1. “Super Mario Bros.,” Level 1-1
So, let’s start with the basics.
2. “The Legend of Zelda,” First Dungeon
Again, this is a prerequisite. These first two should be called “Two video game levels to play before you ever have a conversation ever.”
3. “The Legend of Zelda,” Ninth Dungeon
As long as you’re playing the original Zelda, you should beat the game. Or, as Samir Mezrahi, our deputy social media editor, puts it, “The thought of the music when you enter the level still gives me the chills.”
4. “The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time,” Water Temple
This is the definitive level in what a plurality of gamers would call the greatest game ever made. Beating it is a rite of passage. It’s like a Bat Mitzvah for dorks, I mean sick bros.
5. “Goldeneye,” Library (multiplayer)
OK, you’ve got the N64 out. Grab three friends (grab, not ask), and play this for the next 100 or so hours, and then you’ll be ready to play me and my middle school friends circa 1998. Ben Mathis-Lilley, a senior editor here, says, “It was obviously the best one — the ideal number of rooms and angles and doorways for strategizing and sniping.” Pew, pew.
6. “Deus Ex,” Switching Sides
As long as we’re going pew, pew, let’s skip to the best part of another unforgettable shooter. Kevin Lincoln, our deputy sports editor, breaks it down: “It’s the part where you escape from the base of the organization that you used to work for to go and essentially join the terrorists, and you end up confronting all of the people you’d worked with earlier in the game and can choose what to do with them. That game basically rewrote my understanding of what a video game could do with narrative and character, beginning at that moment.”
7. “Halo,” the Library
Still with the first-person shooters. Halo is obviously one of the best games of the past 20 years, but the first game in the series may be best remembered for the interminable Library level, an intolerable treadmill of zombies and gunmetal corridors. As our very own senior editor Tanner Ringerud puts it, “F_ck that sh_t.”
8. “Shadow of the Colossus,” the First Colossus
That was frustrating. Let’s move on to a stage that provides a sense of accomplishment. BuzzFeed reporter Ellie Hall remembers: “Not only is this a really visceral experience from the moment you reach the colossus (OH HAI, HUGE ASS THING THAT’S STOMPING AROUND, I HAD NO IDEA HOW BIG YOU ARE UNTIL NOW), it’s memorable in that you have to go up and attack this gentle giant who’s just lumbering around the place. Then there’s the fact that for the first five or ten minutes, you have absolutely no idea how to kill it. If you want to hear some creative curses, watch someone play this level.”
9. “Uncharted 2: Among Thieves,” the Train
Sticking with spectacle here, let’s move on to the train ride in Naughty Dog’s masterpiece. Adam Vary, our senior film reporter, says, “More fun and exciting than most Hollywood blockbusters.” He’s a film reporter. You have to believe him.
10. “Crash Bandicoot: Warped,” Midnight Run
Proof that Naughty Dog was doing spectacle long before Uncharted. BuzzFeed associate food editor Rachel Sanders writes, “Culturally reductive ‘Asian’ design signifiers aside, it’s great because a) you get to play as Crash’s little sister Coco, who’s a badass, and b) because you’re riding a tiger along the Great Wall of China. In the dark.”
11. “Dark Souls,” Sen’s Fortress
Riding the theme of East Asian ramparts here. Dark Souls is the hardest and most rewarding game of the last generation, and this is the level that forces a lot of the weak-willed to quit. It’s hour after hour of instant-death booby traps and boulder-tossing iron giants. It says something both positive and negative about your character if you beat this level.
12. “Battletoads,” the Turbo Tunnel
As long as we’re talking about hard games, let’s pick a level from what may be the hardest game of all time. Jack Shepherd, our community manager, writes, “Why was this level so awesome? It perfectly encapsulated my favorite thing about the classic platform games of my youth — forcing you to memorize intricate sequences of moves until you had the whole thing down so perfect you could play it with your eyes closed. This level moved so fast, that was the only way to do it. Getting it done was just as rewarding as figuring it out was frustrating, which is to say, infinitely.”
Also, special mention for the music here.
13. “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” Final Level: Shredder
The NES was just sort of the best system for games about anthropomorphic ectothermic tetrapods, featuring badass music. When you beat this level, April asks what we’ve all been thinking about: “Should we celebrate with a pizza?” Our community mod, Lili Salzberg asks, “If anyone has this game, can I come over and play?”
14. “Sonic the Hedgehog 2,” any of the Bonus Stages
The Sonic games have always been about speed, and that speed is probably distilled best into the seizure-inducing bonus levels of the second game. Associate Editor Raymond Sultan writes, “Non-kid-appropriate stimulants would probably have been very helpful.” Not that we recommend that.
15. “Super Mario Kart,” Rainbow Road
Speaking of vroom vroom, we had to choose a level from a Mario Kart game. Votes were cast for Koopa Troopa Beach and others, but finally we decided that Rainbow Road from the SNES game is the quintessential Mario Kart experience.
16. “Grand Theft Auto IV,” Three Leaf Clover
This is the unforgettable best mission in Rockstar’s greatest game. It’s an homage to the brutal and hyper-violent bank robbery scene in Michael Mann’s Heat, and it will make your heart beat just as fast.
17. “Counter-Strike,” Dust
The essential map for the essential Half-Life-mod online shooter. Writes FWD editor John Herrman, “This is a level in which thousands, maybe millions, of people have developed weirdly acute spacial awareness.” We think you should be one of them. But you might want to steel yourself for a little failure: There are probably more people who are freakishly good at Dust than any map in gaming history.
18. “Metal Gear Solid,” Psycho Mantis
Metal Gear Solid was the first game to master three-dimensional stealth, but it’s best remembered for its long and unconventional boss fights. The most memorable and creative is this one, which, at the risk of spoiling a 15-year-old game, requires playing the hardware as well as the software.
19. “Streets of Rage 2,” First Stage, as Skate
Now, for something a little easier to hit. The music, the neon lights, the weird sense of 16-bit menace. This is the definitive level in the definitive beat-em-up. Our video producer, Andrew Gauthier, writes that you have to play as Skate, because “he kicked ass while wearing Rollerblades.”
20. “God of War 3,” Cronos
This is the only video game level I can think of in which you rip out the fingernail of an ancient Greek Titan, jump down his esophagus, cut your way out of his stomach, and then murder him. I’m open to corrections, of course.
21. “Resident Evil 4,” the Village
This is simply the most horrifying first 10 minutes in gaming. Essential.
22. “Star Wars” Arcade Game, Death Star
Let’s step back in time a few years to this arcade game, which came out in the same year as Return of the Jedi. Says BuzzFeed Reporter Dorsey Shaw, “I still see the Death Star level when I close my eyes on the subway.”
23. “Half-Life 2,” Dark Energy
It’s very hard to pick a “best level” from Valve’s flagship series, but Tanner Ringerud makes a good case for why the last level of Half-Life 2 is a must-play. “When you fight your way through the Combine tower, and right at the end, you are rewarded with the supercharged gravity gun. There are very few things more exhilarating than charging back through the tower obliterating everything in your path with the overpowered gun.”
24. “Mother 3,” Tanehineri Island
This one is going to be a bit of a chore to track down. Mother 3, the sequel to the legendary SNES RPG Earthbound, was released for the Gameboy Advance in 2006, but only in Japan. There are some very good fan translations; here’s how to play the game in English. Your reward will be one of the strangest and most affecting games of the past 10 years. Our Jared Sosa sets the scene for this indelible level: “The party’s HP is at 1 and the only available food is a patch of mushrooms. After you eat them you encounter the main character’s mother, who died in the first level. She charges at you and screams at you to stop staring at her. Later you look inside a mailbox and see yourself crying.”
25. “Chrono Trigger,” 2300 A.D.
Most of Square’s seminal RPG takes place in the Middle Ages and reptilian prehistory. But there are a few hours set in a horrible, bleak, somehow still adorable future. And they must be played.
26. “Earthworm Jim,” Intestinal Distress
Community moderator Cates Holderness writes, “It was a bonus level only available on Genesis, not SNES. All of my friends mocked me for my Genesis (because the SNES had ‘better graphics’ and ‘better games’), but when they realized there was an EXTRA LEVEL they allll wanted to come over and play the Sega. Suck it, Nintendo.”
27. “Grim Fandango,” Rubacava
When people remember Grim Fandango, the best adventure game ever made, they remember Rubacava. Why? Maybe it’s the velvet-lined cocktail lounges, the bluer-than-blue jazz bars, the Casablanca-by-way-of-Dia-de-Muertos look, the sad black sea at permanent midnight, and Manny Calavera’s dinner jacket. Or maybe it’s just Glottis playing the piano.
28. “Braid,” Last Level
Writes Jack Moore, our sports editor: “It’s hardly original to say that I liked Braid a lot throughout. The time-reversing mechanic was clever and created puzzles I hadn’t really seen before. Plus the platforming elements were fun. But I HATED all the faux-intellectual text that you had to read throughout the game. But then when you complete the last level and save your girlfriend and it tells you to reverse time, and you see the level you just played from her perspective. And you’re an abusive ass she’s trying to escape, not a hero trying to save her. It knocked me on my ass. So much so that I forgave all the dumb, terrible prose.”
29. “StarCraft,” The Lost Temple
Probably the most famous map in Blizzard’s eternal real-time strategy game, The Lost Temple, according to John Herrman, “is so basic and pure. This is where you build, destroy, rebuild, forever.”
30. “Mario Party,” Mario Bandstand
Because, come on.
31. “Myth: The Fallen Lords,” The Five Champions
Before Bungie made Halo, they made this very dark, very difficult, and very excellent real-time strategy game. While you command dozens of units during most of the game, this mission puts you in charge of just five very, very good ones. Sort of like the 300 of games, but not dumb.
32. “Metroid Prime,” Phazon Mines
For a completely original and well-received reinterpretation of the Metroid series, Prime has become something of a forgotten game. That’s too bad. The Phazon Mines bring everything good about the game into one level: impressive verticality, great first-person platforming, and an atmosphere of foreboding isolation. Also, it ends with one of the all-time great gaming boss fights, against the Omega Pirate.
33. “Guitar Hero,” Bark at the Moon, on Expert
Randy Rhoads died much too young, but perhaps it’s some solace that his shredding lives on forever in, for my money, the best and most satisfying music-game level of all time.
CORRECTION: Randy Rhoads died in 1982. Bark at the Moon was released in 1983 and was Ozzy Osbourne’s first album to feature Jake E. Lee on lead guitar.
34. “Final Fantasy VII,” City of the Ancients
Play this because of the unforgettable music, because of the beautiful giant-seashell look of the architecture, and because it contains the most famous scene in game history.