While there are many things in the realm of gaming that cause annoyance, there are few phrases that can make gamers cringe quite as much as “water level.” A close sibling to the much-maligned sewer level, water levels are nearly always seen across all walks of gaming as a humongous pain. The water may slow down the pace of a game built around speed or suddenly cause a change in controls for the worse, but whatever the reason, it’s hard to find a gamer who would speak kindly of these waterlogged courses. However, for as bad a rap as they get, there are a few good water levels out there to counteract the bad and that’s what I’m here to list out today. After all, a list on the worst would be a bit too easy, wouldn’t it?
The only rules I have for this list are that I can only have one per series and the water has to be a step outside the norm for the game. Basically, if a good portion or the entirety of a game takes place underwater, you won’t see it here. With that in mind, let’s get started.
I imagine that when the term “water level” comes to mind, a first-person shooter isn’t the first idea that pops up, if it even appears at all. Generally, memorable water stages, for better or worse, are seen in platformers, although action/adventure games are no strangers either. Even if there is a section of an FPS that features water heavily, that part is likely to be either short and not worth mentioning, or yet another slow slog to get to the next enjoyable part of the game. However, Half-Life 2 manages to buck that trend handily with a journey through a series of aqueducts dubbed Water Hazard.
There are two main aspects that really set Water Hazard above other similar levels: the means of transportation and encounters set along the way. In this case, Gordon traverses the canals on a hoverboat given to him by a resistance group. While I have heard some decry the boat with control issues, I thought that the control was rather easy to grasp and the boat handled perfectly fine. Plus, most importantly, it always landed right side up, making it a far cry from the incredibly annoying buggy in later chapters that required constant disembarking to flip the machine whenever it took a turn even slightly off.
Regardless, although the boat was fun to drive, the points of interest and constant threat of chopper fire set up along the route made the level truly good. Each of these small areas had their own little charms and the final resistance station gave you an awesome machine-gun to have revenge on the helicopter that dogs you throughout the level. Even after passing through numerous enemy checkpoints brimming with foes and fighting it off more than once, the chopper never leaves you alone. So, actually shooting it down after being hassled by it for so long gives a wonderful sense of satisfaction. There are some times when the good feelings lose out to a bit of uninteresting uniformity and fatigue near the end, but Water Hazard is still impressive for being a good water level on the whole, in an FPS of all things.
The name of the game here is simplicity. Donkey Kong Country is widely known as being one of the best series of platformers on the SNES and a good portion of that appreciation is due to the fact that Rare knew how to design very different levels and design them well. Such is the case with Coral Capers, the first water level in Donkey Kong Country and probably one of the most basic water levels I’ve seen in a game. Coral Capers is a relatively short underwater cave, with a short list of fish, octopi, and other sea creatures ready to stop Donkey and Diddy from completing the level. Beyond those enemies and exploring the cavern itself, there really isn’t too much more to the level. However, that simplicity works to the level’s advantage and it becomes enjoyable to just experience.
To elaborate, the entire level has a very calm and pleasant feeling to it, mostly owed to the theme for the level, “Aquatic Ambiance.” It’s a slow, methodic song that really gets across how peaceful the sea can be, and, subsequently, extends that peaceful feeling to the level itself, even if there are enemies attacking the Kongs. In addition, Enguarde the Swordfish can be found in many places throughout the level, making the already simple swimming controls even better while simultaneously providing faster movement and a good attack option. By removing the control issue, Rare fixed the most common problem with any water level and the small additional touches made the level that much more enjoyable. While it may not have lasted long, few can say that the short break Coral Capers provided was appreciated.
I can already predict the reaction many of you are probably having in response to seeing a Zelda water dungeon on a list of good water levels, but hear me out on this one. For the most part, I’m inclined to agree that the majority of water-based dungeons in the Zelda series are unimpressive at best and incredibly annoying at worst. However, I find that Great Bay Temple stands apart from the others in a good way. In my opinion, the temple manages to break almost every nasty convention associated with its ilk and provides a textbook example for how such a dungeon should be designed.
First and foremost, Majora’s Mask provides a very simple out from the swimming control problem with the introduction of the Zora Mask. Being able to turn into one of the aquatic creatures gives both great movement and defense in the water. In all honesty, I find swimming with the Zora Mask to be one of the most intuitive ways to get through water in all of 3D gaming. There’s no need to breaststroke, press buttons repeatedly for continued arm movement, or worry about air. You simply hit a button and start moving forward quickly, only needing to use the control stick to direct movement and possibly using the B button to form an electrified barrier that hurts anything that gets too close. It’s so simple in fact, that I can’t help but wonder why more games don’t do this kind of thing. The net result of it all is that swimming through the waterlogged dungeon is never a problem.
Great Bay Temple also manages to have a central mechanic that works well and isn’t a gigantic annoyance as most mechanics in water dungeons are. The main idea of the temple is directing water flow through the use of machines integrated throughout the area, which also grant the temple a very interesting technological backdrop. By both shutting off certain valves and changing which way the water flows in many rooms, new items and areas can be accessed throughout. This also ties in with the dungeon item, the Ice Arrows, which see heavy usage for creating jumpable ice platforms on top of bodies of water and plugging up water spouts to help control the flow. It all manages to be quite clever and although it can be a bit puzzling at times, as a dungeon should be, it never gets to be annoyingly so. The only really annoying thing about the dungeon is that the boss is uninteresting and annoying, which is a large disappointment when the rest worked so well. Regardless, Great Bay Temple stands as a water level done right in a series with one of the worst track records in the industry when it comes to such things.
As consistent readers of my articles are no doubt aware, I have a great love for both Banjo-Kazooie and its even better sequel, Banjo-Tooie. I hold the second to be one of the best platformers I’ve ever played, if not the very best. It improved on practically every aspect of the original that I had even a slight issue with and, thankfully, one such improved problem was the water level. Rusty Bucket Bay, the level in question, is reviled among gamers for having a generally annoying design and cruelly having Banjo start drowning even when he is on top of the water, with the drowning rate doubled when actually under the water. Luckily, Rare clearly took the reaction to heart when making the sequel, as Jolly Roger’s Lagoon couldn’t be more different.
Jolly Roger’s Lagoon has some of the best personality I’ve seen in any platforming level, let alone a water level. The entrance is actually a small, seaside town with actual inhabitants that you can interact with. There is a pawn shop owner selling rare items for the collectible doubloons around the area and Jolly himself runs a bar and inn on one side of town. It provides a very unique experience for a platformer and I simply loved exploring the area to see who and what I could find. However much I like the town, it is only a small part of the level in question. The vast majority of Jolly Roger’s Lagoon takes place underwater in various areas, from a sea floor area with lockers strewn about (including one belonging to a certain D. Jones) to an underwater ruin fittingly labeled “Atlantis.” Luckily, as with most of these levels, breathing underwater is not a problem thanks to resident shaman Mumbo Jumbo, who uses magic to oxygenate the water enough to make it breathable. Without the constant worry of air, the underwater sections can be appreciated just as much as the town and the personality of the place really shines through.
Of course, all the personality in the world doesn’t mean too much if there isn’t substance behind it. Naturally though, this is certainly the case here. The various areas provide their own challenges to enjoy and nearly every section is memorable in one way or another. Areas such as Atlantis and Big Fish Cavern have their own unique goals to accomplish and connect in a rather simple layout. The transformation of a submarine gets great use in the underwater sections, shying away from the admittedly clunky regular swimming controls to a far more streamlined scheme that even affords some attacks that work just as well, if not better, than the normal options. The overall design of the place is very engaging and the music fits just about as well as it could. Really, it’s difficult to think of any water levels I enjoyed as much as I did Jolly Roger’s Lagoon. In fact, there was only one other I could imagine…
No, you haven’t gone insane. Yes, I really did just put a Sonic stage at the top of a list about good water levels. However, that should just be testament to how much this area manages to succeed, even despite the presence of many water levels issues. Yes, the water does slow you down a noticeable amount whenever you land in the stuff. Yes, you still do need to worry about finding air bubbles so Sonic doesn’t drown and you don’t have to hear that intense drowning music. Despite all that though, the zone is designed in such a way that those normally damning issues are simply another aspect of the level, not a hindrance.
Aquarium Park Zone’s main theme, aside from being a rather beautiful underwater paradise, is based around Chinese motifs. There are samurai robots through the levels, Chinese lantern hanging in many places, and pagodas form the majority of the buildings seen throughout, alongside other standard underwater staples such as glass tunnels with sea life all around. As its namesake would imply, the entire place feels like a Chinese-themed aquarium and the design really works well. The music is similarly impressive, having a very unique song with a really good beat form the baseline for all the variations used in the different acts. It fits the level incredibly well and is also one of my favorite tracks from the game. The appearance and design also lend themselves to aiding the pacing issues that are sure to crop up when Sonic is slowed down. With such a relaxing and muted environment, you never feel like you are being held up so much as given time to enjoy the environment. Honestly, it’s a bit hard to describe to someone who has never played through the area, but trust me when I say that it really works.
In the end though, the question I’m sure you’re asking is how a water level in a Sonic game can work, especially with most of the common issues on full display. The answer is rather simple: the game takes steps to counteract those issues. While you may be slow in the water, you can jump infinitely and boost if you have it, meaning that the control for underwater sections is very precise and actually more solid than standard movement in technical terms. In addition, the Drill power-up, normally used for digging through underground sections, is spread liberally throughout the acts and can be used for drilling through the water incredibly quickly with very good control provided you don’t hit anything. Even better, while in Drill mode, you don’t have to worry about breathing and even without Drill, the air bubble placement is very fair. There will nearly always be an air bubble nearby if you need it and although the drowning music still causes pressure, it never causes the dread it has in the past. Sonic can even run on water provided you have enough boost built up, and a good portion of the acts take place out of the water to show off the solid platforming and speed as well. Aquarium Park Zone does a Sonic water level just about as well as it can possibly be done.
Speaking objectively, despite the good I’ve said about Aquarium Park Zone, I may have a very slight personal preference for Jolly Roger’s Lagoon as the more enjoyable stage. So, why did I place it below the Aquarium Park? It is a matter of legacy. Whereas Banjo-Tooie provided a good water level after merely one failed attempt, Sonic Colors managed to provide a great underwater experience after an entire franchise of genuinely awful water levels. Aquarium Park Zone proves something that I’m sure many thought to be impossible: Sonic can still be fun in water levels. I have huge respect for the developers for finding a way to make the game work with such a level when the concepts seem so diametrically opposed. For that reason and the level being great fun besides, it’s only natural that Aquarium Park Zone is my favorite water level in all of gaming.
Well, that was my list of the top 5 water levels. Considering the diverse opinions I’ve heard on the topic and a bunch of the levels listed above specifically, I severely doubt anyone’s personal choices will quite match up with mine. As such, be sure to post your opinions about your favorite water levels and the list itself below. As always, comments are appreciated.