And, as promised, a blog post. It’s been a while since I’ve done a post, and even longer since I’ve done a list of things. So here’s a post that’s a list of things. Those things are several of my favourite video game, well, “levels” is probably the most familiar word, but doesn’t necessarily work given that most of these games don’t have the linear, clearly-demarcated level progression. Incidentally, I’ve notice that the hole linear progression of levels has sort of faded from the medium, except in series that are steeped in tradition (Mario and Sonic, for example) or are trying to deliberately invoke the style of the era of the Genesis and Super Nintendo. So, yeah, maybe the best word is something like “areas”, given that there tends to be a fluid connection between them and usually some kind of over-arching over world between them, rather than a definite, linear progression.
So here’s my list:
1. Satorl Marsh – Xenoblade Chronicles
Visiting Satorl during the day, you are confronted with a foggy, dreary landscape filled with ugly frog-monsters, gnarled trees and poisonous swamp. There a couple of fun side-quests to be found, some pretty scenery rising out of the mist and gloom, so it’s not an entirely unbearable place to be. But even the most beautiful poison fog-swamp is still a poison fog-swamp. It’s not exactly the kind of place that belongs in a list of my favourite … places.
But then you go at night, and this happens:
(skip to 4:00)
Several of the areas in Xenoblade have some kind of description including in their in-game names. Satorl’s is “the Shimmering Marsh” (or, according to a different translation “the Phosphorescent Land). During the day, it’s hard to see why. At night, it becomes abundantly, beautifully apparent. Everything starts glowing with a ethereal glow that makes it feel like you’re standing in the middle of an aurora. The in-game justification is that the marsh is permeated with the stuff (which, if I recall correctly is called ether) that makes magic possible in the game world, and it collects, then releases magical energy that makes the swamp glow. Or something. I forget. Also, not important. I really don’t care why happens, just that it’s awesome when it does.
And the music, the soundtrack for Satorl at night is some of the best music in a game filled with awesome and is on my list of favourite game music ever.
2. Sovngarde – Skyrim
Even though the final boss fight in Skyrim is really just another Dragon, it’s still one of my favourite boss fights ever, thanks almost entirely to the atmosphere. Sovngarde is the Elder Scrolls equivalent of Valhalla, which, for the uninitiated is Viking Warrior Heaven. You ascend to Sovngarde (still as a mortal, though hugely badass, character) to fight the final battle with, essentially, the god of the Apocalypse. To gain entrance to Sovngarde’s Hall of Valour, you have to identify yourself to the Hall’s divine doorman, allowing for you to pick one of several awesome boastful declarations. And then you have to duel him. And then you get to hang out with the souls of the ancient heroes of Skyrim. And then you go fight the god of the Apocalypse. And, again, really awesome music plays in the background. It’s the Skyrim main theme, but chanted more slowly and solemnly than on the title screen. And also, there’s a really awesome vortex swirling in the sky.
3. Virmire – Mass Effect
Due to several game-changing decisions and revelations, Virmire is the point where it becomes apparent that Commander Shepard is playing for keeps. It’s suitably (which is to say, hugely) dramatic. It becomes possible to activate the Virmire mission of completing two of the three main missions given to you when the main story starts in earnest. For the sake of the drama, it should be kept for last (and I have a feeling that it was intended to be). If Virmire is the of the four main missions you do, the end-game of Mass Effect becomes one of the best, most dramatic, most satisfying climaxes in video games. It’s hard to screw up the design of a mission that consists of leading two teams of badasses guns blazing into an enemy stronghold then blowing it the hell up. And Bioware kinda knocked it out of the park with Virmire. Though, full disclosure, it’s pretty easy to kill the drama accidentally, because it’s pretty easy to get lost and disoriented.
And, again, the music. It’s probably my favourite track in the game and perfectly captures the intensity and desperation of the mission.
Plus, the mission ends with a nuclear explosion big enough to be seen from orbit.
4. Summer Scramble – Fire Emblem Awakening
I could have easily picked one of the actual stages from the main quest of Awakening, as lot of them (especially towards the end-game) are AWESOME. But I don’t want to spoil anything, as there are several twists, turns and awesome moments that happen that I would probably diminish by spoiling now. Instead, of opted for one of the DLC missions, which isn’t awesome so much as it is hilarious. Awakening is one of the those games that manages to capture both ends of the emotional spectrum, alternating between uproariously hilarious and emotionally devastating. The Summer Scramble is very much the former. Long story short, your team goes to the beach and fights encroaching bandits, while offering their commentary on the situation, bantering with each other and wearing sexy bikinis.
Once again, the music makes it perfect (that’s been happening a lot lately). Much the stage itself, the music isn’t necessarily awesome so much as hilarious. It’s a Carribean-style steel drum version of the main theme with “vocals” consisting of (the Japanese version of) Chrom’s attack quotes and grunts of exertion. And, yeah, it’s pretty funny.
There are three Scramble levels, all of which are pretty much just your team going on vacation, then having that vacation interrupted by bad guys, but nevertheless making the best of things and all of which are pretty hilarious. They’re a great way to recover from the drama and emotional impact of the main quest. Some of the conversations between characters manage to be pretty emotional themselves, but that emotion is usually “adorable” rather than “devastating”.
Plus, the Summer Scramble has sexy bikinis.
… By which, of course, I mean, impeccably written character development.
Please stop looking at me like that.
5, Earth Temple – The Legend of Zelda Skyward Sword
It’s the music, okay?
But, seriously, though, it isn’t just the music. It’s the fact that most of the dungeon is completed by navigated rivers of lava by rolling across them on a boulder. It’s as much of a farce as it sounds (in a good way). Also, since most of the dungeon consists of getting around on the boulder, it’s actually pretty light on the combat, which I thought was a welcome change of pace from the traditions of the series (those traditions are still awesome, but it’s nice to do something different every now and then). The dungeon also ends with an Indiana Jones-style “get the treasure and run away from the oncoming boulder” sequence, which is also a farce (in a good way).
6. Big Blue – Super Smash Bros Melee/Brawl
I’m just gonna leave this right here:
But, awesome as that is, that’s not why I love Big Blue so much. I love it because everyone else hates it. Their tears bring me joy.
People tend not to like the moving/scrolling stages and Big Blue is pretty much moving at the speed of sound. As the F-Zero cars? ships? machines? race along, you need to use them as platforms, which is as unpleasant as it sounds. If you miss one of the racing … things and touch the track, you go flying off the screen at the speed of sound as the track continues onwards and you … don’t. The speed of the stage also screw up other things, as items tend to get shunted off screen as soon as they appear and attempting to get an item might lead to you missing your footing and ending up dead.
I have fond memories of playing as Pichu on Big Blue in Melee and going out of my way to be as reckless a troll as I could. I gorged that day on the frustrated tears of my enemies. Essentially, Big Blue is designed to make people angry. And I love that.