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.
“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
Facts about the ice world
It floats in water
Evolution of the tree
...And 14 other everyday objects we take for granted in video games. Including water