Ah, December! Despite being home to torturous holiday shopping, rampant sickness and some of the most inhospitable living conditions, it’s routinely held up as “the most wonderful time of the year.” Maybe, if you ignore the pounds of snow, record-breaking cold snaps and general anxiety that stems from attempting to exist in a world slathered in ice.
Above: Beautiful to look at. Torture to navigate
Videogames, on the other hand, let us appreciate winter’s natural beauty without suffering the frigid temperatures or continuous roadside perils. So, while most of us prepare for another bitch-cold batch of frozen misery, let’s take a look at gaming’s most authentic and memorable snow levels and try to forget the hell we’re about to endure.
Ever since Luke screamed across the frozen surface of Hoth in a snowspeeder, developers have dreamed of accurately capturing the rush, scale and overall awe of that fateful battle. Early attempts were… admirable, given the level of tech at the time, but were far from a thrilling experience.
Above: Super NES Hoth, with Mode 7 tech, was still lame
Move to 1996 and the Nintendo 64 launch, however, and you’ll find the first “oh my god this is amazing” account of Empire’s chilling introduction. The landscape stretched for miles, the laser bolts were hot & heavy, and most importantly, the AT-AT walkers were ominous, towering behemoths that looked just like the real thing.
Above: Seconds away from getting laser’d
As far as snow and winter in general are concerned, there’s not a lot of groundbreaking stuff here. It made the list solely because Hoth was something of a Holy Grail for years, and it’s now been done so many times we can barely remember caring. In 1996, we cared a lot.
Above: You could use tow cables to trip the AT-ATs in movie-like fashion
Above: The rest of the game aged like crap, though
Karnov (NES) was so-so back in the day, and downright awful by today’s standards, but it does contain one of the few snow/ice levels in which you do not slip and slide all over the place. Counts for something, right?
Most Sonic levels race by so fast they’re hardly worth remembering. Ice Cap, on the other hand, grabbed your fickle attention by the balls and glued you to the screen thanks to its snowboarding opening, crystallized ice structures and the very un-winter-like techno beats. Said beats have gone on to become one of the most popular and frequently remixed videogame songs of all time.
Above: Arguably the best thing about Sonic 3
In an age where hardware was only capable of so much, Ice Cap Zone utilized just enough little touches that conveyed frigid temperatures and skin-searing snow without polygons or 1080p.
Above: Sonic on a snowboard, nowhere near the Olympic Games
Above: You’d occasionally kick up loose powder, often into Tails’ face
Above: Icebergs, snowflakes, clear skies… damn that looks cold
If you’re totally honest with yourself, most Sonic levels play identically. You hold right, jump a few times, fly through some loops and call it a game. Ice Cap was the first Sonic level that did all the usual tricks while simultaneously creating a tangible atmosphere, a feat the first two (and better) games somehow missed.
Ristar, one of Sega’s many attempts to produce another Sonic-level superstar, was required by videogame law to contain one snow level. It’s nothing too spectacular, but his idle animation, in which he builds a li’l snowman, is too cute to deny.