Playing Skyrim is a battle of attrition, with your hours being the cannon fodder. The intro mission is only memorable in retrospect, then, as it reminds you how far you’ve come from when you started your save file.
It’s the same shtick every time you restart the game, entering as a nobody. But it ends differently with each new save, leaving you as an Argonian Dark Brotherhood assassin or an imperial dragon slayer – among hundreds of other eventualities. There’s a million different opportunities that all stem from this single death-by-execution opening level, and that’s what makes it so special.
For a game that starts out during the dawn of the zombie apocalypse, no one in their right mind was anticipating a personal, emotional opening level in which a man’s daughter gets shot by the national guard. As you carry her to safety amongst the riots and chaos, you reach an officer who stops you and, under some intense circumstances, shoots the little girl in your arms.
It’s a tear-jerker for most and unquestionably a memorable opening for all.
It’s not one of the most memorable levels in gaming, it’s the most memorable. When half of the world pictures video games, it’s Super Mario Bros. The single Goomba, the question mark boxes, and the stout little pixilated plumber; it’s an image that represents the entire medium.
Though no longer quite as iconic as the mustache-clad plumber’s first level, there was a time when Sonic the Hedgehog‘s opening zone was king of the hill in terms of worldwide recognition. Green Hill Zone Act 1 is a 16-bit tropical island level that virtually any gamer can hum the tune of – etched into the memories of millions thanks to its iconic loop-de-loops and hundreds of golden rings.
From a stormy lighthouse to a city in the skies, this opening level has it all. You go from boating with two weirdos in yellow raincoats to stopping a black man from being publicly tortured in a flying city of white nationalists.
You see a future where the founding fathers of the United States are revered as saviors and gods. It’s one of the most insane, dystopian intro levels to any game ever, and perfectly sets the tone for the mind-bending, belief-challenging journey to come.
This opening level went on to define cinematic storytelling in video games. Starting off on the Polar Express from hell, you awaken on a train that’s dangling over a snowy mountain edge. From there, it’s your duty to escape before the whole thing tumbles into the abyss below, which involves a whole lot of death-defying platforming and deep breathing.
This intro is pulse-pounding, interactive storytelling at its finest, and is the reason why game development studio Naughty Dog has gone on to become a household name.
It’s action-porn of the finest quality, showcasing all of Olympus’s greatest gods going up against the might of Kratos and Gaia, the mother spirit of the earth. It’s incredible. Players climb Mount Olympus on a giant tree monster’s shoulder and single-handedly murder Poseidon on the way up – all in service of reaching and killing Zeus.
It’s one of the most incredible, bombastic opening levels in gaming history, and easily one of the most memorable.
If there is one game that just about everyone on the planet earth can recognize, it’s Pac-Man. And even though the first and last levels are near indistinguishable to the average person, it means nothing.
All that matters is that most human beings have seen the opening level to Pac-Man and can more or less remember it; meaning, that as a quantifiable, statistical fact, it is one of the most memorable levels of all time. Chomp on, Pac-Man.
Some might argue this opening level is only memorable because it lasts three hours. Well, they’re wrong. While that is one facet of what makes AC3‘s intro so special, the reality is that it’s the series’s boldest attempt to tell an interesting story to date. That’s because for the whole first three hours, you’re playing as the villain – but you don’t know that yet.
Only at the end of this cleverly-disguised prologue do you find out you’ve been playing as the game’s antagonist, wherein a very apropos achievement appears and a moment of utter amazement is bestowed upon you, courtesy of Ubisoft.
The game: Halo 4. What makes its opening memorable? The glorious return of Master Chief – hero of the gaming medium and the face of the Xbox brand. Chief returns in one of the coolest space station levels ever, the opening sequence of Halo 4.
Rife with explosions, exhaust ports sucking things into space, little alien grunts, and, of course, Cortana, it’s everything good about the first three Halo titles wrapped up into one twenty-minute tour-de-force.
Unlike its outrageous predecessor, Far Cry 4 manages to craft an unforgettable opening for much different reasons. Whereas the former was campy, loud fun, Far Cry 4‘s intro is perplexing, dark psychological horror. The main villain abducts the player and another character from a tourist shuttle bus, has you both sit down for a crab rangoon brunch inside his palace, then proceeds to stab his fork into your fellow captive’s back.
It’s intense, unsettling, and more than enough of a reason to never forget Far Cry 4‘s first level.
Surpassing the visuals of any game prior, Star Wars: the Force Unleashed II set a new bar for immersion via graphics. Couple that with iconic Star Wars music and some of the coolest lightsaber gameplay ever (all debuting on the aesthetically stupefying oceanic planet of Kamino), and TFU2 had all the ingredients for one hell of an unforgettable opening level.
Human Revolution‘s intro is memorable because it kills you. Not metaphorically – it literally kills you. After introducing you to a brave new world full of cool cybernetic technology and a host of interesting characters, the first mission builds to a fever pitch until you, the player, are forced to watch the protagonist get murdered by a band of mercenaries.
You’re then treated to one of the most unforgettable cutscenes in all of gaming, as the protagonist is rebuilt from the neck down as a cooler version of Robocop. All in all, it’s an extremely memorable opening level that more than earns its place on this list.
For a game starring a character with no memory, this one’s not going to be leaving your head anytime soon. Prey starts off like a standard sci-fi horror game, with an eerily safe setting (that won’t last for long) and a heavy dose of plot exposition. But as soon as the latter wraps up, the game pulls a massive 180 and reveals that you’ve been inside a simulation the whole time!
While the twist itself isn’t all that exciting, it’s what follows that matters: the swelling of the orchestral score and an immaculate view of space; a moment so good that it single-handedly earns Prey a spot on this list.
It’s arguably the campiest game ever and a thing of beauty. Far Cry 3‘s more serious slant gets thrown out the window in Blood Dragon, a game that lets you know exactly what you’re in for right from the get-go.
The opening level features a helicopter minigun section and no less five minutes worth of the cheesiest ’80s action movie-inspired cutscenes in the history of gaming; all of this drenched in a screaming neon color palette complete with VHS scanlines. It’s incredible.
Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain‘s opening level is so memorable, it got its own game! Featuring 10-plus hours worth of content all wrapped up inside a single level, Ground Zeroes flawlessly advertised the magnitude of Snake’s adventure.
Featuring some of the sharpest, most intuitively designed stealth gameplay in the modern era, Ground Zeroes was a master class in storytelling, tactical game design, and engaging map structure – not bad for a glorified prologue.
Excluding the tutorials, which were easily the weakest component of 2016’s episodic Hitman game, the first real level is a literal show-stopper. Set in a Paris fashion show, not only is the locale one of jaw-dropping visual fidelity, but it also features the kind of expansive, open-ended level design Hitman fans have waited years for.
Filled with hundreds of different ways to assassinate the targets, Hitman‘s big opening level is one of boundless creativity and masterful game design.
Sonic Colors doesn’t waste one second before dropping players into the game’s first level – one of the most imaginative and colorful in the Sonic series’s history. This level is Tropical Resort Act 1, a futuristic lagoon theme park in space – complete with aqua-tiled walkways and funny tiki-heads.
It’s a combination of the crispest visuals to ever grace the Nintendo Wii, expert level design, and a kickin’ soundtrack.