Saturday, 17 June 2017

Water, Water, Everywhere: 7 Games with 'Dam' Awful Water Levels (Feature)

By Andrew Hardcastle.

For better or for worse, water levels have long been a staple of video games. Such as it is, we now accept them as a part of the industry, just like having greedy publishers shaking us down for even more money. Developers seem to enjoy utilising them as an ego brushing device; being the most efficient way of showing off their cutting edge physics engine and impressive graphics. 

Conceptually, the water level is sound. As human beings we are inherently afraid of the unknown, and what better a way to explore this idea than in the vast, unforgiving depths of Poseidon’s dominion. Gigantic sea monsters, strange natural phenomena, and mysterious relics hidden under the surface, are pervasive throughout our collective culture; and can translate well to video games.

Unfortunately, the number of genuinely fun or effective water sections can be counted on one hand. For every Treasure Trove Cove there’s five Atlanticas. The water section in Amnesia is one of the most frightening experiences in gaming, as is Earthworm Jim’s ‘Down the Tubes’ (but for completely the wrong reasons). Which leads us to: seven of gaming’s most awful water levels. With this list I tried to mix it up a little, instead of just reiterating the usual suspects. But yes, the fucking Water Temple is on this list.

7) Battletoads - Terra Tubes

Riding on the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles craze came Rare’s first successful IP - Battletoads. Like most games during the NES era, the beat ‘em up was pretty light on plot and served mostly as an excuse for the game to feature anthropomorphic amphibians. Ah, the Eighties/Nineties were a simpler time. For the most part, the game was highly entertaining: if not harder than my bedsheet the week after I got a TV, which could receive Channel 5, in my bedroom. But even with the goddamn muscle-memory taxing Turbo Tunnel level it was still enjoyable. Until you reached the inevitable underwater section (of which there were surprisingly few for a game about Toads).   

So, why was it so awful?  As mentioned above, Battletoads was an obscenely difficult game; one that back in the day helped to define the term Nintendo Hard. So, the one thing it absolutely didn’t need was a water level in which the characters control like a forklift truck in Narnia. One chock full of insta-kill spikes and psychotic marine life, and races against giant wheels of death - which can only be beaten through luck or prior knowledge

Special mention has to go to the rubber ducks: which managed to capture all the destructive ferocity of the Charybdis but in a form which could sit cutely on the side of the bath. 

6) Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic - Manaan

Both Stars Wars: Knights of the Old Republic games were essentially the beta test for what would become the greatest gaming franchise of all time - Mass Effect. The first Knights of the Old Republic is rightly regarded as one of Bioware’s best games. Using their talent for writing rich, engaging stories, and relatable characters (before the studio got all 'inclusive' and SJW-esque) and Bioware were able to add some colour to Stars Wars' simple pluralistic universe. So what went wrong? A Jar-Jar Binks tribute? Yet another emo for a villain? No, far more insidiously, a lengthy water section.

So, why was it so awful? Oh, why indeed. Well, to withstand the crushing pressures of the Manaan depths, the player character had to wear a cumbersome deep sea suit. The only problem was that, in the suit, you moved slower than a mule who didn't care whether Darth Malak was well on his way to conquering the galaxy or not. As with all levels in KOTOR, the underwater sections of Manaan were fairly sprawling; being forced to move around it like you had shat yourself was irritating at best.

The watery depths were also home to little bastards known as Firaxan sharks that could outrun you and kill you in seconds. You were armed with a sonic emitter which could make short work of the buggers – provided they didn’t surprise attack you, or the emitter deigned to work. And you were forced to fight through them, so it was particularly annoying if you were killed by a stray Firaxan and haven’t saved in a while.

But I could forgive all that if it wasn’t for the puzzle with the Kolto tanks. I’d rather be stuck in a lift with Theresa May than go through that again

5) Half-Life 2 - Water Hazard 

Released in 2004, Half-Life 2 was Valve’s most seminal work. It played out like a combination of System Shock and 1984, and depicted a bleak alien infested dystopia led by inept puppet-ruler who uses social media to voice his asinine opinions. These Trump jokes write themselves. Like Half-Life before it, HL2 raised the bar for melding interactive storytelling and tight First Person Shooter gunplay. It was held back by perhaps just one thing: a diabolical boating section. That and the twats at Valve not finishing the story.

This is probably a risky inclusion, considering the typical gaming fan sees Valve as the Olympians residing atop Mount Olympia; but that still doesn’t prevent Water Hazard being a crappy level. 

So, why was it so awful? This level defined dodgy controls. For the majority of the level you were forced to use an airboat that was harder to control than a boisterous border collie at Crufts. I hear the boat section was a lot smoother on the PC, but on console it was a case of perpetually crashing into walls and repeating the finicky jumps. Maybe the console peasants deserved to be punished by their masters, but this is how revolutions start. This may sound more like a skill issue, but the airboat controls genuinely were too sensitive when playing with a gamepad. And if/when the boat was destroyed, the game would let you continue until you reached a point where you could not physically continue without the boat; essentially a waste of a good five minutes.

The section was just too drawn out and not at all interesting. You explored a few drains, sewers, and abandoned buildings, but it paled in comparison to the harrowing Orwellian world that came before it. And that forsaken Combine gunship can rust in machine hell - I suppose the closest thing machines have to an emblematic plane of suffering is being in a Michael Bay movie. 

4) Star Fox 64 - Aquas

There's two things to say about Star Fox 64: firstly, it still stands as the pinnacle of its respective franchise, and, secondly, it features more anthropomorphic characters than a Furry's wank fantasy. An on-the-rails, or 'corridor', space shooter, Star Fox 64 saw you blast your way through a variety of planets and star systems. Performing an aileron roll (not a barrel roll, you mong) through an asteroid field was immensely satisfying; a feeling which hasn’t yet been topped by its counterparts even twenty years later.

But there's one level never we never spoke of back then, and still don't now. Aquas
So, why was it so awful? It was dark. By god, it was dark. Apparently the manufacturers of the Blue-Marine (Space Dynamic) never imagined that a submersible would need lighting. Who the fuck thought this was a good idea? The same guys who thought the Marines in Doom 3 would never need to simultaneously use a torch and a gun? This meant far too many instances of getting caught out by an enemy veiled by the darkness (including exploding starfish). Your only way of illuminating the environment was to fire a torpedo. But in a twist of irony reserved only for the evilest corners of hell: if you destroyed an enemy in close proximity to you, the resultant explosion made it (temporarily) harder to to see!

The worst part, however, was that this is a hidden level, one you actually had to put the work in to unlock. That’s like doing a ten hour stint at Argos and then paying them. I suspect that Shigeru Miyamoto is powered by the tears of rage filled children. It’s the only logical explanation for this monstrosity.   

3)  Sonic the Hedgehog- Labyrinth Zone

Whereas Nintendo’s mascot vehicle is about the platforming, gameplay in Sega’s flagship franchise, Sonic, has always been about speed. Like a rave in Nineties' Britain. Therefore, a Sonic game is the last game you’d expect to have a water level, or at least a slow, lackadaisical one. But then the last place you’d imagine a spider to be hiding is under your pillow, and you know how they like to surprise you. In my view, water levels are the second worst thing about the franchise: just below the toxic fanbase with its Sanic memes and DeviantArt cringe.

So, why was it so awful? Honestly, I could have picked any water based level from any Sonic game. But I chose Labyrinth Zone from Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) because it was just such a chore to play: if I ever have kids, I’m going to punish them by getting them to play this zone. It did away with the fast paced, twitchy gameplay and replaced it with a mere lurch and incredibly awkward platforming. It was like you were suddenly playing as Sonic’s granddad.

As its name suggests, the level was deliberately maze like (remember that section in Act 3?) and frustrating to navigate. You could actually bypass a lot of the section using the top route; but if you didn’t know this, then you got to enjoy The Blair Witch Project-esque section. How fun! On the 8-bit version of Sonic the Hedgehog, Labyrinth Zone was somewhat nerfed. But, instead, the developers included an actual fight with that dickhead (Eggman) and his submersible. That’s right: poor underwater controls versus torpedoes. You furry blue bastard.

2) The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time - Water Temple 

The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time is one of Nintendo’s finest entries in one of their finest franchises. Riding Epona across the plains of Hyrule and watching the sun rise is one of the strongest memories of my early gaming career; a memory fondly shared by an entire generation of gamers. But we also share another less pleasant memory: the time the unbridled joy was ruined upon entering the Water Temple.

So, why was it so awful? Unlike most entries on this list the Water Temple didn’t feature terrible out of place controls, or even an unforgiving difficulty spike. No, it features on this list purely for its confusing layout, and rage inducing water level adjustment mechanic. Essentially, you lowered or raised the water level, which changed which rooms you could enter. Think of it like being a plumber who has to solve a Tower of Hanoi style puzzle before he gets to shag the bored housewife. Unless you were very familiar with the layout of the level (or were using a well written guide), it was almost guaranteed that at some point you’d end up lost. And the absolute worst part? If you screwed it up and adjusted the water to the wrong level, you had to start over. That's the sort of cruelty only a Charles Dickens' villain could come up with.

I actually think the Great Bay Temple from Majora's Mask was harder; it's layout was far more confusing and made you feel like an Alzheimer's sufferer trying to find his way home. But MM was a much more challenging game than OoT overall, so that doesn't count. Nintendo went some way in making up for this atrocity with the 3DS port: the different rooms where you change the water levels were now colour coded for convenience. Whilst it made the puzzle aspect of the dungeon somewhat easier, the actual navigation of the place remained akin to an old fashioned door gag from the likes of Scooby-Doo. Having to equip and unequip the iron boots repeatedly, was a real chore in both version, as was getting caught up in those damn dirty whirlpools. 

1) Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles - Water Dam

Ah, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, everyone's favourite mutant sewer dwellers; beating out the C.H.U.D, the Morlocks, and the Crab People. I was too young to fully appreciate TMNT-mania when it kicked off in the late-Eighties and Early-Nineties, but I had the NES game. A generic side-scroller unworthy of the name, which featured one of gaming’s most hated water missions. Up there with meeting your girlfriend's parents, boring them with your off-putting personality, and angering them with your political opinions.  

So, why was it so awful? This level shouldn’t need any introduction to those well versed in gaming. I can only imagine how many broken controllers Konami were accountable for as a result of this level. In the spirit of many a water level, the Turtles controlled like a fart in a wind tunnel; this was annoying onto itself, but what made matters worse was that the player had swim through sharp reefs and electrified seaweed (?) with unreasonable precision. I suppose it was the Flappy Bird of its day. And now it loses another point for making me mention Flappy Bird on my blog. 

You also had to disarm eight timed bombs in under two and a half minutes.You can’t even get any lost Turtles (essentially 'retries') back until late next level. No, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. In words of the man with the bionic bladder: "Piss off".

At least water levels can’t get much worse than Water Dam. Surely? 

Oh Christ. It's motherfucking Jaws Unleashed.
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