I’ve never liked 3D platform games. Ok, I’ve never properly played the crowning title in this genre, Super Mario 64, so perhaps I can’t really pass judgement - although I might grab it on the Wii virtual console to see. Every 3D platformer I have tried, including the more recent Super Mario Sunshine, have always felt too imprecise, and too subject to variation caused by the positioning of the camera. As I mentioned a while back, the only thing wrong with Psychonauts, which was one of my favorite games of last year, was that it was a 3D platformer at its core. Luckily the sheer freshness of the content compared to anything else out there, and the outstanding quality of Tim Schaefers comedic writing meant I always had the will to carry on playing despite the odd bit of teeth grinding, but with other games I’ve had less patience.
In my opinion, some things, such as platforming and traditional shmups, just work better in 2D. There’s nothing to say that the visuals can’t be rendered using 3D techniques (see New Super Mario Bros, Mutant Storm), but keeping the field of play locked to those 2 dimensions is very empowering - nothing else gives you the uncompromising precision and control resulting from always knowing exactly where you are in relation to the world around you. Given that these factors are utterly key to the core mechanic of platforming, it seems a no-brainer to me that adding a random element like a roaming camera which, even if implemented well, can never cope with absolutely everything the player wants to do, would detract from the core experience. Yes, fully 3D vistas are lovely to look at, but they’re just not suited to every game type. The old adage ‘if your only tool is a hammer, everything looks like a nail’ springs to mind.
Luckily the DS has breathed new life into the 2D gaming world when it looked like it would disappear forever, consigned to history by marketing ‘gurus’ who don’t understand gameplay one iota, but just want to follow fashion - and being fully 3D is of course, the new black. It’s not all their fault of course - many average consumers are distressingly sheep-like and have a habit of ignoring quality, as borne out by the fact that the one fantastic original game on the PSP performed poorly at retail. Although that could also be linked to poor marketing spend. Muppets.
Anyway, enough spleen-venting, let’s make this a positive post. 😀Here are are my personal picks of 2D platform gaming goodness that I’ve played on the DS:
Kirbys Canvas Curse This is a year or more old now, but its total genius combination of stylus control and well-designed levels still make it stand out in the crowd. You don’t control Kirby directly, you can just influence him by drawing lines of ink that he follows. Imagine the games you used to play in the living room with toy cars and those plastic tracks, where you’d ramp anything off anything. Kind of similar gameplay - although there’s a lot of subtlety and depth in directing Kirby’s travel using minimalist gestures with the stylus, whilst taking into account gravity, bounce, and the environment as a whole, along with odd power-ups like turning Kirby into a spiky ball which sticks to walls or a heavy stone which drops like a, well, stone. A superb game that I can’t recommend enough, although it does get quite tough later on in the game so expect a challenge.
New Super Mario Bros My favorite ‘traditional’ platform game remained Super Mario World on the SNES for a long time. I’m not really sure whether NSMB beats it or not because I haven’t played it for a while - the last time was on a flight back from the US about 3 years ago (gotta love Virgin Atlantic). A few of the changes don’t work as well as they might, such as the ‘Giant Mario Mushroom’ which feels kinda pointless, and the ability to store up a powerup made it feel a bit easy in places, since if you managed your backup powerup correctly you could recover from most mistakes, but overall this is a very accomplished game. It does exactly what it says on the tin, and the tactile ‘feel’ of controlling your character is a solid and compelling as ever. The graphics are rendered in 3D, allowing for handy effects like zooming when running fast and some nice smooth deformations when the playing area needs to change - a very good example of technology serving the game rather than the other way around. Highly recommended.
Yoshi’s Island DS Got this one for Christmas, and whilst it’s not quite in the same league as the previous two examples, it’s a lot of fun nonetheless. It’s got more ‘secret’ areas than probably any other game I’ve played, using the fact that depending on which baby you’re carrying you have slightly different abilities, leading to alternative paths through most levels and lots of bonus bits. Rather than the traditional ‘find 3 big coins’ secrets you have up to 5 flowers, lots of stars and red coins to locate, and the fact that it gives you a detailed ranking based on this it gives you incentive to find more. A lot less purist due to the variations, and occasionally a little frustrating because the gameplay is less tightly refined, but very entertaining.
So there you go. Platform biased maybe but that’s really because the best 2D games gravitate to the DS. Although if I had a PSP I’m sure I’d be raving about LocoRoco too. But since that’s the only game worth owning a PSP for (barring the emu scene which Sony doesn’t want you to use, probably because people are playing those games more than the rehashed PS2 junk that’s getting officially released ;)), I don’t have it 😉 I wish they’d release it on the DS or even as a Flash game or something. Ah well.