We recently discussed Nintendo and the curse of water levels — how several of its water levels can put an unintended damper on the fun. That said, Nintendo games have also created examples of unique and genuinely fun water levels. That might be down to a beautiful environment to explore that couldn’t have been done in any other level, or solid controls that make the player feel like a graceful dolphin. Rewarding exploration can go a long way too, and when it’s combined with enemies that are actually fun to take on with a brand new toolset of maneuvers and attacks, it can result in an experience that regular levels can’t offer. These are the times where Nintendo games dove underwater and got it right for some of the best water levels.
Super Metroid – Maridia
Samus ventures underwater pretty regularly, but in Super Metroid, it is a more memorable experience. The alien waters of Maridia are teeming with unrecognizable sea life, and while Samus starts out with slower movement in the water, she can later use the Gravity Suit to cut through it with reckless abandon. Additionally, Samus never has to worry about running out of oxygen, which is one less thing to worry about.
As a water level, it initially demonstrates why water can be such a hindrance to Samus and the player, but as in typical Metroid design, Samus will gain the ability to overcome and master the environment. Going through the area as a fully equipped Samus proves to be an empowering experience.
Super Mario 64 – Jolly Roger Bay
Early on in the legendary Super Mario 64, the game thrusts players into a pirate-themed adventure with the Jolly Roger Bay water level. Despite being the earliest instance of a water level in a 3D Nintendo game, it makes remarkable use of the setting and is potentially one of the best. Swimming controls are relatively responsive and speedy enough to never feel like being in the water is hindering your movement speed. Wide-open spaces encourage exploration, and a surprising lack of enemies means that there is less pressure to this end as well.
A soothing soundtrack adds peaceful ambience, and it brilliantly evolves as the level progresses. Collecting coins can increase Mario’s oxygen meter, and while that doesn’t make much sense, it does add a fun twist on underwater breathing mechanics and fits with something most Mario players would already be trying to do.
The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – Great Bay Temple
Fans of The Legend of Zelda were understandably distrusting of water levels after the Water Temple in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. However, that changed once The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask introduced the Great Bay Temple. Gone was the constant inventory swapping of Iron Boots and waiting for Link to sink or rise in the water. Instead, the mask system of Majora’s Mask allows players to transform into a Zora, a race that has always been associated with water in the Zelda series. It makes underwater traversal far easier, as Link can now dash and even jump out of the water at speed.
Rather than awkwardly using his standard weapons in the water, the Zora form also allows Link to gain water-based attacks such as an energy shield and fin attacks. The transformation can be equipped to a C button to eliminate trips to the inventory screen, and while the temple is still a difficult dungeon, it’s now as a result of clever level design and enemies rather than unintuitive controls and pathing.
Mother 3 – Sea Floor Dungeon
The Mother series is home to many unconventional locations and themes, and among these, the Sea Floor Dungeon in Mother 3 stands out. Instead of inventing new swimming mechanics for this section, the game lets the player walk along the seafloor without issue. It’s unusual, but considering how swimming controls are often a sore spot for players in games, it might have been the wiser decision. A creative environment makes going through the level a joy to look at thanks to colorful coral and amusing enemies like Rock Lobsters and Fish Roe Man.
Rather than scramble to find oxygen, Mother 3 instead has players lock lips with a merman who refills their lungs. It’s bizarre to watch, but it definitely alleviates the common frustrations that oxygen mechanics bring with water-focused levels.
Donkey Kong Country – Coral Capers
The Donkey Kong Country series stands out as a Nintendo franchise that traditionally has fun water levels. From the very first instance of water in Coral Capers, players find that swimming controls are fast and responsive enough to be able to swiftly cut through the water and avoid dangerous obstacles or enemies. The apes don’t require an oxygen meter for some reason, but it means that there’s less pressure on the player and they can just focus on the immediate threats instead.
It also helps that calming music and interesting background visuals make these levels stand out from an artistic point of view, and there’s even a ridable swordfish that can be used to barrel through the water even faster. Whereas many platformers introduce controls or mechanics that slow the player down in water levels, Donkey Kong Country feels empowering and fast.
What do you think are some of the best water levels in Nintendo games?