Beaches are great, but they’re also kind of the worst. They’re one of the few places you can go to lay around and do nothing without feeling like you’re wasting your life, but they’re also a great way to get sand in everything you own. Literally everything, and you’re never going to get it all out so you may as well just move to a new city and start over. Then there’s the sunburn, of course, and if you’re going to a popular beach you’re probably also going to have to deal with someone else’s bad taste in music, or their screaming children, or both. Videogame beaches may not be warm or relaxing, nor will they give you the illusion of being cool (with one notable exception) but at least you won’t be shaking sand out of your purse and/or car mats and/or self for days after visiting them.
Dyscourse came out earlier this year and employs a striking, almost papercut-looking art style that really brought its beach island setting to life. Dangerous, dangerous life. Depending on the choices you make in this branching narrative game you’ll either leave those beaches as pristine as they were when you found them, or you’ll leave them absolutely littered with the corpses of people who came out on the wrong end of your decision-making skills. Not the best vacation spot, perhaps, but at least it’s nice to look at.
The elevator pitch for Magician’s Quest is Hogwarts-meets-Animal Crossing, but that doesn’t even come close to doing this series justice. There are too many little (and non-beach related) differences to get into, but suffice it to say that like Animal Crossing, Magician’s Quest has a beach. And like newer Animal Crossing games, Magician’s Quest has a beach island. But unlike Animal Crossing, you can go to the island in Magician’s Quest every Sunday and have a wizard duel with a pirate. A wizard duel. With a pirate.
With a name like that, it’s obvious that Super Mario Sunshine was going to have at least one perfectly charming beach to visit. Unfortunately none of the pleasant little resort areas the game offers you are tourist-ready when Mario arrives, but what’s Mario’s purpose on this earth if not to fix problems like that?
This particular branch of the Dead or Alive series does not have a reputation for being a quality gaming experience. Even if you can somehow overlook how creepy and exploitative these games are, they’re just not that fun. But that said… I mean, the beaches are pretty nice, right? Few other games have pinned down that authentic “tourist trap resort” vibe as well as they have, down to the ridiculously expensive and impractical swimwear in the gift shops.
Remember that game that was like Ico but you were both constantly sort of starving to death and your lady friend was really only helpless because her glasses were broken and wow they must have been really strong glasses because now she’s incapable of going anywhere alone so she just spends her time in a cave cooking shellfish and potatoes for you? Maybe that’s not entirely fair. The Lost in Blue games are legitimately interesting predecessors to many newer releases in the now-thriving survival sandbox genre. Lost in Blue’s beaches earn their place on this list based solely on how damn bountiful they are. I mean I’ve been to a lot of beaches and I don’t think I’ve ever found enough food on one to feed me and another person once a day for weeks on end. Not unless there was a food truck parked nearby.
There have been more than a few sports games set on beaches, but frankly none of them can hold a candle to Windjammers. It’s also one of the most nonsensical sports games out there, depending on how you feel about volleyball, frisbees and superpowers. Either way, if someone was windjamming on a beach in reality I would definitely risk getting the worst sunburn of my life to watch.
Sometimes you go to the beach to tan. Sometimes you go to the beach to swim. Sometimes you go to the beach to stare listlessly into a meta-synthetic ocean horizon and wonder what the nature of all human connection really is.
If I ask you to close your eyes and imagine a scene from Sonic Adventure, there’s a very high chance you’ll start thinking of Sonic dashing along a beach boardwalk while a killer whale smashes it up behind him. It’s an iconic scene, not only because basically everyone with a Dreamcast played it in the demo, but… Well, it was mostly that. But it was still pretty cool. As far as I’m concerned that entire game was just a killer whale beach race and a virtual pet raising sim.
Any list of notable beaches in videogames that doesn’t mention Cool Spot is written by someone who either knows nothing about games, beaches, or the absolute peak of the 1990s branded character platformer boom. in addition to being a legitimately good game with a fun twist on your standard beach level design, Cool Spot will also engender you with a healthy fear of hermit crabs and an even healthier thirst for the crisp, refreshing taste of 7UP.
Normally I like to end a list on a “hah hah good one” comedy beat, but when it comes to early iOS game Distant Shore there isn’t really a punchline to be had. Distant Shore was one of the first iPhone games I played that really made me stop and reconsider what I thought a phone game could be. Namely, I realized a phone game could be more than just Snake or Arkanoid or anything else I’d been playing since I got my first flip-phone. It could be something incredibly different, and incredibly unique. In Distant Shore, players could explore a relatively short section of beach, leaving footprints in the sand as they went. It was meant to be peaceful and meditative, but the real selling point was that you could send a message in a bottle out into the aether. That message would turn up on a random player’s beach, and they could read it and even send a reply back. You could also find random messages on your beach and respond just the same. It was just such a special, strange little thing that even though I haven’t played it in six years, I just have to give it top billing.
On the other hand, Distant Shore did not let you play as a personified brand logo, so maybe it wasn’t as good as I remember after all. (There’s that punchline I needed.)
Janine Hawkins is a games writer based in sunny Canada. You can find her written and video work on HealerArcherMage.com or follow her on Twitter @bleatingheart.