Platforming Games 101: Running, Jumping & More

Presented by Gamerforlife

The Racketboy crew is back with yet another ambitious effort to educate the masses on some retro-gaming (and even some modern gaming) essentials.  In this Retro Gaming 101 installment, we will be taking a lot at one of the most essential and popular genre in video games.  Platforming games really kick-started and pushed the 8-bit and 16-bit generations and the genre has remained an integral part of modern gaming culture.

Of course, the Super Mario Bros. and Sonic the Hedgehog series are the most well-known examples of the genre, however, there are many games that preceded them and there are many subsequent games that broadened what we can expect from the genre.

Genre Foundations

What is a Platform Game?
Strictly speaking, a platform game (or platformer) is a game where much of the gameplay revolves around moving from one platform to another. In modern usage, it typically refers to games where you JUMP between platforms whereas, in older games, players were allowed to move between platforms using ladders. There are also games in the genre which feature other methods of moving from one platform to another such as swinging on a rope or mechanical arm (Pitfall and Bionic Commando) and using elevators (Elevator Action). Nevertheless, a modern platform game must have some kind of jumping in its gameplay.

While some video game genres more often focus on killing, defeating or avoiding enemies (shooters, beat’em ups, fighting games, survival horror, etc.), platform games are more about how skillfully players can move through an environment. You are more likely to die from an unsuccessful attempt to jump over a bottomless pit than you are from an enemy encounter; make no mistake, in a platformer, it is the environment itself that is your greatest enemy.

Background Info
The platform genre is arguably the most important and most successful genre in the history of gaming.  Like beat’em ups and fighting games, the genre was truly born in arcades and contributed to the arcade’s success.   Yet its most significant impact was on home consoles.  Super Mario Bros. finally brought large sales figures back to the gaming industry after the video game crash of 1983, possibly saving the entire video game industry from a dire fate.  It also was the best-selling video game of all time until 2009, just two years ago.  At one time, the genre enjoyed a greater market share than any other genre in history and some of the most well-known video game characters in pop culture are from platform games or games that featured a heavy emphasis on platform gameplay like Mario, Donkey Kong, Sonic the Hedgehog and Lara Croft.

Platform gameplay is heavily featured in many games even outside the platform genre.  In many ways, it is part of the DNA of video games in general.  You can see platforming in first-person shooters like Half Life 2, action-oriented games like Devil May Cry or run ‘n gun games like Contra or Metal Slug.  Platform gameplay is so ubiquitous that it often pops up in just about any genre; but ultimately it is pure platform games that focus seriously on it and demand a lot of skill in performing those jumps.

Donkey Kong Screenshot

Donkey Kong (Arcade), 1981

Themes and Influences
Cartoons have always been a big influence on the genre (e.g., even Donkey Kong was the end result of what was originally intended to be a game based on Popeye).   A number of platform games during the 16-bit era have been based on Disney movies or characters and a few of them based on Warner Brothers characters. The influence of cartoons is particularly notable when looking at the many cutesy, anthropomorphic characters in the genre like Sonic, Bubsy, Sparkster, Ratchet, etc.  As well, movies have also influenced the genre.  The Donkey Kong character is based on King Kong. Likewise, the Indiana Jones movies seem to have had a strong influence on Tomb Raider and the visual style of Ratchet and Clank: Crack in Time has been compared to Pixar movies. The physical disciplines of parkour and freerunning also seem to have been an influence on the genre given how characters move about their environments in modern games like Uncharted 2, Tomb Raider: Underworld, recent Prince of Persia games and Mirror’s Edge.

Golden Age
The Golden Age of the genre would most certainly have to be the early-to-mid nineties during the 16-bit era. Even though the genre was successful in the 8-bit era, much of its evolution occurred during the 16-bit era. While continuing to experience financial success with notable titles like Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog , the genre was brought to further innovation even as pre-existing classic franchises like Castlevania and Mega Man upgraded to the new 16-bit technology.

In the late nineties, with 3-D technology grabbing consumer interest, the genre experienced a decline.  Although games like Donkey Kong Country managed to keep some people’s interest in 2D platformers with graphics far and above what was thought possible on the SNES, the genre still lost many people’s interest in light of 3-D technology.  Eventually though, the genre would successfully make the transition to 3-D and find success with titles like Crash Bandicoot and Super Mario 64. However, the genre as a whole was never quite as prominent as it was during the 16-bit era of 2D games–though the Tomb Raider series did for a time enjoy a massive amount of popularity due to its titular character Lara Croft, who has cemented her place in history as a gaming and pop culture icon; yet, her popularity would be temporary as well.  Today, 3-D platformers are uncommon, but there are some series that have managed to stay successful like the Prince of Persia series, the aforementioned Tomb Raider series and the Ratchet and Clank series.  Traveller’s Tales have found success with their Lego games as well, which parody popular movies or well known characters (like Batman) by making them into Lego characters.  2D platformers, on the other hand, still continue life on digital download services or portable gaming devices.

Jump Bug Screenshot

Jump Bug (Arcade), 1981

Genre History

Early History
It is difficult to ascertain the origins of the platform genre due to disagreements about the genre’s definition.  Frogs, a 1978 arcade game, is the first video game to feature a jumping character.  You couldn’t jump between platforms however, which means that it wasn’t technically a platform game.  Space Panic, released in 1980, featured many ladders that players could use to move between platforms.  However, players could not jump, which, in the modern sense, some view as an essential part of the genre.

In 1981, games like Donkey Kong and Jump Bug finally introduced gameplay that featured jumping between platforms.  Donkey Kong was one of Nintendo’s early efforts to break into the American market and actually turned out to be a great financial success, leading to ports, sequels, spinoffs and other Donkey Kong games over years.  The game has entrenched itself in our popular culture over time.  The King of Kong: A Fistful of Quarters is a critically-acclaimed 2007 documentary that focused on the culture of playing arcade games like Donkey Kong for high scores.  The phrase, “it’s on like Donkey Kong” is also well-known and has recently been patented by Nintendo.  This was also the first game to be worked on by Shigeru Miyamoto,with help from Gunpei Yokoi, two men who would become very influential figures in the history of gaming.  What’s more, Donkey Kong was the game that introduced Jumpman, who would become a very important figure in the genre, though not by that moniker.

Scrolling Graphics and Multiple Screen Games
Jump Bug is notable for its horizontal scrolling graphics but was quickly overshadowed by Donkey Kong, which predated Jump Bug by just a few months.  However, other games would experiment with horizontal and vertical scrolling in the next few years like Taito’s Jungle King, Irem’s Moon Patrol (a shooter that was the first arcade game to feature parallax scrolling), Sydney Development’s B.C.’s Quest For Tires, Snokie, Namco’s Pac-Land (which had multi-layered parallax scrolling), Taito’s Legend of Kage (with levels that could move in any direction) and Namco’s Dragon Buster, which is also notable for introducing double jumps–a second jump that can be done in mid air—to the genre and hub levels.

In 1982, Activision released Pitfall for the Atari 2600.  Created by David Crane, Pitfall was notable for featuring a protagonist moving horizontally through multiple screens unlike single-screen games like Donkey Kong. Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel’s Castle on the Colecovision was notable for adding elevated terrain and scrolling pans. Other notable titles would be Manic Miner, Jet Set Willy, and Impossible Mission.

Pitfall Screenshot

Pitfall (Atari 2600), 1982

Rise of an Icon
In 1983, Nintendo released Mario Bros. This game featured two-player cooperative gameplay, influencing other games like Fairyland Story and Bubble Bobble, both of which were influential in their own right.  Mario Bros. also renamed Jumpman to Mario, gave him a brother named Luigi and made them plumbers.  This would be the third game to feature Mario (after Donkey Kong and Donkey Kong Jr.).  While both of these games were successful, as they say, it would be the third time that was the charm.

In 1985, the most important game in the entire history of the genre was released by Nintendo for their 8-bit Nintendo Entertainment System.  Super Mario Bros. played a large role in ending a two year decline in video game sales after the video game crash of 1983.  It made the Nintendo Entertainment System a huge success.  It also laid the groundwork for countless other platform games to follow and its success as a pack in title for the NES sent other companies–Sega in particular–scrambling to create a platform game that could match the success of Super Mario Bros.  The game went on to sell over 40 million copies, making it the most successful game of all time until 2009.  The success of this game was instrumental in cementing Shigeru Miyamoto’s status as a gaming legend.  In addition, Koji Kondo’s theme music for the game is arguably the most recognized video game song in the world.  Super Mario Bros., notable for its emphasis on defeating enemies by jumping on top of them, would become the norm for a number of other platformers that are often called “hop and bop” platformers.

Super Mario Bros. Screenshot

Super Mario Bros. (NES), 1985

The NES and Its Impact on the Genre
The Nintendo Entertainment system would feature some other historically significant platform games like Ninja Gaiden (which made the transition from arcade beat’em up to the platform genre with its NES installment), Castlevania, Mega Man and Metroid (produced by the aforementioned Gunpei Yokoi).  These marked the beginning of some of gaming’s most legendary franchises, featuring some of its most beloved icons like Ryu Hyabusa, Simon Belmont, the blue bomber Mega Man (for which his series is named) and Samus Aran.

Unlike Super Mario Bros., these games would focus on using weaponry to defeat enemies rather than jumping on top of them.  Ninja Gaiden was known for its high level of difficulty and cinematic cutscenes (not common at the time).  Castlevania would become known for its horror themed games featuring many classic monsters like Dracula.  Mega Man was notable for allowing players to choose the order in which they would play through the game’s stages.  Boss characters would drop their weapons upon defeat, allowing players to use them in the remaining stages.  Different bosses were weak to different weapons utilizing the rock, paper, scissors approach to gameplay that the Mega Man series is known for.

Metroid deserves special mention for its focus on exploration and non-linear progression through the game, which was unlike other classic platformers of its time.  Metroid didn’t have stages: just one large, interconnected world with certain areas blocked off until players could acquire the necessary abilities needed to access those areas.  To players, this meant a lot of backtracking was required to progress through the game.  Metroid’s design would have a huge influence on the Castlevania series later in its history and would also inspire other games like Cave Story and Shadow Complex.  It’s also notable for introducing one of the first female protagonists in gaming history: the aforementioned Samus Aran.
Given the success of Super Mario Bros., the genre would flourish on the NES.  The console was  home to a large number of other well-known, classic titles in the genre like Bionic Commando, Blaster Master, A Boy and His Blob, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (the original, not the port of the arcade game), a few classic Disney games by Capcom, Kid Icarus, Kirby, Ghouls n Ghosts (originally an arcade game) and Rygar.

Prince of Persia Screenshot

Prince of Persia (Apple II), 1989

Birth of the Cinematic Platformer
1989 would bring a very significant title to the genre on the Apple II.  Jordan Mechner created Prince of Persia, a game that featured an unprecedented level of animation through the use of a process called rotoscoping.  It was also notable for its use of swordplay between the prince and his enemies, puzzles, and traps.  This game spawned what is known as the cinematic platformer genre due to it looking more realistic than other games with its life-like animation.  It would be the inspiration for games like Out of this World, Flashback, Blackthorne; it’s also been cited as providing inspiration for legendary games like Ico and Tomb Raider.  The Prince of Persia series is still going strong today with periodic new releases and, recently, a movie based on the series.  Another notable title released that year was Shadow of the Beast.

1989 was also the year that Nintendo released the Gameboy, a system that was very successful and would pave the way for other successful portable game systems from them.  Many classic platformers would be released on the Gameboy like Super Mario Land.  Even today, you can still find many great platform games on portable devices like Order of Ecclesia on the Nintendo DS or games like Daxter, Prinny: Can I Be the Hero and Hammerin’ Hero on the PSP.

Platformers Golden Age in the 16-bit Console Era
The 16-bit era would be the most exciting time for the genre.  Mario’s success led video game console manufacturers like Sega and NEC to try and create an equally successful “mascot” character to represent their company and increase sales of their consoles.  Hudson Soft would create Bonk to be NEC’s mascot for the Turbografx 16 console.  The Bonk games were some of the best platformers on the system, but not nearly as successful as Mario had been.  Sega, having failed to match Mario’s popularity with characters like Alex Kidd and Flicky, struck gold in 1991 with Sonic the Hedgehog.

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 Screenshot

Sonic the Hedgehog (Genesis/Megadrive), 1991

Sonic was marketed as a character with “attitude,” making him very different from Nintendo’s Mario.  Sega’s new character proved to be popular.  The game itself was filled with very fast paced gameplay, which was unusual for the genre.  This emphasis on speed was cited as an example of the Sega Genesis’ blast processing.  This mix of innovative gameplay and the cool attitude of its main character made Sonic a massive success and many companies believed that they could find great success as well by creating their own marketable, anthropomorphic characters, which lead to the creation of many Sonic imitators.  Sonic proved to be able competition for Nintendo’s mascot Mario and the game rivaled the success of Nintendo’s Super Mario World.  In fact, the Sega Genesis console managed to outsell the Super Nintendo during the 1991 holiday season.  It was probably the first major blow ever delivered to Nintendo from another console manufacturer.

However, Nintendo’s Super Mario World was still a success (as most Mario games are) and would be followed up by another classic in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island.  Nintendo would also release another classic Metroid game called Super Metroid.  Other genre stalwarts like Mega Man and Castlevania would make the switch to 16-bit technology with Mega Man 7, Mega Man X (and its sequels) and Super Castlevania IV.  Castlevania also showed up on the PC Engine with the excellent Castlevania: Rondo of Blood, which sadly never left Japan at the time (though it can be played now on the PSP as part of Dracula X: Chronicles).  It is viewed by fans as one of the best games in the series, if not the best.  A Super Nintendo port was made that was a solid Castlevania game in its own right, but a mere shadow of the game it was based on.  Capcom would also release the classic Super Ghouls n Ghosts on the SNES.

Other great and classic platform games popped up on the Sega Genesis alongside Sonic like Capcom’s Strider (an excellent port of the classic arcade game), the Shinobi series, Ristar (a game which is said to have inspired Sonic), Treasure’s Dynamite Headdy, Toe Jam and Earl, Decap Attack, Vectorman, Ren and Stimpy: Stimpy’s Invention, Wily Wars, another Castlevania game called Bloodlines, Kid Chameleon, and the Valis series (which also had a presence on the TurboGrafx-16).

The 16-bit era also produced a number of excellent platform games made by Capcom, Sega, Konami and Virgin Interactive that were based on Disney and Warner Brothers cartoons and movies.  Virgin Interactive managed to raise the bar for visuals in a platform game with Aladdin on the Sega Genesis, which featured cel-animation for fluid movement that made the game look just like the animated Disney movie it was based on.  Notable names involved with this game were Tommy Tallarico (well-known for his musical contributions to the gaming industry) and David Perry, the man who would go on to form Shiny Interactive, a company that created another classic in Earthworm Jim, also featuring cartoon quality animation.  Konami’s The Adventures of Batman and Robin and Virgin Interactive’s The Lion King also continued this trend of high-quality, cartoon-like animation .

Earthworm Jim Screenshot

Earthworm Jim (SNES), 1994

Donkey Kong Country was another game that raised the bar for graphics in the genre.  Developed by Rare and produced by Tim Stamper, the game made use of pre-rendered 3D graphics that amazed gamers at the time.  It was Nintendo’s attempt to retain the interest of gamers in the Super Nintendo in light of the looming era of 3-D video games and 32-bit technology.   The game was very successful, despite Shigeru Miyamoto’s intense dislike of the game, and had two sequels.  Rare would continue to work closely with Nintendo and be a big player in the genre after the later release of Nintendo’s N64 system.  There were also notable computer games released during this time period like Commander Keen, Flashback, Zool, Duke Nukem, Jill of the Jungle and Cosmo’s Cosmic Adventure.

32-Bit Era
The 32-bit era showed interest in 2D video games waning in light of 3-D technology available on the Playstation, Saturn and Nintendo 64.  However, some 2D titles still found success.  The N64 gave us Yoshi’s Story and  Treasure’s  excellent Mischief Makers game, which for some strange reason did not find the critical acclaim of other Treasure titles, despite being a fantastic game and a strong seller.

The Saturn had Astal, but strangely no new Sonic titles despite the success of the series on the Sega Genesis and Sega CD (Sonic Xtreme was never released and Sonic 3D Blast was a port of the Genesis game of the same name).  The Mega Man series kept going strong with Mega Man 8 and Mega Man X4 available on both the Saturn and the Playstation (despite Sony’s efforts to stop MMX 4 and other 2D games from appearing on their 3-D focused Playstation console).
Also on the Playstation, The Oddworld series carried the cinematic platformer torch from Prince of Persia (along with the game Heart of Darkness) and Ubisoft gave us Michel Ancel’s Rayman.  In addition, another very significant 2D title released during this time was Castlevania: Symphony of the Night.

This game was something of a rebirth for the series, fusing classic Castlevania gameplay with the exploration of a Metroid game and adding some RPG elements.  The game was a huge critical success, proved the worth of 2D gameplay even as the industry began to focus more on 3-D titles, and created what is known as the Metroidvania genre, a spot where the Castlevania would remain firmly entrenched.  The game made Koji Igarashi very popular, making him the new face of the franchise.  As well, the game also featured one of the greatest soundtracks of all time composed by Michiru Yamane.

Transitioning to 3D
Some developers were quite reluctant to move the platform genre to 3D and so they found a compromise: they created 2D games with 3D visuals.  This has become known as the 2.5-D approach.  Notable games in this style are the Clockwork Knight games on the Saturn, Shiny’s Wild 9, Capcom’s classic Strider 2, cult classic Klonoa on the Playstation and Pandemonium on both the Playstation and Saturn.

Some developers did take the plunge into 3D however, which lead to the creation of some fairly good games in the genre.  In 1994, Exact released Geograph Seal in Japan, a 3D first person shooter with a lot of jump based gameplay.  1995 saw the release of Jumping Flash from the same developer, which featured 3D platform gameplay with a first person perspective.  Bug was also released that year on the Sega Saturn, also featuring some 3D gameplay.

The Genre Reborn in 3D
Sony, trying to find a successful mascot to help sell its Playstation console much in the same way Sonic did in ‘91 for the Sega Genesis, released Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot in 1996.  The game was very successful and spawned a few sequels and a kart racing spinoff game.  Crash would become Sony’s unofficial mascot, leading to some funny commercials including one where Crash Bandicoot goes to Nintendo headquarters to call out Mario.  However, Sony’s real Playstation mascot would prove to be Lara Croft.

In that same year, Tomb Raider was released by Eidos Interactive (developed by Core Design) for the Playstation, Saturn and PC (though it would bring the greatest amount of success to Sony’s console).  The game was a throwback to games like Prince of Persia and Flashback.  It featured realistic combat mixed with difficult jumping puzzles that required PRECISE positioning and many traps.  It was also notable for its open 3D environments that encouraged exploration and a minimalistic use of music that created a sense of atmosphere and solitude in the many large, mysterious tombs and locations that players would find themselves in.  Lara was viewed as a female version of Indiana Jones and would even become a sex symbol for the gaming industry.  Along with games like Resident Evil and Final Fantasy VII, the Tomb Raider series would contribute greatly to the Playstation’s success and lead to comic books, a motion picture and a Guiness World Record recognizing Lara Croft for being the most recognized female video game character in the world. Currently, the Tomb Raider franchise is in the hands of Crystal Dynamics, the same company who released a decent little platformer called Gex: Enter the Gecko in 1998.

Crash Bandicoot 3 Screenshot

Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped (Playstation), 1998

The New Standard
As successful as Crash Bandicoot and Tomb Raider were, they arguably didn’t have much influence on the genre.  In the same year that those games were released, Nintendo released a game that became the template for future 3D titles in the genre.  Super Mario 64 laid the groundwork for quite a few other games in the genre by creating open environments similar to Tomb Raider and non-linear gameplay that allowed players to tackle stages in any order.  The game made use of the N64’s analogue stick to facilitate movement in its open 3D environments and changed the focus of levels to mission based objectives, such as collecting stars, rather than moving through a linear path to get to the end of the stage like other platformers. This focus on exploring and searching for collectible items would be featured heavily in other 3D platformers like Insomniac’s Spyro the Dragon and Rare’s Banjo Kazooie.  In addition, Mario 64 was also notable for its dynamic camera.

With Mario 64’s success, Rare would create some notable titles on the N64 featuring a similar style, culminating in the release of Conker’s Bad Fur Day, a game that proved to be a stark contrast to their cutesy Banjo Kazooie and Donkey Kong games, yet a classic title that not only went against genre norms with its adult humor, but also a real technical marvel for the N64 console both visually and aurally. Another title worthy of mention on the N64 was Sucker Punch’s Rocket: Robot on Wheels (Sucker Punch Productions would go on to create the Sly Cooper series on the PS2).

Although never regaining the prominence it had during the 16-bit era, the next generation of consoles would bring other notable titles to the genre.  Sonic finally made his way into the world of 3D with Sonic Adventure on the Sega Dreamcast (the earlier Sonic 3D was not a true 3D title but a 2D game with an isometric perspective).  It found success, as did its sequel, though some do not consider them to be as good as Sonic’s 2D outings. The Gamecube had Super Mario Sunshine.  The Ghouls and Ghosts series would be reborn in Maximo.

Sonic’s creator Yuji Naka would create Billy Hatcher, Tim Schafer would release the brilliant Psychonauts; and lastly, Insomniac Games (who created Spyro the Dragon) and Sucker Punch would join Naughty Dog as Sony’s go-to companies for 3D platformers by creating the Ratchet and Clank series and the Sly Cooper series while Naughty Dog created Jak and Daxter.  These three series are still going strong today, with Ratchet and Clank arguably being the most successful with its infusion of third-person shooter gameplay into the genre.  Sly Cooper brought stealth based gameplay to its platformer formula while Naughty Dog’s series began as a simple platformer built around item collection and changed to a Grand Theft Auto III inspired approach to gameplay in Jak 2 (which had a darker, more marketable version of Jak than the one in the original).   These three series are among the last examples in modern gaming of the anthropomorphic character based platformers that Sonic inspired.

A very notable title to be released during this time was Price of Persia: Sands of Time.  This game was notable for its visuals, intuitive, flashy combat and witty banter between the Prince and his partner Farah.  The game seemed partly influenced by the brilliant Ico in its visual style and the way the Prince has to protect and work with Farah (like Ico and Yorda).  The game is also notable for its time rewind mechanic.  If a player died, he or she could rewind time using the prince’s dagger to essentially undo their previous actions and keep the prince from dying.  Visually, it looks like how a movie being rewound looks and was a very convenient gameplay element that was more creative than the usual approach of using extra lives and continues in other games; even so, those were not its most notable contributions to the genre.

Sands of Time really re-wrote the book on platform gameplay in 3D video games with an incredibly intuitive control scheme that allowed the Prince to interact with his environment using many impressive athletic maneuvers and death defying stunts.  The way in which he was controlled by players and moved about the environment has become the standard for many modern games that feature platform gameplay with many games offering some variation of it much in the same way that many 2D fighting games copied Street Fighter II’s controls or how many modern console first person shooters have adopted Halo’s control scheme.

Today the genre is finding some success with Tomb Raider and Prince of Persia being consistent sellers (though Underworld sold below expectations).  The Uncharted series has also been very successful, blending various genres together but still placing a heavy emphasis on platform gameplay.  Mirror’s Edge has attempted to set a new standard by taking the platforming gameplay of those series and moving them into a first person perspective.  Nintendo is still pumping out Mario games, which are pretty much guaranteed successes before they are even released.  And lastly, 2D platformers are doing quite well on portable devices and digital download services.

Castlevania: SOTN Screenshot

Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (Playstation), 1997

Genre Conventions

  • Parkour and Freerunning – Both of these activities refer to physical disciplines based on maneuvering around obstacles in a usually urban environement, using highly trained athletic maneuvers with parkour focusing on speed and efficiency and freerunning focusing on style and showmanship.  Many of the moves that characters use to maneuver through their environments in modern platform heavy games like Mirror’s Edge, Prince of Persia: Sands of Time and Tomb Raider: Underworld seem heavily influenced by real-life parkour, freerunning and in Lara Croft’s case, gymnastics as well.
  • Element-themed Levels – Many platform games will try and challenge players by using levels built around a certain element in nature keeping with the idea that the environment is always your worst foe in a platform game.  Fire levels will usually task a player to time their jumps to avoid fire balls rising up from lava; ice levels will challenge players by making their characters slip and slide around a level which can lead to them falling into pits or throw off the timing for their jumps; and water levels will dramatically change the way players can move their characters like the extra high jumps in Mega Man 2 or make players rush through the stage so as not to run out of air as seen in Sonic the Hedgehog.
  • Anthropomorphic Animals – Animals who look and talk like human beings are very common in the Hop and Bop genre of platform games, giving them a cartoony, cutesy quality that appeals to younger gamers and makes many of them family friendly and marketable, with the exception of Conker (who was created to go against these norms).  Sega’s incredibly popular Sonic the Hedgehog is credited with starting the anthropomorphic animal trend, which leads us to the next genre convention.
  • Mascots – The platform genre is known for producing a variety of characters intended to represent a company’s brand image and help them sell more consoles.  This is largely due to the success of Mario and especially Sonic for bringing attention to their respective companies.  Notable examples would be Bonk, Gex, Sparkster, Crash Bandicoot, Lara Croft and the much maligned Bubsy.
  • Speed Running – Speed running is the act of completing a level or a game as quickly as possible.  Speed running is a popular challenge in the gaming community for many different genres.  However, platform games seem to be the most conducive to this activity, with some developers incorporating these types of challenges into their games.  Notable examples are Mirror’s Edge, Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus, Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped and some of the more recent Tomb Radier games from Crystal Dynamics (which feature Xbox 360 “achievements” based around completing a stage as quickly as possible).

Critical Gameplay Elements

  • Character Movement – A key element in any platform game is how a character moves and jumps; it is here much more so than in other genres where a character’s  ability to move around an environment matters more than his offensive ability.  How high can the character jump? How much speed does he need to clear a particularly long jump? Can he change what direction he is moving in the middle of a jump?  It’s also important to know whether or not a character slides after landing from a jump, as well as whether or not a character can do a second jump in mid air.  These all contribute to a particular platform game’s “feel” and level of difficulty.
  • Physics – Given the emphasis on movement in the genre, physics is always a key gameplay element.  Games like N and Portal play around heavily with physics.  Jump towards a wall or ceiling with too much speed in N and you’ll get damaged.  Clearing a large jump in Portal requires you to initiate a vertical drop, fall through a portal on the ground and come out of another portal in a horizontal wall giving you enough momentum from the fall to clear that long jump.  Try going through a loop-de-loop in Sonic without enough speed and you’ll fail and you’ll find jumping and maneuvering around obstacles in Mirror’s Edge much easier if you build up speed and momentum.
  • Environmental Interaction – How your character actually interacts with the environment is key in modern takes on the genre like Tomb Raider: Underworld.  Often solving a puzzle in a Tomb Raider game is about recognizing what you can interact with in the environment and how.  Can you grab that ledge? Are those vines you can climb? Can you swing on that pole? This aspect of gameplay is notable, as in many other genres the environment is just a backdrop, not something to actually interact with.
  • Camera – One of the most frustrating aspects of 3D platformers is when you don’t have a proper viewing angle to judge the distance of your jump.  Games SHOULD have smart, dynamic cameras that will adjust themselves to the right position, but players often find themselves having to adjust the camera manually for a better view
  • Environmental Hazards – Bottomless pits, spikes, traps, lava, moving boulders, and bodies of water all  serve as obstacles in many platform games (amusingly, there are many characters in the platform genre that lack the ability to swim and will die if they fall into a body of water).  Your greatest enemy in any platform game is always the environment itself.  Early Tomb Rader games were notorious for the variety of traps and difficult jumps that caused more deaths to players than enemy encounters did.
  • Collectibles – A common element in many Hop and Bop platformers in particular, collectible items can be simple things like coins and rings littered about the levels in Mario and Sonic games, to more unusual things like figments of a person’s imagination that you collected within a person’s mind in Psychonauts.  In many platformers, you simply collect items to increase your score or earn extra lives (or to keep Sonic the Hedgehog from dying when he gets hit by an enemy).  However, a lot of platformers are full of hidden items for players to find to unlock a reward of some kind.  Some games track how many hidden items players have found with a completion percentage and reward the player in some way for getting 100% or higher (like showing the player an extra ending scene at the end of the game, unlocking bonus stages, getting Xbox 360 achievements, etc.)  In some cases, some platformers are actually criticized for having too many items for players to collect.
  • The Double Jump – Originating in the game Dragon Buster, many platform games feature a double jump, which basically allows a player to do a second jump in mid-air.  This can be useful for getting extra elevation or changing the direction of a jump.  This gameplay element is notable for making many platform games much less frustrating than they would be otherwise.
Super Mario Galaxy Screenshot

Super Mario Galaxy (Wii), 2007

Tips and Tricks

  • Take Your Time – Don’t ever rush into a jump or you may miss it and die.
  • Look for Your Shadow – Making a successful jump in some 3D platformers where you can control your movement in mid air is much easier if you look for your shadow to appear on the platform you’re jumping to: this is your cue to stop pushing forward on the analogue stick and just let your character drop.
  • Patience – Going through a particularly grueling set of jumps only to miss one, die and have to start over can be frustrating.  Just keep your cool and be patient, or you’ll do worse on your next attempt.  This is a genre that typically demands more patience from the player than others, though modern Prince of Persia games have come up with interesting ways of alleviating the frustration of missing a jump and dying through the use of rewinding time or being rescued from your fall by a non-player controlled character like Elika.
  • Grab Everything – Those coins and rings aren’t just there for show.  Getting lots of coins or other items in a platformer gives you extra lives.  Getting lots of rings in a Sonic game keeps you from dying if you get hit by an enemy.  After playing a few platformers, you’ll get OCD about grabbing everything you see and do it without even thinking.
  • Don’t Do It! – If you see an item (usually an extra life) in a hard to reach place, just ignore it.  That’s the game designer daring you to try a particularly difficult jump that will probably just kill you.  Yes, that’s right; game designers are evil, but we still love them.
  • Shortcuts – If you have to speed run a level in a platformer (a requirement for unlocking some of the extras in Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus), look for shortcuts.  Sometimes they are left in a level unintentionally by designers and can save you a lot of time.  For Metroidvania games, “sequence breaking” is a fun tactic for getting to areas of a game sooner than you’re supposed to and is key if you ever decide to do a speed run for one of those games.
  • Observe Your Environment Carefully – If you’re stuck in a game like Prince of Persia: Two Thrones or Tomb Raider Anniversary, you probably just haven’t spotted what it is in the environment you’re supposed to interact with.  Look for things that seem to stand out, indicating that you can interact with them in some way.  Do you see a ledge for you to grab or a climbable surface of some kind.  Sometimes these games will fool you with a long distance jump that looks impossible to make when it’s actually what the game is waiting for you to do.
  • Long Distance Jumps – If you’re not getting enough distance to clear a jump and keep falling to your death as a result, you may need to get a good run going to built up enough speed to give you that extra distance necessary to jump to the next platform.  In some games though, all you need to do is use your character’s double jump to get more distance.
  • Watch out for Flying Obstacles – A popular tactic designers use to kill players in many 2D platformers is hitting them with an object or enemy in mid air, causing the player to get knocked backward and fall into the pit they were trying to jump over.  Usually you won’t see this obstruction until AFTER you jump.  It’s a cheap tactic, but effective.

Platformer Subgenres

  • Hop and Bop – A term some people use to describe platform games where you defeat enemies by jumping on top of their heads.  A lot of mascot games featuring anthropomorphic animals fall into this category.
  • 2.5D – Generally speaking, any game with 2D gameplay but 3D visuals falls into this category.  Perhaps more a style than a genre, games like Klonoa and Pandemonium fall into this category. (See our forum discussion about 2.5 Platformers)
  • Isometric Platformers – 2D gameplay with an overhead perspective.  Sonic 3D Blast is a good example.
  • Collectathons – Perhaps not a subgenre, but something some platformers focus heavily on, like Spyro the Dragon, the Lego games and some of Rare’s platform games.  These games heavily emphasize the collecting of various items throughout the game, many of which are hidden.  Each item found will typically contribute to a percentage based number that is used to track the player’s progress in each stage or their progress in the entire game.  Only when the player has found every item can they achieve 100% or higher in the game and thus truly beat the game.
  • Action-Platform Games – 2D classics like the Ninja Gaiden series on the NES, Strider, Shinobi, Bionic Commando, Castlevania, Ghouls and Ghosts and Mega Man featured a lot of action mixed in with the platforming.  Modern 3D titles like Maximo: Ghosts to Glory would also fall into this category as it features a fair amount of hack-and-slash action to go with the platform based gameplay (though the overwhelming majority of player deaths will come from missed jumps, making it a true platform game).
  • Sands of Time Clones – Sands of Time really defined how many modern 3D platform games or modern games with platform elements play.  All of the platform based gameplay you see in Uncharted 2 or Tomb Raider: Underworld are just variations of what Sands of Time introduced.
  • Metroidvania – The Metroid series and Castlevania series already featured a lot of platform gameplay, but the marriage of the two franchises combined with RPG elements produced something special in Symphony of the Night, which has been copied by all of the subsequent 2D Castlevania titles and more recently by the game Shadow Complex on Xbox Live Arcade.  Cave Story is another good example.
  • Puzzle Platformers – A lot of platform games feature puzzle elements like modern Tomb Raider or Prince of Persia games.  However, a lot of platform games, particularly 2D ones make this a main feature of the game, completely interwoven with the platform based gameplay.  Games like Braid and Crush are good examples.  One might even include Valve’s Portal as a three dimensional example.
  • First-person Platformer – Mirror’s Edge may be the most notable example, though you could technically add games like Jumping Flash.  This is basically a platform game where the player’s perspective is in first person.  This has increased the immersion factor in Mirror’s Edge to the point that some players have experience nausea and vertigo.
  • Cinematic Platformers – These games are notable for looking and playing more realistically, their cinematic presentation, and also for featuring adventure game elements like puzzle solving.  Oddworld, Flashback, Out of This World, and Blackthorne are all great examples.
Mega Man 2 Screenshot

Mega Man 2 (NES), 1989

Most Timeless Platformers

The platform genre has a large number of timeless classics, more so than most genres.  However, a few titles really stand out among genre fans

  • Dracula X: Rondo of Blood & Castlevania: Symphony of the Night – Castlevania is a legendary franchise and these two games are often cited as the best examples of the franchise’s two different approaches to gameplay, with Rondo being the best of the “classic” Castlevania games that focused heavily on action, platforming and mostly linear level progression and Symphony of the Night still regarded by many as the best of the Metroidvania games that it inspired.  Dracula X rejuvenated the series with anime inspired visuals, an excellent soundtrack, a new playable character and branching paths through many levels leading to optional boss fights and characters to be rescued from Dracula’s influence. Symphony of the Night marked a new direction for the Castlevania series in both gameplay and artistic direction.  The game amazed video game critics in a time when 2D games were falling out fashion.  It featured one of the best opening levels in gaming history, a legendary soundtrack, memorable boss fights and an attention to detail matched by few other video games.  The game is considered one of the best and most highly sought after games on the original Playstation.  Even today, many still view Rondo of Blood and Symphony of the Night as the standards by which every 2D Castlevania game released after them, and arguably even the 3D ones, have been measured.  Both can be enjoyed in Dracula X: Chronicles for the PSP.
  • Mega Man 2 – The recent successes of Mega Man 9 and 10 showed that 8-bit Mega Man games and perhaps 8-bit games in general are still relevant.  Mega Man 2 is still regarded by many fans as the best entry in the series with classic, memorable moments like the boss fight with the robotic dragon and a soundtrack that is one of the best of the 8-bit era.
  • Mega Man X – Fans often debate what the best and worst games of the classic MMX series are.  However, most fans agree that the original MMX was and still is a classic game and one of the best platformers on SNES.  MMX 4 is also notable for adding significant changes to the series, most notably making Zero (who would later have his own classic series) a fully playable character.
  • Sonic 3 & Sonic & Knuckles (or Just Sonic 3 & Knuckles to Some) – Although technically two games, they were meant to be played as one through the use of Sega’s innovative lock on cartridge technology. This allowed players to connect the Sonic and Knuckles cartridge to previous Sonic game cartridges to unlock new gameplay features (something that had never been done before in the gaming industry).  The two games combined make up the largest, best Sonic game ever and also one of the most epic 2D Hop and Bop platformers in existence.  Just play through the game’s final boss battles and the Doomsday Zone to see why.   Sonic CD also gets an honorable mention here.  It is also viewed as a real high point in the franchise’s history by many Sonic fans, but it has to settle for second best Sonic game.
  • Prince of Persia: Sands of Time – Some say it’s better than all of the Prince of Persia games that followed it.  The other games tampered with Sands of Time’s formula in various ways to try to make the series more marketable and lost much of Sands of Time’s charm in the process.  Another testament to its timeless gameplay, one can still see Sand’s of Time’s influence every time you do some platforming in a modern game like Uncharted 2, Tomb Raider: Underworld or Assassin’s Creed.
  • Rayman 2 – Designed by the brilliant Michel Ancel of Beyond Good and Evil fame (who also designed the excellent Peter Jackson’s King Kong movie tie-in), Rayman 2 is still considered one of the best platformers of all time.
  • Conker’s Bad Fur Day – Conker’s timeless appeal is that he is still unique and memorable today for being the antithesis of the cutesy, family-friendly anthropomorphic character template that Sonic made popular and that is still the norm today with characters like Sly Cooper, Ratchet and Daxter.  This makes him stand out in a genre that is full of Sonic character clones that nobody remembers or cares.  Visually and aurally the game is still one of the most impressive titles on the N64 and the game as a whole is the pinnacle of Rare’s N64 platform games, outdoing the others not just graphically and aurally, but also trimming some of the gameplay fat that those games had, like the over-reliance on item collecting.  The game’s movie and video game parodies are still relevant as well, since it was parodying some of the most classic, timeless games and movies out there.  Like many classic games, Conker received a remake–proof of the game’s lasting appeal–and the graphics were updated.  The new visuals combined with the classic gameplay one expects from a Rare titles makes it a game that can still appeal to modern genre fans. Conker’s Bad Fur Day is still the most foul-mouthed, offensive game in the genre and fans wouldn’t have it any other way.
  • Crash Bandicoot 3: Warped – The third and best installment in the series.  Also, the last game Naughty Dog worked on, making other Crash games after this one pretty much irrelevant.
  • Klonoa – A very good example of 2.5-D done right, this features some classic platform gameplay and some nice puzzles.  Klonoa’s unusual character design and the made-up language the characters in the game use give this title a unique charm. This quality game and cult classic was deemed worthy of a remake on the Nintendo Wii.
  • Ninja Gaiden II: The Dark Sword of Chaos – While most modern gamers are familiar with the popular beat’em up games by Team Ninja and Tomunobu Itagaki, many fans still hold a soft spot for the classic, platform based NES trilogy and Ninja Gaiden 2 is often cited as the best installment.  It’s not vastly different from the other two, but seems to be the most polished and well-designed entry in the trilogy.  All three of them are still very much worth playing today.
  • Shinobi III – The Shinobi series is known to blending platform gameplay with fast-paced, ninja action.  Though the original Revenge of Shinobi is a favorite among many fans, Shinobi III was the best installment in the 2D line of Shinobi games.
  • Super Metroid – The inspiration for classic games like Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, Shadow Complex and Cave Story is still an atmospheric, replayable, and fun game today.
  • The Sly Cooper Series – Recently released in high def on the Playstation 3, this series features some of the most memorable characters in the genre, a brilliant blend of stealth and platform gameplay, a cel-shaded style that brings to mind old Saturday morning cartoons and quite a variety of gameplay styles in Sly 2 and 3.
  • Nearly Any Mario Game – There are many entries in the Mario franchise and, as is the case with most Nintendo first party titles, it’s hard to find one that isn’t a timeless classic in its own right.  There’s no real consensus on which Mario game is the best or most timeless, so pick your favorite and pretend that it’s listed here.  For this author, that game would be Super Mario Bros. 3.
  • Other Notable, Timeless Classics – Rocket Knight Adventures, Astal, Elevator Action Returns, Capcom’s Strider 2 (on the Playstation), MediEval, Maximo: Army of Zinn, Aladdin (Sega Genesis).
Little Big Planet Screenshot

Little Big Planet (PS3), 2008

Most Original Platformers

  • Oddworld Series – An interesting blend of puzzles and platforming where you must use GameSpeak to communicate with NPCs in order to rescue them and work with them in solving puzzles.  The series is notable for its odd character designs and themes against corrupt industrial corporations.
  • Little Big Planet – One of the PS3’s first successful titles, Little Big Planet stands out by allowing players to create their own content–like a create-your-own platformer game.
  • Mirror’s Edge – An interesting game that presented platform gaming in a first person perspective. Mirror’s Edge creates an immersive experience that has caused vertigo and nausea in some players as run, jump and maneuver about the game’s buildings and city environment.
  • Mischief Makers – Always finding a way to put their unique and unconventional stamp on any genre they touch, Treasure created a game where you control a robotic maid and have to grab enemies and objects and then shake or throw them to overcome the game’s many challenges.  It’s an interesting gameplay mechanic, complemented by the memorable bosses, wacky characters and anime charm one expects from a Treasure title.
  • The Ratchet and Clank Series – No one has managed to fuse platforming, RPG elements and third-person shooter gameplay the way this series has.  It also features some of the most memorable, funny and unsual weapons ever seen in video games.
  • Earthworm Jim – One of the most bizarre, surreal games ever created.  Everything in the Earthworm Jim series from the levels to the characters is weird, wacky and very unconventional.  With crazy character names like Professor-Monker-For-A-Head and weird levels like the one where you battle lawyers in hell, this game is just plain crazy and also lots of fun to play.  The sequel was pretty good too.
  • Psychonauts – Tim Schafer’s charming story about a boy with psychic powers who has to enter into people’s minds, making for some unusual levels.  The game has all the humor and quality storytelling you’d expect from Schafer as well.
  • Braid – An interesting game that features very challenging puzzles based on time manipulation.  This makes for some of the most interesting and memorable puzzles ever.  It also features a very vague and unusual story that has led to different interpretations by different people.  Braid’s gorgeous, painting-like visuals and mood setting music make it a very artistically captivating game.
  • Portal – A brilliant game based around solving puzzles through the use of a gadget that creates portals in the player’s environment.  Also features some of the most amusing dialogue in a platform game as the player is constantly being verbally antagonized by a computer that is creating the many simulations that players must play through.  Portal was so popular that internet memes like, “the cake is a lie” have spread ubiquitously throughout the gaming community.
  • Lego Games by Traveler’s Tales – It’s hard to say what made Traveler’s Tales come up with the unusual idea of using Lego blocks to create platform games that parody movies, but these games have been very successful and Traveller’s Tales keeps pumping out new ones like there’s no tomorrow.
  • Other original titles tiles – Wild 9, Loco Roco, Crush.

Notable Companies That Have Contributed to the Genre

  • Nintendo, Sega,Rare, Capcom, Konami,Shiny Entertainment, Ubisoft, Core Eidos, Traveller’s Tales

Most Influential People in the Platforming Genre

  • Jordan Mechner – Creator of the Prince of Persia series and also involved in the creation of Sands of Time.
  • Shigeru Miyamoto – Creator of Donkey Kong (arguably the first true platform game), Super Mario Bros (the most successful and influential platform game of all time) and Super Mario 64 (viewed as the model for many other 3D titles in the genre).
  • David Perry – The creator of Shiny Entertainment, which brought us classics like Earthworm Jim.  Also worked on the classic Aladdin for the Sega Genesis, which set a new visual standard for 16-bit animation in platformers.
  • Koji Igarashi (IGA) – The man most well known for his part in creating Castlevania: Symphony of the Night and the so-called Metroidvania genre.  He has since become the face of the Castlevania franchise.
  • Toby Gard – Creator of Lara Croft, who holds a Guinness World Record for being the “most recognized female video game character.”
  • Yuji Naka – The former head of Sonic Team, which gave us the classic Sonic the Hedgehog.
  • Keiji Inafune – The man who is well-known for his work on designing and naming the Mega Man character and was an instrumental part of the creation of many titles in the franchise.  Although it’s worth noting that he once credited a man by the name of Akira Kitamura as the actual creator of Mega Man.

Featured Platforming Discssions in the Racketboy Forum