Op-Ed: Let’s Cut Water Levels Some Slack

Are they really as bad as you think?

By Anthony Vigna. Posted 08/27/2014 09:00 5 Comments     ShareThis

No matter how much praise a platformer receives, water levels are typically regarded as a forgettable blemish on the overall experience. Such criticism is fair when the game suffers from poor design choices, but I always find myself perplexed by those that dismiss these levels just because of the trope itself. As blasphemous as this may sound, I genuinely love and appreciate most water levels in platformers.

Yup, you heard me right! Water levels have made up some of the most memorable moments in certain games for me. I loved swimming around the vast blue water in Super Mario 64’s Dire, Dire Docks and listening one of Koji Kondo’s best compositions of all time. I loved speeding on top of the water in Sonic 3’s Hydrocity Zone, then frantically looking for air bubbles when I dived down. I loved playing Banjo-Kazooie and entering the mouth of a giant metallic fish in Clanker’s Cavern. Each of these did something completely different than the most basic levels within the game, making them incredibly fun to play.

Funny enough, I actually enjoy water levels for the same reasons that people hate them. A common complaint about water levels is that the controls are completely different. For example, in the original Super Mario Bros., you’re forced to tap the A button to swim because your character walks at an incredibly slow speed underwater. You may be used to running and jumping around on land, but once you’re thrown into water, you’ll have to grow acclimated to Mario’s controls once more.

If the controls of a character are completely sloppy underwater, then I can understand complaints towards the controls. However, I can’t bash a game like Super Mario Bros. for its water levels because they’re designed really well. I really enjoyed the challenge of avoiding incoming fish by timing my button presses properly when swimming. Sure, it’s different than the game’s standard platforming, but the controls introduce some variety that helps keep the game entertaining as a whole.

Another complaint I often hear is that water stages have bad gimmicks tied to them, like having a limited supply of oxygen. But again, I have to say that I really enjoy having mechanics like this when they are done properly. People hate water levels in Sonic games because of the frantic chase of finding air bubbles underwater, but I really think that it adds an interesting layer of challenge to the game. To me, it feels incredibly rewarding to breathe in some air when you’re on the brink of death, especially when that incredibly scary music kicks into gear!

The word “gimmick” itself has a lot of negative connotations associated with it and is often used as a way to describe mechanics that hamper the core gameplay. But honestly, what fun would a game be if it didn’t introduce new mechanics? Games that constantly introduce new mechanics are more likely to hold my attention because they keep things interesting. When I think of games like Super Mario Bros 3., I don’t remember the basic set of levels introduced in the first world. Instead, I remember the amazing complexities of the Pipe Maze world, the unbelievably large enemies from Big Island, and of course the Sea Side world that had water-filled dungeons!

Would Super Mario Bros. 3 be as interesting if every level only used mechanics introduced in the first world? Personally, I don’t think so. The unique level gimmicks, including those found in water levels, help make the game stand out from other platformers by making it unique. While the concept of water levels are not new at this point, they still give the player a completely new way to experience the game that cannot be done on land. Plus, no two water levels are built the same! Different games introduce different concepts and environments to explore, making them a complete joy for me to play.

I understand why water levels have this negative stigma. A lot of people have nightmares of levels like Ocarina of Time’s Water Temple, but not all water levels suffer from poor design! In fact, as video game design continues to improve over time, I’m finding less and less examples of bad water levels in gaming. This convinces me that there’s nothing inherently wrong about exploring an aquatic land in gaming. But hey, that’s just my opinion! Do you have any particular water levels that you love or hate? What are some of your favorite or most hated level gimmicks in platformers? Let us know in the comments below!

5 Responses to “Op-Ed: Let’s Cut Water Levels Some Slack”

  • 819 points
    Toadlord says...

    The Donkey Kong Country games alone cut through the notion that water levels suck. I could swim around listening to aquatic ambiance all day.

    • 784 points
      Marc Deschamps says...

      Aquatic Ambiance totally wins the “pro/anti” water level argument. As much as I’ll always hate the TMNT water level, my love for the DKC water levels, and Aquatic Ambiance, makes it impossible for me to stereotype water levels.

  • 745 points
    OG75 says...

    When thinking about water levels, I tend to differentiate between 2D and 3D.

    I have no problems with 2D water levels. I love the ones Anthony mentioned in his piece, plus I agree with Toadlord about DKC (just put aquatic ambiance on “repeat” and call it good!)

    When it comes to 3D water levels, I’m not as much of a fan. I tend to get disoriented. This is just because I suck and not so much a criticism of gimmicks or level design.

    My favorite level “themes” are “snow” and “halloween.” Needless to say I love me some Banjo Kazooie and Costume Quest! (Costume Quest 2 is coming to Wii U. Woo-Hoo!)

  • 678 points
    amishpyrate says...

    I’m fine with most 2d water levels except for ninja turtles and sonic games. Ninja turtles was just hard and sonic games water levels didn’t feel like sonic games. Movement was slow which isn’t the point of sonic. I hate 3d water levels with a passion because for some reason I get paranoid something is going to get me in them. It’s weird but no matter the game I get freaked out at water levels. I bear through it for the great games though.

  • 1294 points
    Robert Marrujo says...

    Totally agree, Anthony. A lack of water levels was Donkey Kong Country Returns one, glaring flaw, just to illustrate your point even further. I’m a sucker for water in video games, though, so I might be biased. =)

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