A brief history of the platformer
Like the song says, in this game genre, you just go ahead and jump.
Video games were designed to be boring. OK, that’s a little unfair. Video games were originally designed to be repetitive. The idea was simple: Keep the player pumping in quarters as you wore them down with level after level of barely changing gameplay.
This driving principle created the heyday of the “platformer”—the nickname given to games where the primary objective was to run, jump, or climb up staggered or uneven platforms. If that makes you immediately think of Donkey Kong, congratulations, you’re already one step ahead of me.
Here is your brief history of the platformer:
1981’s Donkey Kong is often credited as the first platformer, but that title should actually go to a lesser-known game called Space Panic (released about a year earlier). That game had you climbing up ladders to reach your goal but hadn’t thought of also adding jumping. Donkey Kong went with both the ladders and the jumping, and the rest is history.
Donkey Kong creator Shigeru Miyamoto originally used the term “athletic games” to describe platformers. (You can see why that didn’t catch on.) Also, before he was “Super,” had siblings, or was even “Mario,” the world’s most famous plumber was called “Jumpman” based on his core competency.
There are essentially two types of platformers: single-screen and scrolling (also referred to as “side-scrolling”). The first refers to games that take place on, well, a single screen. In Donkey Kong, for example, you start at the bottom left corner and make your way up to the top of the screen. Scrolling games advanced the platformer concept by incorporating jumping and climbing with movement across from one screen into another (usually from left to right or right to left)—one of the earliest examples of this was 1982’s Pitfall!, which is seen as a huge breakthrough for this style. It would later power early arcade games like Moon Patrol or Jungle Hunt.
As technology improved, developers started dressing up these basic game styles with pseudo 3D elements—for example, the 1983 game Congo Bongo was essentially a single-screen platformer with the illusion of added dimension (you moved forward and back, not just up and down). It may be the first known example of “fake it ‘til you make it.” In the 1990s, games like Crash Bandicoot would take the platformer concepts—running, jumping, climbing—into true 3D environments.
Some of the sub-genres within the platformer style are: run-and-gun platformers (typically side-scrolling action games with a lot of running and shooting, e.g. Contra, Metal Slug); puzzle platformers (games that combined elements of the platformer with puzzle-solving, e.g. The Lost Vikings); isometric platformers (referring to the games that looked 3D but still used 2D tech, e.g. Congo Bongo, Zaxxon); and auto runner platformers (side-scrolling games that usually kept your character in constant motion while the player focused on avoiding or shooting obstacles, e.g. Moon Patrol, Temple Run).
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