November’s almost over, December’s on its way and winter’s almost here (or been here for over a month if you’re Canadian) so hey, what better time for a rundown of the five best and worst wintery video game stages?
The “ice level” is a long-standing video game staple, and just like a real winter day they can either be crisp breezy fun, or a slippery, slide into hell…
#5 Best – Freezeezy Peak
I’ve always thought the N64 Banjo-Kazooie titles were pretty badly underrated — in fact I’d say the first Banjo game was maybe the best platformer on the N64, and Freezeezy Peak was my favorite stage in the game.
Not only was it super-wide open, with a huge snowman to climb in the middle, but it was just so damn Christmassy. I got Banjo-Kazooie, like most of my childhood games, for Christmas, so playing through Freezeezy Peak on boxing day was, ironically for a icy level, a downright warm, fuzzy experience.
Plus this stage had that mysterious cave with the unobtainable ice key. I love that kind of stuff. I’ll find your lock someday mysterious ice key!
#5 Worst – Dezoris
Phantasy Star II
Listen, I love the Phantasy Star games, but anyone familiar with the series knows the ice-planet Dezoris (or Dezo/Dezolis) is always where s–t gets real, and in no game did it get realer than Phantasy Star II.
Phantasy Star II‘s Dezoris is huge, easy to get lost in, swarming with high-level enemies and filled with brain-bruisingly complex dungeons. Also, it’s just kind of a drag with bland music and scenery and only a couple sad little towns full of depressed NPCs.
#4 Best – The Whole Damn Game
Silent Hill: Shattered Memories
This is my favorite horror game of the past generation and I’ll keep singing its praises until somebody notices. No other game I’ve played has so accurately captured the feeling of living in a place with serious winters — the lack of light, and feelings of isolation and vulnerability.
Also, while the game captured the feel of winter, it skipped the annoying aspects most wintery games fixate on, like slippery floors, getting stuck in the snow and so on.
#4 Worst – Gorilla Glacier
Donkey Kong Country
I know a lot of people have fond memories of Donkey Kong Country, but I’ve never really cared for the game. What? I said I liked Banjo-Kazooie! My Rare karma is in balance.
Anyways, one of the reasons I don’t really dig DKC is this world. It stands in stark contrast to the colorful, upbeat feel of the rest of the game — Gorilla Glacier is bleak, uninviting and its music is weirdly sparse and eerie. Also it’s frustrating as hell with lots of exact platforming onto slippery surfaces required. They even throw in some underwater bits. Sure, just go ahead and combine two of the most divisive level themes in one. Argh.
#3 Best – Ice Cap Zone
Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Sonic 3 is this Sonic fan’s favorite Sonic game, and Ice Cap Zone was my favorite stage in the game. It’s actually a fairly easy level, but you know what? That’s okay sometimes. The whole stage just feels fast, breezy and fun and features some truly great music — a fantastic counterpoint to the chilly, downbeat tunes often composed for wintery levels.
#3 Worst – Route 217
Pokemon Pearl and Diamond
Pokemon games are usually pretty predictable, but this one area of Pokemon Pearl/Diamond is filled with all manner of wonderful, frustrating twists.
Route 217 has you climbing a large, snow-covered mountain, and unlike every other area in the game you’re not allowed to use your bike or run — you’re not even allowed to walk at full speed. Sometimes you’ll even fall into a snowdrift, rendering you completely immobile until you manage to shake free. Oh, and did I mention the blizzard? Yeah, you can’t even see what’s happening as you trudge along at a snail’s pace.
#2 Best – Phendrana Drifts
A wonderfully chilly, authentic feeling ice level that, much like Shattered Memories, largely avoids typical annoying winter stage design. No over-reliance on slippery floors and pace-slowing snow, just a great winter-themed level that made the loneliness of Metroid Prime feel even more acute. Phendrana Drifts is the high point of this great game. Also, the music is pretty much perfect.
#2 Worst – The Whole Damn Game
The original crappy wintery themed game. Terrible controls, lame characters, bad level design and unclear objectives — this game flunks every good game design test there is. Nintendo tries to push this one as a “classic” but anybody who’s played it for five minutes knows different.
#1 Best – Iced Land
Super Mario Bros. 3
Ah, World 6. Iced Land. The longest and most challenging level in the game (well, except for possibly Bowser’s final world). Mario 3 is responsible for innovating a lot of annoying ice level tropes, but they worked in Mario 3 because a) they were fresh at the time and b) it was Mario. Mario games just work, even it comes to slippery ice levels.
This massive (14 individual levels), extremely varied world always felt incredibly intimidating and mysterious to me as a kid, and yet I’d jump there time and time again with the warp whistle, and vainly to best it. I don’t think I ever did, but I had fun trying. World 6 — King of the ice levels.
#1 Worst – Ice Zone
Ecco the Dolphin
Ecco the Dolphin was one of gaming’s cruellest jokes. The beginning of the game is very chill — nice big areas to swim in, a calm open sea to perform jumps on, not much in the way of enemies to harass you — and then a few levels in the rug gets pulled out and the game becomes a total pain in the ass.
Ice Zone is where Ecco really starts to show it’s sadistic side. The open areas are now choked by ice so you only have narrow, hard to navigate, corridors to swim through, the top is frozen over so no more fun jumps, and the water is absolutely swarming with sharks, and giant crabs.
I obviously didn’t enjoy any of the ice levels listed as “worsts” here, but this was the only level that straight-up stopped me in my tracks and made me quit a game I had been enjoying up to this point. You broke me, Ecco the Dolphin’s Ice Zone — you broke me.
So, those are my five most and least favorite ice levels, but I know I’ve only covered a fraction of them. What about you guys? Any wintery video game wonderlands you’ve particularly loved/hated?