The Best Winter Levels in Games
Brrrrr, it’s cold outside! While savouring a mince pie with mulled wine in hand, the team look back at a their memorable Winter-themed levels from years gone by.
The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past – Ice Palace
Mark: The 16 and 8-bit eras are replete in festive levels, with jingle-bell soundtracks, grinning snowmen, rock candy ski-lifts and piles of prettily wrapped presents adorning the wintry landscapes of many 2D platformers. The classic Zelda however has no such festive frolics, dropping you into a dungeon that could well be the basement of the deepest circle of Dante’s hell.
Spikes on the floor, floors that break, indescribable diagonally floating skull things, evil green ice-skating penguins and frozen wall-zombies. That’s not to mention some fiendish path-finding as you drop from one floor to another by strategically bombing the ceiling in just the right place. It’s a good job Link is a bonafide badass by this point, with a tempered Master Sword and a magic rod that hurls fire, or he’d have no chance. Luckily the dungeon’s Big Chest also grants you a new uniform that halves damage, much like the Varia Suit from Super Metroid. Sure you can see some smug sod speed-running it in 3.7 seconds on YouTube these days, but back in the day, this place caused a lot of problems.
The boss? In typically random Zelda fashion it’s a giant frozen rock that explodes into three pink fuzzy eyeballs, which then harass our hero whilst further shards of ice drop from the ceiling on to his tiny elfish head. Merry Christmas, Link!
NiGHTS: Into Dreams – Frozen Bell
Simon: It may sound strange that Frozen Bell would be my go-to winter thing about a game that has an actual Christmas edition. I just wasn’t cool enough or lucky enough or savvy enough to get a hold of Christmas NiGHTS back in 1996, so while I certainly recognize its place in video game Jule canon, it’s not a part of mine.
It checks the boxes of having a wonderful, unmistakably wintery tune (ever evolving thanks to NiGHTS’ Cybersound powered soundtrack), snow, and a bit where NiGHTS turns into a bobsleigh and slides down a halfpipe. My favourite thing about it are the big snowballs suspended in the air that you can drill through with your boosting spin attack. There’s just something playful and satisfying about how they break apart and how they go crunchy crunch. It’s all a jolly, wintery time.
Uncharted 2: Among Thieves – Chapter 17: Mountaineering
Ahmed: When I think of winter and gaming, I don’t have many memories and think the winter scene is a bit underused in recent years. Assassin’s Creed took a foray into the frosty environment with AC III, Halo’s original outing has some snow levels, but the first thing that comes to mind is Uncharted 2’s nearly silent character Tenzin. Yes, I know a character is not an environment, but it’s what Tenzin represents and what I think of when daydreaming about how good Uncharted 2 was. I’ll never forget meeting him for the first time on my initial playthrough of the sequel to Drake’s Fortune, more than half a decade ago. Without giving away spoilers, Tenzin and I were tasked with entering a sub-zero cave to investigate a terrifying secret. The developers at Naughty Dog brilliantly had the player and Tenzin aid each other in platforming from icy slope to icy slope, some of which inevitably gave way as both Tenzin and Drake saved each other countless times.
And then having to fight the Yeti’s in a blinding but beautiful snow-capped environment was a spectacle to behold. Tenzin’s Tibetan commentary went over my head, but our trek through a frost-bitten cave to unlock ancient secrets is up there with my favorite gaming moments. Here’s hoping Naughty Dog take from their past and blow us away again with a snowy level in Uncharted 4. I’m thinking a crazy set-piece on the North Pole!
Super Mario 64 – Cool, Cool Mountain
Dominic: When I think of having joyful winter moments, I instantly remember my time has a young one getting excited when waking up to a garden full of fresh, cold snow. It was just ripe for me to throw my clothes on and play around in – throwing snowballs, making snowmen, sliding around, and generally causing a mess and annoying the parents by having them to deal with the extra washing from my snow-wet clothes. My memories of winter are a playground of fun, and one game I feel captures that essence of wintry goodness is Super Mario 64 and its first snow level Cool, Cool Mountain.
This level includes the perfect winter activities. One of the first things possible is to jump down the chimney in Santa Claus fashion that leads to an ice slide. Later on, said ice slide becomes a race against a huge penguin while Mario slides on his belly to this awesome music. Another has Mario creating a giant snowball by pushing it down the mountain, forming into a snowman’s body when it hits the bodiless head in its path. And lastly, Mario is a good Samaritan by reuniting a lost penguin with his mum without ever having the need to press X to call “Jason.” This whole level embodies what winter is for young kids, and with this wonderful, jolly tune for the stage, Nintendo no doubt knew what they were doing to combine everything in Cool, Cool Mountain together to be one of best winter levels to grace video game history.
Metal Gear Solid – Shadow Moses Island
Ian: I spent a few days thinking about my favourite wintry level from a video game, but no matter how hard I tried I always kept coming back to Shadow Moses Island, from Metal Gear Solid (which may seem more fitting now due to the recent release of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain). It may not be Christmas themed, or have the jolly, uplifting music that most ice levels bring, but it does have a special place in my heart because of what the cold environment allowed the game to do.
I had barely started the game and had just entered the elevator that starts the title sequence after figuring out how to sneak around/take out guards for the first time. I had learnt something new and already overcame the first obstacle using my new found stealth abilities (not to mention how amazing the new game I was playing looked!). I was pumped. I felt ready for the next set of enemies to walk back and forth, back and forth, just like every other game that had come before, but not this time.
Just remember the first time you played through the game yourself. You didn’t know the secrets and you had to take it slow, making sure to not be spotted. The Hind takes off and now you’re back in control of sneaking around an armed base in the middle of Alaska. You can see Snake’s breath as it condenses in the blistering cold air. There’s one particular guard in the top right of your map that Snake pointed out previously, but luckily there’s a few small containers near him that you instantly take advantage of and use for cover as the enemy walks by unknowingly. Another guard outsmarted by the great Solid Snake until… “Whose footprints are these!?”. I’ll always remember that moment of panic that set in as the guard started tracking me down using the footprints I’d left in the snow. It may have been the first time I felt so much care put into the finer details of a game, simultaneously forcing me to quickly react and stealth my way out of the new found predicament. Truly a classic gaming moment.
Silent Hill – Silent Hill
Jorge: There is a terrifying beauty to be found in the peak of winter; the uncontrollable shivering of one’s body as it is assaulted by howling winds and blinding white fog, the distant seasonal lights illuminating the dark streets, the quiet reflecting of triumphs and regrets as the year comes to a close…the very concept of winter has served as a backdrop in classic horror movies such as The Thing, but rarely has it surfaced in the world of videogames before the debut of Team Silent’s Playstation classic, Silent Hill.
Right from the very start, Silent Hill replicates the isolated, unknown terror of a winter setting, blinding players with thick fog and filling their stereo televisions with ominous wind. The game’s out-of-season snow does not serve as a permanent backdrop, as players will eventually progress deeper into the darkness and come across more Clive Barker-inspired backdrops, but those first few hours navigating the seemingly empty streets as pixelated snow falls upon the grime and gore-filled pavement surrounding you remains some of the most memorable depictions of a Winter backdrop ever put into videogame form. Playing the game during a real-life cold front also heightens the senses, as you may begin to question whether the endless shaking of your hands is the result of the cold outside or the terror inside.
Super Mario Galaxy – Freeze Flame Galaxy
Samuel: I don’t know if it’s cheating by having another Mario level in here, but I think that says more about the quality of games than anything else. While Freeze Flame Galaxy is technically only half an ice level, it’s that half that really stood out to me.
Ice levels usually get a lot of flak for movement becomes slippery and difficult to manage, and running in this level is not so different. But with a flick of the Wii remote, Mario begins speedily skating over the ground. There’s just the right amount of momentum to it that it feels fantastic to control.
It’s simple, but it really elevated the level for me. It took a well designed stage and added something more memorable to it. I’d even find a small area and skate in circles just because of how great it felt to do. It just goes to show that one small thing done right can boost the quality of a level.
Journey – Journey’s End
Thomas: Usually when I think of snowy conditions in a game, a warming festive feeling comes alongside it. The snow in most of them often looks welcoming, and players are happy to meet its acquaintance. Journey was one of the few games that made snow foreboding, unwelcoming, and downright scary. Upon encountering the chilling final areas, you get an instant jolt to your senses that this is somewhere your character should not be, but it is also somewhere they need to be, a place they must push through.
As players work their way through the snow, the game’s tone shifts dramatically from how the journey started. The bounding, exciting jumps and slides of the early hours are gone. Now players are forced to trudge through the oppressive cold, constantly getting pushed back if they are not careful. Alongside all of this is chaotic stringed orchestrated music, which ups the sense of dread that was already highly evident.
However, even through all the chilling unease, this part of the game can be incredibly touching, and will always be remembered as one of the most beautiful moments in the history of gaming. I will never forget the time I worked my way through the grueling endeavor chirping and cheering alongside another player I met along the way. It did not matter one bit that I found out his gamertag was XxButtsMan420xX after our adventure ended.
Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 – Cliffhanger
Gabrielle: I know, I know. Call of Duty makes you want to hurl your copy of ‘The Problems of American Imperialism’ at Activision or the general vicinity of 9 year olds who think ‘your mum’ jokes are the pinnacle of good humour. I have much the same feelings. However, back in the day, I did play Modern Warfare 2 and thoroughly enjoyed it, particularly this level. Looking over it again, it is just as good as I remember.
What stands out is the fantastic use of snow. It is both an asset and a liability in the stealth section by masking your presence to enemies, but also means you can stumble right into a patrolling Ultranationalist, should you ignore your Heartbeat Sensor attachment. The sheer range of gameplay also made this level so much fun: it starts out with ice axe climbing, develops to stealth, run-and-gun and then finally a snow mobile ride with an exhilarating jump over a canyon. The visuals were pretty great for 2009 and still are as bleak as ever in 2015; looking over the edge of an ice ridge at the beginning of the level is still fairly stomach churning six years on.
It is still very entertaining to play in the Spec Ops coop missions too. If you can get past the insistence of Cold War plot line in a game set in the future, this level is plenty of frosty fun.
Bloodborne – Cainhurst Castle
Ruben: The Forsaken Castle Cainhurst, what a locale. A gorgeous, snowy Victorian castle covered in ominous fog, surrounded by deadly creatures; inner twining staircases and 19th century opulence finally giving way to the sinister Martyr Logarius. Oh. Not ringing a bell? Don’t you remember? If you don’t, you probably didn’t explore the Forbidden Woods fully. And you didn’t find the back entrance to Iosefka’s clinic. And, in the clinic, you didn’t grab the Cainhurst Summons. And you didn’t take the Cainhurst Summons to a specific monument in the Witch’s Abode (only after killing the Witch of Hemwick, of course) so a cutscene would trigger after which you could ride a stagecoach to the castle. That’s FromSoftware for you. They don’t make things easy on the player, but that’s all part of the fun.
I have so many fond memories of Cainhurst. Thinking back to my first exploration of that snowy expanse of spire and stone I see how easy I had it, rolling through with my souped up character (blood level 70 or so). Even then fighting Logarius took me a couple tries to get it right. Later on, blood level 4 and 72 damage a hit with my trusty saw cleaver got me well-acquainted with Mr. Logarius’ frosty funhouse. You might think I’d come to hate the snow and hate that damn castle. Maybe I did, but the magic of Bloodborne erased all that when victory finally, finally came.
Come the holidays, the lessons FromSoftware taught us are all the more important to remember. When my own snow peppers the ground and chill fills the air, I think back to Cainhurst. Maybe family is its own sort of Lovecraftian horror or maybe the season is just one tinged with loneliness. Either way, just as I did in Bloodborne, you take a breath and try again – maybe something new this time.
Ben: Amiga Format’s 1993 Christmas Special came with a floppy disk containing Cannon Soccer, a bizarre fusion of classics Sensible Soccer and Cannon Fodder. This random gift from Santa from the late Sensible Software was a real one-off.
The level starts with your troops descending a snowy mountain at the top of the level. Below there’s a football pitch with Merry Christmas written around the edge, and as you venture further into the pitch there’s bad guys to shoot. Being only 10 years of age at the time I remember finding it all rather difficult, the troops not surviving long and having to take cover in the goal while under attack from a helicopter.
Animal Crossing: New Leaf – Toy Day
Kieffer: The holidays always seemed to be a lot more magical when I was younger. It wasn’t because anything outstanding happened during the holidays, but there was something about the combination of The Most Wonderful Time of the Year playing in the car radio while we rode from store to store with my mom that is really comforting to look back on. Being a lot older I have come to dislike going to stores during this time of year because I recognize the complete chaos that they become past a certain date. Hours in the car, crowded retail aisles, and trying to find a store that carries those weird purple boots that your grandma wants all became less enjoyable once I was the primary member responsible for it all. During these hectic times, Animal Crossing is the place I can go to bring back that holiday hug. I walk around carefree, no one expects anything from me, they are just happy to run into me while the tiny white explosions of snow paint the sky.
The citizens in Animal Crossing do not celebrate Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or Christmas, instead they celebrate an areligious holiday called Toy Day. On Toy Day a black nosed reindeer named Jingle wanders from house to house giving gifts to the folks in your town. If you are up for the job you can help Jingle out and receive some special presents in return! There is something inside my head that always makes me feel cynical about the characters in Animal Crossing though, so I can’t help but think that Jingle is just a slacker for a local charity that makes some stranger do his work for him. He is never seen going into anyone’s house, he doesn’t care who he gives the presents to for delivery, seems like a pretty shady character to me.
Aside from Wild World, Toy Day has been a reoccurring holiday in the Animal Crossing series since the beginning. I always check into the latest revision in the series to see what is going on in the town, even if I haven’t been to town in a while. Everyone needs some holiday time where they aren’t worrying about shopping and drama, I take mine in clothed animal form.
Until Dawn – Blackwood Mountain
Chris: As the snow falls on Blackwood Mountain in Alberta, Canada, the darkest of nights creeps ominously over the pallid landscape, juxtaposed against the steadily falling snowflakes. Reuniting a year after a joke gone wrong results in the disappearance and assumed death of two sisters, seven friends meet once again to move on from that fateful night.
As you walk through the powdery snow, a chill is sent up your spine, causing a minor convulsion and a shudder as your hairs rise. You see a backpack by the ski lift and a flashing light. It’s a mobile phone… you wonder if you should answer the phone or leave it… Leave it, don’t be nosy and build the trust of your friends through your choices.
Welcome to Until Dawn, a dramatic survival horror game where the prevalent darkness and continuous snow allude to something else being afoot. Will this evening really be one full of fun, flirtation and the oft promised of romantic retreat, or is it all poorly gauged entendres and relationship-friction that threatens to over-rule the reason why you have all reconvened after what happened before? Is Jessica really over Mike? Will Chris finally man-up and ask out Ashley? Who is that strange person wandering around the mountain? Is Josh really ok? Who is receiving therapy from Dr. Hill?
A well-received and well-regarded release from Supermassive Games, Until Dawn takes gameplay elements of Heavy Rain and Telltales series of games, delivering them far more effectively and visually. One of the best (looking and playing) horror games in years, and the winter setting aside, a chiller for the ages. Highly recommended!
Hitman 2: Silent Assassin – St. Petersburg Stakeout
Conor: Why the St. Petersburg Stakeout level from Silent Assassin? Well the game has an abundance of snow filled levels, but at the time of picking what to write about this was the only one I could remember, so I went with it. However the St. Petersburg Stakeout happens to capture everything a good Hitman level should encompass, plus all the snow means it fits perfectly with the articles winter theme – two birds with one stone.
As the illustrious and barcoded Agent 47 you hop off the underground train and into the mission’s sandbox, anything after that is up to you. You can run and gun your way to the target, you can disguise yourself as a soldier (cool furry hat included) and sneak right by the guards, or if you’re super hard-core you can even keep the trademark suit and red tie on and see how far you get trudging through the snow.
Choice is what Hitman’s all about. There doesn’t need to be a strong narrative. All it needs is a sandbox, a target, and an idea. My idea in the Stakeout? Make it to the building opposite the one the targets in and snipe him through the window. Sounds simple, but the fun comes from executing the idea and dealing with the problems as they arise – such as every guard in the business hearing the sound of my shot ringing through the streets of St. Petersburg, but that’s a story for an even colder winter’s night.
From everyone at DarkZero, have a very Merry Christmas and all the best for 2016.