A Platform to Talk About Platformers

When you can’t think of a good title, just make a bad pun. Puns are something I love almost as much as platformers, it’s one of my favourite game genres and one of the oldest. Back in 1985, Nintendo brought the video game industry back from its grave with Super Mario Bros., which set the standard for all platformers to come. Due to their relative simplicity to create and understand, combined with consoles limitations of the time, platformers became hugely popular and most games incorporated some kind of platforming element.

The era of the NES, SNES and (to a lesser extent) the Genesis is something of a golden age of platforming in many peoples’ eyes. This was when the genre, and gaming in general, was still a new concept so many developers would get extremely creative with their games. A lack of established rules can often lead to many misfires but it also prevents the contents of genre from all feeling the same. The NES was littered with fantastic and original platformers and the king of them all was, of course, Mario.

With a colourful world and great music, simple yet interesting level design and tight controls, Super Mario paved the way for all future platformers. That is really the keyword here: control. When a game’s entire concept and its challenge revolves around the avatar’s movement through the world, it helps if the player has to feel in control of the character. The Mario platformers understand this perfectly and the games were able to be built entirely around moving Mario; you defeat enemies by jumping on them instead of having an attack, and taking damage and dying happens due to you moving Mario in an undesired way.

However, not all games in this experimental time gave the player complete control, sometimes they reduced it in order to offer a challenge. While Mario took the concept of movement and gave the player freedom, providing challenge solely through level design, Castlevania created challenge by limiting your ability to move. You couldn’t control your trajectory in mid-air, your jump was relatively low and, unlike Mario, you had weapons so you did not rely on movement for attack. This meant that the placement of enemies and obstacles was carefully planned out; the game designers had already decided how you were going to progress through the level, it was up to you to figure out how to use the level design, the items you’d been given and your own limited abilities to figure that out.

Advancements in technology during the late 90s saw platformers from a new angle or a new dimension. People jumped straight onto the 3D bandwagon without a moment’s notice, excited by all the directions they would be able to move in. This gave birth to an entirely new era of platforming and opened the doors to new subgenres within the already popular world of the platformer. Games were now being built with more exploratory elements, since adding a third dimension allowed for considerably more space that the player to want to see.

Sandbox games became very popular as a result and found a completely different use for an avatar’s platforming abilities. The term ‘sandbox’ refers so a small area designated for play in which you are given the freedom to move and amuse yourself at your leisure. Sandbox games apply this same concept by providing the player with a non-linear level containing various things to find and areas to explore and simply saying: “have fun”. The goal in games like this was usually to find collectables, like the stars in Super Mario 64 or pretty much everything in the Banjo-Kazooie games. This made platforming more of a means to an end; you had a goal to complete, which was to collect everything and your way of doing that relied solely on your platforming capabilities.

However, the advent of 3D turned out to mean something a little more negative for the platformer genre. Being able to move the way you do in real life meant developers began to make games with a stronger sense of realism; over time, real life simulation became a staple among blockbuster games. Now this isn’t necessarily a bad thing, platformers were a huge part of the industry for years and trends come and go all the time and they still thrived with Nintendo. Nevertheless, platformers were a little underappreciated during this time and fans of the genre had very little to choose from in terms of new games.

Enter the indie scene. Indie developers do not have millions to make their games and as a result, trying to simulate a realistic world is never really a possibility for them. This leads to many older styles being used in independently developed games, with platformers being one the most popular. As I mentioned before, older games were so limited by technology that platforming was an almost required game mechanic; the same limitation comes about in indie games and, although this time it’s due to money, platforming is still the best solution to the problem. They are cheap to create and their simplicity means they can almost act as a blank canvas, onto which the game designer can add whatever extra ideas, mechanics or design elements they desire.

Now as I’m writing this article, I realise there wasn’t much of a point; it was more a chance to discuss one of my favourite video game genres, its history, what makes it my favourite and where it might be headed in the future. With that said, I don’t think platformers will ever die out, they’re such a basic in the world of video games it would be as if no one ever wrote a book with an element of drama in it ever again. In the near future, I think we will see lots of platformers; indie games are hugely popular (well the good ones are), Nintendo never even considered leaving the genre behind and many other companies have produced modern classics such as Ubisoft’s Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends. So I look forward to seeing what else will come from what I consider to be the very foundation of the gaming industry.

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