Better Than Mario: Exploring Innovative 2D Platformers

As posted on ButtonMasher.

The 2D Platformer. One would think that its kind died out a long time ago. Like the Point and Click adventure game, the 2D platformer is reminiscent of a certain era, the 80’s and 90’s. We had Mario, we had Sonic, we had Megaman. Much later we had my all time favourite 2D platformer; Abe’s Oddysee. But then everything started to go towards 3D (polygons that is, not this new-fangled depth of field stuff). Slowly but surely the 2D platformer began to die out.

Today the 2D platformer is still around, but it’s not enough just to give the hero or heroine a weapon and an incredible high jump. These days platformers need to do a lot more to stand out.

Abe's Oddysee

You won’t find these games on discs either, although there are those few exceptions; New Super Mario Bros. and the upcoming Rayman Origins for example. Xbox Live Arcade, WiiWare, Steam, and the PlayStation Network have become the ultimate portals for finding new 2D platformers in this day and age.

Compared to big budget disc releases, downloadable games can be made by tinsy tiny teams. Just look at Braid or Super Meat Boy, both games effectively made by just two people.

But what I really want to get at is the way modern platformers try to stand out from the crowd. Outland was released a few months back and beside its neat art style, it actually has some rather nifty mechanics. Sure it uses the Metroid inspired design of backtracking and using new abilities to get past previously impassable obstacles. But it also takes Icaruga (a shoot-em-up) and puts it into a platformer. Now that’s something I haven’t seen before. And it opens up a huge range of possibilities. To combat red enemies you need to switch your colour to blue and vice versa. Red bullets won’t hurt you if you’re red, but they will if you’re not. Ghost platforms become solid depending on your colour. Add in the traditional wall jumping and ledge climbing, and you have a platformer with some legs!

Outland

Story isn’t important either, though like most platformers Outland tries to add meaning to the world through a voice over between levels, but it doesn’t need it. Platformers are good old fashioned fun! The quintessential aspect of any game.

However some platformers do pull off story quite well. Is it any surprise that two critically acclaimed downloadable games released in the last few years are platformers? Both Braid and Limbo strive for something more interpretative in their stories.

Jonathan Blow’s Braid explains story in relation to game mechanics and puzzles. Along with some even deeper meaning if you’re willing to explore that far, something about nuclear testing would you believe? The books before each level explain Tim’s personal predicaments and relationship troubles.

Braid

Limbo goes without text entirely and opts for its creepy environments to tell the story. As you travel through these environments, the scenery and puzzles change around you to fit in with your character’s journey. A little boy’s treacherous missteps into brutal tragedy across a land in between.

Limbo

Then if navel gazing isn’t for you, we have pure reflex-testing Super Meat Boy, a game that embraces your demise while at the same time making certain you truly deserved to beat that last level. Forgoing the old lives system. Forgetting about passwords, and checkpoints. Each level in Super Meat Boy is self-contained. Dying is just another notch on the belt. You are instantly re-spawned and put to task again.

Super Meat Boy

There is still life left in the 2D platformer. And as long as developers keep it fresh with new and interesting concepts, I believe they will be here to stay. They might not come on cartridges or discs, but the new kind of platformer will live on through our hard drives, and our hearts.

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