Super Mario Sunshine – 2002
Whatever you feel about Mario's first post-64 platformer, there's no denying the island itself is one of the most brilliantly-realised environments in gaming history. Everything from the feeling of warmth you get from the sunlit plaza to the sparkle of the crystal-clear waters exudes holiday vibes. And, while the inhabitants may be a little out-of-character for a Mario game, the level furniture is as imaginative as anything from the last generation.
Above: That's the best tilting mirror in any game ever. Fact
What's also great is the way you can see other level areas from high points in the game, giving the real feeling that everything is linked and that the whole island is always existing while you play. Looking at it now, you can see it's just an illusion - Gamecube wasn't powerful enough to render all of that at once - but it worked. And in terms of creating a believeable gameworld, it's right up there with the best.
Other coolness of note:
Mario can go under the island, but instead of the camera following him down into cramped caves, it stays above the surface, instead giving you a sillhouette of Mario and his passageways.
A lot of the level design is undone by FLUDD and the new moves it affords you. Why bother timing a jump perfectly when you can hover over to it? Oh, and it's no fun being in a sunny paradise when the sun's blotted out for much of the time.
Above: Boo! Shade sucks. Better find some shine sprites, then...
Just Cause 2 - 2010
Panau could be described as a collection of islands, but the land-mass is self-contained and surrounded by water, so we'll give it the benefit of the doubt. We have to - it's simply the most expansive yet densely packed 'fun per square inch' ratio of almost any sandbox game.
Above: Grappling a helicopter above the sublime Panau
The first game gave us a taster of what could be achieved with current-gen tech, but the island here just turns all the knobs up to max and gives you everything. Right from the start too - after just a few introductory missions, the whole island opens up for you to have fun in.
You can skydive down to the streets of a town, before driving around for a bit, then climbing a skyscraper with your grappling line, then catching hold of a passing plane and flying up to snowy mountaintops - all in the space of a few minutes.
Above: Whichever way you look at it, that is amazing
Other coolness of note:
The environment is incredibly lush and is populated with a wide variety of enemies and wildlife. But there are some strange goings-on too - like robot shark fins in the water. Whatever could they mean...?
Above: You can get the robot out of the water. Now it's strange and dry
Not so much with the island (which is why it's so high up this list), but we'll admit, it got a bit weird when the ninjas came out. And the less said about the end boss fight the better. Still... neither of those are the island's fault, so we'll forgive it.