Through the ages, each generation has been defined by certain games. The Halo generation, Uncharted generation, Doom generation and even the DOTA generation all had their own rabid followings. However, even with so many genres sustaining their popularity to this day, platformers have probably been the most universally liked games through the decades. Whether it's Mario back in the day or Owlboy in this generation; 3D games or sidescrollers; platformers have managed to stay relevant. Much of that has come from heavy reinvention and innovation through the ages. What were some of the biggest innovations and who pioneered them? Let's go back to the very beginning and highlight which platformers defined the eras they released in.
Single Screen Era
Space Panic, a 1980s arcade game developed by Universal popularised the platformer genre. There was no jumping but players could fall and climb ladders. Platformers at this point were limited to a single screen – the level wouldn't scroll horizontally or vertically if you hit the edges.
However, it was a monkey who really set off this revolution. In 1981, Nintendo unveiled Donkey Kong, which is considered as the first true platformer of all time. Players controlled Jumpman as he hopped over barrels on a single screen and scaled ladders to rescue his true love from Donkey Kong.
The game's success resulted in a new franchise with Donkey Kong Jr., Donkey Kong 3 and eventually Mario Bros, which featured co-op platforming. The single screen formula saw a few innovations like Activision's Pitfall in 1982 on the Atari 2600. It was renowned for collecting several single screens together to create wide-ranging levels. Sadly, the platforming genre was still fairly limited due to the power of consoles at the time.
However, Jump Bug in 1981 sought to change that. You controlled a bouncing car that navigated platforms but this time, the platforms actually scrolled. When the ColecoVision released in 1983, it featured Quest for Tires, a fairly simple platformer that featured scrolling levels. Other titles like Pac-Land (1984) made a mark with parallax scrolling, a feature which allowed the background to move slower than foregrounds, thus creating depth. This would become standard fare in franchises like Nintendo’s Mario.
In 1985, Super Mario Bros finally came to life on the NES. It brought us side-scrolling levels, memorable foes, boss battles, secret paths, power-ups and so on. The limited power of the NES only allowed for horizontal scrolling (as evidenced by going out of bounds causing Mario to disappear from the screen) but for that time, it was more than enough.
Other titles like Mega Man and Metroid also rose to prominence; the former mixing shooting with platforming and the latter emphasizing exploration and adventure. Capcom's Bionic Commando introduced us to the grappling hook and multi-directional scrolling, both of which became staples in their own right.
Next Generation Side-Scrollers
Sega's Genesis console was out in 1989, two years ahead of Nintendo's Super NES, and had titles like Capcom's Strider to showcase its power. However, it was Nintendo's Super Mario World which caught the industry's attention. This new 16-bit era of platforming allowed for all kinds of innovations, not the least of which included enhanced parallax scrolling, large spanning levels and more detailed pixel sprites. While Nintendo was basking in the Mario acclaim, Sega realized it needed something more. It needed a mascot.
Thus, Sonic the Hedgehog was born. Sonic introduced a much faster style of platforming, an attitude that was “cooler” than Mario and a look that distinguished him from the pack. Naturally, he had his own set of rip-offs like Bubsy, Aero the Acro-Bat and whatnot but the series continued towards greater success with Sonic the Hedgehog 2 and 3.
Meanwhile, in the PC space, a little-known start-up called id Software had released Commander Keen. It was touted as the first PC platformer to have scrolling graphics and inspired other PC titles like Apogee's Duke Nukem and Epic's Jazz Jackrabbit.
The 16-bit Era
This generation is interesting because it featured some of the best platformers of all time. Capcom's platforming shooter Mega Man had discovered new horizons with the more mature Mega Man X series on the Super NES. Nintendo further expanded its console's range of platformers by purchasing Rare Studios. Rare took a big risk at the time by producing expensive pre-rendered graphics for Donkey Kong Country. Sega was still riding high on the Hedgehog wave with Sonic and Knuckles. Castlevania took cues from the Metroid franchise in Symphony of the Night and became an instant hit. Let's not forget Super Metroid, Rayman, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi's Island and other classics.
However, 3D was quickly becoming the buzzword for many players. Many titles tried a 2.5D approach, which used 3D graphics but presented the action on a 2D plane. Sega's Clockwork Knight, Pandemonium and Klonoa are some of the better-known titles. Regardless, it was time to innovate and platformers were behind the curve.
Early 3D Era
The earliest known efforts at 3D platformers include the aforementioned 2.5D titles. However, some developers tried another approach – platformers with a 3D perspective but 2D graphics. These were delivered in an isometric perspective and included titles like Konami's Antarctic Adventure and Sega's Congo Bongo, both released in 1983.
Christopher de Dinechin's Alpha Waves for the PC is considered the earliest 3D platformer, incorporating a camera, full 3D movement and graphics. Sega further followed up its efforts with Bug on the 32-bit Sega Saturn console but it lacked true freedom across all axes. Naughty Dog's Crash Bandicoot was perhaps the real surprise at this time. Despite staying on linear paths for most of its levels, the Crash Bandicoot series mixed vehicles, split-second platforming and an irreverent art-style to become successful.
The 3D Platforming Era
The real paradigm shift came in 1996 with Super Mario 64. In 1991, Mario creator Shigeru Miyamoto was working out the specifics for a 3D platformer. The technology was subsequently implemented in Nintendo's (and the world's) first 64-bit console, the Nintendo 64. Super Mario 64 launched for the same and set the standard for all 3D platformers. Levels were open-ended, encouraging exploration and choosing one's own path. The camera was relatively easy to use and controls were buttery smooth.
Things only got better for Nintendo when Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64 entered the fray, the former earns acclaim for its detailed level design and puzzles. Not to be outdone, Sony elevated the Tomb Raider franchise to become one of the best-selling franchises on the PlayStation One. To her credit, Lara Croft introduced a different kind of 3D platforming system, one intermixed with gun play and deep puzzle solving. Of course, her overall look didn't hurt either.
The New Blood
Even though Sony was off to a rough start with the PlayStation 2 in 2000, it became famous for introducing a new breed of 3D platformers. Sucker Punch brought us stealth mechanics with Sly Cooper; Naughty Dog diversified into open world gameplay with Jak and Daxter while Insomniac introduced combat-oriented platforming in Ratchet and Clank. If nothing else, this era marked the diversification of platformers into numerous other genres.
Sega was somewhat lost in the shuffle. Sonic 3D Blast was an attempt at an isometric 3D platformer that de-emphasized the hedgehog's speed. Nights Into Dreams was a clever little Sega Saturn game but its lack of depth and on-rails gameplay didn't help.
In 1999, however, Sega unleashed the Dreamcast, the first 128-bit home console. Sonic Adventure was a launch title and featured a successful transition of the Genesis era's breakneck speed into 3D. Future titles like Jet Set Radio, Rayman 2 and Sonic Adventure 2 established Sega as a force to reckon with. Unfortunately, due to huge losses faced by the failure of the Saturn and mounting competition from Sony, Sega bowed out of the console business for good.
As for Nintendo, it was busy with its new GameCube console and only Super Mario Sunshine released for the same in 2002. The Metroid series, dormant since the SNES days, returned with Metroid Prime introducing a first-person shooter perspective for the first time.
The AAA Platformer Era
For better or worse, platformers in this era weren't exactly ground-breaking. Nintendo introduced the Wii with its motion controls but the Super Mario Galaxy series was fun because of its levels and gameplay. Ratchet and Clank went bigger with the Future series while Electronic Arts experimented with first person platforming in Mirror's Edge. Seeing the world through the eyes of parkour runner Faith was different, if still traditionally closer to an FPS.
Naughty Dog had moved on from the cartoon confines of Crash Bandicoot to create the Uncharted series, which mixed cinematic story-telling with third person shooting and platforming. With the PlayStation 3 established, Sony tapped Media Molecule to develop LittleBigPlanet, a cutesy platformer with an extensive tool-set for players to create their own little experiences. Oh, and did we mention that Lara Croft made a comeback as well?
Sega's descent into mediocrity continued, unfortunately. Despite becoming a third party software developer and bringing Sonic to other platforms, the quality of the games declined. Sonic 2006, Sonic Unleashed, Sonic and the Black Knight, the list just goes on. Even with bigger budgets, there was no guarantee of great games. There was one bright spot with Sonic Generations but for the most part, our favourite hedgehog had seen better days.
The Retro Revival Era
Somewhere during the AAA era, numerous indie developers debuted with games that called back to the 2D platformers of old. Jonathan Blow's Braid, Phil Fish's Fez, Team Meat's Super Meat Boy and Playdead's Limbo popularized indie development as a whole, proving to be strong successes.
Nintendo went back to its roots with the New Super Mario Bros series on 3DS, delivering 3D visuals on a 2D plane. It brought the series to the Wii and Wii U, experiencing similar levels of success. However, a myriad of indie developers were creating memorable old-school 2D platformers. Owlboy, Hollow Knight, Axiom Verge, Giana Sisters, Inside, Spelunky, Cuphead and so much more have taken to delivering high-quality platformers with solid mechanics over the past few years.
The future looks especially bright for platforming with a wide range of upcoming titles. Yooka-Laylee is a spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie and Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night carries on the legacy of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. Super Mario Odyssey on Nintendo's newest console, the Switch, will see Mario go open world while Sonic Mania features returns to the franchise's 2D platforming roots.
Though platformers have grown exponentially over the decades, they still provide some of the most accessible entertainment for many a gamer. There's no telling which direction platformers will go, but they'll always be there, letting us hop and bop on enemies as we please.