The Most Influential Starting Levels In Video Game History

List Rules
Vote for your favorite first stages in video games.

This is a list of the best first levels in video game history. What makes a great initial level in a video game? A first stage in a video game is your introduction to that game's world, story, and mechanics. It needs to be exciting and thrilling and give the player a good taste of what awesomeness is to come.

Newer video games can get stuck in too many tutorials at the start of the game, holding the player's hand for too long instead of letting them experience the world for themselves. Older video games can do the opposite, throwing the player into an experience they don't understand at all, which can be just as frustrating. The greatest starting levels are somewhere in between these two extremes.

It's no coincidence that some of the best introductory stages in video games also come from the most groundbreaking games in history. These critically-acclaimed games knew that they couldn't keep the player's interest in the rest of their game without an equally amazing starting stage. In some cases, these opening introductions were so good that they set the expectations for the rest of the game too high, and they were never ever to surpass that initial excitement.

Did your personal best initial starting level make the list? If not, make your own!

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  • Welcome To Rapture - Bioshock
    Video: YouTube

    A plane crashes into the ocean. You swim to a lighthouse. The long, slow bathosphere takes you deep down into a grandiose underwater city… or what remains of it. You fight your first Splicer, before you even know what a Splicer is. The voice of a man contacts you on a radio, asking you if you’ll kindly help him. Take a deep breath, because your journey is just starting, and who knows when the water is gonna bust through all this old glass.

    It’s the perfect introduction to a groundbreaking narrative experience, the first glimpse at the city of Rapture, a world unlike any game before it. Plus you shoot fire and electricity out of your hands, and that's pretty cool.
  • Prologue - The Last Of Us
    Video: YouTube

    Did I cry during the opening prologue level to The Last of Us? Naw, man. I like football and I like dude stuff, I don’t cry over zombies and family and the bitter loneliness caused by a global tragedy told in the most personal of ways.

    Naw, man, I’m not tearing up while writing this.

    The Last of Us only came out in 2013, but it’s opening prologue will stay relevant in gamers’ minds for years to come. With its poignant writing, acting, and visual effects, the prologue sets the bar so high, that the rest of the game arguably never rises above it.
  • Level 1-1 - Super Mario Bros
    Video: YouTube

    This level solidified the rules for generations of gaming. It taught the world to smash Goombas under their feet and kick Koopa Troopas across the screen. It hid underground caves from only the most crafty of players who were smart enough to try pushing down on the + Control Pad while standing on a certain green pipe. It delivered the growth-spurt of the Super Mushroom, the flame-throwing of the Fire Flower, and the careless invincibility of the Super Star.

    There’s an alternate world where Level 1-1 in Super Mario Bros never existed, where gaming took decades to reach what Nintendo did in one stage, and wow, that alternate world sounds like a minus world to me, man, stay away from there, that’s a bug.
  • Green Hill Zone - Sonic The Hedgehog
    Video: YouTube

    That speed. Those bright colors. The amazing sound effects when Sonic would bounce on the heads of his enemies to free those little forest creatures. This level made it so Sega could boast that their Genesis had “Blast Processing,” even if, you know, Blast Processing is totally just a made-up buzzword.

    But it didn’t matter. That speed. It made him the face of a console—the face of a company—and it made a bunch of kids super excited that Sega could do want Nintendon’t.
  • Chapter 1-1 - Resident Evil 4
    Video: YouTube

    No more mansion filled with zombies. No more small-town filled with zombies. Resident Evil 4 throws you into an Eastern European village filled with… are they zombies? It’s hard to tell at first. But when they surround you in that village, you look at their eyes and you know something isn’t right. The fear starts to fill you inside. They’re all around you. And then you hear the revving of something, and from behind you comes a man with a burlap sack covering his head, RUSHING AT YOU WITH A CHAINSAW.

    One of the scariest moments in gaming makes this one of the best opening levels as well.
  • Princess Peach's Castle - Super Mario 64
    Video: YouTube
    A Lakitu flies around the outskirts of Princess Peach’s castle with a camera dangling from a fishing pole. This is how Nintendo announces that they are fully embracing 3D gaming, a cartoonish declaration that “Hey, man, get ready, this camera about to be moving all over the place.” And yeah, like most early 3D adventure games, the camera in Super Mario 64 was a little annoying, but that wasn’t what we were thinking when Mario first popped out of that green pipe and into the hub world of Princess Peach’s Castle.

    It was like a world map, but now we were INSIDE the world map. We could walk from outside of the castle, into the castle. We could explore. And it wasn’t long before we were jumping into every painting, digging into every nook and cranny of this mushroom lady’s abode, having too much fun to notice we were wandering around what would become the foundation for all 3D adventure games after it.