What Went Wrong: Platformers in the 3D Era

The 8 and 16-bit eras were a glorious age for platformers. Super Mario Bros. completely redefined gaming at the start of the third generation, and as a result platformers became the dominant genre in console gaming. This continued through the 16-bit era, with Mario and Sonic engaging in the greatest franchise war in gaming history and countless companies trying to cash in. Despite the mascots with attitude invasion, there were still plenty of great platformers. Donkey Kong Country, Ristar, Mega Man X, Kirby Super Star, Rocket Knight Adventures, it seemed like the good times would never end. As we all know, however, they did. I don’t think anyone would deny that in the sixth generation, platformers were nowhere near as prominent as they had been a decade earlier, but what led to this and where did it start? In my opinion, the roots of the problem can be traced back to the very start of the fifth generation.

When Super Mario 64 was released, the last thing on anyone’s mind was that platformers were going to face a decline. Arguably the most influential game of the 90s, Super Mario 64 single handedly carried Nintendo 64’s launch to record breaking heights, and it was one of the most critically acclaimed games of all time. No one can deny that it had a huge and positive impact on 3D gaming as a whole, and few would deny that it is a great game. There are, however, some valid questions about how great of a platformer it is. Super Mario 64 was praised for its sense of wonder and exploration, the feel that you could go anywhere and do anything (at least relative to other games from the time period), but as it took people far too long to realize, that’s really not the point of a platformer. Super Mario 64 did not have as much pure platforming as the 2D Mario games, there was a lot more time spent searching and exploring with often minimal environmental challenges, and dying from anything except bottomless pits was nearly impossible. The non-linear nature of the levels necessitated a simplicity in their design, since it always had to be possible to backtrack. Despite these issues, Super Mario 64 was still a great game and a quality platformer. However, something that revolutionary is bound to have wide reaching influence, and not every designer knows when to stop.

Anyone who was into platformers during the fifth generation will recognize the label collectathon. A collectathon is a platformer where the goal of the game is to collect a huge and varied amount of items that are strewn throughout the levels. They are usually non-linear, and most of the items are checked off a list scavenger hunt style (“In this level find 10 Important Plot Things, 6 Kind of Important Things, 100 Scattered Everywhere Things, and 3 Secret Things”) instead of being a renewable resource like money in an RPG. Super Mario 64 was fairly restrained in what it made you collect, but naturally future 3D platformers wanted to be even bigger and presumably better. Some games such as the Crash and Spyro series struck a good balance, but for other platformers this spiraled out of control. “Platformers” became more and more about checking every corner of usually mapless levels and less about any sort of actual platforming. Since the non-linear design made standard platforming so difficult to incorporate, mini-games were given more and more emphasis (more on that later). This came to a head in Donkey Kong 64. Not only did you need to collect 25 Golden Bananas, 375+ bananas, a couple of hidden Banana Fairies, an Arena Crown and Boss Key, and enough banana coins to buy all the new abilities in each stage… you had to do this with five characters, almost every collectable only being available to one of them! The backtracking and aimless wandering through the massive levels completely overshadowed any platforming, and that’s not even getting into the chunk of the game taken by genre switching mini-games. Donkey Kong 64 was the rallying point for a backlash against collectathon platformers, and developers did listen. Unfortunately, the solution was arguably even more detrimental to platformers.

Enter the sixth generation of gaming. Things started out rocky for platformers from the very start, with Sonic making a rough transition to 3D, Crash and Spyro leaving their original developers, and Mario missing GameCube’s launch. The generation really got started in Fall 2001, and some of the most popular and influential games of that time were Grand Theft Auto 3, Devil May Cry, Metal Gear Solid 2, and Halo. I bring those up not only because they were trendsetting games that weren’t platformers, but because they are all M rated, which demonstrates one of the big problems platformers faced in the sixth generation. The sixth generation’s market was dominated by mature rated games, which barely any platformers fall under (and the few that do tend to be satire based instead of gritty realism). Grand Theft Auto 3 is especially relevant to the decline of platformers’ mainstream popularity, since the wide open sandbox genre it popularized in many ways took the role platformers had in the fifth generation. Huge open worlds with a gigantic amount of collectables, sub-missions, and gameplay types made the generational transition, but the platforming elements didn’t come with them. Sandbox games were getting all the clones, not platformers.

The defining platformer for the sixth generation was Ratchet and Clank. The gun focused combat system, increased emphasis on story, and more clear mission objectives were all things that the series made standard for 3D platformers in its generation. The influence can clearly be seen with the Sly Cooper and Jak and Daxter series. The first game in those series came out before or at the same time as Ratchet and Clank, and both sequels changed a great amount to be more similar to R&C. Unfortunately, like Super Mario 64, Ratchet and Clank’s formula (which still had a good amount of platforming) would be exaggerated to its detriment in future games. The Ratchet and Clank games consistently reduced the amount of platforming in them throughout the generation, replacing it with RPG style upgrades for the guns and a combat emphasis. Other platformers used the wide open sandbox approach of Grand Theft Auto, leaving little room for platforming. The evolution of platformers in the sixth generation was a lateral move, while the new standards were less annoying than the collection mania of the fifth generation, platforming had been even more shoved to the wayside.

Things were not looking good for platformers as the sixth generation came to a close. What exactly was it that caused the genre to go from its industry dominating golden age to the verge of extinction? The biggest internal problem was the transition to 3D, platformers thrive on complex environmental level design and precise control, neither of which were the strong point of early 3D games. This caused platformers to look for another way to wow gamers, and while it initially worked, it grew out of control to the point where gamers decided they didn’t need the platforming at all. Combined with the rise of cinematic and adult oriented games, everything was perfectly lined up to knock the platforming genre from its dominant position. Things were going to get even worse in the seventh generation, but there was a light at the end of the tunnel. But that’s a story for another time.

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