Previously: Top 12 Worst Fantasy Worlds by Stian
I am used to being a contrarian when it comes to gaming, but Stian really is forcing my hand here. Water levels are the most consistently-hated type of stages in all of video games… and these are my favorites.
The following rules apply:
- The level is very moist
- And so are you.
#10 Waterway – Cave Story
Starting off this list we got an indie gaming classic: Cave Story.
The Waterway is an interesting stage that serves as a final challenge before players can return to safety following several back-to-back stages and dire plot developments. Players need to navigate tight corridors and aggressive currents while battling enemies that are much more suited for underwater combat than our robot protagonist Quote. It’s tough, but in terms of gameplay it allows you to wind down after the intense boss battles and hostile areas that preceded it.
However, in terms of story, players find themselves at a low point in Cave Story’s plot. Depending on the choices players have made thus far, several of their friends and allies may have just perished before they began on their journey through this flooded passage, or they might be in the middle of a desperate attempt to save one of them. It either makes the stage overwhelmingly somber or lends it a sense of urgency.
Some might say that The Waterway is a bit unmemorable compared to Cave Story‘s other stages, but its placement in the overall storyline is essential and it offers unique challenges not found anywhere else in the game. This is underwater platforming at its finest!
#9 Atlantica – Kingdom Hearts
Before the endless drudge of sequels retroactively soured much of Kingdom Hearts, the first game was a very enjoyable way to experience Disney classics in an action-RPG setting. While The Little Mermaid was never a favorite of mine among the Disney line-up. its level in Kingdom Hearts has always stood out as one of the most enjoyable parts in the series.
Players team up with Ariel for a short adventure in Triton’s domain, which takes them to numerous locales from the movie to battle Heartless and solve a mystery. The underwater controls take some getting used to, but actually end up being an upgrade over the notorious 3D platforming controls elsewhere in the game. After infuriating stages like Agrabah and Tarzan’s jungle, not having to make tight jumps in stressful situations all the time was a major relief. Progression throughout Atlantica is instead based on exploration and following the storyline, which concludes with one of the most challenging and enjoyable boss battles in the game.
Imagine my massive disappointment when we returned to Atlantica in Kingdom Hearts II, only to find the entire area replaced with a Stepmania mini-game.
#8 Aquaria Towers – Spyro 2: Ripto’s Rage!
Here we have a unique case where a water level has been dried out and it’s our task to fix it. Nefarious baddies have drained all the water from Aquaria Towers, leaving its seahorse-like inhabitants flopping about and awaiting death. By hitting switches hidden across the level, Spyro can reopen the hatches and flood the towers with water once again.
The vertical design of this level makes it fun to progress through, as raising the water level provides you access to new areas and makes it easier to navigate the towers as a whole. However, restoring the water level also gives free reign to the mechanical sharks that inhabit various caverns throughout the level. They are nearly indestructible and you don’t want to accidentally swim into their turf while exploring.
The stage is unique among those in Spyro 2 and even offers players a wide-open space at the end where they can swim and play around even more. It’s a great way to familiarize them with the game’s swimming controls and speed, which are much faster and more responsive than those in many other platformers like this. And I see that as an absolute plus.
#7 Vashj’ir – World of Warcraft
Though I wasn’t the greatest fan of the Cataclysm expansion for World of Warcraft, I will admit that it was off to one hell of an introduction. The first zones of any expansion have reliably been the best, but none that I have played could match up to the sheer creativity of Vashj’ir.
Following a disaster at sea, the players and their allies are plunged deep below the waves where they find themselves overwhelmed by the monstrous Naga. Though problems like being able to breathe and move around are soon resolved, Vashj’ir manages to stay unique by changing the usual formula of an MMORPG zone. Instead of villages & cities, players travel between hidden caves where survivors from various races gather to cooperate on a solution. The zone is also home to sunken cities, creatures so large they count as sub-zones you can enter, and other dazzling sights; it’s an endless source of eye-candy.
I can’t say for sure how the zone has survived World of Warcraft‘s constant overhauls, rebalances, and retcons, but playing through it was some of the most fun I had with questing in this MMORPG, and briefly made me feel like maybe Cataclysm wouldn’t be too bad.
#6 Ceadeus – Monster Hunter 3
I am not much of a Monster Hunter fanatic, but I decided to give it a spin amidst the massive hype surrounding Monster Hunter 3 Ultimate back in the day. While I was initially lukewarm about the game, my opinion turned around completely when the story took me to the lair of the mighty Caedeus.
The underwater combat in Monster Hunter 3 was among its main selling points and many of the most memorable prey would be found chilling lakes and other bodies of water. The same applies to the Ceadeus, which lives in an underwater domain and is so imposing that the entire first phase of the battle just entails doing enough damage to warrant a counter-attack. From there the battle literally opens up, as players arrive in a new arena where they have all the space they could ever want to battle this mighty foe, and can even utilize ancient traps to help fell the beast.
But what makes this battle stand out even more is its incredible music. The battle theme for the Caedeus is astoundingly beautiful and sets a tone unmatched by any other creature in the series.
#5 Lakebed Temple – The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess
When talking about water-themed temples from the Zelda series, it’s often a case of fans arguing which of them was the least painful. Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask no doubt played a role in making water levels as notorious as they are, which made it all the most amazing that Twilight Princess turned this around so well.
The Lakebed Temple is one of the more difficult temples in the game, but for all the right reasons. It presents a multi-floored layout that is genuinely challenging to navigate, but opens up very naturally as you follow the trail of puzzles and acquire new tools. Its puzzles and mechanics are fun to think through and even the combat is quite challenging for Twilight Princess.
It’s impossible to separate Lakebed Temple from Nintendo’s other ventures into damp, underwater dungeons. It’s intimidating and can feel like a chore when you first set foot in its central chamber, but from there Lakebed Temple quickly proves itself to be one of the most entertaining segments in Twilight Princess.
#4 Gloomy Galleon – Donkey Kong 64
Donkey Kong 64 is a game that helped me cope with many of my childhood fears, though it has to be said that some of those were born from other Rareware titles at the time. I used to be quite the scaredy-cat and I was deadly afraid of water most of all. Gloomy Galleon should have been a nightmare for me, but instead it was a rejuvenating experience.
The level is not just themed after water, it’s a nighttime stage about a raging storm on the open sea. It’s dark, moody, and mysterious, but also enticing. There is so much to discover and seek out below the waves . Despite the overall difficulty, DK64 makes swimming comparatively painless. Being able to explore underwater to my heart’s content without an air meter or enemies haunting me throughout was very calming; how surprising that Rareware did the exact opposite in Banjo-Kazooie.
I actually remember Gloomy Galleon as one of the game’s easier levels and even its boss battle I enjoyed doing as a young boy. While it wasn’t the sole key to fixing my fear of water, it helped me cope with it in regards to video games and allowed me to go back to other platformers that I previously struggled with.
#3 Jolly Roger Bay – Super Mario 64
Such as… Super Mario 64. I always had my parents play through Mario’s underwater adventures, but revisiting them later in life showed me just how fun and well-designed these stages were. As with almost anything in Super Mario 64, it feels like Nintendo introduced and immediately perfect the mechanics for 3D movement, even when swimming.
Jolly Roger Bay is a fantastic level to boot, with memorable objectives and an easy layout to navigate, meaning that the limited amount of air is rarely an issue. Whereas Gloomy Galleon lived up to its name and presented a grim atmosphere, Jolly Roger Bay is very soothing. Its so blue and mesmerizing, with a theme song that seems to perfectly blend with the rhythmic sound of Mario’s swimming.
It’s a childhood favorite for many and for good reason, even if I couldn’t appreciate it enough when I first played Super Mario 64.
#2 Dolphin Shoals – Mario Kart 8
For something else entirely, we have Dolphin Shoals. A racing track first introduced in Mario Kart 8.
This is an adorable level where players constantly switch between parts on land and dipping back down underwater, with segments that include a beach, performing tricks alongside dolphins, and delving into an underwater cave where you can choose to ride across a giant sea monster. It’s very imaginative, which combined with the bright colors and cutesy creatures that inhabit the shoals make this one of the cheerier stages in Mario Kart.
It’s well stated by now that I don’t enjoy multiplayer much, but Mario Kart is one of the few exceptions, especially when playing with my younger sister or friends who aren’t into gaming at all. And whenever we fired up Mario Kart 8, Dolphin Shoals was sure to be picked early on, thanks to its great atmosphere, setpiece moments, and relatively low difficulty. I love racing on this stage and hope it will become a mainstay for the series going forward.
#1 Deluded Depths – Alice: Madness Returns
American McGee’s Alice saga remains one of the most enthralling storylines in gaming for me, so when Stian set me to work on finding the best water levels out there, Deluded Depths quickly came to mind.
This stage sees Alice disappear beneath the sea, where she discovers a small town with a theater curiously led by a carpenter, a walrus, and a clinically-depressed octopus. From there Alice is sent on various quests to help the crew put together a performance, though shrewd players may pick up on worrying hints sprinkled throughout the chapter. Its story is one of its greatest boons, though I unfortunately can’t get too into that without spoiling some of the best bits in this fantastic game.
Fortunately, the level also holds up in terms of presentation and gameplay. Presentation-wise, it’s a stunning level with many beautiful vistas and macabre visuals. It’s also home to unique enemies and platforming mechanics, but without the usual platforming trope of making the controls slower and floatier to mimic being underwater; Alice is as satisfying to control here as anywhere else in the game.
Madness Returns and the Alice games aren’t talked about much nowadays, but Deluded Depths remains some of the most fantastic storytelling in 3D platformers, with amazing visual direction and gameplay challenges to back it up. It might not have the prestige of a Mario level or a 2D retro stage, but I personally consider it my all-time favorite.
This took me an eternity to publish, didn’t it? I went back and forth on a lot of selections and I hope you can all sympathize with how difficult it is to get hyped about water levels. One regret I keep having is that Zelda games will always make their way on these lists regardless of my objectives, just because there’s so much to the Zelda series and the games are so consistently good. So, Stian… can you help me just get Zelda out of my system? I want you to make me a list of your Top x Favorite Zelda characters, of course excluding the obvious candidates of Link, Ganondorf and Zelda.
I considered asking you for a list of the worst Zelda characters, but do we really need yet another list with Tingle at the top?