If there’s one thing that I truly love in the world it’s a good, solid, well made video game. There’s something mesmerizing about how pressing a button directly affects the mosaic of pixels that form your TV screen, that directly alters the course of this amazing fantasy world that no film or book can match (don’t get me wrong I’m not saying books and films don’t have their own unique charms, it’s just that they’re truly passive experiences, you can’t alter them). The first home console that I ever owned was the original Sony PlayStation. That big grey beast of a machine has been home to some of the greatest games ever made; from ‘Metal Gear Solid’ to ‘Grand Theft Auto’, ‘Final Fantasy VII’ to ‘Gran Turismo’. Indeed in the mid to late 90’s in my humble opinion (that’s why we’re here after all) there was no finer piece of equipment to proudly display under your TV than the grey rectangular CD playing masterpiece.
The reason that the PlayStation captivated me in a way that then Nintendo 64 never did? Crash Bandicoot. Crash was the first video game that I ever owned by myself (I got it as a birthday present), not one that I shared with my brother, and it is still one of my favourite games. Thank god for downloadable PS1 games from the PSN store.
So now that I’ve already blabbed on for two paragraphs I should probably get round to the point of what this article is about. I’m going to take the next who only knows amount of words to talk about the wane of the traditional platformer. The reason for my ever so slightly longwinded opening is to declare my stripes. I loved (and indeed still love) the platformers of the original PlayStation era. From Crash to Spyro, Medievil to Rayman. Now don’t get me wrong, I have absolutely nothing against the Nintendo rival, it’s just that I was never grabbed in the same way as I was by the PlayStation. Mario, DK and Link always played second fiddle to Crash, Sir Dan and Solid Snake. So whilst I will mention the N64 in parts, let it be known that my allegiance is firmly on the Sony side of things.
The lead characters of platformers have often been been used as ‘mascots’ for their respective consoles. Where would the Nintendo consoles be without Mario? Sega without Sonic? And PlayStation without (it’s unofficial mascot) Crash Bandicoot? These were, in their day, system sellers. Mario and Sonic have even in fact been pack in games to encourage adoption of consoles. Mario even single handedly reversed the fortunes of home consoles after the video game crash of 1983. Damn E.T. Who else do you know who can reverse the fortunes of an entire media form? Whilst not a negative per se, the mascots of consoles now tend to be of a much raw and edgier variety. Master Chief flaunts the abilities of the Xbox and Nathan Drake (another creation from Crash Bandicoot developer ‘Naughty Dog’) is the undisputed champion of Sony’s big black box. Obviously Mario still reigns supreme over Nintendo, but you didn’t need me to tell you that now did you!
So what changed? Simple. People grow up. They grow older. They want more age appropriate content. The earliest example of this is the jump from the NES to the Sega Mega Drive. The controller on the MD was made to be slightly bigger to suit an older age of the average player compared to the smaller NES gamepad. Also Sonic himself was geared towards the slightly older demographic. When Sonic stands still he folds his arms and taps his foot. He’s impatient and ready to get going. The epitome of the early 1990’s cool dude. His notion of the games following the age of gamers continues when looking at ‘Conker’s Bad Fur Day’ on the N64. In a game like ‘Crash Bandicoot’ to access certain levels or hidden areas you will need to collect a ‘key’ or ‘gem’ from another level and then backtrack to a previous level to unlock the secret. This is generally fine for younger players, but older gamers tend to play for the story etc. CBFD pioneered the idea of ‘context sensitive’ areas. These would be areas on the ground marked with a giant ‘B’ to tell the player to, unsurprisingly, press the ‘B’ there. This would give Conker the exact thing he needed at that given time. So instead of having to find dynamite in another area to blow something up, just press ‘B’ on the marked areas and Conker pulls out a dynamite plunger and all is well in the world.
The other example of growing up and maturing isn’t for the gamers themselves, but the developers behind the games. Not only as the abilities of developers grew did they want to explore new avenues but also as hardware performance gained, what could be achieved on a home console expanded as well. Whilst bright coloured characters worked well when machines couldn’t process fine detail or expanded worlds as they allowed the mind to fill in as much as needed, now an Xbox can generate vast realistic environment. So why confine yourself to linear levels filled with cartoon characters? A fine example of this is the development studio Naughty Dog. It is easy to see the improvements in ability ND has made as the console generations have progressed. Crash Bandicoot on the PS is your standard mascot platform series (though even in this series, the third one has features in it like an apple-firing bazooka). For the PS2 the ‘Jak and Daxter’ trilogy of games was released. These too were not only a vast improvement over the Crash series of games but also improved themselves as the titles went on. The first is very much a Mario 64 type platformer but the second and third one include open world, vehicle theft and gun improvements. Sort of like Mario crossed with GTA. For the PS3 ND pulled out the ‘Uncharted’ trilogy (so far). These games include realistic looking human characters immersed in vast jungles, freezing blizzards and harsh deserts where fine grains of sand can be kicked whilst walking. Make no mistake though, this is evolution rather than revolution. Whilst Nathan Drake is a very different hero to good old Crash, he still has to jump, climb and do generally all the things an old fashioned platformer would do, just with a fresh new approach.
The final reason for the decline of the classic type platformer, in my opinion at least, is that the quality just isn’t in them anymore. After ND moved on to greater things Traveller’s Tales took the reigns and the series has never managed to reach the heights of the original. Same with Spyro the Dragon. Once Insomniac Games moved on to ‘Ratchet and Clank’ the new developers just couldn’t rekindle the fire in the belly of the dragon. Sonic’s fall from grace has been well documented. I mean, turning into a werewolf and romantic scenes between Sonic and a hum female? Combine this with poor, half finished levels and you just ran over the hedgehog. Even the once mighty Rare, makers of; Donkey Kong Country, Goldeneye 007, Perfect Dark, Killer Instinct, Banjo-Kazooie, Conker’s Bad Fur Day and Battletoads to name just a few of their classics. They now are resigned to making Xbox Live Arcade versions of their previous generation classics and making the ‘Kinect Sports’ series of games. Wow. What chance does a genre have when one of its premier developers makes what is essentially a tech demo for a peripheral?
So lets conclude. The platformer is dead right? Well as I’ve been writing this I’ve actually realised that all is well, you’ve just got to squint your eyes and change your perspective on the matter. Yes the cuddly mascot version is perhaps behind us (as the best selling genre of games anyway) but the developers who made those classics have adapted with the times and kept themselves relevant. If ND had kept making Crash we would never have experienced Jak and Uncharted. Their newer games show a genuine leap ability as well as fun. I’ll take their new title ‘The Last Of Us’ over the Bandicoot any day. And maybe that’s the point. I’m older as well. Fantastic platformers like ‘Epic Mickey’ and countless numbers of Mario games come out all the time, it’s just that they don’t appear in my radar. If I want a platformer, I’ll download one from my youth and play that. It’s like a cartoon, you’d never watch something meant for today’s kids but if something you used to watch is on, you’ll flick over to it to see if it’s still how you remember.
Having major developers move on to more complex and realistic games also leaves the genre open to newcomers. The platformer space is now occupied with the likes of ‘Braid’ and ‘Super Meat Boy’. The platformer isn’t dead, it’s just morphing to what it needs to be. It’s for the hobbyist to take over and to reinvent.
The mascot platformer (bar Mario) is well and truly behind us. Good. Lets move on to bigger and brighter things.