TMcBee’s Top 10 Sand and Desert Levels

Everyone is going back to school or work now, which means its time to say goodbye to summer. As much I didn’t want summer to end, but I have to mention that it was WAY too hot this year. This summer felt so humid in my hometown in Canada that it was nearly impossible to take a stroll around the block. It certainly felt like walking aimlessly at a desert. Speaking of deserts…

While sweating my head off a couple of months back, this striking heat inspired me to do a written countdown. Finally here it is as I scroll down my Top 10 Sand and Desert Levels. Desert or sand levels have their share of enjoyment to them whether they are creative, ambient or just plain fun to get to. So let’s ride our camels and stay away from sandstorms starting with number 10.

10. Dirge’s Cave – Shadow of the Colossus

The main overworld in Shadow of the Colossus provided a lot of travelling for Wander to explore through forests, mountains, oceans and even sands. The game only had two sand substance locations and the one I had to choose was the 10th colossi battle in Dirge’s Cave.

Sometimes simple results equals enduring reception and the atmosphere in Dirge’s Cave is simply stunning, especially the ray of light striking down from the rocky ceiling. Also, dare I say that the fight against Dirge was excitingly fun? Despite Dirge’s eyes looking creepy popping out of the sandy grounds, this particular boss fight in Shadow of the Colossus was one of my funnest battles in the game.

Dirge’s Cave in Shadow of the Colossus captured the atmosphere and challenge great, but I thought location felt pretty clusterphobic to explore in. However, for game visuals to capture both a realistic and gritty tone, it’s one of the better destinations I’ve seen.

9. Gobi’s Valley – Banjo-Kazooie

3D Platformers in the 90’s had their share of unique or cliche ideas for their desert levels. Gobi’s Valley in Banjo-Kazooie is that fine example using a lot of elements of Egyptian culture, but with an original vibe to the entire level.

Gobi’s Valley has all the elements you need for a usual desert destination, like pyramids, sphinxes, mummies, and a camel… that you can tauntingly pounce on. Not only this level had a great sense of humour, but the variety of puzzles, challenges and exploration made Gobi’s Valley a quite golden experience.

Gobi’s Valley from Banjo-Kazooie is definitely one of the most brightest desert levels I’ve seen, but perhaps a bit too bright. Also, I’m not going to lie that seeing a lot of yellow in the level did made me grew a bit tire of it. Other than that major critique, it’s still a fun level to play through.

8. Cleyra’s Trunk – Final Fantasy 9

What happens if you take a tree trunk, hallow it out and put sand inside of it? All I can think of is the hybrid location called Cleyra’s Trunk from Final Fantasy 9. Cleyra’s Trunk may not consistent all of sand 100%, but the player does see sand sprinkling down when they first enter this location.

Cleyra’s Trunk maybe a confusing place to adventure in at first, but I cannot deny that the sandy foliage concept was pretty atmospheric. The sense of details and animations in the backgrounds were remarkably incredible, making it feel like an illustration from a fairy tale book come to life.

The only two issues I had with Cleyra’s Trunk were fighting those sand golems in battle and the destination itself being a one time only visit. It’s a shame too because I think this level had some great potential, but left players completely restricted to return to the hybrid tree. Rest in peace, Cleyra’s Trunk.

7. Desert Arena – Jak X: Combat Racing

The company Naughty Dog introduced the Spargus Wastelands in Jak 3 for the Jak and Daxter series. The desert’s atmosphere and space was spot on, but the driving and missions were pretty atrocious. However, The Desert Arena in Jak X: Combat Racing made driving in the desert fun again.

Okay, The Desert Arena isn’t as massive as the Wastelands in Jak 3, but the level does contain the right space for a round of death match and artifact collecting. Even with rocky pillars, trees and bridges being in the way, it was pretty easy for me to drive around the area, especially when eliminating your opponents became so much fun.

I wouldn’t consider the Desert Arena from Jak X: Combat Racing the best desert or sand level due to lacking charm unlike Jak 3‘s Wastelands. However, I will say that it’s definitely the most entertaining level for a vehicle arena. This is one level that certainly gets me “Jaked Up”.

6. Tabora Desert – Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando

Surprisingly, the Ratchet and Clank series does not consist so many sand or desert worlds, except maybe for one (correct me if I am wrong). Planet Tabora from Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando leads player to an open desert containing crystals for them to obtain more bolts.

Planet Tabora makes players feel quite stranded while first visiting this level, but enters a location in order to get their vessel back when progressing further. Some hippy fella holds hostage on your ship unless you offer him some crystals that are set in one big desert. Searching for the crystals was an addicting experience for the first time even if I thought the desert looked okay.

Not only players can search for crystals while visiting Tabora in Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando, but there are other goodies that they can find as well. It is one of the better places to grind for more currency items and make your play through easier.

5. The Desert – Aladdin (Sega Genesis)

The only 2D Platformer that made this entry on the countdown has to be a movie licensed game that had a fun and humourous desert level. The Desert from Disney’s Aladdin for the Sega Genesis had to be a classic level that I enjoyed every time I play this game as a kid.

The Desert had a lot of character for a sand and desert level by having a lot of comical visuals in the foreground and background of the level design, like a stop sign, Abu pouncing on stunned guard or washroom tents intended for men, women and genies. There are even touches of Disney references embedded in the level that Disney fans will get a thrill of.

The Desert provided a lot personality and was fun to get through by finding all three scarabs. Too bad some of the platforming can be a bit of a hassle, including those damn spikes. I hate those spikes…

4. Dry Dry Desert / Dry Dry Ruins – Paper Mario

The Super Mario Bros. series is pretty well know to throw in desert levels for most of their titles ever since Super Mario Bros. 2. I thought both Dry Dry Desert and Dry Dry Ruins in Paper Mario had the best designed concept to what a desert should feel like.

Dry Dry Desert is set up like a maze that normally many gamers would hate, but this level somehow makes it easier to explore if the players pay closely attention to the visuals around them. The level has quite a puzzle to solve, but it’s worth the time once you spot Dry Dry Ruins in one epic cutscene.

Dry Dry Ruins was one of my favourite main locations to obtain the Seven Stars and solving the puzzles, getting the items and fighting off Tutankoopa were a great treat after wandering through the desert for a long time.

Both Dry Dry Desert and Ruins in Paper Mario were both visually pleasing with unique elements to set the desert theme so impressively. Too bad the Toads living in the Dry Dry Outpost had to look quite racist in this section of the game.

3. Angry Aztec – Donkey Kong 64

Donkey Kong 64 is a 3D platformer game from my childhood, which this nostalgia feel had to make me put a level from this game in the top three. The level Angry Aztec contained a memorable atmosphere that I didn’t felt like leaving this place.

Angry Aztec looked more layered than Gobi-s Valley from Banjo-Kazooie, such as the dusty winds. Plus the soundtrack and temple ruins inhabited in the level were an extra bonus to make Angry Aztec more intriguing. The variety of gameplay, including the boss fight were fun for the most part. I only found following the rings and the beetle race the most crucial part of the level.

Even though some of the choices of level layouts and gameplay variety were questionable and annoying for Angry Aztec, I thought it was one enjoyable place in Donkey Kong 64. I just don’t understand why one section of the level is mostly covered in quicksand.

2. Desert Colossus / Spirit Temple – Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Like Donkey Kong 64, another N64 classic that provided a desert destination holds dear to my gaming nostalgia. Witnessing both the Desert Colossus and The Spirit Temple from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time made me love sand or desert locations in gaming even more.

The Desert Colossus is a tight squeeze of a place to explore in Zelda: Ocarina of Time. But once players see the colossus rock carving and enter the next temple to beat, they will experience one atmospheric and unique dungeon for a Zelda game, where the player can explore the Spirit Temple both as a kid and an adult.

Playing the Spirit Temple as young Link felt a bit lackluster until you finally obtain the silver gauntlets that you’re supposed to give to a Gerudo woman, who later gets kidnap by two witches. However, playing the Spirit Temple as adult Link was worth the time with the many surprises inhabit in the story, puzzles and combat sequences of the level, especially the boss fight.

With both having such classic melodies, Desert Colossus and The Spirit Temple were to most enjoyed levels from my experience in playing The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time. If there were a few more intriguing things outside the Spirit Temple, I would have placed this entry at number one.

1. Desert of Didgeridoos – Rayman Origins

I think combining music and deserts puts such a strong impact in bringing an ambient concept. Donkey Kong 64 and Zelda: Ocarina of Time had grand pieces of music for their desert levels, but The Desert of Didgeridoos from Rayman Origins brought sand and music together as one colourful concept and experience.

The Desert of Didgeridoos does not only contain soothing music in the background, but the level has instrumental platforms for players to jump and walk on, such as drums, wind instruments and piano keys. It is one visually looking section containing levels with originality, touches of surrealism and neglecting the cliche elements that is normally seen in desert or sand levels.

This section in Rayman Origins had a medium difficult for each level, with challenges and bonus rounds containing a ton of variety to them that doesn’t put the player or players to sleep. Somehow jumping on birds and riding the dusty winds brought a sprinkle of fun and difficulty for this kind of level theme.

Even though all the levels in The Desert of Didgeridoos do not contain sands but clouds instead, they all have a sandy ambient that looks deserted but somehow feels welcoming to players. Rayman Origins certainly brought my explanation of musical compositions with desert destinations in a meaningful way.


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