In real life, if you got close to a giant pool of lava, the residual heat would probably cook you alive in a few scant seconds. It's a good thing video games exist! One of the most enduring tropes in gaming is the lava level, probably because most of us will never get the chance to actually venture through a lava-filled cave. Also, they look pretty cool.
But with so many different lava levels in so many different games across genres and console generations, which are truly the best, and which should be burned in molten stone?
10 Melty Molten Galaxy – Super Mario Galaxy
Mario games love lava levels (say that five times fast), and they're traditionally standouts; from Super Mario 64's Lethal Lava Land to every fiery variant on Bowser's Castle, the series offers a lot of options. But Super Mario Galaxy's version comes out on top because its gravity-flipping mechanics add an extra dose of surrealism, and it's definitely one of the highlights of the game.
Melty Molten Galaxy is set on a series of lava-covered planetoids suspended in the gravity field between two gas giants. One planetoid features a huge exploding volcano, while another forces you to balance on a ball and roll through the inside of a lava-covered tube, dodging enemies and magma columns.
9 Planet Scorch – Ristar
Ristar is an underappreciated platformer from late in the Genesis' lifecycle. It contrasts with Sega's marquee platformer star, Sonic, by asking you to move slowly and explore levels thoroughly.
Planet Scorch is set on a volcanic planet, and it's a standout level because it creates a conflict between Ristar's slower-paced platforming and rising lava and fire hazards that require quick thinking. Add plenty of bonus secrets and minigames, plus a characteristically excellent soundtrack, and you've got the recipe for a classic lava level.
8 Vigrid, City Of Deja Vu – Bayonetta 2
Vigrid, an ancient city-state located somewhere in continental Europe, was the main setting of the first Bayonetta game. It's a beautiful town full of winding streets and ornate architecture, but it sits on top of lava-filled catacombs.
So why is the Vigrid we see in Bayonetta 2 here, and not the version from the first game? That's because the second game adds an emotional wallop by sending Bayonetta back in time to a Vigrid overrun by war. The city is on fire and you have to travel through the catacombs to complete the level, encountering Bayonetta's long-lost mother Rosa along the way. It takes your memories of the first game and recontextualizes them.
7 Cave Of Wonders – Aladdin
The Aladdin games for Genesis and the SNES are both classics, though which one you like more is up to personal preference. Suffice it to say that no matter which one you play, you're going to get an excellent old-school platformer featuring one of the best lava levels ever made.
In the Cave Of Wonders sequence, you'll spelunk through the darkened cave, searching for the Genie's magic lamp; once you find it, the cave is suddenly full of lava, and you'll have to step carefully to avoid falling in. The sequence climaxes with a frenzied magic carpet ride out of the cave, as you dodge waves of lava to make it to safety.
6 Out Of The Frying Pan – Star Fox 64
Star Fox 64 has no shortage of iconic moments — that's why it's the best entry in the series — but the Out Of The Frying Pan mission deserves to be up there with the rest. In this mission, you'll pilot your Arwing down by the surface of Solar, the central sun of the Lylat system.
The extreme heat will melt the Arwing's shields, and you'll take more damage the closer you get to the surface, so you have to pilot carefully and avoid columns of lava shooting towards you. It's one of the game's most intense, cinematic levels.
5 Iron Keep – Dark Souls 2
The Iron Keep was once a mighty fortress that marked the center of the Alonne kingdom — but, characteristic for the Dark Souls series, the kingdom has collapsed and the castle has fallen into disrepair. This area is awesome because of how it represents the kingdom's decay: the Iron Keep is literally sinking into a pool of molten lava, its structures and platforms partially submerged.
As you go deeper, you'll find platforms that you can drop into the lava to kill enemies, and treasures requiring tricky platforming to reach. Finally, you'll battle the old king himself, who has been possessed by a demon and lives in the lava.
4 Goron Mines – Twilight Princess
Pretty much every Zelda game takes you to a fire dungeon at one point or another, and there really isn't a bad one in the bunch, but the Goron Temple might just be the best in the whole series. That's because its gimmick takes a familiar item — the Iron Boots — and uses them in a new way.
Throughout the Goron Mines, you'll find flat surfaces made of shimmering blue stone. Activate a nearby switch and equip the boots, and you'll discover that these are magnets pads, which will pull you toward the walls or ceiling. With the magnetism on, you can literally walk upside down or completely sideways to solve puzzles and find treasure. It's a great mechanic that demonstrates why Twilight Princess's dungeon design is one of its best features.
3 Barrel Volcano – Super Mario RPG: Legend Of The Seven Stars
Taking the classic Mario trope of the lava level and flipping it on its head, Barrel Volcano exemplifies Super Mario RPG's combination of well-balanced gameplay and character-driven goofiness. You'll find it late in the game, and it features some of the game's strongest normal enemies and a long, winding layout that feels like a true test of your skills. Just when it feels like you can't take any more battling, you'll come across a Toad named Hinopio who runs an inn… in the middle of a volcano… where the beds are just stacks of wooden crates.
The whole sequence is topped off by a battle with an evil squadron known as the Axem Rangers, who bear a strong resemblance to the Power Rangers. The whole level is giddy and fun, and a perfect section of a perfect game.
2 Lava Reef Zone – Sonic 3 & Knuckles
One of the coolest lava levels has to be Sonic 3 & Knuckles' Lava Reef Zone. For one thing, the level features continuity with the preceding zone, Sandopolis; that level ends with a trap that sends Sonic and Tails through the floor, and Lava Reef Zone's first act picks up with the duo falling down a rock shaft, with ledges crumbling beneath them.
Act 2 finds Sonic and Tails even deeper under the earth, where the pressure beneath the ground has hardened the surrounding rocks into gems. The gorgeous environments are accompanied by a ton of secrets to find and one of the best soundtracks in any of the Sonic games.
1 Norfair – Super Metroid
Where most of the other levels here are pretty much one and done — you play them once, beat the boss, and maybe revisit for any optional items you might have missed — Norfair is structured very differently. Early on, you'll fall down a long cave and get stuck here until you can use the Ice Beam to turn enemies into platforms and climb out. You'll come back multiple times throughout the game, and each time you'll need a new piece of kit to survive the extreme heat and tough enemies.
The peak of it all is Lower Norfair, where you'll blast your way through super-strong Space Pirates and finally defeat Ridley once and for all in one of the game's toughest boss fights. That sense of storytelling through gameplay is what makes Norfair the best of the best.
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