In 2011, developer Toys for Bob released a game that, at least for two obvious reasons, was destined to the fail in the eyes of the gaming press.
Skylanders: Spyro’s Adventure was a last ditch attempt to revive the fortunes of a character that had once shifted millions of units on a name alone but had since disappeared into mediocrity. Secondly, as the title featured a playable cast of almost 30 characters alongside Spyro, Activision brought out its trump card: collectible action figures that, when placed on a special ‘portal’ stand would generate the same character in the game. But has Skylander’s unexpected popularity juxtaposed with it’s unit shifting gimmick put paid to core innovation in cartoon-like ‘cutsie’ 3D platformers? And have the fundamentals of genre been lost forever?
Once upon a time, in a gaming industry long ago, platform-based games stood amongst their peers like gods. Back when developers were exploring the possibilities and limits of a 16-bit universe, the behemoths of Nintendo and SEGA battled for our hard-earned 90s cash with their chosen champions. Suddenly you either had a fetish for a moustached-Italian plumber with a hero complex or a penchant for a blue be-spiked mammal. These safe, nonthreatening characters were created to appeal to the the most lucrative audience out there, children and their parents bank balances. Mass marketing to this younger audience turned games from a niche adored by bearded, bespectacled 40 somethings to a mainstream must-have.
The advent of moving into the 3rd dimension opened up incredible possibilities for developers, especially those creating platformers. Sony put it’s faith behind both safe and more mature titles such as the suggestive gymnastics of Tomb Raider. The success of the titular Lady Croft spawned a new, almost cinematic take on platforming.
The craft of storytelling became as important as the game play mechanics. And these elements have been felt as far forward as the 3D GTA incarnations, Assassin’s Creed and the Batman Arkham series. The embrace of adult themes such as horror, violence and sex gave this off-shoot notoriety but further widened the gap between itself and the family friendly tones of traditional platformers.
Much of what many critics view as a ‘deterioration’ of the genre could in fact be taken as the inevitable need to expand and evolve. If the first Sonic or Spyro games were re-branded and repackaged for today’s market they’d be low-scored out of the building. The tastes and appetites of the modern gamer have expanded, and so has the pressure for developers to stand out in a saturated market. However, to innovate in itself is a troublesome factor for platformers. Take Insomniac Game’s likable PS2 series Ratchet and Clank for example.
Being the only main platforming franchise on the PS3, it was once hailed as a beautiful and dynamic game. But the series has struggled to do anything more since than increase the size of environments or attempt to create a co-op-centric experience with the latest release All 4 One. As a result, sales figures for the latest title compared to it’s first, Tools of Destruction have been weak at best. Even the once dominant LEGO franchise has seen its star fall from ascendancy as the number of remaining, un-LEGO’d film franchises grows thin, along with the patience of its fan base. As fickle a mistress as innovation may be, some developers have taken risks and reaped the benefits.
Media Molecules’ LittleBigPlanet and its sequel chose to combine puzzle elements with the classic side-scrolling perspective. But LBP had its own trump card to play, offering gamers to ability to take the core physics of the game and create something they they themselves would want to play. “When we were designing LBP 2’s features, we were asking ourselves what makes really good game play, as opposed to what makes an ‘interesting hack’, comments Alex Evans, co-founder of Media Molecule “and it came down to character, control and story. So the idea was that we would help people tell stories”.
As much as the peripheral gimmick has had the gaming press up in arms, Skylanders at least seems to be trying to present a cute platformer in a different light, appealing to the collectorphiles in us all. But it, LBP2 and other upcoming titles like Trapdoor’s ‘Warp’ should all be viewed as a step forward for a genre that needs to naturally expand and redefine itself. It’s easy to assume the principles of the platformers of days gone by have been lost, but in reality they’ve simply evolved to exist in a modern gaming world.