Getting Off on the Right Foot: My Top 5 First Levels in Games

Making a great first level is a challenge for any game. Having to balance an interesting premise, learning controls and mechanics with something that can keep returning players engaged is no mean feat. This can make or break whether your players want to come back for a second time – like when I think about replaying Red Dead Redemption, or Zelda Twilight Princess, the slow start makes that something which I just can’t bring myself to do. Of course, there are a few golden rules in my opinion:

  • No unskippable cutscenes
  • The ability to bypass or hide tutorials
  • Making it actually fun, not just a means to learn the controls

I wanted to spend some time and chat through what some of my favourite opening levels in games are, this doesn’t necessarily mean the entire games are up to this same quality, but for the opening moments, they are tough to match. Some games have nailed those rules above, and whilst one of my entries does violate the unskippable cutscenes rule, I give it a pass because it is just that good.

From Mario’s iconic 1-1, to the Pilar of Autumn in Halo, there is a bunch to choose from, wittling it down to just 5 wasn’t easy, but I have done my best.

Sonic Adventure 2 Battle: City Escape

From the iconic bass slapping at the very start, to the high speed truck chase at the end, City Escape manages to condense what works about 3D Sonic into a single level. A shame that couldn’t stretch to the rest of the game, with this level aiming to create enough good-will for players to see it through to the credits.

Not unlike the Power Rangers Movie, you begin by falling from a helicopter with some kind of board to skate through the streets of Not-San-Francisco at ridiculous speed. After this brief downhill section where you can potentially void hundreds of car insurance policies you are introduced to some neat running sections with Sonic which allow you to get to grips with the controls. Running around at the speed of sound and whatever. You proceed to slide down bannisters, run around loops, beat up robots, the usual fare. This tutorial culminates with a running section towards the camera which is absolutely more spectacle than actual challenge, but it made my 12 year-old (or however old I was) adrenal glands get to work.

I would be remised if I didn’t mention the soundtrack which is as ‘butt-rock’ as you come to expect from the 3D Sonic games, Crush 40 once again provide a groovy rock track with some truly atrocious lyrics, but you have to love it.

Metal Gear Rising Revengeance: Metal Gear Ray

Another opening level where the soundtrack does a significant amount of the heavy lifting. Rules of Nature, the track that plays throughout this fight, is an absolute banger. Abrasive, angsty, techno and rock, in all the right proportions make the already awesome act of suplexing a giant robot even more amazing.

Spectacle and lack of physics aside, this serves as a taste for what the rest of the game offers, there is the music, a little bit of combat, and bosses that will knock your socks off. This first level achieves absolutely everything necessary in an opening set piece. Not only do you know how to play and how the core mechanics work, but it doesn’t bog you down with having to wait around or prove you can do any of this stuff – in future playthroughs, you can breeze right past this and get right to the annihilation of anything that stands in your way.

Platinum knew they had to get the Metal Gear fans’ worries out of the way early, and this either did that, or they realised that this title might not be for them. Wasting no time, junk-to-the-trunk action.

If you want to know my thoughts on the entire game, feel free to check out my Metal Gear Rising Review.

Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney: The First Turnabout

As visual-novels go, very few have replay value to me, with the exception being Hatoful Boyfriend, the weird pigeon dating simulator. However, Phoenix Wright Ace Attorney also fulfils that criteria, with possibly the best and most engaging tutorial out there. It is so good in fact that I made my girlfriend play through this one case, just to show her what this is all about. It takes about an hour, and with it being the only case to take place entirely in the courtroom, it distils what is so much fun about the series. The investigation side, whilst necessary for the later cases, is mostly a drag when contrasted against the high stakes of the courtroom.

The puzzles in place here are easy enough to get to grips with pressing a witness and exploiting each of their contradictions. What really brings this together is the “ah-haaaa” moment with the clock. I won’t spoil it here but it feels so good to scream “objection” at someone so hard that their hair literally falls off. On that, the characters are all expressive and well-written to a cartoonish degree, and you really want the defendant, Mr. Butts, to be free to go. Like many other entries on this list, the music plays a huge role in the feel of this case, and when the “objection” theme kicks in it is hard not to be engaged in the back and forth tug of war of legal dominance. Each piece of evidence is a necessary key to body-slam that snooty-looking lawyer back into sixth form, it’s great.

If you have a few quid spare, I’d recommend picking this up on iPad, if you like it, you can easily grab the rest of the trilogy, well worth your time.

God of War (2018): The Stranger

All the entries in the mainline God of War series have kicked off with a bang, choosing which one to make this list wasn’t an easy decision. The debut started with the excellent Hydra battle, the second had that big man, Colossus maybe? The third also had the stunning, and still impressive battle against Poseidon on the back of Gaia. What I settled on however was the first battle in the most recent title, the battle with The Stranger.

What made this so awesome was how it just comes from nowhere, given the more tender story the game is trying to tell, I wasn’t expecting a battle of Dragonball Z proportions to come so suddenly. From when Kratos answers the door, there is a thick tension, an air of mystery, you wonder if either party knows quite what they’re getting into – they do not. As the shift in power swings like a metronome, it becomes clear, it’s go time. Then, Kratos is flung into the air like a regular schmuck, there are impalements and fissures in the surface of the Earth, it’s wicked. What ensues is a powerful start to one of the year’s best titles and a combat tutorial which is anything but boring, even on subsequent playthroughs. 

Resident Evil 4: The Village

A sharp pivot away from the traditional survival-horror genre to a closer, over-the-shoulder perspective might have spooked some Resident Evil fans. Resident Evil 4 though, from the outset, pulls no punches and makes no apologies. What follows this opening level is the best paced game ever made, just hit after hit, home run after home run.

With the setting and premise quickly and concisely established, it is off to the first villager’s house. The first “zombie” encounters in any RE game are always memorable, and this is no exception. After disposing of the frankly rude villager, you press onwards, avoiding bear traps and helping out the unfortunate wolf (if you have a heart). You are then faced with a large village area, full of hostile Europeans. Here, the clear combat focus is established. There is one goal and no script to speak of – you just have to survive. The open nature of this means that you can tackle it however you like, run in circles, get into the house and arm yourself with the grenades and shotgun, whatever it takes. After just about getting the hang of it, you hear the revving of a nearby chainsaw and realise there’s more. Once you have survived long enough, the section ends with the villagers leaving as a church bell chimes. You can breathe a sigh of relief.

Moving to the new camera perspective might have been a shock for fans, but this opening level quickly put to rest any worries that this game was anything but survival and anything but horror.

So that was my list, hopefully you either agreed, or at least don’t think I’m a total idiot. Either way, give me a shout down in the comments if there is something I have missed out. I have no doubts there will be.

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