Better, Stronger, Faster

I’ve always loved 2D platforming games with slick play control. I mean, of course I did. I cut my gaming teeth in the age of the NES, where every other game was a developer’s attempt to knock Super Mario Bros. off of its pixelated throne. If you didn’t like platform gaming in the 80’s, you didn’t like gaming.

I can only imagine the amount of hours I’ve put into platformers and action-platformers. The entire Super Mario series, most of the Mega Man and Mega Man X series, Ducktales, Aladdin, Magical Quest Starring Mickey Mouse, Super Metroid… those are just some of the games I poured hours into, as I just riff on them off the top of my head. (Bionic Commando and the Castlevania series… there’s two more. Shovel Knight. There’s another.)

As such, 2D action-platformers hold a special place for me as a gamer, and now, as a 30-year veteran of the genre, I have to ask myself: have the platform games gotten easier, or have I gotten better at them?

It’s a question that I’ve pondered as I’ve played my way the past month or so through two of the Switch’s more highly acclaimed indie titles: Celeste and Steamworld Dig 2. Starting with Celeste (which surprisingly enough is my first of the brutal-core genre of platformers popularized by Super Meat Boy and 1,001 Spikes), something that has surprised me as I’ve made my way through the game is… yes, it’s difficult. And if you go for the strawberries, there are certain jumps that’ll take a great deal of time and practice. But just traversing through the regular game (and mind you, I’m not finished) has been challenging, but nowhere near the glorious nightmare I’d been led to believe it would be.

I treat 2D platformers as exercises in virtual parkour. I always have. It’s why I greatly preferred the Super Nintendo version of Aladdin to the gorgeously animated Sega Genesis version of Aladdin. Yes, the Sega game looked like the movie and the SNES game looked like second-rate Aladdin fan art, but the SNES game was a fluidly acrobatic experience of handsprings, backflips, and parasailing, while the Sega game was a chug-along sword-swinging trudge with poor collision detection. I played all of two levels of the Sega game, but played through the SNES game several dozen times.

Steamworld Dig 2 is nowhere near as unforgiving as Celeste. Upgrades are plentiful and powerful, and though I could see myself going back to the game using the challenge upgrades designed to make the game harder, it was while playing SWD2 that I was really reminded how second-nature 2D platforming has become for me over the past many years. Again, Dottie the robot is the recipient of any number of fantastic traversal upgrades, but by a third of the way through the game (I’ve finished this one) I was hook-shotting and jet-packing my way through the tunnels and temples buried beneath the game’s surface not just with ease, but with flair.

It helps in the case of both Steamworld Dig 2 and Celeste that the controls, much like Aladdin back in the day, are pinpoint-precise, quick, and responsive. Still, it sort of amazes me: my biggest gaming thrill to this day is quick-step hair-trigger parkour traversal of my digital avatar across terrain and enemies, be it air-dashing with Madeline, hook-shotting with Dorothy, hand-springing with Aladdin, or… jumping off of the Master Cycle, whipping out my parasail, pulling out my bow, and slow-motion head-shotting a bokoblin with Link.

It’s been awhile since I’ve made a Breath of the Wild reference, hasn’t it? I was probably due.

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