If there is any genre that has defined gaming from the start, it’s platforming. Many of our gaming nostalgia centers revolve around Mario and his many adventures in running and jumping. Abysses are traversed, bounceable objects are bounced upon, climbables are climbed, goals are reached, and collectables are collected until the damsels are undamseled. You could argue that platforming is the foundation that modern gaming was built upon.
That said, is there anybody out there who kind of hates this style of gameplay? Don’t get me wrong, put Super Mario 3 in front of me and we can rock it all night, but as technological progress and the resultant complexity has intensified the simple acts I mentioned, I find that I get less and less pleasure out of them. In fact, it’s been a thorn in my side since the Nintendo 64 came out with its accompanying Mario launch release.
I’m sure most of us remember Super Mario 64 and the first time we played it. It was almost overwhelming. The leap from two dimensions to three was a big, big one. We swore that just running and bouncing around the world, free as a mustached bird, would never get old and this was the most amazing experience ever. But once we’d died for the hundredth time because the camera screwed us, our enthusiasm maybe kind of dampened. We were used to tough as nails gameplay back then, but before it never felt like when we lost, it was the game’s fault. And don’t even get me started on first person shooters that utilize terrible platforming segments like Turok: Dinosaur Hunter.
As a general rule these days, I avoid platforming and I often resent it when games I buy to do other things force me to do it. I’m not going to say there is no life in the genre as I’ve recently appreciated modern titles like Ico, Psychonauts, and Uncharted, but the thing is that those games didn’t succeed because the gameplay was fun. They succeeded from excellent writing and/or artistry in spite of the arduous climbing and jumping puzzles.
Other games implement platforming elements with mixed results. The Assassin’s Creed series promises action and delivers, but it also routinely offers up extended puzzle segments where you have to traverse crazy landscapes that often see you falling to your doom if you’re lucky. If you aren’t lucky, you fall way down and have to start all the way over one handhold and shimmy at a time. Instant death or laborious retreading? Now I really want to stab someone.
A lot of this is just personal preference, of course, and the fact that my hands are less than steady at times makes me less than ideal for the precision-requiring feats many platform sequences demand, but what turns me off of the genre more than anything is that even with the good ones, camera and control malfunctions are pretty much an expected norm.
If you were playing a shooter and the gun only fired once every few times you pulled the trigger or the bullets hit the enemy but didn’t register as a hit, you’d call it garbage. But if you are playing a platformer and you jump against a ledge and you character doesn’t bother grabbing on although that’s exactly what’s supposed to happen, you just shrug it off and say “better luck next time”. Or how about when a key jump is placed in a spot where you can’t line up the camera without an object behind your character obstructing your view of the entire screen? Who tests this stuff?
I just finished playing the aforementioned Psychonauts, in which there’s a particularly trying sequence on the last level where you have to perform acrobatic feats while the water level below you rises. I kicked ass at the first segment and got a massive lead on the water. Then I came to a series a wires where you have to jump, grab on, pull yourself up, and repeat three more wires to get to the top. The first time I was hanging from the top wire slamming the button to pull myself up like crazy and it did not work. Fuck you too, Psychonauts.
Wondering if I was doing something wrong, I picked up and tried again from the checkpoint. Except my massive lead over the water had been nullified and now it started practically at my feet so I no longer had a second to waste. Great. Thanks, dick. This time the button pulled me up like it was supposed to, but only every other time I pushed it or so. The enemy was raining firebombs on me and every time one hit me (usually during the slow climbing animation that should have already been done with if it had responded the first time I pushed it), it knocked me back down.
After beating this headache-inducing feat, I had to then jump, float, and cling to a series of floating fences set deliberately at angles where I couldn’t really gauge the jump. It was all trial, error, and muscle memory. And when I died I had to do the previous nightmarish segment over too. I finally got to the last fence and then I realized I had no idea where to go. The enemy was on a platform and there was another on the other side of the fence, but I wasn’t sure if it was just background decoration. The water was still rapidly rising under me, giving me little time to decide. When I attempted and failed several times to jump to either, I was never sure if it was even possible. Did I do it wrong somehow, did he not grab on because the mechanics crapped out on me again, or is that just not where I’m supposed to go?
At this point, it dawned on me that I was no longer enjoying that particular game. Psychonauts was filled with brilliant imagery, humor, charm, metaphors, memorable characters, and all sorts of coolness. And because of those things, I highly recommend it. But I still decided I just did not want to bother finishing it, and it reminded me of a lot of other very similar situations I’ve faced since platforming added a third dimension.
If you want to make something challenging, fine. Nobody’s complaining about that. But for the love of God, make goddamn sure that the player knows what it is they need to do and make sure the mechanics are solid enough to let them do it out of skill and not just on the luck of whether or not said mechanics feel like working.
I finally got around to buying all three Uncharted games recently. They’re three of the most beloved games of the past generation, and the only reason I convinced myself to try them (other than their reputation) was because GameStop had them for so very cheap. I don’t raid tombs and whatnot as a general rule because it almost always entails aspects of the above, but hey, I’ll endure most anything for a great story.
And yeah, what I got was a great story with an epic feel, but gameplaywise it’s got that same Assassin’s Creed climb/shimmy/jump/hope that ledge is the right ledge lest the hero fails to grab onto it mechanic that drives me nuts at some point in every game like it, but with the occasional added annoyance of a camera that moves cinematically on its own and muddles the directional controls, making me sit and wait until it was done before I could continue my death-defying feats, which pisses me off when I’ve already died a bunch of times and just want to rush. At least the mechanics are pretty reliable once you figure out just what to do.
Although platformers continue to be popular titles, I’m finding the tropes and unaddressed flaws are bothering me more and more as time goes on and other gameplay styles continue to improve. The scenery and stories have gotten better, but the fundamental hassles that define platforming for me remain. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve been over the running/jumping/climbing thing for a few generations now. Anybody else tired of falling to their doom?