Last night I returned home from PAX AUS 2014. Long story short, it wasn't perfect, but it was quite possibly the best weekend I've had this year. It was a lot of fun. If you'd like to continue reading, the long story is just below.
Buckle up. This is gonna be...
HomeFeatures Water, Water Everywhere: 15 of the Best Water Worlds in Gaming
Water, Water Everywhere: 15 of the Best Water Worlds in Gaming
Posted on Wednesday, July 30 @ 14:00:00 Eastern by ryanbates
It's summertime, and the livin' is easy. Easy, that is, if you're an unbaked cookie on a tin sheet.
For the rest of us who are human beings, it's hot. It's too darn hot. As we speak right now, the temperature in Las Vegas is slated to hit 100° F (which, for us this time of year is considered “balmy”), and though the “dry heat” versus “humid heat” debate rages on, summer shows no signs of cooling down yet.
Fortunately, unlike unbaked cookies, humans can take refuge in water. From cold bottles straight from the fridge to pools private or public, from the wild thrills of water parks to the childhood joy of putting your thumb over the hose to fire a stream directly at unsuspecting siblings, water has always provided numerous methods of cooling ourselves, revitalizing our tired, heat-worn bodies, and enjoying nature in a less-hellish temperature. For video game characters, water has also provided numerous methods of DIE.
Water generally isn't your friend if you're a video game character, nor is it often a gamer's friend when a water level comes along. Water levels have a notorious reputation for artificially ramping up the difficulty by throwing the majority of game mechanics straight out the porthole (“window” for you landlubbers). Having fun going real fast in that Sonic game there? Bam! Hydrocity Zone. Cool your jets, hedgehog.
Even with everything stacked against it, I think water levels get a bad rap, and while most of them are unnaturally-placed, mechanic-altering, tempo-jarring piles of crap, some of them really can be quite enjoyable. In fact, I'd go so far as to say when a water level is done well, it's oftentimes one of my favorites in that game. It's not like they're ice levels. Now those can go straight to hell, do not pass Go, do not collect $200.
Plus, if you think about it, water worlds could be worse. Just add Kevin Costner. In order to define as a “water level” for this list, I've set the working definition as some form of self-contained section of gameplay where not only is water heavily involved, but also somehow influences the mechanics of the level. Simply the presence of water would not do, it had to play a major factor in the play of the level.
So in defense of water levels, let's take a look at fifteen of the best, completely Costner-free water levels in gaming.
Most tracks in Diddy Kong Racing offered the choice of vehicle, be it the traditional go-kart, the plane, or in this case, the hovercraft. Some tracks didn't offer that choice, such as Whale Bay, which required players to race on both land and sea. For N64 graphics, the track design was gorgeous, but there's no denying that the hovercraft was a whole new ball of wax, with handling following what one might expect with a rubber raft attached to a fan.
If you're wondering how you missed the fact that there's a water world in the infamous NES beat-'em-up, it's likely because Surf City is level five, and the average Nintendo controller was thrown at levels three or four. For those who need a refresher, Surf City takes the challenges of the Turbo Tunnel but replaces hoverbikes with surfboards, throws in logs and mines, and adds a giant, obese mutant rat with a mace for a tail. You know, if rushing rivers with death flying at you at lightspeed isn't quite enough.
The low ranking for this state can be directly attributed to the fact that still to this day gamer rage is invoked any time I talk about this great-but-evil game.
It may seem unusual to call anything a true “level” in an RPG, let alone from a numbered Final Fantasy, and even weirder for it to be what boils down to a glorified mini-game. One could make the case that players can skip blitzball altogether, and this is true... except for the first game towards the beginning of Final Fantasy X. This started a game-long love affair for some, and avoidance of the sport altogether for others.
I hated blitzball so much that after that first game where Tidus and Wakka play together, I didn't play it for the rest of the game. But it is a self-contained section of FFX, the mechanics are certainly changed, and the concept of blitzball is so integral to the events of the plot that it would be a failure to overlook the underwater sport on this list. Congratulations, blitzball, and may you never return.
Mario and Co. have had several fun water levels, but Plessie's Plunging Falls was a great water level of a different sort. The Mushroom crew careens down a rushing river towards powerful waterfalls, but instead of doing it themselves, Super Mario 3D World introduces us to Plessie, a creature that calls the waters home and looks like a cross between a Yoshi and the Loch Ness Monster (which totally exists, by the way). Water dominates the level, obviously, and anyone who has played the level with more than two players can agree that the mechanics are definitely altered.
Players have to work in tandem to control Plessie down the river, jumping and swerving to avoid obstacles together and plunge down the final waterfall. It's unique in that the level is a testament to teamwork, or lack of it, and those who have played it either loved it or hated it. I thought it was clever and challenging; in addition, the level's graphics are absolutely stunning, invoking the feel of fresh rapids mist in the player's face.
Or that may have been the little kid with the squirt bottle next to me.
The Mario Kart series has featured some fantastic tracks that have been influenced in some way by water. From the original Koopa Beach 1 in Super Mario Kart to Cheep Cheep Lagoon in Mario Kart 7, water has been in every game in some form or another, but inching out Cheep Cheep Lagoon on this list is one of the latest water tracks, Dolphin Shoals. Cheep Cheep Lagoon was the first track to include significant underwater portions, but Dolphin Shoals did it in dazzling HD beauty. Plus, riding along the back of a giant Unagi ranks as one of the coolest shortcuts in Mario Kart history.
Not only is Splash Woman's stage notable for featuring one of the few females in the Mega Man universe and the first female Robot Master, it harkens back to the older designs of earlier Mega Man games. Mega Man's physics take off underwater, and Splash Woman used this to her advantage with death-a-plenty, with mines, spikes, and of course, the notorious platform-jumping loved and hated at the same time by fans of the Blue Bomber.
OK, we're stretching it a little here, but this game essentially was one big water level. The mechanics were as much influenced by the water as they were the fact that players took control of a friggin' bottlenose dolphin. And aliens were involved somehow, and frankly it got a little weird. However, the game was demanding and the graphics stood as one of the finer examples of what the Genesis could do with only sixteen bits.
Let me make something clear: This does not refer to the Atlantica in Kingdom Hearts: Chain of Memories, which isn't bad either but not good enough to make this list, nor does it refer to Atlantica in Kingdom Hearts II, which is essentially underwater Dance Dance Revolution. In the first Kingdom Hearts, however, Ariel's home is a vast, beautiful underwater treasure trove in which Sora & Company transform into creatures from Under the Sea.
The water mechanics, though altered, aren't wonky, as combat remains largely the same but in a more fluid (pun intended) battlefield. Disney nerds got their jollies from all the references to the 1989 classic, and the boss, Ursula, stands as one of the most surprisingly difficult boss fights I've dealt with in all of gaming.
By and large, water-dedicated levels appear with less frequency now than they did in the 8- and 16-bit eras. My current hypothesis states that the developers and designers of today were the children who dealt with torturous water levels back in the day. But some of them decided to challenge the water level head on, subverting it, and in the case of Uncharted 3, made some damn fine gaming.
“Sink or Swim,” though not taking place completely underwater, fits our working definition of a water level by being a “self-contained section of gameplay where not only is water heavily involved, but also somehow influences the mechanics of the level.” Instead, Nathan Drake finds himself on a sinking and capsizing ship overrun by pirates. Sections of the level submerge Drake, forcing him to swim for his life, but the water constantly forces its hand, with the disorienting level design of the tilting boat to various runs down cluttered, flooding hallways. “Sink or Swim” eschews the classic water level design to create a modern classic.
When it comes to great platforming water levels, it's hard not to mention the plethora that can be found in the SNES Donkey Kong Country games. “Coral Capers” would be the first one, and would set the bar for other water levels in the franchise, very few of which carried the general stigma of the “dreaded water level.” Swimming mechanics made sense, and were simplified further when players found Enguarde the Swordfish, making swimming speedier and enemies less deadly with his pointy nose.
When discussing water levels in the Legend of Zelda series, the Great Bay Temple isn't usually the first one brought up, but it does have a feature other water levels did not. Yes, it played with the physics of water, requiring platforms to be raised by pumping water or lowered by draining it. Freezing waters figures heavily into the strategy of the temple, as the magical Ice Arrows lie within. But what the Great Bay Temple has that others do not: You can play as a friggin' Zora! (And a Zora that can shred a bonefish guitar, no less.)
Though it's really hard to describe any one area of Shadow of the Colossus as a “level,” if you consider each Colossus fight as a level, Hydrus the Electric Eel fits the bill to a T. To begin with, much of the fight occurs submerged in Hydrus's lake, and should Wander fall off Hydrus at any point, it will land him right back in the water. The “electric” portion of Hydrus's title is not figurative, either, as the three spikes on its back creates a shocking field that will take a large portion of the player's life bar. Wander needs to find a way to grab the Colossus's tail and hold on tight to execute his plan in this underwater rodeo.
When it comes to discussing water levels in the classic Super Mario Bros. NES game, oftentimes the words are accompanied by a heavy eye roll. The swimming mechanics aren't exactly graceful, Bloopers and Cheep Cheeps are in the worst places, and of course there's the notoriously hard-to-find World -1 that serves no real purpose anyway. So after beating Morton Koopa Jr. in the dry desert world, it's understandable that World 3 in Super Mario Bros. 3 might cause some weeping and gnashing of teeth. But Sea Side has always stood as one of my favorite worlds in the game.
Okay, the mechanics are still a little clunky, but not nearly as bad as the original, and water-based enemies were more manageable. The overworld map had a groovy chiptune island feel, and the world's Koopaling, Wendy O. Koopa, stood the test of time not only as being the only female Koopa Kid, but having bouncing candy rings instead of the regular magic rings that evaporated like the others.
But foremost, Sea Side offered one thing that still remains as a fan favorite: the Frog Suit. Who doesn't love leaping around in the Frog Suit? It makes swimming a breeze as well, reducing the pain of the water level to – yes, I'll say it – something enjoyable. Just don't get hit by a Blooper.
Oh, you knew it was coming. You can't talk about water levels in gaming and not bring up everyone's favorite headache, the Water Temple. The level wears its infamous difficulty upon its chest like a badge of honor. It has gained a steady reputation as one of the tougher, if not just downright annoying, temples in Ocarina of Time, even going so far as to breed several memes.
I, however, will stand by the Water Temple. So we have to equip and unequip the Iron Boots several times during the temple. Is that really a big deal? If you've ever been shoe shopping with a sneakerhead (holla!), you've seen more equipping and unequipping of shoes than the Water Level. Yes, it is hard, it is demanding, and it will require both logical thinking and gaming prowess.
But this was the stuff that gamers proved their mettle on, before games came with walkthroughs and hand-holding tutorials and what not. It separated the men from the boys, the women from the girls, the ducks from the goats, and the ham from the Canadian bacon. (Because sometimes it's just that damn hard to tell, because people have a habit of overcooking pizza. I'm just saying.)
Come on, who's afraid of a little challenge, really? The only reason this didn't make the top spot is because although I liked the level a lot, it's widely hated even by many Zelda fans.
This level, on the other hand, receives almost universal adulation. Bubble Man's stage in Mega Man 2 set the bar for water levels in the Capcom series. It introduces us to the mechanics of Mega Man in water, primarily the fact that he's buoyant and can jump great heights while submerged. Strategy must be employed, though it would be nice to just hop over everything.
Two Ankos lie in wait, requiring Mega Man to blow up its lantern while avoiding or destroying the Shrinks it propels out of its mouth. And the actual fight with Bubble Man was fun and manageable, whether or not one had played through Metal Man's stage. Everything coalesced to make an early entry into the book of awesome Mega Man stages, and it still stands as one of the best water levels in gaming.