The Pitfalls of Platforms


The Pitfalls of Platforms
An in-depth look at the stale genre of platform games.

Originally Published on July 1, 2002

Has anyone noticed that no matter how much great press is put out about the next big platform game, like Maximo or Jak and Daxter, that it all looks remarkably like -*gasp* dare I say it – Mario 64? Now recently I will admit that Nintendo is putting out a lot of sub-par gaming experiences. In fact, with the exceptions of Goldeneye, Mario 64, MarioKart and the first Zelda title, the 64 was mostly a waste of a system, and so far it seems that the GameCube is gearing up to be a similar disappointment.

I’m not setting out to give the folks at Nintendo a bad rap though, quite the contrary. I’m saying that every platform game that I’ve seen really hasn’t improved that much on the Mario 64 idea, control style, etc. and in most cases Mario still far surpasses these newer games.

Wait! Pull all your fingers away from the mouse button, I really don’t need all those e-mail bombs. You can sit and bitch to me about all the fancy bangs and whistles that newer games have in them; the special effects, the better graphics, the richer environments, greater challenge and larger worlds, but really isn’t it all just the same thing? Sure they’ve had good boob jobs and are dressed up nice, but take all that away and you’ve got just a poor copy of something that was really good.

You still don’t believe me, I know, I know, but let’s take a few moments to deconstruct the platform and see what’s underneath (hopefully it won’t be a bottomless pit, because I’m running low on lives here and I’m out of continues).

First, you’ve got the art style of the graphics, and in every case that comes to mind they are built to look like you’re in the middle of a cartoon – lots of bright colors, soft edges and characters that look like they’ve stepped out of Saturday morning TV. This isn’t a bad thing, it’s an element of the genre and it has been that way since the great-granddaddy of platform games – I wonder what game that could be?

Second, hmmm what to talk about second- here’s an idea, and here’s one, and another; that’s right collectibles, be it either to get free lives, extra continues, or to work toward that ever elusive 100% completion. There’s always little things scattered around for you to work your ass off picking them up, and what just pops into your mind when you’re picking them up? That’s right coins.

Look, I can spend all night sitting here listing all the ways that I’m right about this. The simplest comparison is to look at play control however. You’re allowed to explore a 3D environment with a fixed camera hovering just behind you. There are always at least one or two locations where the camera, no matter how good it is in the rest of the game, screws you. Sure they give you some ability to rotate the camera, usually, but those one or two places are just evil and no matter where you put the camera you’re still lying there trying to relax and just hope that this is over quickly. You can’t escape the evil grip that is Mario no matter how hard you run. You see?

What makes me say that Mario is better though? Well, simply put it was the first, and by nature of being in that position it is the standard by which the genre is judged. My complaint with the platform game is that it really hasn’t evolved much beyond the blueprint that Mario laid down. Thusly, no matter what great new thing there is available, it’s still just a copy of a copy of a copy. Also, most often anymore there is very little variation in the abilities of the characters you are playing.

You generally just have whatever jumping, punching, or what have you, that’s available from the beginning of the game. There are power ups, and some of them are nice, but lets look at what Mario had. He could fly. That alone could be worth my whole argument, but not to simply leave it at that, every level you got that ability in it not only let you avoid a lot of crap if you could control it, but it let you get a much better view of the level you were working on, and saved your ass on more than one occasion. Besides that, it was just fun. Also, the hats as special abilities was a nice touch (my personal favorite being the metal one, it looked bad ass on, and completely changed how you controlled the character).

Power-ups alone do not make a game however. What really separates Mario from the rest of these games is the diversity of levels that were in the game. It was more than just a change of scenery, you had an island where half of it you were giant and the other half of it you were tiny, there was a clock interior, a desert world with the inside of a pyramid, and a ghost house. That’s just naming a few. The real difference though is the interface of all of this. Yes, you were restricted in some places from going on, but for the most part you could choose what levels you wanted to tackle. The whole thing was built around jumping into paintings in the castle, and there were secret levels all over. You had real differences in the challenges facing you in each level, not just a different look to the platforms that you were jumping off of.

My biggest pleasure though, from the whole game, the thing that made it all worthwhile was the boss battle. After getting through that whole big pain in the ass of a castle, what did you get to do, grab Koopa (by the by interesting fact: there is a Japanese mythical creature called the Kappa that is a part turtle, part human, and looks resoundingly similar) by the tail and spin him around and throw him into bombs. I’m not saying that it wasn’t a tough sequence, but it was just a different approach to that kind of thing, and it was just funny to see little Mario hoist that fat bastard of a lizard and toss him like a used hankie.

So that’s it, platform games haven’t really evolved since the advent of Mario 64. Not that they’re all bad, they’re just more of the same. I would like to see some change in them though, really in the whole industry in general, but I’ll settle for platform games as a start.

How should they change? Well, first of all give me a good reason to get all 100% of the game complete. Yeah, I’ll probably do it just because I’m the most anal retentive gamer you could meet about that kind of thing, and I like the challenge, but give me something worthwhile for going to the trouble. I’m not saying it has to be something like nude pictures of the Princess (and don’t you look down your nose, you’ve wanted them too ever since those hairs started growing in weird places), but make it something better than one fairly passable picture of Motoko Kusanagi for getting through Ghost in the Shell on one life. Or do something more hard edged like Metal Gear and make it a platform game. Do something to get away from that cartoony image. The aforementioned Jak and Daxter is a step in the right direction. I’d just like to see something different. Give me something more radical than just your basic jumping puzzles and collecting runs. Innovate.

Mat Houghton