Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Some Top Video Game Explosions

[NOTE: Due to the nature of when giant explosions tend to be deployed, this article is home to quite a lot of spoilers. Read with care]

Today is the fourth of July, which as far as I can tell is America’s national holiday of blowing things up. In celebration, I decided to create a list of some of my favorite explosions in video games. You’ll note that the title says ‘some’, and that’s very much intentional. This is by no means a definitive list, and I encourage anyone who reads this and thinks of another to list it in the comments. Wide scale mayhem or general apocalypses aren’t so much the idea as big, bombastic balls of energy or fire expanding rapidly and wrecking the surrounding area. In addition, the order is fairly loose and is more of just a general index of how awesome the boom was. Without further ado, let’s get into the list:

#13: Metroid Prime – Escaping Frigate Orpheon

Retro Studios first person Metroid game had a lot to prove, but its first area does a great job of setting the scene. Samus Aran, space bounty hunter, follows a distress call to the Frigate Orpheon. After some tutorial work heading through passageways that are mostly uneventful she reaches the center of the ship, where she meets a Parasite Queen. After a brief boss fight the big bug bites it, but in its death throes the ship is damaged and you’re tasked with escaping in time. The actual explosions in this sequence don’t come in until near the end, and aren’t even particularly impressive. They’re just a bunch of small explosions all over the place, and you don’t even see the ship blow up as you leave. However, it’s a very well done escape sequence, with well-done audio, visuals and pacing in general. Given that images can’t quite display this, just take a video of the escape sequence itself.

None of the explosions littered throughout this sequence aren’t quite impressive enough to net this game a higher spot, but the overall sequence is a great intro to the game.

#12: Kid Icarus: Uprising – The Reset Bomb

            The new Kid Icarus game is one I quite like, and a primary reason for that is the abundance of cool shit they cram into the thing. Surprisingly though it’s filled to the brim with all manner of awesome attacks and particle effects whizzing around the place, it has a (well, relatively) lower amount of big explosions. However, there’s one in particular that I find memorable. All you really need to know is that in Chapter 11 of the game, an antagonist fires a big bomb at a town and there’s a really big explosion.

That thing I just mentioned

            There’s not too much to say about this one other than the fact that it was relatively well handled in general. The first minute or so of the stage around the town intentionally has no background music, the explosion comes, the screen turns white as you fly away, and as it fades back you get a nice long protracted look at the result before the music kicks up and you head back in. Oh, and the bomb sprouts plants everywhere after the explosion, which is why it’s called the reset bomb. Probably should have mentioned that earlier. Overall this is a fairly standard, if explosive, entry.

#11: Just Cause 2 – Nuke Surfing

            Just Cause 2 is a bit crazy from the very start, but it still stays within the bounds of a standard action game/movie affair until later. Nearer to the end of the game it embraces its campy, cheesy yet insane style and the game gets pretty great because of it. If the phrase ‘ninjas with submachine guns’ doesn’t make you want to check this game out, I don’t know what will and we can’t be friends anymore. The explosion in question for this game comes in the very last mission. The antagonist has missiles aimed at several major countries and as they’re fired you grab hold of one. A final boss fight then occurs where you’re surfing on missiles, grappling between them and occasionally trading shots with the antagonist as you disarm them. Gameplay wise it isn’t that hard or revolutionary, but who cares because you’re surfing on god damn missiles.

The ending in all its glory

           There are a couple reasons such an awesome occurrence gets a lesser spot on the list. The first is that, as I said earlier, the actual gameplay of the sequence is kind of lackluster. It’s functionally the same as jumping between cars (which though awesome, is something you do all the time) and is pretty easy. The other reason is that the explosion, though nice, is nothing to write home about and is only focused on for a couple seconds.

#10: Sonic Adventure 2 – Island Explodes

            There are many who say the Sonic games got terribly worse when the adventure games pulled cheesy plot lines into the affair. However, it did at least earn us some cool shit blowing up. Most people first encountered this in the Hero campaign of the game, where Sonic finds out the island he’s on is about to blow and he has to escape in time. Though it’s not really related to the explosion itself, I’m going to throw the music from that stage at you because I like it.

Green Forest has excellent music. That is all

            As for the explosion itself, it’s a pretty good one. It starts out with some smaller ones around the island and ends with one that takes up the entire screen as the main characters zoom away on a plane. The sound effects are nice and satisfying and it’s brief and to the point. A decent example all around, and since it’s only 12 seconds and someone on YouTube was kind enough to grab it, just take a look for yourself.

#9: Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Monsters are Filled with Gasoline

            Now this entry may be cheating a bit, as it doesn’t have a specific explosion. But when I played through Symphony of the Night on PSN a while back I was astounded by the amount of explosions in the game. Almost every single enemy in the game explodes in some way upon death, even when it makes absolutely no sense. In the old games enemies ‘exploding’ made sense because technical limitations meant most of them had the same death sprite. Here, however, the games impressive roster of over 100 unique enemies has them all exploding in slightly different ways.

This is what happens when you stab a zombie, right?

            Stabbing various undead and having them explode is obviously a bit silly but understandable. Same with having it happen to bigger monsters in more elaborate ways. But having a giant plant monster explode several times followed by a bigger explosion might be a bit excessive. Another over-the-top example is an enemy you fight early on called the bloody zombie. This is a zombie with a bloody knife that releases blood when stabbed, fair enough. But when it dies it has several blood explosions on its person as it lets loose its death cry, it splits in half and a fountain of blood shoots out, and then it explodes normally, with fire. With regular enemies throughout the game showing that level of explosive overkill I had to give it a spot on the list.

#8: Blast Corps – The Whole Damn Game

            So I figured as long as I wasn’t mentioning a specific explosion in Castlevania I could cheat again and do the same thing here. I feel obligated to, because I would be remiss in my duties if in an article on explosions I didn’t mention Blast Corps. Blast Corps is a game released for the Nintendo 64 that I never owned until recently, and it is entirely based around blowing things up. The main missions involve clearing a path for a missile-carrying truck by demolishing everything along the way, but side missions can sometimes literally just be blowing things up to blow things up.

Even the games box art has an explosion

            You control some manner of vehicle from a top-down perspective and you demolish stuff. When you do so you get money, which is the equivalent of a high score in this game. So we have a game whose entire purpose is to command vehicles and giant robots of various kinds as they blow up buildings. Under the circumstances, I couldn’t resist mentioning it.

#7: Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask – The Moon Falls

            In 1998, The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was released for the Nintendo 64, and was met with some of the highest praise of any video game of all time. People loved it, and couldn’t wait for a sequel. In 2000, The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask was released for the Nintendo 64, and it was different in a lot of ways. It used many of the same assets of Ocarina of Time, only featured the child version of protagonist Link rather than the adult one (Ocarina involved time travel, long story), only had 4 dungeons instead of 8, and featured lots of odd mechanics like magical masks and a real-time 3-day time cycle that meant you had to do things in a certain time frame. The strangeness earned it some praise, but understandably made a lot of people not care as much for the game or even dismiss it.

            And this is a shame, because the strangeness that caused its flaws also made it fantastic. It had fewer dungeons but possibly had the most side quests of any Zelda game, being filled to the brim with them. The 3-day cycle could be frustrating at times but also allowed NPCs to have real schedules and made the world feel more like a living breathing place. And the game was one of the darkest in the series, largely due to what would happen if those 3 days ran out.

This happens when the 3 days run out. (And no I don’t know why it has a terrifying face. Probably so it would be more terrifying. Which it is.)

You only had 3 days because, when they ended, the moon would crash into the earth. As you reached the final hours, bells chimed, the music went solemn, and the clock turned into a digital one counting down by milliseconds the last minutes before your demise. All around the world NPCs who normally had regular schedules and lives stopped, cowered, hid, worried, and shared moments that they knew might be their last. At the end of the first cycle, you gain the ability to rewind time to the first day, and can do so as many times as you want until you fix things. But if you wait until the final moment, the game doesn’t hold any punches, and this happens:

Audio’s a bit spotty, but it’ll have to do

            Perhaps I’ll talk more about the game another time, but its bad ending certainly earned a spot on this list. A great moment in a great game, that also happens to be a gigantic explosion.

#6: Golden Sun – Judgement

            Golden Sun, the excellent RPG for Gameboy Advance, doesn’t actually have any great pre-scripted explosions in its story. However, like many RPGs it has big, bombastic attacks with explosions aplenty. Like a lot of examples of the genre, the strongest attacks summon mighty creatures to perform a single big attack and leave, and the one with the largest explosion is probably Judgement. Judgement is one of the highest level summons in the game, and involves some creature firing a bullet down to earth, which explodes massively.  The explosion is shown travelling everywhere, engulfing beaches and forests before it reaches whatever you’re fighting.

It is thus fairly satisfying to watch, even if you’re just overkilling a tiny mushroom

#5: Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare – The Nuke

            Prior to its first foray into Modern Warfare, the Call of Duty series was a decently popular first person shooter set in the World Wars. As far as I can tell, the series was fairly popular beforehand, but what happened with this entry was beyond basic popularity. Modern Warfare and the games after it routinely broke sales records and are some of the best-selling games of all time. As with many people, especially given that I’m not overly fond of first person shooters (and particularly multiplayer ones), I haven’t really kept up with the series over the years. But I did play a decent portion of the first one, and regardless of what happened later I have to admit on an objective level that it was a damn fine game.

            Part of its greatest strengths lie in its set pieces, and there was one midway through the game with an extremely iconic explosion. You alternated control between two characters in the game, and one of them is in the middle of a warzone when they get warnings of a possible nuclear threat. Our intrepid hero is flying off in a helicopter when we see the nuke hit. He crashes to the ground and the music cuts out. As you come to, you can constantly hear your heartbeat, heavy breathing and scrambled radio warnings. You move slowly and stumble out of your helicopter to survey the carnage. The city is in ruins, the sky is almost red and filled with smoke. A building collapses in the distance, next to the still lingering mushroom cloud. Your character falls to his knees, and then…dies.

So not a particularly cheery moment is what I’m saying.

            Later games would kill off protagonists in a similar fashion, but obviously not have quite the same impact. The fact that they let you walk out of the broken helicopter yourself rather than in cutscene is an excellent point in its favor. Experiencing the situation first hand, even if you are unable to change the end outcome, greatly increases the connection with the character and empathy for the horror that unfolds. It’s a great scene that raises my respect for the game, and of course a humongous explosion.

A YouTube video, for those who want the full experience

#4: Fallout 3 – Megaton

           Here’s another more recent entry that no doubt a lot of people know about. Fallout 3, Bethesda’s open world, first person entry in the post-apocalyptic series, had a town near the starting area named Megaton. Megaton has an undetonated nuclear bomb lying in the center of the town, and a fact that was promoted heavily before the release of the game was that the player could decide the fate of the bomb and thus the entire town. Guess which outcome is the one that’s making it on this list?

I’ll give you a hint: This isn’t ‘Some Top Video Game Bomb Disarming’

            The plot surrounding the explosion is a bit disappointingly weak. The rich Alfred Pennyworth (rich I guess just because he claimed the fancy hotel and clothes first) thinks that Megaton is a blight on the landscape (despite it all looking pretty terrible to begin with). His assistant Mr. Burke says he can fix this, and comes to town to recruit apparently random strangers to blow the place up. Not only is the excuse a bit flimsy, but the reward isn’t really proportionate either. Both disarming the bomb and blowing it up net you a house, and though the one with Pennyworth is a bit nicer Megaton has tons more shops and quests that you’ll never be able to access if you blow the town up.

            But despite all that, I still think Bethesda deserves kudos for giving players the option. They made a complete town with tons of things going on in it and dozens of unique NPCs and gave the player the option to ignore all of it and leave nothing but a smoking crater behind, and that deserves some credit. The explosion, though nothing mind-blowing, is pretty nice too, particularly at night.

The aforementioned explosion, at the aforementioned time

#3: Final Fantasy X – Leaving Home

            Given that the last two examples were some of the most popular recent explosions in video game history, some might be wondering what I could possibly suggest to top them. Not only were both of the last two lovingly rendered in next generation graphics, but they were both examples of freaking nuclear bombs going off. To top that type of bombastic force you’d need one hell of a gigantic explosion.

Pictured: One hell of a gigantic explosion

            A fair amount of hours into Final Fantasy X, you reach a place called Home, where most of the world’s (fictional race of) Al Bhed live. However, the city is invaded and completely overrun, and your characters need to make an escape along with any survivors on a high tech airship. Given that almost everyone left at Home is guaranteed to die to the invaders and their monsters, it is decided to destroy Home after the ship leaves. They do this by firing a volley of missiles at it and causing an unbelievably huge explosion.

            For some perspective, I’d say that the airship is probably a bit bigger than your average plane. And yet it’s absolutely dwarfed by this titanic detonation that flies outward and even partially engulfs the ship before they can get away. It’s huge, awesome and completely unrealistic, and is therefore a prime example of video games big booms that you quite simply need to see it for yourself.

This video doesn’t have background music, but it also happens to have just the explode-y bit and none of the plot spoilerific elements surrounding the scene.

#2: Final Fantasy VII – Supernova

            Final Fantasy games tend toward big dramatic moments, and few moments are more dramatic than an explosion. For example, many will recall the very first thing you do in Final Fantasy 7 is go on a mission to bomb a reactor. It was a memorable moment with a considerably sized explosion, but it’s not the explosion I want to talk about.

Nice explosion, but not good enough

            Many players will remember a moment not too much farther in the game when the evil Shinra Corporation decided to crush the resistance in a more literal sense than usual. They decided that human life and infrastructure are both totally over-rated, and thus blew up the pillar holding the upper part of Sector 7 aloft. This caused that portion of the city of Midgar to fall onto the slums below and crushed the resistance base along with an eighth of the entire god damn city.

…And yet, this is not the explosion I want to talk about either

            I’m afraid that as good as those two explosions are, they just don’t make the grade when standing amongst such titanic bursts of incendiary power. After the examples we’ve already shown we need something even better, and fortunately this game provides, with what may possibly be the biggest explosion in all of video game history. An explosion whose grandiose glory makes all other bombs look like pitiful puffs of smoke compared to its sheer size and brilliance. The explosion I’m talking about is the most powerful attack of Sephiroth, the final boss of the game. The explosion I’m talking about…is Supernova.

If this doesn’t impress you, well then I’m fucked

            The comet tears through Pluto, obliterates the ring of Saturn by merely being in the same vicinity, cuts a hole straight through Jupiter (which then explodes too for good measure) and then heads straight into the sun. The next part may be my favorite of the whole sequence, when the sheer volume and force of the exploding, expanding star causes the entire planets of Mercury and Venus to disintegrate as it approaches. Then it slowly approaches Earth, silhouettes our villain and engulfs all.

            Is this explosion completely and utterly implausible and ridiculous? Oh hell yes. The fact that it literally destroys the galaxy is more or less glazed over as soon as the attack ends, and not only do you take survivable damage and have the planet survive, but Sephiroth isn’t even hurt by it. But at the same time, even with the dated visuals it stands out as one of the best explosions of all time. The sounds and presentation are excellent and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything that could technically be described as bigger. The designers seemed to have simply sat down and gone “What is literally the number one biggest explosion or source of destructive power we can possibly think of?” And then they put in the game, logic be damned. Since it gave us gaming’s biggest explosion, I thank them for it.

            So if that was the biggest and best singular explosion of all video games, why is it number two on the list? What could possibly come even close to the satisfaction you get from seeing Supernova? Well…

#1: Star Fox 64 – So Very, Very Much

            In 1997, Nintendo released Star Fox 64, the latest in the Star Fox series. The series were rail-shooters in which your ships moved constantly forward through stages and you merely dodged obstacles and shot enemies (apart from some rare moments when you could move in any direction in a given area). Though there were many multiple branching paths through the games 15 stages (or 16 if you count the two versions of the final stage), you only ever went through 7 in one sitting. And it had to be in one sitting, because the game had no save feature. It was very much of the arcade style of older games and could be completed easily in a couple hours. So if they only made several hours of content for a full-price game how could they justify it? The answer is by making it satisfying as hell.

Star Fox 64, pictured here being satisfying as hell

            Every enemy in every stage is clearly placed with care. The locales are colorful and interesting, as well as your opponents. Controls are perfected and boss battles well-designed. The music is a wonderful and the voiced banter between characters, though certainly a bit cheesy, is nonetheless iconic and in my opinion enjoyable. The sound design is nothing short of fantastic, and every laser fired, every boost activated and yes, every one of the games several different types of explosions sounds about as satisfying as physically possible. Things such as this are understated things that people don’t usually notice, but they absolutely make the game.

            As for explosions, this is a game where we are completely and utterly spoilt for choice. Even a lot of the regular enemies are fairly satisfying to blow to bits, but the bosses take the cake. Every single stage in the game has a boss that explodes in some awesome manner when you kill it. For example, the boss of Solar is a giant lava monster that looks something like a praying mantis. First in the fight you take out its arms, which leak lava from the holes. Then, continuing to dodge the lava waves, meteors, and more, you go for the head. When it sustains enough damage it stops, screams, a pillar of light erupts from its neck stump as its head rockets off, its body is filled with small holes of light and then it explodes as the screen goes white and we’re treated to the games big/boss explosion sound, which is officially one of the most satisfying explosion sounds ever invented. And every boss has some death like this.

The aforementioned fire boss, Vulcain

            Even in occasions unrelated to bosses dying there are cool explosions. There are several stages where you can fail but still continue onwards, and I’m pretty sure every single one ends in an explosion. There’s one where a mothership blows up your base independence day style, one where a base explodes if you fail to stop a bomb in time, one where you fail to defend a space station from attackers,  one where your main ship is hit by missiles, and they all, despite not being successful, end with a boom. And of course there’s the (true, harder version of the) end of the game, where after blowing up several incarnations of the final boss you escape an entire exploding complex only to just make it out just in time to some awe inspiring music.

I’m talking about the part from the start of the video to the mission accomplished, but if you want to hear one of the greatest pieces of credits music of all time you can sit through the rest.

            But all of those wonderful, fantastic explosions aside there’s one that will always stick out in my mind as the best of them all. It may not be the biggest, it may not be the one with the most graphical hardware, and it may not even come at the apex of the particular game it’s in. But my number one favorite explosion can be nothing else. There’s a planet in the game called Macbeth, centering around a giant supply train. You can beat the stage normally by getting to the end of the stage and beating the boss that emerges from the train. But if you perform the alternative objective and shoot the 8 hidden switches throughout the stage, and then hit the track switcher…this happens:

I can’t think of a more appropriate use of the phrase “No kill like overkill”

            Allow me to recap what just happened. Now on the wrong track headed straight for the supply depot, the boss tries to stop his train. It doesn’t work, and he plows through 7 blockades on the tracks and into the supply depot, making for a total of 9 small explosions. The game then, in the silence, awards you a hit +50. For those of you who haven’t played the game before, each hit is one enemy kill except in the case of larger ones, and most bosses only give hit +10. This is literally the only place in the game to get hit +50 except for the harder version of the final stage. So after that short silence with your hit reward, the supply depot lets loose one of the big explosions. It’s all on its own so you can bask in the glory of the flawless and perfectly crafted sound effect that accompanies it. Then 5 more giant explosions come, all with visual effects and all at varying, though quick, times to combine into a glorious cascade of explosive sound. As the screen fades to white from this cavalcade of explosions, the mission accomplished music starts playing. Then, as the player is shown driving towards the camera, one last explosion is seen and heard in the background.

            So that’s that. Those are, in my opinion, some of the greatest explosions in all of video games. But of course, that doesn’t mean they’re the only good ones. I ignored entire categories of lesser explosions like explosive weaponry, air strikes, car crashes and more. There were even some pre-scripted explosions I could think of for this very article that I ended up cutting because I didn’t think they were good enough. So anyone who reads this is quite welcome to add their favorite video game explosions in the comments below. After all, ‘tis the season to watch stuff blow up. Well, every season is, especially in video games, but now we have an excuse.


  1. I suppose an article like this promotes discussion about ones own favorite. Personally, I've become so explosion overloaded that I've become explosion jaded. None of them really stick out in my head other then my earliest low poly memories of explosions in Sonic Adventure.
    However, I agree with your statement about the megaton explosion being cool because it's unique in it's combination of overall affect on game play and player choice. You have already done a good job of explaining why it is special, but I think it deserves the #1 spot for it's qualities.
    About the article, I sort of like the Cracked feel of the it. Usually you have their caption style which I like (the megaton caption made me chuckle). Obviously you also used their enumeration scheme which they are also named for. Now I know Cracked didn't invent enumerations or witty writing, but I think it's a large part of their success and I think you have some of the qualities.

    1. Thanks for the comparison to Cracked, I've only started reading them more recently but I enjoy the style myself. As for why Megaton isn't #1, I think that although I described why it was great I also went into some flaws. The sequence was kind of contrived and the result, apart from a few dialogue options, basically had the effect on the game world of 'interact with town or ignore it'. In addition, the actual explosion itself simply isn't as big or satisfying as the rest in my opinion. Did you hear those last two? That sound design on the last one is one of the only times I'd use the fake word eargasm. It's still a great thing and I'm not trying to diminish it, I'm just describing why I didn't put it at #1.