An ode to gaming's greatest snow levels

An ode to gaming's greatest snow levels
Image via Square Enix

Written by 

Harry Boulton

Last updated 

30th Dec 2023 12:31

There are many things we all associate with the Christmas period, from warm fires to blinding decorative lights - yet it is snow that perhaps prevails above all when it comes to imagery within the wintry period.

Thankfully, snow is a concept that gaming has embraced with loving arms, as many of our favourite games have entrenched themselves within the climate that is cold, cosy, inhospitable, but oh-so-lovely to look at.

So, come with me on this elegy to gaming's greatest snow levels, as we encounter the challenging, freezing, and frustrating all scrunched up into a nice neat snowball.

New York City - Max Payne

Image of Roscoe Street Station in Max Payne
Click to enlarge
Remedy

Funnily enough, Max Payne's New York City was actually what inspired this list, despite the fact that you spend most of the game inside and it couldn't be further from the feeling of Christmas.

However, there is something so memorable about the cold, dark streets that Max often finds himself between that has stuck with me ever since I first played the game. A desolate landscape where white snow often finds itself stained red with blood - and the cold is the least of Max's worries as he seeks revenge in the night.

Interestingly the series also has the polar opposite as Rockstar's third entry takes to the sun-baked streets of São Paulo, and while I do love Max's Man on Fire-esque climax, it is the snowy streets of NYC that persist.

Shadow Moses Island - Metal Gear Solid

Shadow Moses Island is not just one of the greatest snow levels ever created, but undoubtedly one of the most iconic gaming areas full stop. The isolated nuclear weapons facility of Metal Gear Solid is shrouded almost entirely in snow and ice, making it perfect for a little bit of stealth action.

You can slide through the shadows as Solid Snake, evading the questioning exclamations of any enemies by any means possible. While a fair amount of action does happen inside the military base and away from the fallen snow, it is ever-present within your mind as you play.

What's made even better is Snake's return in Guns of the Patriots, as you're greeted with memories of the past and new foes that invoke old enemies. Of course, the snow still remains at the forefront. While we're still waiting for MGS IV to be available on modern platforms, you can jump into Shadow Moses with the recently released Metal Gear Solid Master Collection, which we gave a glowing appraisal in our review.

Bruma - Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion

Image of Bruma in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion
Click to enlarge
Bethesda

I recognise that I'm being a little bit facetious by selecting this particular Elder Scrolls title here, as Skyrim has a number of snowy locations in its cold climate that perhaps suit this list better - but Bruma's contrast to the otherwise lush greens of Cyrodiil affected me just that little bit more.

It has the desolate solitude that you'd expect from a northern snow-painted city, letting you wander around in quiet contemplation and enjoy the scenery. Things do get a bit hotter during the defence of Bruma due to a certain Great Gate, but outside of this I found myself spending far too much time just existing in the snowy settlement, and it has remained within my memories since.

Super Mario Odyssey - Snow Kingdom

Image of the Snow Kingdom in Super Mario Odyssey
Click to enlarge
Nintendo

There are a plethora of different snow-themed Mario levels that you could choose from, and Cool, Cool Mountain from Super Mario 64 was just pipped at the finish line, but the Snow Kingdom from Mario Odyssey remains my favourite of the bunch.

This might, in part, be due to the oh-so-stylish red and blue down parka that Mario can pick up within this level, bringing both practicality and fashion to the plumber's look - but the rest of the level is quite excellent too.

It has the classic slippery ice that has plagued many a platformer over the years, where you're bound to miss at least one crucial jump along the way because you slipped just a little too far. It even has a lovely Christmassy folk theme to pull everything together - how can you not fall in love?

Narshe - Final Fantasy VI

The walk to Narshe could make it onto this list on its own, even if it's entirely filled within a cutscene and merely a backdrop to the opening credits. The mining town itself though is less of a 'level' and more of a home base, as it's where you'll spend a fair amount of time, especially in the first main part of the game.

Image of Narshe in Final Fantasy VI
Click to enlarge
Square Enix

As is the case with most snowy locations, it's found in the north within a narrow valley and succumbs to an eternal, year-round tundra, making it perfect for this list. It's cosy and familiar yet hostile at the same time, as the cold air gravitates you to the warmth of home despite the unrelenting frost.

It's far from the only frosty Final Fantasy location that we could have picked, and areas like Salamand from Final Fantasy II certainly spring to mind - but considering how vital Narshe is to FF6, we could hardly opt for anything else.

Snow mountains - Death Stranding

The snow mountains in Death Stranding are perhaps the single most hostile area on this list considering the terrain alone, as it's not enemies or monsters that you fight here but the snow itself.

Walking in Death Stranding can often be compared to QWOP as you carefully take every step as if the next will send poor Sam Porter-Bridges tumbling down a cliff. The snow mountains take this to the next level though, making you trudge through snow that extends beyond your knees, and navigate within an impervious sleet storm.

Image of the player walking through the snow mountains in Death Stranding
Click to enlarge

I'll never forget the feeling of painstakingly crawling up a steep hill with what felt like two tonnes of cargo on my back only to realise that I'd gone the wrong way and have to do it all over again.

Hokkaido - HITMAN

The penultimate entry on this list is HITMAN 2016's Hokkaido mission, otherwise known as 'Blood in the Snow'. This sends Agent 47 to a snow-enveloped private hospital on Japan's northmost island to eliminate two targets and experience some well-earned R&R along the way.

Not only is this an utterly gorgeous level that still stuns with backdrops of snow-capped mountains, but it's also by far one of the greatest HITMAN levels ever crafted. There are - as expected - multiple devilish ways to take out your targets, but one of my favourites is using one of the many icicles found throughout the hospital to help your targets chill out a little too well.

Special mentions also go to the sleazy frosted mansion in Hitman Blood Money's 'You Better Watch Out', and the Christmas-themed Paris overhaul from HITMAN 2016 that even lets you dress up as good old Father Christmas himself!

Image of Hokkaido in HITMAN
Click to enlarge
IO Interactive

Forsaken Castle Cainhurst - Bloodborne

Undeniably my favourite snow area in any game, however, is Bloodborne's Forsaken Castle Cainhurst: home to countless horrible nightmares and perhaps the main game's best boss.

Making your way to Cainhurst in the first place is a bit of an ordeal, as it requires you to obtain an invitation and then ride a creepy horse and carriage to our secluded location. You won't have much of a welcome when you get there either, as the disgusting bloodlickers are the equivalent of the castle's front of house - and I assure you it doesn't get much better once you're inside.

Home to the vampiric Vilebloods (or at least, what's left of them), Cainhurst fits the secluded winter mansion full of horrors type of snowscape, as opposed to the more Christmas-esque fairy lit locales you might find in lighter games. The same is very much true for Dark Souls' Painted World of Ariamis which Cainhurst undeniably takes inspiration from, but the latter tops the former in just about every way, making it my favourite snow level ever.

There's definitely plenty that I've missed out on this list, from the veritable chills of Hebra Mountains in either of the two most recent Zelda games, to the Christmas ambience that fills New York City in Spider-Man Miles Morales. However, I'm sure we can all agree that snow levels are some of gaming's greatest locales, offering comfort and fear among a beautiful landscape.

Harry is a Guides Writer at GGRecon, having completed a Masters of Research degree in Film Studies. Previously a freelance writer for PCGamesN, The Loadout, and Red Bull Gaming, he loves playing a wide variety of games from the Souls series to JRPGs, Counter-Strike, and EA FC. When not playing or writing about games and hardware, you're likely to find him watching football or listening to Madonna and Kate Bush.

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