What’s old is new.
A few short generations ago, 3D platformers were at their absolute peak. Once Mario showed us the way to do it (as he so often does), it opened the floodgate for every other imitator and ‘me too’ wannabe to capitalize on that hype. Some of them were very good of course; but for every Banjo-Kazooie, there was a myriad of uninspired items of shovelware clogging things up like Rascal, Earthworm Jim 3D, Jersey Devil, and the infamous Bubsy 3D.
Once this zenith had passed, the genre took a nosedive, relegated to the status of occasional curio. Sandbox-style exploration and discovery subsided, shifting the concept towards focused, objective-based gameplay. It seemed that the colorful world of the mascot collect-a-thon had been put to rest.
In 2017, they have returned in grand form, from independent titles such as A Hat in Time and Skylar & Plux, all the way up to bigger projects like Yooka-Laylee and Super Lucky’s Tale, and capped off by the exquisite Super Mario Odyssey last month. Incidentally, if you just missed out on that hat-related pun, you may not exactly have the eye for detail required in a collect-a-thon.
All this goes to say, we appear to have entered a new renaissance for this beloved genre, one that promises to innovate in exciting new ways, challenging us to explore every nook and cranny once more in the name of completionist obsession.
…At least, it could. It’s worth considering that the return of the 3D platformer, absent of the nostalgic gleam of its predecessors, offers a familiar batch of questions and reasons for concern. Like meeting with an old friend for the first time in years, and instantly being reminded of why you lost touch with them to begin with.
Trying to conclude whether this trend in 3D platformers is sustainable comes down to market demand and expectation. When Yooka-Laylee’s Kickstarter was first launched in May 2015, the gaming world lost their collective (not collectable) marbles. A spiritual successor to Banjo-Kazooie, made by former Rare staff? A chance to finally wash the bitter taste of Nuts & Bolts from our mouths? They couldn’t receive our money fast enough, hitting their base funding target within an hour.
The resulting game is a double-edged sword that has proven to be one of the most divisive titles of the year. We wanted to love it, and it gave us plenty of reasons to do so, while at the same time falling into the same pitfalls of its inspiration. Effectively, the underlying issue is that Yooka-Laylee is too true to its source material, all the way down to the ‘affable leader with a wisecracking buddy in the backpack’ protagonists. The team at Playtonic Games could practically sue themselves for copyright infringement.
This is a recurring theme in the recent batch of 3D platformers. Super Lucky’s Tale was an unambitious ‘copy and paste’ facsimile of everything that’s already been done in the genre. Its biggest innovation, including some 2D platforming sections, has already been done – pipped to the post by even Sonic the Hedgehog, of all the anthropomorphic people. Indeed, indie PC game, Macbat 64, so brazenly hammers its nostalgia point home, it’s apparent even in its title.
The oft-manipulated Patrick Lencioni adage rings far too true; “If everything is important, then nothing is.” To paraphrase, once that special well of nostalgia has been dipped into by every developer under the sun – be they big, small, or somewhere in between – we find ourselves caring a great deal less. Therein lies the market demand we alluded to previously; if we expect 3D platformers to simply recycle material from its weary bag of tricks, this demand will begin to wane, and the genre will return to obscurity.
Though this is sadly the most likely scenario, it is not necessarily a certainty. A Hat in Time showed us what could be done when a skeleton crew of volunteers share a vision, and add enough wrinkles to keep things fresh and charming. Meanwhile, Snake Pass foregoes the critical component of jumping, introducing a completely different control scheme. This may border on sacrilege to some, but these inventive physics allow for a unique adventure that really tests your creativity.
And of course, we’d be remiss to forget how Super Mario Odyssey proved that Nintendo’s portly hero has maintained his crucial ability to morph and evolve with each iteration; his chameleon-like ability to disguise himself putting poor old Yooka to shame. Not only is the possession-based gameplay element of Cappy a welcome addition, it is implemented beautifully in a veritable tapestry of ingenious game design.
Alas, they can’t all be Marios. Just as we saw in the late 90s, the quality offerings that yield intriguing results are vastly outnumbered by a host of rehashes. Sure, such titles may be fun for a while, but we as consumers have grown up, and require something different from our gaming experiences.
Perhaps the fate of the 3D platformer isn’t so black-and-white. Nearly all of the titles mentioned in this article have been from independent studios, with smaller budgets that make tapping into this retro thirst a requirement. Nostalgia easily becomes a crutch when it’s the basis of your whole project.
Like all things in life, the genre is at a crossroads: adapt or die. If developers refuse to take risks, the only thing these games will be collecting is dust as they sit in the bargain bin at your local supermarket.