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As more and more games turn to open world or sandbox adventures, the concept of the level has slowly begun to disappear from AAA games. Back in the day, your typical game was either a series of levels in sequential order or an over-world where you could enter individual levels. This list is celebrating the top 10 levels of all time in classic games.
10. Cool Cool Mountain – Super Mario 64
I’m going to warn you right now that the Nintendo 64 is going to feature pretty prominently on this list. As a console, it damn near perfected the over-world design of games. Many people will remember Super Mario 64 as the title that came with their Nintendo 64. (Although mine came with Starfox 64!)
Cool Cool Mountain is one of the first stages players encounter, but it had a little of everything that made Mario 64 great. Whether you were helping a lost penguin find its mother, or a snowman’s head find his body, this level was a ton of fun. But of course, the only thing that truly matters is the slide race against the big penguin.
9. Area 6 – Star Fox 64
See what I did in #10? Foreshadowing! Star Fox 64 didn’t use the over-world, instead opting for the more old school linear progression. But it did boast three different difficulty paths for players to follow. There’s a lot of planets that everyone remembers like Corneria for being the iconic first stage, or Solar for being one of the worst levels in a game ever.
If we’re talking about the best stage in Star Fox 64 though, it has to be Area 6. I loved the final showdown with Andross, but breaking through the defenses of Venom was an incredible experience. It’s a situation where the voice acting really adds a lot, which is surprising given the age of the game. Who doesn’t remember “THEY’RE THROUGH THE SECOND LINE!”
It made the player feel powerful after struggling through so much of the game to finally charge forward and shatter Venom’s defenses. That boss sucked though. “CRUD! And we were so close to Venom!”
8. Casino Night Zone – Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Everyone remembers Casino Night Zone. For me, it was the level where I knew Sonic was going to be one of my favorite games. Full disclosure, Sonic 2 was the game that came with my Sega Genesis, so I was guaranteed to at least try it.
Still, how many people spent way too long just using the slot machine over and over again? See? Video games had gambling long before loot boxes!
7. The Facility – Goldeneye 007
You knew this one was going to be on there. Goldeneye 007 was a groundbreaking game in many ways, with a ton of memorable levels. If I say words like Bunker, Cradle, or Dam, you instantly have flashbacks to the game. However, nowhere is this more true than the the Facility.
The stage mirrors the movie well, with Bond starting out in the vents and descending into the bathroom. His mission takes him through the facility until we reach the iconic scene in the gas tank room where Ourmov ‘kills’ Trevelyn. Not only was this a great level in the single player, but it also stands out as one of the most popular multiplayer levels as well. So much so, it was one of the levels brought back in Perfect Dark!
6. Flash Man – Mega Man II
When talking about Mega Man stages, there’s three key elements to a great level. Good puzzles, good music, and a good boss fight. Flash Man delivered on all three. He’s got one of the all time great soundtracks for his stage, and the icy blue color palette worked really well.
Flash Man himself was a Jekyll and Hyde kind of boss. If you got him in a good pattern, you could take him down pretty easy. However, if he started freezing time on you, then you were going to be in for a long fight. The time stop mechanic in the NES era was really cool and the game utilized it well.
5. Yoshi Valley – Mario Kart 64
Yea, I think it might be cheating to put a race track on this list too, but oh well. Yoshi Valley was an incredible course in a great racing game. I know people will clamor for Rainbow Road or Koopa Troopa Beach, but I thought Yoshi Valley reigned supreme. Not only did it have a giant Yoshi egg which would flatten you if you got too close, but it was the most chaotic track in the game.
It was unique in that it was the only course in which you couldn’t keep track of who was in what position. The reason? There were multiple different paths to take as you maneuvered through the canyon. The more dangerous paths were definitely shorter, but also risked you taking a tumble and having to wait for Lakitu to bring you back up.
Yoshi Valley remains one of the all time great Mario Kart tracks.
4. Ice Cap Zone – Sonic the Hedgehog 3
When it comes to Sonic 3, I really struggled about which level to pick. Visually, Carnival Night Zone is probably the best. Gameplay wise, Angel Island Zone is near perfect. Memorability? Gotta go with Death Egg Zone. And that’s where Ice Cap Zone comes into play. It wasn’t the best in any of those categories, but it probably would rank second in all three. And that’s enough to average out to the best zone in the game.
One category that Ice Cap Zone is second to none in however is music. The opening where you snowboard down the mountain as the music kicks in is stellar. I have no doubt that this one will be a controversial pick because it doesn’t even recognize some of Knuckles levels which are great. But hey, at least I didn’t pick Marble Garden Zone, right? RIGHT?!
3. Air Force One – Perfect Dark
Really, this one makes the list for being an arc. The three levels surrounding Air Force One are outstanding. Whether it’s the stealth mechanics in the first stage, the actual sequence on the plane, or the wreckage after it crashes, all three stages were so good. I also enjoyed that if you released the speeder on the plane, you’d have it in the next stage. That was not something that was common in games back then.
Perfect Dark ranks higher on the list than Goldeneye for me. Yes, Perfect Dark doesn’t exist without Goldeneye, but it was a much better game from start to finish. But don’t worry, this isn’t the last time that Rare will feature on this list.
2. Eagle’s Tower – Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening
I know. I know. I know. A gameboy game?! Not only was Link’s Awakening my very first video game, it was a revolutionary step forward in what the Gameboy could do. Link’s Awakening isn’t just a run of the mill NES game ported to the Gameboy, it was a full fledged Zelda classic in and of itself.
Of all the great dungeons in Link’s Awakening, Eagle’s Tower for me stands above the rest. It was a dungeon that actually changed as you interacted with it, and not just by mirroring rooms. After you knocked down the four pillars in the dungeon, it would collapse and form a new dungeon. That was a big deal on the Gameboy. While I’m talking about Link’s Awakening, I do need to shout out the 6th dungeon – Face Shrine – for having one of the best themes in the game.
1. Click Clock Wood – Banjo Kazooie
This was a tough one. And to be honest, I could have probably just said “Banjo Kazooie” and left it at that. Rare’s 1998 platforming classic Banjo Kazooie boasted some of the best level design in gaming history. It’s aided by the goal of the game, which is to collect different objects like musical notes, jiggies, jinjos, and mumbo tokens. Designing the game this way forces the player to explore entire levels, rather than just pathing out the fastest way from the start to the finish.
Like I said, I could pick any number of worlds from Banjo Kazooie. Freezeazy Peak, Mad Monster Mansion, Treasure Trove Cove… not Bubblegloop Swamp, because I hate Bubblegloop Swamp. Of all the great worlds in the game though, Click Clock Wood will always stand out to me. It was technically four levels in one, as you visit the stage in each of the four seasons. Each season brings a variety of changes to the level, and things you do in one season will have an impact in the next. Again, for the N64 era, this was pretty impressive.
It also boasted a creative soundtrack, taking four different approaches to the same melody to symbolize each season. Many people will look back and remember the level as being punishing and unforgiving, but for me it was a delightful challenge after the murderous difficulty of Rusty Bucket Bay. For all these reasons and more, Click Clock Wood gets my vote for the best level of all time.
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