Over this past Fourth of July extended weekend, I spent much of my time chilling out in the hotel pool while on vacation with my family. It was nice to just sit back and let the water envelope my body, to get some exercise swimming from end to end, and to dive down to the bottom, seeing how low I can go before freaking out and surfacing, gasping for air like the pansy I am. Oh yes, I love the water. Water levels in games? Not so much. Sure, The Legendary Starfy proved an entire game built around water levels could be a blast, but for the most part, water levels slow the action to a crawl, taking away precise controls in favor of a more floaty challenge. Some, however, float high above the rest.
A person more eloquent than me could argue Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is the greatest platformer ever made. A person more stupid than me should be able to convince you it’s the greatest Donkey Kong game ever made. Retro Studios’ imaginative sequel to the game that revived the franchise is one of the standout titles on the Wii U, managing to 1-up its predecessor in nearly every way. From graphics to gameplay to music, Tropical Freeze excels. In respect to gameplay, the return of water levels, missing from DKC Returns, was a welcomed reintroduction for the series. Donkey Kong Country games have always been home to memorable water levels, and Irate Eight from Tropical Freeze just happens to be the best one ever made.
Amiss Abyss may be the more visually arresting level, but the challenge, urgency, and creativity of Irate Eight make it so much more dynamic. Featuring a cover of DKC2’s Lockjaw’s Saga, Irate Eight is a race for survival against the nefarious Squiddicus, returning from Donkey Kong Country Returns. There, it was the main obstacle in Stormy Shore. Here, it is one of many dangers you have to avoid, along with sinking spikes, mines, Mama Saws, Finleys, and Pufftups. The race to escape Squiddicus unwinds over three parts: the initial chase, dodging its tentacles as you swim towards safety and one final chase where it literally brings down the stage to stop you. Just thinking about it right now makes me want to stop writing this and go play that level again.
Irate Eight is a goddamn fantastic level and anybody who tries to argue it isn’t the absolute best water stage is nothing but a barnacle.
The muted beauty of Mario 64 has been heralded throughout the ages, but whenever the phrase “water level” is ever uttered, that harrowing encounter with the giant eel from Jolly Roger Bay immediately comes to mind.
The game’s miniature sandboxes are a triumph. They’re big enough to warrant exploration, but not so bloated where you’re looking at icon diarrhea. I remember pretty much every Star objective from every world, which in this case is augmented by the treasure chest puzzles coupled with the deathly fear of drowning.
Everything from the soothing music to the welcoming layout ensure that I’ll never get sick of the Bay for years to come.
Unpopular opinion time: I think the “Water Temple” from Ocarina of Time is one of the best dungeons in that game. Not only is the entire dungeon set up like a giant puzzle, but it requires you to have an understanding of 3D spaces to truly progress through the thing.
Changing the level of the water to reach different heights and areas is a mind-bending ordeal that can drive you insane if you forget one tiny detail. Eventually spotting an area you need to reach, only to realize the water level isn’t correct, can be maddening. The dungeon makes you work to see the end and it caps off with a decent enough boss fight.
It also has Shadow Link in the middle, even if he is a bit brain dead. It’s a surreal moment in a game filled with precious memories. Oh, and the longshot is awesome, if only because you can now hook to stuff across an entire room. Hell, even the Master Quest version of the dungeon is neat (and I friggin hate Master Quest).
The Great Bay Temple in Majora’s Mask might make better use of water (you have to change its direction and freeze it), but it doesn’t have the same labyrinthine design as Ocarina‘s Water Temple. This dungeon captures the essence of the NES original in 3D form and I wouldn’t want it any other way.
Well, the N64 had that awful inventory management, but the 3DS version fixes that. So, problem solved!
Even more of an unpopular opinion time, I’m one of those people who would counter-pick Delfino Plaza in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and a lot of the time even up series as Ganondorf (who will henceforth from this point be called Dorf) and because of that, it earns my best water level. It has to be in Brawl, simply because in Brawl Dorf was the definition of bad. Slow, clunky, open for attacks at even the slightest misstep, basically just a lumbering hitbox. At least on the Wii U he was marginally better but it’s not hard to improve on being so bad that you have your own tier. So in order to have any chance of winning as Dorf in Brawl, you had to take every advantage you could, one of the biggest was stage selection. Dorf was slow but when he hit he hit hard, so it helped to have a level where enemies were forced to slow down. Because of this Delfino and I became very acquainted over my brief run at competitive Smash.
Ordinarily, I hate stages that move, it throws off the pacing of the match and allows for cheap deaths or unwarranted survivals. But in Delfino there was water in a few of the stage transformations where characters could get stuck, and because of the slower mechanics of Brawl they could be in there for a few seconds which to a Dorf player is better than the other two Triforce pieces on Christmas. I wish I had the stats on how many of my kills came from spiking while my opponents were stuck in the water. It was even funnier when it was a Dorf off (basically the exact opposite of the popular Fox off from Melee) between me and my friend because the second one of us went in the water the entire objective of the game changed and it was like watching two people who can’t swim vigorously try to kill each other.
Not to mention that the stage was downright beautiful and the music cheery and lovely. It almost made me go back and actually play Super Mario Sunshine but like my opponents in the water, those plans ultimately sunk.
Let’s make a quick return to fairly popular opinions. Banjo-Kazooie is fantastic, and although many of the levels in the Rare classic prominently feature water, Clanker’s Cavern is the true underwater world.
The third world in Banjo-Kazooie keeps with the game’s fantastic soundtrack and makes swimming through grimy water all while looking at a slightly unsettling mechanical shark somehow enjoyable.
Leave it to Rare to make one of the few water levels that I actually enjoy.
(Artwork courtesy of Joel Sousa)
While Sonic the Hedgehog 3 is not my favorite game in the franchise, it does have one of my favorite stages, Hydrocity Zone in its entirety is incredible to me. The color palette, the gameplay, the music; everything just fits so well together.
I love the way that Sonic 3’s stages, especially when paired with Sonic & Knuckles feel so seamless. You are on a big adventure, and it really feels like you are going from one region to the next with the way the stages transition.
Hydrocity is not a traditional water stage. There are a few parts where you risk drowning, but most of the time you are zipping around on water slides, running from walls closing in on the stage, the music is remixed in the second act to great effect and the boss at the end is a ton of fun to fight as you use the bombs he drops to launch yourself above him, or jump on the pillars of water the explosions leave behind. Just awesome.
Bubble Man from Mega Man 2, no contest. Even today, it’s still my favorite. Not only is it exquisitely paced, but it also single-handedly redefined what a “water level” in a video game could be. It proved that just because there is water doesn’t mean you have to swim in it. In fact, swimming isn’t even close to being the most fun thing you can do under water. Jumping incredibly high and then slowly, gracefully returning to the ground as you shoot a giant robot fish that shoots robotic shrimp out of its? That, on the other hand, is definitely top three.
Also, the use of scale to make large enemies (the fish) seem huge and the small enemies (the baby frogs) seem minuscule, the way the collapsing platforms offer a tough but fair challenge, and of course the music, are all literally perfect.
Super Mario Land is one of the overlooked gems in Mario’s long history of games. Notorious for being so different from the rest of the franchise, and notable for being an early Mario title with no involvement from Miyamoto, many elements have yet to return in modern Mario.
However, it is home to the greatest goddamn water level in a Mario title. World 2-3, where Mario goes ‘Screw this nonsense’, gets in a submarine, and turns the level into a sidescrolling shoot ’em up, with Mario lighting up foes with torpedoes left and right. Brickwall? Torpedo. Fish? Torpedo. Seahorse? Torpedo. Octopus? Torpedo.
No more underwater swimming nonsense, no more frustrating enemies like Blooper. the only thing stopping him from getting to that princess is the ancestor of Kingdra from Pokemon, and Mario’s got a torpedo with their name written on it.
Banjo-Kazooie is really a masterclass in great level design to me. Nevermind the collect-athon design elements, each and every level is memorable. Rich might’ve picked Clanker’s Cavern but I absolutely love the concept behind Jolly Roger’s Lagoon.
What’s the worst thing about water levels? The air restriction, usually with slower pacing right behind it. Some games get around this by having no air mechanic but Banjo-Tooie makes Jolly Roger Lagoon special by making it the unique water level to remove its normal air mechanic with in-game reasons. The level looks like an unassuming pirate village until you realize there’s an immense sinkhole in the lagoon. Only after using Mumbo Jumbo to oxygenate the lagoon do you realize that an entire world lies just beneath the normally dreaded surface.
When you’ve gotten used to the idea of swimming with tension for holding your breath underwater, along comes Jolly Roger’s Lagoon to show you an enjoyable level free of the constricting nature of an air mechanic. I also love that there’s a whole sub-level that’s only accessible after you’ve transformed into a submarine because the extreme depth means extreme pressure. Of course, that’s where the excellent boss encounter is too.
Look, water levels don’t have to be objectively good for them to be a favorite. I have a lot of very fond memories of the Big the Cat levels in Sonic Adventure. Playing the game with my cousin in a single night, perfecting Big the Cat’s end-of-level dance, and straight up hating the game’s fishing mechanics because they made no sense. Hell, even watching Egoraptor play through the game gave me great joy as he endured the same struggles as I did all those years ago. Then, the above speedrun at this year’s AGDQ was absolutely amazing to watch.
Big the Cat has taken on a bit of a meme status since, but I’ve got some genuine love for that big dumb feline oaf. I mean, he fights Chaos with a fishing pole!
When you say “water level”, most folks think of a distinct area or point of a game when “water mechanics”, be that some kind of swimming or submarine type of play takes over, but I think this could also mean a simpler change in theme or mood, like going to an underwater location in a game that’s mostly landbound otherwise (say, Manaan in Knights of the Old Republic). This is me, of course, justifying my own pick for “water level”, which is the ship/boating gameplay of Assassin’s Creed IV: Black Flag.
Not only are the ship sequences the best part of AC4 (as well as the most surprisingly good bits of Assassin’s Creed III and Assassin’s Creed: Rogue), but they represent a rather dramatic shift in tone, from the more active and story-involved play of the series to something more relaxed and free. Combined with the cleverly selected shanties and the general allure of seaborne life itself, ship sequences are a great way to break the pace of the game itself. Adding to the fact that this is all freely accessible for much of the game, makes for a much more consequential “water level” than in most other games.
The lot of you are nothing but a bunch of barnacles! Actually, those are some damn fine water levels, especially those Big the Cat stages.