The History of Video Games: Platformers

This is a recurring, limited series where I discuss the history and evolution of video games. I will discuss general history as well as history of various genres and their ties to culture.


In today’s world, platformer video games are more a relic of the past. They still exist, though primarily through indie titles that tend to play up to the nostalgic factor of the genre. And while platformers might not have been the first genre of gaming, one could easily argue that it is likely the most important. Without platformers, there might not even be video games today–they certainly wouldn’t be as popular.

A platformer is defined as a video game where the the playable character can jump and/or climb from one platform to the next, which is the primary aspect of the gameplay. Because of that definition, there is some debate over the actual first platform video game. Some say it is Space Panic, an arcade game released in 1980, though the game does not involve any jumping–only climbing. Because there is no jumping, the game that typically receives the full honor as first and most important actual platformer is Nintendo’s Donkey Kong, which we discussed last time. But the technology goes back a little further than that.

The first big one.

By 1979, Nolan Bushnell had left Atari due to Warner Communication, who had bought the company, taking it in a direction he disagreed with. Warner also did not like to pay the game developers properly or give any recognition for their work on the games. One of the developers, a man named David Crane, was fed up with how Atari was treating them. Crane also felt that Atari’s sole focus on releasing versions of pre-existing or familiar titles was going to saturate and implode the market (which is exactly what ended up happening in 1983). So along with Alan Miller, Larry Kaplan, and Bob Whitehead, Crane left Atari to try and create their own company for new, innovative games.

At the time, third party developers didn’t exist. The companies who made the systems also made the games to go with them. But this Gang of Four wanted more pay and more recognition for their work, coming together to form a new company–Activision (active television). After some legal ramifications from Atari for supposedly stealing “trade secrets,” Activision flourished and paved the way for third party developers.

Their biggest win? Crane had developed technology that would realistically show a running man figure in a game. And in 1982, he released a game using that technology: Pitfall! The game was ported to different systems, including the Atari 2600, which Crane had worked on himself. Partly successful due to the popularity of Raiders of the Lost Ark in 1981, Pitfall! skyrocketed in popularity with Pitfall Harry–a treasure hunter who could run, jump, and swing over dangerous pits. The Pitfall! series more or less created this style of side-scrolling (or left-to-right) platform gaming, versus the up and down variety like Donkey Kong, though there was no scrolling.

Pitfall!

There were a handful of major platforming titles from this point on. 1983 gave us Manic Miner. 1984 gave us a similarly themed Wanted: Monty Mole, as well as Impossible Mission for the Commodore 64, Parker Brother’s Montezuma’s Revenge, and a side-scrolling platformer version of Pac-Man called Pac-Land. 1985 saw the release of Taito’s The Fairyland Story, which introduced a style of gameplay that would be found again the following year in another far more successful game from Taito: Bubble Bobble. Bubble Bobble was also one of the first games to include multiple endings depending on the different factors–how many people played through it and what the difficulty setting was.

Of course, the genre hit it big with Super Mario Bros. in 1986 (as previously discussed), inspiring many others to follow. Though not all took the platform route. Today, most non-indie platformers are basically action-adventure games with elements of platform gaming. This idea started in the 80s, as well. Nintendo took the general side-scrolling and jumping concept of Mario and merged it with the exploration aspect of another of their recent hits–action RPG The Legend of Zelda–to create a new kind of action platforming with Metroid. Metroid was a big success, allowing non-linear exploration and, for the first time, the ability to backtrack and revisit previous areas of the game you had already explored. Metroid also gave us Samus Aran, who–as revealed in an ending twist–was gaming’s first playable female main character (excluding Ms. Pac-Man and the like). Similarly, the same year saw Castlevania for Nintendo. Metroid and Castlevania would inspire a new genre of gaming, Metroidvania–action-adventure platformers with focus on big-map exploration.

Metroid

1987 saw Capcom’s Mega Man, a critical success, though not a major seller at the time. It did the opposite of the Metroidvania style games in that it shrank the exploration element and focused on level design. Mega Man allowed players to choose which levels they wanted to complete in whichever order they wanted. 1989 began the Prince of Persia franchise, which would go on to inspire other games such as Tomb Raider (which also took elements from Mega Man, such as the grappling mechanic), Assassin’s Creed, and Uncharted, though those games are solidly action-adventure rather than platforming. Tomb Raider in particular would begin the transition of platformers to action-adventure.

But we are getting ahead of ourselves. Sega released the Mega Drive system in 1988, which would go on to be released in North America the following year as the Sega Genesis. It was a drastic increase in power and quality from the NES. Nintendo knew it had to step things up, so 1990 saw the release of the Super Famicom in Japan to massive success, in part thanks to keeping many third-party developers around. Nintendo released the North American version, the Super Nintendo, in 1991, along with Super Mario World. Sega knew it needed to do something big to rival Nintendo. They wanted a character to boost US sales and have a character or mascot as iconic as Mickey Mouse and Mario. And after much design research and development, Sonic the Hedgehog was born. Sonic was cooler, faster, and overall different in look, style, and gameplay than Mario, setting him apart from the video game giant.

Mario’s first major rival.

But it wasn’t so easy for Sega. Every major retailer refused to carry the Genesis due to Nintendo’s dominance and popularity. It wasn’t until Sega performed a massive advertising stunt in Walmart’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas, that Walmart relented and agreed to sell the system. Sonic was packaged with the Genesis and ended up outselling the Super Nintendo in the 1991 holiday season, as well as the next 3 seasons, due to bigger game library and cheaper price. And so the console wars began, and it was platformers that played the most critical role.

Many platformers came out at this point–so much so that somebody needed to do something else big and new. There were attempts at new consoles, such as the failed Sega CD and Sega Saturn. Or the highly successful Sony PlayStation in 1994 and Nintendo 64 in 1996. There was an attempt at upping the graphics, using 3D graphics in a 2D plane, which was pretty good. But then there was the shift to full 3D platforming.

The Nintendo 64 gave us Super Mario 64 (1996, which ultimately set the standard for 3D platformers), Banjo-Kazooie (1998), and Donkey Kong 64 (1999). The PlayStation gave us Naughty Dog’s Crash Bandicoot (1996), Eidos’ Tomb Raider (1996), and Insomniac’s Spyro the Dragon (1998). Sega had trouble transitioning Sonic to the 3D realm, as well as had trouble landing another popular console like the Genesis, and the Nintendo/Sega console war effectively ended by the mid-to-late 90s.

The game that changed 3D Platforming.

While Sega floundered, Nintendo and Sony flourished. Nintendo released Super Mario Sunshine (2002) for the Gamecube. Naughty Dog released Jak & Daxter (2001) for the PlayStation 2, though the series would move further into action territory than traditional platforming as it went on. Similarly, Insomniac’s Ratchet & Clank (2002) and Sucker Punch’s Sly Cooper (2002) would hit the PS2, as well.

Like with Jak & Daxter, many companies began transitioning their platformers to more action-based gaming. Platformers would continue to hang on for a while. Nintendo continued with its Mario titles across its various consoles and handhelds. EA released a first-person parkour platformer, Mirror’s Edge (2008). And the LittleBigPlanet franchise also took off with the PlayStation 3 in 2008. But on the whole, traditional platform games were going by the wayside in favor of the action-adventure style.

Major AAA titles were the new thing, though indie developers wanted to look back to the olden days of retro platformers. So while even franchises that began as platformers have transitioned into something new entirely, the traditional, retro style can be found being made by indie developers–a concept that wouldn’t even be possible if it weren’t for platform gaming to begin with.

Next on Video Game History: Action, Fighting, and First-Person Shooters

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