By request: Modern platformer variants

By request of npilon1

Platform games used to be so straightforward. You ran from left to right, jumped over stuff, and sometimes doubled back to the left if the board design called for it. Then things changed. They got complicated. You got your Metroids and your Vanias and your weird isometric platformers from the U.K. and suddenly it wasn’t so simple anymore. Sure, Mario and Sonic soldiered on with their bold left-to-right movements, but everyone else went in their own direction. Literally.

In the mid-’90s, the platformer began to change into a third-dimensional variant, while the timeless 2D format became deprecated and unloved. The 3D platformer’s reign was surprisingly brief, though, in large part because game design had begun to mature into more elaborate forms made possible by the third dimensions, and in large part because – and you can’t tell me this isn’t true, even if it makes your knee jerk – 3D platformers just aren’t as fun as their 2D counterparts.

With the implosion of 3D platformers, the entire genre (regardless of dimension) entered a long quiet spell where the few that came along tended to be on handheld systems. But with the runaway success of New Super Mario Bros. and the advent of inexpensive digital distribution, the platformer underwent a renaissance as large developers and indies alike began to explore new ideas for the series. And that is where we are today, with the platformer genre arguably healthier than it’s ever been. Not only do we see just as many as (if not more than) we did in the old days, they’re so much more varied! What a lovely time to be alive.

Loosely, I’ve come up with six general categories of modern platformers, since I was asked to do so. These aren’t genres or hard divisions by any means – more like groupings by general creative guidelines. Ethos, I guess.


Classic Platformers
Cave Story, Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams, Curse of the Crescent Isle, Mighty No. 9
The classic platformer hearkens back to the kind you remember from when you were a wee person. It usually involves running and jumping in a rightward motion. Often, it involves 8-bit-looking pixels, or else contemporary 3D graphics constrained to a 2D plane and patterned after the awkwardly shaped sprites of yore.

These games don’t aspire to reinvent the genre by any means; their creators were content to simply try their own hand at creating the sort of games they enjoyed growing up. These works push back against the tyranny of contemporary trends, wallowing in their deliberately unfashionable style so hard that, at times, they wrap around to become cool again. But even when they don’t catch any buzz, their rock-solid, time-tested underpinnings guarantee that (unless their creators are simply incompetent or get lost in visual gimmickry)  they will offer a simple good time. And that’s great. They’re the comfort food of platformers.


N+, VVVVVV, Battle Kid, Super Meat Boy
On the other hand, you have games like these, which exist to push the limits of your skill, your patience, or the inherent design potential of an entire genre. Sometimes frenetic, sometimes not, “murder” platformers kill the player early, often, and with great relish. Depending on the designer’s creative ambition, “murder” platformers may give you infinite lives that spawn instantly, or they may give you a paltry handful and send you back to the very beginning to start over as punishment for your inadequacy. These games prey on your familiarity with genre tropes and the accepted rules of platformers, turning your expectations against you whenever possible to create fun through friction and surprise.


Rogue Legacy, Dark Void Zero, Mega Man 9
Closely related is the “postmodern” platformer, which differs from the “murder” platformer in one significant respect: It doesn’t hate your guts. At least, not completely. Where “murder” games are against you from the start to finish, “postmodern” games are on your side. They’re tough, and they too often use your familiarity and expectations against you, but it’s because they want you to be better. They cheer you on to improve. They hurt because they love. These games often imitate the form of something familiar to warp it into something unexpected – the most extreme being Mega Man 9, which approached the concept of making an NES Mega Man game with the perspective offered by 20 years of game design maturity. On the other hand, you have the likes of Rogue Legacy, which combine multiple creative inspirations into something that reflects the ethos of those other genres or game types in a new and refreshing and wholly unique way.


Almost every indie, Guacamelee, La-Mulana, Strider
Linear advancement through a non-linear world, with progress gated and unlocked by means of the collection of new skills or weapons. God, do I seriously have to explain this to you?


Endless runners, Rayman Legends, Gunslugs
These games incorporate a minimalist design philosophy to reflect the limitations of mobile platforms. At most, you’re likely to have a total of four buttons (left, right, jump, shoot), but often the action boils down to a hyper-simplified take on the accelerated action portions of a Sonic the Hedgehog game: Your protagonist runs automatically and your inputs simply determine the timing of when he or she jumps. Often – though certainly not always! – these games feature mediocre level or game design, either due to inexperienced designers or as a very deliberate means of exploiting the player by forcing them to pay microtransaction dollars for the opportunity to continue.


Mark of the Ninja, Super Mario Galaxy
And finally, you have the occasional game that just says, “You know, let’s do something different.” Whether it’s putting a new perspective on level design or taking a genre that seems inherently incompatible with action platforming (such as stealth), these games don’t come often… but when they do, they demand to be experienced. They occupy the same rarified creative ground that the likes of Bionic Commando and Yoshi’s Island did back in the day. Cherish them.

I probably missed something obvious, so please compensate for my inadequacies as a human in the comments.

7 thoughts on “By request: Modern platformer variants

  1. What would be the term for the platformers that relied on hardcore memorization of each level? The games are tough but its not due to skill inadequacy, you just have to remember where things are placed after dying.

  2. I was always interested in the weird sort of line that games like Crash Bandicoot straddled – somewhere between the the design of a 2D game and the actual game physics of 3D. I guess you would just call that a linear 3D platformer, but I always thought of it as an attempt to replicate the 2D platform experience in the early days of 3D.

    And its biggest issue – depth perception – could be used pretty well on the 3ds. Super Mario Land 3D pretty much did just that.

  3. Puzzle platformers. They got puzzles, they got platforms. Braid is the poster child but also Fez, Vessel, Closure, maybe Limbo (although the puzzle to atmosphere ratio there is pretty low).

  4. Speaking of puzzle platformers, there’s Escape Goat, which is great. Or if you need something more modern-looking, Rochard is pretty cool.

  5. Murder is a pretty good name for that platformer sub-genre, but I saw a another good one used on USgamer actually: trapformer. It really gets the point of a lot of those games across.

    One platforming genre I miss is the single screen platformer. Initially I though you had just left it off your list, until I realized you were listing modern variant and I realized you don’t really see much of them anymore. It’s a bit of a shame, since that gave us classics like Bubble Bobble and Donkey Kong.

  6. The distinction you draw between post-modern platformers and classic platformers is actually really interesting, particularly which games you assign where. I hadn’t thought to split Cave Story and Mega Man 9, for example, but now I totally see the case for doing so, and I think it’s pretty cool. It’s just what I was looking for when I asked for this topic!

  7. Gunpoint is kinda like a puzzle platformer. It’s hard to explain. Think elevator action with the ability to rewire every building. With a noir sensability

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