Platformers, especially of the 2D variety, can often be seen as a gamer’s ideal introduction into gaming – Often simple control schemes married with predictable level designs and clear-cut goals make for an easily accessible experience; saying this, however, this was over 20 years ago in the initial rise, fall and revival of the gaming industry back in the 1980’s.
Since then we’ve came a long, long way from the supposedly primitive and simplistic origins of platformers, and adopted a wide array of new genres as opposed to the initial selection of platformer, sport, adventure and rpg titles – Why are platformers more scarce in the modern age, and why was there a supposed ‘death’ in the genre come mid-2007? Well, eager reader, I’m here to dive into that very question.
To begin, I think it’s important to investigate the origins of platformer titles; beginning with the first generation of the gaming market, Donkey Kong originally paved the way for single-screen-based platforming, with it soon after being adapted into the now-classic Mario Bros. arcade title; these games were incredibly simplistic, featuring, often, a single persistent stream of obstacles, a few floating enemies that hovered around a single stage, and a simple concept – One hit and you’re back to the bottom of the stage. This concept introduced platformers as a more skill-oriented genre, rewarding faster reflexes, enemy perception and level navigation, but was still very, very simple for the time – It wouldn’t be until Super Mario Bros. on the NES that gamers would be introduced to the first example of a modern sidescrolling platformer.
Super Mario Bros. is, without massively understating, the single most influential videogame in the platforming genre – Introducing levels wider than a single screen, a long and detailed series of levels, a wide variety of enemies and even a boss to defeat at the end of each stage – The game is an absolute classic, and is still beloved by many throughout the gaming industry for being the precursor to many great platformers – Titles like Castlevania, Mega Man, Contra, Ninja Gaiden, Sonic, Strider, Metroid and many, many more spawned from twisting and manipulating the malleable base Super Mario Bros. provided, whether that be through adding a rock-hard difficulty and tight controls like in Castlevania, more speed-based and reactionary platforming in Mega Man and Ninja Gaiden, or exploration and shooting like in Metroid and even Contra – This one little title from Nintendo singlehandedly birthed a mass of mutated forms, bringing us to the inevitable saturation and market crash of the 80’s.
We’ve all heard of Atari’s infamous ‘ET’ game on the Atari 2600 – Often pinned as the sole cause of the gaming crash that nearly killed the industry we all hold dear… However it’s a little bit more complicated than just blaming a single game for an entire decade’s damage to an industry – The gaming industry, due to a lack of serious innovation in hardware and software was stagnating before it could even get going – A string of misguided sequels and forced introduction of unwanted mechanics (See Castlevania II: Simon’s Curse, Super Mario Bros. 2 and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link for notable examples) in a botched effort to innovate ended up lowering the bar for quality for many franchises, with them simply retracting to the void that they were spawned from to try and identify what the hell went wrong.
During this period of revision gamers received a large number of extremely high-quality titles such as Super Mario Bros 3, Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse and Super Castlevania IV, just to name a few of my favourites from this era, which brought a fruitful and exciting time for gamers in the late 80’s and early 90’s – What was on the horizon, however, would massively change the landscape of platforming for the rest of time – The early 1990’s signaled an emergance into 3D gaming, with minor experiments like Sonic 3D Blast, Starfox and Ballz 3D introducing the concept of explorable and interactive 3D landscapes and gameplay events, however this experimentation never really grew into anything major within the platforming scene.
…Not until 1996, with the release of Super Mario 64 for the Nintendo 64 – Heralded as the forefather of 3D platforming titles, Super Mario 64 could very well be credited as the forefather of platformers, inspiring many decent titles, such as Spyro the Dragon, Sonic Adventure and Ape Escape, and some… Less than decent titles (Bubsy 3D comes to mind). Regardless, this was far and beyond a high point for the 3D platformer – Conker’s Bad Fur Day, Banjo & Kazooie, Sonic Adventure, Super Mario 64, Castlevania 64 and so many other titles around the N64 / PS1 era are fondly remembered now as classics, despite their clunkier designs and development hurdles.
Which brings us to the near-future; the PS2 & Gamecube era – The timeframe commonly referred to as the ‘Golden Age’ of platformers; Ratchet and Clank, Super Mario Sunshine, Jak and Daxter, Sly Cooper, Klonoa and far many more to simply list here filled store shelves and sold out like hotcakes, and now are considered absolutely legendary by comparison to their predecessors and peers at the time – Many of these titles are still fondly remembered, and being re-released on more modern hardware, such as the Nintendo Switch, PlayStation 4 and Xbox One, with some franchises, such as Crash Bandicoot, making their first foray onto the PC market after console exclusivity; all seems well in the platforming market right now, doesn’t it?
Well… Unfortunately that’s not the case. Yes, some notable successes have appeared such as Yooka Laylee and A Hat in Time, however for the most part, excluding Knack, AAA development on new and original 3D platformers has all but ceased, moving onto fresh new pastures; the 2D platforming legacy is still upheld to this day through indie development, but it’s a far cry from the genre’s past. I doubt we’ll ever return to those days…
….You kids with your Fortnites and Call of Duties…Back in my day…We had to collect 2000 Precursor Orbs or 100 Jiggies to feel satisfaction…!!