The concept of the bonus stage may seem like an antiquated one; modern titles seldom include such distractions. However, back in the days when the name of most games was to collect items and accumulate points rather than see out a complex cinematic story, bonus levels were commonplace and a hugely popular (and in a few cases, infamous) add-on to the main quests in 8- and 16-bit games.
Although varying in design and overall purpose, they generally shared a number of characteristics. For the most part, bonus stages were – as the name suggests – optional side-levels, designed to reward players in some way; be it with points, collectables or extra lives. In many cases, reaping the collectables on offer allowed gamers to access an alternate, "good" ending of the main game upon completion.
Bonus levels normally differed in some way to regular gameplay, whether merely tweaking basic mechanics or being entirely new mini-games. They were generally accessible either at the end of, or at set points within, regular levels, requiring the collection of particular items or hidden checkpoints. Due to their optional nature, players were rarely punished with the loss of a life for failing to complete a bonus stage, though whether they’d get a second attempt depended on how kind the developers were feeling! Importantly, they also played a key role in helping to pace the main game’s narrative.
So with the concept explained – your sense of nostalgia hopefully piqued – let us take a trip down memory lane as we celebrate the top ten bonus levels featured in video games.
10. Star Trek: Elite Force II (PC): Super Mario Parody
Bonus stages often serve to offer light relief from the more challenging aspects of their respective main game, such as is the case with Activision’s fairly serious first-person shooter, Star Trek: Elite Force II. By shooting a wall in a specific place, players are able to gain access to a Super Mario Bros-style warp pipe, which leads to a side-scrolling bonus level lifted straight from the 16-bit generation. A number of collectables are on offer; and of course, if you happen to fall off the edge of the stage, you simply respawn without dying!
9. Ristar (Genesis/Megadrive): Treasure Hunt
Sonic Team’s criminally-overlooked platformer Ristar includes a number of cool bonus stages, accessible via the game’s hidden "star spinners". In each bonus round, which feature an incremental difficulty level, players are tasked with finding an item of treasure within a set time limit, which can later be traded in for passwords and cheat codes.
8. Aladdin (Genesis/Megadrive): Abu in Agrabah
In Virgin Interactive’s popular Disney platformer, Aladdin is able to take a well-earned rest from the action by finding Abu icons, scattered across the game’s levels. Doing so allows players to control the mischievous monkey in a fun little mini-game where they must avoid obstacles such as falling pots and rocks, while collecting treasure for a score bonus.
7. Super Monkey Ball (Arcade, Gamecube): Banana Collecting
Sega’s arcade favourite Super Monkey Ball comes complete with its own extremely simple yet brilliantly fun bonus stages. Accessible in challenge mode, these levels require players to collect all of the bananas available in a set time limit. Sounds far too easy, right? Give some of the later rounds a go and get back to us.
6. Super Mario World (SNES): 1-Up Bonus Game
The Super Mario Bros. franchise has featured a wide variety of secret levels and bonus content across its many iterations, ranging from hidden coin rooms and slot machines to fun basic puzzles; such as is the case in Super Mario World for the SNES. By collecting 100 bonus stars, players are able to gain access to the Bonus Game Room, where they can up to eight extra lives by playing a souped-up form of tic-tac-toe.
5. Galaga ’88 (Arcade): Challenging Stages
Considered by many to be the godfather of bonus levels, arcade shmup Galaga ’88 introduced a number of "Challenging Stages" at the end of each world, the forerunner to what became bonus levels. Much like its predecessor, the objective of these stages is to destroy all forty enemies that appear on screen, dancing in formation. However, by ingeniously ignoring the baddies altogether, players are awarded a “secret bonus” equal to the number of points they would have received for fulfilling the purported objective.
4. Crash Bandicoot (Playstation): Bonus Rounds
By collecting special tokens in breakthrough PS1 platformer Crash Bandicoot, players are granted access to the game’s bonus stages. Harkening back to older 2D platformers, Crash’s (often challenging) side-scrolling bonus levels are a bit of an oddity; not only allowing gamers to collect extra fruit and lives, but also providing essential savepoints.
3. Street Fighter II (Arcade, Various): Vehicular Destruction
Street Fighter II’s bonus stages will go down in history for their sheer ingenuity and simplicity. After every other round, players are given a little respite from the game’s fast and furious action by having the chance to utterly beat the hell out of a number of inanimate objects; the most popular of which is a car! Other bonus objectives include having to destroy barrels and break down walls of bricks. Your reward? A bucketload of extra points, of course. Great fun!
2. Donkey Kong Country (SNES): Bonus Barrels
Donkey Kong Country for the Super Nintendo features a veritable plethora of bonus levels, each accessible via bonus barrels interspersed throughout the game. Some of these stages allow the collection of bananas in free-roam mode – much like the main game – while others are more stringent mini-games; including the likes of puzzles such as "stop the barrel", beating up baddies, finding the exit and collecting treasure.
1. Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis/Megadrive series): Chaos Emeralds
Each iteration of Sonic the Hedgehog for the Sega Megadrive brought with it a unique and engrossing bonus stage initiative. Titled Special Stages, the innovative levels allow players to collect the seven Chaos Emeralds required in order to truly defeat the series’ antagonist, Dr Robotnik (and unlock an alternative ending in the process). Sonic 1’s Special Stages are fun and engaging puzzles, suspending each emerald in a maze of pitfalls and rings, while latter games introduced stunning (for the time!) pseudo-3D graphics wherein players have to collect rings and blue spheres respectively in order to obtain the emeralds.
Showcasing great variety, Sonic 3 & Knuckles also features a number of bonus levels – different to the standard Special Stages – which include a gumball and slot machine. These are more conventional extras, allowing players to collect extra power-ups, rings and lives – but are still a joy to play!
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