January 18, 2013 by solomonlutze
Since I’ve been making a platformer game myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time playing other platformers and thinking about what makes each of them tick. The genre has a broad history and goes back basically to the beginning of video games; I want to talk about why this genre is so enduring, and why it’s so compelling to developers and players alike.
One of the biggest appeals as a developer is that platformers are incredibly easy to implement. One basic requirement for a platformer is that jumping is a core part of the game. At the very least it’s how the character moves around, and at most it is itself a complicated task requiring a significant amount of skill or decision making. In 2D games especially, this isn’t too hard to put together. The physics required aren’t usually much more than working out how to make the character go up and come down, and graphics can be as simple as you want them to be. The ease isn’t just in implementation. These games are also easy to conceptualize, which is significant for both players and designers. In the first level of the original Mario, your objective, and means of interacting with your environment, are almost immediately apparent, and whether or not the game itself comes easily, having a very clear premise right from the get-go is a great place to start your players.
At this point in video game history, that simple premise is a template that most people understand, which makes it a compelling place for developers to center a game. Platforming is both an intelligible means of getting around a world (and almost critical in 2d games to keep variety in the game space) and a challenge that is easy to adjust or scale. In a game like Sonic the Hedgehog, the game itself is largely a challenge of movement, with enemies and environmental hazards acting as impediments to movement. In Super Metroid, the challenges of platforming help vary encounters with enemies: the main focus of the game. In both cases, the game relies on its player’s familiarity with the idea of jumping on platforms while avoiding enemies, while at the same time tweaking the particulars of movement (jump height, speed, etc.) to match the experience they’re trying to create. Sonic the Hedgehog is intended to give the sensation of moving quickly through big environments, and Metroid gives the player the feeling of exploring an alien world. Both rely on a pacing that depends on the interaction between character and landscape.
The fact that platformers are easy to implement makes them prime material for developers who are just getting started or for indie studios operating on a budget. What makes them such fertile ground for really ingenious games is their versatility. One of the most interesting games in the past few years is Braid: a puzzle-platformer based around manipulating time. Apart from demonstrating that a simple-looking game can back up a really complex narrative, it also showed that there are a lot of incredible, mind-bending games to be built off of the “platformer” template. In its wake, we see all kinds of games: Limbo and Thomas Was Alone to name two of my favorites. It is easy to find incredibly cerebral, emotional experiences in their very basic experience. At the other end of the spectrum, we have games like Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be The Guy: The Movie: The Game taking the skill components of platforms to insane, sometimes-masochistic levels. Because if there’s one thing you can always do with platformers, it’s make them harder (withe the possible exception of the aforementioned I Wanna Be The Guy). Between the two poles of incredibly puzzle-oriented and incredibly skill-oriented, there’s a lot of room to play, which is a great place to be for the developer on a budget.
I’ll allow that nostalgia probably plays a big role in the appeal of the platformer; these are the games I grew up with, and it’s wholly possible that they don’t have the same luster to a lot of younger gamers. Some say retro gamer, I say gamer. Of all great games, maybe most of which the platformer. The fact that there have been so many good entries in this genre in the past couple of years suggests that there’s still a lot of potential entertainment to be found. If you’re thinking about making your first game, but are daunted by the amount of great work already out there, go through some old school and new school platformers. Start with some of the ones listed here. Apart from being an important piece of gaming history, platformers hold refined designs that could give you the idea for the next great entry in the genre.