By Alex Alusheff
Water is fascinating. We drink it, we play in it, we explore it, and we search for it on other planets so we have a replacement for when we fuck up Earth.
But water also sucks. You can drown from too much of it or die from too little of it. Also sharks live in it. Sharks.
All of these negative traits and more are ever-present most water levels in video games, while the fun parts are extremely lacking.
But why aren’t they fun? Surely the developers intended them to be fun or they wouldn’t have put them in the game. Here’s why, despite developers’ best(?) efforts, water levels are the worst (with some exceptions).
There’s a reason our ancestors left the ocean millions of years ago. And there’s a reason our primate cousins avoid water outside the occasional dip. It’s terrifying.
And as soon as you reach a water level in a video game, you know whatever lurks below is coming to fuck you up. In Jak & Daxter, if you fell in the water, intense music would play and a huge, orange fin would emerge. If you didn’t get back on a platform in time, the humongous lurker shark would swallow you whole.
In the Jolly Roger Bay level of Super Mario 64, a giant eel lurks in an underwater cave, gnashing at you with its jagged maw when you swim past. When it slithers out and you see how freakishly long it is, it makes you glad you’re not actually there. Yes, the graphics are outdated as hell, but that’s what makes it so creepy. Its unblinking eyes and flapping jaw are stuff of nightmares even on playthroughs today.
Air meters and clunky controls
Water levels make up a small portion of most games, but we spend a lot more time on average in them. That’s because we die a lot more in them.
We’re introduced to brand new mechanics that lack polish. Swimming is clumsy and slow. You can be attacked from all angles by enemies better suited to the environment and, in some cases you can’t fight back. On top of that, your character has an air meter. So now you’re faced with a time limit or have to go out of your way to find air bubbles, which becomes way too stressful and annoying.
Take the water level in Conker’s Bad Fur Day, for instance. You slowly swim in tight pipes and fight sloppy camera controls, avoiding enemies while searching for air bubbles emitting from pipes. Conker’s face is shown in the corner of the screen to serve as the air meter. The more strained his expression, the closer he is to drowning. It’s clever, but it is hard to gauge just how strained he is until it’s too late. And if you get hit by an enemy, you lose life and precious time as you recoil from the blow by doing a few backflips. You die a lot.
In Super Mario 64, Mario swims as fast as you’d expect a pudgy Italian plumber to swim. His health just starts dropping the closer he is to drowning, so you have to constantly replenish it with coins. But the analog controls can be fussy and you often find yourself circling a coin a few times like an idiot before you can grab it. Most likely, you died before getting to the coins.
How about the Labyrinth Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog? Talk about a slog. Sonic goes from speed of light to the speed of molasses when he goes underwater. You rely on air bubbles to keep from drowning. The whole appeal to Sonic is his speed, so when you take it away, you take away the fun.
Water levels can be a pain even when you’re not submerged. Such is the case with the jet ski level in Uncharted: Drake’s Fortune. You control Drake as you weave through flooded ruins on a jet ski, which has slippery controls, but feels realistic enough. You have to shoot bad guys and avoid explosive barrels along the way, but you do so as Elena, who is riding piggyback.
The problem is you can’t drive and shoot at the same time, which we’re all used to doing from Grand Theft Auto. This ruins the flow of the level as it just devolves into rev up, stop, shoot bad guys, rev up, stop, shoot barrels. The constant stop and go defeats the purpose of being on a jet ski. There are a lot of epic driving sequences in the Uncharted series, but this was not one of them.
The flow the developers took time to establish in the previous levels becomes interrupted in water levels and it detracts from the experience. These elements all come together to add a whole new level of stress to the player and it’s not enjoyable.
There’s nothing wrong with an increased challenge, but water levels seem difficult for the sake of difficulty.
Lack of imagination
It seems like there are two options when it comes to swimming levels: complex mazes or huge open spaces that are empty.
What other options are there when the character can move in all directions in these levels?
Water takes away the need for tight platforming fun when you can slowly, slowly, slowly swim anywhere. So we’re met with darkness, bland backgrounds, and vast emptiness.
And it unfortunately reflects real life. The ocean is dark. There’s nothing in it except fish and the sea floor. But just because it’s like that in real life shouldn’t mean it has to be like that in video games, where literally anything can be possible.
But for the most part it is. These are the most uninspired parts of video games, unless the game is solely focused on water like Subnautica or Abzu.
While the water level is a drag, the music in them is usually top notch.
It is usually peaceful, serene, even sorrowful, but in a tasteful way. I immediately think of Dire, Dire Docks in Super Mario 64. That song feels like self–introspection. The Koopa Troopa Beach theme in Mario Kart 64 makes me want to relax on a beach with a pina colada. I could fall asleep to Aquatic Ambience in Donkey Kong Country’s Coral Capers level.
Speaking of Donkey Kong Country, that’s one of the few 2D platformers that nailed water levels. The Kongs don’t need air meters and their movement is barely hindered. It actually becomes fun, dare I say, when you unbox Enguarde the Swordfish and just start bopping sharks left and right. Watch out for those damn octopi though. They are as creepy as the eel from Super Mario 64.
Mario Odyssey also did a better job on its water levels with the Seaside Kingdom and Lake Kingdom. Nintendo must have realized that swimming mechanics suck and gave you the ability to control enemies in the water. It’s actually fun to be a Cheep Cheep. And using a Gushen to defeat the boss in Seaside Kingdom was a blast. That’s how you make water fun.
Nintendo also made sure there was normal platforming in both levels to vary up the game play so it didn’t get tedious.
This hits on my main point: if you want to include a water level in your game, make it a small, fun section of a level. Don’t just slap a water level in there and throw some duct tape on it to cover the leaks. Make it an enjoyable intermission.
And by that, I do not mean a rhythm minigame like Atlantica in Kingdom Hearts 2.