For a genre invented almost forty years ago and is well past its heyday, the platformer is a surprisingly resilient beast. Under the simple definition (a game in which a substantial mode of traversal involves jumping between sections of ground separated by air, lava, water, and similarly impassable substances), platformers have been included in the DNA of games from Assassin’s Creed to Minecraft. And I love games that incorporate platforming components. However, I’m here today to recommend games that are more strict platformers — games where jumping off of things (usually to your doom) is a core mechanic. Specifically, I wanted to look at platformers that do things a little differently, especially where the mechanics interact with the story.
As usual, I won’t be listing anything that I’ve talked about before in this genre, but a few others worth keeping an eye out for if you like these are Limbo, Darksiders II, and, of course, Psychonauts. I also haven’t played as many of the classics from Nintendo as I’d like, so if you’re wondering why there aren’t any Mario games on this list, that’s why. Oh, and much to my regret, I haven’t gotten around to playing Gris yet, but if probably belongs here too.
Inside (video game)
By: Arnt Jensen et al.
Release Date: 2016
Another project from the creators of Limbo, Inside is a similar puzzle platformer that focuses on surviving traps and monsters. The controls are smooth but the character moves deliberately slowly compared to other platformers, ensuring that even with careful planning, you’ll often just barely escape dangers. The game has a deeper story focus than Limbo, with the red-hoodied player character venturing through various environments as it explores a dystopian future world full of mind control, parasites, and creepy sirens.
Of the two, I prefer the greater pressure of the atmosphere of Inside and its persistent horrors to the front-loaded ones of Limbo. While nothing comes close to the sheer terror of the spider, I get the sense that Inside is more of what Limbo wanted to be in its latter half; where Limbo becomes somewhat reduced to typical panel-spike puzzles after the forest levels, Inside keeps up a mystery that continues through to its narrative conclusion. The world is more fully fleshed-out, and while certain puzzles feel a bit repetitive in their mechanics, the grim implications of the environment and the many horrible fates that befall the player character are more consistently resonant. The game has an arc, and I kind of need that in my platformers if I’m ever going to go back to them.
Be warned, though: while the game has a story, mileage may vary. Because it offers no instructions or dialogue, the game introduces several juicy narrative concepts early on that seem to have less and less bearing as the game continues. I get the sense that the game was designed as individual levels, each with some haunting setpiece, and then loosely connected after the fact. It takes some mental gymnastics to get the story to make much sense beyond its basic premise, so if pretentious games aren’t your thing, this one might be a skip.
That said, it is fucking gorgeous.
Little Nightmares (video game)
By: Dennis Talajic et al.
Release Date: 2017
Another send-up of the Small, Big-Headed Child platformer, Little Nightmares plays much like Limbo and Inside and likewise has a horror lean. Actually, of the three, this one is both the most narrative-heavy and disturbing. You play as Six, a yellow-raincoated child on a rocking boat of death, decay, and heavily implied cannibalism. At times reminiscent of Spirited Away and Coraline, Little Nightmares has a story centered around evading monsters much more powerful than Six as she tries to escape. There are also some mystery elements thrown in related to figuring out what the ship and its gruesome inhabitants are doing.
It’s made by a different studio, so it doesn’t play in quite the same way. It’s a bit of a change-up as a partial 3-D platformer; the camera scrolls to the side to show cutaways of various rooms in a fixed position, but the player character can and must explore the rooms in 3-dimensional space. This creative choice can sometimes make judging distance difficult, and it’s admittedly a bit frustrating when combined with relatively unresponsive controls. For my money, I prefer the fluidity of Inside, though even it is far from the best flow faster platformers can achieve.
However, what Little Nightmares lacks in flow, it more than makes up for in its ability to merge survival horror and stealth with the genre. In fact, I might describe it as a stealth game above all else. Stealth missions in action games are notoriously fickle, but in games that design for them, they can act as a valve to control tension. And Little Nightmares is tense. Play around with it a bit and you’ll readily find ways to cheat its systems here and there, but its particular appeal outside of the environment-based storytelling is the utter dread the various monsters exude.
There are not that many creatures in the game, as it’s relatively short, but the few that do appear are well-designed to terrify. Most of the larger figures are exaggerated humanoids, all distinctly unrealistic in various ways (a lot of them have sagging skin that they wear almost like clothing). They go about their regular lives on the boat, almost charming in their mundanity if their tasks weren’t so suspicious. When they spot you, they’ll try to grab you on-site, presumably to eat or give to someone else to eat. A lot of the game involves hiding from these monsters, but as per the horror genre, safe hiding spots are boring, so at various points, you’ll unhappily discover that the monsters can and will reach into your hiding spots. Knowing that you’re going to have to eventually leave your cozy hiding spot and pull off a mad dash with the clunky controls and terrifying meat monsters chasing after you, with utterly no recourse if you mess up, is stressful. Perhaps not as stressful as a strict horror survival games like Outlast, but the comparison is not inappropriate.
I wouldn’t say that Little Nightmares is the most frightening game I’ve played in the past year (well, maybe it is, I haven’t played that many games lately), but it does readily provide the aching anticipation and pre-horror tension I love about the genre. If you’re into the horror aesthetic but dislike the plodding pace and poor lighting of most horror games, this might be right up your alley.
Guacamelee! (video game)
By: Augusto Quijano, Chris Harvey, Ryan MacLean, and Graham Smith et al.
Release Date: 2013
Enough plodding horror platformers, let’s get to something fun! I first heard of this game while looking for Xbox One game recommendations shortly after the console’s release (spoilers: there were not a lot). I took some time to actually have any interested in Guacamelee!, because at first glance, it looks far less like a platformer than some sort of weird colorful action game. And, technically, that’s what it is.
It is also a proper platformer.
I’ve heard people describe the game as a Metroidvania game, one that incorporates Metroid– and Castlevania-style 2-D world exploration, usually with dungeons to raid and bosses to defeat. While I suppose the progenitors of the subgenre use platforms, I’ve never really thought of them as platforming games, per se. Granted, these are among the many classics I’ve never played, but I would consider platformers to be games with more emphasis on traversal. Combat platformers are always a tricky gray area, but for my money, if the game could be played almost without the use of the jump button, or if jumping is only useful for combat scenarios, it’s more of a strict action game.
Guacamelee! is unique in being one of the few games I’ve ever played that does the opposite; it gives you a bunch of fighting abilities, and then asks you to use them to complete platforming challenges. And it’s challenges are pretty fucking hard toward the end of the game. Sometimes you’ll have to combine the combat and platforming capabilities of a particular punch to defeat thirty enemies in a minute, all appearing in a specific order, and if you get any of them wrong, you’re going to have to start the challenge over again. Many areas are only accessible once you’ve unlocked certain powers, and the game expects you to use that power in tandem with your other abilities expertly by the end of the level.
But the game knows how to teach you. In fact, it’s built into the story. A lot of games have the premise of a youth learning how to become a master wizard or ninja or whatever, but most of these only show you the way for the tutorial and first level or two before punting you out into the deep end. Most of them also have weak tutorials. Guacameele! is mostly tutorial, and it feels awesome. New abilities come at a rapid enough rate that you’re never stuck grinding or bashing your head against a wall just to jump-start the rest of the plot, and the game provides varied situations in which you can get used to them. It forces you to use the new ability, but gradually, building a beautiful difficulty curve that can have you climbing straight up a tree swarming with skeletons by jumping between vertical platforms, some of which are in a different dimension, and getting to the very top by punching the air so hard it extends your jump.
The game has a relatively simple plot, its bigger appeal being its style and mechanics: a young man, Juan Aguacate, wants to be a luchador, and seeks the love of his childhood friend Lupita. On the Day of the Dead, an evil skeleton named Calaca kidnaps her and kills Juan, who then must work his way back from the land of the dead with the help of various mystical beings to stop Calaca and save Lupita. The game is inspired by various Mexican cultural trends and art styles, creating a vibrant game that looks fantastic on essentially any device. Admittedly, the game kind of draws from the common well game-makers use to communicate a recognizably Mexican aesthetic to a non-Mexican audience. My understanding is that the game developers are Canadian, most of them with no personal connection to Mexican culture, though the man who came up with the idea is. I’m in no position to make judgments about whether the game is respectful or not, but there are two excellent articles on the subject, one by Jorge Albor and another by Augusto Quijano, the animator for the project who came up with the idea. Links:
Both of these articles are worth a read, especially given what’s happening in the U.S. right now and how media portrayal of Latin Americans factors into it.
Overall, the game is well-made and beautiful, a challenge, but one that helps players rise to it. I haven’t played the sequel yet, but I look forward to the point where I have some time to sit down with it.
Thomas Was Alone (video game)
By: Mike Bithell
Release Date: 2012
This game often comes up in discussions about narrative and characterization, in part because it accomplishes both when its mechanics are about as cut-and-dry as a platformer gets. The main character is a rectangle, Thomas, whose story is narrated as the player navigates the usual obstacles of a simple platformer. There are pits of green water, blocks to jump on, platforms to jump across, and all of the usual fare. The narration describes each of these and the layout of the levels from the perspective of Thomas and the various other player-controlled quadrilaterals he encounters, making the simple world of the game into a landscape primed for adventure.
The concept of this one is utterly charming, and it manages to define all of its characters as entities with unique personalities: Thomas is a wide-eyed naive protagonist, Chris is a small irate square who constantly needs help, John is a good-natured tall boi, Claire is a shy superhero enthusiast, etc. As you hit certain points, the narration tells you about their journey and their friendship, offering tips for completing the level, but also just adding narrative depth to what would otherwise be basic platforming tasks.
I kind of wish the game would go further in its core conceit. The story and characters are lovely, but the simple mechanics quickly override the plot and the narrative sound bites become fewer and fewer as the game goes on. I would have gladly listened to more of Thomas & co.’s inner thoughts as I completed the puzzles, even if they had nothing to do with what was at hand. In the end, the game is a worthwhile experience, but not nearly as satisfying to finish as it is to start. Others could definitely expand on the conceit and use it as a way to better explore characters in an interactive experience.
Getting Over It With Bennett Foddy (video game)
By: Bennett Foddy
Release Date: 2017
I went back and forth a bit about whether this really counted as a platformer, and more importantly, whether I would recommend it. I’ve decided yes, even if you have no interest in finishing the game, it is worth playing anyway. It’s by the man who invented QWOP, so it should come as no surprise that the game is about getting a man in a cauldron up a mountain of carefully-placed junk using only a sledge hammer. Everything — from the terrain to the shape of the cauldron to the exceptionally finicky controls to how the fucking sledgehammer always gets in my way when I’m trying to get up that mine shaft — is designed to make the journey up incredibly difficult and the journey down very easy. When you fall down from a considerable height, the game designer waxes philosophical at you about the nature of failure, usually in a hilariously unhelpful way.
I don’t usually like to recommend exceptionally difficult games like this. They can be enjoyable exercises, sure, and they can give some a cathartic experience of success after overcoming impossible odds, but as Dark Souls has shown, they also have a habit of attracting the worst sort of people. Even if noxious fanbabies only make up a small portion of the supporters of the game, they tend to be the most vocal. The difficulty of the game feeds their sense of entitlement, and encourages them to get into dick-waving contests with anyone who will listen to them.
That sort of behavior is all too apparent if you spend more than about four seconds looking at YouTube videos of people who shill for this game. However, I’m still putting this one on the list because finishing the thing isn’t the point. The game has an end point, but you don’t win by getting there, not really. Getting over it can mean two things, and either way, you win when you quit. The game does not encourage you to get to the top, and some people rise to the challenge out of sheer bull-headedness. Their reward is completely arbitrary: the ability to boast, and a chatroom full of other people who also have no further purpose in life. No, thank you. Of course, if it keeps someone from being toxic for the however many dozens of hours it takes to finish the game, the world is better for it.
No, what I find worthwhile in at least trying the experience is the sheer absurdity of it. Get a man in a cauldron up a mountain with a hammer. It’s not quite as impressive once you say it that way, but it blends frustration and fun in a way that allows even a small amount of the experience to be at least a little enjoyable. The moment when you try to jump and end up knocking yourself all the way down and landing square at the start of the game is the most frustrating thing in the moment. You’ve lost hours of progress, only gained anything by way of knowing what future frustrations to look forward to, and feeling like you haven’t fucking done anything. And then Bennett Foddy comes in to play you some classical music and talk about what it’s like to re-do something and how this game was based on Sexy Hiking. It’s never entirely clear whether the voiceover is meant to be supportive or taunting, but it has the exact cadence of a friend who is saying exactly the wrong thing at the wrong time.
And it’s all hilarious. I won’t recommend the whole experience, of course, but playing at least a little bit of the game to see what it’s like and determining the balance between accepting the challenge and not giving in to completionism is kind of cathartic. You must also experience what it’s like to accidentally propel yourself off a cliff right back to the start of a very long game, because there are not many experiences like it.
Hollow Knight (video game)
By: Ari Gibson, William Pellen et al.
Release Date: 2017
Of all of these games, this is the one I’m most iffy about recommending. And yes, I’m aware of where I’ve placed it here. Hollow Knight is a deep experience with excellent flow and mechanics, and some of the most engaging combat platforming I’ve seen since playing Guacamelee! That alone should be enough for a recommendation. It’s what convinced me to play and keeps me going in it. However, I’m not actually sure I like this game.
You play as a little bug fellow in a fantasy world full of fellow bugs, venturing through different biomes mainly so you can find bigger and badder creatures to fight. There’s a little bit of a story in rebuilding a city on top of all of the dungeons and uncovering the mysteries of the various environments. I love the aesthetic, even if many of the rooms within an area do tend to blend together and lack any clear association with one another. It is a difficult game, even incorporating Dark Souls-like mechanics, but the moment-to-moment difficulty isn’t so frustrating that I resent the game for it.
My beef with the game mainly comes in arbitrary road blocks designed to slow the player down. The biggest of these is the currency system. I’m noticing more and more that I hate currency systems in games because there are so many better alternatives and they usually exist just to bar players from accessing areas, abilities, or other parts of the game until they’ve spent some time grinding. Collectible currency is a time-waster, even in games that are otherwise brilliant. Hollow Knight has the additional frustration of ineffectively matching the currency gained from enemies to the prices of goods, as well as many basic quality-of-life features requiring an initial purchase. I don’t mind having to find the map maker in each new area, but having to buy and fiddle with tokens to figure out where your character is? That doesn’t add to the experience at all. The simplicity of the rooms and their simplicity on the map makes the map practically useless until you buy certain upgrades, and the game rarely makes it clear which upgrades are core to the game experience and which ones are accessories.
This isn’t a matter of the game not holding your hand; it’s just a bad design choice. The game restricts access to several areas from the start, but allows the player to get far into those areas before they hid a dead-end that requires a new power to progress. Road blocks are common in platformers, and Guacamelee! uses them frequently, but Hollow Knight is unusually stingy about letting the player progress. Access to many locations has to be bought, so you’d better like grinding. Even defeating large enemies, which is arguably the main appeal of the game, doesn’t really further your ability to progress by much. They might give you two hundred coins when you need two thousand, and unlike the smaller enemies which respawn any time you leave and return to an area, the largest enemies are one-time encounters and the mid-range ones only respawn when you save or die.
There are a lot of little fiddly irritations that make the game far less enjoyable than it would otherwise be, so be warned if that sort of thing annoys you. It definitely annoys me. However, I do still play it, and once you get some of the essential upgrades in the early part of the game, it loses some of its unnecessary grind and becomes far more about executive skill and exploration. If nothing else, it’s cheap, so if you’re working with a budget, this game could easily replace one or two sixty dollar experiences.
Snake Pass (video game)
By: Phill Bennett, Bradley Davey, Sebastiaan Liese et al.
Release Date: 2017
I. Love. This. Game. Of all of the ones on this list (save, perhaps, Getting Over It), Snake Pass is the least plot-driven. It kind of tries to disguise its lack of plot with a building mystery, but the game really just boils down to a series of execution challenges. You play as Noodle (I fucking love that name), a cartoon snake who has to collect three gemstones in various jungle-gym environments to progress to a new area. As a platformer, it requires you to navigate tricky terrain and obstacles to reach the stones. However, Noodle is a snake, so instead of the typical jump mechanic, you navigate by wrapping Noodle around various obstacles and using his long body to climb much like an actual snake.
This is a game that will quickly break your brain as you try to master the controls. Admittedly, the controls are not especially realistic even though the movement of the snake is inspired by the real animals. Noodle can’t grip with all of his body muscles, and you can’t control his tail at all, which makes the game a constant struggle against Noodle’s weight. Watching a video of an actual snake climbing anything will make you feel inadequate, even when you’ve all but master the game’s controls. However, the game is built to accommodate them, and it has a relatively smooth difficulty curve that encourages you to try new techniques. As with many platformers, by the end of it, you’ll be able to navigate ridiculous obstacles like rotating, dangling bamboo turbines that you have to crawl between as they sync up.
If that’s not appealing to you on its own, you probably won’t enjoy it. However, if you’re salivating at the chance to play a 3-D platformer with a wholly unique move set, this game is for you.
Portal and Portal 2 (video games)
By: Kim Swift et al., Joshua Weier et al.
Release Date: 2007, 2011
We can’t leave without a nod to the grand daddy of creative platformers. If you’ve never gotten around to playing Portal, go find a used copy of The Orange Box or scrounge up a few dollars for it on Steam, because this is one of only two games I would recommend anyone with even the vaguest interest in games play (the other one being Psychonauts).
If cultural diffusion hasn’t given you the gist of it yet, Portal has you playing a first-person puzzle platformer using a gun-like device that turns two spaces into one. The player is told by a definitely non-threatening computer (GLaDOS) that they have to get through various test chambers “for science,” encountering slightly new challenges in each one. The game is almost a comedy, with pitch-perfect timing for GLaDOS’ comments and a simple but effective plot.
The second game is longer and less tightly composed, but it also has Wheatley, one of the best video game characters ever made.
The two games are overflowing with creative puzzles and little narrative elements, and it’s not hard to see why they’ve captured the hearts of so many. You can finish the base game in under an hour with a bit of practice, and it’s a charm to speed run. The controls are as tight as a bear squeezed through a keyhole, giving the player a lot of freedom of movement and flexibility in solving the puzzles even though there is generally just one technique for completing a room. And, of course, you can dick around with the portals to your heart’s content. Like Guacamelee!, Portal is mostly tutorial, gradually providing new challenges with each level, and giving the player plenty of time to get familiar with a mechanic before they move on.
It’s fun, it’s quick, and despite the countless knock-offs and homages, it’s still one-of-a-kind. Well, two-of-a-kind, but still.