Sunday, April 7, 2013

The Evolution of Platform Gaming

Pitfall!, Prince of Persia, and Tomb Raider.

I recently revisited Prince of Persia for the SNES, a game that I had sworn off forever due to what I felt at the time was a ridiculous control scheme and an unwinnable timing mechanic.  I am glad that I came back to it, however, as it has proven to be one of the most enjoyable and rewarding games I have played in a long time.  It also got me to thinking about the nature of the game and platforming games like it in general.
It was whilst playing an evening’s worth of Prince of Persia that it occurred to me that what I was playing on my SNES was not so very different from other games I enjoyed a tremendous amount throughout the long and storied history of video games.  I realized that Prince of Persia, Tomb Raider, and Pitfall! were in reality pretty much exactly the same game.  The same game, allowing of course for the evolution of video games in general and taking into the account some of the advancements in programming and graphics, but at heart, the same game.

While this 
 may look dramatically different from this,
what these two characters do and how they do it are essentially the same.  All three games, Prince of Persia, Pitfall!, and Tomb Raider are platforming games and platforming games all share some key, fundamental characteristics.

Tedious Jumping Puzzles
Nothing defines a platforming game more than boasting a hearty hoard of tedious jumping puzzles.  In case you are new to all of this, a tedious jumping puzzle is one that requires the player to execute a series of jumps that must be timed and spaced exactly right or doom is guaranteed. Often these puzzles require such jumps to be made in succession while avoiding obstacles or the on-coming assaults of numerous assailants.    Pitfall! is almost entirely tedious jumping puzzles.  Sure you occasionally have the opportunity to climb a ladder or swing from a vine (that you  must jump to...), but the rest of the time you are timing jumps across crocodile heads or calculating the precise moment to jump the double rolling logs to avoid losing points.  David Crane could have easily named this game “Tedious Jumping Puzzle,” but “Pitfall!” sums that up pretty nicely as well.  
Likewise, the most challenging parts of Prince of Persia require you to execute nearly pixel perfect jumping routines to leap across successive gaps all while avoiding collapsing floors, spikes, and the occasional guillotine.  There are levels in the game that require multiple trial and error deaths in order to learn the precise moments to press the jump button or when to execute a standing jump instead of a running jump.  I have often postulated that Prince of Persia (at least the jumping parts) is actually a puzzle game that requires you to execute exactly the right moves at exactly the right time in order to clear the puzzle.  If you knew exactly what those moves were you wouldn't even have to see the TV screen to play.  It may not be that dramatic, but PoP does feature many hair-pulling moments of frustration due to ill-timed leap.
Then again, so does Tomb Raider.  While later games in the series would expand a bit upon the theme and introduce variations in the game play, the original game was absolutely riddled with tedious jumping puzzles.  Many of these also required throwing switches or opening doors, and some even culminated in combat, but the vast majority of them just asked you to make a leap of faith with the hopes that the gap was narrow enough for Lara to get a finger hold on the edge of a ledge or just enough room to land without overshooting the target and landing in a trap. Tomb Raider is particularly evil about requiring a series of perfectly timed jumps, many of them blind, in order to complete a level.  I am reminded particularly of the final levels where jumps to small, craggy rocks over molten lava are required.  Just plain mean.
The very best platformers are those that feature tedious jumping puzzles that are plenty challenging, but not so demanding that the frustration outweighs the fun.  I think the three games featured in this missive exemplify the kind of balance a great platformer must possess.

Limited Offensive Capabilities
Good platformers also keep you on the run.  The goal of a platforming game is to reach the end of the level, literally.  Most traditional platformers are linear in that they have a starting point and an ending point and the goal of the game is to move from Start to Finish, not to collect items or squash enemies, but to advance through the level.  Those other things can happen and are often necessary to the overall goal, but the primary goal is to move from Start to Finish.  This is why so many great platformers give the player few, if any, offensive capabilities.  Most great platformers ask you to overcome obstacles not destroy them.

Pitfall! is a perfect example.  In Pitfall! you have no offensive capabilities and Harry is beset by instantly lethal obstacles.  From crocodile pits to scorpions and snakes, Harry must simply avoid everything in his path as he desperately tries to clear as many of the 255 game screens as possible in 20 minutes.
You cannot shoot, stomp, or slice anything, you can only jump.  You can’t even duck.  Prince of Persia does give you a sword to use against your enemies, but once you get the combat system down, death due to combat isn’t terribly common unless you are careless.  The vast majority of the game is spent avoiding perils and pitfalls and making incredible jumps.  You cannot hack your way through a three story drop or a bed of spikes.
Tomb Raider is a bit different since Lara has her inexhaustible pistols that shoot anything that gets in her way, but in the first game there isn’t all that much to shoot.  And like PoP, you cannot shoot a tight jump or a pool of lava.
Limited offensive capabilities dramatically increase the challenge of a platformer.  It is all too easy to find an invincible star and run rampant over your foes, even to the point of being able to literally by-pass all of the challenge and simply charge from Start to Finish.  A great platformer keeps your attack power low and your deft maneuvering at an all time high.

Doing the Same Thing in Many Different Ways
Great platformers keep things simple, but they find new and inventive ways to use the same basic devices over and over.  Tomb Raider is, oddly enough, the best example of this.  In the PSX Tomb Raider games you can always visit Lara’s posh mansion and tackle her personal obstacle course under the guise of a tutorial.  Everything you need to be able to play the game and succeed is shown to you during that obstacle course.  Everything.  Every kind of jump, grab, roll, what have you, is put before you in a consequence-free practice environment.  The main game takes those basic building blocks and finds myriad ways of implementing those elements into 15 extremely challenging levels.  You will still need to jump and grab a ledge in level 14 as you did in level 4, but the circumstances are likely to be rather different and what came before and what comes next are most likely going to be radically different.
Prince of Persia is founded on this principle as well.  There are two basic kinds of jumps you execute, but where and how you execute them is constantly being re-invented during the game.  Some levels are a series of rapid running jumps while others require a standing jump followed by a running jump, then a climb or drop.  Even Pitfall!, while rudimentary by comparison, is not without variation.  You may only be able to run and jump, but not every screen presents the same jumping scenario and some do not require a jump at all (if you time it right).  You cannot simply run forward at full steam and leap over every campfire and log in front of you.
By taking simple game play elements and obstacles and inventing new and interesting ways to blend them together in level designs, great platformers construct entire games out of very small parts.  The best platformers are constantly finding new and challenging ways to look at fundamental aspects of game play.

Do It Again
It is rare that you are going to plug in a game like Prince of Persia for the first time, sit down and run through it in a single sitting with only one life.  I suppose it is possible, but I have yet to see anyone accomplish such a feat.  Great platformers require lots of practice and nearly endless bouts of trial and error.  The best platformers are also learning experiences that teach you how to succeed at the game as you go along.  My initial experience with Prince of Persia is a perfect example of this. The game seemed so difficult that I walked away from it because I didn't have the time or inclination to learn how to play the game.  I can easily recall my first 5 minutes playing the game were spent running off of ledges and falling into spike pits over and over and over.  Figuring out when to use a standing jump versus a running jump took time.  Learning how to ease my way up to a ledge and then turn around and lower myself to the next platform required lots of practice.  Heck, figuring out when to press the jump button to properly execute a running jump was still not a guarantee when I was on level 13! (SNES remember...)

As mentioned in the section above, tedious jumping puzzles are only overcome by trial and error.  Tomb Raider requires may leaps of faith to far away ledges or even just out into the open.  Chances are good you are not going to make the right jump every time just on instinct and luck alone.  And even when you do get lucky, you often find yourself just as dead on the next obstacle and starting the level over again.  Many times I have cheered as Lara completed a tricky jump only to watch her turn a corner and be crushed by a boulder.  Do it again, this time avoid the boulder.  Pitfall! is a bit less forgiving.  Unlike in PoP or Tomb Raider, Pitfall Harry only has two lives.  If thrice you succumb to any of the various hazards on Harry’s journey, you’ll be starting over from the very beginning.  On the upside the game cannot last more than 20 minutes, so at the very most you are only 19:59 away from the starting point should you lose all of your lives.
Go ahead, jump!
It is the trial and error nature of great platformers that make them so rewarding.  It is also this feature that creates the learning experience mentioned in the section above.  By repeating jumps and other obstacles over and over you become more adept at overcoming them and better prepared for new and more difficult challenges ahead.  You also get really good at the early parts of games!  The best platformers avoid having the player repeat extremely long sequences of the game due to trial and error and reward doing something repeatedly with new challenges and more importantly, in-game check points!

Therefore I maintain that Pitfall!, Prince of Persia, and Tomb Raider represent a snapshot of the evolution of the platformer genre of video games.  Stripped of their fancy trappings, these three games are, at their core, the same basic game: Move from Start to Finish avoiding the majority of the obstacles in your path and executing tedious jumping puzzles by process of repeated trial and error across a diverse body of game levels.  By this logic, if you enjoy the game play of Tomb Raider, you should be right at home with Pitfall!.  For me, I find this to be quite true as the elements that they share appeal to me as a player and I find them all enjoyable for pretty much the same reasons. (well, and Lara’s ample if somewhat pixilated physique)
And what of the present day?  I’m not sure.  I've not seen too many modern games that exemplify the essence of a classic platformer.  I am sure they are out there.  Games like Lost in Shadow and Kirby’s Epic Yarn give me hope, but I've not found many games past the PS2 era that scratch my platforming itch the way these three games do.  If you have any recommendations, I’d love to hear them.

“What About Me? Mario?”
Yes, yes, we all love you Mario (at least those of us who still have a sense of wonder and whimsy in our lives), but you've strayed a bit too far from the beaten path and you break one of the most important rules of platforming: you have too many offensive capabilities!  It seems like you gain three or four new ones every time you release a game.  Don’t you turn into a bee now or something kind of goofy?  Super Mario Bros. (and the newly revisited games of the same concept) is about the closest the Mario franchise comes to being a pure platformer of the type I describe above.  Mario simply has too much firepower (some of it literal) at his disposal.  He can stomp on most things and those that he cannot, he simply blasts with a fireball or knocks off with a koopa shell.  Mario games are all about getting from Start to Finish by taking out bad guys not avoiding obstacles.  And then there are the invincibility stars.  While a platforming game might have a power-up like this, Mario damned near banks on their existence to get through some levels and many can be cleared by running straight from Start to Finish while under the influence of the penta-pointed opium.  After SMB3 when you could start stockpiling power-ups, Mario transitioned from a pure platformer to something else.  The franchise literally transcended the genre.  Mario games are something alright, and there are plenty of clones out there that try to capture that same magic (looking at you Sonic, Crash Bandicoot and Spyro), but they have moved beyond the simple pleasures of the pure platformer.  

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