Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — #5-1

by Jed Pressgrove

Note: You can read the intro to this list here, the entries for #15-11 here, and the entries for #10-6 here.

5. Solomon’s Key (1986)

Solomon’s Key, designed by Michitaka Tsuruta, might star a sorcerer who is perpetually trapped in locked rooms, but the game’s central mechanic — the ability to create and destroy square platforms — gives the player a unique type of freedom. Most 2D platformers before and after Solomon’s Key feature platforms that are set in place, so being able to manipulate the very things that inspired an entire genre creates the brilliant illusion that you are a magician. Adding to Solomon’s Key’s sense of magic is the weird secrets throughout its 50 levels. After you accidentally make a few odd discoveries, it’s hard to resist the urge to experiment in all corners of the enchanted rooms, especially since you will be revisiting the levels many times due to the game’s high degree of difficulty. Before Spelunky and Dark Souls, there was Solomon’s Key.

4. Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse (1989)

Although Konami’s Castlevania III: Dracula’s Curse keeps the deliberate style of the original Castlevania, it holds a different place in video-game history by reimagining how players might progress through a journey in an action platformer. After you complete certain levels, branching pathways offer distinct challenges as you inch closer to Dracula’s castle; it’s impossible to experience every level on a single playthrough. On these different paths, you can discover multiple secondary characters, each with a completely different style of play and who can replace main protagonist Trevor Belmont with the touch of a button. No matter what path or character you choose, the game is full of ingeniously nerve-wracking sequences, the best of which is the optional Clock Tower level, where you must scale the building then work your way back down through its various mechanisms. Very few platformers can compete with Castlevania III’s epic quality, and none of them can match its emotional tension, partially because of the game’s startlingly articulate soundtrack, which is one of the greatest technical achievements on the Nintendo Entertainment System.

3. Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island (1995)

For a sequel to one of the most crowd-pleasing franchise hits of its era, Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island has a ton of gall. The game’s hand-drawn art surges with a joyful and nervous energy that has yet to be surpassed among platformers — sometimes it seems like the visuals are about to, elatedly, rip apart at the seams, as when, in one stage, you touch Fuzzy and get dizzy (an unforgettable ode to psychedelic drugs) or when the first boss, initially diminutive, blows up to take up about half the screen. Then there’s Yoshi’s Island’s bizarre and even irritating premise: to survive, the player must take care of a young Mario, who cries and floats off in a bubble whenever Yoshi is hit by an enemy. By daring to turn a Mario game into one long escort mission, producer Shigeru Miyamoto and his team make an uncompromising artistic statement, rejecting the philosophy of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” And that’s why when people talk about this title, they rarely say, “Super Mario World 2.”

2. Ninja Gaiden (1988)

When director Hideo Yoshizawa decided to transform the 1988 Ninja Gaiden arcade beat ’em up into a cutscene-filled platformer — the birth of “Tecmo Theater” — he changed video-game history. As a story about a young man wanting revenge on the ninja who killed his father, Ninja Gaiden is simple, emotive, and urgent, inspiring scores of developers to try their hand at complementing action with bursts of cinematic aplomb. But no cutscene has yet transcended the Sergio Leone-inspired opening sequence of this game, which, through alternating close-ups of faces and running legs, showcases the anxiety, excitement, and tragedy of a duel. The last image in this montage is the masked visage of a son enraged by what has occurred, and so when the first stage finally starts, the player is already shot with adrenaline as they take control of a hero with quick feet, a beyond-efficient sword slash, and the ability to jump off walls. As the story becomes more complicated after each level, and as the soundtrack evokes everything from energetic rage to demonic mystery, Ninja Gaiden never lets up.

1. Super Mario Bros. 3 (1988)

It’s not just that the eight worlds of Super Mario Bros. 3 contain enough ideas for several video games. It’s that the realization of the game’s concepts leads to a wide variety of emotional states. The child-like thrill of sliding down a tall hill, taking out multiple foes as you go, and landing into a pool of water. The sense of dread while you jump onto moving tanks and dodge cannon fire and walking bombs. The urge to laugh when you first see the silly oversized goombas. The shock of being swallowed alive by a giant flying fish. Whether you’re in the middle of a level, navigating a world map, or going toe to toe with a friend in Battle Mode (which is more fun than most fighting games), Super Mario Bros. 3 constantly appeals to senses and feelings and, of course, our fascination with moving an avatar on, around, between, above, and under platforms in a wonderful array of fashions.

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6 comments

  1. Yeah, I have to disagree with your #1 pick. I really think SMB3 is one of the most overrated games out there. Truthfully, I think 2 was the better NES entry.

    1. Are you talking about The Lost Levels or the U.S. version of Super Mario Bros. 2? I like both of them (to different extents), but they both have a lesser place in history from my view. The Lost Levels is a great challenge, but it’s obviously quite similar to the original. And Super Mario Bros. 2 is interesting with its multiple characters and different style of play, but Amazing Princess Sarah took the enemy-throwing mechanic to another level a few years ago. I’d much rather play it than Super Mario Bros. 2.

  2. Very nice list I’d say, yep yep (I feel honored Donkey Kong Game Boy is there, man the TONS of FUN I had with that brilliant game after so many hours! Pretty creative on its own with the Mario’s acrobacies, I wish they’d implement something like that in any future 3D Mario game).

    However, I’d loved a special mention for Donkey Kong: Tropical Freeze. This game has madness about its own level design, interconnecting so many mechanics at once, so to speak.

    Here is a beatiful example about what I explain: https://youtu.be/JqHcE6B4OP4?t=6m36s (until 7:30 or so).

    Also, is weird for me you mention the “Metroidvania” genre here. I’d accept Cave Story because, well, that game can be hella platforming with its own jetpack and some maze-like sections. But Iconoclasts? Didn’t strike me much as pure plattforming per se, being quite linear to begin with and not really focused about the jumping thing (tons of puzzles in fact involing all of them with the tools at your disposal), except to climb tons and TONS of flat platforms towards any upper section.

    I won’t deny, though, that its storytelling is something kind of unique for the genre; but I didn’t feel much that it doesn’t push enough its boundaries somehow (SPOILER ALERT: save the part when you can’t save Royal, and other few moments over here and there, like the merciless killing of Agent Black. Such moments were nuts on their own merits).Still a good videogame, kinda of innovates on its own borders.

    Salut Jed!

    1. EDIT: Well, I’d say “brutal” rather than merciless her killing, but anyway, you get what I say (sorry for being kinda of fussy with my details, :P).

    2. Hey Erdall, Tropical Freeze is the best Donkey Kong Country game I’ve played, but like the other Country games, it does fall back on gimmick stages and ideas (such as the repetitive bonus areas where you get puzzle pieces for collecting bananas) too often.

      I would never call Cave Story or Iconoclasts a Metroidvania. For one thing, I despise that term. For another, they don’t remind me of Metroid or Castlevania. Iconoclasts sets up numerous puzzles through platforms and how you position yourself with platforms, so it more than qualifies for this list.

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