Diving into the new Crash Bandicoot game, in which you steer a cartoonish marsupial round a series of fiendishly designed levels, I’m struck by the simple brilliance of one of his movements: the double jump. Press the “jump” button twice and Crash bounces up and then rebounds off thin air to gain more lift, without touching down. It is a physical impossibility yet strangely intuitive, and so common within the genre of platform games that players rarely question it. Platformers, after all, are gaming’s primeval form, prominent since the beginning and now shorthand for the entire industry: mention gaming to any non-gamer and an image of Mario will probably run through their head, leaping across a psychedelic 2D plane of mushrooms and clouds.
Compared to contemporary blockbuster games, which combine mature narrative and complex gameplay, platformers are simple, even childish. Yet the excitement around two recent additions to classic platforming canons, Crash Bandicoot 4 and Super Mario 3D All-Stars, proves that gamers still flock to the genre. Is this merely nostalgia’s siren song, or does something more powerful beat deep in the genre’s geometric heart?
A platformer is fundamentally an obstacle course, a game where you must navigate an environment to reach a goal. Your main abilities, or “verbs” in game design terminology, are running and jumping, perhaps climbing or gliding. They boast bright, colourful aesthetics and stylised characters, belying challenges that are infuriatingly difficult. The possibility that a single misjudged jump could send you back to the beginning makes gameplay tantalisingly tense, but when you are in the zone, you spring sure-footed and balletic across uneven terrain.
Early platformers included Donkey Kong, released by Nintendo in 1981, where you navigate barrels and ladders as the red-hatted Jumpman, who would later be renamed Mario. The portly plumber set the genre’s formula in Super Mario Bros, demanding pixel-perfect jumps and encouraging players to learn the patterns of each level. In these early games, following the logic of reading, you move from left to right, rarely turning back. A wonderful YouTube compilation uses the music of Michael Nyman to turn this ceaseless forward motion into something philosophical, even moving.
When platformers made the jump to 3D in the mid-1990s, Nintendo again set the benchmark with the revelatory Super Mario 64, which offered an unparalleled sense of freedom. Developers were praised for the responsiveness of Mario’s movements and the refinement of the game’s controls, which closed the gap between player and character, offering an unrivalled sense of virtual embodiment.
Over the 2000s, as technical capacities improved, simple platformers lost their prominence in the gaming firmament. Fantasy worlds and saucer-eyed animal mascots were out and first-person shooters starring laconic, grizzled soldiers were in. Platforming elements were threaded into new adventure games, such as the parkour of Assassin’s Creed, while the remaining platformers introduced new ideas to survive, such as the gunplay of Ratchet and Clank or stealth gameplay in the charming Sly Raccoon series.
Rebirth came from an unexpected quarter: a new wave of indie developers seized on 2D platformers, relatively easy to design, as a vehicle for bold new ideas. Titles such as Braid, Limbo and Celeste introduced complex narrative metaphors and mature themes. Gris and Ori and the Blind Forest adopted gorgeous painterly art styles, while the much-imitated Super Meat Boy made players die countless bloody deaths while honing their reflexes, establishing the genre term “splatformer”. Platformers also found fertile terrain in mobile games with the “endless runner” sub-genre popularised by Temple Run, in which characters run automatically through procedurally generated landscapes, where players are asked only to swipe the screen to dodge obstacles in their way.
Where the core mechanics of platformers were once thought limiting, developers doggedly continue to innovate and delight. If fantasy-adventure games such as Skyrim are epic tomes, then platformers are sonnets, formally strict but with ample room for artistry within their confines.
Embracing these limitations is a shared trait of all the best platformers. While some games try to explain the mystery of the double jump by having a character flap their wings or boost their rockets, most games don’t bother. Nor do they explain why, in physics terms, a character can rebound once mid-air, but not twice. There is no “why” to the double jump — it just is.
There is a purism to the unreality of platformers; they emphasise the “game” in video games. Their levels are design masterclasses, exercises in abstraction, their characters love letters to the pure joy of movement, momentum and rhythm. Platformers beckon you into the perfect flow state where your eyes unfocus and you nail that perfect jump, briefly becoming a being of distilled grace, so nimble that you can leap off from the empty air.
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