If you follow the indie gaming scene, it’s hard to ignore the fact that there’s a near endless supply of new platformers competing for your dollar. Indeed, after attending a number of indie game events and student shows, it would seem that platformers far-and-away exceed all other genres in the sheer quantity of games under development in new and small studios.
There are good reasons for this. Developing a platformer is often less complex than developing most other types of video games. And as the breakout successes of games like Shovel Knight and Super Meat Boy demonstrate, a very small number of people working with very limited resources can still create hugely popular games in the genre. And it’s a great genre, full of fantastically-fun and repayable games going back three decades.
But, I’ve played just a few too many platformers that make me wish I was back in the shoes of Mario, Mega Man or Samus Aran. These aren’t necessarily bad or buggy games, they’re just games that take the formula set by the bevy of great predecessors and then — well, they just take it. There’s no shortage of new Metroidvania games that don’t meaningfully improve or differ from Super Metroid or Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, and they’re often simply less fun to boot.
This was the sense I had recently playing both Axiom Verge and Shantae and the Pirate’s Curse. These are perfectly fun games, but I couldn’t help but feel in both cases that I’d rather be speedrunning to Mother Brain. There are a few minor tweaks to the formula in these games, and both are perfectly competent and well-executed, but there still seems like a dearth of new ideas inherent in the design.
This is why there’s a real risk in creating games that adhere so heavily to the genre formulas. In the minds of gamers, these games are competing with every excellent platformer that’s come before. After all, we’re dealing with a genre that arguably reached its peak over twenty years ago, and whose highlights are cultural touchstones. An entire generation of gamers was introduced to the world of video games by the platformer. Early games like Pitfall! and Donkey Kong and later games like Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Castlevania and Metroid are often some of our earliest reference points for the medium.
These are perfectly fun games, but I couldn’t help but feel in both cases that I’d rather be speedrunning to Mother Brain.
It may be unfair to compare games made by new indie studios to the gold standards set by larger companies in the past, but I feel there’s a higher standard if developers choose to use existing formulas with little revision. These gold standards were created decades ago, after all, and the technology and number of available development tools has scaled considerably. And in any case, I’m not talking about what might be considered “production value.” I’m not suggesting that new indie platformers need to have the audio and visual chops of something like Ori and the Blind Forest or Rayman Legends, both of which are excellent games, but also clearly had more resources available during development.
In my view, what platformers need to be successful are new ideas, new ways of playing, or a fundamental refinement of core game play.
Super Meat Boy is a game that worked even though it didn’t integrate a whole lot of new ideas. Instead, its improvements over past games lay in its tight character controls, its punishing but very short levels, and its immediate respawn upon death. Each level was a short trial that was difficult to overcome and rewarding to complete, but the immediate respawns ensured that failure wasn’t frustrating because it was never much of a set-back. The tight controls and solid level design meant that if you died, you only had one person to blame.
Super Meat Boy is a simple game, but looking back through the pantheon of great platformers, it’s hard to find anything like it. It’s a new experience because it takes platforming gameplay and strips it down to a lean, sleek core.
Where do we grow from here?
New ideas and ways to play are harder to define, but a number of platformers that have revealed how they can be implemented. Consider the forthcoming Runbow! for the Wii U, a platformer in which the background constantly changes colour, causing foreground objects with a matching colour to disappear. In some modes, one player can control the colour changes, bringing about an asymmetric player versus player dynamic to the platformer.
Ori and the Blind Forest not only used classical platforming mechanics, but also included physics-based gameplay, including various gravitational effects and changes. For example, one section provided Ori with the ability to walk up walls. Jumping from those walls would switch the polarity of gravity perpendicular to normal gravity, allowing Ori to fall sideways. Other gameplay innovations included the ability to use enemy projectiles and enemies themselves as springboards, opening up whole new possibility of level design.
Numerous other concepts have also been explored in platformers, from the ability to rewind time to the ability to fundamentally redesign the level that’s being played. These concepts not only create new experiences, but challenge preconceived notions of what a platformer is or can be. When they’re implemented, there’s little risk that players feel as though they’ve been there and done that before, and the gold standards of yesteryear no longer apply.
There is, of course, still space in the world for excellent games that follow the formulas of the past. But that should be for the brave or the confident, those who believe they can surpass the gold standard and set one of their own. But it’s better, and easier, to try new things than try to make a game superior to the platformers of the past using the same formula. Creating and implementing new ideas is hard, but it’s harder still to make a better mousetrap than one that’s already been made. So hopefully developers of platformers will move beyond the ideas of the past, find new roads to explore, and walk down them. This might mean a few failures along the way, but as long as it’s new and interesting, it wont be that bad. Because few criticisms are worse than the one that says “we played a better version of the same twenty years ago.”