With hardware sales of 100 million units and an extensive back catalogue of over 1,000 games, Sony’s PlayStation console revolutionised gaming as we know it today. With Nintendo and Sega flying high in the early 1990s with platforming mascots Super Mario and Sonic the Hedgehog, respectively, it should come as no surprise that a multitude of would-be heroes appeared on the PS1, attempting to cash in on the system’s popularity and stake their claim as the number one platform game.
Although the console signalled the beginning of a new gaming era upon its release in 1994, during the first couple of years a litany of platforming releases came across as pretenders rather than worthy contenders. Thankfully, this soon began to change as the PS1 and its developers both found their feet, and the system later became known for its wide-ranging collection of engaging platform games. Having spent the past few months taking a fun-filled nostalgic trip back in time, Power Up Gaming today presents its list of the top ten platformers released for the Sony PlayStation.
Honourable mentions go to: Croc (series), Ape Escape, Lomax, The Adventure of Little Ralph.
10. Gex: Enter the Gecko (1998)
The wise-cracking, TV-obsessed anthropomorphic gecko originally started life in 1994 as a traditional 2D side-scrolling platformer on the ill-fated 3DO console, but the Crystal Dynamic series’ later 3D entries were where Gex really came into its own.
Inspired by American television culture in terms of level, character and story design, Gex features the eponymous character in his battle against Rez, an evil being determined to overthrow The Media Dimension and destroy the gecko’s beloved world of television.
Featuring the voice of comedian Dana Gould – who also played a large role in scripting the game – Gex is a charming and undeniably funny platformer whose levels parody a wide range of TV genres. Equipped with a basic yet competent moveset consisting of a tail whip, bounce, and flying karate kick (what else?), players must collect items such as remote controls and solve puzzles in order to progress further. And with such ingeniously titled bonus levels as “Texas Chainsaw Manicure”, “I Got The Reruns” and “Trouble in Uranus”, what’s not to love?
9. Klonoa: Door to Phantomile (1997)
Namco’s Klonoa: Road to Phantomile set the bar high for side-scrolling platformers upon its release in 1997. Featuring a gripping, cinematic story alongside engaging, adventure-driven gameplay, the title continues to receive critical acclaim to this day despite its relatively weak sales performance outside of Japan.
Set in the fantastical world of Phantomile, Klonoa is comprised of a number of levels, named Visions, which comprise a variety of puzzles to solve and obstacles to overcome. Players encounter nightmarish enemies along the way, which must be fought using the titular protagonist’s Wind Bullet ability. Although gamers move along a 2D path in line with traditional side-scrollers, the game is actually rendered in 3D, allowing for plenty of curves and twists along the way.
Director Hideo Yoshizawa went to great lengths to ensure Klonoa had a lasting appeal to both adults and children. Its cartoony, adventure aspects were, unsurprisingly, largely aimed at kids – but the game’s emotive, deep storyline was written with adults in mind. It’s a great shame, therefore, that the title was largely dismissed out of hand as being too child-like at the time of its release.
8. Heart of Darkness (1998)
Despite its relatively short length, Amazing Studios’ cinematic platformer, Heart of Darkness, is a worthy addition to this esteemed list. Directed by Éric Chahi, creator of Another World (a highly acclaimed 1991 adventure title in the same vein), the game puts players in control of 12 year-old Andy, a boy forced to brave the terrain of a nightmarish new world, fight his way through hordes of hellish creatures and gain mysterious powers to help him achieve his ultimate goal: saving his dog, Whiskey. The epitome of epic adventure.
Despite suffering major setbacks in development (which included being mooted and cancelled for both the 3DO and Sega Saturn consoles), the game managed to arrive on the PlayStation in a polished state, with an engaging level of rising difficulty and fluid controls. Players initially have a limited moveset consisting of the basic run, jump and climbing mechanics, before unlocking additional abilities such as a plasma cannon and magic energy later in the game.
With over half an hour of cinematic cutscenes, unique character and level design and a highly effective orchestral score composed by Bruce Broughton, Heart of Darkness really set an atmosphere that connected with players at the time of its release, and continues to do so to this day.
7. Pandemonium! (1996)
Developed by Star Control creators Toys for Bob, Pandemonium! has divided critical opinion over the years since its release. Out of all the games featured here, it’s arguably the least well-received. That said, it remains a favourite amongst the Power Up Gaming Team and, by God, we’re prepared to defend it to the hilt.
Released at a time when 3D action games were becoming the “in” thing on the PSX, the Crystal Dynamics-published Pandemonium! instead employs a 2.5D style; that is, 2D gameplay set in a 3D-rendered world. Although largely panned at the time as being backward thinking, the result is a game which has aged significantly better than many of its three dimensional counterparts. With a play area that curves and bends around Pandemonium!’s creative and imaginative levels, the game’s developers introduced a new twist to the well-established 2D side-scrolling format.
Players can select one of two protagonists: court jester Fargus or aspiring sorceress Nikki, both of whom bring their own unique abilities to the mix – with Nikki specialising in a double jump and Fargus favouring a spinning attack. The game’s story begins when Nikki accidentally casts a spell that unleashes a monster upon the Pandemonium! land. As a result, the two characters set out in search of the Wishing Engine, which will allow them to return their fantastical world back to normal.
Colour-coded projectile power-ups and the ability to turn into – and inherit the traits of – a number of animals further cements the game’s depth and ingratiates itself with players. With plenty of puzzles, level-specific obstacles and collectable treasure to keep even the most demanding gamers intrigued, Pandemonium! rightly claims its place here amongst the PS1’s top platformers.
6. Tomba! / Tombi! (1997)
Created by Tukuro Fujiwara, the mastermind behind Ghosts ‘n Goblins, Tomba! released in Japan in 1997 (and in North America and Europe in 1998) to strong critical acclaim but less-than-stellar sales, which has made the title somewhat of a PS1 rarity these days.
Players control the titular pink-haired feral jungle boy as he sets out to fight against the evil pigs who have stolen a priceless family heirloom and transformed his vibrant world beyond recognition. In this 2.5D side-scroller, players can jump on and fire projectiles at enemies, and also has the ability to climb and swing on poles and branches. The game’s RPG-inspired mission system is particularly unique for a platformer, wherein Tomba must complete tasks in order to attain adventure points; used to unlock items and food boxes, as well as to level up some abilities unlocked later in the game.
Developers Whoopee Camp followed up with a similarly innovative but financially under-performing sequel the following year, and unfortunately folded soon afterwards.
5. Rayman (1995)
Although originally developed for the Atari Jaguar system, the debut adventure of limbless wonder Rayman has gone down in history as one of the PS1’s crowning jewels; indeed, it was the best-selling original PlayStation game in the UK.
Designed by French game designer Michel Ancel, Rayman features the titular character who must battle to save the colourful world he inhabits from the clutches of the appropriately-titled villain, Mr Dark. Players are tasked with traversing the game’s six worlds in order to free the caged Electoon creatures, who are but innocent pawns in Mr Dark’s dastardly scheme to disrupt Rayman’s world.
As is typical with 2D side-scrollers, Rayman starts out with limited abilities: walking, crawling, and – not so typically – pulling humorous silly faces in an attempt to intimidate foes. As players progress, they unlock additional abilities such as punching, gliding and running, all of which add new dynamics to the game later on as the difficulty level is ratcheted up (and we mean really ratcheted up! My seven-year-old self found the game extremely challenging in its later stages, but consequently extremely rewarding. -CM).
A highly praised soundtrack, engaging gameplay mechanics and well-crafted imaginative levels designed by Ancel and his team – such as musical instrument-themed Band Land and sweet-filled Candy Land – ensure that Rayman proudly stands out amongst other platformers of its era.
4. Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee (1997)
Oddworld’s protagonist Abe – an ugly, green, factory-working slave – is about as far removed from a typical platforming mascot as you could imagine. Nevertheless, the GT Interative-published cinematic platformer Abe’s Oddysee is widely acclaimed as one of the PlayStation’s finest games – and rightly so.
Upon discovering that he and his fellow Mudokon wokers at the RuptureFarms meat-processing factory are to be slaughtered and turned into the corporation’s next food product, the game begins as Abe sets out to escape the factory and liberate his fellow people.
Despite being the latest entry in a long line of 2D side-scrollers at the time of its release, Abe’s Oddysee managed to innovate the platforming genre; balancing its action and puzzle segments perfectly.
Players assume the role as Abe as he attempts to convince his colleagues of their plight and guide them to the safety of escape portals. A simple premise, undoubtedly, but one made engaging and challenging with the introduction of a variety of enemies, obstacles and tricky puzzles. Most levels require precision timing and intelligent thought to progress; thankfully, the simple controls and gameplay mechanics of tiptoeing, jumping and pressing switches are adequately tight and effective.
One criticism directed towards the game was its punishing checkpoint and save system, forcing players to re-do particularly difficult segments over and over again. Mercifully, this was righted the following year in Oddysee’s successor, Abe’s Exxodus.
3. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (1997)
Aghast at the sight of Castlevania games lining Japanese bargain bins, assistant director Koji Igarashi decided to lead the franchise in a bold new direction with the release of Symphony of the Night. This new entry was due to correct the series’ perceived lack of replay value by doing away with the standard linear format of previous titles and introducing open-ended gameplay with a number of RPG-inspired elements.
The gamble certainly paid off for developers Konami, as the result is arguably the PlayStation’s finest 2D platformer. Players control Alucard, who must navigate an undead-filled castle on the way to facing off against lead antagonist, Dracula. The game features an open-world environment, inspired by classic roleplaying titles such as The Legend of Zelda series. In order to reward player exploration, Symphony of the Night initially locks down sections of the main castle which can be gradually accessed by acquiring vampiric shape-shifting abilities during the course of the game.
Graphically speaking, the game sports gorgeous 2D sprites set against detailed and occasionally 3D-rendered background elements. These, along with a perfectly-crafted musical score, create a thoroughly immersive atmosphere for players. Symphony of the Night also includes an extensive weapons, XP and levelling up system to provide hours of replayability, all the while managing to maintain the classic hack-and-slash gameplay associated with the series.
2. Spyro the Dragon (series, 1998-2000)
Having made it this far down our list, you’ve probably noticed the disproportionate number of 2D platform games highlighted here compared to those rendered in three dimensions. What’s the deal, you ask? The PlayStation was supposed to bring in a whole new era of 3D gameplay, after all.
The truth is, prior to the release of Spyro the Dragon in 1998, competent 3D platformers were few and far between on the PS1. Although our number one entry on this list predates the purple dragon, it wasn’t a truly open-world adventure; the linear structure of its levels have much more in common with 2.5D games. In terms of full 3D, free roam environments, the Nintendo 64 had Mario 64, while the PSX had… Blasto. Oh, boy.
While ostensibly cute and cuddly, the Spyro the Dragon trilogy is anything but a franchise just for children. Developed by Insomniac and produced by Universal’s Mark Cerny, Spyro features a 3D panoramic engine, clean and colourful Disney-like visuals and charming music composed by Stewart Copeland, former drummer for The Police. True 3D platforming had finally arrived on the Sony PlayStation.
Players control the titular character, a friendly little dragon, as he travels across various explorative levels to rescue his fellow dragons and recover stolen treasure from the clutches of the Gnasty Gnorc and his wicked minions. The game is divided up into a number of home worlds, which serve as central hubs with portals within each linking to sub-realms. Many of these realms have certain access requirements, ensuring that players’ progression is earned through the collection of gems and the saving of dragons.
Simplistic gameplay mechanics – consisting of the ability to charge, breathe fire and glide – make for an intuitive experience, while never feeling too easy or child-like. Later entries in the three-part series built upon the first with the introduction of additional side-quests, objectives, and new characters to control.
1. Crash Bandicoot (series, 1996-1998)
Every console had its seminal platformer. As we’ve already mentioned, for Nintendo, it was Mario. Sega had Sonic the Hedgehog. And although Sony initially had a hard time in presenting its own offering, by 1996 a definitive platform title (and with it, a loveable mascot) had emerged on the PlayStation: namely, Crash Bandicoot.
Developed by Naughty Dog, the Santa Monica-based studio founded by Jason Rubin and Andy Gavin, Crash was humorously codenamed “Sonic’s Ass” upon its conception, which represents the direction and style of gameplay the developers were aiming for: a 3D platformer where the camera tracks the player from behind, as opposed to the traditional 2D side-scrolling view. Due partly to technical limitations, however, rather than featuring fully open worlds, each level was to retain the linear paths and approach found in 2D games.
Even then, Crash Bandicoot proved to be extremely ambitious project, with the programmers utilising many technical tricks and hacks to ensure it ran as effectively as possible on the PS1’s limited hardware.
Thankfully, the monumental effort on the part of the development team was worth it. The Crash Bandicoot series represents everything you could want out of a platformer. The gameplay is a perfect balance of being simple enough to grasp instantly, but challenging enough that gamers are compelled to keep playing. A platformer in the true sense of the word, at least 70% of the mechanics involve simply jumping over various pits and obstacles, and the face-button combat – which mostly involves either jumping or spinning – is almost exclusively a question of timing; a combination that is pure, compulsive, one-more-level fun.
On top of that, though, the Crash games come packed with more personality than you can shake a brightly-coloured marsupial at. The level and character design are brimming over with quirky, colourful charm; the series set the platform template of ‘jungle level, lava level, ice level’ for years to come. It stands as testament to its art direction that despite the basic level of gameplay, it never once feels repetitive. It also boasts one of the best soundtracks of the PlayStation era, with cheerful catchy tunes that end up stuck in your head for hours – if not days – afterwards.
Mario and Sonic games of the 90s are often praised for the vast array of secrets and hidden areas to explore featured throughout their respective series’; Crash is no exception, with the inclusion of coloured gems, hidden warp rooms and numerous bonus stages to keep players on their toes.
Later entries in the series introduced additional abilities, characters and gameplay mechanics in a successful attempt to keep things fresh, and the inclusion of time trials in Crash 3: Warped certainly added a whole new level of replayability to the franchise.
Ultimately, Crash Bandicoot made an unmistakeable mark on the gaming landscape, and belly-flopped his way into the hearts of a generation in the process.
Have Your Say!
Lists such as these are always going to divide opinion; especially when the Playstation has such an embarrassment of riches as far as platforming games go. Whether you agree or disagree with our selection, we’d love to know your thoughts, so please let us know in the comments section below.
Additional information contributed by Adam Shepherd (Crash Bandicoot) and Austin Flynn (Heart of Darkness).