WARNING: THE FOLLOWING ARTICLE INCLUDES MANY USES OF THE WORDS “PLATFORMER”, “PLATFORMING” AND “PLATFORM”. IF YOU ARE AT ALL ANNOYED OR OFFENDED BY SUCH A MATTER…YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!
One of my favorite video game genres that stood the test of time is the “Platformer”. Back in the 80’s and 90’s, a platformer was considered to be any game that consisted of a jumping function, as well as obstacles that obstruct your forward path and which you must overcome. According to the official definition, a platform game would be any type of video game featuring two-dimensional graphics in which the player controls a character jumping or climbing between solid platforms at different positions on the screen. Of course, this is no longer relevant, as most games today comprise of jumping or climbing between solid platforms at different positions on the screen. Nowadays, a platformer, for me anyways, is a game that has its concept and challenge built around its obstacles. Often times, when I think of a platformer, the first games to come to mind are Super Mario Bros. (1986), Kirby’s Adventure (1991), Sonic the Hedgehog (1991) and Donkey Kong Country (1994). Another game in particular that comes to mind is Banjo-Kazooie (1998), a 3D platformer for the Nintendo 64. Banjo Kazooie is considered to be one of my favorite video games of all time and when I think back about it, I often ask myself: What Ever Happened To 3D Platform Games?
The fifth generation of console gaming, which famously comprises of the Sony PlayStation and the Nintendo 64, was one that’s mostly associated with gaming’s jump to the third dimension. During this period, the platformer was the genre that is seen to have made the transition most gracefully of all. In between 1996 and 2001, we were blessed with some of the greatest 3D platformers to have been released. This list comprises of the original Crash Bandicoot trilogy, the first three Spyro games, Super Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, Rayman 2: The Great Escape, Sonic Adventure, Sonic Adventure 2 and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Suffice to say, there were plenty of titles in this category to go around and it was one of the most popular genres of the generation. Sure, there were a few poorly made 3D platfomers, such as Bubsy 3D, but the good far outweighed the bad. I guess you can say that platformers apply to 1996-2001 as much as shooters apply to the present day. The best part though, was that 2D platform games were still being made, so those of both dimensional planes were able to successfully co-exist. Examples of such games around the time include Yoshi’s Story, Rayman, Mischief Makers and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards.
We didn’t yet see a decrease in the popularity of the 3D platformer upon the move to the sixth generation of video game consoles, as players were exposed to Jak and Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, Sly Cooper, Psychonauts and Super Mario Sunshine. Around this time, several innovations were presented, such as the discarding of loading screens, the rendering of a seamless game world, the introduction of stealth mechanics and gravity-based gameplay. In the process, 3D platform games began to deviate from what they were once known for. For example, one thing that the PS1 and N64 platformers had in common was collectables. Whether it’d be coins, bananas, musical notes, stars, jigsaw pieces or even money, all these games had their overall design built around the necessity of gathering collectables in order to advance further into the game. For some reason, during the PlayStation 2 and GameCube’s lifecycle, gathering collectables became known as tedious and derogatory thing to do, so the 3D platformers that would come later would tone down that sort of design mentality and focus more on the implication of action-oriented gameplay.
It all started with 2002’s Ratchet & Clank, which introduced many types of weapons for the player to use and experiment with. Despite all the action-based gameplay, it was still a platformer, through-and-through. However, when the sequel came out the following year, the amount of platforming segments had decreased a bit, and the development implemented the ability for Ratchet to strafe, in order to dodge enemy fire, which added a layer of depth and complexity to the overall combat. The sequel also included a lot of RPG elements by making the player’s health and weapons upgradable. The game could still be considered a platformer, but the third game in the series deviated even further from the usual conventions by removing the obstacles that the franchise was initially known for. The fourth game, Ratchet Deadlocked, was as action-oriented as a game could get and quite reminiscent of a Michael Bay production, so anything that associated Ratchet & Clank with platforming was practically dead. Sure, the later games would experiment more and attempt to make it what it once was, but none of them would be considered purely a well-made platformer in the same sense that Banjo Kazooie or Super Mario 64 were. The Jak and Sly Cooper franchises saw similar fates, though made the deviations through different matters. Why did all these series set around to become different?
Personally, I believe it was to appeal to the mass audience and platformers were simply not as popular as they once were. I can’t say that I blame developers though, as the sixth generation brought gamers such games as Devil May Cry, Prince of Persia, Ninja Gaiden, God of War, Grand Theft Auto III, Resident Evil 4 and Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater; all games that were either heavily action-based or included massive open-worlds to explore. Developers of platform games probably didn’t want to be left out of the loop, so they tried to blend genres together. Successfully trying to both introduce something new and unique while broadening the demographic. Suffice to say, success was most definitely met, but I feel that this mentality would ultimately mean the scarcity of new 3D platformers for gamers to enjoy…
To a certain degree, I was correct. Even the third console installment in the Banjo-Kazooie series dared not make an attempt to bring back the 3D platformer. In 2008, Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts was released and also made an attempt to come up with something original while broadening the demographic. In such an attempt, we were introduced with a vehicle-design simulator, with completely different gameplay of that of the original two Banjo titles, but still tried to maintain the overall level design that the series was known for. In the process, players received a messy and unfinished game, and we have yet to see another Banjo-Kazooie game since then. The game even included fourth-wall jokes that would go as far as to say that the original 3D platform conventions, such as gathering collectables was tedious, which ultimately proved that developer Rareware was far too afraid to make an impression in this sub-genre any longer. Are we doomed never see developers make the attempt ever again?
Actually, not all hope is lost. If there’s anything that Nintendo has proved over the years, it’s that a fantastic and well-made 3D platformer can still come about in this day and age. Though it doesn’t appeal to the mass audience any longer, it is nice to see Nintendo try and bring us challenging games in this sub-genre. In between 2007 and now, gamers were graced with Super Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, and Super Mario 3D World, all wonderful games, if I do say so myself. Nintendo isn’t the only AAA developer making well-received platformers, as Ubisoft is responsible for Rayman Origins and Rayman Legends, Retro Studios helped make Donkey Kong Country Returns and Tropical Freeze and every now and then, we’re graced with a 2D Kirby installment. The platformer is especially popular amongst indie developers, but most of the time, both AAA and independent studios remain in the safe zone, by staying within the second dimension. We’ve also been exposed to the “2.5D platformer”, which comprises of games that include 3D graphics, but are presented in as 2D. Though there’s nothing wrong with this, it would be nice to see more than Nintendo making attempts at a fresh and innovative 3D platformer. So, with the success the Super Mario franchise has been having of late, is there something else that is shying away developers? Well, I have one theory…
When the 3D platformer was at its peak, gamers were presented with Sonic Adventure 1 & 2, and both were quite solid titles. Unfortunately, Sonic the Hedgehog has not had so much luck since then. Titles such as Sonic Heroes, Shadow the Hedgehog, Sonic 06, Sonic Unleashed and Sonic Lost World have received reception the ranges from “decent” to “universally panned”, which has made both gamers and developers alike believe that Sonic should only exist on a 2-dimensional plane. Some more recent titles, such as Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations have definitely earned their place among well-made 3D platformers, but the range is so polarizing and the attempts ever so risky, that developers have probably been alienated from the sub-genre, due to poor 3D Sonic titles. After all, plenty of older gamers and developers built their childhood around Sonic the Hedgehog, so to see their influence become a subject of ridicule and shame in the gaming community has made them afraid to deviate outside the norm. This is understandable, but also quite unfortunate. It’s nice to enjoy a fantastic and well-made Super Mario game, but I know developers have it in them to introduce us to new, fresh and exciting 3D platformers. Developers, if you are reading this article, know now that you have my support and I’m sure that I’m not the only one out there! We grew up on the platformer, we believe that the younger audiences of today can still enjoy them as we did, and you can still learn from them! Take note that when I say that games like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 remain among my favorite games of all time, even to this today, that it means something.