Let’s go swimming! Top 10 underwater levels

[Enjoying your Memorial Day weekend, U.S. Dtoiders? Thinking about doing some swimming? If not, maybe this top ten underwater levels will get you in the drowning wading mood. Want to see your own writing on the front page? Write something awesome and put it in the C Blogs. — Kauza]

A recent blog post about someone’s hatred towards water levels in games got me thinking about my own feelings regarding water levels. The underwater sections of games usually tend to be my favorite part of the game, so I’m sometimes surprised to see such animosity towards those levels when the topic is discussed online. Perhaps I’m a little biased, because I have a rather intense interest in oceans and underwater creatures and environments, but I still find a lot of underwater levels to be fun to play and not just interesting to look at. 

I can sort of understand where some of the hatred towards water levels comes from, though. Sometimes a water level just doesn’t make much sense given the context of the game. Sonic the Hedgehog is a good example; the game is all about speed, so slowing Sonic down with a water level seems counterproductive to the point of the game. The main culprit in cultivating hatred towards water levels, however, is of course the Water Temple in Ocarina of Time. Though I don’t mind playing the level myself, it can be quite tedious since your movement is slowed, the temple is complex, all the rooms look pretty identical so it’s easy to get lost, and you have to constantly equip and unequip the iron boots by going into the menu screen every time to do so. I don’t like the Water Temple any more than anyone else, but only because it’s given every other video game water level such a bad rap. 

I would therefore like to take this opportunity to express my love of underwater levels and count down some of my favorite underwater levels in video games. Perhaps this will restore some faith to the nay-sayers who constantly hate on my favorite levels. Shall we begin? 

10. The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – Great Bay Temple 

I thought I would begin the list by looking at another level from the Zelda series, one which I think did things right. Released about two years after Ocarina of Time, the Zelda team apparently learned from their mistakes after the Water Temple debacle.

This time around, instead of having Link awkwardly walking around underwater in iron boots, with sword and shield in hand, they came up with the brilliant idea of allowing Link to transform into a being more suited to moving around in an underwater environment. As a Zora, Link’s underwater movement is made incredibly easier and quicker. He can dash through the water and jump out at high speeds, much like a dolphin. No more sluggish walking across the sea floor. He’s also no longer unrealistically equipped with a sword and shield underwater, as the Zora form comes equipped with its own means of attacking with fins and an energy shield. Transforming is also made much less tedious since you can equip the mask to a C button, rather than having to open up the menu.

The Great Bay Temple is still a very complex and difficult level, and I often still get lost, but at least movement is no longer the problem. Another plus side to the temple is the gigantic boss, Gyorg. I have a fascination with massive aquatic beasts, so I found Gyorg to be both terrifying and really awesome. Twilight Princess probably wins for my favorite massive aquatic creature, Morpheel, but I didn’t really care for the rest of the level — or the rest of the game for that matter. 

9. Mega Man Legends 2 – Nino Ruins 

I hesitated including this level on the list, since it possibly contradicts the original point I was trying to make, but it was one of the first levels that came to mind when thinking of which underwater levels I loved most. The developers made the tragic mistake of significantly hindering Mega Man’s movements while underwater; he walks and moves VERY slowly.

Fortunately, they sort of make up for this by giving him the ability to jump very high and go very long distances while jumping, and also providing him with hydrojets which increase your movement speed anyway. You can also drain the ruins or flood them again, so you don’t spend the entire time underwater. The main reason I love this place so much is because of the level design. The structure is absolutely beautiful and very large, giving you a lot to explore.

My favorite area in the entire series also happens to be in the Nino Ruins: the huge underwater room with the manta ray-like Reaverbot that you can ride on top of. At first, the room seems terrifying, since it’s very dark and there’s a huge Reaverbot who may or may not be hostile, but once you explore the place a bit it becomes quite beautiful and mysterious. I also love the music in this place, and you get to fight my favorite character, Klaymoor. 

8. Mother 3 – Sea Floor Dungeon 

This level is very strange and completely unrealistic, but then so is the rest of the Mother series. I don’t really understand why they have the characters walk across the seafloor rather than giving them swimming animations, but whatever. This level is a beautiful and colorful coral-filled landscape, and houses some very humorous enemies, such as the punk-looking, B-52s-loving Rock Lobster and the Fish Roe Man, who is, well, a man made out of fish roe.

This level also contains the most original method of replenishing your oxygen than any other game I’ve played. If your party is ever on the verge of drowning, all you have to do is make out with the nearest lip-sticked merman, who may or may not be a machine and who will refill your lungs for you. I’m still not sure whether I should find this hilarious or very creepy, since the mermen kiss everyone in your party, including a man, a woman, a little boy and a dog. I guess if they really are machines then perhaps it’s OK. 

7. Super Metroid – Maridia 

This alien underwater environment is sufficiently creepy. It’s what I imagine the abysses of the Earth’s oceans might actually be like. It’s dark and filled with unknown aquatic creatures. The music only enhances the creepiness. Luckily, Samus’ hindered underwater movement can be alleviated by equipping the Gravity Suit, which allows her to move around the water like normal, and you don’t have to worry about a breath meter since she’s in a space suit.

The boss fight here with Draygon definitely caught me off guard the first time around. I was not expecting to fight a huge, hideous alien monster. I had expected something more serpentine, or something with tentacles or fins. This is the reason I would avoid the ocean abyss at all costs, you never know what could be down there! 

6. Tomb Raider II – 40 Fathoms 

To me, the original Tomb Raider games were all about surprising the player and inducing panic, what with all the creepy zombie mummies, giant spiders in dark rooms, and T-Rexes lunging at you out of nowhere and eating your face off. The most terrifying environments for me, however, were often the parts of the game where Lara had to go underwater. While swimming, Lara is completely vulnerable because she can no longer use any of her weapons (except the harpoon gun introduced in the second game, but it’s not very reliable).

This wasn’t really a problem for me during the first half of the original Tomb Raider, because there were never any enemies in the water until about halfway through the game. Suddenly, you fall into a sewer and are confronted by a large, angry alligator, and you practically shit yourself because you can’t shoot it or attack it in any way, even while it’s gnawing on your torso! The only thing you can do is swim for your life until you find a place to pull yourself out of the water, and then shoot the bastard from dry land. Ever since that moment, water in the Tomb Raider series has terrified me.

The most panic-inducing underwater level, however, has got to be 40 Fathoms from Tomb Raider II. You begin the level stranded in the middle of a vast underwater cavern after the submarine you were riding crashes, with huge sharks swimming around just waiting to sink their teeth into you. You must quickly find a place to surface for oxygen while avoiding the sharks, which you can’t attack unless you managed to find the harpoon gun with sufficient ammo in an earlier level. It’s definitely a frightening experience, which is exactly why I love it so much. 

5. Super Mario 64 – Dire Dire Docks 

An underwater Mario level in 3D? Excellent! This level definitely delivers. With very smooth swimming mechanics, beautiful music, and interesting challenges, how can it go wrong? There are plenty of interesting aquatic animals here which make the level even more awesome, including manta rays, sharks, schools of fish and a giant eel. All that’s missing are the Bloopers, I was a little disappointed with the lack of Bloopers. Also, I found the breath meter to be slightly annoying, and I don’t really understand why collecting coins would refill your lungs. But those nit-picks aside, the Dire Dire Docks provide a wonderful underwater gaming experience! 

4. Donkey Kong Country – Coral Capers 

The underwater levels in the Donkey Kong Country series were always phenomenal, and the very first one is no exception. They did everything right in these levels. The swimming mechanics are perfectly smooth, quick and simple, there is no breath meter, the scenery is beautiful, the music is even more beautiful, the enemies are varied and interesting, and you get to ride a swordfish! Come on, who here doesn’t love riding around on that swordfish?

I never beat Donkey Kong Country Returns, but I read somewhere that they didn’t include any underwater stages in the revival, which makes me very sad. The underwater stages were hands down my favorite part of the Donkey Kong Country series! 

3. Shadow of the Colossus – Seventh Colossus 

The water areas of Shadow of the Colossus are absolutely breathtaking. Three of the Colossi are fought in different lake environments, but I chose this one since the majority of the battle is spent in the water. Although you don’t actually spend a lot of time completely submerged as in all of the other games on this list, you do have to change up your strategy in order to deal with the watery environment. Wander is a decent swimmer, even with a sword or bow in hand, so swimming isn’t really a tedious task and is handled rather realistically.

The setting of this battle really makes the whole experience quite epic. You swim amongst the broken, mossy ruins of a civilization, in a lake of indeterminate depth, while a monstrous, eel-like Colossus swims beneath you, threatening to attack you with it’s electrified appendages and then dragging you down to the watery depths as you try to cling to its back. I would not dare set foot in that water if I were in such a situation, but Wander braves the terrifying circumstances to take down the massive underwater Colossus to save his loved one. It’s a truly spectacular scene. 

2. Super Mario Bros. – World 2-2 

Ahh… my very first experience with an underwater level. This level left quite an impression on me, being the first, and also left quite an impression on underwater levels throughout the rest of the Mario series and in video games in general. I could finally explore underwater environments right from my very home, something I hadn’t had the chance to do in real life at that point, except by reading books. There were fish, and coral, and squids and things, and I just wanted the level to last forever (I guess if I had found World -1 I would have been in heaven!).

Most of Nintendo’s side-scrollers use a similar format for underwater levels, including Mario, Kirby and Donkey Kong games. You don’t have a breath meter, and swimming is a relatively easy task once you get the hang of it. It mostly involves avoiding enemies and obstacles, and making it to the end of the stage. This is probably the level that most people would immediately think of when being asked about underwater levels, and the theme song would probably also immediately pop into their head! 

1. Mega Man 2 – Bubble Man’s Stage 

The ultimate underwater level! Other robot masters in the Mega Man series would follow suit, including Dive Man, Splash Woman, Launch Octopus and more, but Bubble Man’s underwater stage was the first and set an example for all the rest to follow. The stage contained an interesting mix of aquatic enemies, including robotic hermit crabs, shrimp, jellyfish, frogs and giant anglerfish. This level was wonderful because you had no breath meter and your movements weren’t impaired, but rather enhanced by allowing you to jump much higher in the water than normal.

This increased jumping ability could lead to other problems, however, since the ceiling and walls of the level were often lined with spikes that could kill you instantly if your jump was more powerful than you intended, but that’s where the difficulty of the level comes in. Without a difficult stage, Bubble Man would have no place in the Mega Man series. Bubble Man used the underwater nature of his stage to his advantage, and gave us one of the finest examples of an underwater level in video gaming. 

Runner-Ups (sort of): 
I considered adding either Ecco the Dolphin or Endless Ocean to this list, but it would have been less of a specific level and more of a game composed entirely of underwater levels. I thought they deserved a mention at least. Needless to say, I absolutely love these games to death. I feel like they were made specifically for people like me, who just can’t get enough of those beautiful and mysterious underwater environments! An ocean? And it’s endless?! Wonderful! 

Were there any excellent underwater levels that I missed? What are some of your favorites? Or do you absolutely despise underwater levels like so many others?

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Ben Davis
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