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"Make every other level in a game, then make your first level once you have mastered all the nuances of your design and completely understand the essence of your game experience, as the first level sets the table for everything to come." Game Informer Editor-In-Chief Andy McNamara once attributed this quote to a forgotten developer in a Letter from the Editor. As it happens, I agree. Here are the Top 10 First Levels that got that memo.
10. Narshe (Final Fantasy VI): The beginning of Final Fantasy VI will be etched into my brain until the day. The sound of the wind on the cliff overlooking Narshe, the march across the gorgeous Mode 7 snowdrifts and the march into the town itself; I remember it all so vividly. I was an old hand at RPG's when I first played Final Fantasy VI (or FF III as I knew it) at the ripe age of 14, but that first battle against the guardsmen of Narshe was literally the most entrancing thing I had ever done. Destroying everything in my way with my TekLaser, I made it to the first boss, and the rest is history. FFVI has one of the best stories in gaming, and the beginning sequence perfectly sets the tone for the entire tale.
9. Eden Prime (Mass Effect): While you're busy fighting Reapers and swapping discs, it's easy to forget that this is where it all began . I wanted to pick up Mass Effect for so long, but just didn't for some reason...I thought it would be a disappointment. Well, turns out I was wrong, and I was hooked from the first moment I splattered one of those floating ball things with my sniper rifle. Of course things took a harsh turn soon enough, and the Geth came out and obliterated Jenkins. Even then, right from the start, I knew what was really going on. As I sat there, with Jenkins's corpse at my feet, there's only one thing I really wanted to say: "It should have been you, Kaiden. It should have been you."
8. Midgar (Final Fantasy VII): While it may be a big first level, I am still considering Midgar as part of this elite group. At the time I thought Midgar was the entire world, but when it finally opened up into the real world, I was absolutely floored. Everything about Midgar is awesome: the reactors, the Shinra building, the train graveyard and, most of all, Wall Market. I couldn't believe it when I was actually done with it, and returning to it a couple discs later was one of the more emotional homecomings I've experienced in a game. As far as first cities go, Midgar was a doozy.
7. Test Chamber 01 (Portal): Hello, and again, welcome to the Aperture Science Computer and Enrichment Center. We hope your brief detention in the Relaxation Vault has been a pleasant one. Your specimen has been processed, and we are now ready to begin the test proper. Before we start, however, keep in mind that, although fun and learning are the primary goals of all Enrichment Center activities, serious injuries may occur For your own safety, and the safety of others, please refrain from-." What else can I say about the beginning of Portal that GLaDOS hasn't summed up for us? Who's ready for a safe and fun learning experience?
6. Vault 101 (Fallout 3): You know, I complain about my life a lot, but it could be worse: I could have grown up in Vault 101. I would have learned all my skills from some wooden letter blocks, I'd have a sadistic Overseer watching my every move, and I'd have to deal with the Tunnel Snakes. No thank you. Luckily, I only had to experience it in video game form, which was significantly cooler. Shooting radroaches, hanging out with Dad and escaping in a blood-filled frenzy were all highlights of my time in the Vault, and things managed to get even crazier once I left. Well, maybe, Vault 101 was kind of crazy, wasn't it? It did, however, perfectly set the mood for Fallout 3, and is one of the most immersive opening sequences around. I mean, it literally starts with your birth. Now THAT is role-playing.
5. The Apartment (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles II: The Arcade Game): Raphael. That's my favorite turtle. It's important to get that out of the way upfront, because the whole game, as with any TMNT property, is filtered through the eyes of your favorite turtle. I don't even want to know how many times I trekked through that apartment building with Raphael as my mom did her shopping in Wal-Mart. It was the second game I bought on XBLA, and I was pleased to learn that burning building had lost none of its luster. It's clearly had an effect on me: Every time I trek through an apartment hall, I keep glancing up the staircase to see if a giant iron ball is going to come rolling down it. I've been lucky so far.
4. Welcome To Rapture (BioShock): I remember picking BioShock up randomly one day while browsing a game rental store, and taking it home. I had no real expectations for it or anything, but it looked cool and I needed something to play. About a dozen hours later, I stepped away from my television after beating Fontaine. Seriously, I played the entire game through in my first sitting. Of all the great video game openings I've encountered, nothing quite matched the feeling I got as I swam to that tower and made my decent into Rapture. The first time that splicer jumped onto my bathysphere, man that was intense.
3. Glass Joe (Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!!!): Glass Joe, oh you poor ***. I seriously want to know how many times Glass Joe has got knocked the f**k out in his video game career. I'm gonna put the over/under at 1 billion. That's being generous, probably, but I'll give the guy the benefit of the doubt. Nevermind that, you know what I really want? I want to meet the one guy in the world who legitimately lost to Glass Joe. I'm convinced there's only one out there, somewhere, and I want to find him. And punch him in the face, loser. And yes, Glass Joe is totally a level, not a person. A great first level.
2. Green Hill Zone (Sonic series): Look, Sonic games may wax and wane as far as quality goes, but one awesome constant (usually) remains: Green Hill Zone. Green Hill Zone just evokes everything great about Sonic: the bright color palette, the rocking music and sweet loop-de-loops. It's all there. And when you finish, you get to thump Robotnik's newest weaponized monster and release all the furry little creatures who presumably live on Green Hill Zone. It looks nice, but I wonder why Robotnik is always attacking that place. It's almost enough to make me reconsider that retirement property I purchased there.
1. World 1-1 (Super Mario Bros.): Take any good (or mediocre) game that has been released in the last twenty years. Chances are, its level design was influenced by the gaming textbook that is Super Mario Bros. Before there was environmental storytelling and hour-long tutorials, Super Mario Bros. taught you everything you needed to know about it in that first glorious level. Move to your right. Jump on the monsters from above, but hit the blocks from below. Mushrooms make you big, and flowers let you throw fire. Go into the pipes. Don't fall in the holes. That blueprint is so simplistically flawless it's almost unfair. Despite what your opinions of Miyamoto are (I personally think he's a robot mistakenly stuck on smile mode) the man knows level design. World 1-1 takes this crown in a landslide.