If anything can be said about the three of us here at Pop Modern, it’s that we all love video games. We may have each grown up on different systems and with different games, and nowadays we tend to play very different games at varying degrees of intensity, but that common link is still there. Between the three of us, we’ve spent so much time playing video games that a few key moments were bound to bubble to the surface and show themselves as our favorites. That’s why this week we’re taking things to the next level (or the previous level, as the fancy strikes us) and showing you our favorite video game levels of all time.
“The Milkman Conspiracy” from Psychonauts: It was hard to choose just one level from Psychonauts, since it’s two greatest strengths are its level design and the writing that stitches them together. But “The Milkman Conspiracy” world takes the cake for being incredibly creative, both visually and narratively. Set inside the mind of paranoid security guard Boyd Cooper, the level borrows several sci-fi and alien invasion tropes, and mashes them up into a fine paste. As Raz navigates this strange and disjointed world, he encounters the G-Men, who are very conspicuously trying to find Boyd and uncover his secrets. At the same time, the Rainbow Squirts, which are Boyd’s interpretation of an organization like the Girl Scouts, are using explosive cookies to keep Raz from progressing. Besides having some of the funniest lines in the game (“Hi mom, look at me! I’m tangled in a web of deception!”), it was also the first level to make use of the Clairvoyance power, which allowed Raz to see through the eyes of other characters. Being able to re-appropriate this strange world as a security camera or a cute-but-deadly Rainbow Squirt was both disturbing and hilarious in a uniquely Psychonauts way.
“The Train” from Uncharted 2: Among Thieves: Although the game starts with Nathan Drake hanging off of a crashed train in medias res, the reveal of how that train slid off a cliff is actually one of the best sections of the game, and one of the best of this generation. It represents the upper echelon of console gaming, and the polish and cleverness at play could only be done in the back half of this current console generation. As Drake navigates from the back to the front of a speeding train, the game abandons the wide open arenas of battle in favor of tight corridors and multiple layers of ground to cover. As the train goes under a tunnel, you head inside, and shoot your way through the passenger cars with reckless abandon. However, it’s when it opens up to the dense jungle that you can finally hop outside for a faster path to your goal. Enemies trying to climb on from the sides, hard turns on the track, and jumping from car to car were some of the most thrilling moments in the best game of 2009.
“Rust” from Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2: It wouldn’t be fair to do a best levels list without mentioning one of my favorite multiplayer maps. I think one of the reasons that “Rust” worked so well was its small, dense architecture. Even though Modern Warfare 2 was my first introduction to the series (and the last one I truly loved), I was able to hold my own on this map within my first few matches. The focus on verticality, the circular nature of the area surrounding the tower in the center, and the numerous hiding spaces made it all the more fun to weed out less honorable players who prefer staying in one place and relying on the game’s weapons and gadgets to win. There was no staying in place on “Rust”; at the top of the tower, you were an open target. At the bottom, you were easy to spot between cover. And the map practically begged for weird variants on the typical Team Deathmatch mode that players all over the world would make up. Throwing knives only, rocket launchers only, or even grenades only all worked because of how tight and intimate this follow-up to Call of Duty 4‘s “Shipment” map was.
“The First Shard” from Bastion: Bastion had many memorable levels, but the Anklegator level was one of my favorites. The level has the careful combat and fantastic narrative style that the rest of the game has, but introduced a fearful mechanic: run in the grass, and you will probably die. Unlike most forced stealth missions in games, the level itself is fairly well-designed, with an emphasis on fighting, and avoiding certain patches of ground. The Brusher’s Pike and the final fight with the mother Anklegator at the end are just the cream of the crop, giving an exciting conclusion to a well-built level.
“Dark Energy” Half-Life 2: Half-Life 2 is built on the diverse experiences throughout the game and its episodic sequels. Ravenholm plays like a survival horror game, the initial level plays like a dystopian French film, and City 17 played like a stealthy action game. Despite their dissimilarities, there is one common theme throughout all of these levels: fear. No matter what the setting, the player always knows that one wrong turn will kill them. The game promotes caution and thoughtfulness in the midst of a revolution. The final chapter reverses this. By finding an upgraded gravity gun, Freeman no longer plays as an outlaw, running from hiding place to hiding place. Instead, the player steps into the mantle of the hero, with a setting that shows these powers while still providing enough of a challenge to counteract any hubris that might come with such immense power.
“Hoth” from Star Wars: Battlefront II: Battlefront II is a game that is based on the diversity of its maps. The maps span the entire galaxy, from Coruscant to the Outer Rim. Despite it all, there is something that is extra special about playing on Hoth. Whether teaming up with a friend in a snow speeder to take down an AT-AT, or grabbing a sniper rifle to pick off those pesky rebels from atop a giant mound of snow, there is a niche for everyone on this map. Mopping up the reserves can be somewhat irritating, but the scale and intensity of the battles were some of the most amazing that I have ever played, and were fantastically formative to my prepubescent mind.
“Green Hill Zone”-Sonic the Hedgehog: I figured I’d start my list off with one of those roll-your-eyes, “classic” picks. It may seem disingenuous to point to such a basic, iconic level as one of my three favorites of all time, but I assure you this is entirely genuine. When I was a kid, I had a Sega Genesis, so I played Sonic all of the time. Now, the hedgehog-in-blue has let me down a little over the past few years, but back then he was the king. I would pop in my Sonic cartridges all the time, and, given that I was never good enough to get past that one pain-in-the-ass water temple level, I would end up replaying “Green Hill Zone” quite a bit. What sets this one apart as one of my favorite levels is the fact that, like many levels in the old Genesis Sonic games, I can play it over and over again and never get sick of it. Even listening to the music is enough to make me feel like a kid again.
“Palace of Twilight”-The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess: Now, while I had access to an N64 growing up, I never played much Ocarina of Time or Majora’s Mask. The first Zelda game I fully delved into and finished was The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess on the GameCube. I knew I wanted to pay homage to that game in some way, since it’s still one of my favorites and since the Zelda franchise deserves a mention somewhere on this list, but it was hard for me to settle on which dungeon was my favorite. Ultimately, I settled on the “Palace of Twilight,” as it exemplifies what is unique about this game compared to other Zelda games. It offers a balanced mix of Link’s human form and wolf form, and showcases the interesting “twilight” look that dominates much of the game’s overworld segments. The boss fight is also interesting, as it takes you through several past boss fights, forcing you to put your entire array of equipment to the test.
“DK Mountain”-Mario Kart: Double Dash!: Although I had a Genesis and a PlayStation, the console that I ended up playing the most and buying the most games for was my GameCube. Of course, there wasn’t much point in buying any games for it, since it already came with the best one: Mario Kart: Double Dash! This is a game that’s still a blast to play, so much so that whenever the three of us (Allen, James, and myself) are in town, we all hang out at my house and throw around expletives while racing through the game’s sixteen tracks. At this point, I’ve played those tracks so many times that I have them all memorized (including the fancy shortcuts) from start to finish, so it was difficult to pick a favorite. Most of them are a bit too basic to stand out as one of the best video game levels of all time, and others like “Rainbow Road” or “Sherbert Land” are more hard than fun. I ended up picking “DK Mountain” because, with it’s car-flinging cannon and rolling boulders, it epitomizes the frenetic fun of Mario Kart. Plus, that railing-less wooden bridge just before the finish line can make for some real nail-biting finishes.
Oftentimes we feel as if we can’t represent the full scope of a category, given there are three of us and thus only nine slots to fill. Other, better video game levels floating around in your memory? Offer your favorites up in the comments below. Other opinions are more than welcome. Our own choices, in fact, may not even be the “right” ones. Oh, perish the thought!