Platformers and Me

Posted July 26, 2018

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This is where it all began!

The original Sonic the Hedgehog was the first platformer I’ve ever played. I do have vague memories of playing Pitfall on my dad’s Atari 2600, but since I was 2 or 3 years old at the time I’m not sure you can call what I was doing back then “playing”. But I sure was playing Sonic when I got it along with my Mega Drive on my 4th birthday. I remember being blown away by the—now almost religious—SEH-GAH! chant and by the audio-visual explosion that was Sonic the Hedgehog’s title screen. My first tentative steps in Green Hill Zone—holy crap, the screen scrolled!—might not have gotten Sonic very far, but they launched me down a path I have been following for the past 26 years. Without Sonic, I would not be where I am today, doing what I’m doing.

But Sonic wasn’t the only one leading me down the path of gaming. He had the help of another rodent, this one modest enough to wear pants: Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse was the second game I got along with my Mega Drive, and it left almost as big an impression. The colors, the music, the adorable butt-stomp, that damn third stage with the rushing water that drove me and my dad insane…all of these things pretty much defined video gaming for me. These titles became the template for my taste. I wanted more…and since this was the early 90s, there was no shortage of colorful platformers to choose from.

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I’ve always wanted to try one of those apples, they look amazing.

My dad and I regularly checked flea markets and classified ads—we were gaming on a bit of a budget back then—to find more great platformers. Kid Chameleon was one of the earliest we’ve picked up, and we felt almost crushed under the weight of all these stages and transformations. And even though we never managed to beat it, we still had a lot of fun. Quackshot was another title we enjoyed (and it even inspired one of my own games) and the sequel to Mickey’s first adventure World of Illusion is still one of our favorite games of all time. The music, the graphics, the humor…it was just pure fun, electronic enjoyment that brightened your day. Rocket Knight Adventures ramped up the action and difficulty, Wonder Boy III: Monster Lair seemed really weird, but we enjoyed it nonetheless, especially since it had co-op. Our love of platformers went so far that we even preferred Tojeam & Earl 2 over the original! Sacrilege, I know.

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Rockets make knights better, it’s simple physics.

That’s not to say we didn’t play anything else. We loved beating up thugs in Streets of Rage and cruising along beaches in Out Run, for example. And we did enjoy the first Toejam & Earl, even though we weren’t quite sure what to make of it. Simply put: If a game looked fun and was easy to pick up and play, we were all over it. But the humble platformer was our favorite genre, and it’s the one that most influenced me as a game developer.

To me, a good platformer encapsulates what a video game should be. Challenging but accessible, deep but not complicated, open but not barren…and most importantly, fun. The press of a single button brings you a drastic result: Your character launches into the air. And this move is usually almost all you need. You land on higher platforms, reach gold rings, cross chasms, dodge ninja stars…a single button press triggering a simple move opens up almost the entire world to you. And this world is filled with shiny pickups and dangerous enemies, with sharp spikes and giant cogs, pools of water and huge apples. There is much to discover and you don’t have to spend hours searching for it. And almost all these things have a direct impact on you as the player. Spikes have to be jumped over, water slows you down, jumping along giant cogs requires timing. Apples chase you down hills, ice forces you to more finely control your velocity. Leveling up your character or equipping a certain item isn’t going to get you past these obstacles: The only thing that does is your skill. I think it is this close relation between the game world and your controller input that makes platformers so intriguing to me. Or at least it’s one of the reasons.

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TJ&E 2 looks like a playable cartoon. The visual design is off the hook.

Of course other genres can deliver the same experience, and I’m not saying that platformers are the quintessential prototype of the ideal video game or anything like that. I’m just talking about my personal experiences and the place that platformers hold both in my heart and in my world of gaming.

I am trying to recreate these feelings in my own games. I want them to be accessible yet deep, challenging but entertaining. I want to give players things to discover and obstacles to overcome. But most importantly I want them to simply enjoy them, to escape the real world for a bit and just have pure, straightforward fun without much hassle or fuss. Videogames have always made me happy and if I can brighten someone’s day with my own games then I know I’m doing something right.

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