First impressions are so important, especially when it comes to games. With so many titles across all of gaming history to play, it’s easy to dismiss a game if it doesn’t intrigue you right from the start. Yet, so many games choose to start with sluggish tutorials or introduction levels that turn into a snorefest. “It gets better X hours in” was never a good excuse and it certainly isn’t today.
So what games did it well? Which games came out of the gate swinging and won me over with a fantastic first level and what did they do right? Lemme tell ya!
#10 Basic Braining – Psychonauts
Tutorials are often necessary, even if they are kind of boring. The developers just want to make sure that players understand the basics of their mechanics. What better way to frame such exercises in an exciting light than to set them in the mind of a war-crazed drill sergeant looking to put the kids under his command through basic training.
Oleander’s Basic Braining is blatantly a tutorial level, but the explosions are real and the guidance far from friendly. It’s a daunting obstacle course that sees players tackle tricky platforming segments, dodge turret fire, explore branching pathways, and experience some of the game’s best comedy, all while being mercilessly berated by Oleander himself. It wonderfully shows off what Psychonauts is capable of and the wartime aesthetics are very creative, while also cluing players in on what kind of character Oleander is and that there may be more to him than immediately apparent.
I had my doubts when I first played Psychonauts, but Basic Braining absolutely sold me on a game that went on to become an all-time favorite.
#9 My Sober Day – Fran Bow
Puzzle games and I don’t have the rosiest of backstories together. It’s always a tough sell for me whenever my path crosses with one, but the first chapter of Fran Bow, My Sober Day, proves that a good story can make up for a lot. And when you’re enjoying the story, perhaps you’ll also find something to appreciate in a genre that is far from your favorites.
My Sober Day is a great first level for a puzzle game, set in a mental asylum where protagonist Fran is incarcerated. After a new medicine has an unexpected impact on her, Fran begins exploring the familiar halls of the dodgy hospital while switching between 2 different realities that begin to increasingly overlap with one another. The story is quick to endear Fran to the player and it gets a great mystery going throughout the chapter as you help her escape.
The puzzles were hard for me, but also strangely welcoming. The game made me feel like I could solve these problems if I could convince my 3 brain cells to cooperate for long enough, and making progress gave me the kind of joy that few other puzzle games manage to achieve.
#8 No Mercy – Left 4 Dead
I feel that Valve has always been a bit rocky when it comes to first levels. The Half-Life games often have overlong introduction bits frontloaded with world-building and the Portal games are insultingly easy at the start. This made it a surprise just how solid and to-the-point No Mercy is.
5 seconds and BAM! 4 people are all playing and in control. You get guns and items, you’re ready to roll and gun down some zombies. All the tutorializing is done dynamically when it becomes relevant to the player, so the level doesn’t have to slow down and put you on a zombie target range. Meanwhile, all that wonderful world-building Valve loves to do is made organic, as players explore the level and discover graffiti cluing them in on what everybody else is doing.
While a tad on the easy side and often geared heavily towards the survivors, No Mercy is a fantastic example of what a Left 4 Dead chapter should look like. It takes players through a variety of areas, from the interior of apartment buildings to the sewers under the city, concluding with a fantastic showdown at the top of a hospital as the survivors await the rescue helicopter.
#7 Origins – Dragon Age: Origins
Call me a cheater if you so desire, but I have always been fond of Dragon Age and replayed it many times over. I have played it from start to finish as basically every combination of race & class. And still, the part I look forward to the most in each playthrough is the prologue chapter.
True to its subtitle, Dragon Age: Origins offers various different starting positions for your adventure based on which race and class you pick. You can be a Human noble living a carefree life of wealth or a Dwarf commoner slaving away in the crime-infested slums, all of which lead to dramatic events that send your character on the path of becoming a Grey Warden.
What makes these exceptionally interesting is how they alter events later in the game’s story and give your character personal attachment to certain side-plots. If you play as a mage, you’ll be very familiar with a certain fellow found in a prison later, who is just some random schmuck if you started as a Dwarf noble. My favorite start by far is the Human noble, which gives you a very personal rivalry with one of the villain’s lackeys, making him so much more than just a stepping stone.
The Origins are short, but they are fantastic hooks into the fantasy universe of Dragon Age and give the game far more replay value than a linear opening would.
#6 D-Day – Medal of Honor: Frontline
Part of this is very much nostalgia. Medal of Honor: Frontline was one of the first games I bought when my parents deemed me old enough for T-rated games and its first mission played a huge part in kindling my interest in 20th century history. This mission is the assault on Normandy’s beaches: D-day.
The atmosphere of this level is intense. You’re in a cramped boat with a dozen other guys, left and right bullets and explosions send water flying, other boats are blasted away, and your fellow soldiers are all reacting to it. Then you hit the beaches and have to charge headfirst into machine gun fire, watching soldiers dying all around you while explosions and unlucky hits eat away at your healthbar. It was frightening to play through the first time I tackled the game and it still sends shivers down my spine today.
The beach is a bit of a gimmick level, but it then transitions into an assault on a bunker that plays more like a traditional Medal of Honor stage. It’s exciting and full of surprises and details, giving the game a cinematic feel deliberately meant to invoke memories of Saving Private Ryan, which I obviously hadn’t seen yet at that age. Despite that, it amazed me all the same.
#5 Spiral Mountain – Banjo-Kazooie
Spiral Mountain is the home to Banjo the bear and several of his friends. It also acts as an optional tutorial segment just before Banjo and his partner Kazooie set out on their quest to free Banjo’s sister from the clutches of the evil witch Gruntilda.
Players are thought the basics of the controls here and can add in a little exploration to upgrade their health before even starting out on the adventure proper. Veterans can just ignore these tutorials or rush their objectives to still get that sweet extra hitpoint, limiting the frustrations of a level like this and adding in a nice reward.
I also adore the atmosphere and design of Spiral Mountain. It’s a happy little place with some nice visuals for the ol’ Nintendo 64, but at its center is the titular spiral with a rickety old bridge that leads to an ominous mountain with the head of Gruntilda carved out of it. It’s an intimidating centerpiece for the area and it makes it exciting to finally cross that bridge and start Banjo’s journey. I also can’t understate my nostalgia for the Spiral Mountain theme, which is like the elevator music of my brain. Not a day goes by where I don’t get that fantastic music stuck in my head.
Thanks Grant Kirkhope.
#4 Statue of Liberty – Deus Ex
The original Deus Ex is an amazing game and I have lost count of how many times I have started it up and fallen in love with it all over again. Its first level is set at the basis of the Statue of Liberty, and shows off brilliantly what the gameplay of Deus Ex is like.
Its a sprawling level where you are charged with dealing with a terrorist occupation. There are a lot of different ways to go about it, a lot of optional content to discover, and opportunities to try out different aspects of Deus Ex’ gameplay. It’s a level filled with choices and I have never gone through it the same way twice. It also acts as a wonderful introduction to the story and universe of Deus Ex, and gives you some interesting questions to ponder over that’ll grow more relevant as the story continues.
One of my fondest memories in gaming is going through this level the first time and being absolutely horrible at it, so I’d eventually reach the terrorist leader and try to persuade him, all while being crippled and on my last inch of health. I had to crawl up the stairs to even get to this man and then had to somehow seem intimidating.
#3 Bob-omb Battlefield – Super Mario 64
Bob-omb Battlefield is a classic bit of level-design and I think anybody who had a Nintendo 64 will agree that it has a place on this list.
The level itself is a grassland that has become a battlefield between two different colors of Bob-ombs that are now pelting each other with cannon fire. While there are various objectives throughout the level, players have to constantly deal with bouncing projectiles coming at them from the sky and hordes of black Bob-ombs that patrol around. The centerpiece of the level is a steep pillar, at the top of which reigns the evil King Bob-omb, but the level also features a Chain Chomp, elevators, a floating island, and cannons with which Mario can be launched all across the stage.
Of course, there is the memorable first mission in Bob-omb Battlefield as well, which sees players storming the pillar, overcoming its traps and perilous jumps, and face down with King Bob-omb himself. It was my first boss-fight in gaming ever and it shocked me when I first tried to cheekily throw him off the level, only for him to leap right back to the top like an anime ninja. Good times.
#2 Siberia – TimeSplitters 2
TimeSplitters 2 is one of my favorite FPS games to date and it has a wonderful first stage to go along with that prestigious title. The level is set in Siberia and sees players infiltrating a research facility hidden underneath a dam.
The opening cutscene shows how soldiers are attacked by their zombified colleagues while investigating the tunnels, after which players begin an assault on the base that begins outside in the snow. Like No Mercy in Left 4 Dead, it’s a very dynamic level that transitions between many different areas, from the snowy exteriors with small cabins, to the greyish corridors of the dam’s inner structure, to the horror-themed caverns where you can never be sure if an enemy is dead enough.
It’s all-around such a solid level and the perfect introduction to TimeSplitters 2. It showcases its sense of comedy, its ability to create atmosphere, and it has a perfect mix of enemies and setpieces that let you get to grips with the gunplay. Its TimeSplitters 2 at its best and, man, TimeSplitters 2 is so good.
#1 The First Turnabout – Phoenix Wright
This might be a surprise to some, as I have been harshly critical of the Phoenix Wright series in the past. I did love the first game and appreciated the small innovations of the second, but just grew bored with the formula and running into the same annoyances in every installment.
The first case in Phoenix Wright’s career sees him take on a murder case, in which his childhood friend Larry stands accused of killing his girlfriend in a jealous rage. The evidence and witness both point towards him, but Phoenix just has to prove his innocence and save Larry’s life.
This brings me back to my point in Fran Bow about a puzzle game making you feel smart. The First Turnabout is a micro version of the kind of puzzles you’ll face throughout the series and it makes you feel like you really are a lawyer piercing through a veil of lies. You catch the witnesses making mistakes, you change the narrative to paint Larry as innocent, and you uncover the truth, all concluded with a nice, emotional payoff at the end.
I remember playing that first court case and immediately buying the full trilogy, it’s such a perfect demo of what this unique puzzle game is like and it gets you invested in characters you’ll be seeing a lot of throughout the franchise.
Unless there are any objections, I’d like to end today’s list here. All this talk about different games has been fun, but aren’t we forgetting something? To play games you need hardware, or sell out for Stadia(?), and hardware can be a pile of crap in an ugly plastic box. Stian, my good sir, what are you least favorite consoles and handhelds out there?