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June 16, 2017

Top 12 Video Game Environments

Like any story, video games are subject to feature a myriad of environments of all kinds. Need your story to take place in a populated city? In a desert? In a factory? In the sewers? There are so many options! One thing about video games is that by their composition, they can often feature multiple environments. Remember Super Mario Bros. 3: Grass, desert, islands in the ocean, a world of giants, a world in the clouds, an ice world, a maze of pipes and a fiery world! There is a very wide variety of locations that can be visited.

I doubt there’s a game out there that has them all – there are so many! Although their strength lies in how they're used. so it’s interesting to see how a developer approaches them. I recall Rayman Origins, which I reviewed two weeks ago; it had a desert world made of musical instruments, and a food world that also included frozen and burning lands.

I decided to pay tribute today to my 12 favorite video game environments. The ones that allow for the most creativity, the ones that offer great visuals. The ones that are tied to the plot, the ones that tend to be memorable. Considering that there’s at least three dozen different possible environments, I had to carefully pick my choices for the list, so if there’s an environment you like that is missing from the list, be sure to share it!

12. Locomotive Levels
Jump from a car to another, and don't fall on the
tracks. These wheels are deadly.
Screenshot from: Road Runner's Death Valley Rally
Instant danger: Have the characters travel across things in movement – like, say, the top of an airplane. But that’s kind of outlandish even for video games, so let’s settle for a train instead. Plus a train could actually be long enough to make levels of a decent length. Trains make for interesting 2D platform scrolling levels – as long as you don’t mind the blatant lack of wind pushing back on the hero, in some cases. Oh wait, did you mean “inside” the train? That’s possible too. Less jumping there, more fighting – I could see the interior of a train wagon being a set in a beat’em-up game. But the top of the train is bound to be a dangerous place, one where the winds play against you. Not to mention the possibility of falling off!

Note, if your game or show is set in a mostly realistic world, don’t do that. Ask Archer.

11. The Lethal Lava Land
Fire everywhere, lakes of lava, artillery everywhere,
and a nopn-stop sense of dread. But our target audience
is kiddies, so we can't call it Hell.
From: Super Mario Bros. 3
Speaking of conventions and physics conveniently ignored for a cool world idea… The convection would kill someone in real life! Merely standing near lava is enough to die, there’s a reason no one goes near that! But in video games, lava is usually harmless as long as you don’t directly step into it. Therefore, it’s perfectly possible to feature multiple levels in such locales. Due to the destructive nature of fire, this tends to be the setting for final worlds in many games – what’s better than a world of friggin’ fire? Some go even further, featuring literal Hellish imagery, making it effectively a world of fire and brimstone. It fits, no? I rank it pretty low on the list because it’s a very common setting, and most gamers can attest to seeing this at least once. Now, though, the really great thing is if you actually apply the physics and have the main character lose life points by just being near the lava if they’re unprotected, like in Super Metroid…

It's not just magma. It's alien magma. That makes it worse!
From: Super Metroid.

10. The Eternal Engine
What are those smashing pieces of machinery and these
spiky wheels for? We'll never know.
From: Rayman Origins.
Is it a factory? It can be. Is it a villain’s lair? It also can be. What it is, though, is a giant machine that is never turned off. A machine so large, you can run, jump and fight your way through it. Giant cogs, worker robots, moving parts that can crush and break any intruder… And of course, since it’s never turned off, one can only imagine how hot it must be in there, from the machines that have seemingly been working for eternity – hence the name. Now, will you enter an eternal engine that looks like it was made in the Industrial Era, or will you walk into a sleek, futuristic place? Probably the former more than the latter.

9. The Most Heavenly Level
You know things have gotten bad when even the Afterlife
is endangered.
From: Super Paper Mario.
The opposite of the Hellish world, the Heavenly world. For some reason, Heaven is just as dangerous as Hell. Is it because of the angels? Is it because the demons have overtaken it? Is it because the characters have no choice but to meet their maker in order to solve their problem? It’s like the solid cloud platforms of a level in the sky, with added symbolism. Throw in some temples for good measure. Maybe do like in The Simpsons Game and have the Simpsons battle folks like Benjamin Franklin or Shakespeare? You could also create a Stairway to Heaven like in Super Paper Mario and have the heroes jump upwards towards Heaven. Gotta say, though, one has to be gutsy to be heading out to beat up God.

This level from The Simpsons Game went
a step beyond and had you battle in
the afterlife the dead opponents you
killed in previous levels. Awesome idea.

8. The Ice Palace
Doesn't look very "Ice Palace"-y.
The slippery floors would beg to differ,
From: A Link To The Past.
Even better than the ice world: The castle made entirely of ice. A perfect fortress for the local cool king or queen. A lair formed by the crystallized, frozen water. Its interior could have been made through magic, to create a beautiful interior with decorations and all. Or, it could look like it’s been handcrafted by a thousand mooks, with the finesse of a jackhammer – in which case the inside may feel like a natural ice cave, no matter how pretty the outside may be. Places like this aren’t unheard of in real life, either; in Quebec, during our winter festival, an ice hotel is built each year, so I can buy that some ice-based villains get themselves a cozy, cool place to live in. Or build it themselves. Obviously, not all of them are Elsa, not all of them can build from snow and ice in a matter of seconds, but please! A bad guy commands respect, and thus a respectable lair! If possible, a lair that follows their theme. Thus, ice palace.

7. Band Land
My wheels! These piano keys, they do nothing!
From: Mario Kart 7 (Music Park track)
It’s a common locale in Rayman games, but it’s been seen in various other games: Simply put, it’s a world entirely made of musical instruments. Platforms make sounds when you land on them. The trampolines are bongos. The enemies follow the theme in a way or another, either by being instruments or by toying around with nearby instruments in the décor. Level developers will frequently show off their creativity here, featuring every single darn instrument and musical element they can fit in. Be careful, though. Music can reveal itself to be quite the vindictive kind…

6. The Maze
Going back to the Mario well... Remember the Forest
Maze? The toughest part is to follow Geno and
remember where he went.
From: Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars.
They come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes they’re built in such a way that you return to the start if you lose your way. Mazes have always been an interesting element to add to a game, and they can definitely give that little boost in difficulty. On top of that, mazes can be applied in many genres – top down action game? Yes! Metroidvania? Those can sometimes feel like one huge maze where you can’t progress until you’ve found the equipment necessary – forcing the player to visit more areas of the maze to find what’s missing. Platform games? Oh yes, it’s entirely possible. Remember Level 8-4 in the first Super Mario Bros.? You had various rooms connected by pipes, and had to find the right path! What about World 7, the Pipe Maze, in Super Mario Bros. 3? It’s also very easy to turn dungeons into mazes, whether it’s in action-adventure games à la Legend of Zelda, or in RPGs. Other Mario example: Anyone remembers the Forest Maze from Super Mario RPG: Legend of the Seven Stars? Mazes can be infuriating to visit in games, but they nonetheless offer a very interesting experience – as long as you don’t quit in rage from not finding your way out.

5. The Amusement Park of Doom
In Video Game Land, always check who owns the park that
you're about to visit. Or you're gonna have some nasty
From: Sonic Colors.
Another favorite of book and film action climaxes, the amusement park. Moving parts much like in the eternal engine, giant machines normally built for the enjoyment of the masses – only to become deadly to our adventurer! The Ferris Wheel will try to kill you! The haunted house will contain actual monsters! What about the security? …What security? If it exists, it’s probably hostile to the characters. The bright and colorful landscapes of amusement parks makes them an ideal location for a level, or two, or five, or more – amusement parks are common level types in the Sonic the Hedgehog series, often bundled in with the casino-themed levels. Sonic Colors takes place entirely in an amusement park! Ah, no matter how tempting it is, our poor heroes can’t take a break by riding the roller coaster…

4. Hailfire Peaks
The trope namer, featuring frozen tundras and fiery caves
in close proximity.
From: Banjo-Tooie.
This list has had fire; this list has had ice. Opposites attract, and nowhere is this truer than in video games where physics can be bent to great effect. Thus we have a world that is all-cold on a side, all-hot on the other. You could argue the logistics of that place don’t make much sense… but it makes for a friggin’ awesome setting. At one point you’re helplessly slipping left and right on the surface, avoiding the waters so cold they burn like dry ice… and moments later you’re in a fiery world, dodging streams of flames and jumping above the lava. Now, the name of the trope actually refers to any video game world that combines two regular settings (fire and ice, desert and music, temple and mountain)… If the two portions blend together, it can result in worlds and locations that have never been done before in video games! But I do have a preference for the fire-and-ice combo, I think it’s one of the more interesting mixes in video games, even if it’s one of the most common setting combinations.

3. The Abandoned Laboratory
Some freaky amoral things have been going on here.
That's, like, the most frequent reason for laboratories to
close down in fiction. Realistic reasons, like a lack of
funding, are far behind.
From: Undertale.
As a huge science-fiction fan, I associate laboratories with scientific experimentation and study. And also, laboratories are where the most amoral experimentations can take place. Freaks created from a geneticist doing things he shouldn’t have done, creatures born from unholy combinations. Dangerous machinery all around. Of course, you wouldn’t expect the original scientist to stay in this Hellish place, so most such laboratories are abandoned – and old enough for the walls to be dusty and cracked. The lights have stopped working long ago, giving the location a creepy atmosphere. And you can never tell what is lurking in the dark… what may be the monsters you’ll encounter. Many video game settings have a horror element to them (the ghost mansion, the creepy circus), and the abandoned laboratory is a shining example of those, as long as the developers know how to use the setting to its fullest.

2. The Macro Zone
This is an example of a game where your character is
naturally small, so everything else is big.
From: Chip and Dale Rescue Rangers (NES).
A bit of an unexpected entry, the Macro Zone is any occasion where the Hero steps into a world much more gigantic than themselves. Maybe they shrank; maybe the world they’re in is naturally bigger in every way; maybe they’re naturally tiny and only now are they stepping into the big world. Rats become large enough to be bosses, tiny toys become enemies to defeat, and everything has to be scaled. It’s like World of the Colossus. The Pikmin franchise is famous for this, and so are various other game series that have featured a few worlds based on this idea – as a big Mario fan, I can list off World 4, Giant Land, in Super Mario Bros. 3, as well as the Micro and Mario zones in Mario Land 2: 6 Golden Coins; one is a house visited while Mario is shrunk, the other is like a toy box made gigantic.

1. All the Worlds Are A Stage
Imagine that every single one of these connected rectangles
is a stolen piece of land from plains, peaks, volcanoes,
abandoned zoos, towers, and so much more.
No rhyme or reason, just all connected together by
From: Super Smash Bros. Brawl.
The video game equivalent of settings being back for the finale: When all the previous locations somehow merge into one. The Great Maze in Super Smash Bros. Brawl’s The Subspace Emissary is the biggest example (literally so, being a 2-hour long level), but other games achieved this in different ways. The fight against Zant in The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess, as an example (video below), sees Link being teleported with his enemy and battling him in previous boss areas. It could also be a way to reminisce on previous locations, by seeing them all together – it’s even better if they’re still in the same order. A wonderful throwback to an adventure that is coming to a close, a nice reminder of trials and challenges passed, or a strong return of many of those (as this type of level may often feature the puzzles encountered in previous levels, or the bosses defeated previously). I always thought this particular type of level was enjoyable for those reasons. Sure, they can be frustrating – if, say, the levels return with an increased difficulty, or if this particular setting drags on – but they’re well worth it.

Alright, that was my list. I hope you enjoyed. Tell me, are there video game settings I could have forgotten? Cutting it down to 12 means I had to take out many, many interesting video game settings. Are there any others that you enjoy, that you would have put in your own Top 12 list? Feel free to share them!