Water and video games. Not usually the best combination. While the vast majority of video games take place on land, in the sky, or space; water in video games is a lot more tightly controlled in its use. The way it is used seems to often break up the monotony of the stages typically seen, water almost always introduces the aspect of changed physics and movement. The two most used examples of this are swimming, and high, almost floaty jumps. For examples of these two types of movement, I am going to use two games, Super Mario Bros and Castlevania: Symphony of the NIght, then I am going to talk about what is my favorite underwater level.
Mario games actually typically allow you to swim, with varying degrees of control. In the first Super Mario Bros game for instance, swimming was limited to jerky vertical and horizontal propulsion, which changed level design immensely. While never just a flat expanse of land, Super Mario Bros was never very vertical, in both movement potential, and as a direct result, enemy placement. Lateral movement is the bread and butter of any old Mario game, and most enemies are placed within the field of space Mario can run and/or jump. Making the level based underwater allows that normal rule to be changed entirely. While still moving to the right in order to reach the goal, the elevation of the level is no longer a concern. Mario’s movements under the water may be jerky, and not the most fluid thing ever, but he can now perpetually move upward to the top of the screen, and possibly beyond. This allows the fine folks at Nintendo to put enemies in places that Mario would not normally see them, as well as move differently. Doing so creates an entirely new paradigm by how Mario needs to avoid the enemies, as also underwater he cannot stomp his foes. Unless you were able to carry over the projectile-firing powers of a Fire Flower over from the previous level, Mario has no real way of killing the monsters, making them all the more dangerous.
This also allows for new enemy types that move in unexpected ways. While flying enemies exist in Super Mario Bros, they are stuck in very strict patterns that are typically easy to avoid. While there are enemies that move in straight lines in the water, there are enemies that continuously move in unexpected directions, the Bloopers. On top of these enemies, which are pretty much completely unique, different traps get to be thrown into mix as well, such as fire chains, further inhibiting your movement. It really breaks up the norm you find in a game like Super Mario Bros. This sort of level would go on to be heavily used in other series, both in other Mario games and other series, but this is at least, as far as I can remember is one of the first uses of this sort of level design.
While Mario has you swimming around, Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which I will simply refer to as Castlevania from here on out; takes the other approach I talked about earlier, the floaty jumps. Instead of being able to swim, and gain access to something resembling jerky flying, the hero Alucard simply jumps as he would normally, except the height he can jump to is greatly increased, and the rate of falling is greatly slowed, putting you in something of an awkward position. With this approach, things get to be more vertical like Mario, but not in the same way. As Alucard cannot maintain his elevated position in the water, putting a large amount of enemies that occupy the upper levels would be pointless. Instead, when underwater, I find Castlevania takes more advantage of Alucard’s slower movement pace, and vulnerable positions while falling, but placing enemies in more staggered formations.
However, unlike Mario, Alucard is not really subject to one-hit kills and the presence of enemies are not as dangerous. As such, the levels themselves are used more for flavor, and mixing things up. The floaty method of jumping though lends itself more to a game like this. Imagine if Mario couldn’t swim, but instead jumped like this guy? The enemies would rip him apart. Bloopers would descend upon him with impunity.
However, what if some sort of compromise was able to be found in a game? Something that mixed both vertical and staggered enemy placement, with things that could kill you in one hit, but other things that cannot? Basically taking all the best from both movement styles, and shoving them into one area. That sounds great, but then the quest arises: Which movement method do you use? The answer is simple, floaty jumps. Not that I would actually choose this if I was designing a game, but this is how you move around in the bets water stage ever in a game.
Mega Man 2 is often considered by many to be the best Mega Man game ever made, and by a lot to be one of the best games ever made. One of the stages you would do…not first, but close to first, is Bubble Man. This level is absolutely nuts, especially for the time it was made. Now unlike Mario, Mega Man cannot swim, he floaty jumps, much in the same way as Alucard. Also, unlike Mario, he is not really subject to the one hit kills. Also unlike both Mario, and Alucard, Mega Man’s default way of dealing with enemies is a gun. This opens up options for enemy placement, as they can also have ranged options.
Not that enemies really use ranged attacks in Bubble Man’s stage. However, there are two different enemies that spit out other enemies. They will do this infinitely if not taken down themselves. One, the giant frog is on the surface portion, and their spawn is friggin tough as they are too small for normal buster shots to land while they’re standing still. Then there are the giant fish who spit out robot shrimp, they are much easier, but only have a small spot where they can actually be hit.
Then, taking advantage of vertical enemy placement, the stage also throws an endless stream of robotic jellyfish things closer to the end of the stage that are hard to deal with as they can descend directly on top of you. This can be tough to deal with, but probably isn’t, for a very simple reason. Basically if you don’t Metal Man first, you have no idea how to play Mega Man 2. Not only is he stupidly easy with the basic weapon, but the Metal Blade pretty much breaks the same enemy-wise. It travels in 8 directions, and may be the most energy-efficient weapon in Mega Man history.
Using this weapon, the jellyfish are a non-issue, simply aim and fire and your leisure. I am sure without this weapon that part would be an absolute nightmare. It actually really would be for the one reason I have not mentioned yet, Really everything I have talked about so far is framed by one all-consuming aspect of the stage that adds challenge, despite the fact you probably have the Metal Blade.
After the initial part of the level that takes place above-ground, you’re quickly dropped underwater, and after that point, right up through fighting Bubble Man himself, the entirety of the stage’s ceiling is covered in Mega Man’s weakness: spikes. Normally this wouldn’t be a huge problem, but let us remember, Mega Man subscribes to the floaty jump method of underwater movement. These spikes will one-hit kill Mega Man, always have, always will.
Couple these spikes with the fact the jellyfish come at you vertically, and the fact that the stage forces a lot of floaty jumping on you, where spikes are everywhere, can be tense, but rewarding. Even someone who has played through this game a ton of times like me may die in this stage, and this fact forces me to always respect the level and take it slow. Every time I die on this stage, it is my fault, so I need to make sure I do it right.
The idea of respecting the exact height of your jumps is something that was used in video games early, and used often, still is to this day. If anything tight level design like this would go on to inspire design in even very recent games like Super Meat Boy. Granted that game doesn’t have anything underwater, but it is still fun to see how this environment can be used to force a whole new set of rules on you, and respond accordingly. If anyone else would like to talk about their favorite underwater stages, lemme know.
Addendum: I know that in 2D games, another form of underwater levels feature player characters that can hover in the water, move up and down at will, like The Little Mermaid on the NES and Ecco the Dolphin. I don’t go into their movement in water as really I don’t consider it so much underwater as I see that sort of design as “in space, but the background is blue.” The water at that point provides no real weaknesses, and the design does not need to take into account any additional impediment that one wouldn’t already find in a normal shoot-em-up game. That’s my take at least, if you disagree, let me know.