ClassicRadar: 59 levels to play before you die

From the brilliant to the bizarre – maps, stages and missions that every gamer should experience at least once

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.


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.

We recommend