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Do you want to know what my nightmares sound like?
Something like this.
I guess you could say that I’ve always been somewhat biased against underwater levels in my gaming experiences given that Sonic the Hedgehog was the first title I ever owned. Those nightmarish “outswim the timer” stages led to about 1,000 of my little beloved hedgehog’s deaths.
But let’s be serious. Something is inherently wrong with these submerged sequences. Think about it. Ask gamers who grew up with a Nintendo 64 what the most difficult levels they ever had to play through were. I can guarantee you that the a number of them will burst into fits of sobbing as repressed memories of the water temple from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time bubble to the surface.
Or maybe that's just me.
Even more than escort missions, underwater levels piss me off. They’re almost always shoehorned into an adventure, and they stick out (even in great games) because they don’t mesh with the other elements.
What are the dullest parts of Kingdom Hearts? Atlantica. Or God of War? The challenge of Poseidon. Yeah, yeah, I know you could make the argument that you had to have an aqueous bit for God of War to touch every mythological thread, but that’s not my issue. The basic idea of one of these levels in itself is not a bad one. The developers behind some of these endeavors — from Nintendo to Sony Santa Monica — have violated the first tenet of game design: creating an immersive experience.
Underwater levels pull me out of that experience because they’re monotonous. It’s not that they’re too difficult. They’re just not fun. I'm no longer Sonic or Mario or Kratos; I'm just an angry dude holding a controller.
Exceptions exist, however, but these releases have one thing in common. Most of them take place underwater: Jaws Unleashed, Ecco the Dolphin (what a trippy title that was), and Derrick the Deathfin. None of the controls in these offerings are frustrating, timers aren’t simultaneously screeching and glaring at you, and nothing feels forced. You immediately have the expectation that you’re going to be spending your time in the ocean.
Thankfully, designers seem to realize that these stages are relics. We still get to play through these wet sections, of course, but, more often than not, they're mercifully brief and sometimes don't even feel unnecessary. The quest in Fallout 3 where you swim beneath the naval-ship community in search of someone is both appropriate and relatively painless.
In short, I think underwater escapades should remain a thing of the past … for the sake of my sanity at the very least.