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Saturday, July 28, 2012

LEVEL 1: Top 10 (well...13) All-Time Favorite Opening Stages in Video Games

Forever burned into our retinas.
Back to some video game attention.  Let's be honest, there are so many games from our past that always seem to start with a bang and fizzle out.  This isn't necessarily the rule because as with games like Twilight Princess or Ocarina of Time, they certainly ease you into the world by having you find your sword or herd sheep and catch fish for an hour before having you slay any dragons.    Often times, especially in the years of rentals, we mostly liked "Level 1" because it was either the easiest or we ended up playing it over and over due to lack of codes or skills to advance.  Sometimes, it was because it was the game on display in a department store and you only had a few minutes to play it or you were at a lucky kids birthday party and he or she managed to pop in a new title before mom and dad nagged everyone outside to "experience real life". Pshhh.   Knowing nothing but level 1 was especially true in the age of merciless old school NES difficulty.  Anyway, I'm going to list a few of the most influential and memorable oping levels I played in my life and the impressions they left on me.  So, without further adieu in no particular order...

Confined to the super fine details of a ship (or rig later)...
...To the vast breathing room of the following title.

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty /and/ 3: Snake Eater - Hideo Kojima's magnum opus gets a tie between the second and third stories respectively.  These are games built around larger than life story arcs, fleshed out and original characters, and massive set-pieces.  I considered including the first Solid game however it just doesn't start in the same scope as its following titles do.  (I will say the first Metal Gear Solid totally reignited my interest in modern gaming as Metal Gear Solid 2 pretty much single-handedly selling me on the PS2)  Metal Gear Solid 2 was especially notable for me because, besides Final Fantasy VII packed with Tobal No. 1, it was one of the only times I remember people buying a totally separate game just for the demo inside as they did with the Zone of Enders for MGS2.  Don't get me wrong, I remember Zone of Enders being a really great PS2 game but I distinctly remember being in a friend's dorm room and the first thing out of everybodies' mouths were, "Where's the Metal Gear demo!?"  That intro, the cinematic feel, the higher defined graphics and sound, rain effects...it was quite a lot to take in.  THIS was how Metal Gear should be.  Unfortunately, Solid gets replaced with Raiden almost immediately but that introduction...man, I wish the whole game just continued from there.  Metal Gear 3, answered our wishes (somewhat).  This time we get Solid's biological dad, soon to be Big Boss...you know, the antagonist from the NES titles, and incremental to every other game.  The into starts us with "Virtuous Mission"...pretty muc serving as an appetizer for a massive game set in the jungles of the U.S.S.R...Honestly, when I put this game in on Christmas morning, I couldn't believe the scope of the surroundings and it floored me that I was playing a Playstation 2 game.  It was one of those "hold all my calls" moments.  

Holy hell was this game dark...try describing this scene to someone in 1999.

Silent Hill - If you want survival horror...look no further than Silent Hill.  This original Playstation title just was something I never saw before.  Granted, I played Along in the Dark and the Resident Evil games but something about this game really hit the nail on the head.  This was truly a game that knew how to utilize the limitations of the PSone's hardware to its' advantage through endless fog and obscured enemies that came out at you from the infinite blackness.  The almost constant inability to see clearly and being enveloped in darkness while unsettling backgrounds, desolate solitude and creepy sound effects immerse you in this town only fitting for a horror environment.  You wander through the abandoned town as you clearly feel the eyes stalking you beyond the menacing fog.  Then you finally get the day/night switch as the sky blackens, the air-raid sirens wail and your bearings are lost.   The twisting camera angles really work as your run down the alley which gets incrementally more unnerving, then you hit a set of previously unseen dead ends while tiny monsters give pursuit.  (The director of the film must have noticed this since this cinematography in the alley scene was perfectly copied in the movie)  This was the first game I played that set you up to seemingly be stabbed to death and really made you as helpless as can be.  The risk worked as we are now seeing more and more of these games that, unfortunately, should have ended a while back.   A true case where better graphics actually hurt a title like this.

This is a grab from the arcade but really, can you tell the difference?

Final Fight - This was the first in-box game I received for my Super Nintendo on Christmas morning.  It was such a stark contrast to the Super Mario World included with the system with gritty fighting through crime-ridden surroundings replaced stomping turtles and eating fire-flowers.  This game was a really eye opener for showing off the SNES's power.  Never before did it really feel like I was playing the arcade in my house.  Granted, there were some differences but to my 9 year old self, this was it for having some coin-op action in my room.  Huge sprites, mindless action, super colorful settings dropped my jaw to the floor.  I think I played that first level more times than I can remember and taking out that whistling boss Thrasher was always satisfying as hell.  You notice how on almost all beat-em-ups.."the streets" are always the first level...Double Dragon, Streets of Rage, X-Men, Simpsons, Captain Commando, Rival Turf, Combatribes. etc.  Any one of these could have made the list, honestly but Final Fight will always have a place in my button mashing heart.

This surprisingly put the SNES to shame...take your victories where you can get 'em SEGA.

Aladdin (Genesis) - I remember seeing this game in Blockbuster Video on display and it absolutely blowing my mind.  I could not believe how spot-on the characterizations where and how fluid the animation was.   This had me sold on a Genesis hook, line and sinker.  It was vastly superior to the Snes title that my cousins had just in the look and feel.  The reason being that Disney Animators were actually taken aboard to design the Genesis version and wow, did it make a huge difference. All the little touches in the first level were absolutely stunning between the snake charmers, the different swordsmen, the jugglers, the coal pits, the spitting camels, Aladdin's expressions!  And...I'll be! Alladin gets a sword in this title!  Sega, you might not have gotten it right every time but you certainly deserve credit where it is due!

You're about to play the best RPG of your life!

Final Fantasy III - This game, in many respects, is possibly considered the best game ever made by many people. (third best to me)   The story elements alone can make you take a step back and ask if your really playing a Nintendo game which is something many often throw out on the possibility of involving or deep plot material.   The introduction is wonderful for setting the stage as the the huge world of intrigue and magic we will be jumping into with our amnesiac heroine Terra.  The lonely trek through the snow, as the low build to the music comes about and eventually has us arriving in the snowy mountain town of Narshe and then we see the true elements of what Final Fantasy means with mechanized technology, magic, monsters, espers, guns...a timeless world encompassing elements of every fantasy genre one can think of.  Hey, if you don't get a little bummed when Cid dies, you have a heart of stone.

Ridley...we meet again.

Super Metroid -  Another one of the tops of the charts games for the SNES and often considered the perfect Metroid game, this game starts out with a great introduction.  It's interesting to note that as the era of 16-bit came about, we saw more games that tried to set us up with an actual plot and introductory level that not only gave a player a tutorial on the ins and outs of the gameplay but also served as a jumping point for the story about to be experienced.   You're introduced to the baby Metroid, the destroyed station, Ridley and an epic escape with nice involving cinematic visuals and music.  I'm ready to play some Metroid, are you?

From this screen forward, Konami gained a fan.

Castlevania - My neighbor had this game and it was a cross between Castlevania and Ghosts N Goblins where my choice was going to go.  I loved ghost games with the whole Halloween feel to them as a kid.  Castlevania edges out the monster game competition though.  With Simon at the gates, the entryway in the courtyard, zombies, dogs, fishmen, bats...this game had it all.  Even with the crumbing steps, the vegetation growing on the castle keep, the rusty gates, rod-iron doors, cave-like basement, torn massive draperies and the super freaky Vampire bat all while the best music in any video game played in 8-bit glory.   This level is only the tip of the iceberg which has since not ceased to stop as Dracula's castle has only grown with time but what a way to enter the world than with this great introduction.

Gotta say I played this level many times in Hill's Electronics Department
Sonic the Hedgehog - Initially, I was a Nintendo kid through and though but I always found myself playing this game (along with Altered Beast).  Be it at friends' and neighbors' houses, family parties, in stores with the Sega display, this game was seemingly everywhere.  Even though Mario was my mascot of choice, Sonic and the Green Hill Zone left a great impression on me with the super bright and vibrant colors, comic like enemies, great sound effects, "Blast Processing" or quick scrolling and I always enjoyed playing this game.  I guess it was the fact that I'm more of a methodical collector when playing a game was the reason why I gravitated more toward Mario as I didn't like that you missed so much of the level and Sonic was never meant to be about backtracking or collecting and favored the "move right and ask questions later" strategy.  Still, Sega Genesis definitely had quite a flag-bearer behind it and I can see why it worked on so many "Sega-Kids".
It all begins as you venture out into the rain...I KNOW, it's RAINING in a video game!

The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past -  This is my all-time favorite game and I can't go a year without dusting off the SNES and giving it a go.  It is the only game I still have the box and booklet for as well.  Talk about an introduction.  You wake up on a rainy night to find your uncle gone.  You venture out into the storm (which is expertly portrayed) and wander into Hyrule.  This just was mind-boggling to kids whose last experience with the overworld was Zelda II's tiny little Link doll wandering the grid map.   You find your way into the castle past the guards and end up in the basement with actual light effects and perfect huge details to find your uncle slain!  He imparts his sword and shield to you and puts the task to you to rescue Zelda.  You battle the guards of varied armor and weaponry.  Take out a Ball and Chair wielding guard and rescue the princess as you delve deeper and deeper into the castle's basements.  Zelda leads you out and briefs you on the quest you are about to embark on and now after all that, the game can actually start...and those 3 castles you need to complete afterward...yeah, there are 8 more.  I love that these games were packed with so much to look at and take in before you even really started playing.  All of what I just described encompasses only a percent of what is to come and this is why Zelda is the modern epic it still is.
One of those games where you couldn't believe the screenshots were real.

Shadow of the Colossus -   A more modern game from Ico creator Fumito Ueda,  this title leaves us with no side-quests, no underlings, no experience points... it's about as straightforward as can be.  Traverse the land and slay the Colossi.  Sounds simplistic in almost a boring sense, right?  Well, you'd be dead wrong and we get that sensation from the very first Juggernaut we meet.  You leave the huge temple after the sad, lonely title screen showing us how small our character is in this massive land of ruins and overgrowth.  The game makes you really feel like you take on a journey between each beast you encounter which puts us right in the Wanderer's shoes of seeing how big the world really is.  It actually takes time to find and get where you're going and, as with the first colossus, after riding across the plains and climbing a sheer cliff, we come through the landscape and find the first mountain of a challenge.  We literally, have to climb the features and contours to slaw this huge, amazingly detailed beast as the birds nested in his shoulders and head fly away as he comes to life.  But even as daunting as the battle is with expertly forced perspective, cunning strategy and seemingly useless weapons we get that hint of sadness in the music and the pain wanderer experiences as he defeats the first challenge setting up (without saying a word) the events that are to come and which truly make this a game few forget once they've completed.

What a game...I remember my dad building the towns while I fought the battles.

Act Raiser -  This game certainly took its risks.  It was a very close to launch title with no presupposed basis carrying from the previous system.  It was multi-genred taking roles of world sim, God-game, platformer, RPG as well as hack and slash action.  For all of the gambles it placed, they all seem to work together and pay off nicely.  The combination gets the game moving at a decent pace, a story comes out that is told much better than if it was simply all action, and your omnipresent role puts you in a position few games ever previously did.  But as for the action, it all starts with the first level in Fillmore, a forest to be precise, and it is one of the best introductory levels to any game.  It really shows what the Super Nintendo's capabilities were and shines with epic music, a multitude of engaging enemies, every color in the rainbow, walking tree platforms, and a larger than life centaurian boss.  And this is just for starters!  Wow.

Even the password is a mainstay of 30 somethings across America.

Contra -   Any shooter you ever played with broken controls, awkward weapons or weird level designs have no excuses after Contra.  Contra and it's following games is a series that does everything right almost every time.  The opening stage is awesome from the green jungle, blue water, exploding bridges, turrets, drones, troopers, bullets flying, tons of power-ups and super fast action.  It is pretty much the template for how to design an action game.  It really floors me to think of how bad games like Platoon and the Predator were when Konami was able to nail it so well in a game jam packed with action that surpasses the arcade game it's based on. (same goes with Ninja Gaiden)  I mean with a game that has essentially, Arnold and Stallone on the cover fighting a Xenomorph named after Nicaraguan guerrillas, can you really ever go wrong?

1 comment:

  1. I loved that Aladdin game! Played it but could never win at the end.


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