Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Top Ten Sky-Themed Areas in Video Games

For this Tuesday, the sky is the limit for this special top ten list. I initially planned for this list around The Legend of Zelda: Tears of the Kingdom's release due to the sky islands that game possesses. Seeing as it's more than year since that time, I think I'm a bit late to the party. Instead, we're just going to talk about some of my favorite sky-themed areas, levels, tracks, places, etc. in video games for no real reason other than why the heck not! After you've checked out my choices for top tier sky areas in gaming, I'd love to read your thoughts on what places that you feel I should give proper props to!

10) Tengu Man's Stage - Mega Man 8 (PS1, SAT)

We begin this journey through the skies and levels adjacent with Tengu Man's Stage from Mega Man 8. Not only is the Robot Master cool in general in his design, but his stage is also rather enjoyable, taking place high up in the air among floating and hovering platforms--the latter of which bob and undulate under the Blue Bomber's weight. The level is so high up in the sky that at one point Mega Man must call upon Rush to stand on and ride via Rush Jet mode, turning Mega Man 8 into a light shoot-em-up as the pair slowly maneuvers through the hull of Tengu Man's aircraft. Pitting Mega Man against wind, an armada of enemies, and gravity itself, Tengu Man's stage is a wonderful one and highlight of Mega Man 8's first four Robot Master levels.

9) Pirate's Isle - Skies of Arcadia (DC)

The opening isle of the overlooked, underrated, and severely needing a modern remaster game, Skies of Arcadia, Pirate's Isle is a quaint and cozy place. However, underneath, buried under the surface in its core rests the home of the secret base and headquarters of the Blue Rogues. Heck, to the unbeknownst (i.e. pretty much everyone outside of the isle), it's known as Windmill Isle. This titular windmill actually powers the underground port where the Blue Rogues' Albatross airship lays. That said, the island's covert nature eventually gets alerted to by the evil Valuan Empire who proceeds to lay siege to it. Upon progression in the game, the protagonists of Skies of Arcadia not only vow revenge but also assist in rebuilding the town. Whether you know it as Pirate's Isle or Windmill Isle, the chill nature of the island at the start of the adventure and the subsequent rebuilding from the ashes later in the game makes it a memorable location to all who have had the privilege to play this underrated Dreamcast gem.

8) Floating Continent - Final Fantasy VI (SNES)

We move from an underrated RPG to one well loved for great reasons: Final Fantasy VI. An insanely cool concept for a dungeon as well as one that is incredibly important to Final Fantasy VI's story as well, the Floating Continent is the final dungeon played during the World of Balance portion of the game. To say that the story takes a notable pivot here would be an understatement. Non-story-related, though, the place is just an awesome dungeon in general, full of powerful enemies to defeat, quite unstable terrain that deforms, shifts, and collapses as Terra's party progresses through it, and mounds that create tunnels which transport players from one area of the island to another. It's not only a cleverly designed, brutal skill check for players, of course, but the Floating Continent serving as the moment where the proverbial sh-t hits the fan makes it one of most memorable in a game full of notable moments.

7) Cloudtop Cruise - Mario Kart 8 (Wii U)

Take a cruise aboard the clouds in, coincidentally enough, Cloudtop Cruise debuting on the original vanilla Mario Kart 8 on the Wii U. As expected, though, with a course from Mario Kart, this won't be any Sunday drive. You have twists, turns, and multiple opponents ready to give you a cruisin' for a bruisin' in the sky. Set on a windy, snaky, fluffy white cloud road that eventually leads to the top of an airship's deck before launching players directly into a thunderstorm, Cloudtop Cruise serves as the starting track of Mario Kart 8's Special Cup. It certainly doesn't ease players into the action, offering quite an amount of turbulence, but also a highly entertaining track, too. In fact, it remains one of my favorites from the base game. For good reason, too, it's just a lot of sky high fun.

6) Skyloft - The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword (Wii)

We talked a little bit about quaint and cozy spots and towns with Skies of Arcadia's Pirate's Isle. We move to a place that's even more so those with The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword's Skyloft, the opening area of this early timeline series adventure. For me, Skyward Sword successfully made a stellar sense of space and place with Skyloft, bringing its inhabitants and series of islands set in the sky to life in a way that some previous Zelda games failed to do for me. Many notable locations rest in the rather expansive set of isles that make up Skyloft, including the Bazaar, the Knight Academy, Beedle's Shop, a Waterfall Cave, and the Statue of the Goddess. The people of Skyloft utilize winged bird-like creatures known as Loftwings to travel through the sky and surrounding islands, and they're a major part of the opening of the game. Skyloft is a common place to return to throughout Link's adventure, growing more and more like home with each and every visit.

5) Palace of Winds - The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap (GBA)

It's difficult to mention The Legend of Zelda series without making note of a major element in the games: its dungeons. With dozens upon dozens of dungeons in the series' history, no doubt there have been ones set in the sky. In fact, it was quite a challenge to choose between Twilight Princess' City in the Sky and this selection: the Palace of Winds from The Legend of Zelda: The Minish Cap. In the end, what makes the Palace of Winds more memorable and enjoyable for me is multifold. For one, its dungeon item is one of my favorites in any 2D Zelda: the Roc's Cape. It allows Link to leap into the air and glide across gaps and chasms with ease. It makes Link's mobility and where he can go open up immensely. The dungeon itself is one of the final trials within The Minish Cap itself, making for potential brain-stumping puzzles, some of the most difficult enemies in the game, and a multiple tiered structure. It's essentially a two part dungeon with the climax of both being a super exciting boss battle aboard the backs of flying creatures in the sky. All of this makes for a gloriously unforgettable dungeon within this underrated Zelda game.

4) Sky Land - Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES)

Speaking of places in two parts, the fifth world--commemorating the back half of Super Mario Bros. 3--Sky Land is deceivingly small when Mario and/or Luigi first arrive. For one, where's the dang sky? As players find themselves on a map on the ground. It's only until players scale and complete the absolutely tall tower--a bridge between areas, essentially--that they're led into a land above the clouds and the massive amount of more levels to complete! What's even cooler is being on the map and seeing the land on the ground below that players had just finished. Having this latter portion of levels taking place in the sky, no doubt you can imagine myriad moments to fall via large swaths of bottomless pits, enemies like Lakitu and the nightmare-inducing Fire Chomps to contend with, and loads of challenging platforming trials to take on. 

3) Gusty Garden Galaxy - Super Mario Galaxy (Wii)

 We're still not quite through with Mario's adventures yet. While his last entry on this list saw him taking to the skies, Super Mario Galaxy's Gusty Garden Galaxy takes him to the outer reaches of space and all the lovely gravity gimmick goodness that goes with it. Filled to the brim with bountiful flowers--some of which can be grabbed and used as a means to gain altitude--beautiful blue skies, and plenty of platforming potential in the form of garden mazes, thorns to evade, Piranha Plants and moles to take on, and one of the coolest challenges--using Ice Mario to wall jump up the faces of waterfalls. Gusty Garden Galaxy is one of my favorite levels in any Mario game. Between the boisterous orchestral, moving melody of the level, to the absolute enjoyable way Mario can move about the level's many planetoids, worms, Wigglers, and vines, Gusty Garden Galaxy never fails to make me smile when I enter into its atmosphere. It always is a level I eagerly anticipate returning to in any repeated Super Mario Galaxy playthrough.

2) Columbia - BioShock Infinite (PS3, 360, PC)

While time hasn't been kind to my thoughts on BioShock Infinite as a game (various reasons there), I cannot say that my opinion of the game's major locale, Columbia, has diminished in any way whatsoever. In fact, it's possibly only increased over time. This essential continent in the clouds contains many sights to see, lavish locales, and is a testament to incredible architecture, chiefly that of Neoclassical works (look at me knowing something small about architecture!). This massive city-state floats in the sky, creating some drop-dead stunning environments practically at every turn. One of the coolest parts of Columbia in a gameplay sense is the ability for the main character to grapple and attach to various overhead rail systems, grinding through the skies from island to island in this open and expansive locale. 

1) Sky Sanctuary Zone - Sonic & Knuckles (GEN)

One of the most memorable and entertaining sky-themed areas and levels in gaming to me is none other than Sky Sanctuary Zone from Sonic & Knuckles. An ancient series of ruins set in the sky, Sky Sanctuary is one of the final zones for Sonic within the game while the final destination for Knuckles during his story. Either way, players will discover riches in platforming goodness as they scale the scared sanctuary to reach the top. For Knuckles, it's to protect the Master Emerald. For Sonic, it's to reach Dr. Robotnik's Death Egg space station before it fully reaches into space. 

In Sonic Generations, Sky Sanctuary is one of the returning zones in the game, featuring multiple paths to take, platforms that wind up and move with Sonic's dash, plenty of perilous opportunities to fall into the bottomless depths below, and bridges that collapse one panel after another upon receiving a step from Sonic. Sky Sanctuary is popular throughout the Sonic series and even some spin-offs as well where it's appeared in Sonic & All-Stars Racing Transformed. Bring them on, I say, as it's definitely a remarkably cool area to explore, platform, and sometimes race in, whether in 2D or 3D.

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