Video game levels used to be one of the most iconic pieces of a video game’s identity, but nowadays games are using the device less as a theming tool as open-world design becomes more popular and feasible. There are more open-world games now than ever before which are just one big map like GTA (those will get their own list one day). Or games have a general area the player is exploring but levels are split up between loading screens like the original Outlast. Neither of these approaches is bad. Especially since they can often make a game feel more cohesive but there was once a time when levels had just as much personality as the characters in the game (sometimes more so). Those are the games I want to celebrate and remember today.
In order to qualify, the level needs to be distinct from other sections of its game and must offer a new or memorable experience to the player. To make it even easier for me, the game had to be released before 2010. I will make a top ten for the levels of the past decade at a later date, too.
This was the toughest list for me to put together so far. Since a game only needed one level to qualify, the list of contenders became very large. I had to rely heavily on my own biases and nostalgia to knock some entries from the running. There are tons of great designed and memorable levels in gaming but these are the ones that I hold as the standard for what makes a fun and memorable level.
Mile High Club – Call of Duty 4
Mile High Club is the epilogue to one of 2007s biggest games (and boy were there a lot). You infiltrate an airplane and have a set time limit to rescue the hostage at the other end and parachute to safety. Mile High Club is most known for its difficult achievement where people would often have races to see who could get it first. This level might be the biggest cheat on this list but the power of the achievement associated with it and the competition between my friends and I really helps to boost its credibility.
My friends and I used to have way too much time and we devoted an entire weekend to 100 percenting Cod 4. The race was close and we both ended up on Mile High Club around the same time but we were tired at that point so we were starting to play really poorly. After a couple of hours, I managed to finish the level on veteran and have never played it since but the memories of that challenge will stick with me forever.
The Silent Cartographer – Halo: Combat Evolved
Of course, I had to put a Halo game on the list. I’m a man of simple pleasures, after all. However, there are a lot of levels that stuck out to me as being able to represent the franchise, but none of them could compete with how iconic The Silent Cartographer truly is. Master chief storms the beach of a forerunner construct where UNSC and Covenant forces are already trading blows.
Sand, bullets, and plasma fire cloud the player’s vision as they disembark and begin participating in the fight. It is one of the most cinematic pieces in the original Halo and its only the first minute! The player explores the rest of the island and begins to unravel the secrets to the ring construct while using warthogs, rocket launchers, and overshields to take down the Covenant that have established a base within the island’s tunnels. Plus, you can drive in the water and act like a submersible. It’s just a fun level.
City Escape – Sonic Adventure 2
I’m not much of a Sonic fan. I think he is one of the most overrated platform icons but boy oh boy, does City Escape in Sonic Adventure 2 hit different. Sonic comes barreling on the scene street surfing on a metal sheet from a helicopter with great soundtrack blaring in the background.
The downhill surfing is only the first portion of the level until Sonic disembarks and starts doing what he does best: running. Sonic will run up walls, take out robots, and some fancy pole spins until he is able to elude his pursuers. It’s a fast-ish paced level that actually makes Sonic feel cool and I could get behind more stuff like City Escape in the franchise.
Gelato Beach – Mario Sunshine
In appearances alone, Mario 64 will always have the lead over its sequels. However, thanks to 3D All-Stars I was able to play all the Mario games I haven’t been able to play in years as an adult and Mario 64 is just frustrating to play. Mario Sunshine may have some tedious challenges but it controls really well (except for this secret level which is the worst thing Nintendo has ever done to Mario).
I love Mario Sunshine tropical theming and how each level is able to tackle a different facet of that theme. Gelato Beach has some of my favorite moments from the sand bird, the wiggler chase, and yes even the melon challenge. It all comes together with a very chill calypso sound that helps to calm you down after a cataquack just threw you up in the air for the 17th time.
Forest Temple – The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time
The Zelda franchise has a lot of iconic moments and levels in its 35 years, but I am largely a 3D Zelda fan and Ocarina of Time has one of the most creative takes on a temple for a Zelda game in the series’s history. The Forest Temple is like a haunted mansion with characters in paintings disappearing or moving to other portraits. The hallways twist and turn and change the perspective of the rooms around them. I love the feeling of it and to only pissed me off a little compared to the Water Temple.
If I had a complaint about this level, it’s that it’s hard to go back and enjoy after beating it once since the secrets have been revealed. That means I need to wait years in between playthroughs hoping that I forget enough to find running through it more enjoyable but that is also why this dungeon is representative of the franchise. It’s more creative even if it isn’t that challenging.
Slippery Climb – Crash Bandicoot
I love love love Crash Bandicoot and it’s entirely because I love to get angry at my own inability to do what I know is completely possible. I have perfected the original Crash twice in the N. Sane Trilogy and Slippery Climb is the poster child for what I want from every Crash Bandicoot level. It’s challenging but forgiving with checkpoints, but it doesn’t go on and on like its brother, Stormy Ascent.
Slippery Climb, with the time trial, makes the player play with purpose. There isn’t much room to mess up and the platforms are some of the most challenging in the entire game. It feels like the ultimate Crash level without it feeling cheap. That’s not an easy thing to pull off and yet Crash does it from beginning to end and Slippery Climb is a great representation of that.
Intensive Care – Dead Space
If you read my Dead Space Revisit, you’ll know that Intensive Care was once my most feared level. However, it is this fear that has turned the level into one of my favorites after I was able to conquer my own discomfort with the medical theming. The medical wing heightens the mystery of the Ishuimura’s demise as Isaac and crew learn that the captain is dead there.
After fighting through several quarantine lockdowns, Isaac finds himself in a morgue where the captain’s body is resting behind some glass. Here the player is introduced to a new enemy variant that can make corpses turn into powerful necromorphs. If the player becomes too distracted with the newly revived captain, the infector will revive every corpse in the morgue and completely overwhelm them. It’s a great and terrifying set piece in a level that already makes me feel light headed.
Freezeezy Peak – Banjo Kazooie
On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, there is banjo Kazooie’s Freezeezy Peak. Banjo and Kazooie might be my favorite 3D platformer of all time. All the levels in this game are top-notch from their designs to their names. Like look at these names, they are absolutely perfect. You just say Bubble Gloop Swamp and try not to smile.
Freezeezy Peak is a winter-themed level that stars several NPC characters with a neglectful polar bear father and his kids and a racist walrus. The music here is fast and carefree and you’ll be bopping your entire body to it as you take out the goblins and snowmen in the area. The challenges here are fun and lighthearted. One Jiggy requires you to help lightbulbs get safely on the Christmas tree. Another has you race the polar bear father across the landscape. Yet, another Jiggy has you delivering presents to the polar bear children that presumably their father lost in gambling debts. It’s just fun lighthearted time that makes me feel like a kid at Christmas.
Ravenholme – Half-Life 2
The first thing you see upon entering Ravenholme is the long whispered words, “We don’t go to Ravenholm.” Despite the tagline, you should definitely go to Revenholme in Half-Life 2 if you have never had the chance before. The level is a complete tonal shift from the previous levels and introduces interesting mechanics to the gravity gun with saw blades and traps.
The level actually feels creepy which completely took me by surprise when I first played it since everything up until that point seemed more adventurous and high stakes rather than a slower-paced zombie-filled abandoned town this level turns out to be. It is completely different from levels before and after it and you’ll be thinking about it even after the credits roll.
Fort Frolic – Bioshock
Bioshock is constantly fighting to be one of my favorite video games of all time due to its absolute masterclass world-building. The game even got me to read Ayn Rand’s atrocious Atlas Shrugged, so I could critique the game just a little bit better. Fort Frolic is one of the most standout levels for the introduction of Sander Cohen, an insane artist who doesn’t care for the life of anyone unless they can heighten his art in some way.
The level has Jack tracking down, killing, and photographing several of Cohen’s former disciples for Cohen’s latest art project. There are a ton of great moments and even a pretty major revelation in one of the backrooms of the club. Fort Frolic has a lot for the player to uncover while trying to stay on the good side of a mad man. Every level in Bioshock is beautiful and twisted but Fort Frolic manages to twist just a little bit more on the creep factor thanks to Cohen’s eyes watching you from the shadows. Beckoning you to the flame.