james earl cox III

Game Bias’ 15 Greatest 2D Platformers List — Intro and Honorable Mentions

by Jed Pressgrove

In video games, jumping is as ubiquitous as shooting, and it’s often considered an essential part of the 2D platformer genre. But that’s not exactly the case from my view. Although the overwhelmingly majority of platformers involve jumping, there are historically significant games where you must move from platform to platform without jumping at all. This list will include entries that fit this description.

Some might wonder why I have chosen to focus on 2D platformers. The short answer is I don’t think 3D platformers have been that impressive on the whole over their roughly two-decade lifespan. I will consider putting together a list of the greatest 3D platformers, but it would be shorter than this one.

The honorable mentions below show that 2D platformers remain vibrant and fascinating. But before I reveal these selections, I do want to say that the 2D platformer, more so than any other video-game genre, is heavily associated with blind nostalgia. Fez, Shovel Knight, Celeste, and others bring shame to the art form by referencing or utilizing aspects of classics without surpassing or interrogating what came before them (see Fez’s Tetris, Mario, and Zelda allusions; Shovel Knight’s easygoing nods to Mega Man, Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, and Super Mario Bros. 3; and Celeste’s pixelated sprites, which look like god-awful mush during the game’s precious zoom-ins). We must look beyond what reminds us so much of the past.

As for why the following five games weren’t simply included as part of a 20 greatest 2D platformers list, I echo what I said in the intro to my 15 greatest shooters list: there are other honorable mentions I could name, but I want to highlight these choices for their unique appeal.

Platformance: Castle Pain (2010)

Unfortunately, this game might be forever lost after Microsoft abandoned support of Xbox Live Indie Games for the Xbox 360, but in case a port pops up somewhere, I must mention Platformance: Castle Pain by Magiko Gaming. This gem is simple: you can walk left or right, jump, or zoom in or out so that you can better detect and avoid obstacles on your way to rescuing a damsel (yeah, that trope is more worn out than a pair of 1980s blue jeans). The zooming mechanic is brilliantly executed. Let’s say you’re at the section where you need to traverse a long platform while jumping over arrows that are being shot at your back. You may want to attempt this trek with the default zoomed-in camera, reacting to the sudden appearance of a projectile behind you, or more cleverly, you can zoom all the way out so that you can see the game’s entire single stage — it resembles an elaborate living picture that one would hang on a wall — and thus the release of the arrows from their origin. Unlike Celeste’s phoned-in visuals, the pixel art here is superb whether it’s in your face or in the distance. The experience is brief like a children’s storybook and accompanied by an uplifting medieval-themed soundtrack, but Platformance: Castle Pain requires perfect timing and spacing to conquer its challenges as you move from checkpoint to checkpoint.

Rock Bottom (2014)

Amy Dentata’s Rock Bottom is a fantasy in which levels that represent a state of depression can be completed by counterintuitive means. The goal of Rock Bottom is to jump to higher platforms, but the only way to increase the power of your jump is to fall to your death. To further strengthen your legs, you must extend your fatal plunge by avoiding platforms as you fall from greater heights. If viewed cynically, Rock Bottom’s concept could be linked to suicide ideation, but I interpret its madness as wry hope for convenient change. Ultimately, the game is an affirmation of life after struggle, as suggested by the ending that celebrates the fact that the protagonist can finally jump without having to worry about escaping a hole.

The Duck Game (2013)

This quirky title from James Earl Cox III, one of the most fascinating and prolific developers of the decade, might not fit the traditional definition of a 2D platformer, but it effectively utilizes platforms in its depiction of a downward spiral of addiction and obsession. Absurdly, the protagonist is preoccupied with the idea of holding the legs of a duck as the bird flies. Unless you elect to hit “Escape” on your keyboard, you get to see what happens when the hero indulges in this practice. In addition to the trippy premise, visuals, and audio, the amusing part of The Duck Game is that the platforms don’t matter. When you’re flying high with the duck, the platforms are unnecessary for vertical advancement, and when flying with the duck becomes a problem (the protagonist stops caring about hygiene and everyday chores as the duck’s strength wanes), you can’t leap well enough to reach your previous high. The implication is that if the duck weren’t in the picture, you could go from platform to platform like a normal video-game character.

Iconoclasts (2018)

Because I played Joakim Sandberg’s Iconoclasts for the first time only a few months ago, and because it’s practically new, I don’t have the critical distance to state that it deserves to be on the main list. That’s what my head says. My heart says the game should go down as an all-time great. Iconoclasts’ combination of combat and puzzle-solving makes for some wonderful platforming moments, but it’s the storytelling I want to focus on here. Not only does this game have the most complex plot of any platformer I can recall, but it has the most conflicted depiction of faith and religion that I’ve seen in any video game, period. With a theatricality that recalls the interweaving dramas of Final Fantasy VI, Iconoclasts never lets you forget that it involves human beings with worldviews shaped by their individual experiences and convictions. This is the most ambitious 2D platformer ever made, and in almost every respect, it succeeds. (See my full review here.)

Octahedron (2018)

Yet another 2018 game that I will continue to keep in mind as I evaluate the history of 2D platformers, Octahedron’s ever-changing mechanics share center stage with a beyond-thirsty electronica soundtrack and neon-infused graphics that recall wild night clubs. The smooth and slippery movements of the platform-creating protagonist complement the pulsing beats and blanket-like textures of the music. A sensual powerhouse from developer Demimonde, this game is so sexy that one can feel dirty exploring every last part of its tunnel-like stages. (See my full review here.)

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Mountain vs. Temporality

by Jed Pressgrove

Mountain has received a lot of attention and analysis due to the perception that it isn’t like other games. This hype underlines “mountain simulator” strangeness and only represents a half-truth. Like many video games, Mountain immodestly asks for hours and hours of the player’s time. Without that time, you might not “get it,” you might not properly enjoy it, you might miss something. In contrast, Temporality, a recent game by James Earl Cox III, takes a few minutes to play, and there’s nothing “to get” besides the game’s reflection on the complementary joy and fragility of human existence.

Mountain tends to inspire a mixture of irrelevant reactions. Some describe Mountain as a screensaver, others speculate about the meaning of a polygonal mountain getting struck by random objects after hours and hours, and still others, like Jim Sterling, refuse to criticize the game seriously. The positive/negative hype and guesswork surrounding the game serve no purpose. My review of Mountain also fails to put the game in a meaningful historical context (though I hold that the grandeur of real mountains trumps Mountain’s smart-assed messages).

Mountain’s weirdness and connection to Hollywood — developer David OReilly worked on the Spike Jonze film Her — encourage people to see it as an anomaly worth studying. Tying Mountain to OReilly’s past work, Ian Bogost shares the most articulate interpretation of the game:

Mountain breaks the mold of video games not by subverting its conventions through inactivity, but by offering an entirely different kind of roleplay action as its subject. It presents neither the role of the mountain, nor the role of you the player-as-master, nor the absence of either role. In their place, Mountain invites you to experience the chasm between your own subjectivity and the unfathomable experience of something else, something whose “experience” is so unfamiliar as to be unimaginable. What is a mountain, exactly? It is a stand-in for the intractability of ever understanding what it’s like to be something else. Mountain offers a video game version of a philosophical practice I call alien phenomenology—a sustained and deliberate invitation to speculate on what it’s like to be a thing.

Of course, this articulation is part of a pitch for Bogost’s book, “Alien Phenomenology, or What It’s Like to Be a Thing.” For Bogost’s review to register as positive criticism, one must enjoy speculation about the theoretical experiences of things. Even with this academic interest, Mountain offers little universal insight into “mountain experience” with its remarks and objects. The game involves what random thought you have in reaction to a random occurrence, and for a lot of people, that random thought isn’t going to be “oh, alien phenomenology.” Regardless, like a campaign from a “AAA” game, Mountain can provide hours and hours of fantasy, this time about “Mountain experience” rather than what cool sword you might come across. (Mountain is even vaguer than Dark Souls, but at least the difficulty in conquering the latter can be defined by anyone.)

temporality

Cox’s Temporality defies the video game traditions of vague commentary and fantasy content. The game concerns the life and death of a soldier. The lives of soldiers have been explored often in fiction, so Temporality is not wholly original. Nonetheless, Cox’s delivery of this concept carries an appreciation of time that goes beyond platitudes like “Life is short.”

Like Mountain, Temporality doesn’t have the expected things of video games like talking, collecting, shooting, managing, buying, selling, investigating, sneaking, jumping … the list of traditional game actions goes on and on. Instead, Cox uses a combination of music, pixels, and time manipulation to inspire consideration of a soldier’s sacrifice. Temporality only offers two actions for the player: the ability to move time forward and the ability to move time backward. If the player doesn’t hold down a key to perform either action, the game freezes allowing one to contemplate the gravity of life and death as defined by time and memory.

As you move events forward or in reverse in Temporality, the game depicts life as a series of parallel occurrences in time. Cox’s intention isn’t to show a soldier at death’s door having flashbacks to happier, less dangerous experiences. The game avoids this banality through a cyclical presentation of pivotal moments in the soldier’s life, suggesting that our experiences move together and play off each other, like the individual instruments of a song. Cox’s intellectual understanding of life and time is not forced; it gives the game an emotional, universal power that is amplified by Jon Hopkins’ song “Immunity” (the affecting piano in “Immunity” exposes Mountain’s insulting offering of keyboard notes to the player).

Temporality displays unique beauty that encourages interpretation, whereas OReilly’s floating mountains look like jokes compared to the awe-inspiring landscapes in Brothers: A Tale of Sons (Mountain’s zooming and spinning are backhanded features, not perspectives). While Cox uses primitive pixels in Temporality, the game’s side-scrolling soldiers recall the tracking shots in Kubrick’s Paths of Glory and Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan — not as homage but to establish definable emotional stakes. The game’s limited use of color heightens the stakes when the soldier, as a young boy, runs in a bright blue rain. Cox’s child-like appreciation of the past is genuine.

For hours upon hours, you can let Mountain hang in the background of your computer activities. Perhaps the game chimes to signal another (hopefully) revealing message about “what it’s like to be a thing,” or maybe the whole thing is trivial fun. In any case, many point out Mountain only costs $1. So what? Temporality, free, has an indisputable statement to make and doesn’t need text to do it. Mountain is time wasted. Temporality is time considered.

Critical Riffs: Fez, Snot City, Glitchhikers, Love Worker

by Jed Pressgrove

Fez

This ballyhooed platformer combines Nintendo nostalgia and esoterica to make us go “Wow.” We’re supposed to do the talking because Phil Fish’s pixel art has next to nothing to say. The game has cute dialogue and plenty of places to see, but the perspective changing and puzzles make for rigid and tedious exercises, as opposed to the revelations uncovered with practice and experimentation in the cryptic masterpiece Solomon’s Key. Don’t buy into the bullshit about Fez’s ode to relaxation. Fish called his work “a ‘stop and smell the flowers’ kind of game.” No, that was 2009’s vastly superior Flower.

Snot City

James Earl Cox III is a more accomplished artist than Phil Fish. Snot City won’t win any awards for maturity or sensitivity, but the game’s subversion of clean-cut problem solving in games is unpretentious and original. Snot City establishes itself as a race against time in which you have to find new abilities to unlock paths and save the day. Although it’s tempting to stand still and take in the unusual environment, message prompts and fidgety animation reinforce the urgency to move. One could criticize Snot City as an inside joke on game design, but Cox’s conclusion is an unforgettable sensation.

Glitchhikers

This game from Silverstring Media captures the suspense of normal human life through an appeal to the senses. Simulating a late-night drive on the highway, Glitchhikers awakens the universal fear of running off the road with every blink of an eye and every look out the side window. The game wrecks when it starts talking. Although sure to garner comparisons to filmmaker David Lynch, the heavy-handed dialogue between imaginary hitchhikers and the driver overlooks ordinary, relatable concerns (work, family, etc.) of people who drive tired at night. By primarily appealing to dark, surface-level philosophy, Glitchhikers proves that commoners don’t matter when you’re up your own ass.

Love Worker

Earlier this year, Vaida shared Talks with My Mom, a modest story that surpassed Gone Home’s nonsensical and irrelevant portrait of gay identity and family. Vaida’s Love Worker is more of a minor achievement yet registers as genuine escapism. You move left and right hurling bombs in the middle of an industrial area full of walking suits. Rather than kill, the bombs add color. Not as naive as it might seem, Love Worker refashions the robot, a symbol of compulsory work, into a songwriter: “As a machine/I can’t compete/With what humans do.” This combination of song and game isn’t new, but few independent shorts concentrate on joy like Love Worker.