The lights are on
The action/platformer was once the preeminent genre in video games. The NES, Genesis, and PlayStation made mascots like Mario, Sonic, and Crash Bandicoot their public faces. Today, in a market dominated by shooters like Halo and Call of Duty, it seems that gamers and publishers have little time for the genre. I think that’s a shame, because the platformer remains perhaps the most pure expression of video gaming, where imagination and gameplay trumps storytelling and cutscenes. Given its strengths as a genre, I think platformer still deserves a place in the modern gaming market. While it may go against recent trends, I also believe the genre might still have a bright future ahead of it.The Golden Age
While it’s now common to see midnight launches and giant media blitzes for new games, the release of Super Mario Bros. 3 in June of 1990 was an unprecedented event. The first two games in the NES trilogy basically defined gaming for an entire generation, selling millions of copies and whetting gamers’ appetites for the next in the series thanks to their high quality. Super Mario Bros. 3 promised to be one of greatest games ever. Hell, we were so excited we all went to see The Wizard just to get a glimpse of the game in action.In the end, Super Mario Bros. 3 might have exceeded our lofty expectations. By adding new elements like a world map and the infamous suits to the already polished Mario formula, it still stands as one of the crowning achievements in game history. It went on to sell over 18 million copies (without being bundled with a system) and established the platformer as the preeminent genre in games.
In the years that followed, the genre grew to maturity with a host of classic franchises that continued the formula Nintendo had established. Sega’s Sonic the Hedgehog added intense speed to the mix. Donkey Kong Country impressed with groundbreaking visuals and level design. Crash Bandicoot brought improved graphics and anthropomorphic attitude. Rayman lent the genre an oddball charm (and subtracted the superfluous limbs from the main character). That’s not to mention the scores of has-beens and never-weres like Bonk and Alex Kidd. Series that weren’t perceived as character platformers, like Mega Man and Castlevania, relied heavily on the foundation set by Mario while placing a greater emphasis on combat, exploration, and puzzle solving.Even id Software, the company that popularized the first-person shooter (the genre that would eventually topple the platformer from its throne), made its break into the industry with an old-school 2D Mario clone called Commander Keen. The same goes for Epic Games, now known for the gritty action of Unreal and Gears of War. A young Cliff Bleszinski first won notoriety with a lighthearted platformer called Jazz Jackrabbit.
The 3D Revolution
As technology improved, it was once again up to Nintendo to reset the table for the platfomer with Super Mario 64 in 1996. I still remember seeing this game at a Target kiosk. I ran around in circles, not quite understanding how to make the mental leap to platforming in three dimensions. Once it all clicked, there was no turning back. Though Crash Bandicoot continued to provide hybrid 2D/3D experiences, the future of the platformer was set. In the years that followed, other 3D platformers like Spyro the Dragon, former 2D star Gex, and Rare’s Banjo Kazooie series closely aped Mario 64’s blend of action, collection, and exploration.The 2D ancestors still provided the foundation for the new breed of 3D platformers. The emphasis was still on collecting coins and other trinkets while relying on wits and reflexes to navigate a series of stages. But in three dimensions, the action took on a new aspect; suddenly instead of simple platforming, it felt like you were exploring an entire world strewn with hidden items and areas to find. For the first time, the platformer felt as expansive as an RPG and as immersive as a first-person shooter.
As time passed, the 3D platformer stumbled under the weight of too many carbon copies and slapped-together movie licensed games. Nintendo itself didn’t release another proper 3D Mario until Mario Sunshine in 2002, and that was probably the least well received of the franchise (with the possible exception of the underrated Super Mario Bros. 2). Sony did its part to keep the genre alive with its excellent Jak and Daxter, Ratchet & Clank, and Sly Cooper series on the PlayStation 2. Studios like DoubleFine and Beep Industries offered up quirky fare like Psychonauts and Voodoo Vince for the Xbox. However, the defining games of the generation would be hardcore, adult-oriented releases like Halo, Grand Theft Auto III, and God of War. Soon, former platforming developers Naughty Dog, Insomniac, and Sucker Punch were working on new, more mature properties like Uncharted, Resistance, and Infamous.