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.
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.
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.
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.