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The Rise of the Indie 2D Platformer: 2D or not 2D?

Platformers have ruled the video game landscape ever since the release of Donkey Kong in 1983, and have created household names in the form of Mario, Sonic, Mega Man and more. Running from left to right, jumping on enemies and blasting through foes with gadgets became a staple in many childhoods for those growing up in the 1990s, in part due to the easy accessibility of these titles.

Ever since Super Mario 64 revolutionised gaming by transitioning our favourite moustached plumber into the third dimension, there has been added focus on using this newly discovered perspective in as many creative ways as possible. This spawned a number of video games that have now reached legendary status, including (but not limited to) Crash Bandicoot, Spyro the Dragon and Banjo-Kazooie. 2D platformers became a thing of the past and even Mario and Sonic took a hiatus from their side-scrolling roots to frolic in the large, open playgrounds that 3D made possible.

Indeed, in the late 1990s and early 2000s, platformers flooded the gaming market and companies sought to “one-up” the others by creating colourful and charming mascots to push their products. Following the introduction of the third generation, and the gritty realism that it brought, platformers declined in popularity and were replaced by first-person shooters such as Call of Duty and massive open-world adventures in the likes of Assassins Creed and Grand Theft Auto. Platformers were overlooked by a majority of the gaming community, and Mario held the title of Platforming King uncontested for a stretch of time.

Renaissance of the platformer

However, in the past number of years, there has been a resurgence of 2D platformers made by independent developers that have injected new life into the genre, and this writer is of the opinion that we are currently witnessing the renaissance of the platformer. Indie games have the ability to focus on unique gameplay mechanics or compelling story beats due to the absence of strict time pressures and management oversight. That isn’t to say that AAA developers are not passionate about their work, games such as Super Mario Odyssey are the perfect example to illustrate that this is not the case, but recent indie titles are unlike anything that the gaming industry has ever seen as a result of this freedom.

Celeste, for example, is the epitome of a masterpiece and a contender for 2018 Game of the Year. The premise is simple: you play as Madeline, a girl that is determined to climb the eponymous mountain. Celeste has an extremely minimalist art-style; characters are made up of a small number of pixels and there is no voice acting to be found. Despite this, the world feels truly alive due to the incredible depiction of the characters as real people.

Madeline is lost – both physically and mentally. The same can be said for every individual that Madeline encounters on her climb; they all have internal demons and worries to overcome throughout their journey, and the narrative bravely tackles themes such as depression, anxiety, self-doubt and despair. Alongside a killer soundtrack, Celeste shows that it’s okay for platformers to address serious issues and genuinely has one of the most moving, uplifting moments in all of gaming. Celeste is challenging, a creative decision that no doubt aims to present the player with the same sense of relief and reassurance that Madeline would feel on her ascent. This game has a rare sense of heart and it demands to be played.

Super Meat Boy and Shovel Knight amongst indie stars

Super Meat Boy, released in 2010, shares a lot of similarities to Mario: You play as the titular hero of the story. Your girlfriend has been kidnapped by the sinister villain. You have to jump your way to said villain to retrieve the girl and save the day. The only difference being that Super Meat Boy is hard as nails. The platforming is tight and precise and every move feels weighty and deliberate. If you die, it is entirely your fault.

If you’re looking for a platformer to deliver a home run from a gameplay standpoint, Super Meat Boy should be on your menu.

Oh, and Mario has been to many, many worlds, but has never jumped his way through a hospital full of needles. If that isn’t a selling point for the game, nothing is. Team Meat were one of the first independent developers to step up to the plate and attempt to replicate the magic of playing Super Mario World and they delivered a straight home run.

Shovel Knight is widely regarded as one of the best games of all time, and rightfully so. In this writer’s personal opinion, this is the one that really got the ball rolling on the 2D platformer revival. Super Meat Boy and Braid, to name a few, had been released and widely enjoyed by gamers before Shovel Knight was even introduced to Kickstarter, but Shovel Knight was instrumental in replicating the feeling of playing an 8-bit platformer in 2014.

Everything about Shovel Knight is a work of art. The visual style harkens back to the aesthetics of the SNES but with a high-definition twist – the colours sing on the screen and the characters and levels are pulsating with personality. The soundtrack is one of the best gaming soundtracks to ever be released and is a must listen. 

Shovel Knight borrows the pogo stick mechanic from the DuckTales video game, the overworld from Super Mario Bros. 3 and elements of the boss structure from the Mega Man franchise and somehow improves upon each and every one of these. It just oozes fun, and what more could you want from a video game? It is a testament to modern platforming games, to the Kickstarter model and to the independent development process.

Cuphead’s heart a diamond in the rough

Cuphead is a different beast altogether. A game that journeyed deep into the depths of development uncertainty came out the other side swinging, Cuphead is equal parts difficult and jaw-dropping. StudioMDHR, the developers and publishers of Cuphead, were inspired by 1930s cartoons and hand-drew each level and asset in the game. It took 17 years from initial conception to release in 2017, and it shows in the heart that the game possesses. This level of polish and attention to detail is a diamond in the rough in this industry.

Cuphead, for the most part, has players facing off in challenging boss battles with some extremely unique adversaries ranging from a sprouting, evil carnation to a fire-breathing dragon. Health is limited and precision is absolutely key, but the control scheme is fair and the reload times are extremely short. And it’s in the character that Cuphead truly shines the brightest. Each boss is distinctive and each arena feels lovingly crafted. It honestly is like watching a cartoon from the 1930s in beaming colour, and is an absolute must-play for any gamer up to the challenge.

The Messenger, released in 2018 for PC and Switch users, finds inspiration from the original Ninja Gaiden on the NES and flips all of the expectations that this brings on its head with some genius twists. To comment further on how this is done would cross into spoiler territory, but it is another example of an independent developer (in this case Sabotage Studio) taking what made 2D platforming so intoxicating in the 1980s and 1990s and putting their unique stamp on it to make it a modern day classic. Don’t Google this one, just have faith that you’re in safe hands.

Celeste paving the way for future of platformers

There are many more games that could be talked about ad nauseam, and to not mention them would be an injustice to the creators that poured their heart and soul into these games. Games such as Limbo that brought a fresh, dark and weighty spin on platforming. Roguelike games such as Rogue Legacy and Dead Cells that have taken platformers from a series of pre-designed levels to sprawling, procedurally generated behemoths that demand careful exploration. Souls-like titles like Hollow Knight that translate the difficulty and exploration aspects of the Dark Souls franchise into a 2D plane to marvellous results. The list goes on and on.

While some critics argue that the market is oversaturated, this writer could not disagree more. Celeste genuinely changed my outlook on life and made me feel more than any other game ever has. I would happily trade a majority of the AAA games released this year for one more chapter in Celeste, never mind a handful of other games cut from the same cloth.

History famously has a habit of repeating itself, and it appears that the future looks a lot like the past, just in 4K. If this is what is in store for gaming, buckle up because we’re in for a heck of a ride.

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