Heroes may fall, but legends never die; so it seems with the humble platformer. As a genre, platformers were at one time a much loved staple of the video game industry. All the classic franchises cut their teeth by hopping blocks and bouncing off heads. They pioneered challenging, addictive gameplay and brought us some of the most memorable characters in gaming history. Simple to learn, difficult to truly master, games like the original Super Mario Bros. series remain relevant to this day; thanks to the wonders of digital media and official emulation, new generations of young gamers get to see where it all started.
Early platformers have had a huge influence on game development throughout the years. Some of today’s studios (usually indie) have continued to push the boundaries of what makes a platformer and what they’re capable of. The last few years have seen an explosion of interesting titles which take a simple formula and reinvigorate it with engaging mechanics for fans old and new alike to challenge themselves.
Old habits die hard, and the new wave of platformers usually pay much appreciated homage to their forefathers. Pixelated, colourful art-styles and frantic 8-bit soundtracks expertly blend nostalgia with innovation to create wonderful experiences which strike at the heart of what gaming is all about; fun.
Originally released in 2013 for PC, Linux and OS X by developer Cellar Door, medieval-themed platformer Rogue Legacy was an instant hit with fans of the golden age of gaming. The premise was simple; you venture forth and explore a series of levels based on four unique environments, each with their own distinct enemy types and end boss. Beat them all and return to the beginning to face the final challenge in the game’s opening castle level. The combination of ‘Metroidvania’ style puzzle-platforming and ‘roguelike’ randomly generated dungeons was certainly enough to entertain enthusiastically sentimental gamers for hours on end. Rogue Legacy, however, took it a step further by introducing a unique character selection process determined by the player’s death. Starting out as a standard Knight class, you hack and slash your way through the game until you suffer defeat. Upon death, players are then given a choice between three ‘heirs’, each with their own set of strengths and weakness selected at random by the game.
These attributes can have a major impact on how you approach your next attempt. Colour-blindness, for example, generates a black and white version of the game, whilst ADHD means your chosen character moves faster. Dwarfism means your new character starts off much smaller and can actually fit through gaps regular-sized characters would have difficulty navigating. Characters with the vertigo trait will have to explore the game upside-down, whilst being far-sighted makes distant terrain and objects blurry.
The intriguing trade-off between these traits is what makes Rogue Legacy both challenging and endearing; each playthrough is unique and requires players to approach the game with a different strategy. Whilst your new Barbarian with Gigantism might have an easier hitting enemies, the condition also makes it easier for enemies and traps to hit you. Likewise, a Mage might be physically weak, but when paired with the OCD trait can become unstoppable, since OCD means every object you break restores Mana. If anything, Rogue Legacy is a game about making the best of the hand you’re dealt. A lot like real life.
Innovation doesn’t always mean re-inventing the wheel. More often than not, it’s about refinement; taking a concept and polishing it up, pushing the limits of an idea. This is absolutely true of indie developer Humble Hearts’ adorable and deep 2D side-scrolling, Disney-esque romp Dust: An Elysian Tale. Originally published by Microsoft Studios on Xbox Live Arcade back in 2012, the game represents a meta-level labour of love both in terms of its creation and gameplay; aside from the voice acting and soundtrack, solo developer and self-taught illustrator and animator Dean Dodrill designed and programmed the entire thing, citing a smorgasbord of 8-bit classics as inspiration.
Taking place in the fictional world of Falana, Dust: An Elysian Tale follows the story of eponymous, amnesiac hero as he attempts to discover his past. Upon waking in a meadow, Dust discovers a sentient sword known as the Blade of Ahrah and befriends its guardian, Fidget; an adorable and chirpy companion that perfectly complements Dust’s slightly cautious reserve. Like so many modern platformers, the gameplay is heavily influenced by the ‘Metroidvania’ phenomenon, requiring players to attain new abilities in order to backtrack and open up new areas. There is also a basic RPG leveling system; gaining experience points from killing enemies and completing quests allows players to customize Dust’s powers and determine specific play-styles.
It all seems fairly standard; a respectable, well-designed platformer based on the classics with cutesy animal characters, amazing and varied hand-painted backgrounds and a killer soundtrack. Simple, right? Well, yes and no. Dust’s true strength comes from the emotional weight of its storytelling. Thoughtful, provocative and devastating, the story of Dust is one overflowing with ambition, redemption and persecution. As you progress through the game, you eventually learn that ‘Dust’ is actually a magical fusion of two characters who died in battle against one another before the game’s events; Jin, an innocent, good-hearted paragon of purity, and Cassius, an assassin who embodied evil and was charged with the genocide of the Moonblood people by the ruthless General Gaius.
It’s heart-breaking stuff, almost unprecedented within the platformer genre, and features a gut-wrenching climax that left many in tears; nothing beats hearing Dust roar at Gaius before the final battle. It’ll make the tingles on your spine tingle. The fact that the game saw releases on various other platforms, including PC and a 1080p PlayStation 4 version, and sold over a million copies.
These are just two examples of the incredible position contemporary platformers have claimed for themselves over the last few years. It’d be easy to write an essay about modern classics such as Super Meat Boy, Guacamelee!, Limbo, Ori and the Blind Forest, Shovel Knight and most recently Salt and Sanctuary. That alone is enough of an indication that this enduring genre isn’t going anywhere for some time and is only going to get better with age; platformers are gaming’s vintage wine. So grab your controllers and settle in for high scores galore for years to come, we certainly will be.