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What today’s 3D Platformers can take from the past

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For console gamers in the mid-90’s, no genre shown brighter than the 3D platformer. Nintendo relied on Super Mario 64 to sell the Nintendo 64, much like they are relying on The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild to push the Switch now, and their sterling second-party studio, Rare, doubled-down on the genre through Banjo-Kazooie, Banjo-Tooie, Donkey Kong 64, and Conker’s Bad Fur Day. Meanwhile, PlayStation brought Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon, Gex, and Ape Escape to the table. The well dried up as quickly as the flood began, however, and platformers were jettisoned as a relic of the past by the end of the following console generation.

With the recent launch of Yooka-Laylee, the acclaimed reboot of Ratchet and Clank last year, the Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy releasing this summer, and Super Mario Odyssey slated for this fall, the stage might be set for a revival of the genre. With that in mind, here are some strengths of old 3D platformers that their contemporary counterparts will hopefully lean into, rather than the collect-a-thons and annual sequels that weighed the genre down.

Smart, Quirky Characters

While modern games can convey character through nuanced voice acting and subtle animation, early 3D platformers often relied on quirky dialogue and eccentricity. Taking a page from Pixar’s book, the characters in Rare’s games managed a duality of world-building cartoonishness with world-bending real-life references and fourth-wall-breaking dialogue. The Great Mighty Poo from Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a memorable boss fight not only because the player gets to fight a pile of poo by tossing toilet paper, but because he is an English-accented, operatic, self-aware pile of poo that revels in his “beautiful clagginess.” When done right, this type of trademark charisma can appeal to children and adults alike in a manner few contemporary games attempt. After the comparatively ham-fisted writing in the latest Ratchet and Clank, it would be nice to see a return to form for 3D platformers’ unique blend of charm, wit, and warmth.

Emphasis on Movement

Movement lies at the heart of 3D platforming, and just as games like Dark Souls and Nioh have put their own twists on the action genre, it might be time to reinvigorate the 3D platformer with bold movesets, pacing, and rhythm. Since decades have passed since the genre’s heyday, developers might be able to take advantage of newer technology to tinker with conventional moves and abilities of the past. We have seen some experimentation in the Super Mario Galaxy games, such as the spin drill that allows Mario to drill into the interior of planets to allow for inventive gameplay scenarios likely impossible on the N64, yet some of the most interesting experiments in movement are relegated to the past, such as the ball-bouncing movement mechanics of Glover, and the tongue-based traversal of Chameleon Twist, both inventive oddball games of the late 90’s that attempted to diversify and deepen standard platforming. Hopefully, upcoming platformers can break new ground by melding creativity with modern technological affordances. The anticipation surrounding the recent release of Snake Pass is a sign that gamers are intrigued by new forms of movement.

Playground Level Design

While action games might emphasize deep combat and enemy variety, platforming is as much about traversing the environment as it is disposing of baddies. Since Super Mario Sunshine, there have been few platformers that emphasize exploring a limited space to accomplish a wide array of goals. While some might argue that this form of level design was merely a philosophy meant to circumvent limited technological capabilities, this playground-like level design highlights the platforming aspects of 3D platformers, as it encourages the player to move through the same space in numerous ways. It also gives the game some of its warmth and charm by making players grow intimately familiar with their small but dense play space. Perhaps this is why “Lethal Lava Land” and “Whomp’s Fortress” in Super Mario 64 evoke a sense of place that the briefly-visited planetoids of Super Mario Galaxy can’t rival. In an era when most single-player campaigns either rush us through linear spaces or give us access to incomprehensibly vast spaces, few games encourage us to grow meaningfully intimate with our surroundings. Perhaps the upcoming Super Mario Odyssey, which promises to delve back into Mario’s 3D roots later this year, can make a case for the depth and intimacy this form of level design can offer.

Color

Whereas many modern games embrace the mute and the drab to suit their “realistic” or “adult” aesthetics, platformers of the past proudly used every crayon in the box. This bright and vivid visual approach complemented the spiraling, vertical, playground-like level design in its fanciful effusiveness, crafting an enveloping depiction of a make-believe world. Psychonauts, for example, is comprised of levels that translate various psychological states and complexes into levels, each with an accompanying art style that visually emulates a psychology. More recently, first-person platformer Mirror’s Edge uses bright colors against greys and whites to help the player identify where to go next without interrupting the flow of the parkour gameplay. While other genres might be content basking in shades of brown, modern platformers ought to draw from their colorful roots in their aesthetic as well as their design.

Smart Collectables

The Sisyphusian collect-a-thon loops of a game like Donkey Kong 64 can dramatically detract from the player’s experience, but collectibles are a hallmark of 3D platformers for a reason. At their best, collectibles offer a reason for the player to revisit intricately-designed spaces to discover their nooks and crannies. This encourages the development of the one-of-a-kind intimacy that makes 3D platformers feel so special to begin with. Granted, the genre emphasized collectibles too heavily by the end of its heyday, but they can be surprisingly rewarding when implemented properly. Though not a platformer, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild scatters 900 Korok seeds across its world, not to encourage collecting them all, but as a way to encourage player exploration and sprinkle traversal with small puzzles and rewards. Meanwhile, the Ratchet and Clank games offer a map that displays the portions of the map the player has already explored, allowing him to make informed decisions about where to explore instead of asking players to blindly search an entire world for the hundredth thingamajig. By combining these newer empowering mechanics with a tempered use of collectibles, modern 3D platformers could encourage the player to intimately familiarize themselves with levels, while also avoiding the tedium and mindlessness of collect-a-thons.

Escapism

Though non-players often interpret the escapism video games offer as a negative, players know that sense of escape is one of the qualities that makes the medium so remarkable. As reprieves from reality, 3D platformers – in their colorful, otherworldly, comical, friendly fancy – offer the chance to escape to worlds where you are a culturally savvy gecko on the search for TV remotes, or a fruit-loving bandicoot visiting tropical locales. Call of Duty certainly has its place, but 3D platformers are like virtual Disneylands that offer a whimsical parallel universe in a world where we are endlessly bombarded with the gravitas of events that we have no control over. giving players the chance to have lighthearted (but empowering) fun in a fantastic world where their choices do make a difference. In this way, 3D platformers are the antithesis of CNN, and an important virtual refuge for those of us who sometimes need a break from being reminded how horrendous the real world can be. While some indie games, such as Owlboy and Stardew Valley, evoke a similar sense of sanctuary, larger developers might want to consider investing in the cozy and carefree.

Reinvigoration through Reinvention

These are just a handful of old-school platformer trademarks that modern platformers would benefit from studying. Ratchet and Clank, for example, learned from its past, emphasized its strengths, and resulted in one of the best exclusives on PS4. Despite many aspects of old platformers being outdated by today’s standards, there are certainly aspects special enough to leave fans anticipating the genre’s return decades later.

Kyle is an avid gamer who wrote about video games in academia for ten years before deciding it would be more fun to have an audience. When he's not playing video games, he's probably trying to think of what else to write in his bio so it seems like he isn't always playing video games.

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‘Tecmo Bowl, the Godfather of NFL Games

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Tecmo Bowl Retrospective

Tecmo Bowl was a big deal back in 1989!

With Madden growing more popular and even more complex every year, we sometimes forget about the game that started it all.

I cannot stress the importance of Tecmo Bowl twenty-nine years after its release. Originally an arcade game, Tecmo Bowl was ported to the Nintendo Entertainment System by the makers of such classics as Ninja Gaiden, Mighty Bomb Jack, and Solomon’s Key, and it took everyone by surprise by just how good it was. Nobody expected the Japanese developers of puzzle games and 2D platformers to succeed in creating a sports game, much less an American sports game, but they did. Named NES Sports Game of the Year, Tecmo Bowl provided players with the best football experience found on the NES console back in 1989 and it paved the way for what became the biggest trend in sports games to this day.

Although Tecmo didn’t have the official NFL license to use the actual team names and logos (the teams in the game are identified by their home city or state), the game features players from 12 NFL franchises due to being licensed by the NFLPA (National Football League Players Association). Nowadays this doesn’t seem like a big deal but back in 1989 it was huge! Tecmo Bowl features some of football’s greatest players including John Elway, Bo Jackson, Marcus Allen, Mike Singletary, Joe Montana, Ronnie Lott, Walter Payton, and Dan Marino, and when it shipped 29 years ago, it changed everything for sports video games.

Long before football video games became just as complex as real-life football, Tecmo Bowl laid the groundwork for what would be the standard moving forward. There aren’t many plays to choose from but you’re given the choice of 4 plays while on offense and another 4 while on defense. In addition, the game features three different modes: Single Player, Two Player, and Coaching mode which allows you to call plays while letting the CPU control the players on the field. The simple and responsive controls work perfectly within the framework of the game, and it is this simplicity that makes the game fun to play to this day. And regardless if you know don’t know much about the sport, anyone can easily follow along thanks to the broadcast camera view and two-button controls.

Tecmo_Celebration_1280w

Tecmo Bowl is a seemingly effortless game in which everything falls neatly into place. It stripped football down to its basic elements and created a fun arcade experience anyone can enjoy. Tecmo Bowl was Madden before Madden was a household name. It’s the game that started the football franchise craze in video games and laid the groundwork for the even better, Tecmo Super Bowl. American football games have come a long way over the years, but what hasn’t changed is the sheer enjoyment any football fan can have when playing Tecmo Bowl.

Tecmo Bowl is without a doubt the granddaddy of football games, and there’s something to be said for the back-to-basics formula that Tecmo Bowl employed. With technological enhancements in gameplay, graphics, power, and speed, the original Tecmo Bowl seems incredibly dated in 2016, but surprisingly the game holds up nearly three decades later.

Side Note: There were two NES versions of the game released in the U.S. The first release is easily identified by its black and gold seal of quality and the second version by its white and gold seal. It should also be noted that the names of players were removed on the virtual console release.

Tecmo Bowl
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‘Coffee Talk’ Review: The Best Brew in Town

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

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It’s 9:00pm. The rain just started coming down softly a few minutes ago, and the street outside is reflecting the lights above it. Neon signs shine brightly in the distance, although it’s hard to make out the words. You unlock the doors to the coffee shop and wipe down the counters in order to get them clean for the customers. The rain makes a soft sound as it hits the glass and passerby speed up their walking pace to avoid it. The bells chime as a tall, green orc walks in and sits down at your table in silence. You wonder what their story is…

I wanted to set the tone for this review because of how important atmosphere and audio/visual design is in the world of Coffee Talk. While it’s easy to boil the game down as a visual novel-type experience, it’s honestly so much more than that. A unique cast of characters, incredible user interface, and a mysterious protagonist combine to form the most enjoyable experience I’ve had this year on Switch.

Coffee Talk
Some of the subject matter can be pretty serious in nature…

Coffee Talk is beautiful because of how simple it is. The entire game takes place within a single coffee shop. As the barista, you’re tasked with making drinks for the patrons of the shop as well as making conversations with them. The twist is that earth is populated with creatures like orcs, werewolves, and succubi. The relationship between the various races is handled very well throughout the story, and some interesting parallels are made to the real world.

Making drinks is as simple as putting together a combination of three ingredients and hitting the ‘Serve’ button. If a unique drink is made, it will be added to a recipe list that can be referenced on the barista’s cell phone. This is where the awesome user interface comes in, as the phone has a series of apps that can be accessed at any moment in the game. One app houses your recipe list, another acts as a facebook for the characters in the game, one allows you to switch between songs, and the other houses a series of short stories that one of the characters in the game writes as it progresses. It’s one of the coolest parts of the whole experience and helps it stand out from other games in the genre.

Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen.

Coffee Talk cycles between talking with customers and making drinks for them. In the beginning, they will ask for basic beverages that can be brewed on the fly. Later on however, they may ask for a specific type of drink that has a unique title. These drinks often have certain descriptive features that hint at other possibilities in terms of unique dialogue. If the wrong drink is made, you’ll have five chances to trash it and make a new one. If the wrong drink is made, don’t expect the customer to be pleased about it.

The gameplay really is not the focus here though; it’s the characters and their stories that take center stage. An elf with relationship issues, a writer that can’t seem to pin down her next story, and an alien whose sole goal is to mate with an earthling are just a few of the examples of the characters you’ll meet during the story. There are tons of memorable moments throughout Coffee Talk, with every character bringing something unique to the table. The barista develops an interesting relationship with many of these characters as well.

Coffee Talk
Appearances can often be deceiving in this game.

Even though serving the wrong drinks can change some of the dialogue, don’t expect any sort of options or branching paths in terms of the story. It’s not that kind of experience; the story should simply be enjoyed for what it is. I found myself glued to the screen at the end of each of the in-game days, waiting to see what would happen in the morning. The first playthrough also doesn’t answer all of the game’s questions, as the second one is filled with all kinds of surprises that I won’t spoil here.


Coffee Talk is as quaint as your local coffee shop. It’s relatively short, wonderfully sweet, and absolutely committed to the art form of telling a story through a video game screen. It’s an easy recommendation for anyone who loves video games, not just visual novel fans. There are characters in the game that I’ll certainly be thinking about for a long time, especially when the setting brings out the best in them. Don’t pass this one up.

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The Magic of Nintendo: How Mario and Zelda Connect us to Our Inner Child

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Magic of Nintendo

Nintendo is special. Many excellent developers depend upon story or progression systems to entice engagement, but not Nintendo. Nintendo games captivate because of their immediate charm. There is no need for a payoff. The games, themselves, are enough: they elicit feelings, hard to find in adulthood. Through intrepid discovery, playful presentation, and unfiltered whimsy, the best of Nintendo connects gamers to their childlike selves.

The heart of any great Nintendo game is discovery and no encounter encapsulates this better than Breath of the Wild’s Eventide Island. First, finding the island requires genuine gumption. Found far from Hyrule’s shore, the island is only clearly visible from other islands, and even then, it’s only a speck in the distance. Reaching the island requires players to brave the open ocean and head towards something … that could be nothing. Then, upon arriving on the beach, a spirit takes all the player’s gear, including clothes and food. Link, literally, is left in his underwear. From there, players must make clever use of Link’s base skills in order to steal enemy weapons and make traps. The scenario creates a marvelous sense of self-sufficiency brought on by one’s own desire to discover. The player comes to the island purely of their own choosing, tackles the sea, and then overcomes obstacles without the aid of their strongest tools. The game turns players into plucky children who are discovering they can take care of themselves.

The intrepidity of Breath of the Wild and other Nintendo greats mirrors the feelings Shigeru Miyamoto, the father of many Nintendo franchises, experienced as a child. “I can still recall the kind of sensation I had when I was in a small river, and I was searching with my hands beneath a rock, and something hit my finger, and I noticed it was a fish,” Miyamoto told the New Yorker. “That’s something that I just can’t express in words. It’s such an unusual situation.” In sequences like Eventide Island, players don’t just understand what Miyamoto describes, they feel it: Apprehension gives way to exhilaration as the unknown becomes a place of play.

 Nintendo’s intrepid gameplay is often amplified by playful presentation with Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island being the quintessential example. The game’s visuals, defined by pastel colors and simple hand-drawings, appear crayoned by a child while the celestial chimes that punctuate the jubilant soundtrack evoke shooting stars. The overall effect cannot be understated. It takes the surreal and turns it real, allowing players to interact, tangibly, with imagination.

Super Mario Odyssey Wooden Kingdom

Even if one removes the presentation and gameplay from Nintendo’s masterpieces, an unabashed creativity remains that bucks norm and convention. The arbiter is fun; reason and logic have no say. For instance, Super Mario Odyssey’s Wooded Kingdom, takes place in a post-apocalyptic setting akin to Nier Automata. Players explore the metal remnants of a civilization that has become a lush home to robotic beings. However, unlike Nier, the dark undertones of the past have no bearing on the game or those who inhabit its universe. The post-apocalyptic setting is just a fun backdrop. It’s as though a bunch of children got together, began playing with toys, and one of the kids brought along his sibling’s adult action figures. There is no attention paid to the context, only unfiltered imagination.

When they’re at their best the creators at Nintendo invite gamers to come and play, like a parent arranging a play date. Pulled along by joyful gameplay that expands in unforeseen ways, players desire to play for the sake of play. It’s a halcyon state of being: No messy thoughts or contradiction, just joy.

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