The rise, rise and fall of Platform games

The once unstoppable genre has to come a grinding halt in recent times, I look at where platform gaming went wrong(if indeed it did) and what the future is for platform gaming. I was not even born when the self-proclaimed first ever platform game was released(Space Panic-1980) but grew up in the 90s when it was in its dizzy heights of Mario, Sonic and to some extent Crash Bandicoot. I will present this as a timeline so we can go back down memory lane together and re-live some of the best games of all time.

Mario re-defined platform gaming and has stood the test of time
Mario re-defined platform gaming and has stood the test of time

1980-1989: Meteoric risings

As I stated above Space Panic claims to be the first platform game but we all know the first platform game as we know it was Donkey Kong. Released in 1981 it featured a cartoon looking character jumping and falling so therefore created the genre as we know it today. It also featured a playable character known as Jumpman, whom would later be re-named as Mario and we all know what that young plumber did for the platforming world. It would be a further 2 years after Donkey Kong was released that Mario would get his own game in 1983, although his huge break through came in 1985 with the release of Super Mario Bros on the NES system. This was the first game I ever owned and started my own love affair with platform gaming and Nintendo, as it did with so many others. It sold over 40 million copies worldwide, making it one of the best selling games of all time and launched Mario and platform gaming into millions of households all around the world. Platform gaming would never hit those type of numbers but it was the start of something huge, with sequels Super Mario Bros 2 and  Super Mario Bros 3 hitting big numbers in the late 80s. It was the simplicity, level design and pick up and play nature that appealed to the public and at the time platform gaming was something that could be enjoyed by all the family, not just the young or nerds.

Donkey Kong was one of the first recognized platform games
Donkey Kong was one of the first recognized platform games

It wasn’t just Nintendo that had success with platform gaming, SEGA tried to re-create the success of Mario with the Alex the Kidd series beginning with Alex the Kidd in Miracle World. It would be direct competition for Mario as well as Wonder Boy released in the same year for the Master System(1986). Although these games are classics in there own right and did sell well, ultimately they failed in competing with Mario and were subsequently dropped as SEGAs mascots. The ZX Spectrum also had there place in time with classics such as Jet Set Willy and Wanted:Moley Mole with the latter earning itself the first ever title of platform game of the year in 1984. There was no doubt though that Nintendo was miles ahead in this period in terms of sales of platform games. However, its dominance would soon be challenged in the early 90s with the introduction of the 16-Bit era. Platform gaming was snowballing into a mainstream form of media and without the success of platform gaming on home consoles, one must wonder where gaming would be at today.

Alex The Kidd challenged Marios dominance
Alex The Kidd challenged Marios dominance

1990-1999: The Glory Days

Nintendo carried on its success with the release of the Super Nintendo and Super Mario Land, considered a direct sequel to Super Mario Bros 3 before it. It was an instant hit and firmly cemented Nintendo as the leader in platform gaming. That was until SEGA released the 16-Bit version of their very own mascot, Sonic The Hedgehog. This sparked probably one of the biggest console wars of all time, with fans of either side involved in heated debates over which character ruled the roost in the same way Call of Duty and Battlefield are argued over in todays gaming market. Sonic the Hedgehog was a technical masterpiece at the time and showed what improvements could be made in the genre through technical upgrades. He was faster, slicker and played like a dream. SEGA and Nintendo would continue their rivalry throughout the early 90s with both of their flagship titles selling extremely well until the release of 3D technology came in and through a huge, ugly spanner in the works. Other early 90s masterpieces include my very own favorites Gex, Bubsy and Earthworm Jim which did wonders for injecting personality and character to a game. Platform gaming was at it’s very peak, with innovative new titles coming out to try and become the next Sonic or Mario.

Sonic became a genuine rival for Mario
Sonic became a genuine rival for Mario

The first major wobble in platform gamings lifeline came with the introduction of 3D technology. The transition had game developers scratching their heads and it was a lull that I don’t think it ever recovered from. Alarm bells starting ringing for me personally when I bought a PS1 and Bubsy 3D, the once lovable character was never the same and the game was nigh on unplayable,it hurt all my senses. Another failure was Sonic 3D, although I personally liked the game it struggled to sell in the numbers SEGA wanted it too and didn’t feel like a Sonic game. Platform games would never be the same again as companies would not risk putting out decent 2D games in the fear that they may look old and ‘uncool’. Strangely, Nintendo was relatively unscathed throughout as sales continued with the success of the N64 and Super Mario 64. Sony also had their hand to play and saved platform gaming from the brink of extinction with Crash Bandicoot, their very own answer to SEGAs Sonic and Nintendos Mario. It was 3D platform gaming at it’s best and made sure that the genre survived across consoles without the Nintendo stamp. It’s blend of technical brilliance and 3D platform elements was refreshing and re-defined the genre once more. The late 90s would become a console war between SONY and Nintendo, with the former bringing us classics like Spyro the Dragon and the latter bringing us Banjo Kazooie proving it wasn’t all doom and gloom.

Bubsy 3D was a turd of a game
Bubsy 3D was a turd of a game

2000-Present Day: One horse race once again

The 2000s saw SEGA completely bow out the race with failings such as Sonic Adventure, I personally loved the game but fans love affair was well and truly over. Even Nintendo struggled post N64 as the Gamecube was Nintendos worst selling console released thus far. Crash Bandicoot became multiplatform and lost fans in the process. The traditional platformer was dead with only a handful of titles defying the odds. Luckily for us gaming fans Nintendo survived, mainly due to it’s portable gaming success, which has always maintained strong sales for platform gaming. Platform game elements were seen in games such as Ratchet and Clank which did have minor success but ultimately no console game has managed to reproduce the magic to be a success in the way early Mario or Sonic was. Developers seen a swing in the interest in gaming and if a game didn’t have Mario in it’s title it’s fate was already doomed it seemed. Even the console aimed at the older gamer, Microsoft’s XBOX tried it’s hand with Blinx The Time Sweeper which ultimately fell flat on it’s face.

Although a good game, the decline in Sonics sales seen the end of SEGA
Although a good game, the decline in Sonics sales seen the end of SEGA

Nowadays platform gaming seems to be a Nintendo only project. Mario still has strong sales and is still considered a console seller and in the handheld gaming world it is an unchallenged king. We must however conclude that Nintendo is the only company who can consistently keep doing it right. The future looks bleak for the genre with only a handful of indie developers keen on digging up times of old. The advances in technology means that simulation games are currently king of the crop but who knows what the future will hold. Platform gaming can be encouraged by the emergence of casual gaming on mobile devices, which seems a fitting ‘platform’ to provide the next ‘Mario Killer’. It is in my humble opinion that we haven’t heard the last of the once heavyweight of the gaming world, maybe developers just need to take a chance to break the dominance shown by others.

Mario is left somewhat unchallenged these days as Platform King
Mario is left somewhat unchallenged these days as Platform King
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9 thoughts on “The rise, rise and fall of Platform games”

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