There’s no better way to wrap up the holidays than by revisiting gaming’s best winter levels (there are probably better ways, but let’s forget about those for now). Many games over the years have tried to capture the spirit of the holiday season, but these five games showed the greatest holiday cheer.
5 best winter levels in video game history
5. Cool Cool Mountain – Super Mario 64
So cool, it had to be said twice, Super Mario 64’s Cool Cool Mountain was the first time gamers got to see a well-done winter level in 3-D. This iconic winter romp has Mario fighting snowmen and searching the mountain for lost penguin babies. The challenge that most gamers probably remember is the intense slide race against the giant mama penguin. You can slide into a certain spot on the wall to skip half the course, but the penguin will see through your treacherous ways and scold you for cheating. In retaliation, you can hurl her precious baby off of a cliff.
You can listen to Cool Cool Mountain’s iconic music below, but it’s not quite the same without the ear-piercing shrieking of the baby penguins.
4. Ice Cap Zone – Sonic the Hedgehog 3
Many fans consider Sonic 3 to be the best in the trilogy (yes, trilogy. There never was a Sonic 4). The game expands upon the fast-paced, momentum-based platforming of previous entries by adding plenty of power-ups and more complex, explorable levels. Ice Cap Zone is a particular standout. The level ramps up the attitude right away by putting Sonic on a snowboard.
Back in the ’90s, Sonic’s cocky attitude let him stand out against other video game mascots and putting him on something as tubular as a snowboard solidified him as the coolest of the cool. Sure you’re forced to crash the snowboard pretty quickly, but it’s still pretty awesome. Oh, and we need to discuss the music:
The game’s soundtrack had input from none other than Michael Jackson. For the Ice Cap Zone, in particular, Jackson brought in Brad Buxer, keyboardist of The Jetzons. While some have said that Ice Cap Zone contains interpolations/samples of MJ’s Smooth Criminal, there is no doubt that the song is a repackaging of The Jetzons song “Hard Times”.
“Hard Times” didn’t actually get a formal release until 2008 as part of a Jetzons compilation record. Both versions of the song sound amazing, and Sonic’s connection to Michael Jackson is definitely one of the more mysterious pieces of gaming trivia.
3. Snow Barrel Blast – Donkey Kong Country
This list entry is a little bit different, as I don’t actually like this level at all. In fact, I despise Snow Barrel Blast with every fiber of my being, and now I finally have a chance to talk about it. The slippery ground and the barely-controllable barrel cannons were the bane of my existence when I was 8 years old, and it still took me like 20 tries to beat this level as a grown-ass man.
The Donkey Kong Country games are amazing, but they are filled with absolutely brutal levels. Even among all the other BS levels, Snow Barrel Blast stands out as a Herculean test of patience and rage control. There is nothing more soul-crushing than seeing your helpless Kong fly into the freezing abyss because you missed one barrel cannon shot out of 25109837. I wish I could meet the designer of this level so I could rip their cold, black heart out of their chest with my bare hands.
Music’s pretty great though.
2. Your Town – Animal Crossing
This entry may not technically be an actual level, but the Animal Crossing games handle winter so well there’s no way I could leave them off the list. The Animal Crossing games run in real time, so the in-game seasons reflect the real-life ones. Various festive items pop up around your town in winter. Pine trees suddenly become covered in Christmas lights. Snowmen heads appear, requiring you to roll them an appropriate body. Villagers build igloos where they host cozy minigames and cook delicious chowder.
The whole winter season culminates in Toy Day, a non-denominational winter celebration that features a reindeer named Jingle dressed as Santa. In New Leaf, Jingle lets the player dress as Santa and deliver the presents directly to their neighbors, giving them the perfect way to spread holiday cheer.
The chowder song soothes my soul and it’ll probably soothe yours too.
1. Freezeezy Peak – Banjo-Kazooie
The best winter level of the 64-bit era, Freezeezy Peak is a masterpiece of theming and level design. The level features a friendly giant snowman that you can climb and slide down, in addition to several very unfriendly snowmen who chuck snowballs at you with unflinching accuracy. Seriously, those snowy bastards could hit a gnat’s eye three miles away while blindfolded, and it doesn’t help that you constantly hear their evil laughter echoing throughout the level.
In addition to snowmen, the level also features defenseless talking Christmas lights, sliding walruses, and sledding polar bears. The level absolutely nails the Christmas atmosphere, which is really impressive considering the limitations of early 3-D game design. As with most levels in Banjo-Kazooie, the level feels more like a lived-in world than a 3-D playground, giving the game plenty of character. Freezeezy Peak is gaming’s standout winter level even with all of those hellish snowmen.
Plus, the music sounds like something out of a stop-motion Christmas classic.
Any festive levels we missed? Let us know!