The Rise and Fall of the Exploration Platformer

*Yawn* As a representative sample of the “serious gamer” breed, I believe my guttural utterance speaks for us all in terms of the general level of enthusiasm that has pervaded the gaming industry for the past six months. Progress, it feels, has been absolutely nonexistent since E3 occurred back in July. There has hardly been a new installment in Brown and Grey: the Uninspired Next Generation First Person Shooter Franchise, much less any interesting titles by Nintendo, Sega, Capcom, Valve, Bethesda, Blizzard, or any other major developer. When Nintendo Power magazine, a publication that gets paid to review bad games positively, can’t give any game better than 6.5 out of 10 on their notoriously lenient rating scale, you know gaming is in a slump.

The double-whammy of Nintendo’s usual holiday season rush and the presence of “Shooter Season 2011” (to use a term coined by internet reviewer Ben “Yahtzee” Cronshaw) on the horizon offers some small hope for our holiday hoards, but in the mean time, I’ve been stuck playing my old PS1 favorite Megaman Legends 2, in the hopes that it will divert my conscious thought long enough from the misery of the current gaming doldrums. This replaying, in addition to making me brood sorrowfully over the cancellation of Megaman Legends 3 (a whole different sad story), has given me insight into a category of gaming that has been almost entirely absent from the modern scene: a genre I like to call the “Exploration Platformer.”

The Exploration Platformer draws roots from a concept nearly as old as gaming itself: the classic 2D platformer. Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, Megaman (1-10, X-X8, Zero 1-4, and ZX/Advent), and Kirby are all prime examples of this category of games, a category defined by the need to navigate platforms, enemies, and obstacles in the hopes of reaching a “goal” at the end of each level. The tools you are given to help you reach this goal vary: with Mario, super mushrooms, fire flowers, and an incredible jump work to your advantage. Sonic allows you to curl up into a ball and roll through levels, leaving a wake of destruction. The variations on this concept are endless.

Platformers were the staple of all consoles up until 1996, a year which saw the advent of 3D gaming. With the addition of a whole third axis, platformers could expand their scope past the simple linear objective of “reach the end of the level without dying.” Thus, the “Exploration Platformer” was born, and with it a completely unique style of gameplay.

The hallmark of any Exploration Platformer is the environment. Instead of the linear obstacle courses offered by their 2D counterparts, Exploration Platformers offer sprawling landscapes, usually with distinct themes—space, undersea, haunted mansion… anywhere the imagination can wander. Likewise, the goal of Exploration Platformers is proportionately more complex: instead of simply finishing the level, each level has multiple rare items hidden within, which the player must collect by braving different 3D obstacle courses all contained within the same level. So much for the “platformer” part. The ingenious thing about Exploration Platformers, however, is wrapped up in that first word—“Exploration.” There is no one right way or proper order in which to collect any of the eight to ten Power Stars or Golden Bananas in a level. Instead, the player is tested on their platforming skills, and also on their ability to explore an environment and learn its secrets, its shortcuts, its back doors and quick routes. On Super Mario 64’s first level, for instance, you could scale a spiral mountain full of bounding boulders and blasting bob-ombs to arrive at the summit’s boss low on health and morale. Or you could play around in the lower parts of the level until you discovered that standing in a specific flower patch for a few seconds would warp you directly to the top of the mountain, making the subsequent boss fight much easier. A similar first-person shooter situation would probably put a massive red arrow over the flower patch with the message, “Stand here to warp!”

Between 1996 and 2002, Exploration Platformers flourished on all consoles. Nintendo and Rareware produced probably the most memorable titles: Super Mario 64, Donkey Kong 64, Conker’s Bad Fur Day, and Super Mario Sunshine stand out as particularly brilliant examples. Less well-known attempts include a handful of Rayman games on N64, Megaman Legends 1 & 2 by Capcom, the Spyro series, the Banjo-Kazooie series, and very odd Starfox Adventures. Since 2003, however, this unique category of games has all but dropped off the face of the map since Nintendo opted for a more linear approach to platforming in Mario Galaxy 1 & 2, New Super Mario Bros., and the upcoming Super Mario 3D Land (notice a theme?). Rareware Studios’ purchase and rebranding by Microsoft have only furthered the demise of this once-thriving subset—one which Capcom seems to have acknowledged by cancelling the much-anticipated Megaman Legends 3 very close to its intended launch. With the gaming world thus polarizing more and more between first-person shooters and classic platformers, the loss of the Exploration Platformer is regrettable, if only because the subset unified the discovery focus of a sandbox game with the difficulty and satisfaction that came from mastery of a platformer. Also, let us not forget that before there was Call of Duty: Black Ops, there was Conker’s Bad Fur Day’s first person shooter multiplayer mode, arguably the major inspiration for most modern FPS multiplayer design. So if we do let the Exploration Platformer die out, we may well create a vicious downward spiral devoid of innovation for years to come. The holiday season will decide.

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