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Gaming Evolution of the Platformer


James
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[color=#707875]Wow, it feels like I haven't started a thread in here for a while. I should get back into the action. ~_^

Basically, there's one game that prompted me to post this thread: Jak 2 for PlayStation 2.

I was quite a big fan of its predecessor, Jak & Daxter: The Precursor Legacy. In many ways I think that it was a game that really silenced the critics. Naughty Dog, the game's developer, had sort of fallen into a rut with the Crash Bandicoot series. Anyone who has played all three games in that series will tell you that the second and third titles weren't all that different from the first; there were some minor evolutions, but there wasn't anything particularly new about each new iteration.

Jak & Daxter was really an opportunity for Naughty Dog to do something entirely different, with entirely new characters. And although Jak & Daxter does bear some similarities to the Crash franchise, these similarities are basically superficial (like Jak's ability to spin around on the spot).

Although Jak & Daxter wasn't really amazingly revolutionary, it did illustrate to me that platformers were changing. It introduced a large, seamless world, which was full of bubbly characters with beautiful expressions. The voice acting was also pretty good throughout. In general, I don't think I'd ever really seen such high production values applied to this genre of game.

And now, of course, Jak 3 is on the horizon. Despite the fact that Jak 2 isn't such a new game anymore, I only just rented it a couple of nights ago. And although I had read about it on web sites and such, actually playing it was a true reminder of one thing; I love platformers.

Apart from Super Mario Sunshine, I really haven't gotten into any platformers over the last year or so.

Jak 2 doesn't [i]really [/i]change too many of the fundamentals. It doesn't seem to want to reinvent the wheel, despite what some have said. Much has been made of its GTA-like elements, but honestly, I don't think that those parts really add anything spectacular to the game. Instead, I think that comes across as more of a technical achievement than anything else. And of course, it further serves to add a level of "maturity" to Jak's universe.

Renting Jak 2 -- and finding myself getting drawn into that universe again -- reminded me that the platformer genre is quite possibly one of my favourites. It's just that, for various reasons, I don't buy many platformers. It could be that I'm too used to the Marios and Jaks of the world, so I don't try out some of the newer franchises. Or it could be that very few companies are really making truly great platformers.

One thing that also struck me about Jak 2, is the way that the genre itself has evolved in general.

If you look back to games like Super Mario Bros., you've got a situation where there isn't much of a story and there isn't much of a concern with non-linear, open-ended environment design. Instead, the game entirely revolves around your own reflexes and your ability to overcome a small obstacle course. Most of the levels only take a minute or less to complete, but that's also what stops the game from becoming repetitive; you get short, sharp bursts of insane action. And it's a great deal of fun.

The old Sonic games work on a very similar principle too. And as both the Mario and Sonic franchises grew up, new elements were added (ie: the need to unlock doors in Mario Bros. 2, or the need to step on switches in Sonic). And obviously, those elements expanded as time went by.

Then Super Mario 64 comes along, and introduces us to a relatively non-linear situation; completely different from its predecessors. It really took advantage of its 3D engine, by allowing a level of flexibility and freedom in the levels that hadn't been seen before. And of course, Super Mario 64 introduced the whole concept of "collecting items to finish a level", or at least, it made that concept popular.

But unlike some less-loved platformers (ie: Donkey Kong 64), Super Mario 64 didn't ask players to collect a billion types of everything. It was basically just stars and red coins. Nice and simple, never taking away from the core fun of interacting with the environment.

Along the way, there have been different variations on the whole collect-a-thon theme, as well as the non-linear level concept.

When you consider the number of purely bad platformers out there, I think it's truly rewarding to play a [i]great [/i]one.

[img]http://ps2media.ign.com/ps2/image/article/513/513867/ty-the-tasmanian-tiger-2-20040511094238842.jpg[/img]

Then you've got upcoming platformers, like the aforementioned Jak 3, as well as games like Ty the Tasmanian Tiger 2. In the case of Ty, the original was apparently fairly average...but from what I've read, the new game looks to inject quite a few interesting new elements. And the production values seem to be pretty solid throughout.

Of course, there is a lot more to say than what I've said above. Apart from what I've mentioned, you've also got big hitters like the Rayman series (Rayman 3 is a pretty awesome game -- definitely worth checking out), as well as Ratchet & Clank (which I liked, but not quite as much as the Jak series).

So, with that said, I thought I'd ask everyone about their thoughts on the evolution of this genre. What platformers are you looking forward to, and what recent platformers do you think are worth checking out? On that same note, I might as well also ask you which platformers you feel were the most influential on the genre?

I was surprised that we didn't have a thread dedicated to this all-too-often ignored genre. ^_^[/color]
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I loathe the Jak series. Especially the second one. It's trying to hard to mash GTA into its own, traditional formula and I don't feel it came out well.

However, you should definitely check out Rachet and Clank 2: Going Commando. I wasn't too into the original, but the second is simply excellent. I loved every last bit of it. It uses the same engine developed or Jak, and to me, signifies that Naughty Dog should stop making games and just develop engines for Insomniac to use heh.

Same goes for Maximo: Army of Zin, the sequel to the original Maximo. The original was decent, but the second improves on it in every conceivable manner. Especially the bosses.

Despite the general internet dislike of Super Mario Sunshine, I did like the direction it attempted to go in. No, not the replay levels five times idea or the lack of differently themed levels... but really just the emphasis on pure platforming skill. The sub-zone areas without FLUDD are amazing to me. I love those sorts of ideas and most platforming games really just ignore them now in favor of huge worlds with fairly simply jumping mechanics.
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[color=#707875]Actually, I thought that the original Ratchet & Clank was mimmicking Jak & Daxter a bit too heavily. It felt similar, but had a more clunky feel to me. Jak 2 is a marginal improvement over its predecessor, but it's certainly not pushing any boundaries. I think it could have done without the GTA elements.

Maximo is actually another great game that I forgot to mention. The original was fantastic, and I haven't yet played the sequel. I'll definitely have to check that out.

I agree with you completely about Super Mario Sunshine, too. The FLUDD element fundamentally changed the game -- I think it was a great addition. And really, regardless of any graphics complaints, SMS was simply a game with brilliant play mechanics. Everything about it was smooth and crisp.

Those sub-zone areas that you mention are also a really interesting point. In terms of raw design, they really do hark back to the original Super Mario Bros., in terms of being totally non-linear and entirely focused on your ability with the controller. I thought that they added a great deal of value to Super Mario Sunshine.[/color]
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Due to my lack of a PS2, there are some good platformers that I've not had the chance to play...Maximo, Jak and Daxter and Rachet and Clank included (my PS2 owning friends don't have those games, unfortunately).

With Super Mario Sunshine, I think the general dislike stems from the fact that a lot of people seem to think that it's just an upgraded Super Mario 64 (an opinion, which I don't think is warranted at all). For me, I liked Super Mario Sunshine, but I really hated those short platformer areas, at first, because they were really though; much tougher than anything else presented in Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine, in my opinion. I recently picked up SMS and started playing it again, though, and found that I enjoyed those areas because I had more experience with them and knew how to beat them. Doing good at something definitely helps make you like it more than you dying repeatedly at that stage lol.

It's hard to single out one platformer that was most influential for the entire platforming genre, but I think that it's no contest that the entire Super Mario Bros. series is easily the most influential platforming series. From Super Mario Bros. to Super Mario Sunshine and everywhere in between, the Super Mario Bros. series is definitely representative of platforming at just about every stage of its existence.

As for platformers I'd recommend? Well, this is where it gets a bit confusing, because today's platformers have taken on a lot more genres and its hard to pin down just what exactly is a platformer, anymore. Would something like Prince of Persia: Sands of Time be a platformer? Beyond Good and Evil (even though I don't really think it's a platformer lol)? Platformers, more than anything else, have readily assimilated influences from other genres in order to provide gamers with a new and fresh experience with the genre, and the new school of platforming, so to speak, has really stretched the boundaries of what people would consider to be a "platformer".
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[color=teal]Platformers are like the most ancient of genres; they've been around since the dawn of gaming. But I prefer to think of the original 2D Super Mario Bros. games as a sort of base net that other games of the same genre/type can use as a form of inspiration to produce something better. In my honest opinion, this hasn't been achieved very well.

Super Mario 64 followed in its older routes by sticking with the original old school storyline of a kidnapped princess, which I think was the key to its success; that tiny bit of simplicity, and proportion. Super Mario Sunshine more or less adapted the same idea, but tried to enhance it further by making newer additions to it, like FLUDD and various new characters. I think the that everyone deprecated the storyline because it didn't stick to that simplicity we all know and love, there was no scent of it at all. I'm glad that Nintendo had the intention of filling the gap of originality, but it's in that very aspect that gamers are most strict and demanding.

However, in SMS you were given to chance to play with the all-new Mario without his FLUDD device as well. The secret cave levels allowed players to experience an old school version of the game whilst actually being in the crisp 3D environment. Maybe it was an obligation for Nintendo to cover that area. I'm pretty much under the impression that they don't want to get rid of the classic attributes that the Mario franchise bares, even with the rising market and its demands. It's a very stubborn approach, I have to admit, but I respect that decision because it's primarily creativity, originality (though not always the case), and fun that people look for in games, those are essential qualities that attract sales.

The new generation platformers, unfortunately I've never had the chance to play, but judging from the distinct reviews from each game, it seems to me that they simply dig up feedback from other games in the genre and hope to aspire with such references. That should be a good thing, cheap, but good. I mean, they aren't too deep, neither shallow, practically just right, and after each instalment is released to the series you can almost guarantee that another is already in the making, one that's cohesive and right down to the core playable.

How legible a platformer is in total is completely in the hands of the player. If they don't like it, then that shouldn't suggest that know one else does, which the case with most platformers in the genre today.[/color]
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