The Top 7... Water levels that don't actually suck

2. Clanker’s Cavern – Banjo-Kazooie
(Nintendo 64/Xbox 360)

Essentially the darkly warped British flip-side to Jolly Roger Bay, Clanker’s Cavern is a bleak and disturbing experience given the woefully clear hindsight of repeated plays. Oh yes, it’s part of Banjo-Kazooie all right; that bright, breezy adventure of bird and bear, that wide-eyed, colour-drenched platformer chock-full of merry squeaks and cheeky puns. And a quick glance over its checklist of features reveals an innocent enough brew indeed. A big, friendly fish character? Plenty of hidden secrets? A large, enemy-free expanse of water, to be explored at your leisure? An intuitive and responsive swimming model? Well, that certainly couldn’t be emotionally scarring nightmare fuel for an entire generation, right? 

Oh sweet innocent soul, how wrong you are.

Peel back the skin and look at the dirty carcass beneath. You’ll find the parallel nightmare world spawned of Super Mario 64’s descent into Silent Hill. Jolly Roger Bay as directed by Clive Barker. That big friendly fish character? He’s a biomechanical robo-shark, trapped in unknown years of chain-bound bondage deep below the murky, stagnant waters. Release him from his prison and you’ll find his mortal shell rotted and broken, his remaining flesh torn, exposed and raw, held together only by a godless framework of rivet, screw and steel.

Ignoring the grotesque man-made industry of his form, you’ll poke around within his innards. Dark, skinless meat will squeeze all mulchy and diseased between your toes, rendered irrecoverably unclean by its years of unholy marriage to hard, rusted metal. And if you’re not careful, yours will join it, by way of the whirling, hungry blades housed deep within Clanker’s deepest, darkest chamber. It’s like some brutal climactic scene from a Saw film, juxtaposed with the innocence of a Saturday morning cartoon.

Should you even survive long enough to escape, the previously unseen grime and decay of the outer chamber will glare unmistakably at you from every direction. What dread place is this? What forsaken hell? And how on earth did it end up being a really fun level in a family Nintendo game from 1998? Only the cold, black hearts of Rare truly know. And their lips are sealed.

1. All of them – Donkey Kong Country
Super NES

“To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, to hear the lamentation of their women, and to then go home and play the water levels from Donkey Kong Country back-to-back”

When the inevitable remake of Conan the Barbarian happens, that is exactly how the new version of Conan’s “What is best in life?” speech will go. Because a wise and effective warrior such as Conan could not possibly be taken seriously post 1994 if he did not include their sublimeness in his list of reasons for a man to live.

I’ll keep this simple, because to be honest, Coral Capers, Clam City, Croctopus Chase and Poison Pond are so clearly the pinnacle of the video game experience thus far that you’d have to be pretty broken of mind and soul not to recognise and bow down to their greatness. Even if you’ve never played them. There’s so much goodness and purity in their very auras that it emanates out to touch the lives of those who’ve never even heard of the SNES. Or Nintendo. Or games.

They work because they keep it simple. They’re fairly straightforward tunnel-swimming affairs with spot-on, but never excessive enemy placement, the tightest, most pleasing controls in the world of 2D swimming, and if you get lucky you’ll get to ride a happy swordfish who makes navigation even easier and kills the bad fish on sight while letting you sit back and enjoy the ride.

And best of all, better than anything else in life, there’s the soundtrack, which in the pre-Youtube days, we’d start up one of these levels just to listen to. Controller down, ears open, bliss incoming. Three hours later, our parents would find us gurgling and grinning on the carpet and ask if we’d started taking drugs.

Go on, synch up all four videos and listen to it twice in each ear at the same time. 

The absolute worst water levels 
When great ideas are drowned by horrible game design


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  • Ninjadmin - September 20, 2010 10:43 a.m.

    Hmm, agree about DK, but the rest... No chance. Especially any of the 3D ones. Mario 64 & Banjo & Kazooie's are 2 of my most hated levels of those games. Id say the only 3D game to have ok underwater areas is Zelda MM. Being able to transform into a Zora made it much more bearable. SotC one is ok too. Water sections should be banned from all games. Simple as that.
  • lawless77 - September 20, 2010 10:56 a.m.

    Dang! No One Lives Forever gets left out again.
  • IIIIIACEIIIII - September 20, 2010 10:57 a.m.

    I was listening to a brilliant, orchestral remix of Aquatic Ambience on the way home before I read this. It was nice to see Donkey Kong Country win, I was really expecting you guys to pull a fast one and say Bioshock is the king of all underwater levels (even if it's technically a whole game and not a single level).
  • Shoopaah - September 20, 2010 11:24 a.m.

    Still can't get over the fact there's no water levels in Donkey Kong Country Returns. :(
  • AGENTJORRRG - September 20, 2010 11:42 a.m.

    Crash Bandicoot 3??? RC Revenge Pro?? (If you've ever heard of it)
  • tomthespesh - September 20, 2010 12:39 p.m.

    Gotta agree with the Mario and Banjo Kazooie levels I loved them, and Jolly Roger Bay music is fantastic. However Dying in the water level was horrible watching the poor sod drown, it gave me nightmares as a child and is still a horrible way to watch a character go.
  • Hurricrane - September 20, 2010 12:46 p.m.

    Hasn't GR done an article like this before?
  • KnightDehumidifier - September 20, 2010 1:01 p.m.

    Whoa whoa whoa, no Hydro Thunder?
  • onewingedantista - September 20, 2010 1:32 p.m.

    What about the underwater facility in KotOR?
  • Rhymenocerous - September 20, 2010 1:32 p.m.

    Surely there should be some Tomb Raider here? By the way that water Colossus terrifies me
  • crazyer - September 20, 2010 1:37 p.m.

    i hate to be "that guy" but i think lbp should have been on here
  • RonnyLive19881 - September 20, 2010 2:51 p.m.

    Nice to see some Nintendo love on this site! Quit picking on Mario for his awesomeness!
  • papergoon - September 20, 2010 3:04 p.m.

    I know it's irrelevant here but, Aquaria! The whole game takes place underwater and the developers (2 of them if I'm not wrong) were able to craft out a masterpiece. One of the best water-based games out there
  • twix407 - September 20, 2010 4:06 p.m.

    I agree with the DK level as the best but I don't see Jolly Roger Bay in there I always got frustrated with the controls even still with Mario Galaxy I didn't like the water controls. I think a Mario Sunshine level would have been better in its place. But I do like the music on Jolly Roger Bay.
  • JADENkOTOR - September 20, 2010 6:16 p.m.

    DKC for sure. I don't see why everybody has a problem with Jolly Roger Bay... I thought it was a great level in one of the best games of that generation. How did the ghost ship from Super Mario World not make it? That is one of the best water levels of all time... period.
  • Yaro - September 20, 2010 7:12 p.m.

    The SotC part is full of love. Ps3 yay!
  • Clovin64 - September 20, 2010 7:21 p.m.

    Yeah! Dino Crisis 2 gets some love! Seriously, its one of my absolute fave games ever and the water level was incredible. DC2 was such a fast arcade shooter, and the under water level completely changed everything. Also, that bit with the massive Pleisosaur (or whatever its called...Nessie?) is one of my fondest gaming momments ever. Of course Shadow of the Colossus had to be here. It is the greatest game ever. Can't wait for the HD re-release!
  • batmanboy11 - September 20, 2010 7:31 p.m.

    Good list, although I haven't played a couple of them.
  • FlyinHawaiian13 - September 20, 2010 7:42 p.m.

    I love Jolly Rodger Bay. Its just relaxing as hell to play through. Where is all the hate coming from?
  • michaelmcc827 - September 20, 2010 7:53 p.m.

    Woah...getting serious deja vu reading this, I swear this has been an article before.