A reader looks back at his favourite water-based levels in older video games, from Donkey Kong Country to Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles.
As beautiful as they are to the eye, and often pleasing to the ears, underwater levels have a tendency to induce panic to the player by situating you in a world that disrupts the familiarity one has developed with their environment, even if only for a moment.
In the early days of video games water used to kill you instantly if you touched it but eventually we got to explore beneath its surface more and more.
Whether intense or subdued, let’s set sail for the seven seas, as we dive into some of gaming’s most breathtaking water sections.
Super Mario 64 – Dire, Dire Docks (Nintendo)
Such blissful music.
But you’ll pay the ultimate price if you’re not careful. No sooner did Mario transition into 3D than he’d evolved a pair of lungs to fill that three dimensional cavity in his chest and it’s your job to ensure they don’t end up like water balloons!
As simple as the task is, being knocked about by giant eels or oysters with their jack-in-the-box behaviour will rob you of vital health that doubles up as an oxygen meter when submerged.
Correcting your course is time consuming and time is a luxury you may not have. Coins collected along the way will replenish your health but once the coins are consumed they’re gone, and the ones you bypassed could be miles away.
You’ll find yourself scrambling to reach them or risk a case of the bends trying to make it back to the surface!
The first time I saw Mario clutch his throat as he inhaled a lung full of water before the screen faded to black, paired with a laughing Bowser, was the day I grew up.
Now you knew what was at stake.
Bowser actually laughs at Mario dying… Mario actually dies!
Treasure Island Dizzy (Codemasters)
Good Dizzy games are 10 to the dozen and in this adventure our Prince of the Yolk Folk is marooned on a picturesque example of one of nature’s most scenic habitats, made possible only on the Commodore 64!
Take a dip into the clear black sea at your peril though and watch Dizzy’s completely natural reaction as he explodes into pieces!
You will have to avoid contact with the wet death unless you have obtained the snorkel item. Until then you will be spared the nasties that lurk below the surface, taking residence around a sunken galleon.
Dizzy won’t use his snorkel and float upon the surface, instead he will walk along the sea bed to his destination, I always knew he was a good egg.
But being a good egg has its dangers.
Timing your jumps is a perilous endeavour in Dizzy games and it’s not made any easier when you have to contend with bobbing jellyfish and pinching crabs.
Unfortunately, as some may be able to attest once they’ve made their way to the penultimate screen successfully, it’s a case of being out of the water and into the frying pan.
Even your snorkel won’t save you from the current that lies beneath your well maintained power boat, made all the more difficult to avoid because you have to move with the boat as it won’t just carry you!
Earthworm Jim – Down The Tubes (Shiny Entertainment)
Earthworm Jim has a knack of wriggling his way out of any hole he might find himself in.
In this sub-nautical level we accompany Jim navigating his personal sub, a glass sphere of all things, through a series of passages fraught with tight bends and jagged edges.
Once again, we have a timer onboard which couples as an oxygen meter. Sure, you can stop at certain points to top up your oxygen count, but there’s no clear path to follow, so it’s easy to be led down the garden path, so to speak.
Of course, taking a wrong turn will only deplete your vital air supply and require you to backtrack, with time running out you will begin to feel the pressure and moving hastily will only increase the chances of bouncing off your surroundings.
Piloting the sub has a great feel, you apply throttle to accelerate but being overly zealous could have severe consequences, once you have momentum you will have to ready yourself to fire in the opposite direction to slow down.
With each bump and scrape you will sustain damage that manifests itself as visible cracks to your glass vessel, it’s not always apparent how many more hits you can take especially on your first playthrough so the options are dire. Do you take it slowly and risk running out of oxygen or do you rush around smashing your craft to bits until it implodes and turn our hero Jim into worm food?
Teenage Mutant Hero Turtles – Water Dam (Konami)
Any gamer worth their sea salt will be familiar with this level and that’s a fact, Jack.
The difficulty spike in this level is just plain evil, it doesn’t matter how many nuns you chuck at it.
You can use as many descriptive words and pronouns as you please to identify yourself but no matter how radical they are there isn’t a single purple gown-wearing man-sized rodent shidoshi that will prepare you for plugged-in neon pink radioactive seaweed.
Sounds cool, but it’s crude!
On contact it will reverse the cycle of mutagenic glow-in-the-dark ooze, reverting you back to an adolescent standard natural turtle (for some reason). The irony here is that these heroes in a whole carapace handle less gracefully beneath the surface than a fish does above it.
Make it make sense and I’ll tell you what ‘doing machines’ means.
You couldn’t fair worse if you were to bung a cow a joypad and let it play for you.
Resident Evil remake – Aqua Ring (Capcom)
Wave goodbye to the polygonal sharks in what for decades was probably the most worthwhile remake in video game history.
The Aqua Ring level will have you feeling like a fish out of water as you’re pitted against one of nature’s apex predators. Your job is to drain the water and defeat the resident devil Neptune, a huge Great White shark, who to your detriment, only wants you to be his chum.
Once you’ve drained the water the flipper is on the other foot as the tide turns in your favour. Any nearby sharks are left to suffocate, as they do their best impression of an NES ninja turtle.
Approach this level in an uncoordinated manner though and you’ll bear witness to some excellent jump scares and cinematic cut scenes.
Donkey Kong Country – Coral Capers (Rare)
A game far ahead of its time in terms of aesthetics and sound design, if nothing else.
No doubt the most simplistic challenge on this list.
Teaming up with your friendly mount Enguarde the swordfish will make things even easier. Not only does he glide through the level with finesse, he has a charging attack too, so by the end of the level you can guarantee the fishes will be sleeping with themselves.
He also acts as another hit point, much like Yoshi will take a hit for Mario.
The only real threat you will face is taking a hit and losing Enguarde, leaving you treading water until you find another crate containing Enguarde’s twin brother, Enguarde.
The only thing that could possibly hold you back in this level is the mesmerising music Aquatic Ambience, one of my all-time favourite video game tunes.
It’s such a beautiful piece of work and sometimes feels out of place, maybe even over-produced for ‘just’ a video game.
To think that this score is forever tied to only this series of games could be considered a crime.
When you think of Donkey Kong Country the image that your mind should conjure up is one of our favourite primate in his natural pre-rendered habitat of lush green foliage.
But for me personally, it’s the pristine clear waters and vibrant coral reef that comes alive in my memory each and every time I think of it, in such a way that no SGI workstation could ever do it justice.
Please enjoy a short documentary on the music score that accompanies the games.
Sonic The Hedgehog – Labyrinth Zone (Sega)
As wonderful as the music is in these Labyrinth Zone stages, leave it too long and the magical sound showering you with good vibes gets drowned out as you learn the infamous crescendo of anxiety itself.
The nature of rising water and well-timed jumps seems so simple until you hear an abrasive, panic-inducing warning met with a numbered count down spelling out death in a very uncomfortable five or so seconds.
Be brave enough to leave behind that security blanket of bubbles, hold your breath until you’re blue in the face while you race for the next cluster, tapping the button rapidly in the hope to see Sonic take in a quick deep inhalation of life-preserving oxygen.
Masato Nakamura and co. went the whole hog on this one.
By reader Bad Edit
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