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Swimming In Games... Why does it pretty much always suck? [roundtable]
I just finished level 5-4 in the Juicy Jungle of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze and it was infuriating. Water levels in this game just aren't that fun. I hate the restriction it places with goofy swimming mechanics. Yes Diddy or Dixie help make swimming a little more tolerable but all in all, when you've lost them at a checkpoint and you have to continue on without, it's just shitty.

Unless you're using the Frog Suit in Super Mario Bros. 3, I can't think of another example of swimming where it didn't suck. Banjo-Kazooie was tolerable like Super Mario 64 but still those games are just passable.

Why is it that this is the case? I understand water is naturally restricting and has inherent properties that gaming tries to reflect... but there's gotta be a better way. Is this just a case of frustration getting the best of me? Am I crazy? Can anyone show me more examples of swimming and underwater-travel done right?

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Posted: 04/20/14, 02:04:13
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While I agree that water levels typically range from boring to outright terrible, I actually liked the ones in Tropical Freeze. Especially the one in World 4, though maybe that's just because of the awesome music that went with it...

I think I like water levels when it isn't full blown water but rather water mixed in with dry land segments. For example, my favourite world in Super Mario 64 is Wet-Dry World, I liked filling it up with water and swimming around to get a look at the stage, and then draining it and trying to climb up from the bottom to the top. Then, entering the underwater city and draining it to find red coins was pretty cool, too. A concept like this is a good one for a water level.
Posted: 04/20/14, 02:14:50
Majora's Mask had the best swimming of any game I've played. You felt like you were made for the water when you were swimming as Zora-Link.
Posted: 04/20/14, 02:47:11
I think Guild Wars 2 did water movement and water combat properly. You moved FASTER underwater, got a specific set of water equipment so you had interesting new Z-axis specific moves, and you had unlimited breath. It was fantastic.

Water levels suck when developers force you to worry about breath (which is almost never fun) or slow you down (which is 100% never fun).

Treat it like space instead of real-world water, make it exciting.
Posted: 04/20/14, 02:56:16


I still remember the first moment when I put on that mask and jumped into the water. Utterly sublime.
Posted: 04/20/14, 02:59:40

That's a fine point. I will say that Zora Link felt pretty great. You had speed, agility, and relative accuracy.
Posted: 04/20/14, 03:50:23
Skyward sword had great swimming mechanics. I know it's an unpopular opinion, but I'll stand by it with iron boots.
Posted: 04/20/14, 04:30:18
Oddly, while I normally agree that swimming in games is lame, I really enjoyed 5-4 in TF. I thought a couple of its world 4 swimming stages were weaker (Shoal Atoll and Current Capers), especially the boss level. But 5-4 was a very clever mix of land and "water" (juice, technically) that was very memorable for me.

Water levels are also lame in Sonic. But they kind of rule in Mega Man.

Mostly, I agree. In the entire NSMB subseries, as far as I'm concerned, water stages are just dull filler. You move slowly, the controls are limited, there's not much dynamic stuff going on.

Water stages really have to nail down the controls to work well, which is tricky. They can't feel too slow. And they shine to me when they stress the atmosphere, such as in DKCTF's Amiss Abyss (4-3), DKC2's Lockjaw's Locker, Banjo-Tooie's Atlantis (bonus, no air meter), SM64's Jolly Roger Bay, and Super Metroid's Maridia. I remember Rayman Origins having some good ones too, and some pretty great controls.
Posted: 04/20/14, 07:30:12  - Edited by 
 on: 04/20/14, 08:12:34
TriforceBun said:
Rayman Origins

Ooo nah nee nah noo naaaaaaaaaaaaaaaah

Ooo nah nee nah nooooooooooo
Posted: 04/20/14, 07:48:39
Premise of OP horribly flawed. Tropical Freeze has some of the best swimming levels of all time.
Posted: 04/20/14, 07:58:37
I didn't much care for the swim mechanics in DKC:TF they worked but I missed the ones from the original trilogy.
Posted: 04/20/14, 08:16:02
One of my favorite 'swimming' sections in a game still has to be the underwater bits of Bioshock 2. There were few of them, but it was beyond cool to be at the bottom of the sea floor in a big daddy suit. The bonus ADAM slugs hidden around the place were just a bonus.
Posted: 04/20/14, 08:19:02
I don't feel really strongly either way. But, I would like to point out that, as humans who are not particularly well suited for effective maneuvering underwater, I think most underwater levels are designed to make us feel that lack of completely control. In that regard, these levels often succeed. Whether or not it yields fun, and whether or not it is always executed perfectly as designed, is another story.

Now, if someone were to do something crazy like have a game star an aquatic creature, or, even crazier, one with rhythm, the control in that game would/should likely be far easier. But, I mean, who would do something so crazy?!!? @TriforceBun? Ever heard of a game like that?
Posted: 04/20/14, 09:48:43  - Edited by 
 on: 04/20/14, 09:49:22
I generally like underwater levels and environments in games, so I don't see the problem here.
Posted: 04/20/14, 12:39:51
Swimming controls often make you feel powerless compared to a game's regular controls but it is awesome when done right. Zora Link immediately came to mind for me too, and the Endless Ocean games make underwater exploration feel great.
Posted: 04/20/14, 13:52:52

I'm certainly in your camp. While I understand the need to mimic real-world situations, that rarely makes me enjoy it.


I will say I enjoyed being underwater in Bioshock 2 but then again you're not quite swimming as you are moving around in that high-pressure environment. Same reason I liked the Metroid Prime water sections. Swimming through Mario games where you have to avoid bloopers kind of annoyed me, but even though SMW is almost passable in some respect, water just slows you down and not in a game-enhancing matter I feel.


I admit that if I go back this morning to that level, I may not hate it as much. This thread was partially born out of frustration, but the premise is really that water-environments as a whole are generally unpleasant. Sure there are a solid amount of examples, but I would still argue that's a significantly smaller fraction to the entire possible gaming library.


I never was able to play Endless Ocean and I always wished I had. For the experience and the chance to see how it controlled.
Posted: 04/20/14, 15:38:23
Maybe I'm weird but I actually don't mind swimming in games. I even like it sometimes.

You know what was super awesome? The DKCJB stages with the floating water. And in the Mario games that have stolen it since then (yeah yeah same dev team, so not quite stealing, but whatever.)

Xbob42 said:
Water levels suck when developers force you to worry about breath (which is almost never fun)

Especially if it is only like 3 stages into the game and you still are trying to figure out what is going on and there are a ton of multiple paths that lead to dead ends and you run out of breath way too fast and with such little warning and blah blah blah.

Yes, I'm talking about Sonic 3. It may or may not be a good game, but I will never know, because the early water stage turned me off to it forever.
Posted: 04/20/14, 17:39:38  - Edited by 
 on: 04/20/14, 17:40:06
Hahaha. Your tears fill me with joy.

I like breathing mechanics in games. Adds tension.
Posted: 04/20/14, 17:43:27
Speaking of swimming, what's with the Mario series? If you go back and play the originals, the swimming levels are actually pretty damn fast paced and fun... then compare it to the NSMB series. Ugh, what a chore.

I think that's really the trick. If the swimming mechanics are slow and awkward, it's no fun.

Tropical Freeze? I think they are pretty good... I'm not into how they lumped all of the water levels together in one world though. Spread that shit out.
Posted: 04/20/14, 18:05:03

That might have been what set me off. That world wasn't too bad but then when I was frustrated in the next world after having just done a ton of water levels, I was quite annoyed. One level per world would have been better IMO.
Posted: 04/20/14, 18:09:10
I think in 3D, it can be a problem (I remember really not liking the swimming in Mario 64 and Sunshine). Devil May Cry and God of War had some swimming parts that were designed really poorly.

But I've really enjoyed the water levels in recent 2D platformers. I thought the underwater levels in Tropical Freeze were excellent for the most part, and I must also give props to the swimming levels in Rayman Origins/Legends as well. Those stages were a good change of pace, and didn't feel lesser than the normal platforming levels. They were different, but were every bit as good.

As for Mario games, I really like when they throw in those floating blocks of water that you have to swim through and jump between. I don't know what it is, but I find those levels to be super cool. Those types of stages have been some of my favorites in recent Mario games.

anon_mastermind said:
Skyward sword had great swimming mechanics. I know it's an unpopular opinion, but I'll stand by it with iron boots.

I agree with this as well. SS had some of my favorite 3D swimming. It just felt really easy and natural. There are a lot of spots in that game where I felt that motion controls shouldn't have been implemented, but swimming is one of the spots where they were beneficial.
Posted: 04/20/14, 19:14:04
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