The humble 2D platformer, perhaps the genre most synonymous with gaming. Ask anyone to imagine a video game, and the first thing they will likely come up with will be some variant of this tried and tested formula. Take Super Mario Bros as an example. As many will know, this veritable shining jewel in the gaming industry’s crown was released by Nintendo for the Famicom in 1985 (and subsequently for the more well-known Nintendo Entertainment System in 1987). To this day, it remains one of the most loved video games of all time and is widely regarded as one of the greatest video games to ever grace our screens. The numbers echo this sentiment, as Super Mario Bros still sits near the top of the bestseller charts, with over 48 million copies of the game sold. The game’s release is also frequently cited as one of the key factors in reviving the home video game market, and most importantly, is associated with cementing the 2D platformer in the minds of consumers as the definitive video game genre.
The 2D platformer is perhaps the most natural type of video game. The player controls a character who can move, usually to the right, and who can jump – it’s just intuitive. Games in the genre tend not to be overburdened with mechanics, but instead offer satisfying gameplay coupled with tight, precise controls. The simplicity of the format lends itself to a variety of interpretations and derivatives, always set against that backdrop of characteristically precise gameplay. There is almost boundless room for creativity and for expanding upon the basic formula, and providing a basic formula was exactly what Super Mario Bros did. The popularity of the game would of course lead to sequels, imitations, and new releases that would expand upon their predecessors, pushing the envelope for what a 2D platformer could be.
In the years that followed, the world entered a golden age of 2D platformers. Players were treated to hit after hit after hit in the genre. Games released at the time developed on pre-existing mechanics, and also introduced new ones. In the mainline Mario series, Super Mario Bros 3 introduced new elements such as the super leaf and tanooki suit which, together with new terrain elements such as slopes and vines, gave the player even more creative options in their movement beyond the standard fare. Super Mario World, released 2 years later, introduced an overworld that gave players a greater semblance of progression, and increased movement further with items such as the cape feather. This was also the first game in the series to feature our beloved dinosaur friend Yoshi, who would go on to become a series staple.
This golden age was not just restricted to plumbers of apparent Italian origin. Oh no. During these years, other developers flexed their creative muscles to bring us games that went beyond the standard platforming experience. Sonic the Hedgehog released in 1991 brought speed and momentum to the table and introduced us to levels that could be backtracked and explored, with numerous branching pathways. This divergent level design encouraged the player to connect more deeply with the level, and dramatically increased the game’s replay value. The game also treated players to greater diversity in its stage aesthetics, and in its enemy design.
Castlevania, a game so influential it spawned its own genre, and could be the subject of an article in its own right, was also released during this time. While the first entry, along with its early successors, were well received, 1997’s Symphony of the Night received the most critical acclaim. While not really a pure 2D platformer, Castlevania demonstrated further what fantastic experiences the genre could offer. It featured complex, labyrinthine level design, interesting items and enemies, a fully realised story, fantastic boss fights, as well as other RPG elements that are still utilised today.
I could go on and on about all the fantastic games and series released in the genre during this time; Donkey Kong, Metroid, Megaman and even Kirby. Each brought something new to the table and had their own unique charm, though not all were without criticism.
However, this period was not to last forever. The gaming industry had changed dramatically since Mario first donned his signature cap. One of the major developments came in the form of an additional dimension. This major innovation put pressure on the flattened platformers of old – they were faced with new competition, and it had depth.
By this time, gamers expected more from their platformers. Titles like Super Mario 64 had started this gradual shift in expectations by showcasing what the extra dimension was capable of, and the trend was furthered with releases such as Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel, the Ratchet & Clank series, Prince of Persia, Banjo Kazooie as well the 3D Sonic series (not to suggest that those were any good…). All of these games offered something more in the platforming genre that their 2D counterparts simply could not compete with. In addition to this, gamers now seemed to expect more from their games in general. Developers were creating more complex mechanics, crafting increasingly immersive worlds and narratives, and generally producing more complete products.
This fall from grace as I see it was no doubt aided by the apparent stagnation of 2D platformers that occurred around the same time. Nintendo were consistently pumping out new main series 2D Mario games, however there was not much innovation that could separate one game in the series from the last, and consumers began to tire of playing the same game sealed with a different bow. The Sonic franchise had effectively dropped off a cliff when it came to their 2D endeavours, and there was not much exciting activity in the space from other developers either. Perhaps this was to be the final fall into mediocrity for one of the founding gaming genres?
No. Absence makes the heart grow fonder, and following this multi-year hiatus gamers once again began to crave those stripped back, satisfying experiences that started the genre on its road to stardom in years past. However, unlike during those early years it would not be the AAA developers that would set the stage for this new era in platforming history. Instead, indie developers would rise to the challenge.
Over the past few years, we witnessed a return to form for the genre, carried to old heights by some incredible new titles. Shovel Knight, developed by Yacht Club Games, was released following a successful Kickstarter campaign in 2014; one which promised to harken back to the 2D platformers of the NES era. With inspirations including Castlevania, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Mega Man, the game returned to the core ethos of the genre; satisfying precise platforming, while always innovating and developing on what came before.
In 2015, we were treated to one such innovation: Downwell. While not as popular as some other titles mentioned, this platformer deserves no less praise. Downwell turned the genre on its head, or perhaps on its side would be more apt, as the game has the player constantly falling downwards, delving deeper into a procedurally generated well. Armed with a pair of “gunboots” the player can keep themselves aloft momentarily by firing bullets from their feet, which are also used to eliminate enemies. Descending deeper into the well, the player must avoid falling too far and meeting a sudden end, while dodging and destroying monsters, collecting power-ups that will aid them on their path, and racking up a high-score.
Finally, in 2017, Canadian developers Maddy Thorson & Noel Berry gifted us with the masterpiece that is Celeste. Immensely difficult, but oh-so satisfying, Celeste challenges the player to climb to the top of a snowy mountain, simply to prove they can. There is one central mechanic – the mid-air dash – however, the way in which it’s used is far from simple. One minute you’re simply dashing across a small crevasse, then a few hours later you’re stringing a dozen dashes together all while being chased by an evil mirror image of yourself that follows your every move and will destroy you if it can catch up. It’s intense. No game has ever extracted as much from a single mechanic in my view.
However, the creativity of indie developers during this time was not completely lacking from AAA studios. We were also treated to great titles such as Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, while the Mario Maker series gave players the opportunity to craft their own experiences like never before. The latter has even spawned great debate about Mario’s future in the 2D platforming space and has led to further revitalisation within the genre.
While the future is never certain, as we celebrate 35 years since the release of the game that defined the genre, I’m confident that the 2D platformer is not nearing GAME OVER yet.