News center
We offer unbeatable prices without sacrificing quality.

The 15 best first levels in retro gaming

Jun 17, 2023

A reader names his favourite first levels from the 8- and 16-bit eras, including such classics as R-Type, Operation Wolf, and Final Fight.

We all have certain favourite video game levels.

But it’s fair to assume we have all experienced an opening level to a game more often than any later stage, since that’s what we are welcomed to as soon as we hit the power button.

The nature of this observation is limited to older titles that follow a particular format. Yes, there are many iconic 3D examples in modern gaming, but in the interest of compiling a finite list, let’s keeps things simple.

Here is a list of first stages, which I believe have become synonymous with our favourite hobby.

But before I begin, I’d like to add that there were many titles I would’ve loved to have mentioned, but having a level select like in Mega Man or free roam overworld like NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles disqualified them. Additionally certain games, as iconic as they are, such as Pac-Man and Space Invaders I didn’t feel differentiates enough as you progress to allow the first level to stand on its own merit.

Please bear in mind, I haven’t played every game ever and there’s every chance I’ve overlooked several titles, some readers will no doubt observe glaring omissions, while others may affirm my choices.

Admittedly, some of the games that did make the list could be considered a bit of a stretch, but overall I think most older gamers will agree that these Level 1s are among the most iconic in video game history.

Let’s get this one out of the way, possibly the most iconic first level ever, from a time when intros were unnecessary and hitting the Start button took you directly to the game. This first level will teach you just about everything you need to progress through the entire game.

Giving birth to a new age in gaming, single-handedly saving an industry from collapse and still having mind share of most gamers around the world nearly 40 years later, fans or otherwise, this is as legendary as it gets.

So recognised in fact, that instead of simply posting a link of the level, I thought I’d provide a moment with Shigero Miyamoto sharing some insight of how it came to be.

Another classic entry level to a game that taught me more about how to run away in my underwear and swear a lot!

Tougher than old boots and does nothing to prepare you for the onslaught you’re about to experience in later levels!

Defining factors would be the classic medieval graveyard setting, complete with all the tropes of a Hammer Horror movie, from the walking dead, crows, and gargoyles to the hangman’s noose and guillotines marrying a music score that compliments the level’s gothic theme.

And nobody can tell me they didn’t find it amusing/frustrating to reach the top of a ladder and becoming unceremoniously stuck for the first time, even if for a moment, becoming completely vulnerable and feeling exposed!

If any title is going to make you familiar with a level through trial and error alone, it’s gonna be one in this franchise!

Did you ever get that feeling after a double jump you would’ve been more successful landing it in the other direction? Hindsight in midair is about as welcome as a cursed treasure chest!

Honourable mentions go to Ghost ‘N Goblins and, of course, Super Ghouls ‘N Ghosts – boxer shorts never looked so good!

2 player co-op perfection!

From the rundown streets to the collapsing skyscrapers on the horizon, this level conjures up the perfect image of a post-apocalyptic alien invasion, with merciless fiends occupying the streets as humankind’s last line of defence is the forlorn hope of taking the fight to the enemy and succeeding.

Who can forget scrambling to make it to the tank before taking out the enemy checkpoint, whilst your sibling rides shotgun (kinda). Don’t forget the recoil on that cannon, letting off a shell while your brother is behind you is a good way to use up lives if you’re not communicating.

Well ahead of its time, this game’s first level even featured a set piece where a bomber would fly overhead in a glorious Mode 7 sprite scaling effect, instinctively prompting you to hold the L and R buttons simultaneously and stand stationary, guns akimbo as fire engulfs the area around you!

Sharing weapons (or being greedy), it’s your call, but the boss battle will bring out the best in you both, stop being so selfish, this is for humanity!

In an age when the boss flashes like a strobe light as each projectile finds his weak spot, not many are remembered as fondly as this bonified classic!

How iconic is this level? Put it this way, you know the stage name!Green Hill Zone… it’s impossible to deny Sega and Sonic of this accolade; the shade of green, that angular art style, blue Sega skies, and memorable level theme tune that you can hum on demand, and let’s not forget that menacing end of level boss battle music!

Think of Sega and this is the mental note your brain has pre-prepared for you. There are many iconic first levels in gaming, but not many have conceived an actual gaming icon.

A football player is never bigger than the club he plays for, or so they say, but Sonic is bigger than the sum of his parts, and he owes this, possibly, to his debut level.

Magazine images couldn’t do this game justice, you had to see it moving for yourself.

And no-one will forget the first level opening, with our team of Arwing pilots speeding through that blue wire frame tunnel in their abstract aircraft, before exiting HQ to a badass tune that fits in perfect symmetry with the action.

Yes, this game is 3D and my reasoning behind including it is Brrbrrdrrbrrpbrrp.

You felt like you were part of a squad, the intercom automatically translating our allies’ gibberish to our hero’s native Fox tongue, learning much about our crews traits before taking on the first boss. So much more can be said for this simple on-the-rails shooter, but you had to be there day one to really appreciate its arrival, all 18 fps of it…

I can’t think of another game right now where you, as the protagonist, play the first couple of levels as a humble man, only to be transformed into a killing machine for the rest of the game, truly unique!

Being a huge RoboCop fan, this was right up my street, although here you didn’t have to be gunned down in the line of duty to get your upgrade! Tough break, eh Murphy?

The world’s first R-rated superhero, iconic to maybe my household only, this was never gonna live up to the Data East arcade equivalent. But here I was, playing as my childhood hero RoboCop, laying waste to anybody who dared walk down the street or hang their washing out the window, wondering what all the noise was about.

Played as clumsily as ED-209 using a flight of stairs, it was hardly a great game, but nonetheless captured my imagination the only way a video game could back then, and if you squint you can even just about make out our favourite cyborg!Ending the stage at one of the movie’s most memorable arrests, but with a luckier suspect this time!

This game had it all, even a lifebar, for some reason.

Bethesda is withholding Starfield review copies in the UK

Games Inbox: Why have Starfield reviews been delayed?

Starfield early access – when does it start and how to join

Video games have come so far! Movies, not so much.

Play out every eighties young boy’s fantasy, pit your turbocharged Ferrari F40, with blonde chick in tow, against the Porsche 959, accompanied by a remix of classic track Magical Sound Shower.

Rivalries don’t get anymore iconic than this!

I tried to avoid the racing genre in my list, but this just kinda popped into my head, so I’ll hurriedly list some honourable mentions such as F-Zero’s Mute City, Super Mario Kart’s Mario Circuit 1, and Taito’s Chase H.Q.

‘Let’s go Mr. Driver!’

One of the best-selling games of its time, the true sequel to the original Super Mario Bros.

Discovering the leaf power-up and taking to the skies as Racoon Mario for the first time was a momentous event in anyone’s book, an undeniable heavyweight added to the list.

I was never a massive fan of the R-Type games, my preferred shooters were Axelay, Parodius, Hellfire, U.N. Squadron, and Prehistoric Isle but I have to admit R-Type is the celebrity here, no doubt about it.

Don’t be deceived by level 1’s casual nature, this game gets tough, quick.

If you don’t recognise this shmup as the king of 2D space shooters you’re probably a hell of a lot younger than I am!

To my knowledge, this is the game that gave birth to the automatic side scrolling first person shooter/on-the-rails shooter genre, if not, it’s arguably the most well-known amongst its peers.

Clear out the enemy barracks by all means necessary, just don’t shoot the tourists! I mean, free roaming hostages, I guess?

An instant hit with the punters, anyone visiting the local arcades back in the day will remember this cabinet being a busy one.

Huge sprites, detailed backgrounds, a limited moves set, and a wafer thin plot.

One of the earliest side-scrolling beat ‘em-ups that I remember having animated backdrops and a bigger variety of enemies than usual, which is more than I can say for the gameplay, which is as shallow and repetitive as any beat ‘em-up that came before it.

Cynicism aside, coming from an industry that has built a lot of its fortune on chasing successful trends, Final Fight came from a time when more of the same, only bigger, was acceptable and the starting level alone hit the spot like a lead pipe.

Music’s biggest star made a below average game, bad (ahem). He steps into the gangster-filled wooden saloon, dancing on snooker tables, pinball machines, and pianos as he clicks his fingers and chucks a monkey.

It worked surprisingly well, all things considered.

Unforgettable early 90s pop culture.

As soon as any gamer worth their salt is reminded of Aladdin their mind will be cast back to this level, its bright Arabic theme and smooth animation looks as good today as it did back then.

A visual showcase of its day, beautiful.

This one counts! Last but not least.

Doom’s Hanger level is filled with instantly recognisable enemies from a real burning Hell, claustrophobic sections with flashing lights, and reservoirs of deathly green waste.

Any collectibles glow a solid neon, worth every pick-up, and primary colour keys await in booby trapped rooms.

Find the trusty shotgun and grimace your way through level 1’s hoard!

Truly epic stuff!

By reader Bad Edit

The reader’s features do not necessarily represent the views of GameCentral or Metro.

You can submit your own 500 to 600-word reader feature at any time, which if used will be published in the next appropriate weekend slot. Just contact us at [email protected] or use our Submit Stuff page and you won’t need to send an email.

MORE : Xbox fans get access to over 1,000 retro games with new Antstream Arcade app

MORE : Pixel Ripped 1978 review – retro gaming in VR

MORE : Colossal Cave review – extreme retro gaming

Follow Metro Gaming on Twitter and email us at [email protected]

To submit Inbox letters and Reader’s Features more easily, without the need to send an email, just use our Submit Stuff page here.

For more stories like this, check our Gaming page.

Sign up to all the exclusive gaming content, latest releases before they're seen on the site.

By reader Bad Edit