In Britain we’re well-known for having a temperamental climate, but mostly we’re seen as a country where it rains. A lot. For the majority of the year, the weather goes unnoticed to the average person; it’s just something we’re used to. But as soon as it snows over here – even if it’s a tiny smattering of snowflakes – people go absolutely bananas. Depending on your age and responsibilities, snow is either the most amazing thing in the universe or the greatest evil known to mankind. As a kid, I would wish for snow every Christmas, and the few times that we did have a proper snowfall I would lose my shit. Nowadays, as a responsible adult (stop giggling), snow becomes a massive inconvenience, and I’m sounding more and more like my dad every year (“the roads will by icy, best check the tyre pressures”). But I still love when it snows, and I still feel that same sense of wonder as I did when I was younger.
There was a snowfall where I live a few days ago, and that, along with my generally festive mood this time of year, has me thinking of some of my favourite snow levels in video games. It’s a staple of many games, platformers especially, to have a section that’s covered in snow and ice, to shake things up for the player and offer some variation in traversal. Plus, snow levels just look pretty. So wrap up warm (and shut the door, you’re letting the heat out) as we salute some of my favourite video game snow levels. And remember, this is just a list of games that I’m familiar with; I’m sure that I’m leaving out some incredible examples, so please let me know in the comments what your favourite icy game levels are.
Jak and Daxter – Snowy Mountain
The Jak and Daxter series is one of my eternal favourites, and one of the reasons I fell in love with gaming when I was younger. While the second and third instalments introduced more varied gameplay, the first game was an out-and-out platformer with a beautiful open world and, incredibly, no load times – or at least, very well-hidden load times. One of the things that made Jak and Daxter stand out to me was how vibrant and diverse the environments were, from sandy beaches to lush jungles to volcanic plains. One of these micro-climates was an area in the latter half of the game called Snowy Mountain (a bit unimaginative, I’ll admit), which featured all the hallmarks of a classic snow level: falling snowflakes? Check. Enemies wearing warm winter clothing? Check. Annoying slippery ice paths? That’s a big check.
Snowy Mountain was by no means a unique snow area, but like everything else in Jak and Daxter, it was done very well. Everything was bathed in a gorgeous, twilight-blue hue, and it was fun to navigate, moving between deep snow drifts which slowed you down and treacherous patches of ice that could easily slide you off a cliff. (That happened quite a lot to me, actually.) And having the enemies wear warm, furry winter clothing was a lovely touch, too.
Pokémon Gold/Silver: Ice Path
If Jak and Daxter made me fall in love with gaming, then Pokémon Gold was my gateway drug. There was a good chunk of my life aged 10-11 where I barely looked up from my Game Boy; I was so consumed with catching and levelling up my favourite Pokémon, all while journeying across the lands of Johto and Kanto on my trusty bike. For the most part, getting around in Pokémon Gold was pretty fun, especially with the delightful bicycle theme music in the background:
Ah, sweet nostalgia. But now and then your breezy journey would be interrupted by going through a cave, an irritating necessity where you would run into a Zubat every five seconds. Not really a huge deal overall, with one exception: the dastardly Ice Path, which stood between you and Blackthorn City, where the eighth and final gym badge awaited. To reach the end of this cave and continue your quest, you had to navigate a devious environmental puzzle: as soon as you stepped onto a patch of ice, you would slide in the direction you were facing unless something stopped you. That meant you had to backtrack to a section of the cave above the ice, push boulders through the floor onto the ice to act as barriers, go back down to the patch of ice, and step onto the right part of the ice to end up where you needed to go. If your head hurts after that explanation, don’t worry – mine does too. Did I say these were my favourite snow levels earlier?
The Last Of Us: Winter
To me, The Last Of Us is a masterpiece. It’s an impeccably-executed stealth/action game with stunning graphics, absorbing gameplay and a gripping story, with a brilliant cast and an ending that blew me away. And, of course, it has a snow level. (SPOILERS AHEAD) After Joel is badly wounded while escaping an attack at an abandoned university, Ellie has to venture out on her own to track down food and medical supplies. Up to this point in the game we had only been able to play as Joel, but the Winter chapter brought a neat little surprise: we took control of Ellie, not Joel, as she hunted a deer through a forest blanketed with snow.
This was a stunning section of gameplay; of course, it looks breathtaking, but what makes it memorable is that it’s a moment of relative serenity in an otherwise brutal and chaotic story. Just for a moment, there are no horrifying infected people, no savage marauders trying to beat you to death – there’s just Ellie, her bow, and the deer.
Mario Kart: Sherbet Land
What racing game would be complete without a good old fashioned ice track? Certainly not Mario Kart, which has been the gold standard for kart racers for years now. I’m sure many people will have their favourite iteration of the game, but mine is the version that came out on the Wii. I spent many an hour on that game battling against my housemates while we were at university, usually at varying levels of inebriation, and absolutely loved it. One of the tracks that always caused more anguish than others was Sherbet Land: large sections of the track were covered in oh-so-slippery ice, and often there were no barriers to stop you from careening off the track and into a sub-zero bath.
Mario Kart has always been a must-play co-op game, and it’s almost unmatched in its ability to take you and your friends through the entire emotional spectrum in the course of a race – unbearable tension as you fight to keep your lead over the pack; sheer dejection as a last-minute blue shell robs you of a victory; unbridled ecstasy as you celebrate a nail-biting win. Sherbet Land provided these moments in spades, and there are few sweeter sounds than the sad groan your friend makes as they slip off the track and into the icy lake for the fourth time this lap. Thanks, Sherbet Land.
SSX Tricky: Tokyo Megaplex
OK, this is cheating a little, as I suppose all the courses in SSX Tricky are technically snow levels, but one insane track from this already-insane game always stuck out in my mind. Tokyo Megaplex was set in a kind of indoor snow park, and wasn’t a race course so much as a rainbow-coloured invitation to pull off as many tricks as you could. With a myriad of rails, jumps, and even a giant fan that shot your rider up into the air, you could rack up otherworldly scores if you were participating in Showoff mode; it actually took a fair amount of skill to do well in Race mode, with so many juicy opportunities to get fancy with your board. This is probably one of the silliest race courses in just about any racing game, but definitely one of the most fun.
Do you enjoy a good old fashioned snow level? Or do they interrupt the flow of a game? And which levels have I missed out from my list? Please let me know in the comments what your favourite snow levels are, since the festive season is upon us, and shout out if you identify with any of the choices I made. Until next time, don’t go outside without a scarf, it’s bloody freezing out there.