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Reinventing the Platformer

Written by FooFan on Wednesday, 27 October 2010One Comment

The platformer is one of the true foundations of gaming. It encompasses everything we enjoy about playing video games with it’s simple to grasp core gameplay, but almost limitless challenge which is left at the mercy of the level designer. It’s this blank canvas that allows truly creative developers to create classic games without the need to use new technology or risk going into unfamiliar gaming areas. It’s also the one genre that stands the test of time better than any other; games such as the original Donkey Kong (1981), Mario Bros. (1983) and Mega Man(1987) are still as enjoyable today as they were all those years ago. Perhaps this is why we continue to see new games released that stick by these fundamentals in a bid to create the new version of their best loved platformer from yesteryear. Unfortunately, this is also why we are sceptical and critical of any new 2D platformer that may appear… They’re up against the best of the best. So what’s the answer? Is it best to just remake the classics we love like Nintendo are attempting with Donkey Kong Country Returns? It will certainly sell on the quality of the original game alone, but it keeps the genre in one place and no true developer would feel satisfied just recreating someone else’s work.

Luckily for us there are some developers out there who are taking the blank canvas of the platformer and turning it into something which goes beyond the gameplay of by-gone classics. Instead they’re using your familiarity of this genre to make you focus less on the core gameplay and more on what is going on around you. Whether it be through a compelling story or unique atmosphere, these games do something that most developers would love to take credit for… They make you think; long after you have completed the game.

The 2 best examples in recent years of what can be achieved with the platforming blueprint are Braid and Limbo. Both developed by small companies and released on the Xbox Live Arcade, these 2 titles have received vast acclaim from critics and gamers alike. If there was ever a reason to support small development companies through services such as XBLA and the PS Store, this is it. You could argue that it was the fact these companies had relatively low budgets that meant they started designing a platformer in the first place. Without the cash to throw at the newest technology, they simply had to work with what they could afford to produce and focus on the content, rather than the core gameplay. What this leads to is companies having to come up with unique and interesting selling points for their games and this is how we ended up with 2 of the most original and brilliant games of the last decade.

However, they are also much more different than you may think upon first glance. The first thing you notice about Braid is it’s art style. Entirely hand-drawn it’s a beautiful looking game which is full of colour and detailed characters. You will also notice the incredibly unsubtle references to the Mario platformers as you come across enemies which resemble Goomba’s, Parana Plants and you’re even searching for a Princess in a castle. The difference is that all these characters and places have a much more ‘real’ and mature look to them, much like the game feels like a platformer that has grown up. The big gameplay feature of Braid is the ability to manipulate time in various ways, the most common which being to rewind time. What this results in is a game where you cannot die. Everytime you make a mistake and ‘die’, you simple reverse time and everything will be where it was when you chose to stop rewinding. Later on this concept is expanded allowing you to control, slow down and even watch yourself in a previous time. The goal is simple, collect all the puzzle pieces in each of the 5 worlds and then complete the final levels. Obviously collecting the pieces will require you to use the time manipulation in some way and solve puzzles, but it’s still a platformer at heart.

The other thing Braid has which sets it apart from other platformers is a story which is not only beautifully told using incredibly descriptive and meaningful language, but also one which is open to several interpretations. Braid has one of the best endings you will find in a video game and there are still discussions 2 years on today about what the story means. This was the first game I played which had me thinking about it and, more precisely, what it meant for days after I had completed it. It’s rare you feel that kind of connection to a game and almost comes as a surprise, you start to realise just how well produced it is. It’s not a particularly long game, but you sense that the amount of work and quality put into it would just be diluted if unnecessarily lengthened. What you’re left with is a title that produces some of the best 3-4 hours of gaming you will likely experience and never be forgotten. Suddenly the platformer looks a very different beast to Donkey Kong all those years ago.

So what about Limbo? Well although comparisons between the 2 games are common, they actually share very little. You play as a small boy trying to find his sister in a creepy and atmospheric world where nothing is quite what it seems. That is the only snippet of story you get throughout the entire game and you would only know that if you looked at the game’s description on the marketplace. It’s completely narrate-less and the only sound you hear is of the environment around you. Even music has been removed to create such a striking atmosphere. There is no colour either, just black and white, totally different from Braid’s levels which were bursting with colours and sounds. Also in Braid, you never died. In Limbo, you die… a lot. It’s been labelled a ‘Trial-and-Die’ game whereby each puzzle you come across will almost certainly result in you dying if not completed correctly. This may sound harsh and watching a small boy die in some of the most gruesome ways certainly could be called that, but the checkpoint system is intelligent and user-friendly enough to ensure that the frustration you feel is kept to a minimum.

So what is Limbo’s hook then? Is it just a dark version of Braid without the time manipulation? Well Limbo does something which is one of the hardest things to do in a game… It makes you care. You generally want to succeed in this game to help this boy find his sister. Watching him die in horrible ways will make you feel like you’ve let him down and you’ll be determined not to let it happen again. Not even Braid managed to form a bond like that between gamer and character; such is the rarity of its occurrence, especially for an arcade title. Something it does share with Braid however is a brilliant ending. It comes out of nowhere and will leave you thinking about its meaning for just as long as Braid did and maybe more. For a game to produce these bonds with practically no story or background is an amazing feat and that is why it will be spoken in the same breath as Braid when people talk about classic modern day Platformers.

A lot of critics speak of certain games that ‘reinvent’ their genre, but I’m not sure that will ever be possible with the Platformer. It is too familiar to us and such a major foundation to gaming that it simple can’t be reinvented, at least not in the 2D sense. What games like Braid and Limbo do is show that by using this foundation, small development companies can produce games which almost reinvent everything else around the gameplay while leaving the foundations relatively untouched. It’s sad to think that without the XBLA and PSN Store, these games may never have seen the light of day and the future games they will no doubt inspire.

One Comment »

  • Gta Games said:

    Platformer? this is new to me, I will try this.

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