Three By Three: Video Game Levels

Video Game LevelsThe Category

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 Choices

Allen

“The Milkman Conspiracy” from PsychonautsIt 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 ThievesAlthough 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 2It 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.

James

“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.

Magellan

“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 PrincessNow, 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.

The Conclusion

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!

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Three By Three: Video Game Companions

Video Game CompanionsThe Category

Wednesdays are always rough, but luckily we have those special somebodies to get us through. Those people who are always by our side, who stay with us through thick and thin, who listen to our problems, who help us mow down hoard after hoard of robots, zombies, and whatever other wacky road blocks life throws at us. That’s right, this week we’re talking about our favorite video game companion characters (sorry, Mom, the squiggly Tetris block doesn’t count). Take a look at our right-hand people, our real friends.

The Choices

Allen

Garrus from the Mass Effect series: One of my favorite things about the Mass Effect series is how you can tell every major character has an entire life story written out for them that led them to Commander Shepard. Garrus Vakarian, the Turian cop on the Citadel who joins your crew in the first game, is no exception. His armor, stride, and just the general badass aura that surrounds him pretty much guaranteed that I brought him on every mission with me. Whether you’re fighting Saren, listening to him talk of endless calibrations, shooting targets off of a bridge for fun, or even comically trying to copulate with him as a female, the relationship between Shepard and Garrus feels the most grounded in a game series about fighting evil apocalypse aliens.

Alistair from Dragon Age: Origins: I wouldn’t argue that Bioware creates some of the best companions in gaming, but they’re definitely making big strides since the days of generic servants and faceless companions from older PC RPGs. I’m mostly just a fan of mature male characters that don’t feel overly macho or boring. Alistair’s homosexuality is handled with such a deft hand that it’s almost hard to notice it until he flat out tries to flirt with the main male player character, but he’s also more than just a sexual preference. He’s endlessly loyal, incredibly useful as the main tank in combat, and witty in a way that is neither grating or pretentious in this massive RPG.

Agro from Shadow of the ColossusI hope I’m not the only one that realized that we’re not necessary limited to RPG companions, right? Amongst the million other things that Shadow of the Colossus does that both pushed the action genre forward and flipped it on its head, it also manages to make you care about your silent equine travel companion. Agro and the player learn together, they travel the verdant fields together, and they work together to slay the hulking beasts that have cursed the princess. It’s a classic animal friendship, but the fact that nobody speaks a single real word in the game enhances the feeling that Agro and the player are observers to the massive beasts that lay before them. Agro shows that a good companion doesn’t have to be chatty or witty, they just have to be there.

James

The dog from Fable II: One of the best companions I have ever had in a video game. True the dog rarely interacted directly with the character, but the interactions were fantastic. Throughout the entirety of the game, the one constant in the world was this companion, and losing the dog at the end of the story was the most heart-wrenching loss I have ever felt in a game.

Serena from The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim: A character added in the Dawnguard expansion, Serena is one of my favorite NPCs. Serena has a great backstory with plenty of depth to it, a backstory that not only makes sense, but also allows for the use of her special powers. As a companion she proves witty and capable, a suitable match for the Dragonborn.

Dog from Half-Life 2: The perfect companion for the silent Gordon Freeman. This lovable silent giant provides the brawn to Freeman’s brain. From playing fetch to destroying Combine drop ships, the colossal robot tags along with the best of companions, blindly and faithfully destroying Combine property. Truly there can be no better friend.

Magellan

Bastila Shan from Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic: Let’s get this out now: I’m a Star Wars fan. Hard-core. I’m also a big fan of role-playing games. Imagine my glee at the prospect of a Star Wars RPG where you control one of the most powerful Jedi in history (stick with me, here), where one of the companions you run around with is a brunette Jedi prodigy with a British accent and a double-bladed lightsaber. Enter Knights of the Old Republic and Bastila Shan. Sure, this choice is me giving into my old fourteen-year-old crushes and biases, but Bastila’s relationship with the protagonist and her character arc is still one of the most compelling parts of my favorite video game of all time.

Yoshi from the Mario series: First appearing in Super Mario World in 1990 and serving as Mario’s loyal steed on numerous occasions since then, Yoshi has steadily established himself as an inextricable fixture of the Mario universe. The defining characteristic of any good companion should be reliability, and Yoshi has that in spades. Beyond that, unlike most video game sidekicks, Yoshi has been able to turn that good will into games of his own and cameo appearances in all variety of silly Mario sports spin-offs, from Mario Tennis to Mario Curling (probably).

Navi from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time: The annoying fairy from Ocarina of Time? The one that keeps shouting “Hey!” at me and telling me to “Listen!”? Yes. That annoying fairy. Calm down, I know, I gripped the weird side-prongs of my N64 controller in pre-pubescent frustration too. But looking back now, being annoyed at Navi is one of my favorite video game-related jokes. I’ll do the voice, I’ll shout “Link!” and “Watch Out!” at Allen and James to get them to chuckle (or punch me, as the case may be). Navi may not have been a great companion at the time, but she’s like some crazy ex that you can’t help but tell horror stories about. That, and Navi paved the way for future Legend of Zelda companions to come (like Midna from Twilight Princess) that were much more developed and interesting.

The Conclusion

Enjoy our choices? Enraged that you didn’t see your favorite? Ever hear “You Raise Me Up” playing in your head while Tails flies you around in the Angel Island Zone? Explain why you agree or disagree below, and let us know what your favorite video game companions are. (Expecting a lonely afternoon? Entertainment and company: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NrlMgejvcfE).