Point of order 1: While recording Retronauts yesterday, I was reminded that once upon a time this site used to be dedicated entirely to 2D games. No one read it when I did that, but it was still a noble endeavor and one I’ve been sadly remiss in maintaining. I apologize. I should get back to that.
Point of order 2: The GameSpite/Telebunny community helped me compile a stunningly thorough list of 2D platformers last year, and I’ve been meaning to do something with that for a while. I should get on that.
Point of order 3: The more Anatomy of a Game pieces I write, the more I feel I can’t do a proper job of breaking down game design without first exploring the context and history behind these games. Simply going back to Donkey Kong doesn’t cut it. I should do something about that.
So here we are with the Run ‘N Jump Chronicles, an attempt to explore the full evolution of the 2D platformer from its very beginning. It’s something I’ve wanted to do for ages, and I figure rolling into the second half of the year is as good a time as any to get started. I gotta have something to keep me busy until Mad Men comes back, after all.
As with so many firsts about video games, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what constitutes the first in this particular genre. Game design evolution usually happens gradually, not in the epochal shifts that we tend to canonize. Yes, Super Mario Bros. was the “first” side-scrolling character platformer… unless you count Pac-Land. Sure, DOOM invented the FPS, but it was standing on the shoulders of Wolfenstein 3D and Faceball 2000. And so on, and so forth.
So far as I’ve been able to determine in my research, the first game that could reasonably stake a claim to being called a platformer came 35 years ago from Gremlin and Sega. It’s the first platformer, maybe. But then again, maybe not.
Arcade | 1978 | Gremlin/Sega
Frogs looked pretty fancy for a game from 1978! It had a big, colorful border surrounding the cabinet and a detailed, albeit monochromatic, player character. Playing Frogs basically looked like this in the arcades:
But on MAME it looks more like this:
Because everything except the score, the player, and the targets are simply projections, akin to the screen overlays common among home consoles in the ’70s. As such, you might guess it’s a fairly simple game, and you’d be right: You control a frog leaping across a cluster of lily pads, jumping up to snatch bugs as they fly overhead. The pads themselves exist only as elements of game logic, their boundaries invisible on screen and defined to the player’s senses only by the projected lily pads.
At its most basic genetic level, Frogs owes much to Space Invaders. You control a character patrolling left and right across the bottom of the screen, gaining points for destroying objects above. That being said, it deserves credit for being vastly more imaginative than the overwhelming majority of Space Invaders derivatives that glutted arcades in the late ’70s. Instead of straight up cloning the game and tweaking the graphics a little, it legitimately adds new ideas to the formula.
And here’s where we come to the details that give Frogs its tentative claim to being the platformer’s progenitor. While the frog roams left and right along the bottom of the screen, its challenges and actions differ from that of Space Invaders‘ missile base. For starters, the lily pads may only exist in the computer’s imagination, but they provide strict finite boundaries for the frog. If you go too far left or right, you’ll drop into the water: Game over. The missile base had free run of the horizontal, with the only dangers coming from above. Here, the only real danger is bouncing off the lilypads, as the bugs you’re trying to catch don’t hurt the frog in the event of a collision. Like in reality. Games still made sense back in the ’70s, you see.
The other major difference, and the crux of this whole “platformer” claim, is that you don’t shoot the invaders above. Instead, the frog leaps up to snatch them from the air. This turns out to be pretty tricky, as simply jumping at them isn’t enough. You need to face a bug in order to eat it, and as you come near you need to press the “tongue” button to snatch it from the air. The physics of the jump make it even tougher, as the frog leaps almost entirely on the vertical, edging forward only one space with each hop.
Three different kinds of bugs appear: Slow butterflies, speedy houseflies, and the UFO-like dragonfly (which is worth a free play if you can catch it). Frogs exists entirely as a score attack game, with more of the challenge coming from the limitations and complexity of the player’s actions than from legitimate hazards.
Super Mario Bros. this ain’t, but… you can definitely see the foundations of a genre being established here. Frogs revolves around mastery of jumping, with simple horizontal movement (simply press left or right) complemented by more intricate, at-will, gravity-bound horizontal motion. Furthermore, there’s a danger of death by falling due to the limited boundaries of the lily pad. Maybe this is a platformer, maybe it isn’t; but just as kinetoscopes came before proper movies, Frogs offers a glimpse of game designers exploring some logical and interesting play mechanics, paving the way for much greater things to come in the process.