By Marshall Garvey
Welcome to the first edition of Levels of Hell! In this series, we’ll explore the most infamously difficult and frustrating levels in gaming history. We’re talking about the ones that drive you up the wall even after you finally beat them; the stages that interrupted otherwise seamless playing experiences. Ones that wore out your reset buttons, elicited profanities, and had you scrambling for your guidebook or online walkthroughs to figure out. This is going to be a unique focus, as it’s not a conventional “worst of” series in which we endure the worst of gaming incompetence for angry humor. To the contrary, a good number of selections (perhaps even most) will come from acclaimed games, which probably makes even more sense. After all, it’s within an excellent game that a painful level has an exponentially greater impact. (The first and most famous of course being the Water Temple from “Ocarina of Time,” which we’ll slay anew.) Altogether, this might not be as frequent a feature as Hall of Fame or general nostalgic pieces, considering the varying degrees of accessibility for each level as well as the understandable reluctance to endure them again. But it’s one worth doing anyway. And if we never have to sit through another water level ever again as a result of our efforts, the gaming world will damn well be better off…
To kick off this line of torturous recollections, I’m actually starting with a level I’m currently stuck on for the first time, from the 1998 N64 classic “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron.” Although I rented and played this title as a kid, I only recently bought it to start playing all the way through. The entire game will be honored in a Hall of Fame Review very soon, but one stage well into the plot merits a great deal of dishonor: The Raid on Sullust. Taking place around halfway through the story as a pivotal revenge strike by the Rebel pilots after an Imperial blockade, the objectives are simple: Destroy all the sensors on the ground to eliminate a force field barrier, which protects the main apparatus you need to blow up. And that right there is where the simplicity ends.
The foundation of this level’s truculent dose of torture is how dark it is. And when I say dark, I mean dark. Pitch black to the point where even Riddick would have trouble navigating it. So dark that if Bruce Springsteen redid his albums to address interstellar themes, he’d change “Darkness on the Edge of Town” to “Sullust on the Edge of Town”. (Or edge of the galaxy? Only my mind ponders how the Boss and “Star Wars” can intersect…) Taking place in an enclosed pit on the volcanic planet of Sullust, the only lighting comes from a blood red sky and a few craters of lava, making navigation an unnecessary chore. It’s often difficult to tell where enemies and required targets are, as well as the crater walls you can easily fly into. Worst of all, it’s even harder to shoot turrets that can hit you from a great distance, but are obscured by darkness and only become visible after they’ve pummeled you a half dozen times. This isn’t helped by having to fly the Y-Wing to beat the mission for the first time, for while it has a strong shield and many bombs, its anemic laser can’t take out turrets from a distance as efficiently as an X-Wing can.
But oh boy, all of that is just the beginning of why I think this level was nothing more than the brainchild of a sadistic developer who wanted to punish gamers for no other reason than he could. Next is the overwhelming density of enemies, particularly turrets. Often throughout the course of “Rogue Squadron,” the player will predictably be challenged with hectic scenarios, whether it’s an abundance of AT walkers or a sudden swarm of TIE fighters at a critical objective point (most notably the mission to rescue Wedge Antilles from a prison train). But even the most challenging of these at least grant you some sort of reprieve, or at least an area where you can take cover and strategize your next move. On Sullust, there is absolutely no moment to catch your breath. From the opening you’re thrown into a seemingly endless thicket of laser cannons, AT-AT walkers, and those goddamn missile turrets. Oh wait, I’m sorry: those goddamn seeker missile turrets. These things launch missiles that will track you endlessly and eventually hit you unless you do an evasive maneuver. On previous levels, this can be stressful when there’s one or two of them placed in a key area. Here, they’re everywhere, constantly bombarding you even if you’re sure you’ve taken a good number of them out. And they make an ungodly bleeping noise with each missile fired, a sound you’ll hear on infinite loop well after you’ve shut your N64 off in a rage.
As a result, the level is pure chaos. You’re being shot at by projectiles at all times, many of which you can’t see, while searching for sensors that blend into the dark setting and are heavily protected. There’s no extra area where you can fly around to strategize for long, without a relentless fusillade of seeker missiles or lasers raining down from all angles. When you die, you’ll likely respawn right in the area you were shot down, often into an instant volley of missiles and lasers from the two or three turrets you missed while barely taking out just one. To almost rub it in further, Luke Skywalker’s dialogue becomes increasingly annoying and repetitious in this punishing context. For my money, every time he sneers, “That didn’t even scratch me!” after being hit, I’m almost inevitably pummeled with three missiles to take the ship’s health down to dangerously low levels.
What exacerbates the annoyance factor of this level is one of the game’s biggest flaws, and one I’ll touch on in my Hall of Fame Review: No retries. The start menu offers no option to retry a level, only to abort it and go back to the mission selection. This is not only inconvenient, but expedites your path to a game over if you don’t beat the mission on the next try. Thus, if you’re suffering it for the first time like I am as of this writing, you’ll be giving the reset button on your console a hefty workout.
As I said earlier, it’s likely to fume over cruel stages the most when they stick out egregiously in outstanding games, and this is no exception. “Star Wars: Rogue Squadron” is a stone cold classic, and the best game George Lucas’s franchise ever produced for the Nintendo 64. But the Raid on Sullust deserves to be hated on the same level as the water levels from Zelda and “Conker’s Bad Fur Day” in the system’s lore. It’s so trying and overwhelming, I doubt any level of shooting womprats in Beggar’s Canyon back home could prepare a pilot for it.
Oh, and a video to illustrate the pain: