If there’s one genre that has stood the test of time despite a long-lasting hiatus from the spotlight, it’s the 2D platformer.
From early 1980s games like Space Panic and Donkey Kong to today’s gems like Shovel Knight and Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze, the side-scrolling platformer has been around in some form or another throughout the fast-evolving gaming industry.
However, even this widely-popular genre saw a fall in popularity when 3D graphics took over the living room, only to see a revival with the help of the indie community.
When Mario and Sonic Ruled The Industry
For those of us that grew up during the 8-bit and 16-bit era, it’s hard to believe that two decades ago 2D platformers were the top dogs in the industry.
The two biggest game developers, Nintendo and Sega, each had their own side-scrolling series that sought to outdo outdo their rival and please fans with each iteration.
Super Mario World popularized the SNES with its colorful worlds, variety of enemies, and rideable Yoshi companion. Sonic The Hedgehog came a year later to blow players away with challenging, fast-paced gameplay.
To say that the early 90s was the golden era of 2D platformers is an understatement. If gamers wanted tough yet rewarding adventures, they had the Mega Man and Donkey Kong Country games to test their reflexes.
Those who preferred the ability to explore areas freely and collect upgrades could check out the Metroid and Castlevania series of games.
In short, there was something for everyone in the expansive platforming library.
3D Steals The Show
Like many genres that thrived when pixel graphics were the standard, 2D platformers suffered a decline in popularity when 3D visuals arrived.
The platforming genre didn’t die entirely – instead, the opposite occurred when 3D platformers became the must-have games on every console. It was one thing to jump and run from left to right, but to have 360-degree movement was nothing short of breathtaking.
The Nintendo 64 had a good number of top-selling 3D platformers with Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, and Banjo-Kazooie all selling several million copies.
Although RPGs and driving simulators were the more popular gamess, Sony’s PlayStation also saw amazing 3D platformers release. Titles like Spyro the Dragon and Crash Bandicoot became the start of widely-popular game series that gave PlayStation owners their own platformers to enjoy.
Not Entirely Dead
While 3D game worlds continued to wow on home consoles, plenty of excellent 2D platformers saw a release on handheld devices. The Game Boy Advance had brand new titles like Metroid Fusion, Sonic Advance, and Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow for side-scroller fans to enjoy while on the go or in the comfort of their own home.
Nintendo’s GBA even introduced older 2D platformers to a new generation of gamers. Titles like the original Metroid, almost every previous 2D Mario game, and Donkey Kong Country were remade for the handheld and even ended up being some of the best-selling games.
While console 2D platformers like Yoshi’s Story and Kirby 64: The Crystal Shards were met with mixed reviews, the Game Boy Advance proved to be the go-to gaming system for fans of the genre.
Future consoles and mobile devices also had a few side-scrollers worth playing but they hardly matched the popularity of first-person shooters and action-adventure games. The Nintendo DS’ highest selling game, New Super Mario Bros, may have been a 2D platformer but the rest of the list was dominated by RPGs and simulation titles.
Indie Brings 2D Back
It took several years but eventually players saw a growing interest in 2D platformers once again. Whether it was a yearning for nostalgic gameplay or fatigue from 3D shooters is anyone’s guess.
What matters is that side-scrolling games began their new ascent with the help of the indie game community.
Surprisingly, it was on the shooter-dominated PC and Xbox 360 platforms where indie devs released some of the first 2D platformers to revitalize the genre.
Braid is still considered a masterpiece for its unique platform and puzzle elements that proved the long-lasting genre still had something to offer.
Santa Cruz based Team Meat also released Super Meat Boy on the Xbox Live Arcade service to critical acclaim as gamers praised the challenging gameplay.
Since then, we’ve seen plenty more 2D platformers release to the point where the indie scene is close to becoming saturated with the genre. Rex Rocket, Shovel Knight, Guacamelee!, and Giana Sisters: Twisted Dreams are only some of the countless side-scrolling games we’ve seen hit digital download platforms in the past two years.
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Giving Gamers What They Want
Realizing that there are plenty of gamers still craving a side-scrolling adventure, many high-profile developers have recently been releasing their own as well.
Both the Wii and Wii U saw big 2D platformer releases like New Super Mario Bros. U and Donkey Kong Country Returns.
Even Sega took another stab at the genre by releasing Sonic the Hedgehog 4 and introducing 2D levels to their 3D console games Sonic Colors and Sonic Generations.
The best part is that many developers are using innovative elements to keep 2D platformers from becoming stale. From procedural generation to physics-based puzzles, new side-scrolling titles are trying to recapture the addicting gameplay of platforming while also offering something unique.
For those of us that grew up with the genre and still enjoy it to this day, we have plenty to look forward to as both big budget and indie developers figure out ways to reinvigorate the beloved genre in fun, new ways.