so vain, her lair was filled with various images of herself, leering at you from all sides and never letting you forget who you were up against. In terms of creative world-building, this may have been Rare’s shining moment before they betrayed Nintendo and turned to shit. Sigh.

Kingdom of Zeal (Chrono Trigger, SNES)
It comes out of nowhere. Well into the time-hopping adventure of Chrono Trigger, you’ve already visited a medieval kingdom, a postapocalyptic wasteland, and a prehistoric paradise. You assume you’ve seen it all. Then the game suddenly plunks you down twelve thousand years in the past, during an ice age when the human race had divided into two societies: a highly advanced, arrogant group of scholars who lived on islands in the sky, and a ragged tribe of wretches clinging to life on the snowy planet’s surface. H.G. Wells would so approve! The contrast between icebound desolation and vibrant, golden sky-islands was visually striking and utilized the color palette of the SNES to the max. It was about as beautiful as video game graphics could get for its time, and the addition of this unexpected chapter to the complex Chrono Trigger plot made everything far more fascinating. What could be more tragic than a Utopian society that doesn’t know they’re doomed to be erased from history? Not much, which is why playing through Zeal made me realize that I was immersed in one of the all-time best games of a generation.

Prague (Sly 2: Band of Thieves, PS2)
Welcome to Prague! It’s snowing, the electric tram is running smoothly, and the mace-wielding wolves are out in full force! Oh, and you’re a turtle. I don’t know much about the real Prague, but the stylized cityscape of out-of-control Gothic architecture into which Sly 2 throws you is so cool that I’m tempted to visit just to tell them what they should be doing. The retro, cell-shaded visuals of the Sly Cooper franchise were never put to better use (in my opinion) than during this sequence, wherein Bentley the turtle must free his friends from a vile prison run by a giant spider. Yeah, playing as Bentley was a drag, but soon enough Sly escaped the prison and the turrets, gables, and spires of Prague became an acrobatic thief’s personal playground. It was drenched in atmosphere, it was challenging, and it poked fun at stereotypical Gothic imagery while also embracing it with love and devotion. Ever wanted to explore a game area for hours just for fun? I loved Prague way too much.

Spire (Myst 4: Revelation, PC/Mac)
How come the Myst franchise gets two entries? Because, that’s why. The fourth game was the last hurrah of pre-rendered gorgeousness (FUCK you again, Myst 5), and the world of Spire alone was worth the price. Imagine if you took a vast cathedral, broke it into chunks, and fused it with a crystalline asteroid orbiting a green sun. Austere, bleak, and beautiful, Spire was intended as a prison, but its sole inhabitant turned the entire world into one huge physics experiment, utilizing its gravity-defying properties to construct an escape plan that makes Prison Break look lame. This resulted in some of the most difficult puzzles in the entire Myst series, but their deviousness made it all the more satisfying when you unlocked Spire’s secrets and gained control of its power yourself. I can think of few video game worlds that I found more unique or visually striking; Spire truly warrants the adjective “phantasmagoric.” Look it up. And then look up Myst 4 (if it even still exists) and lose yourself in the elegant, greenlit abyss of Spire.

Toluca Lake Prison (Silent Hill 2, PS2)
Welcome to hell! If you were expecting fire and brimstone, you’re mistaken; this is a more subtle hell, one which creeps up on you, twisting your idea of reality until you make the leap into gibbering madness. And that’s exactly what Silent Hill 2 does to the poor player, thanks in large part to the Toluca Lake Prison, a dismal, rotting, underground gaol that defies all logic and plunges our hero, James Sunderland, straight into his darkest fears. Why is it so scary? Because the game forces you to journey deeper....and deeper....and deeper....down stairways and elevators and black pits....until you feel you must be in the bowels of the earth. Below the decayed prison is a sinister, half-flooded labyrinth where Pyramid Head lurks. Below that, even more foul holes and catacombs, not to mention murder. The whole world seems to be crumbling around you. Daylight and warmth are but a dream. You are fully submerged in a nightmare, unable to look away. It is the most emotionally draining video game experience I’ve ever had, and whenever I replay SH2, I dread the prison area. But I look forward to it as well, because behind the sheer horror is the type of immersion that very few games can achieve. If there is a hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s like Toluca Lake Prison: quiet, foul, joyless, and so, so lonely.


Looking Glass Land (American McGee’s Alice, PC/Mac)
If only my list went to eleven, I could include a trippy dreamscape from this dark take on Alice in Wonderland. But then the Nostalgia Critic would come beat me up for stealing his gimmick. As it is, I did enjoy Looking Glass Land, with its monochromatic chess kingdoms and warped, mirror-filled insane asylum, quite a bit.
The Milkman Conspiracy (Psychonauts, PS2/Xbox)
Every level in Psychonauts rocks. But I couldn’t justify including two levels from one game, and the luminous beauty of Black Velvetopia won out over the twisted, hilarious, paranoid suburbia depicted in The Milkman Conspiracy. It’s a close second.
Various Areas from Final Fantasy XII (PS2)
I dug a number of the environments from FFXII. Say what you will about the MMORPG-style gameplay, but the folks at Square-Enix still know how to create vivid fantasy landscapes. I don’t think I could pick just one, is the problem. Plus, any area gets boring after you have to spend hours grinding in it -- one of the many reasons I despise MMORPGs. Ultimately, I must praise the FFXII world as a whole, rather than drawing attention to a single locale.
Shiver Star (Kirby 64, N64)
My favorite world in Kirby’s one adventure on the Nintendo 64 was icy-cool, had great music, and featured an evil shopping mall as a level. Few things are more amusing than Kirby in a shopping mall. But is “amusing” good enough? Again, maybe if my list were longer.
Riven (PC/Mac)
Riven is my favorite Myst game and one of my favorite video games ever. So why’d I give slots on this list to two other Myst games? Because Riven’s strengths were its complex and brilliant puzzles, its compelling story, and the way in which the game worked as a whole. Myst 3 and 4 are more episodic with weaker plots, but I don’t find the actual world of Riven to be as beautiful or unique as Amateria or Spire. Its true merit lies elsewhere.

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