Development of the Modern Platformer Movement

The idea of the “platformer” has been present in the gaming community for a very long time, and continues to be relevant today, although in a new light. The traditional concept, the one most are familiar with, consists of simply jumping between platforms, avoiding obstacles and collecting power-ups, and completing a simple goal neatly tied into levels. The emergence of the indie movement has given rise to a niche of modern platformers that put a different twist on the genre, whether through retro-inspiration in graphics and mechanics, a storyline more befitting of today’s culture, or more expansive world design providing unique backtracking content that doesn’t feel stale.

This article will be focusing on three games in particular to describe some of these changes: Super Meat Boy (2010) by Team Meat, Hollow Knight (2017) by Team Cherry, and Celeste (2018) by Matt Thorson.

There are some games that, instead of replacing old culture, have given a sort of homage to it while still using more up-to-date software and aiming for the indie market. Of course, when three-dimensional technology emerged towards the beginning of the 21st century, there were many older platformer themes that “upgraded” to it, without changing the core concept that much. But in the indie setting there has been a surprising stubbornness to remain two-dimensional.

What many consider to have bolstered today’s indie platformers was Super Meat Boy. This platformer, like many that came before it, is level-based. The main character is Meat Boy, and the object of each level is to rescue “Bandage Girl,” your girlfriend, from the clutches of evil Dr. Fetus (yes, that is the antagonist) while rushing and navigating through a series of extremely hazardous obstacles. This has obvious similarities to the original Donkey Kong/Super Mario Bros premise: You play as Mario and you get through levels of obstacles to rescue Pauline/Peach from Donkey Kong/Bowser. In terms of obstacles, there are some classic elements, such as collapsing blocks and enemies that move in a very predictable manner.

Super Meat Boy’s post-level replay screen

But there are changes, most clearly defined in the game’s art theme but also in gameplay. This game is extremely edgy and gory and at times ruthless, in ways that would absolutely not be acceptable if it had been released decades earlier, and even today keeps a few people away. There is a lot more fluidity in movement as well; not only is the player faster and less friction-bound, but there is lots of wall-jumping and vertical climbing/dodging that demands greater precision. In fact, the level of difficulty the game reaches after a point is quite beyond that of earlier platformers, requiring in some cases perfectly timed movements which rely largely on the sensitivity of pressed keys. An IGN review by Daemon Hatfield describes the experience as so tense that “…my hands hurt after a while and I couldn’t get a good grip on the controller any longer.” This posed a problem for the game’s accessibility in higher levels, but that didn’t seem to stop those truly dedicated to striving towards completion, and the challenge has even been considered likable.

Link to Daemon Hatfield’s review of Super Meat Boy

But the most unique part of the game is its competitive nature and replay functionality. Each level is timed, and a player is congratulated with an A+ if they complete the level under a certain time. After completing a level, the player is shown a replay with all attempts you made with your character at once, with the screen following the successful attempt. You can then choose to save this replay for watching later. This garnered the creation of a competitive community where players show off their best, most impressive runs of levels, which would not have been possible without the internet allowing people to connect as part of a fanbase. This was further expanded on with the later edition of a level editor, which also provided replayability that was not tied to the exact same official levels.

Many other platformers have taken plot and worldbuilding to a whole new level. The release of two platformers that I would classify as “semi-modern” have had a lasting influence on the expansion of a platformer’s world: Metroid and Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The two sparked a sort of sub-genre of platformers called Metroidvania, due to both containing large maps that players explore with time and areas that must be unlocked by completing other areas or finding certain items/defeating bosses in those areas. The original Castlevania was known to have a linear style of this; you complete one area and it unlocks the next, simple as that. But in Metroid, retracing your steps is crucial to reaching both new areas and secrets, and there isn’t always a specific path that must be followed.

Hollow Knight’s twisting, expansive map of Hallownest

Hollow Knight has been quoted as one of the greatest culminations of the Metroidvania. It manages to satisfy this exploratory itch with intricately designed areas and way too many optional features hidden away behind breakable walls — but it also manages a level of creativity in art and design that remains unique to even other platformers released around its time, but most certainly those of the late 20th century. The paths which you can take are hand-detailed, and very versatile too, not just simple long corridors or pits of left-right-up-down. The world is not made of people or aliens or even dwarves or orcs; they’re all (mostly) weird bug people with cool white masks, and each bug has a distinct personality and role (whether it’s charming or creepy to a player). At the end of every path is either a key encounter such as a boss fight, an NPC that at the very least has some noteworthy things to say if not providing some kind of service, or a treasure that can potentially have lasting impact on an entire playthrough. Like in Metroid, a player will need to do lots of backtracking to find all of the charms, abilities and bosses the game has to offer. This can be a pain for anyone who just wants to get through to the end of the game, especially since it often requires memorization. It’s mostly optional, though, and there is a final boss and endgame experience that requires the minimal amount of work and secret-discovering to get to.

Hollow Knight’s bosses also follow a very Metroidvania style. They have varying sets of attacks that can sometimes be difficult to dodge, but are predictable enough and always have a way of being avoided. The Godmaster DLC is focused on a boss rush part of the game that tests a player’s patience and skill to the extreme, and as a result is rather controversial among the community. Perpetual Noob’s boss guides for the game are relatively subjective and give an idea of the kinds of attacks to expect and how to counteract them:

Link to Perpetual Noob’s boss guide for Nightmare King Grimm

Speaking of which, Hollow Knight’s story is more complicated than at first glance and is designed beyond the minimum complexity required for the gameplay to make sense. Before, platformers have had rather simple plots, like the “Save the damsel-in-distress” plot mentioned before with Donkey Kong/Super Mario. These are integrated as part of the gameplay and generally are easy to understand. The 21st century has seen a plethora of more story-driven games outside the platformer genre, and in the indie movement as part of it.

Link to Patrick Klepek’s article on Assist Mode

A relatively recent game known as Celeste has been praised by many critics for its “difficult but fair” level design and some pretty unique platforming mechanics. Similarly to Super Meat Boy, the game is rather challenging and very appropriate for speedrunning; Magolor9000, in particular, is a YouTuber known for completing the game in just about 47 minutes. But unlike SMB and similar titles, the game contains an“Assist Mode,” which essentially allows the player to tweak certain elements of gameplay, such as the number of air dashes they have, the game speed, their stamina, and even invincibility, to their liking. They aren’t even locked out of getting achievements while using these “cheats.” For some, this defeats the point of playing the game at all if someone can just cheat their way through it. Others, however, are happy for the increased accessibility of the game that results, since otherwise they might just stop playing if they aren’t used to the difficulty. An article by Patrick Klepek goes into some of the history of this mode: According to him, it wasn’t originally supposed to be part of the game, but Thorson took inspiration from Cuphead’s “Simple Mode.” It also claims that Thorson himself doesn’t like to use Assist Mode, but figured that it would “empower the player and give them a good experience.” Its optional nature at least means there is a choice whether or not a player wants to use it, and the concept of deliberately implementing legitimate gameplay controls such as this remains pretty new and novel to modern platformers.

A cutscene in Celeste where Madeline experiences a panic attack

Celeste also tells a story that is surprisingly relevant to many of the people that may play the game. In Celeste, you play Madeline, a girl that is striving to climb to the top of Celeste Mountain. Along her journey she encounters Theo, a cool and somewhat eccentric buddy character whom she bonds with over their conjoined experiences up the mountain. She also encounters so-called evil Madeline, or “Badeline,” a literal side of herself that is fueled by negative emotions and both physically and verbally tries to compel Madeline to give up the whole time. It is revealed through time that the reason Madeline was climbing in the mountain in the first place is as a sort of vacation from all the pressures of daily life, but more significantly as a way of proving to herself that she is worthwhile and capable of achievement. She struggles with panic attacks and constant self-doubt, and at first tries to push away this evil side of her, which only causes it to lash out. But with some help from Theo, and more from her own perseverance and interactions with Badeline, she eventually learns to care for this hurting side of herself, unites with Badeline, and reaches the peak of the mountain together.

Link to Joe Bush’s Video about Celeste and Depression

Awareness to stress has become a lot more vocal in recent years. Many Celeste players sympathize with and relate to Madeline; they too may feel bogged down by pressure, leading them to be consumed by negative thoughts and depression. One example of this is Joe Bush, whose video above describes his personal connection to this aspect. Today’s educational and work settings are often times so rigorous towards people that, in their attempt to meet every expectation flung their way (whether explicit or implicit), they may collapse mentally and emotionally. Yet, someone who casts aside this negativity as if it didn’t exist might end up ignoring a part of themselves that needs healing and reinforcement. Celeste’s story aims to uplift players into believing they are not alone, that they can receive help from both outside sources and within themselves, and that they should confront their emotions benevolently instead of succumbing to them or ignoring them. This kind of story can have deep meaning and can apply to so many different players in a variety of ways; it is passionate and psychologically impacting instead of purely for marketing purposes.

This corner of recent platformers is not known to everyone, but it’s managed to gain attention and acclaim from many in the overall gaming community, and at this point has essentially become its own genre. It’s not really considered a genre theme-wise, but more in its ability to innovate and alter the platforming experience in previously untouched ways, staking for each game its own identity and possibly a meaningful impact on society. I see such ingenuity in some of these games that, given enough time, they could end up influencing game developers even outside of the platformer genre.