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2013: The Year in Platformers
12.25.13

2013: The Year in Platformers

So much of videogame history has been defined by our desire to jump. Over barrels or pits, chest-high walls or cars, jumping still stands as this monomythic threshold, the last tendon of reality we sever before we are fully contained in game utero. In a time where tutorials on sixteen-plus button controllers are employed to ease players into the game, the seasoned, hasty player often begins asking only one question: "How do I jump?"

It's no surprise then, even in today's most contemporary offerings, that jumping remains omnipresent. At times, jumps are more of a vestigial limb, a scratch to our most reptilian itch, our first reaction to escape obstacles, surprises, and enemies. Other times, jumping takes on the role of a crosswalk button, something that makes us feel as though we're traversing through space faster. Jumping has even been a communicative tool, an affirmation from our un-headsetted companions, or an aggressive taunt from our teabagging enemies. But in the platformer, jumping continues to be our sole purpose; it is through the jump that we experience everything.

As this year and the closing generation give way to new beginnings, it’s worth revisiting the platformer and its core action as a lens through which to view where we might be going. Fortunately, 2013 had three superb offerings which embody these genre mutations.

RAYMAN LEGENDS

Rayman Legends and its predecessor are a refreshing take on the one-step-forward-two-steps-back New Super Mario Bros. series. The level design in Legends feels less like a game and more like compositions you experience, its variable enemies and jump gaps pre-determined in such a way that your participation feels strictly railed—not like a roller coaster, but rather a log flume. Your movement through this world feels liquid from beginning to end; this more viscous friction feels great, a bit distinct from Mario, and is a joy to play, a form of platforming which probably owes more to easy courses in Super Meat Boy than it does to Super Mario. Like the swamp lions of Okavango, Rayman is strong but in uncharted territory for one of its species: it identifies itself as a platformer, but it feels so evolutionary that I would say it has more in common with major-publisher offerings whose designs hinge upon quicktime events. I don't mean this in a negative way; rather, the game concerns itself primarily with your flow through it.

Like the swamp lions of Okavango, Rayman is strong but in uncharted territory for one of its species 

Aesthetically, Legends takes a different tack than its predecessor. Gone are the anything-goes didgeridoo deserts and goofy gargling helium-scat oceans of Origins, which back in 2011 seemed to mock the self-imposed twenty-year precedent that a platformer require grasslands, desert, water, lava, ice, and sky worlds (in that order). The goofy ukulele-laden Lum chorus felt fun and vibrant in a way that Mario games have long forgotten. But, while Rayman Legends is a profoundly well-designed game, it suffers from its adherence to some compositional high concepts. It takes place in fairytale-inspired worlds that are lovely but constrictive; the only standout from the borrowed lore is the Jules Verne/James Bond crossover of the underwater steampunk levels.

What I miss about Rayman Origins is its dogmatic devil-may-care attitude toward genre staples. In its place, it seems Rayman Legends has shrugged off Origin’s trickster persona and instead has taken itself more seriously. Origins worked because it played the jester; it was Mario’s foil. In Legends, Rayman asks to be considered a real contender. While it’s an excellent platformer, it functions best as the funhouse mirror to Mario’s rigid traditionalism. The fluid action, the poetic level design, and the thoughtfulness by which this game is put together make it one of this generation’s greatest triumphs in platforming, better than all the New Super Mario Bros. games combined—but it’s still a small misstep.

SPELUNKY

Sometimes I play a game and I enter into autopilot. I lay on the couch and I put my hands behind my head, controller upside-down in hand, and I glaze over through cut scenes or breezy bits, usually involving fields. I developed this play style sometime in recent years, no doubt as a response to this previous generation’s increasing reliance on hand-holding, cutscenes, and praising thatgamecompany.

But then there are those games that wake you up. They’re the games that you think about in your sleep, when you’re awake and your fingers twitch in lustful autonomy; they’re the games that glow like embers, that haunt you. Spelunky is one of those games.

It has successfully broken down, taxonomized, simplified, and reassembled the genre on a molecular level 

This indie platformer has successfully broken down, taxonomized, simplified, and reassembled the genre on a molecular level to create something powerfully refreshing by making it exclusively derivative. Every aspect of this game is borrowed from a robust prix fixe of gaming’s greatest hits: enemies, obstacles, items, format, levels and characters. Your familiarity with playing games will give you a false sense of security that you can handle the relationship between these objects and your avatar. And in no way is that a bad thing here. When I play Spelunky, I can in see the ones and zeroes that make up the platformer genre, or maybe videogames in general. It is very close to transcendence; it is the monster ballad of the genre, a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

By randomly generating each level, by letting these puzzle pieces recombine into an infinite number of compositions, Spelunky becomes chaotic. If these elements combine in a way that makes the game nearly impossible, so be it. Spelunky, as you may have heard, does not care for your petty moral stance on “fairness” and it is better for it. If you get stuck, and you will, you are going to die. You’re going to die a lot. Death is the core mechanic of Spelunky, just as death is the core mechanic of life.

And through death you will learn what works. You’ll want to augment your play style by getting certain items, and avoiding others. You’ll get comfortable with your gold cape and your climbing gloves, until you finally get a shotgun and a jetpack. Maybe you’ll rescue pugs to gain more health, maybe you’ll sacrifice dead yetis until you can drink blood from the Kapala to refill your health. The game is constantly fresh because your choices, and the choices made available to you, are subject to change by the very nature of the game’s programming.

Despite its endlessness, Spelunky remains a compact experience. Any runthrough could last anywhere from an hour to one second (my only shot at a world record: for dying quickly). And as such, this year’s Vita version is its finest yet iteration. While the game is just as great on PC and consoles, it is, in a very literal way, life-altering on the Vita. I can pause the game, get off the train, and finish my run later, when I’m not spelunking through my regular dull shit life that does not include pug damsels or gems in any capacity.

SUPER MARIO 3D WORLD

It was the jump that gave Mario true purpose. His iconic, unfulfilling romances and his turtle vendetta both serve the illusion that he has human desires: love or justice. Something to reinforce his place in his pastel world, a song and dance the player must endure. Even material wealth won't seduce him. His every coin collected in off-tempo kaching is a direct deposit to live again. His empowered jaunt is the valley between his momentary flights of freedom from the sticky, wondrous friction of bricks below. It is with gloved fist raised that he paints each perfect arch.

Jumping defines him, and many of his fellow cartooned contemporaries celebrate this most championed movement with varying levels of reverence. In the midst of the past decade's platform renaissance, two wildly different branches have emerged; those games whose jump is imitative of the Mario original, themselves meticulously crafted around this centerpiece mechanic; and those who choose to make jumping the second fiddle, offering their own agenda for what they chose to explore. Those in the latter group merely use the familiarity of the platformer for whatever aesthetic, story, or gimmick they wish to comment on or be appreciated for.

It is with gloved fist raised that he paints each perfect arch 

With Mario’s latest canonical title, we see him truly liberated from the high-concept byline that typically accompanies a key Mario title. Super Mario 64 was the 3D Mario that has dictated his console titles for the last seventeen years. Originally intended to show off the capabilities of the Nintendo 64, it came at a time, and with a sense of absoluteness, that singlehandedly defined what and how a 3D platformer should work.

And it set a precedent: Though it came down the pipeline a year into the Wii’s life, Super Mario Galaxy and its sequel have owned the Wii platform in a way that makes them the definitive experience for that hardware. But the Wii U last year came with a New Super Mario Bros. game—a spin-off, in other words, that recalls the 2D Mario games, and generally has an awful soundtrack. The only big innovation these games have brought was the simultaneous multiplayer 2D platforming of the first Wii game in the series. These games, most people agree, are okay enough, and they sell really well. But they’ve brought about a strange dichotomy: if you play a Mario platformer, you’re either playing a 2D Mario or a 3D Mario. You’re playing a “real” Mario game or a throwback.

That conceptual trap went out the window with 2011’s Super Mario 3D Land. Mario was finally liberated from the directive that it must showcase its dimensional construct, and was instead free to explore a sort of hybrid between the two, where more pronounced analog stick movement would meet the A to B flagpole level structure of the 2D games. In so doing it removed the baggage both types of Mario games had acquired over the years. There are no conversations with characters in these games, there are no scavenger hunts for stars where you have to fulfill a boring character’s boring chores. What makes the 3D Land and World shine is that any good idea the designers at Tokyo EAD have can be implemented instead of ghettoized to their respectively appropriate entries, ultimately making the game feel fresh at every turn; ideas are not rehashed to make more levels, making levels feel repayable and more enjoyable than the non-replayable experiences that came with talking to NPCs in 64 and Galaxy. It gives players new incentives to explore the game just for the sake of it, and not for completing a 120-point checklist.

It freely flits about through the 30 year history of the Mario series, taking elements and mixing them from all over the place. 

In other words: Super Mario 3D World is really good. It freely flits about through the 30 year history of the Mario series, taking elements and mixing them from all over the place. That it coheres—that it moves with the grace and immediacy and of its predecessors and even, say, Rayman—is thanks to very thoughtful level design. The designers thought a lot about how the game flows for you, dear player, and as such this tailored experience is a ride worth returning to—the best roller coaster ever created, at least until the next one. And with one tragic and graceful flourish, Super Mario 3D World is notable and finite at the same time. You will eventually move away from it, and a new Mario place will make its improvements on it. I am beginning to consider the fallacy that it cannot, by its nature as a product, be a perfect game.

Mario is his run and his jump, and while level design makes for a wonderful seasonal accoutrement worthy of the entry cost, it’s that Mario movement that remains evergreen and repeatable. The problem is that it doesn’t exist solely with him any more; in fact, it’s ever so slightly off in 3D World, sapped, perhaps, through overuse, or through its appearance in so many other Mariolikes. Perhaps his jump, at this point, exists in us, the rhythm a constant beat played in syncopated time below our collective videogame heartbeat. Maybe it’s only there in 3D World because Mario created it.

Spelunky, on the other hand, has studied the ancients; it has learned ...

Spelunky, on the other hand, has studied the ancients; it has learned, digested, and disposed of the wasteful trappings that have plagued the genre for decades. Its difficulty and inner logic might be off-putting to many newcomers, but it is truly the chess of the platformer genre: a higher level of gameplay distilled from the essence of the proud history of Mario and his gloved compatriots. Spelunky requires no sequel; the game is sentient enough to provide them for you.

We all are indebted to Spelunky for modularizing the platformer genre, and I hope other designers will consider Derek Yu's approach to game design. I am looking forward to more dynamically generated, minimal games in other genres, games that aim to be modular and encompassing. I am looking forward to definitive experiences we can take in compact doses, like gameplay supplements to our suddenly fattening traditional diet.