Top 10 Best and Worst Water Levels in Video Game History
Ah, the water level. Most video games have ‘em and they have long since had some sort of stigma attached to them stating that they must suck. And, let’s face it, there’s a really good reason why. It’s hard to do swimming controls right in a video game and it’s even harder to make a level that works well off of those swimming controls. When they suck, they really do genuinely suck but let’s not write off those that are actually pretty good.
And that, as you can probably guess, is why I’m here today. I’m gonna count down the best and worst water levels that video games have to offer. It sort of goes without saying that I’m only including games that I have actually played but I feel like I’ve played a big enough variety to make a good list so enjoy!
10. The Kingdom of Jugpot (Klonoa)
For those of you who have never played or heard of this wonderful yet under-the-radar platformer, I’ll do you a favor by not explaining the game’s concept and just jumping straight to the chase of why this level is awesome. Apparently something’s amiss in the redundant-sounding Kingdom of Jugpot, so Klonoa and Hewpoe investigate to find that the water is flowing backwards (as in up the waterfall, gravity be damned).
From here, you journey in, out and around the waterfall and the water-filled caverns that surround it in order to try to find what the Hell is going wrong. Part of what makes this level so wonderful, aside from the superb platforming and calming music that makes Klonoa itself such a great game, is that there isn’t any bullshit swimming controls or inability to swim.
You just jump across the various rock formations throughout the Kingdom of Jugpot while avoiding enemies and collecting collectibles. There’s also no lameass excuse of your character being too idiotic to swim. Granted, Klonoa’s actual abilities to swim are still left vague but just about every area where you can fall to your death is from a high enough height where landing in the water would kill you anyways so point in that regard too.
While not the best or most inventive level that you will visit during Klonoa’s journeys, Jugpot is nevertheless still charming and fun enough to warrant a replay every now and then. Honestly, I was going back and forth between this and a few other video games’ water levels for the # 10 spot but the thing that made me put this on here is the level’s boss battle which is arguably the best boss battle in the whole game.
If you’ve ever played Klonoa, you know exactly what I’m talking about as the game takes the concept of cursed dolphin and sea king and turns it into a really awesome boss battle with some intense music. So, overall, Jugpot is the total package. It’s fun, got memorable music, a great boss battle, some surprisingly amazing water graphics (seriously, look at it) and ultimately earns a well-deserved spot on this countdown.
9. Slimy Spring Galaxy (Super Mario Galaxy 2)
Slimy Spring Galaxy~Super Mario Galaxy 2
Considering how everyone’s favorite Italian plumber and the aquatic haven’t been known to mix together especially well, it’s actually pretty surprising how the Mario Galaxy games seemed to be pretty damn well-designed when it came to their water levels. Granted, not all of them are phenomenal or anything but considering how many of them are water-based and how I don’t remember any of them really sucking, that’s pretty damn impressive.
And the highlight of these water levels is easily the Slimy Spring Galaxy that shows up towards the end of the 2nd Mario Galaxy. While I’m still struggling to understand the cosmology wherein a galaxy the size of a solar system consists of only a few miniature planetoids that are underwater coves, the player will journey through said planetoids to get, what else, a star.
This actually delivers a new twist to the water stage, as it’s pretty much a straightforward path rather than being non-linear. However, Mario’s oxygen supply is limited so you must blaze through the underwater caverns with your koopa shells while dispatching the slimy springs that block your path. The clock ticks down as you have to get to the next planet as fast as humanly possible.
While this all makes for a very entertaining and fun level, what really sells it is the smooth controls of Mario swimming. The swimming controls in the Galaxy games always stood out to me quite a bit as Mario does actually move fairly fast (albeit only with the Koopa shell but, it doesn’t matter, they hand those things out like they’re going out of style) and the air meter ticks down fast enough to make you prioritize but slow enough to not make it feel cheap if you do run out of air.
Granted, the odds of you actually dying while playing this level are pretty much slim to none (this is Super Mario Galaxy we’re talking about here) but the Slimy Spring Galaxy still manages to be a superbly fun level that exploits the water theme to its absolute fullest potential and deliver a fun experience.
8. Wave Man’s Stage (Mega Man 5)
Wave Man~Mega Man 5
The Blue Bomber has always been kind of an annoyance when it came to the water stages (which is kind of amazing since there isn’t any appearance of him on the shitty half of this countdown). The obligatory sink-to-the-bottom bullshit and weirdly-designed gravity makes a lot of the levels feel like instant-cheap-death zones that makes any Mega Man player sigh with anger whenever they get to that part of the game.
Which makes it all the more bizarre that Mega Man actually did manage to have a very fun water level and it was in Mega Man 5 of all games. Mega Man 5, which is widely regarded to the be the worst of the NES Mega Man games by people who haven’t played Mega Man 4, did sort of blow me away with some really innovative and unique level design as they took a lot of the bizarre concepts for Robot Masters and made them into fun levels. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Wave Man’s stage.
Rather than having to go through the underwater bullshit that every other Mega Man game forces you to endure, instead, a lot of this level takes place in some sort of dam or underwater laboratory or something where Mega Man is dodging leaking steam pipes while riding floating bubbles to the top of the level. Here you’ll find a large water reservoir and this is where the fun part of the stage begins.
Here, Mega Man hops onto a jet ski where he goes across the ocean in what can best be described as a less aggravating version of the bike stage from Battletoads. It’s pretty much an on-rails shooter as you must battle against Metools, robots on jet skis, flying fish and giant squid mini-bosses. Throw it all together with one of the best songs on Mega Man 5’s admittedly lackluster soundtrack and you’ve got a water level that should remind anyone who intends on designing a 2D platformer on how it should be done.
7. Tide of Terror (Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus)
Into the Machine~Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus
Y’know, I’m starting to notice a trend here in that a lot of the best water levels don’t involve any swimming whatsoever. Seriously, quite a few of these just decided to ditch the whole underwater swimming aspect and have some stages set in areas that contain water. Some might call this taking the easy way out but they still make for some awesome levels regardless.
Anyway, the Tide of Terror is the first level introduced in Sly Cooper as the eponymous raccoon thief tracks down the villainous Sir Raleigh to the Welsh Triangle and goes aboard his large yacht to sabotage his evil schemes. What are his evil schemes? Um… something about using a storm machine to maintain constant rain but how this benefits him in any way is not really made clear so…
Eh, fuck it, just enjoy the level as it is. Not only do you get a nice set of platforming stages as you use Sly’s expert sneaking skills to avoid the guards and prevent him from falling into his watery doom, this level also has a nice variety of other activities. Tide of Terror introduces the game mechanic of hiding in a barrel to avoid lethal motion sensing darts, using a submarine to fight a group of crabs for a key (it makes sense in-game, promise) and navigating a series of perilous security lasers.
And when it’s all said and done, you get a really fun boss fight against Sir Raleigh. While it is on the easy side (it is the first-level boss after all), it still tests your platforming ability, as a good boss should. It’s also a pretty hectic battle as the platforms are constantly sinking out from beneath you and Raleigh show’s great skill at crushing you underfoot.
Now, to be perfectly honest, I was kind of swaying back and forth on whether or not to put Tide of Terror on this countdown. Not because it’s a bad level, mind you, but it’s kind of hard to really qualify water levels in the Sly Cooper games. While this one is pretty obviously water-based, the sequels had levels taking place in water-filled areas (a river reservoir in the jungle in Sly 2, a moat in Sly 4 and the ocean in Sly 3) and most of the stages in said sequels are more fun areas than Tide of Terror.
Still, I’m putting Tide of Terror on the countdown simply because it is the one that had the most water. You spend more time avoiding the stuff whereas in those other stages there was still a lot of stuff that took place on the ground. In case these past two paragraphs sound like pointless rambling, that’s probably because they are but, hey, it’s not my fault that I have a short attention span oh look a butterfly.
6. The Challenge of Poseidon (God of War)
Challenge of Poseidon~God of War
Disregarding how this level introduces those annoying Cerberus enemies that no one likes fighting, the Challenge of Poseidon is actually a pretty top-notch water level. This comes across a bit of a surprise considering the game we’re talking about here. I mean, this is God of War; it’s not like Mario where you’d expect to go across a variety of environments. Prior to playing this, the only reason why anyone would expect a water level in God of War is so that Kratos could impale a shark on its own tongue (don’t ask how this is possible; Kratos would find a way).
Despite this, however, they actually managed to make a really fun level by doing the same thing that made God of War such a great game to begin with: very fun combat combined with puzzles that are hard enough to make you think but still easy enough for you to figure out. Also the swimming controls are top-notch and the fact that there aren’t any enemies that attack you while you’re underwater is also a big plus.
Actually, I should probably mention the swimming controls, as that’s part of the major reason why this level is on this countdown. After Kratos obtains Poseidon’s Trident, he gains the ability to breath underwater as well as developing an underwater charge attack. By rearing Kratos back and then thrusting forward, you break through stone barriers to navigate the vast underwater cavern (and also move since doing this significantly speeds you up). It’s tough to explain unless you’ve actually played the game but there’s just something very satisfying about rearing Kratos backwards before he smashes squarely into a stone barrier and shatters it.
Interestingly, this level also contains probably one of the toughest puzzles in the whole game where you find yourself trapped in a room with a large pool and a statue in the center and must somehow figure a way out but, like I said, they don’t go too far with it. It’s hard enough to leave you genuinely stumped but the answer is always dangling just inches in front of your face so that when you finally figure out how to best the game, you feel very satisfied.
5. Goo Lagoon (Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom)
Goo Lagoon~Spongebob Squarepants: Battle for Bikini Bottom
Going back to my earlier point about how a lot of the good water levels decide to just ditch that swimming bullshit and make it so that you have a level that is water-themed but you don’t have to actually go swimming, we arrive at Goo Lagoon. First off, if you haven’t played Battle for Bikini Bottom, I highly recommend that you do so as it’s a wonderful little platformer that makes for some great fun. If you ever watched the show, you’ll definitely love it as it’s filled with several memorable locales from the TV series, including the beach area of Goo Lagoon.
As the enemies harass the beachgoers and balloons are hanging a bunch of children, Spongebob and his half-retarded starfish best friend, Patrick, go roaming around the beach to find collectibles and stop the evil robot horde (long story). While the main attraction is the lagoon itself, there’s also a multitude of other areas like scaling a giant sandcastle that is slowly being flooded, exploring some caves and the final area of the level being a carnival.
The carnival area is especially where a lot of the more memorable parts of the level come through as you have to go bowling, kill a bunch of robots in the bumper cars and go bungee jumping. Also, while playing as Patrick, you can throw a fruit into the lagoon beneath the pier to make it freeze over and allow you to freely roam without drowning in the goo. (The more I write about this game, the more I realize just how truly bizarre it is.)
Now, on the no-swimming note, while I am aware that it is taking the easy way out, I still think that it can be much better than incorporating swimming controls if done right. And this level is a perfect example of how it’s done right. For one thing, in the show, both Patrick and especially Spongebob are established as being inept swimmers so they are at the very least being faithful to their source material.
For another, they get around this creative loophole in the best ways possible. By making you avoid the water (goo), that allows for more creative puzzles to be had which is part of what makes Goo Lagoon one of the better levels in the game. For example, having to avoid the rapidly-rising water (goo) level in the sandcastle is one of the more fun parts of the game since it keeps you on your toes and forces you to keep moving lest you drown.
Also, there’s just something so entertaining about using NPCs’ gut as a platform while they’re lying on a raft in the water (goo).
4. The Sewers (Jak 3)
Sewers/Haven Forest~Jak 3
Anyone who has played the Jak series knows that they sort of side-stepped the pitfall of shitty water levels by, once again, making it water-based than taking place in the water. Granted, Jak can swim, but it’s mostly just a short dive before he has to surface again so they sort of cut out the bullshit in favor of some awesome platforming. And while the Lost Precursor City in the original Jak & Daxter was awesome, the award has got to go to the sewer stages in Jak 3.
The sewers have apparently undergone some major reconstruction since Jak II because they look almost nothing like the sewer stages in Jak II but, hey, who’s complaining? Anyway, the sewer stages are the perfect combination of platforming, combat and puzzle solving that makes Jak so great. There’s areas where you must figure out how to unlock gates so as to further advance in the level and also fend off hordes of Metal Heads that have set up shop in the sewers as well as riding around on the Jetboard.
What seals the deal in this case is that whenever you venture into the sewers, Jak always receives a new gun upgrade shortly before entering the area. Now, bear in mind that by the time that you get to this stage in the game, you’re starting to unlock the more badass weapons and you’ll immediately see why this is an awesome deal.
Whether you’re spewing forth streams of electricity from your Vulcan Fury or launching a hovering disc that spews out a rainstorm of bullets in every which way from your Blaster, every visit to the sewers in Jak 3 gets you excited because you’re getting to utilize your new toys for the first time. This stage definitely delivers in spades in that regards and earns a well-deserved spot on this countdown.
Aquarium Park Act 1~Sonic Colors
I’ve never exactly claimed familiarity with the Sonic series. Pretty much my entire experience with the blue hedgehog revolves around Sonic Colors and the first half-hour of Sonic ’06. So, as you can imagine, I fucking love Sonic Colors as it’s pretty much Sonic’s equivalent to the Mario Galaxy games (with an actual story and shitty voice-acting but that’s beside the point). It pretty much combines classic Sonic gameplay and throws in a bunch of level themes that allow the blue hedgehog ample room for some good platforming.
This brings us to the obligatory water level, the Aquarium Park which is a large dome-like area that consists of the vast underwater zone while being peppered throughout with some land areas. The land areas are, of course, good fun, as running around at the speed of sound while attacking killer robots and collecting rings is always part of what makes Sonic Colors such an awesome game to begin with.
The underwater areas are also pretty good. Granted, the swimming controls for Sonic may take some getting used to as he sinks to the bottom of the ocean like a rock for reasons that I’m not quite sure of and you have to repeatedly press the jump button to surface. This actually makes it all the more heart-pounding whenever Sonic starts drowning and you must find a source of air ASAP lest you perish.
But, I’ve saved the real reason why this level is so awesome for last. While the underwater stages are a bit cumbersome to move around, it gets really awesome once you obtain the drill power-up. For those of you who never played Sonic Colors, the game’s main source of power-ups are weird little aliens called Wisps and the Drill Wisp is a yellow little bugger that turns Sonic into a spinning yellow drill that allows you to drill through the landscapes.
Now put that together with an underwater stage and you can already see the awesomeness starting to unfold. Getting a Yellow Wisp in the Aquarium Park turns Sonic into a spinning, conical vortex of death that lays waste to everything underneath the water. Throw in some of the best music in the whole game (and that’s saying a lot given the game we’re talking about here) and you’ve got one of the all-time great water levels.
2. Gloomy Galleon (Donkey Kong 64)
Gloomy Galleon~Donkey Kong 64
The N64 always had something of a shoddy reputation when it came to the water levels (as you’ll be seeing in the bottom part of this countdown) but that doesn’t mean that it didn’t have some good ones. Case in point being the obligatory water stage in Donkey Kong 64: Gloomy Galleon.
Gloomy Galleon takes place in a series of cove-like caverns surrounded by two large bodies of water on either side. Just like the rest of DK64, it took the same level of wonderful scale and exploration that made the rest of the game so good. Throughout this stage, you’ll steal some treasure, power up a lighthouse, explore some shipwrecks, rescue a mermaid’s pearls from evil clams, fight an evil robotic fish, turn into a swordfish and free and race a friendly seal.
Despite the size and scale of this level, it never felt too big as the Kongs each had an area to explore and the size of the galleon was easy enough for you to draw on a map and figure out the overall locations of the various areas in the level within your first five minutes. Also the swimming controls surprisingly don’t suck… much. Granted, it can get to be a little bit on the annoying side whenever you have to be precise enough to grab a banana here or there but, that aside, this game does do well enough at the water controls that you feel like you want to keep spending time in this level. It also helps that there isn’t an oxygen meter as each of the Kongs have a bottomless amount of air (if you’re asking why, then this game probably isn’t for you).
The music is, of course, wonderful and this level also has probably the hardest barrel course in the whole game. For those of you who haven’t played DK64, a barrel course is pretty much a hidden sub-area in each level wherein you activate a pad with DK’s face on it and line up your shot from barrel cannon to barrel cannon to successfully navigate to the end (Jesus Christ, this game is fucking weird). Gloomy Galleon is the first level to make it a little bit harder as it plays out more like a maze… but in a good way. It’s genuinely fun and rewarding when you figure out the pattern.
But I saved the real reason for last: the race mini-game. Every level in DK64 has a race mini-game and, as mentioned above, this one revolves around Donkey Kong getting in a motorboat and racing a seal around a small cove. This part of the game is so fun that they actually put the motorboat mechanic into the boss fight of the stage which, in and of itself, is also awesome.
The only real drawback of this stage is that it has two different levels that the water can be positioned at and it does require you to change it back every now and then. This can be a pain in the ass at times (especially since it’s a tad tricky to get out of the area where the switch is when the water level is low) but it’s not enough to ruin it. But alas, it’s still enough to knock it down to second place in lieu of…
1. Sink or Swim (Uncharted 3: Drake’s Deception)
Sink or Swim~Uncharted 3: Drake's Deception
I’ve mentioned before how much I really genuinely dislike Uncharted 3 but I’ll be damned if this one level doesn’t almost make up for it. Amidst all of the shitty story-telling, boring drug trips that drag on for longer than necessary, trying to shoot enemies in a cloud of dust, button-mashing your arm into searing pain and solving puzzles that are so fucking convoluted not even Albert Einstein could figure it out, the game does have this one level (and the few others right before it) as a redeeming quality.
Long-story short: Nathan Drake thinks that pirates have kidnapped his best friend, it turns out that they didn’t and now Drake is trapped on board a cruise liner as it slowly sinks into the ocean. What then follows is sheer gaming intensity and insanity all rolled into one (a combination that I like to call intansenity). And, boy oh boy, what a truly intansense level Sink or Swim is.
As water comes rushing in, you must first fight your way out of a cargo hold before ultimately trying to escape the ship altogether. This is something that is much easier said than done, however, as water will begin rushing in like no tomorrow. By this point the ship starts capsizing and going on its side forcing you to run on the walls as a deluge-sized rush of water comes chasing after you.
This is the sort of creativity that very few gamers get to truly experience and, Hell, even Hollywood could take a note or two on this type of action scene. You’re literally running on the walls and using opened doors as platforms to evade the onslaught of water. That’s fucking awesome. As if that’s not enough, you will still routinely encounter enemies who need to be put in their place because Drake’s life isn’t miserable enough already.
Sink or Swim is pretty much everything that makes the Uncharted trilogy (or the first two games of it at least) so great: parkour platforming combined with some enjoyably challenging gunfights. This stage superbly blends those two things together as the hectic nature will be fast-paced enough to challenge you but still make you feel like the game is dealing a genuinely fair challenge.
And just when you think it can’t get any more fun, you reach the large ballroom where you fought almost the entire crew in the previous level. At which point the glass ceiling shatters and you must run away from the gigantic water surge in pure horror. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is why Sink or Swim is the best water level in video game history.
But, let’s be honest here, you want to know what the worst ones are. Well, without further ado, let’s find out!
10. Jolly Roger’s Lagoon (Banjo-Tooie)
The obligatory water stage in the second adventure of the bear and bird is Jolly Roger’s Lagoon which consists of two halves: the shanty seaside town and the vast underwater caverns that can be found through a hole at the bottom of the lake right outside the town. Personally, my OCD has always been bothered by the fact that there’s only 90 jiggies to collect in this game instead of 100 since it made me feel like there was still a whole ‘nother level I haven’t found. With that said, I’m also convinced that they should have just divided Jolly Roger’s Lagoon into two stages with the town being one level and the caverns being another.
I bring this up because this level is SO FUCKING HUGE! Seriously, did it really need to be this big? As much as I love the first two Banjo games, I always recognized that one of the big problems with Banjo-Tooie was the fact that a lot of the levels were unnecessarily oversized (Mayahem Temple, Glitter Gulch Mine and Witchyworld were acceptable; Terrydactyland, Hailfire Peaks and Cloud Cuckooland were pushing it; Jolly Roger’s Lagoon and Grunty Industries were overkill) and this level does a good job at manifesting that serious flaw.
Honestly, a lot of Banjo-Tooie’s stages always seemed like they were levels that were set up for Donkey Kong 64 but weren’t finished in time so they just put them in Banjo-Tooie. They’re around the same size of Donkey Kong 64. But in Donkey Kong 64, the size wasn’t a problem because you had five Kongs to play as who each had their own objectives. So it made sense that the levels were big so they could accommodate this big adventure.
In Banjo-Tooie, you only play as Banjo and Kazooie (and occasionally Mumbo) so this sort of size feels unneeded and leads to just a lot of wandering around without actually collecting anything. Seriously, either the town or the underwater caverns would have made a suitable level, not both of them rolled into one (although, admittedly, there would need to be another area or two added to the town to make it really fit).
It also doesn’t help matters that the caverns themselves are really hard to navigate. I dunno what it is but I never could figure out the correct overall map to figure out which pathway led to which area. It’s tough to describe but they’re really hard to move around in without getting lost.
So, if I’m complaining so much, why does this level have the bottommost spot on the countdown? Well, the boss fight, while brutally difficult, is very satisfying once you defeat him. The music is awesome as always (especially the town music). And the Submarine transformation is one of the best transformations in the whole game. Also fighting Lord Woo Fak Fak as the Submarine is one of the best times that can be had while playing Banjo-Tooie so, for those reasons, Jolly Roger’s Lagoon scrapes the bottom of the list.
9. 2,000,000 Leagues Under the Sea (Viewtiful Joe)
Aquatic Terror~Viewtiful Joe
The 2,000,000 Leagues Under the Sea level in Viewtiful Joe takes place in some sort of underwater city wherein a bomb has been armed. How do you know that a bomb has been armed? Well, an alarm is going off that alerts you that a bomb has been armed. Well, gee, that sure is kind of the game to let me know. And keep on knowing. And knowing. And knowing some more.
If you’ve ever played Viewtiful Joe, you know exactly what I’m talking about. It’s not even that this stage’s water controls suck (since Joe just sinks to the bottom and controls like normal) or anything like that. In fact, I’ve really got nothing to complain about with this stage except for this one major problem which is so fucking annoying that it fucking kills the experience.
The siren never fucking shuts up. EVER! You will hear the phrase “WARNING! WARNING! A BOMB HAS BEEN ARMED!” so many times that it will become engraved on the back of your skull by the time you’re finished with the level. In case you dare to doubt me, I dare you to play it and not get annoyed while playing through this stage.
I wish I could go into more detail but I’ve really got nothing else. That one major problem is the entire reason why this stage makes it onto this countdown. The rest of the level is pretty decent but this one big problem was annoying enough to earn it a spot on this countdown. And rightfully so.
8. Ocean Side (Super Mario Bros. 3)
World Map 3~Super Mario Bros. 3
The fact that I’ve only got one water stage from the whole library of the NES on this countdown kind of surprises me. Gaming’s early years weren’t exactly known for having the most… erm… fluid of controls and the moment you ever got to any water stage, this realization was going to hit you like a brick. Whether it’s because jumping in the water will cause you to drown instantaneously (seriously, I’M A FUCKING BARBARIAN THAT KILLS VAMPIRES WITH A WHIP AND A SMALL POOL OF WATER IS MY FATAL WEAKNESS?!) or because the swimming controls tended to be too stiff, you’d be hard-pressed to find a good water level in the whole NES library.
And nowhere else is this more apparent than in what is arguably the very best game on the NES, Super Mario Bros. 3.
By God, this level is a pain in the ass. As anyone who has played any Mario game ever will know, World 3 is generally where the game’s difficulty starts getting kicked up a notch and Mario Bros. 3 is no different. So what better way to introduce you to this sort of punishment then by shoving you straight into the water level? What better way indeed. But, no, seriously, the swimming controls in this game suck.
It’s tough to explain unless you’ve played it but there’s just something stiff and off about the way that Mario swims. While I’m sure you know that you repeatedly press the A button to stay afloat, the rate at which Mario descends in the water when you let go is slower than you may expect and the rate at which he ascends when you’re hammering the shit out of the button is even slower than that. As if that’s not enough, the underwater zones are filled to the brim with a plethora of enemies and hazards that you have to time in advance to dodge them.
This level will make you bleed lives and the only way to stand a fighting chance is to get a frog suit. Which, while handy for the underwater stages, is more or less useless once you get back onto the land areas. Granted, this isn’t too much of an issue for most stages (since most stages in this world are either exclusively on land or underwater) but then you get to the castle and start silently hating the programmers.
The Ocean Side castle(s) is so fucking annoying. The whole stage is this huge maze of doorways that lead to everywhere and nowhere. Every other second you’ll either find yourself underwater dodging stuff that regular Mario is ill-equipped to dodge so you need the frog suit. However, if you go in another door, you’ll find yourself in an area on land where frog suit Mario will get his ass handed to him so you’re going to get hit. This is the point where you really just get stuck between a rock and a hard place.
Oh, and that’s not even the reason why I’m putting this on the countdown. No, the real reason is that there’s actually another stage variant you find in Ocean Side. Yeah, you remember those levels where the water level constantly rises and falls and a giant fish routinely jumps up to eat Mario? Remember how whenever you fell in the water you would hammer the A button like no tomorrow and yet it would still take a million years for Mario to actually jump out of the water? Remember how even after you did that, the fish would still eat Mario? Remember how impossible it was to accurately predict when the fish was going to jump? Remember how you discovered that the NES controller was made out of adamantium after you threw it against the wall for the fiftieth time in a row and it still worked perfectly afterwards?
So do I, so do I.
7. Great Bay Temple (The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask)
Great Bay Temple~The Legend of Zelda: Majora's Mask
Woo boy, now we’re getting to the rough ones. If there were any game series that has ever been more averse to having a good water level than Mario, it would be Zelda. The Legend of Zelda series has always been a sufferer from shitty water levels and it would have easily taken up a large portion of this countdown if I let it. So, with that said, let’s dive right into the Great Bay Temple from Majora’s Mask… which actually is located far off into the ocean, outside of the actual Great Bay but whatever, semantics.
Anyway, I fucking love Majora’s Mask and make it a point to habitually play it every now and then but even my favorite game of all time isn’t immune to some problems. Although even in it’s shittiest parts, it still has some redeeming qualities. Case in point: the Great Bay Temple. The music is atmospheric, the bosses are awesome (Gyorg isn’t that hard you pansies!) and the swimming is not only the best on the N64 but a good contender for best swimming controls in a game period. Yes, I’m serious. Playing as Zora Link and whipping around underwater is so much fun.
So, with that said, what’s wrong with this level? Well, long-story short, it’s just too damn confusing. The whole level revolves around changing the water direction in a series of multi-colored pipes that wrap in and around throughout the temple. It’s pretty much an oversized factory and you have to always figure which lever goes where and what direction to push which switch in. It’s a Goddamned Einstein project and while not as confusing as… something else that we’ll be talking about later, it’s still easy to lose your way.
Now, this wouldn’t be such a big issue and perfectly manageable if you had the time to figure out where to put everything via trial and error. But you don’t. Yeah, this is The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask we’re talking about here, you’ve only got so much time before the moon crashes into the Earth and sets you on fire (even if you’re underwater). I’ve actually almost run out the timer while in this stage, trying to figure out what to do. And keep in mind that I made it a point of restarting time before entering every dungeon and I was using the Inverted Song of Time (which gives you twice as much time).
This essentially equates to two-and-a-half hours of figuring out what to do and I just barely cleared it. That is some bona fide, premium-grade bullshit right there. All of the other dungeons in Majora’s Mask were complex enough to give you challenge but they were still easy enough for you to figure out how to finish it all up before the time was up. Oh and as for collecting all of the fairies hidden throughout the temple? Fuck. That.
6. The Water Stages (Wario Land: Shake It)
Windbreak Bay~Wario Land: Shake It
Let us take a temporary break from complaining about water levels being too arduous and hard and talk about a couple that have the exact opposite problem. The water stages in Wario Land: Shake It (Wavy Waters, Windbreak Bay and Creep Blue Sea) are long stretches of nothingness that drag on for an eternity. None of them are any better or worse than any other but they’re all pretty much the same in that they’re universally terrible in every conceivable way.
For starters, rather than giving you the freedom to explore every angle, the whole stage scrolls non-stop. So if there’s something behind you that you think missed, too bad sonny, you have to wait ‘til the end of the level to try again. I hate it in general when platformers do this (oh yeah, forget to mention that, the giant fish levels SMB3 scrolled non-stop too) and this is no exception. Seriously, it’s not enough that I can’t go back but you’re going to keep pushing the screen against my will so I can’t even take my time to collect all of the coins?
And this is in a game where collecting coins is paramount to everything else. In fact, that’s actually the other big bother: in the rest of Wario Land: Shake It, you can go wherever the Hell. If you think you missed something in the previous room, you have every right to go back into the last room and try to get it back. Granted, you may have already screwed the pooch but you can still try. Here, you don’t even have a choice.
That’s not the only problem. The main thing that kills it is the controls. The way that Wario moves is that the D-pad moves the submarine to and fro while pressing 2 on the Wiimote shoots missiles. If you want to angle the submarine so you can line up a shot properly, however, you must tilt the Wiimote in that direction. Hey, game designers, do you know what’s another great way to angle the direction? Using the D-pad!
And once again, this is really fucking annoying because of the game we’re talking about here. This game generally used motion controls sparingly but well. It was never too obtrusive except for these three Goddamned levels where it’s totally obtrusive. It also doesn’t help matters that I have an unsteady hand so any attempts to line up a shot perfectly generally failed and most of my kills were made simply because I fired missiles in every which direction until they killed something.
Oh yeah, forgot to mention that: as annoying as the controls are these stages are so easy that you will never die. You’ll take a few hits here and there but you’ll have to actually try if you want to die. Once again, rest of the game was like this but it was rewarding and fun enough that you didn’t care but these three levels just were a change of pace that were not welcome.
Speaking of unwelcome changes of pace…
5. Atlantica (Kingdom Hearts II)
Ursula's Revenge~Kingdom Hearts II
Oh yeah, this is one of the big ones. Anyone who has ever made a list chronicling the worst water levels in video game history always begs an appearance from Atlantica in Kingdom Hearts II. Yes, the wonderful little RPG revolving around your interaction with Disney characters and their world. Naturally, it’s only a given that the water level would be based on The Little Mermaid (although would an Atlantis: The Lost Empire level be too much to ask for?).
Now, in the first game, Atlantica was a bit annoying but easy to get the hand of after a little while. In the second game, you revisit a lot of the old stages from the first game so you revisit Atlantica, ready to see how it advances the story and explore it with your new game mechanics. But now, dear reader, imagine that instead of exploring these vast underwater caverns, battling the Heartless, you instead helped Ariel sing some songs in a couple of glorified quick-time events? Does this sound like a really retarded idea? If you said yes, then congratulations, you’re smarter than the people who designed this level!
God almighty, I hate this level. Ignoring how the quick-time events are all piss-easy so there’s no satisfaction to completing them and the songs by and large suck (except for Ursula’s Revenge and even then it’s not all that great), there doesn’t seem to be any sense of continuity with the previous game. I mean, seriously, this stage seems to revolve around you helping Ariel as you follow the plot of the movie. If you remember the movie well enough, you know that the basic plot basically states the Ariel goes to Ursula the sea-witch so as to get legs and walk on land so she can hit it off with Eric the prince. The problem here?
Sora and Ariel fought Ursula in the previous game! No, really, in the last game, Ursula tried to take over Atlantica with that aid of the Heartless and Sora and co. killed her. So now, not only has Ursula come back from the dead without any sort of explanation, but Ariel doesn’t even recognize her. Neither does Sora for that matter. Am I missing something here? Ursula turned into a Goddamned Leviathan at the end of the previous game; how the Hell did they all forget that?!
I know that I’m probably overthinking the Hell out of a game series that has about a hundred more plot holes in them but that’s what happens. When you get so utterly bored out of your mind while just pressing the buttons are random intervals and desperately hoping that this side-quest yields something of worth, you mind starts wandering and you start connecting the dots of how little sense it makes.
Do you know what the worst part is though? This is only # 5! Oh God, I’m dreading what is to come.
4. Beneath the Port (Jak II)
Remember when I said that the Jak series always had some generally awesome water levels? Yeah, well, I lied, this level is horrendous. This is one of the all-time worst ones. In fact, it’s so bad that I’m kind of stunned that I don’t see it more often as one of people’s examples on why water levels are terrible. This only furthers my belief that Jak II doesn’t get as much credit as it deserves but I digress, we’re here to talk about the mission in Jak II where you go beneath the port and how annoying it is.
After Jak goes off to look for his buddy Sig, he must travel beneath a series of underwater caverns in this giant robot called a Titan Suit. For those of you haven’t played Jak II, the Titan Suit is one of the lesser modes of gameplay you’ll experience. It’s not uncontrollable but it feels stiff and trying to get it to punch something often winds up being more trouble than it’s worth in the end. Now what would happen if you put it underwater?
This is a question that will not have crossed your mind even once while playing Jak II but Naughty Dog still thought that it was a question worth answering for some strange reason and that’s how we got this level. It’s not enough that there’s a series of mines hovering all over the place that you have to avoid, those I can handle. No, it’s those fucking Metal Head Squids that are going to make your life a complete and total living Hell.
These Squids exist for no other reason than to be one of the cheapest enemies in video game history (once again, these guys are so bad, I’m surprised that they don’t come up more often). The Squids have the ability to float freely throughout the water, as you would expect. The problem is that they can attack you from directly above you, behind you or really any other direction except the one that you can attack in. It’s so frustrating trying to get them off you and fight back and it’s not like you can just hop around to attack them, lest you hit the mines.
Oh and you also have a limited supply of oxygen. And said oxygen supply is very limited, if you fuck around too much, you will die. Yup, they just needed to do that too. What kind of shitty future is this where they can’t even invent a giant killer robot suit with an unlimited supply of oxygen? And don’t you dare tell me that it’s some kind of internal logic with the dystopia; they’ve seemed to invent killer balls of plasma and hover cars okay.
The one thing, the one thing, the one itty bitty little sliver of goddness that keeps this from getting any higher on the countdown is that the end of the level where you fight alongside Sig to evade a gigantic Metal Head Millipede does mitigate it enough to keep it out of the top three.
3. Water Temple (The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time)
Water Temple~The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
Yeah, you knew that this one was going to be showing up sooner or later. It was only a matter of time but Ocarina of Time’s infamously craptastic Water Temple has haunted many a gamer with just how infuriating it is. I could honestly just say “the Water Temple from Ocarina of Time” and that’s all the description you would ever need. It’s so bad that countless people, myself included, have developed deep-seated psychological issues: every time I hear that music, I get very angry inside.
This is that sort of shitty level design that makes you hesitate wanting to play through the game again because you don’t want to experience it. I’m not even joking on that one; there have been times where I have contemplated playing through Ocarina of Time again and I’ve decided not to simply because I do not want to endure the Water Temple another time. It really is that bad. And whenever people try to say, “Oh come on, it’s not that bad,” they’re lying. It is that bad.
What’s wrong with it? Oh, how about the fact that it’s so, so easy to get lost and simply figuring out what to do will take you a good hour or two or three or six. The way this whole stage works is that it centers around a main room where there’s a giant tower with three separate floors in the middle of it. On the tower itself are four sides and on each of those sides there’s a door and also a door on the cavern wall facing the tower. Discounting the level entrance and the boss chamber (which isn’t accessible until the end of the level) that ends up at around twenty-two doors that are given to you at the beginning of the stage (granted, some are locked but you get the idea).
Are you starting to see why it’s so easy to get lost in here? And that’s just the beginning. Now add onto the fact that you also have to raise and lower the water level an innumerable number of times and also the fact that you’re going to need to enter certain rooms at all three water levels but there is no mural for you to change the water level in that room so you’ll have to exit that room, change the level, come back, get whatever you need and go change the water level again and, oh my God, it gets so monotonous.
The bosses also suck. Yeah, it’s bad enough that you have to make a shitty level but to make a mini-boss and end-of-level boss that aren’t even worth the pain is just a killer. Dark Link is plain annoying and Morpha is so simple and easy to beat that it leaves you no satisfaction. And that’s the truly amazing detail of the Water Temple that makes it one of the genuinely worst levels in video game history. Normally when you complete a hard stage in a video game, you feel satisfied, even if said hard stage is really cheap.
You don’t get that with the Water Temple. It’s just so freaking cryptic and takes you so long to beat it that when you finish it, you don’t have the feeling of satisfaction that you beat the game, just a sort of gnawing emptiness as you calmly reflect that you are now several hours closer to death.
2. The Combination (Conker’s Bad Fur Day)
Good Cog, Bad Cog & Bat's Tower~Conker's Bad Fur Day
As you have more than likely figured out by now, water levels in video games suck. But if there’s one level design that could possibly be just as bad, it would be any level that is overly dark wherein you can only see what is immediately around you. Seriously, fuck any game designer that does that. So, common logic dictates that if you were to combine a water level with a dark level, their respective shittiness would cancel each other right?
No. Just… just no. There is so much no in that statement that I can’t wrap my head around it. I bring that analogy up because, honestly, I cannot think of any other possible reason why Rare would even think of designing the Combination level this way in Conker’s Bad Fur Day. I mean, my God, how did they think this would work?
Why? Why would you do that? Ignoring the abysmal swimming controls (the swimming controls are worse here than they were in the Banjo games, honest to God) and the fact that you can’t see a fucking thing in front of your face… no, I’m not ignoring that. That’s more than enough for the Combination to be a good contender for the worst water level in video game history.
Why would you even consider designing the level in this way? As if that’s not enough, Conker also has a limited supply of oxygen. And if you run out, his health ticks away faster than Sonic the Hedgehog running a marathon after he snorted a batch of Walter White’s meth. Oh come on! That’s fucking bullshit! In the Banjo games, when Banjo and Kazooie ran out of air, the health ticked down but it was at a steadier pace. It was fast enough to let you know that you’re going to die soon but it still moved slow enough to give you a chance to get to the surface.
Or, Hell, make it like Donkey Kong 64 where you don’t even have an oxygen meter. Just make it so that you can breath underwater indefinitely. And I know that you’re thinking that doesn’t make any sense but you know what, that’s a stupid argument. This is a game where a drunken squirrel throws toilet paper into the gaping maw of a giant shit monster that sings opera. If you made it so that he could breath underwater, I don’t think anyone would bat an eye.
Throw in the fact that you can’t see a fucking thing going on around you and you’ve definitely got one of the all-time worst ones. What could possibly top it?
1. Meltdown (The World Is Not Enough)
Meltdown~The World Is Not Enough (N64)
Oh dear, the Meltdown stage in The World Is Not Enough. In case you’ve never played this N64 adaptation of the OO7 movie, you’re not missing much. I’m sure it was fun back in the day but going back to it and comparing it to modern first-person shooters, it’s aged like milk. But with that said, I don’t think I’m going out on a limb here when I assume that the Meltdown level was just as terrible in 1999 as it is today.
Meltdown is the final level of the game and they did a great job at saving the worst for last. Based on the climax of the movie, this level takes place in a nuclear submarine that has capsized and is slowly flooding with water. And when I say, “slowly flooding” I mean, “almost completely flooded” as I think there’s only four or five rooms that aren’t completely submerged. Basically the idea here is that evil terrorist Renard is trying to activate a nuclear meltdown deep within the confines of the sub and you must find him, kill his ass and then escape the sub.
Now, given that this is the final level, one would be a little forgiving towards it if it’s a little on the tricky side. But there’s only so much you can allow before you finally accept the fact that this is just a horribly designed, cheap level. Like the Combination stage, the controls, navigation and inability to see are what kills it. Basically wherever you point your gun that’s where Bond moves so if you’re pointing straight up, Bond will swim up.
This is surprisingly much harder to get the hang of than you may immediately think and while your oxygen limit is decently forgiving, it won’t be much help once you start getting lost. And you will get lost; it’s only a matter of time. Everywhere on the submarine looks exactly the same and there’s metal tubes that you can dive down and they each have several drop-offs along the way so good luck trying to find Renard. And even if you get to the right path, you still have to know to use your Grapple Watch to get to the right room. Yes, because that’s what’s going to be at the forefront of my mind when I’m trying to figure out where to go.
What tops this list, however, is just the stupid, stupid design choice of this level. Take all the problems I addressed with the Combination and now imagine putting it in a first-person perspective. At the very least in Conker’s Bad Fur Day, it was in third-person, so you had a sense of where you were at all times. Here, it’s so easy to get disoriented and lost that you will die many times before you finally figure out where to go.
The only thing that keeps you going in the sincere satisfaction of an awesome final boss battle against Renard but, nope, they can’t even give you that much as Renard winds up being a worthy contender of the worst final boss in video game history. Oh come on! It’s bad enough to make a shitty level but you can’t even give me something good at the end there?! And then after you kill the bastard, you finish the game and you once again reflect on how you could have spent all that time navigating the submarine doing something more productive.
But do you know what the kicker is? Do you know what the really great thing is? Do you want to know what the best part of this whole series of events is?
IT’S NOT EVEN THE WORST LEVEL IN THE GAME!