Ice worlds? Shadow stages? The platformer themes we want less (and more) of

Been there, done that?

It seems there are more platforming games in existence than there are unique environments on planet Earth. And that's a problem, because interesting settings and inventive level design can make or break a sidescroller's appeal. Too often, developers seem to fall back on the backdrops we've seen hundreds of times, often churning out an unexciting carbon-copy in the process. You can only cavort through so many video game forests or jungles before they all start to look the same.

But for every tired old level trope, there's an ingenious, innovative zone that defies archetypical, preordained standards of what themed worlds should be. It's time that we honored those imaginative exceptions, while condemning the stages we've seen one too many times. Because, after all, variety is the spice of platforming life.

#5 most played-out: Castle stages

Classic examples: Crash Bandicoot, The Addams Family (SNES)

Oh sure, plumbing the depths of a decrepit fortress makes sense in Castlevania or The Legend of Zelda. But we can't understand game developer's fascination with making us run through dank, dimly lit halls of nondescript castles time and again. From a visual standpoint, castles are a snoozefest: grey stone corridors, torches affixed to walls, maybe a few hazardous suits of armor or falling chandeliers. Worse still, they're typically dark as hell and filled with deathtraps, making precision jumps all the more painful. If you're going to utilize a shadowy aesthetic, why not go all out with

#5 most refreshing: Shadow stages

Classic examples: Donkey Kong Country Returns, Super Meat Boy

The stark contrast between light and dark has enamored humankind for generations; just look at shadow puppet theater, the allegory of the cave, or the music video for the Fine Young Cannibals' "She Drives Me Crazy." Why not recreate that sense of enchantment as a one-off silhouetted stage in your platformer? The effect lets you appreciate the visuals in a whole new light (or lack thereof), and shadow-based trickery often hides some very clever secrets. It's fascinating that colorful platformers can still look gorgeous even when the entire level is cast in shadow.

#4 most played-out: Desert stages

Classic examples: Super Mario Bros. 3, Banjo-Kazooie

Vast expanses of nothing more than mounds of golden sand? Sounds like a blast! Deserts are typified by their bleak, desolate landscape, yet they seem to make an appearance in every other platformer. Sometimes the arid wastes merely serve as a backdrop for pyramid and/or temple stages, which is at least visually stimulating. But when we're forced to trudge across shifting sands, losing our way amidst indistinguishable yellow hills under the glare of the sun, any other level seems preferable. Bonus points subtracted if said desert has those annoying dust devils that constantly send you flying in the wrong direction.

#4 most refreshing: Retro stages

Classic examples: Super Meat Boy, Runner 2

Gamers are a nostalgic bunch, prone to getting misty-eyed over anything that resembles a sprite from their 8-bit or 16-bit pasts. And there's no better way to appease the old-school crowd than going full pixelated for a stage or two. It could be any system, really--maybe the Game Boy palette found in Super Meat Boy Warp Zones, or the Atari 2600 aesthetic of Runner 2's Retro Zone cartridges. It doesn't need to be a visual overhaul, either--the one-to-one recreation of Whomp's Fortress from Super Mario 64 in Super Mario Galaxy 2's Throwback Galaxy does wonders for invoking childhood memories.

#3 most played-out: Water stages

Classic examples: Earthworm Jim 2, Sonic the Hedgehog

Water levels are hated for a reason: they essentially force you to play a different game. You know how you've been mastering the speed of your run and arc of your jump in every stage thus far? Well guess what--we're going to strip away 90% of your mobility, nix jumping entirely, and make you doggy-paddle past dozens of spiky objects that will likely kill you. Ah, but that's not all: we've also given you the ability to drown! Be it a water temple, an oceanic world, or a dive through a coral reef, few things hamper the quick pacing of a platformer like an abundance of H2O.

#3 most refreshing: Toy box stages

Classic examples: Wario Land 4, Kirby's Epic Yarn

Like retro stages, levels made out of giant colored blocks and wind-up gizmos tap into our childhood memories--the ones we formed from ages 1 to 5, when object permanence and video games were concepts we had yet to fully understand. There's a certain innocent joy to bouncing around a gigantic toy box, bopping plastic monsters or racing against stacks of dominoes. And the accompanying music is usually just as cheery, creating a densely saccharine environment. An entire game's worth of these jaunty levels would probably feel like overkill, but when used sparingly, they're a delight.

#2 most played-out: Ice stages

Classic examples: Mega Man 7, Ice Climbers

Like water stages, but in another phase! Ice, snow, and winter themes in general combine the worst aspects of water stages--diminished control--with the visual bleakness of desert levels. Few things in life are more frustrating than failing a long jump because you couldn't get traction, or slamming into a spike pit after slipping out of control. And it's hard to decide which is worse: the repetitious rock walls of an ice cave (usually replete with harmful falling stalactites) or the white, blurry wasteland of an outdoor snowstorm. Maybe we're cold-blooded, or maybe this trope just needs to die a frosty death.

#2 most refreshing: Music stages

Classic examples: Rayman Legends, Super Mario 3D Land

Everybody's got a little rhythm--and even if you're not a Rock Band or Dance Dance Revolution ace, keeping time with the beat as you run and jump is an excellent variation on classic platforming. Whether it's as simple as a metronomic pattern of platforms phasing in and out, or as grand as a stage where every action builds up an ever-more-chaotic musical number, infusing melody into otherwise familiar gameplay is always invigorating. Sometimes that hook is enough to sustain entire games (see: Bit.Trip Runner, HarmoKnight); other times, it's the perfect change of tempo amidst a slew of ordinary levels.

#1 most played-out: Lava stages

Classic examples: Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Donkey Kong Country 2

Since the dawn of time, humankind has had a fascination with the life-and-death properties of fire. That doesn't mean every platformer under the sun needs a level in the fiery pit of a volcano. Leaping feet-first into pools of molten lava is only marginally less demoralizing than a bottomless pit--because either way, it's instant death. Only, lava levels also have the added "benefit" of fireballs that leap up from the magma just as you're passing over, consigning you to a deep-baked death. At this point, we've played enough fire / lava / Hell / foundry / heat levels to last a lifetime--if we never see a lake of lava again, we'll be content.

#1 most refreshing: Carnival stages

Classic examples: Sonic the Hedgehog 3, Donkey Kong Country 2

Bright lights. Garish colors. Ferris wheels. Roller coasters. Maybe a sprinkling of evil clowns or rides-turned-deathtraps. There's something enchanting about fairs and theme parks--partially because they blend the spectacle and surreal atmosphere of casinos, circuses, and a 24-hour acid trip at Epcot Center. But carnivals also play on an elusive sense of danger, the same kind of ever-present risk inherent to every leap of faith you make in a platformer. These outlandish stages aren't even that uncommon--but no matter how many we play, each carnival-themed world feels unique in its own quirky ways.

A whole new world (theme)

Perhaps we missed your favorite/most hated theme? Maybe you think we ordered them all wrong? There's so many more--factory levels, space levels, future levels, prehistoric levels, mirror levels, haunted levels, clock levels, upside-down levels, rolling-on-top-of-a-ball levels...the list goes on and on. In any case, make your voice heard in the comments below!

And if you're looking for more, check out The absolute WORST water levels and The Top 7... Games that will test your friendship.

Lucas Sullivan

Lucas Sullivan is the former US Managing Editor of GamesRadar+. Lucas spent seven years working for GR, starting as an Associate Editor in 2012 before climbing the ranks. He left us in 2019 to pursue a career path on the other side of the fence, joining 2K Games as a Global Content Manager. Lucas doesn't get to write about games like Borderlands and Mafia anymore, but he does get to help make and market them.