ClassicRadar: 59 levels to play before you die

Welcome to ClassicRadar, a weekly collection of GamesRadar’s greatest hits. Each Sunday, we’ll dig up one of our oldest, favorite-est features – some of which posted before the site even had comments – and give them another chance to win your love or spark your debate. The following originally posted on March 19, 2008.

Face it. No matter how dedicated and/or certifiably mental you are, there is no way you can play all the games that Mother Software produces from her cavernous womb. You're never going to sample every level that gaming has to offer, which is a real bummer, because there are some that absolutely must be played. Here, in fact, are 59 levels that we feel every gamer should experience before they expire.

Our recommendations range from the outstanding to the outlandish and the exceptional to the emotional. And if anyone's already played them all, you can die with a true sense of accomplishment and fulfillment. Life well lived!

In alphabetical order then…

Actraiser (SNES, Virtual Console) | Kasandora

As you rebuild civilization and restore your people's faith in this sim/action hybrid, you'll find yourself honestly caring about your subjects' helpless lives. Nowhere is their plight more touching than Kasandora, where you help a starving desert tribe grow into a bustling village, only to see an old man die in the dunes. His last wish is for rain, which you grant. The Kasandora people, so moved by the man's end, invent music to honor his sacrifice, creating a tune so sublime that it also helps settle a raging dispute in another village far away. Truly memorable.

Assassin's Creed (360, PS3, PC) | Acre Cathedral

Apart from being almost entirely populated and run by Europeans, Acre isn't that remarkable among the three major cities of Assassin's Creed - until you gain access to its Rich District area, anyway. If you like climbing up really huge buildings - and if you're playing AC, we're guessing you do - there's no place in the game that's cooler than the district's massive, elaborate cathedral. Not only is the church covered in detailed decorations (including a big, climbable rose window), but its steeple is the highest point in the game, affording a view of almost the entire city.

Axelay (SNES, Virtual Console) | level 2

Back in the day, space shooters were console-defining experiences. They represented how much raw power you could squeeze out of the hardware, and there was no shortage of shooters looking to claim the lead. Axelay led the pack for some time when it came to presentation - vertical and horizontal levels, SNES graphic tricks and an amazing score proved how epic a space battle could still be. The second stage, with its moody music, battered space station and ED-209/Alien hybrid boss embodied the pinnacle of shooter tech. Too bad this video kills it before it can fire its screen-splitting laser.

BioShock (360, PS3, PC) | Fort Frolic

Rapture's entertainment district is both the prettiest and the scariest section of BioShock. Glamorous theaters and glitzy neon night clubs exist in the same space as defiled corpses and deranged creeps. The area's ringmaster, Sander Cohen, is both an artist and a madman. His creations - posed tableaus of plaster cast bodies - are disgusting, but also bizarrely intriguing. The two faces of Fort Frolic - evil and beauty - mix surprisingly, surreally well. It's a perfect microcosm of the game as a whole.

Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare (PS3, 360, PC) | All Ghillied up/One Shot, One Kill

This is a masterclass in how to pace a level. The eyeball-aching tension of the opening stealth section builds to genuinely breath-holding levels you become staggeringly outnumbered, never more than a couple of feet away from discovery and death. The bravado of increasingly hairy escapes battles for dominance in your brain with the insane level of risk needed to make them.

The tension finally crescendos with an all-or-nothing sniper shot, before all hell breaks loose and you’re forced to run and gun for your life as a whole army bursts out of every street and alleyway. And then the chopper appears.

And your CO and only ally gets taken down. And you’re still about a mile from safety…

Castlevania IV (SNES, Virtual Console) | Mode 7 madness

Apparently Konami wanted the first 16-bit Castlevania to make a lasting impression, as part IV uses pretty much all of the SNES's visual tricks. If you need a good example, level 4 is Mode 7 porn, scaling and rotating pieces of the level (and even the boss) with reckless abandon. Head two minutes in for the money shot. It's a weird level for sure, but there was nothing else like it at the time, and that made it stand out in any "Nintendo vs. Sega" fanboy's mind.

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS1, XBLA, PSN) | Granfalloon/Legion

It takes a lot to stand out in a game that's so beloved. But no piece of Dracula's castle was as impressive or revolting as Granfalloon, a gigantic enemy composed of rotting, bloody corpses. Striking the ball o' bodies causes an avalanche of man meat, thereby cementing this encounter as one of the creepiest of all time. Ick!

ChronoCross (PS1) | Lynx and Serge trade bodies and Lynx moves into a painting

With its whopping cast of more than 50 playable characters, ChronoCross takes its "Epic RPG" label to heart. However, the best part of the game centers upon only three: the main good guy Serge, his cute, hillbilly-talking girlfriend Kid, and the Darth Vader-meets-Cat in the Hat baddie Lynx. SPOILER ALERT: This entry reveals a pretty big plot twist.

It starts like any other RPG battle: three good guys versus three bad guys. And of course the good guys win. But something tragic and befuddling happens at the end. While Lynx lies incapacitated, Serge smiles wickedly, dashes forward, and drives a dagger half the size of a skateboard deep into the lovely Kid's stomach. She grimaces and slumps to the floor, motionless, her eyes voicing the confused betrayal we all feel as we yell brokenheartedly at the TV, "What the HELL, Serge!?"

Turns out, Lynx somehow switched bodies with Serge at the end of the battle. So the main bad guy is now running your army and you're banished, in his fuzzy, feline physique, to some bizarre, yet gorgeous alternate dimension that looks like a Picasso painting. And there you set about recruiting an army of new friends to help get you back home - where they will almost undoubtedly get their asses beaten into gravy by your old friends the minute you all arrive because you're trapped in the body of the most evil dude in the universe. The whole sequence is bizarre, beautiful, moving, and even slightly existential - everything we love in an RPG.

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  • sexyman500 - April 15, 2011 7:21 a.m.

    eternal darkness, booyah. Greatest game ever
  • TheBrownestWRPGuknow - April 13, 2011 2:39 p.m.

    I don't want to be this guy, but the secret garden in Shadow of the Colossus would have been a great addition to the list. especially after seeing the crackdown building climbing.
  • soren7550 - April 13, 2011 1:08 a.m.

    No Mass Effect? For shame.
  • fpezy - April 12, 2011 3:17 p.m.

    act 2 of gears of war gave me a good reason to be afraid of the dark also great list.
  • blast73 - April 12, 2011 1:50 p.m.

    I think that the final Tatooine level from Star Wars Episode 1 racer from the N64 should have been on there.
  • philipshaw - April 12, 2011 10:20 a.m.

    I think I have played half the levels on this list,now to go play the other half
  • jmcgrotty - April 12, 2011 10:05 a.m.

    While I won't go into which ones shouldn't have made the list, I will say that level 7 of Food Fight should have been included, along with the Pascal wave of Tron.
  • jmcgrotty - April 12, 2011 10:05 a.m.

    While I won't go into which ones shouldn't have made the list, I will say that level 7 of Food Fight should have been included, along with the Pascal wave of Tron.
  • DignifiedTick - April 12, 2011 9 a.m.

    Anybody remembers The Warriors mady by R* on the Xbox? The whole game should of been in this list! Sure, it's a remake of the 1979 (right?) movie but it was epic! The level where you had to ''lay down a piece'' or tag 5-ish layers before anyone else was awesome or as simply walking around the Coney turf. Recaptcha: find! decomic (Find the comic, anyone?)
  • SuperSDizz - April 12, 2011 3:54 a.m.

    The lack of Green Hill Zone and it's famous shuttle loop or any Super Mario ANYTHING is dissapointing, but otherwise a fantastic list! Played a few of these actually! :)
  • boonattack - April 12, 2011 1:43 a.m.

    There are some good levels on there, but in all honesty i think we could have a list 100x as big and still not please everyone lol. As for the Goldeneye choice.. Aztec?? Competely ignoring the fantastic story driven missions and jumping for one of the rather pointless and frustrating bonus level? ..Fair enough. For me it would have to be Cradle, if not for the music alone. Also had a lot of fun on the first Surface mission. Ahh.. Goldeneye. Seriously guys.. you must play the water temple before you die? it was frustrating to say the least. I would only recommend if you are looking to make them hurt themselves lol. Plenty of more enjoyable levels in Ocarina to choose from. Also id recommend Mario 64.. as for which level.. all of them, especially the slides. So much fun back in the day. Definately have to mention the first Monkey Island too, although have a walkthrough on standby as some parts can be quite challenging.
  • Yeager1122 - April 12, 2011 12:01 a.m.

    Theres so many great ones to add to this since then.
  • Japanaman - April 11, 2011 11:43 p.m.

    Great games, guys, but you really left out some great levels like: Contra III: Alien Wars (Level 1) Donkey Kong (Level 1) Donkey Kong Country (Factory Level(s)) Duke Nukem (Level 1) Goldeneye (The Facility) Halo 2 (Midship) Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Water Temple) Mega Man (Gutsman) Mega Man 2 (Metal Man, Crash Man, Quick Man, Flash Man) Mega Man 3 (Snake Man) Mega Man 4 (Pharaoh Man) Mortal Kombat: The Pit Mortal Kombat II: The Pit II Narc: Arcade Game (1st Level) Outrun 2/2006/Online (Everywhere) Perfect Dark Zero (Club Level) Prey (1st Spaceship Level) Quake 4 (1st Borg-like Surgery Level) Rad Racer II (Night Driving) Simpsons: Bart Vs The Space Mutants (The Mall) Spider-Man 2 Movie Game (The ENTIRE CITY) Star Fox (Level 1) Star Fox 64 (Tank Level) Sunset Riders (Level 1) Super Mario 64 (Desert Level, Water Level) Super Mario Bros. 3 World 5-3 Super Mario World (Final Level) THUG 2 (Boston) Time Crisis 3 (Level 1, Area 1) TimeSplitters: Future Perfect (Zombie Level) TMNT IV: Turtles in Time (Level 1) Tomb Raider II (1st Venice Level) Virtua Fighter 3tb (Jeffrey's Stage) WWE Smackdown!: Here Comes The Pain (Backstage) X-Men: Arcade (Level 1)
  • grognard66 - April 11, 2011 8:46 p.m.

    I'm glad they included Thief III's Shalebridge level - that's my personal favorite of all time. I would also include Deux Ex's first level and FreeSpace 2's last level. Pretty good list overall though.
  • Skykid - April 11, 2011 8:20 p.m.

    Ah, Gears of War and CoD: Modern Warfare. That brings me back. Those were awesome levels on both games Good choices GR
  • Turboash - April 11, 2011 6:06 p.m.

    No Rocket-bike-thing level from Battletoads!? Good list though, glad you guys didn't buy in to the GOW3 hype.
  • xcarlosx - April 11, 2011 3:56 p.m.

    Metal Gear Solid 4 had the best moments of my gaming life.
  • Pruman - April 11, 2011 1:42 p.m.

    Great list, but I'd add The Dream Fight in Mike Tyson's Punch-Out!! (Tyson only, screw Mr. Dream). The experience of seeing your name and face in the newspaper with triumphal music after you beat Super Macho Man, plus the special fanfare and "THE DREAM FIGHT" title card has the effect of making you feel like an unstoppable badass. Then you step into the ring, eager to punch Kid Dynamite into oblivion...and he destroys your entire life bar with one horrifying punch. Eight seconds and two punches later, you're taken straight to one of the most depressing Game Over screens in history, with a crippled and dejected Little Mac contemplating retirement. That's right - it usually takes several losses for this to happen, but Tyson is such an animal that one fight with him is enough to break you for good. Mike Tyson was and remains the most unbeatable boss in all of gaming, and no one should miss the low of realizing that for the first time, and the unmatched sense of accomplishment that comes from finally taking the big bastard down. It's just like Rocky's first fight with Clubber Lang in the third movie.
  • AngryScotsman - April 11, 2011 1:25 p.m.

    If I were to add a level, just because I played it recently, I'd pop in "Ghosts" from Metro 2033. There are no enemies to fight, you just sit back and soak in the atmosphere whilst being seriously unnerved by the ambient noise. It's very powerful and from such an underrated game. Anyway, I enjoyed reading this list again. You should do an update or something! That'd be sweet.
  • sirdilznik - April 11, 2011 10:40 a.m.

    Oh man Twisted Metal 2, my favorite multiplayer game of all time. It's hard to remember how many hours myfriends and I sank into multiplayer mayhem on that game but the number must be somewhere around 500+ hours. We wound up getting our multiplayer on mostly in the Paris and Hong Kong levels. Good times.