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Christmas with the Nerds: Top five 16-bit winter levels!

‘Tis the season once again and we at SEGA Nerds cannot help but get into the festive spirit by doing what we do best, playing SEGA games!

Every year during the cold winter months when no-one in their right mind would dare venture outside, I always enjoy looking back at some of the winter themed SEGA levels. There are so many of them, it’s incredibly hard to pick a favourite. From the snow covered Spring Valley found in Christmas NiGHTS to the Holoska continent of Sonic Unleashed, SEGA have always been very fond of snow stages and we can’t help but love them too.

As there are so many, for now we’re going to stick to the 16-bit era of SEGA video gaming. Arguably one of the greatest video game systems of all time, the SEGA Genesis / Mega Drive was home to many amazing titles. Included in that library were many games featuring chilly ice levels and it is to them where we will turn our attention. Let’s not leave out the Mega CD either, as there is at least one 16-bit CD game on the list we just had to include!

With all that said, join us now as we attempt to list the top five winter themed SEGA stages of the 16-bit era. Keep in mind that there is no correct or incorrect list- these are but my personal favourites. We really want to hear from you, the reader. Feel free to list your own top five in the comments at the bottom of this article with a brief explanation for each as we would love to hear everyone else’s opinions on what makes a classic SEGA snow stage so great.

NUMBER FIVE - WINTER LEVELS

Monster World IV
Asha must make use of Pepe’s new powers to progress through the Ice Pyramid.

Monster World IV is a beautiful side-scrolling adventure RPG title for the SEGA Genesis. Unfortunately it was never released onto the system outside of Japan, however developer M2 has recently ported an English language version of the game to the Xbox 360, PS3 and Wii. Players take the role of Asha as they set out on an adventure with their monster sidekick, Pepe the pepelougoo. Pepe is an unusual creature that evolves over the course of the game. Each time Pepe evolves, his appearance changes and he is able to learn new tricks to help Asha in her quest. Speaking of the quest- Asha is on a sacred journey to find and aid four mysterious spirits who speak of danger and destruction coming to the land. The journey ends up becoming more than she bargained for, with her traversing through many dungeons, riding a magic carpet through the sky and even encountering a less than flattering Genie.

Monster World IV
The dungeon is tough and presents a fitting challenge for this point in the game.

During her quest Asha comes upon the land of Icegrave, a dark, cold place full of slippery ice and snow monsters. It’s here Asha must work her way through the Ice Pyramids, three especially tricky dungeons that lie within Icegrave. These three dungeons are not for the faint of heart, as the puzzles inside them are enough to drive any sane person mad. Asha will have to think outside of the box and persist in beating the puzzles within if she wishes to face the ice block monster waiting at the end and free the captured spirit. Once the first puzzle is solved, it’s no doubt that players will receive that eureka moment and from then on out their icy adventure will run a lot smoother.

There is a great sense of achievement after conquering the three dungeons and it is this feeling of acoumplishment that sits the ice pyramids nicely on the number five spot of our list. The music is also worth listening to, as it is perhaps some of the best heard throughout the game.

NUMBER FOUR - WINTER LEVELS

It’s Christmas time in Neo Kobe City and as the nights draw longer the SNATCHER’s have more time to wreak havoc.

SNATCHER
Look out, it’s a SNATCHER! No wait, that’s just Santa. Or… is it?

In SNATCHER, you play as Gillian Seed, a newly registered JUNKER as he attempts to hunt down and stop the SNATCHER menace. With him is his trusty robot navigator side-kick Metal Gear MK II. This atmospheric and exciting graphical / text adventure game sees Gillian and Metal in the thick of things, hunting down SNATCHER’s and interrogating potential suspects. What are SNATCHER’s, you ask? This dangerous species of cyborg take over humans and pose as them. This kills their host in the process and they are able to hide their identities well due to the sophistication of their cyborg technology. This makes Gillian’s job incredibly difficult and to add to things he’s recently lost his memory and he’s currently getting over a marriage break-up! Poor blighter.

There are many interesting locations and tonnes of exciting scenes found throughout SNATCHER. The eeriness of the abandoned factory and an intense interrogation of a potential SNATCHER suspect are only a couple of the amazing feelings experienced throughout this game. To make a spot on this list however, we require a very different feeling. A festive one, no less. This takes us to Alton Plaza, a busy street full of people as they walk up and down, no doubt last minute Christmas shopping and meeting up with loved ones.

SNATCHER
Alton Plaza has a very Christmassy feeling. It’s a shame Gillian doesn’t have much luck with the ladies there, though.

Gillian and Metal make their way to Alton Plaza on the eve of Christmas, but for very different reasons. They are to meet up with Napoleon, an informant who has promised to let them in on some high class information. I can’t help but marvel at Alton Plaza though, with its colourful neon lights in the backdrop and its busy streets. The music in this area is a fitting rendition of jingle bells and ambient noise from vehicles and people can also be heard as they scurry about the snow covered street.

It truly feels like Christmas in Alton Plaza which is why I have included it at the number four spot on our list.

NUMBER THREE - WINTER LEVELS

Vectorman
Reach for the sky! This stage has a great use of dark and light colouring for the shadows of the cave.

Vectorman may be gone, but he certainly isn’t forgotten. The spherical green dude with attitude was the star of two solid platforming titles on the SEGA Genesis. Blasting powerful proton bullets from his hands, Vectorman has the uncanny ability to take on the shape of many different items and objects, including a car, a drill and even a deadly time bomb. The Vectorman platform games were riddled with variety, with levels taking him to the skies, rushing along an airborne train track and another with him fighting the evil mechanical menace known as Warhead in a groovy top-down disco.

While there aren’t any snow stages in the traditional sense, Vectorman has a fantastic stage set in some icy cold caves. Named Arctic Ridge, the fifth level of Vectorman is perhaps one of my favourites and the great use of lighting makes it feel dark, damp and most importantly, cold. The icy blue cave walls can be seen in the background throughout the majority of this stage and there are also some neat water effects for waterfalls scattered about the area. There is just something about this stage that makes it feel cool- pun not intended.

Vectorman
You may feel isolated, but enemies are aplenty with leg’s and turrets scattered around the caves.

Another honourable mention has to go to the boss fight found at the end of stage four, Absolute Zero. While most of the stage is underwater, it’s here that Vectorman first makes his way to the Arctic and he’s presented with two robot bosses to fight at the end of the stage. A acrobatic robot bird and mechanical polar bear, both of which take many proton shots to go down. The boss is memorable and it’s a great lead-in to the Arctic Ridge stage ahead.

The icy caves found in Vectorman give off a great sense of isolation and absolute freezing temperatures, giving the game another chance in the spotlight at the number three spot in our list.

NUMBER TWO - WINTER LEVELS

Ristar
Just look at how pretty it is. Look at it!

Ristar is a shooting star on a mission to save his captured father. This quirky mascot from Sonic Team didn’t see many titles past his first, with only a port being released on the 8-bit SEGA Game Gear. His game is still not worth passing up though, with colourful visuals that will no doubt melt your mind. Ristar must fly through space, investigating over seven fantastical planets as he attempts to defeat the evil Greedy and rescue his father. Each planet has a different theme and they are very unique. Planet Flora is your standard affair, full of green fields and gorgeous backgrounds, it’s all very pretty. Planet Undertow is based underwater, with players making use of Ristar’s super stretchy arms to grab enemy starfish and squids, head butting them into the cosmos.

Ristar
The slippery ice affects your footing, so watch your step!

The fifth stage, Planet Freon, is covered in white sheets of snow. It’s this level we’re most interested in and it’s no doubt my favourite from the game. Ristar powers into the stage by skiing down a snowy mountain, similar to his SEGA brethren Sonic during Ice Cap Zone in Sonic 3. The stage really is a feast for the eyes, it’s a pleasure to look at and the character animations for Ristar himself are great. If you leave Ristar idle, he’ll begin building a tiny snowman, leading him to look at his creation in awe. Be careful where you tread too, as one wrong step on that slippery ice will send the little star flying on his backside. The music for act one, titled Ring Rank, is some of the best to come out of the Genesis hardware and over a decade later we still aren’t tired of hearing the familiar tune.

The snowy planet of Freon puts Ristar at the admirable number two spot on our list. The top quality visuals and fun snowball fight mid-boss found between act one and two shoot this star above the rest and we recommend you give it a play this winter!

NUMBER ONE - WINTER LEVELS

Sonic
What? You thought we would forget Ice Cap Zone? Never.

You cannot talk SEGA and winter levels without mentioning Ice Cap Zone. Setting a staple for many other games throughout the franchise, Ice Cap is considered the best zone by many fans of the spiny blue speed freak. Included in Sonic 3, this stage highlights speed and has Sonic and Tails legging it around an icy snow scape. The techno-like music accompaniment is toe tappingly good and it was inspired by an unreleased track by Brad Buxer, who worked on the musical arrangement for the game.

Sonic
Tails’ gotta go fast across this snow ridden wonderland.

There are so many positive things to say about Ice Cap Zone. An exciting playable introduction sequence with Sonic snowboarding down a dangerous mountain. The huge trampoline-like springs that fly Sonic up into the air after players jump up and down on them. Those bridges made out of little ice cubes that glimmer as you run along them. The tiny little penguin badniks that always try their hardest to slip you up as you’re running loop-de-loops around the stage. It’s fast and fun, no doubt the two most important aspects of the Sonic series as a whole.

You will never get a more fondly remembered 16-bit winter stage rocketing Sonic the Hedgehog 3 and Ice Cap Zone into the number one spot on our list. Now what are you waiting for? Go play it!

Lee Sparkes

Lee is a huge retro SEGA nerd and currently resides in bonnie Scotland. Starting out with a SEGA Master System, some of his favourite SEGA titles include Monster World IV, NiGHTS Into Dreams, OutRun 2, and of course, Sonic the Hedgehog. When he's not playing old SEGA games, he's probably sat watching Lupin III.

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