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Good Idea/Bad Idea: Platforming


It is no mere exaggeration to suggest that every gamer alive has played at least one platformer in their lifetime. In fact, it would not be a stretch to suggest that nearly every gamer holds at least one platformer in their "top ten" games of all time. The reasons for this are numerous. For one, platformers have been around since the early 1980s--the dawn of video game's mass popularity--and during the 1990s an estimated one third of console games were platformers. For another, some of the most memorable gaming franchises of all time started as platformers: Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, and Megaman are all fine examples. Finally, platformers have been combined with nearly every genre imaginable to create games that appeal to every sort of gamer: Contra contains shooter elements, Castlevania contains RPG elements, Flashback contains adventure elements, The Lost Vikings contains puzzle elements, and Cool Spot contains brand-whoring elements.

While the aforementioned games pulled off genre combination quite well, there are just as many games that have introduced platforming elements much to the chagrin of gamers everywhere. It is these games (good and bad) that are the inspiration for this Good Idea/Bad Idea.

Good Idea

Platformers, when executed well, are one of the purest, most satisfying gaming experiences. The Super Mario Bros. series is perhaps the quintessential example of well-done platformers. From the original NES classic to Super Mario Galaxy, Nintendo has managed to keep the Mario formula fresh (excepting Super Mario Sunshine) and infinitely playable (including Super Mario Sunshine). The key to Mario's success has been in perfecting the "bread & butter" of platforming: razor sharp controls and inspired level design. It is no surprise that many consider the Mario series to be the pinnacle of platforming games; it was one of the originators of the genre and has done little to mess with the purity of the original formula.

Not to belittle the quality of the Mario series, but creating successful platformers is a much simpler affair when sticking to the basic formula. Most platforming problems come to light when developers begin blending genres and fidgeting with the tried-and-true "hop and bop" formula. But, one series that has managed to stray from its pure platforming roots and remain successful is the Metroid series.

The Metroid Prime series of games ripped Samus from her familiar 2d platformer world and placed her in a new 3d world that still retained elements of platforming, shooting, and puzzle solving. The reason Metroid made the successful leap to 3d first-person platforming is undoubtedly because of the Metroid heritage; from the groud-up Metroid was designed to be a platforming experience. Samus's 3d adventures have become a resounding success due to the incorporation of the same platform-friendly level design and sharp control (including abilities such as wall jumping) that players have come to expect from Metroid. Were the Metroid Prime controls perfect? Far from it, but they were well designed to capably handle first-person platforming due to the "locked view" and platforming mechanics like the morph ball and wall jump.

Bad Idea

Sometimes developers don't know when to leave certain ideas on the table. While games with a strong heritage of platforming tend to produce successful results when new dimensions and perspectives are added, games that were originally designed as "shooters" or "RPGs" that hope to incorporate platforming elements typically fail. The first example that comes to mind (and my inspiration for writing this piece) is Call of Juarez.

Call of Juarez, while an interesting and worthwhile game in its own right, took the bullet train to shitty town the moment platforming elements were introduced. The game itself is intriguing. The ability to play as both the hunter and the hunted is fascinating and the "old west" atmosphere is far underutilized in modern games. But, the big problem with Call of Juarez (besides the voice acting) is that the game had too many ideas and none of them were well polished.

The game, at its heart, is a shooter. However, rather than leave the game as an old west shooter, elements of stealth, platforming, and item collection were introduced. The item collection sections can be largely ignored and if you "fail" the stealth sections, the game just turns into your average shooter--what the game was designed to be in the first place. The problem with the platforming sections is that if you "fail" you fall to your death and have to restart at a checkpoint much father back in the game than you want it to be. While this doesn't sound so bad at first, imagine trying to swing from platform to platform using a whip in a game with loose controls, questionable physics, and the inability to see your feet. The number of times I wanted to throw my controller because I had to replay a 10 minute section of shooting and/or stealth after missing a subsequent 2 foot jump is infuriating to think about. Call of Juarez is certainly not the only game to have this fault, but it is my most recent experience with the phenomenon.

Now, before my position is attacked by critics who say "Metroid and Mario are good games and Call of Juarez sucks ass, that's the problem; not platforming!" Let me make it clear that this problem is not limited to "bad games." Half-Life 2 occasionally suffers from this same problem. There, I said it. Yes, Half-Life 2 is a great game and I really did enjoy some of the platforming physics puzzles. But, I was also furious that I could slay armies of the Combine with ease, but I often had trouble jumping onto a crate from a teetering board or launching my airboat up a ramp with the necessary precision. The reason I chose Call of Juarez instead of Half-Life 2 is because Half-Life 2 took certain measures to limit the frustration of dealing with these platforming sections. Primarily, there was no real punishment for failing to complete a jump. In Half-Life 2 if you fall you can "dust yourself off and try again" with little worry of being shot to death by the Combine or falling into a bottomless pit. This assurance of safety allows the player to experiment with the platforming sections without having to replay long stretches of the game due to a missed jump.

Why I'm sure there are hundreds more examples of bad platforming, many of them are escaping me. What about you, Destructoid readers, any particularly infuriating platforming elements in games you remember?
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