Thursday, October 30, 2008

What Happened to Platformers?

I had a sad, sad revelation last night. It came after playing the new Banjo-Kazooie demo freshly released on Xbox LIVE. You see, back in the N64 days Banjo was a platformer, an action-adventure game. But Rare decided to turn my beloved franchise into a action-racing hybrid. Instead of exploring and collecting while acquiring new abilities to further explore other worlds, you build vehicles to explore and complete missions. Instead of learning new abilities you find new parts which help you find new areas. An interesting idea in theory, but the execution was horrible. Controls were clunky and objectives boiled down to brain-dead racing challenges, time trials and awkward goals (nudge the soccer ball into the goal while trying to shoot enemies with horrible aim controls). The only redeeming point of the game is the only thing Rare can apparently do right these days, which is graphics and music.



The music in particular was a throwback to the old Banjo games and almost seemed to tease a "you wish it were like this" kind of message, making me want to play the old games again. It really made me wonder - what the hell happened to the platforming genre? It used to constitute a virtual majority of video games and also a majority of the good ones. If you think back to the NES and SNES days, most games had you jumping around and navigating toward your ultimate goal lurking somewhere off screen to the right. The only obstacles in your way were spikes, pits, enemies, and sometimes lava. They were a dime a dozen and people didn't seem to ever get sick of them.

As games evolved to the 3d era the platforming genre had to evolve too. Having an extra dimension gave developers a lot more places to hide things, and so shiny objects they hid. Games like Mario 64 proved how well the transition worked; while there were still some hard jumps to be had and bosses to fight, a lot of the game revolved around exploring the confounding 3d environments and searching every nook and cranny for those 120 stars and the 8 red coins in each world.

Everyone picked up on how fun this can be, and the genre had another explosive growth. Spyro had you running and gliding for gems as a fire breathing dragon, Gex had you searching for TV remotes as a smack-talking gecko, and Donkey Kong 64 had you searching for every kind of collectible under the sun...it had over 3000 individual items to collect! Of course my beloved Banjo-Kazooie also appeared; it blended beautifully crafted worlds with a move-learning system that had your characters constantly expanding their ways of getting around. In the beginning you could only run, jump, glide and attack. By the end of the game you were dive bombing, talon trotting, egg throwing, and full-blown flying your way through levels. Later levels forced you to use the abilities while previous levels often had secrets that could be found with using all of your powers. It was a great system that made you explore, think, find things, and retroactively explore some more. I was in love.

In the last generation platformers became a bit more scarce. There were some great gems but they often were more combat oriented; examples include Ratchet and Clank as well as Jak and Daxster series. Mario had a less-than-stellar followup to 64 with Sunshine, but it was still a solid game. Other games, like the underground hit Psychonauts, still focused on jumping and collecting things.

When you get to this generation, however, counting the number of good 3d platformers is pretty easy. The answer is one - Mario Galaxy. That's it. There are a number of good 2d platformers out, the spotlight of course going to LittleBigPlanet...but seriously, what happened to the 3d platformers? I feel like the genre became forgotten overnight, replaced by the myriad of FPS / TPS games we see these days. And why this has happened completely puzzles me - Galaxy proved that the genre is not only still viable, but can be successful both critically and fiscally.

It's the kind of genre that can appeal to old and young, to both hardcore and casual. Make the main game tame with some difficult parts and then put some ridiculously hard challenges to tackle for the sought-after 100% completion. Give me some creative, innovative mechanics and some huge worlds sprawling with collectibles and hidden nooks and crannies to explore. Give me an ability system, a light but entertaining combat system maybe, and a nice story to boot. It's a pretty simple formula that's universally appealing enough to make any game that executes it well successful.



The future just looks so bleak for the genre. All I have to look forward to is Mirror's Edge, which looks promising. But I'd love to see some more platforming games come out. I don't want the genre to die - it's one of my favorite ones. I frankly don't understand why it's been such a rarity these days. What do you all think?

19 comments:

Lima said...

the newest Ratchet and Clank was third gen, and is my favorite by far out of the series

But I get what you're saying. I played most of the ones you mentioned too. ^_^

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