It’s Debate Day! Our topic this week is the best first level of a video game ever. To see Aaron’s demented point of view, click here: Do a Barrel Roll!: The Best First Level of All Time. To read Andy’s cool and right opinion, you need only look below!
The first level of a video game is the most important one. It’s a player’s first exposure to a game, and determines whether or not a game seems super fun or stupid and bad. For casual players who generally won’t make it further than the first few stages anyway, a great opener is crucial for sucking in new players, which is why so many arcade games have such awesome first stages. The best first stages serve as an introduction to the controls and game structure while also showcasing the set pieces and visuals players can expect. I considered a lot of awesome first stages: Bob-omb Battlefield from Super Mario 64, Rhodes from God of War II, or the Space Pirate Frigate Orpheon from Metroid Prime. As great as these all are, in the end I had to go with the Deku Tree from Shigeru Miyamoto’s The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time.
To set the tone, let’s have a listen to the ambient and vaguely unsettling music by the legendary Koji Kondo!
First of all, and this probably goes without saying, but you’re in a giant tree, for Din’s sake. How cool is that? And not just any tree, but a living tree, a tree that hangs out with forest sprites and tells stories. Also he’s got a mustache made of bark. The Deku Tree is Link’s buddy, even serving as a dendro-paternal surrogate parent. When a nasty parasite invades the tree’s roots, you have to enter his gaping tree-mouth and seek out the monster. This leads to Link actually exploring the insides of a living, sentient creature, a first for the series, and to be honest it’s a bit unsettling. I love that the first dungeon has you venturing into such a bizarre and unique area, as opposed to just some old shrine or ruined temple like every Zelda title that came before or after. It stands out from other games and makes you want to see what the rest of the game has to offer.
The tree’s been infested by a slew of nasty monsters, including Skulltullas, Deku Scrubs, Deku Babas, and fleshy, throbbing Gohma Eggs that hatch into Baby Gohmas. The variety and challenge of these enemies eases new players into the game’s combat system. These guys aren’t that hard, but they require a bit of skill and patience to beat. Deku Scrubs, for example, will hide in the ground until you use your shield to reflect their projectiles back at them, and Gohma Eggs can be shot off the ceiling before they fall and hatch. You get eased into the Z-Targeting system with enemies that provide at least a basic amount of challenge and set the stage for the kinds of foes to come: horrifying monsters that take cunning to overcome.
It wouldn’t be Zelda without puzzles. While the puzzles in the Deku Tree aren’t particularly challenging, they introduce you to the movement and object mechanics that form the basis for all future puzzles. The dungeon contains floor switches, climbable walls, block pushing, swimming, torches, flammable surfaces, and even a badass global puzzle. Seriously, the global puzzle of Inside the Deku Tree is one of my favorite in the whole series. To break through the thick spider web on the first floor, Link must climb to the top of the tree and make a suicidal jump down the central shaft, screaming the whole way down. The web snaps and you plummet even further before landing safely in water below. It’s a thrilling leap of faith and an awesome way to introduce the scope and imagination of the first 3D Zelda.
Inside the Deku Tree also gives us our first taste of dungeon structure and item progression. Even if you’d never played a Zelda game before, the dungeon teaches you everything you need to know about dungeoneering. You find chests containing a map, a compass, and a big treasure, and none of them are hard to acquire or hidden in an out-of-the-way place. We also get to see how rooms fit together in the 3D space. Doors divide smaller rooms from larger central chambers, and they often require small keys or the completion of a task to open them. Immediately we have a sense of structure, familiarizing us with basic dungeon elements even when they vary greatly in style and substance later on.
The Fairy Slingshot is an awesome first treasure. It introduces us to the idea that dungeon treasures will upgrade Link’s abilities in drastic ways. In this case he gets to ability to shoot targets at a distance, which is hugely satisfying and vitally important to success in the quest. It’s nice that the game gives you such a critical item early on, because it gives you a chance to get familiar with fire Deku Seeds at stationary targets long before any real challenge sets in. It also opens up a new way for the devs to create puzzles in 3D space by placing targets and switches high above Link where he can’t normally reach them.
Of course, no dungeon is complete without an epic boss fight. Zelda’s first boss, Gohma, is a creepy bastard. The Parasitic Armored Arachnid is genuinely scary your first time through thanks to the atmosphere. Link walks into a dark room full of creepy mist where the only sound is an indistinct scrabbling. After looking around a bit, you notice Gohma’s one eye bobbing around as it crawls on the ceiling. Then the fight begins. This is the perfect introduction to the game’s first boss because it injects an element of horror and danger, even though the boss itself isn’t much of a challenge. It does, however, require you to aim at its eye with your new slingshot whenever Gohma tries to flee to the walls and ceiling. This is a nice touch because it adds a bit of strategy while teaching you that bosses in this game can’t be stopped with brute force alone.
I should also say something about Navi. Good first levels should ease you into the game mechanics without overloading you with forced tutorials. Many modern games rely on forced tutorials or “navigator” type characters to hand-hold the player through the first hours of the game (Skyward Sword is particularly bad about this). Although Navi is thoroughly annoying, mostly for her intrusive sound effects, you can, for the most part, ignore her. If you don’t want to let her handhold you through every puzzle, you don’t have to, as long as you can put up with her incessant cries of “Hey” and “Listen.” Navi sucks, but she’s better than some (such as Okami’s repugnant Issun).
The last thing I want to touch on is the plot. Even after Link’s heroic efforts to exterminate the parasitic infestation, the Deku Tree dies. I really like this from a storytelling perspective because it lets the players know that not everything is going to be okay. This isn’t a saccharine game where all wrongs get righted; sometimes good guys are going to die and stay dead. It motivates the player to stop Ganondorf, if only to avenge Link’s mustachioed treebro.
Even if you never get further than Inside the Deku Tree, you pretty much already know what Ocarina of Time is all about. It introduces us to all the crucial gameplay elements while providing a fun and slightly off-putting atmosphere that sets the tone perfectly. The combat is fun, and the boss is a genuinely scary jerk. That’s what makes Inside the Deku Tree the best first level of all time.
So whose argument holds more water, mine or Aaron’s? Sound off below! Or don’t. I mean, it’s a free country, I guess.