The Top 5 Video Game Level Designs

I highlight some of the best game level designs out there.

Lets face it, we have all played way too many video games. Now I’m not saying that as if it were a bad thing. All I am saying is that it makes it really hard to narrow down a very short list of the top video game levels by design. I have done some research and gathered some consensus between other “Top Level” articles. The levels I have selected are not only some of the best in the business, but are also some of the most memorable.

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Yes there are a few on this list that were absolutely infuriating as well but think about it. You may have played some of these levels a long time ago, but you still remember them to this day. Also the sense of accomplishment you got for completing these insanely hard levels is unparalleled. So without further interruption, I present my top five video game level designs.

The Milkman ConspiracyPsychonauts

Psychonauts is a brilliant platformer created by the mind of Tim Schafer and Double Fine Studios. Released on April 19, 2005 for the Playstation 2 and original Xbox, Psychonauts tells the story of young Raz. Raz is a powerful, young cadet who is attending psychic summer camp in hopes to hone his mental abilities. Upon discovering that someone is kidnapping other cadets and stealing their brains Raz must project himself into the minds of many bizarre characters in order to discover the culprit.

The level of interest here is the one called The Milkman Conspiracy. Not only is it the longest level in the game, it is also the first to immerse you into full length puzzles. The level is portrayed as a nightmarish suburban mental landscape where the laws of gravity don’t really apply. Raz’s enemies range from the mysterious G-Men to a troop of girl scouts who call themselves the Rainbow Squirts. Yes–the level of satire in this world knows no bounds either.

Despite having glowing reviews overall (8.4 from Gamespot and 8.7 from IGN) and very positive feedback from the people who played Psychonauts; the game did not sell well. This is a shame since the entire game has the kind of creativity and charm that lacks from many of today’s titles. A few of the sites that list this game as top level, actually list the entire game and not just one specific level.

FacilityGoldeneye 64

Released on August 25, 1997 and developed by Rare for the Nintendo 64, Goldeneye is still to this day one of the most quintessential shooters of our time. The game is based off of the “James Bond” movie of the same name. You play as the famous Agent 007 as he tries to unlock the mystery of a secret Russian weapon named Goldeneye and what an ex-agent of the MI6 would want with it.

Facility is not that much of a stand out level on its own during single player. It is the game’s second level and gets you used to the type of close quarters shooting that will be found throughout the game. It is also cool to re-live the scene from the movie where 007 breaks in through the bathroom vents and knocks a guy out on the toilet.

Ah–the toilet (weird segue I know). The bathroom is actually where this level shines but during multiplayer. Facility is probably the level that the majority of us played the most. You always knew that someone was hiding in the bathroom stalls because the kid in us thought it was the perfect hiding place. It had amazing level design for the use of proximity mines. There were vents, tight corridors, and doorways. The level basically boiled down to whoever was the quickest to procure the proximity mines and then set them up in the bathroom. Quick thinking players could use the vents to enter the bathroom, however, the vents would most likely be rigged with mines as well; so good luck with that.

Goldeneye drew tremendous praise when it came out (scored a 9.8 on Gamespot and a 9.7 from IGN). It is still considered one of the greatest shooters ever made. Fans are screaming for an HD release of some sort whether it be on Xbox Live or Playstation Network. We got Perfect Dark to be a DLC title; why can’t we have Bond? Oh and on a personal note; to all the PSP first person shooter haters out there bitching because there was only one analog stick, ONE OF THE GREATEST SHOOTERS EVER HAD ONE F#$%ING STICK! You weren’t all bitching back then so shut your pie holes and get over it! Sorry, now back to our regularly scheduled program.

Water TempleLegend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

How many of you just growled, groaned or cursed me out for even mentioning this accursed level? Trust me the feeling is mutual. Even though this game is one of the industry’s finest, the Water Temple is one of the most hated and loathed levels in the gaming community. The term “water temple” is even used to describe problems that are difficult or impossible to solve. Yes it’s that bad.

Released for the Nintendo 64 on November 23, 1998 and developed by Nintendo, this brilliant game hit its stride when you arrived at the infamous temple. This level is on this list, not for its difficulty, but as one of the most impressively designed and cleverly challenging levels ever made. I found out halfway through the game, the temple is also perfectly placed. I guess Nintendo thought that we would progress through the game too quickly and become too complacent with the games mechanics. I tell you what, it’s a hell of a speed bump.

The Water Temple is so insidious with it requiring you to raise and lower the temple’s water level in order to proceed. This results in the player tying themselves into knots trying to figure out the proper solution to continue further. It’s all about the sequencing of water level and unlocking doors.

As infuriating as the Water Temple is, once you get through it, you have an overwhelming sense of accomplishment. I know that it pains me to admit but the design and placement of this temple in the overall game is genius. Ocarina of Time got outstanding reviews (Gamespot gave it a 10, as well as IGN) and is still one of the best games in the Legend of Zelda series.

Turbo TunnelBattletoads

A vast majority of players out there may not even know or remember this game. Out of those who have played this game, there are few of us who actually made it through this game. The reason why myself and other players didn’t make it through this title was because of this level. It is also responsible for more broken controllers than any other I can think of. Oh yeah, and it’s only the third level in the game.

Developed by Rare and released in June 1991, Battletoads was a beat ’em up game starring cool, mutated toads named Rash, Zitz, and Pimple. The toads are on a mission to rescue Pimple and Princess Angelica from the Dark Queen. The game was made to rival the Ninja Turtles and has similar gameplay to the Double Dragon games.

Turbo Tunnel is one of the hardest levels in the game because it forces players to do something that really doesn’t happen anymore. It forces you to remember things. The objective of the level is to steer your toad of choice as he races on a speeder bike while trying to jump from ramp to ramp and avoiding walls. This is where the memorization comes in. The ramps and walls come at you so fast that you have to be lightning fast with your steering in order to make the jumps or avoid crashing. It took so many times of learning where the next two ramps were, dying, learning the next ramp, dying again that most of us, including me, just gave up.

This level of Battletoads is on this list because it momentarily take you out of your element. It removes you from the first two level brawling gameplay, throws you on a speeder bike like the ones from “Return of the Jedi”, and just tells you to go. Games should throw you curve balls and escapes from the norm so that the player doesn’t get bored. Gamespot and IGN don’t have any official scores for this game, however the community score for Gamespot is 8.2 while IGN’s is 8.4. Not too shabby for a game that is 23 years old.

We don’t go to Ravenholm  – Half-Life 2

Let me start off by saying that Half-Life 2 is one of my all-time favorite games. I have played through it at least twice on PC, twice on Original Xbox, and then again on the Orange Box for Xbox 360. The game as a whole is so consistently excellent that it is hard to pinpoint a single, stand-out mission. But if I had to pick one, “We don’t go to Ravenholm” is a clear choice in my book as well as others I have read.

First released for the PC on November 16, 2004, Half-Life 2 is the long-awaited sequel to the original Half-Life which was released in 1998. It continues the story of Gordon Freeman after his mysterious return to the world after having been missing for several years. You must help Gordon escape from the mysterious Combine and flee the confines of City 17.

Half-Life 2 was also the flagship title for the Source Engine which was developed by Valve for Half-Life 2. This engine was a graphical powerhouse at the time and still looks excellent even today 10 years later. The biggest feature of the Source engine is its integration of some of the most realistic physics I had ever seen up to that point in a video game. The use of an objects weight, mass, and how they reacted to items within the environment is used for many of the games puzzles. It also allows you to have a little fun with the games enemies once you acquire a certain piece of hardware (more on that in a bit).

“We don’t go to Ravenholm” is encountered fairly early on in the game (about a quarter) and is the first chapter where you really get to have some fun with the certain piece of equipment mentioned earlier. That would be the game’s famous gravity gun. This gun has the sole purpose of picking up, dropping of throwing pretty mush any loose, non-living item in the game. The tutorial to get the player used to the new mechanic is Gordon playing catch with the big mechanical character named Dog. I mean come on, how cool and different is that.

The town of Ravenholm has been abandoned for some time now and is heavily infested with headcrab zombies. Because of this the chapter mixes genuine horror with extremely gratifying shoot-em-up moments. It’s the atmosphere that Valve brought into this town combined with how you need to move through the level that make it really stand out. The tension and level design make you wonder what may be lurking around every corner. Part of this tension and horror also comes from the introduction of a new type of headcrab and zombie. The toxic headcrabs like to lurk in dark places until you walk right up on them. Then all you hear is a hiss and what sounds like a rattlesnake. All of a sudden the crab is jumping at your face and your health instantly reduces to 1 HP. If that happens with other enemies around you are in deep my friend.

I will say that “Ravenholm” is one of the levels I had the most creative fun with in this game. The one reason for that was, of course, the gravity gun. When you first start the chapter you enter through a lumberyard and sawmill. There you come across some of the 48 inch saw blades just lying around. The inner Mr.Burns in me exclaimed “Excellent”. I made it a point to go through as much of the chapter as I could carrying and using the sawblade. Against the headcrabs, bad idea. But all the zombies, hell yea! The trick was finding the blades once I had launched it. That was tense all on its own, but I did get through the entire chapter carrying a saw blade. Fun as hell!

Half-Life 2 met with critical acclaim and received 39 Game of the Year awards and the title of Game of the Decade at the 2012 Spike Video Game Awards. It also spawned two expansions and was responsible for the creation of the Portal series. Half-Life 2 was so groundbreaking when it was released, that it’s hard to contain my excitement for what Half-Life 3 will bring us. Oh yeah, hey Valve, GET ON THAT WILL YOU!! It’s been 10 years! I think we are long overdue for number three don’t you?!

Honorable Mention

This list is by far a definitive one. It was also very hard to nail down just five of them. Yet in conclusion, I feel I must add something. During the last decade or so there has been a swell of games and mods that have come from user created content. Gary’s Mod, Little Big Planet, and the upcoming Project Spark are among some of them. The quality of some of the projects that have come from these games and mod tools are amazing. I mean Counterstrike was made from modding the original Half-Life. It was and still is a major title in the professional gaming community. I am sure that a huge part of that success of Counterstrike was the level design. So I guess what I am trying to say here is that some of the best video game levels could be your own. Don’t be afraid to take the plunge and work hard on your dream games. Who knows, maybe someday one of your levels could be on everyone’s must-play list.

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I have been into videogames my whole life. Started out with an Atari 2600 playing Combat and Berzerk. Now I'm playing games like Titanfall and Plants vs Zombies on Xbox One and 360. I am a fan of cartoons and sci fi. Family Guy, American Dad, Aqua Teen Hunger Force, Star Trek, Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica are some of my favorites. I used to be into comics, more specifically X-Men but I haven't collected in years. My favorite games are the Mass Effect series, Elder Scrolls series, Doom and Descent. When I grow up I wanna be Wolverine ;)