During the shuffle from 2D to 3D, one of the first genres to make the jump to an all-new generation was the platformer. It had previously reigned supreme on 2D systems like the Sega Genesis and the Super Nintendo, and with Super Mario 64, it broke completely new ground and evolved into a whole new experience.
They dominated the landscape for some time, producing multiple takes on the formula and spinning into multiple sequels and other styles of games. Many characters became console mascots. Several games had their own rip-offs and bootlegged versions. It was a glorious, cartoonish time in gaming history.
Eventually, the 3D platformer went dormant, being adapted and made into character action games more appealing to a maturing audience than the goofy, tongue-in-cheek characters from before. But recently, there’s been something of a resurgence, a pushback on the bleak brown and grey shooters, a return to more light-hearted and goofy games with an emphasis on exploration and collecting.
We’ve seen this with the recent Ratchet & Clank reboot on PS4, whose critical acclaim is widespread and relatively enthusiastic about its return. Old Rare employees are currently hard at work on Yooka-Laylee, a platformer owing a great deal of its design to the original Banjo-Kazooie. Even Double Fine Studios have stepped forward to announce the return of Psychonauts in both an official sequel and a separate VR game.
There’s still plenty of ground to explore in the 3D platformer genre today, especially when the benefits of the downloadable market make the games a much more appetizing buy for a budget price. But which ones seem the most likely for a return?
Crash Bandicoot is a strange amalgam of slapstick humor and floaty platforming as accessible to play as it was enjoyable. The environments were varied, the enemies had a range of attack patterns and styles, and collecting Wompa fruit and watching it be shuffled into the UI became a satisfying achievement.
Crash has been tied up in rights ownership hell for some time, but now is a perfect moment to bring him back in all his glory. Ratchet and Clank is made up of gorgeous visual design, and the current tech in consoles would allow for Crash to follow suit. Is the game perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be updated to better fit the times.
Compared to other hard-hitters, Sly Cooper is sometimes unjustly forgotten in discussions about the 3D platformer. There’s no reason why it shouldn’t be included. Sly Cooper: Band of Thieves in particular was an excellent stealth platforming game with a good sense of humor and great visual sensibilities. It had tension, action, skill testing challenges, and played well mechanically.
Like Ratchet and Clank, there’s been a movie attached to the Sly property for some time, making this the perfect opportunity to re-introduce the cunning Raccoon thief to the current generation.
Yooka-Laylee might be Banjo-Kazooie in spirit, but it’s still not a complete replacement of the weird dynamic bear and bird duo that once graced the Nintendo 64. Banjo-Kazooie had an undeniable madcap charm, and its level design and gradual upgrade drip-feed encouraged exploration and interaction with different parts of the environment.
Banjo and Kazooie have been on a strange track since their first game on the N64, diverting from pure platforming to the divisive car-building game Banjo-Kazooie: Nuts and Bolts on the Xbox 360. There was clearly a large world once meant to be explored in Nuts and Bolts, but more emphasis was placed on vehicle construction than the old gameplay loop of exploring and collecting multiple items for puzzle pieces. With a new generation of more powerful consoles and Rare’s newfound ability to branch out and create projects not tied to the Kinect, it would be awesome to see what a brand new version of Spiral Mountain looks like in HD.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day
Conker is tricky, because the jokes once considered edgy and hard-hitting in its time are now hacky and somewhat insensitive. Still, there’s a place in my heart for the foul-mouthed drunkard and his adventures through a bizarre world filled with large-breasted flowers and singing piles of feces. Adapting the jokes and situation to better suit today’s sensibilities might be challenging, but it’d be worth it to bring Conker back purely for an experiment on the use of comedy in games.
Spyro the Dragon
Spyro has been swallowed up by the Skylanders toys to life franchise, but there’s still room for the purple dragon to rehash his old adventures on the original PlayStation.
The original game was fun because it combined ideas of platforming and flight in one, providing opportunities for innovative enemy encounters and challenges. And while Spyro himself isn’t overly charismatic, he’s entertaining enough to be serviceable and there’s plenty of time now to re-write him into a more well-developed character.
Jak and Daxter
Buddy platformers like Ratchet and Clank, Banjo-Kazooie, and Jak and Daxter have the potential to combine multiple styles of play and fun, light-hearted stories into a great game. Jak and Daxter had particular sass, since its main characters had a goofy antagonistic relationship during the times they weren’t working together.
Also like Ratchet and Clank, Jak and Daxter: The Precursor Legacy takes place in a very different world filled with beautiful environment design, varied enemies, and strong combat, making a neat trifecta on which today’s hardware could easily capitalize.
Gex the Gecko
Gex wasn’t as popular as its Nintendo and Sony exclusive counterparts, but there’s arguably more for the quirky platformer to explore today than there ever was before.
The Gex series finds its unique voice in riffing on television and movie genres, theming each level within different types and styles of entertainment. One level is based around a kung-fu movie, while another takes place in a Looney Tunes-style cartoon world.
With the popularity of television and movies today, there’s a huge opportunity to explore so much more. Gex could jump into a cop procedural drama, an Adult Swim cartoon, a superhero show, or even a medieval drama like Game of Thrones. There’s even room for goofier themes like reality television or infomercials, depending on where the story goes. Gex was a flawed game with great ideas that should be revisited again today.