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The Most Influential Starting Levels In Video Game History

Updated October 13, 2018 20.3k votes 6.1k voters 324.7k views16 items

List RulesVote 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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  • Photo: Wikimedia Commons / CC-BY

    Here’s the internal dialogue we all had when we played through the opening of the original Metroid: “Oh, this looks cool. I’m like a neat space bounty-hunter dude. Let’s shoot some aliens. I’ll head to the right, because that’s the direction you go in video games. Cool, I shot some enemies. Wait, what’s this? Why can’t I make it through this gap? Why can’t Metroid crawl?”

    The opening to Metroid was so groundbreaking, because it taught many of us that we didn’t always have to go right in video games. Sometimes, the only way to get the morphball is to go left. I should write fortune cookies.
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    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.
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    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.
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    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.
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