Whether they’re called levels, maps, missions, stages, zones, or something else entirely, developers have built no shortage of iconic levels over the industry’s rich and colourful history. From tutorials to final levels and all the way back again, this month’s Multiplayer offering sees Doublejump’s writers, editors and managers discuss the stages that left the biggest impact in their memories.
Abir: Super Mario 64’s Bob-Omb Battlefield
For the majority of players who grew up in the 1990s, Bob-Omb Battlefield’s funky soundtrack, colourful scenery, and verticality are permanently etched into our minds as the first playground for platforming in real 3D. Just like me, you’re probably reading this with the echoes of Mario’s “Wa-hoos” and Koji Kondo’s synthesised brass accents playing in your mind while picturing yourself racing Koopa the Quick or flying through the air collecting eight red coins. Bob-Omb Battlefield stands the test of time as a perfect level because it allowed players to experiment with the whole of Mario’s then-new moveset: backflips, ground pounds, sliding down slopes, and even shimmying across ledges. As you read on below, you will learn about many other terrific video game levels, but remember that all the 3D levels that we love today can pay tribute to the brilliance of Super Mario 64’s Bob-Omb Battlefield.
Cai: Dishonored 2’s Clockwork Mansion
Dishonored is a series with incredible level design across the board, as it has to be. Any game that prides itself on near infinite replayability and options needs to be built that way from the ground up, and the multiple routes and hidden passages through any Dishonored level show how well Arkane Studios thought through the myriad of playstyles, no matter how seemingly simple it is on the surface.
No level shows this better than Dishonored 2’s Clockwork Mansion. You walk through a garden up to the front doors of a large, but seemingly innocuous house. For the first time, you find yourself in a room with only one obvious exit and a single button, so you hit the button, and the room shudders to life as it transforms around you. The stairs fold into a flat surface, the room sinks down a level and is replaced by another. It’s captivating just watching it happen, and the mansion tasks you with figuring out how every room works with the others to navigate around.
It would be easy to cheat when building a level like this, but Arkane never takes the easy way out. Everything is accounted for, you can even walk around in the rafters of the house, watching the pulleys and levers work and following specific rooms around. The Clockwork Mansion is complicated, but never unfair, and I can barely imagine how much planning and design it would have taken to bring it to life. Architecture is hard enough, let alone when it’s moving.
Dishonored 2’s Clockwork Mansion is the perfect encapsulation of everything that makes the series great. It’s elegant, classy and well-designed, while not sacrificing any of the freedom and replayability of other, more open levels. The only thing that could make a level better than that would be some other cool gimmick, maybe a level where you have to infiltrate a classy party in disguise and socially engage to find clues? Arkane Studios, give me a call.
Cav: Titanfall 2’s “Effect and Cause”
Although Respawn Entertainment has been deservedly showered with goodwill for Apex Legends, the seeds for that game’s success were arguably planted by its predecessor, the ill-fated Titanfall 2. Not only did it vastly improve the first installment’s somewhat anaemic multiplayer suite, it also gave us one of the best single-player campaigns in a first-person shooter this decade. Its level design is often reminiscent of Valve in its Half-Life heyday, in the way they balance shooting with increasingly complex – but oh, so beautifully satisfying to navigate – environmental puzzles. The, ahem, apex of this formula comes with the game’s fifth level, Effect and Cause.
You’re tasked with finding an MIA Major in a research building. The problem is, the facility has been long abandoned and destroyed, with numerous areas still on fire and thus impenetrable. Luckily, you have a device that exploits temporal disturbances in the area, which means you can instantly jump back in time to when the facility was in operation. This allows you to travel through blocked areas simply by jumping back to when they were intact. Conversely, jumping back to the present day lets you cut through destroyed sections of the building that were otherwise blocked in their original state.
The fun doesn’t stop there, though: it also completely changes the nature of the game’s combat. Pinned down by impassable turrets? A jump to the present, and those turrets are long deactivated. Even on-foot enemies can be avoided by time-jumping (with the ones you kill reappearing in the present as withered corpses). Respawn gradually cranks up the intensity, with areas often requiring several jumps to survive. Eventually, you’re pinging across whole sections of the building, flitting from one time period to the next while simultaneously managing groups of enemies in both, and it’s a testament to Respawn’s genius that it all feels friggin’ incredible. Amazingly, the mechanic doesn’t stall the game’s hectic pace and tight controls one jot, making you feel downright godlike as you jump back and forth in time and space like a whirling, temporal dervish of hot leaden death.
Titanfall 2 is the kind of game where you regularly do things and suddenly ask yourself, “Shit, did I just do that?”. Effect and Cause cranks that affect up to eleven; in fact, I’d argue it belongs up there with the greatest single-player FPS levels ever. Regularly available on sale for less than $10, it’s a recommended buy for almost anyone, if only so they can experience this level.
Damon: God of War’s Helheim
I’m a little late to the party having only just completed God of War, so it might be a little bit of recency bias, but damn that Helheim mission is gripping. It’s got this eerie sense to it, and yet Kratos is still his intrepid self. I wish I could say the same for myself; I was completely on edge waiting for a jump-scare to spook me to death.
When the moment finally came to escape Hell via ship, a friend of mine had told me to prepare myself for the sheer intensity of what was about to happen, and I wasn’t disappointed: what followed was one of the coolest, most intense missions I can recall. I’d like to say I handled it admirably, but I remember being quite flustered as I rushed back and forth to keep the flames alight and the ship moving. Despite how poorly I handle jump scares (even though I love them), there’s no denying that Helheim is simply fantastic. On top of it all, it’s the first time you really put Kratos’ iconic Blades of Chaos to work, and you can’t go past that.
Jake: Sonic the Hedgehog 2’s Emerald Hill Zone
It’s not the best stage I’ve ever played – hell, it’s not even the best stage in Sonic 2 – but Emerald Hill Zone is the first stage of the first video game I ever played, and that holds some serious significance. Putting aside the many happy memories it shows up at the beginning of, Emerald Hill Zone was a masterful piece of level design that shows us exactly what we can expect from the rest of Sonic the Hedgehog 2: it’s pretty (for its time), it’s quirky, its soundtrack suits it perfectly (and was, again, fantastic for its time) and it introduces almost all of the game’s core gameplay mechanics in one fell swoop. It’s also extremely conducive to the speed with which we associate the Blue Blur, with even the least experienced players able to run through almost the whole stage without stopping if they execute the run properly.
Emerald Hill Zone also sets the stage for some of my favourite experiences in gaming, even now: the Casino Night Zone’s jazz-inspired soundtrack and insanely addictive slot machine mechanic made it one of the coolest stages I’ve played through in my life, the Aquatic Ruin Zone’s underwater section – complete with “holy shit, you’re drowning” music – is probably what kickstarted my fear of deep water, and repeatedly kicking the crap out of Dr. Robotnik while chasing high scores and Chaos Emeralds is what turned me into a 100% completionist. All of that began with the Emerald Hill Zone, and that’s something I won’t forget in a hurry.
John: Ratchet & Clank’s Metropolis
The city of Metropolis on planet Kerwan appears as a level four times throughout the series, but right now I’m talkin’ up the 2002 original, the OG platformer where Ratchet sounded a little screwy and acted like a total dick to Clank, the guns didn’t upgrade over time and that completely lacked lock-on or strafing, which can be an issue sometimes. The original Ratchet & Clank is by far the most dated entry in the series, but it’s the one with Metropolis, so it’s also the one I love the most.
Metropolis is Blade Runner turned inside out. It replaces the grim neon-lit, smog-soaked Los Angeles for a city set high above the clouds. As just the third level of the game, it’s calming and intriguing and so easily draws you into its relaxing scene of a futuristic civilisation. It’s a utopian mix of warm golds and stretches of vibrant green grass, with a bright blue sky filled with orderly flying cars. A sci-fi setting that’s grounded by natural overgrowth, where the floors are dirt and grassy and vines hang off the sides of its skyscrapers, which shoot up through the clouds below you.
Aesthetically, it’s the perfect gateway for new players. It feels prototypical and archetypal, combining a powerful visual backdrop and aural landscape of happy electronic beats. In my eyes, it’s the emotional foundation for the series’ swashbuckling space-faring adventures. Even while being attacked by robot mercs and their (adorable) robot attack dogs, Metropolis remains an idyllic, soft-hearted paradise that’s still my absolute favourite level 15-ish years later.
Kristian: Banjo-Kazooie’s Mad Monster Mansion
I was tossing up between this and Freezeezy Peak. While the snow world was certainly fun, it was in Mad Monster Mansion where you begin to feel like there was a dangerous presence in Banjo’s quest to save Tooty. It’s the seventh of nine levels found inside the hub world of Grunty’s lair, so you know that the end is near when you finally unlock it. It’s a grim reminder that Grunty will do anything to stop you from getting to her.
With Grant Kirkhope at the helm, Mad Monster Mansion’s background music begins with a scare chord on an organ, complete with wolves howling in the background. This sets the tone for the duration of the player’s time in the level. Wind instruments play a key role on the song, and thematically, it’s a lot darker than the rest of the game’s soundtrack, yet not too dark that it doesn’t feel out of place. Kirkhope would later reprise many of these elements in Donkey Kong 64 for the Frantic Factory level.
Mad Monster Mansion isn’t a large level but it certainly has the most interesting dynamic. There’s a spooky haunted mansion with several entrances, which each have certain tasks to complete to receive a Jiggy. My personal favourite is where Banjo and Kazooie have to copy Motzand’s notes on the organ, as this changes the music slightly. Loggo, the talking toilet, is also probably the most amusing side character encountered in the game.
Matt: BioShock’s “Descent Into Rapture”
In my humble opinion, BioShock is one of the best games of the previous generation, mostly thanks to its opening ten minutes. Irrational Games’ use of an intentionally vague protagonist allows players to adapt and bring their own views to not only the gameplay experience, but the underwater city of Rapture as well.
Crashing into the Atlantic Ocean, BioShock immediately throws you into madness and panic, with a nearby lighthouse your only hope. What follows is a mixture of strange symbolism and metaphorical quotes that subtly lead you to a mysterious elevator, thus beginning the descent. While the plane crash was an amazing segment in its own right, showcasing the game’s incredibly beautiful graphics at the time (and arguably by today’s standards), the elevator ride – the actual “Descent into Rapture” – is what truly sticks in my mind.
As the vintage slides fill you in on the now fallen city of Rapture, I find it amazing just how efficiently Bioshock fills you in on its culture, ambition, way of life and morality. It’s not every day that a character you have never seen, heard of or met draws you closer in such an elaborate way; our first view of the underwater city is one to remember, one of bustling joy and inconceivable potential. Exiting the elevator immediately reminds you that you’re not in Kansas anymore, and things are not what they seem. In a matter of ten minutes, your plane has crashed, you’ve discovered and learnt all about an underwater city, and your descent into madness has only just begun.
Nick: Fallout: New Vegas’ Fortification Hill
As you exit the Tops Casino (to kill or not to kill Benny, that is the question), a young man approaches you and tells you that the ruthless dictator and leader of vicious blood-hungry marauders known as Caesar requests your presence at a previously unknown location called The Fort. Hooray! This may turn out well for you as Caesar is a huge dick and this may be the perfect time to assassinate him… Or you could be a huge dick yourself, and empathise with the slave-owning, child murderer because he has a terminal brain tumor. That being said, the conversations you can have with Caesar (even if you are secretly against the legion) are quite informative and philosophical.
Philosophical or otherwise, there’s nothing quite like sneaking behind enemy lines, meeting the man behind so much slavery, misery and death, and whipping out the giant anti-material rifle you snuck in, blowing his head apart like a watermelon. The proceeding onslaught of every soldier in a 5 mile radius is quite a thrill when you have limited weapons and ammo. In some playthroughs, you might even be so strong that you can take down every soldier with your fists as they brandish their machete gladius’. It’s the penultimate catharsis as you head back down the hill, preparing yourself to also screw over Mr. House, because in the wasteland, you can only trust yourself.
Simon: The Warriors’ “Blackout”
If you’ve ever wanted to experience a blackout riot in late-1970s New York City, then I’ve got the game for you. The Warriors is one of the best games ever made (subjectively), and its fourth missions sees Cleon and the Warriors stranded in the subway when a massive city-wide blackout (you guessed it) occurs. Of course, the gang decides to take advantage of the blackout; the city has descended into a massive loot riot, and players are asked to steal as much as they can and “bop” past anyone – civilian, gang member and police officer alike – that gets in their way.
This mission marks the first time Rockstar manages to capture the action and tension you feel throughout the early portion of the source material, when all of those thousands of gang members are still close together and starting little spot-fires while escaping the police presence at Gramercy Park. It gives you free reign to fight, loot, smash, spray for as long as you like in a playground of shady alleys and packed streets with no shortage of heads to smash and stuff to feel.
The cherry on the icing on the cake comes in the final act, when the game introduced players to the iconic Baseball Furies, a gang of Kiss-inspired “boppers” who swing their bats around and have the Warriors – and the player – just trying to get away with their faces intact. If you ever wanted to expand on the lore found in one of the best films of the ‘70s – or if you want to experience it for the first time – don’t hesitate to pick this game up and enjoy this mission.
Ty: Hitman: Blood Money’s Garnier Opera House
Hitman: Blood Money is probably one of the greatest games ever made, and that’s putting it lightly. Few games can recreate its sandbox insanity, the sheer number of options at your disposal and the feeling you get watching the chaos unfold as your plan goes into action.
That’s why “Curtains Down” is such a joy to play. It’s actually rather simple when compared to the later stages and I’d argue that it’s the game’s real tutorial; it’s where the training wheels come off, but you’re still able to discover and use your options pretty easily. Most of the NPCs have packed into the theatre in the centre of the map, where one of your targets is acting out a scene in which they’re executed and the other is in one of the galleries overlooking the stage.
You’ve got two options once the game drops you in at the theatre’s entrance: you could just barge in and unload your weapons into the packed theatre, or you could investigate the lobby more calmly and find a real version of the executioner’s weapon and a quick disguise courtesy of the handyman in the bathroom.
If you choose to take the weapon and the disguise, you’ve got even more options to choose from: get to the executioner and swap the guns out; take his place by putting him out of commission before he hits the stage; or work around the risk factors by hanging out in the rafters and timing a shot from the real weapon with the executioner’s fake weapon as the scene plays out. There’s not a particular best way to take out the target in the audience, either, so you’ve got free reign there as well.
It’s that level of player agency that had me replaying the stage hundreds of times as a kid, spending my time trying to find newer and more ridiculous ways to take the two targets out, and you really can’t go past that when you’re thinking about your favourite levels in games.
Zack: Persona 5’s Casino of Envy
Persona 5 is a game bursting with style, and its sixth “palace”, the Casino of Envy, is a perfect example of this. Thanks to the game’s in medias res story structure, this dungeon is technically the first area the player steps foot into, and it leaves an incredible first impression. Running through the level as your teammates – who you haven’t even met yet – try to guide you to safety, with the main heist theme, Life Will Change, blaring in the background sets Persona 5’s tone perfectly. Once you’ve escaped, you’ll go through the next 70 hours (give or take) without hearing a peep about it, but when it does re-appear, it does so with a bang.
Persona 5’s emphasis on thievery leads you to many stand-out locations, from medieval castles to futuristic banks, compared to which a simple casino seems down to Earth, and almost boring, but the game does so much to make it an incredibly memorable dungeon. By this point, you’ve put together your entire party, so you’ve got all of your characters available and you can come up with far, far more interesting strategies and expose yourself to some fun, entertaining banter between the Phantom Thieves throughout.
What really makes this level so special, however, is its atmosphere. It’s vibrant and energetic, with plenty of interesting set-pieces although it’s light on the level-specific gimmicks that plague some of the other level; the gimmicks it does include feel like something a vigilante thief would actually do. On top of that, the music is absolutely incredible. Whims of Fate is by far my favourite dungeon theme from any game, period. It feels sleek and stylish, and impressively manages not to get annoying despite having lyrics that loop only every few minutes. Persona 5’s Casino of Envy just did so much right. It was an unforgettable part of an unforgettable game, and easily my favourite level from any video game I’ve played.
Given the sheer number of levels, maps, missions, stages, zones, et cetera that have existed throughout gaming’s history, there’s sure to be a few doozies that didn’t make the list. Join us on social media and in our community to discuss your favourite video game stages!