Formulating the fall.
The platform game was the shooter of the ‘90s, the default genre by popular decree that owned a majority of the market share. Just as the virtual immersion of the FPS has somehow resonated more strongly today than in past years, the platform game defined the early years of the revitalised home console market, namely its 8-bit and 16-bit eras, until a number of factors would begin to churn a culture that would culminate in a call to warfare and a fall for the platformer.
But why has this trend transpired? What are these factors that’s left one of the most prevalent species of the video game as a sallow shadow of its former self? To really understand the fall of the platformer, we need to understand why it was relevant in the first place; we need to understand its relationship with its historical antithesis – the shooter.
If you look at the most seminal titles of the gaming timeline, it’s easy to see how their simplicity disseminated an ethos for their individual eras. The basis for Spacewar was competition – a smaller war amidst the ongoing superpower conflict – two people engaging in a simulated battle over bragging rights to the girl next to the cabinet leering over an arcade machine. And that’s exactly what came to characterise arcade culture: rivalry.
Super Mario Bros, on the other gloved hand, was escapism for the individual; a solo adventure that would replace the hang-outs with your friends at the arcade for a night in, feasting on mutating mushrooms and pursuing a princess.
Was the video game more enjoyable alone than with a crew? Was that the needed nourishment that the arcades had been unable to provide and that this platformer was now satisfying? Well, that just can’t be true, as the Internet revolution of online skirmishing has proactively proved. But the fact that one game featured an antagonistic premise – face off against your friends – and the other was about the fulfillment of self-discovery is crucial to discern.
Spacewar was rooted in destruction, a prime product of Cold War fear, whereas Super Mario Bros was embedded in the imaginative power of the child’s creativity. From a casual consideration, a child may be measured as wildly destructive in his unrelenting enactments of shattered steel and broken bones played out with a handful of G.I.’s he got for his birthday, but if his dooms-days are the product of a mental whim, how can the child be considered to be anything but madly constructive. And what is a video game to a child but the most awesome toy ever, a toy that sees that kid’s imagination that has spent so many hours creating vast worlds, characters, and stories in the sanctuary of his bedroom – of whose ordinariness is blind to the pre-adolescent in his state of architectural mania – become realised in a visual playground.
What is a video game to a child but the most awesome toy ever?
It’s also conventionally understood that the first significant event of anyone’s life is movement, taking their first steps. Being able to defy the prison of immobility is a primitive liberation. Kids are obsessed with moving; they’re chaotically kinetic. Mario Bros. was a gift to their inability of sitting still, with advanced controls that intuitively, with two buttons, gave you a massive amount of liberty as to how to stretch this porky plumber’s legs. Mario could walk, run, sprint, hop, jump, and hurdle even higher by holding down the jump button while sprinting. On top of all that, he would realistically slow his pace after running as momentum continued to carry him forward. Mario was all about the body, and that struck a chord with the kid. But movement’s more than just jumping… it’s also about running.
Let the limelight shift to Sonic, an anthropomorphic hedgehog whose trademark was running fast enough to clear roller-coaster loops in centrifugal-forced fashion. If Mario molded the platformer, Sonic defined its demons.
As we’ve already studied to some degree, the platformer’s gameplay is grounded in navigating a dynamic world whose puzzles are motive. Sonic’s abilities differed from Mario’s, but the world the game provided, a world of obstacles, was the same; which is exactly why Sonic can be such a pain in the ass.
Anyone’s who’s played the game will concede that it balances thrill with frustration, the ecstasy of running so fast that nothing can stop you with the hindrance time and time again of walls and other obstacles getting in your way. You run real fast, you stop dead in your tracks… this is the game’s routine unless you’re a master of its design. Just like Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog is about timing maneuvers The only difference is that in the former the platformer’s challenge lies in avoiding death-dealing pits, whereas in the latter it’s to spare you the sickening feeling of relenting your rapid-relishing delight.
By this point, you may be getting lost in my psychological suppositions, so let’s trade inference for this objective observation: the shooter GAME OVER’ed, and the platformer picked up the pieces.
Back to summarised hypothesis: Maybe it did so because the constructive energy in the freedom of running and jumping suddenly trumped the negative demolition of explosive effects. Asteroids, Space Invaders, Astrosmash, and a dozen other derivatives had become contextually outdated in the ‘80s, a more optimistic age than the cynical ‘70s, and lost their appeal.
The platformer was paramount in the glory years of Nintendo and Sega.
The platformer was paramount in the glory years of Nintendo and Sega, the late ‘80s to the early ‘90s, years encompassing the life spans of these two challengers’ dominant consoles: the NES, SNES, and Mega Drive (Genesis). Based on the above analyses, is it merely coincidental chance that the two main mascots of these industry leaders were both platform characters? Hardly. The genre appealed to the juvenile gamer more than ever in these days, but times were changing and the gamer was growing up.
The problem with the platformer is that, unlike the gamer, it has never matured except in a technical sense. When Conker’s Bad Fur Day came out, I remember staring at its box on the shelf of my local video store and being genuinely dumbfounded. I knew this was a platformer, and from its cutesy cover art it seemed to be a game that I would have thoroughly enjoyed… I was a kid after all, and I was in love with these jumping games, having spent hundreds of hours in the category.
But Conker was rated M. A platform game I wasn’t even allowed to play?! How could this be? Never had I imagined such a thing. That was the mentality, that the platformer was for the kids.
As the ‘90s wore on, violence became more prevalent in releases like Night Trap, DOOM, Resident Evil, and Grand Theft Auto. Subject matter was becoming tuned to the teen, and because the platformer had become so associated with kids, it rotted in a demographic that now alienated a major percentage of the gaming populace it had once controlled. But when I say the genre’s never matured, I’m talking about more than just blood and verbal obscenities. Do not mistake an unashamed expression of gratuity for maturity.
Whether or not the platform game dares to embrace adult subject matter as Conker did, the genre has regardless never escaped its rudimentary narrative. A hero journeys to thwart a villain. That’s it. The hero’s motives are shallow – rescue a damsel, save the world, etc. – and the rewards for the protagonist’s harrowing quest are just as superficial. For example, in the Super Mario series, you’re never offered any serious glimpse into the relationship between Mario and Peach. Forget the fact that we know nothing about the particulars of their partnership – their sexual idiosyncrasies, how consistent struggles against Bowser have affected their bond – we don’t even know if they’re dating at all! Are they married, or is it complicated? How exactly did an Italian, working-class, jack of all trades become involved with royalty? Rather than take the opportunity to divulge these details, Princess Toadstool kisses her chivalrous white knight on his globular schnozzle and declares that our champion’s arduous voyage will be salaried with some cake (which anyone whose voice has cracked can only assume to be a euphemism for sex).
Of course, few video games of any genre dare to scratch the surface of narrative any deeper than the standard ‘good vs. evil’ routine (one of the few reasons that games are so often classed as grossly inferior to the film as an audio-visual expression), but at least their archetypal stories are fleshed out. Most will rebut this attack on the platformer with the argument that games like Super Mario 64 would lose their appeal if they were to deviate their fun from control to chronicling, and they’re right… The platform game is not about the story; its about the gameplay! But to say that it’s incapable of harmonising the two is horsesh*t.
With the coming of 3D pre-rendered graphics, Mario and his army of clones enjoyed a renaissance.
Back to the shooter, Wolfenstein 3D and DOOM featured the basest of plots: escape hell, in one form or another. Though many later pivotal shooters would offer the same premise (Half-Life, Halo, Far-Cry), they have also developed characterisation and experimented with cinematic techniques. So, if the shooter could evolve from faceless to fantastic fiction, why not the platformer?
With the coming of 3D pre-rendered graphics, Mario and his army of clones enjoyed a renaissance before being snuffed out by an old nemesis. At last, we were able to rationalise how our heroes, once clammering from left to right across horizontal planes, perceived their world in three dimensions. At last, the platformer matured in the only way it knew how: in its gameplay. One of the N64’s powering bullet points, the console maintained a monopoly on the control-perfect Mario 64, Banjo-Kazooie and its sequel, Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, Rayman 2: The Great Escape and Conker’s Bad Fur Day, among others, in this last push for Nintendo, who was now second to Sony and their PlayStation.
Nintendo was being replaced as the frontrunner in the biz, this second war after Sega proving to be the nail in the coffin for the company’s undisputed reign as industry sovereign. And familiar opposition had returned, the shooter and a multiplayer movement taking by storm. With this revival of destructive competition, the renaissance was over, the platformer’s apex of approval declined indefinitely, and a weighty footnote was filed : technology had defined, and was now destroying, the charm of turtle stomping.
So we come to the final factor for the fall: platforming had dominated in a climate of aesthetic limits, but became obsolete when it could no longer keep up with the progress made by other genres in capitalising on the infinite possibilities offered by 3D gaming. Kept short, crude graphics were platforming’s backbone. From the beginning, the character of Mario (initially labeled as Jump-Man, the most appropriate of designations that speaks volumes to how alien the mechanics of jumping in a game were at the time) was only given his physical traits – bulbous nose, overalls, hat, and moustache – because rendering features like hair was too tough to do with 4K of memory.
The most obvious limitation that first allowed the genre to succeed was perspective, a restriction that was emblematic of 8-bit and 16-bit games. After all, in a 2D world, you can only move either left to right, the player viewing the realm from its side, or in every direction via an overhead angle. Platforming had been the logical design default for years because you couldn’t do much else in 2D. But in 3D, despite its initial triumph of growing aesthetically, the shooter made far greater strides in evolving and thereafter took over in sales. And the rest is history.
Might As Well Jump
This taxing study on one particular class of the video game has been a labour of love, an effort to make sense of its nature. As a personal reveal, my favourite game of all time is Super Mario 64, played for hundreds of hours from the approximate ages of 5-10. And yet, though the platformer was such a formative part of my life, I no longer jump on enemies; I shred them to swiss cheese with a rifle.
The platformer’s in my blood, and yet instead of lending my retrospective opinions to its most formative titles here at Sumonix, I’ve reviewed their pivotal perpendiculars – that is, to say, some of the most revolutionary shooters; a genre that affected my teenage self as powerfully as the platformer did my youth. Why, I continue to ask myself… why? My abridged thoughts as to why are two-fold: 1. I grew up, while Mario did not. 2. The potential of 3D game design eventually saw the static platformer (how’s that for irony) as a liability. In the end, everyone moved on.
The platformer is not dead, make no mistake.
The real question is this: is there anything left to offer? Can Mario, Sonic, Mega-Man, Banjo, Crash, and a long list of limber heroes empowered by their leaping ability and one-dimensional personae become the heroes they once were? My belief is that no, they can’t. They have to become a new breed of character in a new breed of platform game if the genre has any hope of becoming as dominant as it was in a simpler time.
The platformer is not dead, make no mistake. Occasional blockbusters like Super Mario Galaxy are infrequent reminders of a joy we’ve long lost the vividness to explain, while independent gaming has toyed with that task in a parodying spirit, games like 1000 Lives, Give Up, and Super Meat Boy dissecting the genre’s most notorious elements, notably its difficulty. But these are all products pampering the past, refusing to truly innovate on gameplay and narrative, refusing to move forward. Platforming’s insistence on playing safe in an old order has left it obsolete, and if it ever wants to become a staple again, it has to build upon its mechanics and challenge us in a way that jumping on impossibly floating floors has yet to do.