The best ways to start a game
A great weight rests on the shoulders of the opening area of a game. Be it a level, a mission, or the first quest in a role-playing adventure, this zone, barring any opening cutscenes, marks the first time players will get to experience the world developers spent tireless months and years creating. In our current era of widely available and disposable games, that first sequence is so important because if it’s poor, the player has a million options it can substitute it for.
The first level is supposed to set the tone for the rest of the game. It’s where players learn the basics of gameplay and the early evolution of concepts they’ll experience throughout the adventure. First levels can also be deceiving. Sometimes, a game will have an opening area that is so good, so jam-packed full of interesting designs, routes, enemies, décor and more that the rest of the game fails to match its output. Like Windy Hill from Sonic: Lost World. I’m fascinated by the art and science behind level design and while my personal favorite opening area of any game is the village from Resident Evil 4, World 1-1 from Super Mario Bros. may still very well be the greatest first level ever created.
A few years ago, as Nintendo pushed Super Mario Maker out the door, Shigeru Miyamoto sat down for a video with Eurogamer and went over the creation of World 1-1. The very first part of the level tells you everything you need to know about the entire game: Mario starts off small, he can jump on enemies, jumping into question mark boxes brings reward, a mushroom can make you big, and a big Mario can destroy blocks, which as we all know are actually citizens of the Mushroom Kingdom because, hey, it was the 80s and children’s entertainment was pretty fucked up back then.
As players proceed through the level they’re introduced to pits, Fire Flowers, Stars and different types of enemies. Those more adventurous and curious are able to discover warp pipes and secret blocks that dole out 1-Up Mushrooms. That’s it. That’s everything you need to know about this game, crammed into a single level. It’s a tutorial without ever really feeling like one.
I’m not the type of person who’ll contend Super Mario Bros. is the greatest game of all time. It’s not even the best game on the NES. But, in the same way films like Metropolis and Citizen Kane are revered today, I recognize the significant contributions it made to the gaming medium. While much of its innovations have been surpassed over the past 30 years, I still have admiration for World 1-1 and everything that lone level was able to teach me about platformers.
I’ve never been a huge Star Wars fan. It’s fine, just not my cup of tea. What I am a fan of is wanton violence for violence’s sake, and the first level of Star Wars: The Force Unleashed absolutely nails wanton violence.
For those unfamiliar, the game is about Darth Vader’s apprentice and blah blah blah it’s pretty terrible. What’s not terrible is the first level, where you get to control Vader as he invades a Wookie village. As Vader, you have access to unfiltered power and dude it’s so fucking awesome. You absolutely demolish Wookies as they run out and try to escape the asthmatic villain. There’s no better way to set up a game. There’s one part where Wookies will endlessly pour out of a building and run across a bridge, where you can use the Force to continually push them off to their deaths. I probably spent about three hours just fucking up the village when the game came out.
Then I beat the first level and played through the rest of the game. I then decided that the Wookietown Invasion level wasn’t just the first level of the game, but the only level of the game. As much as the game sucks, it’s worth picking up for the opening act, alone.
The Sonic Adventure games are near and dear to my heart for many reasons. They let me blaze a stylish trail through obstacle courses, they’re full of exhilarating set pieces, and they’re cheesy as heck. I don’t think any Sonic level embodies the Adventure duology’s strong points better than City Escape, which is why it’s such a common favorite first Sonic level. Call me a cheap sheep if you will, it’s my answer because it’s true!
Being one of the few Sonic stages in the series’s history to feature a proper lyrical soundtrack instantly leaves a strong impression. Transitioning into the stage following a ridiculous cutscene where you figuratively and literally drop into the action sets the tone for the nonsensical yet entertaining narrative. Bulldozing your way down the streets sold me on Sonic’s reckless attitude. Thematically, City Escape is the perfect level to introduce players to modern Sonic. Also, GUN truck.
I’d say it has a little less going for it mechanically, but it’s still solid all around. It features safe introductions to standard stage interactions like ramps, swinging poles, and so on to encourage players to learn them. It opens with a thrilling boarding sequence that instantly makes the player go fast, yet afterward offers the opportunity to familiarize yourself with Sonic’s normal controls so that you understand how to use them and achieve a similar speed. None of the obstacles force you to wait, encouraging you to control your pace through the stage. Even though it’s extremely linear, City Escape invokes everything I loved about Sonic’s early 3D era, and it’s little wonder I played it dozens of times after acing every mission.
I’m actually not the biggest fan of God of War, but even I have to admit how ridiculously crazy the opening level to God of War 2 is. The first game had a little bit slower of a burn before introducing boss battles, but the sequel just starts you against a literal titan. You aren’t even 10 minutes into the game before you’re fighting the largest boss Kratos has encountered thus far.
It also works as a great refresher for playing this series. Since Sony has never demanded a new God of War game every year, Santa Monica Studios took two years and released God of War 2 after the launch of the PS3. As such, a lot of players probably forgot how to even play this series after being occupied by HD games for nearly a year. You come to grips with the basic combos in a room loaded with enemies before embarking on the series’ signature QTEs and multi-room puzzles. It all culminates in this massive battle that ends up stripping Kratos of his Godlike abilities and even sending him into Hades.
Just… damn. Most games wish they had a final boss as engaging as this.
I was twelve years old when the original Kingdom Hearts came out on PS2. Squaresoft (damn, I miss them) had already captured my young heart with Final Fantasy, and, as leery as I was of losing my turn-based combat, The Bouncer got me interested in the developer’s leap into more action-oriented gameplay. Unlike The Bouncer, Sora’s initial journey has stayed with me to this day, and it all stems from this very moment. The Awakening.
From the start, Kingdom Hearts establishes its identity. You start on a stained glass platform picturing Snow White (and co). After learning how to move, you must choose a preference between the sword, shield, and staff. After picking, you must sacrifice one. The combination of decisions here dictate your starting stats and maximum possible item slots. The game doesn’t tell you, but you inadvertently mold your experience of the game before it even begins.
After duking it out with some enemies, you’re confronted with a set of three questions from child versions of (possibly familiar) Final Fantasy characters. Choosing what I was most afraid of between getting old or being different was a heavy decision for me at twelve years old. Thinking about what’s most important to me or what I want out of life was a whole other side of the spectrum. But each of those decisions unknowingly customized the experience even further, affecting the rate at which you leveled up throughout the game.
Even without knowing the underlying implications of these choices, I can’t imagine a better first impression for the series. The Awakening felt like pure magic to me then, and it still does now.
I can’t say I was ever a huge fan of the Hitman series. I liked Blood Money plenty and I dabbled in other titles in the series, but damn did I fall in love with 2016’s episodic Hitman. It might sort of be cheating since Paris is technically the second area if you count the training zone, but it’s the first full level and it is freaking amazing.
The Paris level, like all levels in Hitman, isn’t perfect because of the required story contract but because of all the reasons to keep coming back. Exploring the attic of the sprawling mansion and finding weird vampire costumes, and don’t forget the Christmas contract that saw us return to take down the crooks from Home Alone.
I also got to kill Santa by chucking a fire ax at him….Hitman is pretty cool. Hitman was my favorite game of 2016, but the Paris level was the taste that got me addicted and a damn near perfect first level.
This is a tough one. I could easily go with the opening area of Metroid, Karate Man from Rhythm Tengoku, the highway stage of Mega Man X, and any number of other classic opening stages. That said, Chop Chop Master Onion’s level in PaRappa The Rapper still grabs me in a way that none of the others can. Not only does it work as a great primer on the game’s mechanics, but it practically defines the entire series, which went on the influence the entire genre of Japanese rhythm games.
If Super Mario Bros. is the Beatles and GTA is NWA, then PaRappa the Rapper is… Beck? If so, then Chop Chop is his Loser and that’s what makes him a winner.
Pixie The Fairy
Dark Souls is really great at introducing you to the mysteries of Lordran while subsequently beating its style of gameplay into your skull. You die. You die quite a bit as you get the hang of the combat, defending and parrying as you journey through the Undead Burg the top of the chapel in the Undead Parish with the singular goal of ringing the chapel’s bell. Each fight, each bonfire lit and each shortcut found are hard-won accomplishments and whether you decide to take on the chapel gargoyles alone or in jolly cooperation you and your phantom buddy are ready for that fight by the time you get there.
And when you ring that bell, other players in other parallel dimensions of Lordran’s shattered world will hear it. It’s not just a sign of accomplishment for you, though — ringing that bell is meant to give hope to other players that this mission is not insurmountable no matter how unforgiving the path may seem.
That’s just a really cool touch.
“First level” doesn’t quite do the U.S.S. Discovery chapter of Metal Gear Solid 2 enough justice. It’s less a single level than a prologue encapsulating almost everything that defined Metal Gear Solid 2. The fully playable sequence of Snake infiltrating a secret ship carrying a prototype Metal Gear unit contains an example or two of virtually everything new added to Metal Gear‘s core gameplay since the first Metal Gear Solid title, and it serves as an excellent one-and-done summary of what the game would be about, all the way down to the increasingly crazy narrative revelations that land right at the end of the sequence.
The rest of the game, by comparison, is considerably more uneven. Interestingly, it’s a pattern that would repeat with Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain. If you consider Ground Zeroes to be a prologue of sorts and take both it and The Phantom Pain as parts of the same whole, then Ground Zeroes is quite a bit tighter and more self-contained than the latter. This isn’t to say that Ground Zeroes (or for that matter, the Tanker chapter of MGS2) are necessarily better, of course, but they do make for highly effective and memorable introductions to their respective games, and exemplify that ideal of generating a “vertical slice” that contains a fully contained, nearly standalone demonstration of the game itself.
Those are some goddamn great first levels. To yell at us for any obvious levels we missed, leave a comment below.