In the pursuit of extra lives
It doesn't matter how awesome a game is--sometimes, it's nice to take a little break from the action and distract yourself with something shiny and new. That's where bonus stages come in. These miniature levels offer a reprieve from typical gameplay, usually in the form of a limited-time blitz with the promise of extra points, lives, or continues if you succeed. Those bonuses can make all the difference when you're nearing a high-score or trying to beat the final boss later on.
But not all bonus levels are made equal. The makings of a truly memorable bonus stage usually show you an entirely new backdrop, snazzy visual effects, additional music, or the kind of challenge you wouldn't normally face in the rest of the game. These are the bonus stages that taught us to always chase after that sweet Perfect completion, and they built our expectations of what should come when we've snagged all the hidden collectibles. Now get ready: You only have 30 seconds to ready each entry. GO!
Car smash (Street Fighter 2)
Ken's left his Beamer unattended in the parking lot. What a silly thing to do when E Honda's got his best jock strap on and nobody to fight with. The very idea of smashing up an expensive car with martial arts moves is appealing enough, but the fact that it only pops up once per game just makes this rare treat all the more special when it arrives.
Halfpipe dash (Sonic 2)
Sonic 2's pseudo-3D special stages were designed to be the best-looking thing on any console--and, for a time, they were. The final stage (Emerald 7) is grey and looks pretty dull at first. But the third section features a sprinkling of rings all over the tube. The effect is magical, and when you finally nail the ring target on the third checkpoint, the background goes all psychedelic--perfect reward for a substantial gaming achievement. Ba ba da do do dooo!
Andy Asteroids (Earthworm Jim)
"YIPPEE!" That's the exclamation Jim makes when his literal pocket rocket hits a speed boost, and it's delightful every time. And the upbeat banjo music to this stage helps soften the blow when Psycrow rubber bands ahead of you for the tenth time in this winner-takes-all race. Also, though its inferior in fun factor, we'll never forget the Earthworm Jim 2 bonus stage with the automated chair and falling grandmas.
Animal Buddies on parade (Donkey Kong Country)
These are proper bonus levels in that the screen is absolutely filled with collectibles. Whether you're a rhino, swordfish, or frog, there's an abundance of bonus loveliness to enjoy. Better still, there's a huge 2x multiplayer icon hidden in each one. What could be more bonus-y than snagging a massive golden statue of yourself?
Test Your Might (Mortal Kombat)
Just hearing the name of this bonus stage makes us hear sick techno music. Despite all the ultra-violence elsewhere in the game, this bonus tasks you with something as quaint as a karate chop board-breaking demonstration (though later levels ask you to split pure ruby or diamond with your hand). Much button-mashing later and you emerge a hero or a huge loser; there is no middle ground. As for us, well, we nail it every time. Yeah.
Sewer Surfin' (Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 4: Turtles in Time)
Maybe it's not technically a bonus stage, since this cruise through the sewers actually has a boss fight. But dammit, it's just too good not to include. Surfing beneath the streets of New York City (or hoverboarding through the future in Neon Night-Riders) is always incredible, thanks in part to the amazing soundtrack. And who could forget the Turtles' cry when they fail to avoid a spiky waterborne mine: "MY TOE! MY TOE!"
Here's a little bonus room (Skullmonkeys)
As an actual bonus stage, this one's pretty tame: Klaymen simply bounces around collecting lives and the clay blobs that act as coin substitutes. But the music--oh, the music. Out of nowhere comes a charming, melodic lullaby that gets exponentially creepier as it goes on, turning the level into something utterly surreal. As kids, this song (and the shocking screams midway through) gave us nightmares--but nowadays, we can fully appreciate its bizarre genius. Give it a listen, won't you?
Balloon pump (Simpsons Arcade)
It's ridiculous enough that you'd frantically pump up a humongous float to chase after a hot air balloon. But the fact that your float is a spitting image of your own head instead of Krusty's, well that's just plain crazy. This bonus stage is the perfect way to practice your button-mashing prowess, and the watching the bad guys throw little temper tantrums after their inflatables burst is just adorable.
In search of the un-Cola (Cool Spot)
The star of this 16-bit platformer was supposed to be the red spot behind the logo of fizzy drinks brand 7-Up, but the deal fell through, probably as the company wanted to push Fido Dido instead. But the green bottle bonus stages were great. There was little innovation in the bonus collection and time limit, but each red spot added to your Cool percentage. Get them all and you're 100% cool. Hell yeah.
Abu dodging (Aladdin)
Aladdin's little simian friend Abu has two great bonus stages in the Genesis version of the game. They're incredibly challenging--one hit and it's all over. The descending extra life is a huge distraction in the first one, and the second just gets crazy with falling boulders filling the screen. Check out this video of a perfect run through both.
Tawna, N. Brio, and Cortex Token stages (Crash Bandicoot)
The great thing about Crash's bonus stages is that they're essential if you want to save your progress. They also hark back to old-school platforming with their left-to-right 2D plane. Of course you can still fall off if you venture into the screen too far. There's a ton of skill needed to ace them, but the rewards are great, especially in the harder-to-access ones.
Bounce house in space (Sonic the Hedgehog Game Gear)
The special stages in 8-bit Sonic are the perfect examples of this phenomenon. And on Game Gear they're even more special, perhaps due to the low refresh rate of that 32-color backlit screen. The curtains of rings look incredible, sound superb, and the music fits the bonus feel perfectly. This is a world full of wonder, and the only place you'll get the pinball bumpers in the 8-bit versions of the game.
Old West shootout (Sunset Riders)
Sunset Riders has some amazing 2D shooting, but it also introduced many a child to the fun of first-person gunplay. Mastering the eight-way quick draws took practice, but once perfected, you could rank up mega points in a jiffy. Here's a little-known historical fact: during the Wild West era, bandits exclusively wore red, blue, or green jackets (how they achieved such bright pigments in leather is anyone's guess). They were also kind enough to attack you in coordinated bursts, instead of shooting you dead all at once.
Hyperfunk Zone (Toejam & Earl in Panic on Funkotron)
Entering the bonus level in this classic 16-bit platformer is an assault on the senses, with garish, jittering colors and a slightly flanged vocal sample. Toejam or Earl simply runs from left to right, steadily increasing in speed. You just have to press a button to turn yourself into a squiggle as you pass obstacles--either pillars of squiggly lines or the exit. If you pass through a present while solid, you get the bonus. It's a test of memory more than anything, but reactions can get you through.
Gas station vandalism (Final Fight)
It's all the fun of Street Fighter 2's most iconic bonus stage, with none of the superhuman powers! And this time, you actually get some more context to this car-destruction scene. Yes, you really are just bashing apart some random thug's car while it's parked at a gas station. And when said thug lays eyes on the scrap metal that was once his prized vehicle, his reaction is priceless, screaming "OH! MY GOD!!" before dropping to his knees and weeping. Or, as the lamely censored US version puts it, "Oh. My car."
Faux Falkor (Space Harrier)
If you were a fan of The Neverending Story in the 1980s, this bit was great. It was like riding Falkor! The string of sprites was the most convincing furry body effect the tech of the time could create, and crashing through trees and shrubs for extra points was a welcome break from the relentless spamming of the Fire button.
Babaluau Baby (Maui Mallard in Cold Shadow)
This is a bonus stage in the most literal sense, because it features Donald Du...Maui Mallard cavorting around a theater stage covered in backdrop props. For whatever reason, the path to victory involves bouncing Mallard's soft tush on pointy stars hanging from the ceiling, so that you can set off fireworks attached to bizarre-looking suns and moons. And God forbid that you couldn't complete this level perfectly as a kid, because that was the only way to score the progress-preserving passwords.
Shooting range (Resident Evil 4)
A bonus level in Resident Evil? Really? We'd say yes. The shooting gallery rooms fulfill most of the criteria. You can't die in them, they're a break from the usual game and you can only come out of them the same or better off than you were when you went in. They were fun too, and we spent a long time in there trying to nail that perfect score to get the best character statues.
Gumball bounce (Sonic 3)
We hate the 3D globe bits of Sonic 3; they're tedious. No, what's much more appealing is the gumball machine. It's suspended above layers of angled springs. So you have to get Sonic to the top and hit the switch to release a bonus. However, to catch said bonus, you risk falling out of the bonus stage altogether--the perfect mix of risk and reward.
Toad's Roulette (Super Mario Bros. 3)
If Toad really wanted to help, wouldn't he just give Mario the 5-Up every time? Regardless, this bonus was all the fun of a slot machine that actually rewards careful timing. As a kid, the thrill of lining up a Starman, crossing your fingers, and watching the three segments click into place was almost too exciting. And did you know that the GBA port made this mini-game tougher by adding a Tanooki Leaf to the rotation?
Secret Cow Level (Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction)
Where's the beef? Oh, here it is--in the form of hundreds of halberd-wielding cows trying to kill you. This secret area became the de facto farming run in Diablo 2, and facilitated the kind of insane experience boosting that could get a fresh alt from level 1 to 80 in an afternoon. Hearing all the death-rattle mooing of your bovine enemies was a hoot, as was slaying the surprisingly resilient Cow King on Hell difficulty.
Banana bonanza (Super Monkey Ball)
The beauty of this one is just its simplicity. You've got 60 seconds to collect as many bananas as you can. The sight of all those spinning bananas just waiting to be collected is mouthwatering. Yes, even if you hate real-world bananas.
Throwing star shooting gallery (Shinobi Arcade)
Here's another instance of a 2D platformer switching it up to first-person for the bonus stage. But instead of blasting varmints in an alleyway, you're flinging a seemingly endless supply of throwing stars at dozens of hapless ninjas. Can't these ninjas see how everyone in their conga line keeps dying? Upon perfect completion, your reward is a cascade of fancy fans and a message: "You get extra player!"
Spin to win (Ristar)
Using the rods to spin yourself into a blur before letting go and flying off around the level was always the best bit about Ristar. Not all the bonus levels use this idea, but a lot of them do, asking you to perfect your speed and release point to reach treasure way above you. The fact it's against the clock also makes these levels fun to replay later on in Time Attack mode.
Castle Secret Stage (Gauntlet Legends)
It seems like no one has the time to take a crisp screenshot of this bonus level and post it online, least of all us--so instead, here's a nostalgia-triggering image of the N64 box art. Midway had a history of hiding great secrets in their game, and in Gauntlet Legends, these coin-grabbing sprees were the primary method for unlocking secret characters. It's secrets within secrets; incredible! If you played 'em, then you know: Speed Shoes are the key to success.
Any other bonus stages you've got fond memories of beating? Perhaps you're the kind of masochist who took pleasure in the FLUDDless bonus rooms of Super Mario Sunshine? Tell us about it in the comments below, once you've recovered from the intoxicating rush of nostalgia.