Once a month, Gimme 5 will bring you a 'Top Five' of all things gaming. Adam Smith may strike you as the kind of nerdtastic individual who knows it all when it comes to gaming, but let us know if you think he's wrong by sharing your views in the comments! This months topic...
Gimme 5: Coolest Winter Levels of All Time!
This seems like a particularly cold winter by British standards (he says, narrowly avoiding being impaled by the icicles hanging from his ceiling), and so it seemed only right to feature this particular top five in December: the polar ice cap of wintry suffering. For decades, video games have often featured various generic settings for their levels or areas, ranging from sprawling green hills and burning deserts, to ethereal worlds in the sky and underwater hell-holes. Of these staple landscapes, the winter-white, snow-smeared stage is one we are all familiar with, and one which is often filled with excellent tasks, graphics, and in-game physics.
I decided to de-ice the windshield of my mind, whack the heaters on full, and travel down the icy roads of my memory to make a conclusive list of the very b-b-b-best winter levels out there. And once I started, there was snow stopping me…
There are far too many winter wonderlands in the video game history books to avoid mentioning a few that didn’t quite slip into the top five, but let’s not discredit their sincere levels of coolness. Firstly, I felt it only fair to omit snowboarding titles from the countdown, as they really have to recreate the wintry atmosphere, and that has us taking it for granted: they don’t impact on our eyes and ears quite as profoundly as the rest. That being said, most of the levels from SSX, 1080, and the cute-as-ice-cream Snowboard Kids are fantastic, so woolly hats off to those guys. In a similar respect, SkiFree deserves credit for making the most infinite snowscape known to man (and for the legend that is the Abominable Snow Monster), though I can perhaps be forgiven for not ranking it!
The levels that only narrowly missed the ski-lift include Sonic the Hedgehog 3’s bad-ass Ice Cap Zone that introduced the blue blur to snowboarding (all to a tremendously techno Sonic-style stream of 32-bit blizzard beat!), and Final Fantasy VII’s Great Glacier – which also featured snowboarding. Extreme snow-sports aside, the former made cold cool for arguably the first time in a video game, and the latter really created a sense of isolation and survival, which would become a staple element for many wintry levels moving forward.
Lastly, Rare’s masterpiece Goldeneye created an eerie stage with the Siberian Severnaya level (known to many as Surface), and The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess had a rather unique dungeon inclusion with the unnerving Snowpeak Ruins, which sends two kinds of shivers down a player’s spine…
5 – Sherbet Land (Mario Kart 64)
Released – 1996
Platform – Nintendo 64
Genre – Racing
Did you know… In Dutch, the title of this track, ‘IJzige IJsbaan’, literally translates to mean ‘Icy Ice Track’…which I suppose is pretty accurate! The name Sherbet Land is used in several different Mario titles, all of which differ but revolve around iciness.
Those. evil. penguins. As if the slippery track and EXPLOSIVE KOOPA SHELLS weren’t enough, Nintendo decided to throw in suicidal penguins too! More than once I’ve been in pole position, only to be penguinated on my final lap, losing thereafter to some gloating Princess Peach or Wario… Alas, I digress! With its mixture of mania and clever use of the wintry surfaces, there’s no way this couldn’t make the top five.
4 – Snowfield [Sniper Wolf Battle] (Metal Gear Solid)
Released – 1998
Platform – Playstation
Genre – Action / Stealth
Did you know… Though Shadow Moses Island, the setting for the entire game, is fictional, it has since appeared as a playable level on Super Smash Bros. Brawl, as well as being used as the title for a song by metalcore band Bring Me the Horizon.
Setting a video game in Alaska will encourage any developer to add a drizzle of the chilly white stuff to the surroundings, but few are as atmospheric as Metal Gear Solid’s lonely Snowfield. Technically not a ‘level’ (the game has none to speak of), Snowfield sees our hero Solid Snake come face-to-face – or, more accurately, scope-to-scope – with the game’s quintessential hot tamale Sniper Wolf. The game is lonely enough with nothing but Snake’s incessantly ringing Codec to keep you company, but add this giant expanse of death-filled doom and gloom and you’re onto a wintry winner. It’s the perfect setting for a cold and calculated battle to the death, and as Sniper Wolf chokes on the bloody remnants of her own lung (SPOILERS!), the gently glittering snow sort of makes it all poetic, haunting, and beautiful. Sort of.
3 – Freezeezy Peak (Banjo-Kazooie)
Released – 1998
Platform – Nintendo 64
Genre – Platform / Adventure
Did you know… The entrance to Freezeezy Peak looks like an advent calendar, which introduces the wintry/Christmas theme of the level before the player enters. Banjo originally appeared in Diddy Kong Racing, and was only teamed up with Kazooie as the developers wanted him to be able to double-jump and, at times, run quickly.
A giant snowman. A sledging bear. Christmas presents. Ice. What more does a winter level need?! For the festive music alone, this level couldn’t miss a place on my list: the sleigh-bell punctuating the quaintly frosty theme still makes me feel warm inside like a good winter’s soup. With its mixture of hilarious characters, murderous snowmen named Sir Slush, and the chance to play as a frickin’ walrus, this stage will always have a place in my heart…even if it was oddly similar to – though a thousand times better than – Snowman’s Land on Super Mario 64.
2 – Winter (The Last of Us)
Released – 2013
Platform – Playstation 3
Genre – Action-adventure / Survival horror
Did you know… If you’ve played the game, you’ll remember the bit with the giraffes. What you may not have noticed, however, is their continual usage prior to this in the game too. They can be found almost everywhere that a child is present or would have been present, and seem to represent innocence or hope. Deep.
The thought of being lost and stranded in a freezing cold place is enough to scare most of us to death, and The Last of Us perfectly captures that feeling in the winter section of the story. The game puts you in control of Ellie, the game’s young female character, rather than Joel which really cranks up the emotion and fear in this section specifically. The camera freezes should you stay still for too long during her escape in the blizzard, and the conclusion to the chapter is both disturbing and satisfying. What Banjo does for cute and cuddly, The Last of Us does for terrifying and traumatic. Every snow-covered step you take in the game feels like a real-life step into a terrible nightmare; the winter portrayed here is one of the most stark I can remember in a video game, period.
1 – Cool, Cool Mountain (Super Mario 64)
Released – 1996
Platform – Nintendo 64
Genre – Platformer
Did you know… You get a Power Star for collecting 100-coins in the game, but you can actually only ever receive a maximum coin score of 255 per level, even though you can physically collect more! Sounds like a secret government tax to me…
It had to be number one. It simply had to be number one. Think about it! You can slide down a snowy mountain ON YOUR BUM. You can make like Santa and go down a chimney. Inside the chimney, there’s a GIANT ICE SLIDE, and a fat-ass penguin to race against. There’s a talking snowman. AND, of all things, you can dive head-first off the mountain, and bury ol’ Mazza neck-deep in snow when he lands, leaving his podgy-little legs a-wigglin’! The whole experience is glorious, and epitomises how detailed and brilliant Mario games really can be. The music is magical too, with a frolickingly-festive feel to it.
If all of those reasons weren’t enough to convince you that Cool, Cool Mountain is the cool coolest winter level of all time, I have one more reason. What really swayed it for me was the fact you can get your own back on those devil-creature penguins from Sherbet Land by – dare I say it? – THROWING THEIR CHILD OFF THE MOUNTAIN TOP…
I feel no shame. Winter is a cold place.
Whilst Adam Smith faces charges for penguin murder, please feel free to tell us your fondest memories of wintry levels in the comments below. Until next time, this has been Gimme 5. Merry Christmas!