Jumping From the Ashes: The Rebirth of Platformers

When we last left platformers at the close of the sixth generation and dawn of the seventh, things were not looking good. The transition to 3D that had seemed so promising with Super Mario 64 had caused initially hidden but quickly expanding problems for the genre, and the gaming market had shifted in a direction that was not very hospitable for platformers. Sonic had become a joke and Mario was for all intents and purposes missing from the genre. Ratchet and Clank could barely be considered a platformer anymore, and no other series from the last generation seemed to be making the leap. Was all hope lost?

It certainly seemed so at the beginning of the generation. While there was some hope with New Super Mario Bros. finally bringing back 2D Mario and its exceptional sales, this didn’t have the same impact as a console game would have, and Mario’s return could be more of a sign of Nintendo’s health than the platforming genre. Besides, a 2D game obviously couldn’t solve how to make platformers work in 3D.

As for what was happening to 3D platformers… it wasn’t pretty. The seventh generation’s large emphasis on cinematics led to what could be called auto-platforming: a jumping system where the player has very limited control over jumps and depends on set pieces to guide their character through acrobatic feats that look cool but take little interaction besides pressing the right direction now and then. This completely removes the point of platforming, platformers are about mastering a game’s jumping system and learning the patterns and layout of the environment so you can navigate it. Auto-platforming removes both of these features, since the jumping tends to be incredibly simplistic and the environments have been reduced to a prop that enables your platforming instead of testing it. There is no freedom in how you navigate the environment, platforming has been reduced to a quick time event. Games like the 3D Prince of Persias, Uncharted, and Assassin’s Creed are examples of games that contain auto-platforming, and for a short but painful time period it seemed that this was the closest we would get to 3D platformers in the seventh generation.

So things were at their darkest for platformers, who could save them? Well, it’s actually pretty obvious. Mario, who had both defined platformers and unknowingly set them on the path to destruction, had another 3D platformer coming out in 2007. I’ve tried my best to stay objective throughout these articles, but I’m going to have to let some emotion into this part. Super Mario Galaxy was miraculous. It was as if the decline of platformers had never happened, we had a game that kept the linear essence of the genre and used 3D to enhance the core gameplay and level design instead of replacing it with exploration. To make things even more miraculous, the gaming media and community seemed to recognize this. While few were brave enough to openly acknowledge that linearity could be a good thing, Super Mario Galaxy was incredibly popular and considered an instant classic in a way no platformer since Super Mario 64 had been. With such an amazing game to lead platformers in the seventh generation, the genre’s troubles were surely over, right?

Well, not exactly. Super Mario Galaxy may have been universally loved, but did that guarantee that other platformers would follow its example and that they would also be popular? In 2008, it didn’t seem that way. Despite Super Mario Galaxy the previous year, 2008 was arguably the darkest looking year for the future of the genre. Wario Land Shake-It was a good game that was completely ignored for being 2D, Sonic Unleashed gave up on platforming to focus on action/racing style gameplay and was still mediocre at best, and Little Big Planet focused on customization to the detriment of its core gameplay. Mario, the exception to the genre’s woes, was nowhere in sight and may have again gone into hibernation for most of a generation. Had all been lost?

It turns out all we needed was a little patience. Games aren’t made overnight, and this was truer than ever before with the seventh generation’s rising development time cycles. Platformers weren’t dead in 2008, they were charging. After more than a decade of turmoil, 2009 was the start of the platformer renaissance. If I had to pinpoint a precise moment where it started, it wouldn’t be with a game release, but with an announcement. At E3 2009, Mario shattered his one platformer (if that) per system curse with the announcements of New Super Mario Bros. Wii and Super Mario Galaxy 2.

These announcements weren’t just good news for the Mario series, both games symbolized a wonderful development in the genre. Super Mario Galaxy 2 showed that the original Super Mario Galaxy was not a one time swan song for the genre, it was the new beginning it deserved to be. This would be demonstrated as games like Ratchet and Clank: A Crack in Time, Sly Cooper Thieves in Time, and Rabbids Go Home returned their series to a platforming focus. Arguably best of all, Sonic Colors systematically broke every step in the dreaded Sonic cycle and finally returned the series to platforming greatness. 3D platformers had changed again, and this time for the better. The damage done at the start of the 3D era had finally been healed.

But that wasn’t the only thing that caused the platformer revival. While the 3D platformer finally reached a good place in its troubled evolution, the 2D platformer made an astonishing comeback on consoles. Despite the dismissal Wario Land Shake-It was met with, New Super Mario Bros. Wii became one of the best selling console games of all time and companies took notice. Donkey Kong Country Returns, Rayman Origins, Kirby’s Epic Yarn/Return to Dreamland, and of course New Super Mario Bros. U continued the multiplayer console 2D platformer revival. If anything, 2D platformers are more prominent than 3D ones now, which no one would have ever predicted in the fifth and sixth gens.

So here we are at the dawn of the eighth generation. How do things look for platformers? While we don’t have the sheer quantity from the third and fourth generation golden age and probably won’t any time soon, 2013 seems to continue at the post-revival pace with Sly Cooper Thieves in Time, Rayman Legends, Yarn Yoshi, and a new 3D Mario all released or scheduled for this year. Mario aside, platformers aren’t the market dominator they used to be, but they’re selling well enough to keep a steady stream of them coming. There’s still a ways to go before platformers fully regain their 16-bit era glory, but things look far brighter for the genre than at any other time since then.

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