Of the near one-hundred unique video game genres, the platformer genre has unequivocally remained the longest-lasting genre since the creation of video games.
On the surface, the platformer genre is simple: the primary goal is to move the playable character between points in a given environment. The terrain you must traverse, enemies you have to run past, procedural or planned level design, these are all aspects of platformers we have come to expect.
Platformers have gone from exclusive 2D side-scrolling with Super Mario Bros., expanded to vast 3D worlds in Donkey Kong 64, and evolved into genuinely challenging platforming experiences with modern titles like Super Meat Boy and Celeste. The platformer has traversed between both 2D and 3D spaces, with each benchmark of an essential platformer's release redefining what you can achieve within those spaces.
Want a game whose main draw may not even be platforming but still provide the player with engaging and unique movement experiences? Maybe you’re feeling a little masochistic and want to limit-test your patience through the scope of a platformer? Wonderous niches are woven throughout the platformer genre, one of many reasons for the colossal relevancy.
Importance of Clean Platforming, Even When It's Not the Star of the Show
The element of platforming in video games runs so deep that games can create engaging platforming sections without platforming being the main pull.
A game like 2020’s Spiritfarer is an example of this in spades. Many will attribute Spiritfarer’s greatness to the game’s characters, presentation, engaging yet therapeutic gameplay loop, but the movement and platforming is the vehicle allowing those aspects to shine.
In a DBLTAP video interview with Spiritfarer’s Creative Director Nicolas Guérin,
Guérin shares some insights on crafting an engaging platforming experience. Nicolas describes the “window of opportunity,” the moment of execution a player must complete when traversing through a particular section of platforming. The concept is straightforward: more challenging windows of opportunity will require more precise inputs, farther spread apart platforms exist in a smaller window of opportunity than platforms closer together.
Guérin believes this to be a core concept every game designer crafting a compelling platformer should already know. “Understanding what makes a challenge interesting. Either difficult or simple. It can be simple but still interesting in the pacing that you have, the type of motions you have to accomplish.”
Not only are principles like the window of opportunity essential in building an interesting platforming experience, but core principles can also be taught from the world of platforming helping bolster any type of game, regardless of genre. Another nugget of gold from Guérin when speaking on this very topic: “That’s why [platforming] is used as an example to learn the theories behind crafting a challenge in level design; it’s so simple, it’s so direct, it’s so visceral.”
Teddy Lee, co-founder of Cellar Door Games and lead designer of Rogue Legacy and Rogue Legacy 2 had to take time to craft a proper platforming experience for players, even if the mechanic doesn’t necessarily take center stage. When asking about what the development of Rogue Legacy taught Lee about the platformer genre, he shares this: “With Rogue Legacy 2, we wanted to do something different, so we tried designing it to be an ‘improvisational’ platformer... One of the principles we had in mind was that a really good player should be able to complete an area without ever touching the ground.”
Lee goes on to describe the dash-reset mechanic you will come to see very early on in Rogue Legacy 2, and how when combined with other game mechanics like the spin-kick, it serves to create a satisfying platforming experience. While at its core the Rogue Legacy series is undoubtedly a Metroidvania / rogue-like mix, the care Lee and his team sought to put into the platforming element shows how important a mechanic platforming can be.
The attention to detail in making sure a core mechanic-like movement is done well is what can set apart certain games from their contemporaries.
Increasing Prevalence of the “Rage-Game” Platformer
Games of old like the NES’ infamous Battletoads are one of the many examples of old platformers that were so damn hard to beat. Fascination in overtly challenging games has expanded greatly, thanks to the multiple generations growing up playing video games.
Rage-inducing platformers in the modern day have driven their flag into the platformer genre. Take Bennett Foddy’s Getting Over It for example, while described by Mr. Foddy himself as not so much a platformer but “a physics game, first and foremost,” the objective of the game is in the same wheelhouse as a platformer: make it to the end of the game traversing obstacles, jumping gaps, and grasping the unique movement mechanics of the game.
Here’s where the rage comes in: there are countless moments in Getting Over It where one mistake, one fall, can greatly set you behind in progress, especially if it’s your first time attempting completion. Similarly, Hendrik Felix Pohl’s Pogostuck follows the same premise: wonderfully creative and difficult to scale environments that greatly punish missing a jump. When speaking with both Bennett and Hendrik on the topic of what makes rage-games such an appealing niche to a platformer fan, their responses shed a lot of light on what makes the niche so compelling.
Completing a game has expectations tied to it. Players will want a satisfying reward for their efforts, but your efforts spent are often the satisfying reward for rage games. In playing Getting Over It, Foddy explains what he observes from much of the player-driven feedback: “My players often report - and I agree - that the feeling of playing a game like Getting Over It quickly becomes a zen, relaxed feeling even when you lose progress. There’s something about that feeling of emotionally giving up the expectation of finishing a game which is very peaceful.”
When taking a step back to remove yourself from the end result of completion, the journey to get there becomes the best part. Repeated gameplay and improved experience in a game like Pogostuck or Getting Over It is the aspect keeping players coming back for more. On this very topic of repetition in Pogostuck, Pohl shares his insight on what he observes from the players who keep coming back for more: “The repetition in those games may be off-putting to some, but for players, it oftentimes can feel great to blast through areas in a matter of minutes or seconds which took them hours previously.” When you put enough time into these games, the satisfaction of breezing through the gameplay you once struggled with is addicting in the best way possible.
Rage games continue to be one of the most interesting sub-genres available right now, continuing to expand and innovate, much like the primary genre it was born from.
Simplicity Breeds Creativity
When speaking with Nicolas, Teddy, Hendrik, and Bennett as to why they thought platformers have seen continued prominence in the world of gaming, the answers shared were strikingly similar.
The common thread amongst all three lead designers is the acknowledgment of the simplicity inherent to the platformer genre. Words to describe the genre like “direct,” “simple but nuanced,” or “approachable” had lots of overlap between interviews. Interestingly, both Hendrik and Bennett mention the ease of access in terms of development when it comes to crafting a platformer.
Nicolas’ thoughts on the continued prevalence of the platformer: “It's the most immediate feeling you can have, it's the simplest mechanic.” Simple mechanics indeed, we have seen countless platformers take this simple foundation and expand upon it in ways not many other genres could, especially when considering how long-lasting the platformer has withheld. Bennett sums it up well: “Give me any game genre that’s accessible to developers, be it platformers, visual novels, or walking simulators - you’ll always find a lot of the most interesting work being done in those genres.”
Only time will tell how the genre continues to develop and innovate. Seeing as we got some of the genre’s best work in the 2010's alone, the future of gaming’s oldest genre looks to be bright.