|Posted by Jim Bevan on June 2, 2012 at 3:55 PM|
Inspired by Derek Alexander (Happy Video Game Nerd) and Joey DeSilva (Roo from Clan of the Gray Wolf)
In the video game industry, as in all other entertainment media, imitation is seen frequently. When one developer comes across a unique idea or mechanic that proves successful, other companies will be quick to try to imitate it in order to capitalize on residual success. The most common example today is the deluge of military shooters on the market, but it’s been a trend throughout the industry’s history. Consider the mascot craze of the early 90s, when every developer was trying to create a “cool” character that could rival the success of Mario or Sonic. This was seen frequently during the transition to the third dimension. After Super Mario 64 revolutionized the concept of platform gaming in a 3D world, other developers were eager to try and copy Nintendo’s formula. Many were half-hearted efforts that earned derision from critics and gamers (Bubsy 3D, Earthworm Jim 3D, Sonic Adventure, Glover). Some developers, however, put thought and effort into their work, drawing from Mario while adding their own unique touches to create a product that surpassed the original. I’ve decided to count down my picks for the games that represent the best of the 3D platform genre, those that stand out for their stellar design, mechanics, and overall entertainment value. One entry per franchise, as is standard for most lists like this. Before we jump into the countdown, though, a look at some honorable mentions that didn’t make the cut.
Enslaved: Odyssey to the West: a post-apocalyptic retelling of the ancient Chinese tale “Journey to the West”, Enslaved offered a beautifully designed world, intense combat, and a breathtaking journey through a ruined civilization. However, the game was held back by a fairly linear progression, inability to backtrack to gather missed collectibles, sometimes frustrating friendly AI, and a borderline Gainax ending. A flawed piece, it still deserves some praise for at least attempting something new.
Mirror’s Edge:a rare attempt at a first-person platformer, Mirror’s Edge focused on fast-paced parkour travel through a futuristic city ruled over by a totalitarian government. The world was bright and well-polished, and running or leaping from rooftops was an intense feeling. But it suffers from linear movement, frequent trial-and-error gameplay when required to make a troublesome jump, and a weak narrative. Again, not perfect, but a good effort.
Epic Mickey: Warren Spector offered a twisted take on forgotten Disney history with this title, casting Mickey Mouse as a reluctant hero who must save the land he inadvertently corrupted. Colorful and creative as it was, the game was hindered by an incredibly difficult to control camera that interfered with platforming and combat. That, along with a disappointing feeling that it was watered down from the much darker take on Disney that had been originally promised. In spite of its flaws, this is still a title any Wii owner should pick up.
de Blob 2: The sequel to de Blob continued the bizarre premise of a living paint blob fighting against a regime of fascist ink blots determined to drain the world of color and fun. It remedied the control problems of the original with better Wii remote responses, plus added new power-ups and incorporated 2D platforming sections. The basic plot isn't much different from the first, but it's still a blast to play.
Kya: Dark Lineage: A rather basic action-platformer, Kya did offer some unique elements with a somewhat interesting plot, its use of air currents to navigate through the worlds, and a well-implemented combat system. Other than that, though, it’s your standard fare for the genre, and for a PS2 exclusive I expected something a little more. While it doesn’t do anything revolutionary for the genre, it’s still a well-developed game and worth a look.
We've got the runner-ups out of the way, now to the top 10.
#10 – Jet Set Radio: One of the most popular Dreamcast titles, Jet Set Radio was an innovative game in multiple areas. It was the first game to successfully use cel-shaded animation, giving the characters and world a bright, colorful, cartoonish look that still holds up well years later. Progression wasn’t measured through collecting items in different worlds, but rollerblading through a large city to tag property with graffiti while avoiding the police. And the soundtrack is a true auditory delight, offering an eclectic mix of J-pop, funk, acid jazz, and electronic dance music. Gang-inspired vandalism has never been so much fun. Because of the huge following it’s gained over the past decade, the game is set to be re-released on Xbox Live and the Playstation Network later this year, giving those who missed out on it the first time a chance to shred.
#9 – Rocket: Robot on Wheels: Before Sucker Punch hit it big with the Sly Cooper and Infamous franchises, their debut title was an offbeat, fun game about a robot trying to save a theme park in space from an egomaniacal raccoon. It hit all the basic platformer notes for the time: bright, cheerful colors, varied worlds, catchy background music, new powers that could be learned as you progressed, and a mission based on obtaining collectibles that increased in difficulty over time. What made Rocket stand out from the rest of the pack was a physics engine that hadn’t been seen in console platform games before. This allowed for friction, gravity, momentum and inertia to play into how you moved around the worlds and interacted with enemies or landmarks, giving it a leg up over its rivals in terms of intricate gameplay. If you’re a fan of Sucker Punch’s other titles, you should definitely consider checking this out to see how they got their start.
#8 – Spyro: Year of the Dragon: The final game in the original Spyro trilogy for the Playstation, developer Insomniac definitely saved the best for last. While the gameplay was mostly unchanged from the first two titles, it still controlled well. I’ve always felt that flying or gliding are elements that really elevate a platform game when handled properly. The addition of mini-games like racing, puzzle, and shooting sections, along with the ability to control characters other than Spyro were simple concepts, but again, handled well to enhance the gaming experience. The art design is bright and colorful, reflecting the fantastic nature of the series. While voice acting can be a little shoddy at times, it’s not a deal breaker. A pity that the original developers didn’t stick with the franchise; they could have made all the successive Spyro games as enjoyable as this title.
#7 – Rayman 2: The Great Escape: Rayman’s second outing took a slightly darker tone than his debut game, but this was a case where darker didn’t equal worse. It still retained the somewhat bizarre characters and scenarios, cartoonish art design, and exceptional platforming. Rayman’s ability to extend his limbs and use helicopter hair to fly or slow down falls offered new possibilities for traveling through 3D environments. Progression is mostly linear, but the variety present in the level design, soundtrack, and gameplay types make it an enjoyable journey. It’s not surprising that the title has been ported and re-released multiple times on various consoles; the game is just that good.
#6 – Super Mario Galaxy 2: Determining which Mario title to put on the list was a difficult choice. I had to decide between either Super Mario Galaxy 2 or Super Mario 3D Land. In the end I had to pick the former because I just liked it more. The gravity mechanics, new power ups, and inclusion of Yoshi, combined with a more refined control system than the original had, make for some truly impressive platforming. Worlds are bright and colorful, offering a mix of new ideas along with concepts from the original Mario Galaxy. And the New Game + option actually offers a new challenge in finding secret green stars rather than simply making you replay through the same missions as Luigi. Some may have called it a full-priced expansion pack for the first Mario Galaxy, but I saw it as a sequel that surpassed its predecessor, and is the best 3D Mario game to date.
5 - Ico: Team Ico's debut title is an absolute masterpiece, a stunning example of games as art, and how to enhance immersion through minimalistic design. Though there is practically no dialog, the actions of Ico and Yorda successfully convey the drama of their journey, making them truly compelling near-silent protagonists. It goes without saying that the world is spectacular, boasting magnificent scenery that makes great use of color, light and shadow, and minimal background music to enhance the atmosphere. Gameplay involves basic yet clever puzzle platforming that effectively makes use of the various elements of the castle setting, such as ledges and chains. Ico offers one of the most fascinating emotionally and intellectually engaging experiences in gaming.
#4 – Portal 2: I’ll admit that I could never really understand the huge following that the original Portal received. It was a fun game, no denying that, but seeing people declare it the greatest ever made or endlessly quoting lines from it just baffled me. When the sequel was released, however, I came a little closer to the superfan’s side. Portal 2 was an astounding follow-up to its predecessor: the puzzle platforming was more challenging, the environments more breathtaking as the Aperture Science building opened up to reveal its past secrets, and the humorous writing had me laughing out loud several times. J.K. Simmons and Stephen Merchant stole the show as the insane Cave Johnson and Wheatley, respectively. The Co-op mode also provided some great two-player action, even if replay value is a little limited. While I can’t say I agree with the fans who claim the Portal series is the greatest of all time (to me, the Legend of Zelda series will always hold that title), I do agree that it’s a fine set of games that should appeal to anyone looking for clever puzzles and comedy.
#3 – Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time: The first installment in the epic Sands of Time trilogy was not only the best way to reintroduce the Prince to a new console generation, but also a great evolution in cinematic platform gaming. It retained the franchises’ standards of mixing intense combat with parkour-style jumping and climbing puzzles, with the added feature of being able to rewind time a few seconds. This gave players a chance to undo mistakes that led to an untimely death, but since the number of times you could use this power was limited, strategy and quick thinking were still required. Coupled with beautifully designed levels, an intricate story inspired by classic Arabian mythology, and great character interaction between the Prince and Farah, it’s a blast from beginning to end.
#2 – Banjo-Kazooie/Banjo-Tooie: This is bending my "one entry per franchise" rule, but I'm putting these games together because Rare had initially planned for interconnectivity between the two before hardware limitations forced them to abandon that idea. That, and they seem like a much more connected story than most other games with sequels on this list. Considered by many gamers to be the best platform game on the Nintendo 64, Banjo-Kazooie took the formula established by Super Mario 64 and greatly improved on it. Boasting some of the best graphics and music on the system, Banjo-Kazooie was a fun trip offering large creative levels to explore, fun jumping, climbing and flying action, and copious amounts of British humor. The sequel did even more to expand on the concept with interconnected worlds, powers that built on those learned in the original game, and a little more leniency in certain areas while still retaining a level of challenge. Rare’s once legendary status may have fallen in recent years, but this duo of games will always remain their crowning achievement.
#1 – Psychonauts: Tim Schafer’s surreal, subconscious masterpiece is not only the best platformer I’ve ever played, but is undeniably one of the greatest video games ever made. It excels in just about every area: memorable characters, an engaging story, clever comedic writing, quality voice acting, catchy music, beautiful art design, well-crafted worlds, inventive power-ups, and stellar gameplay/controls. Shunning standard conventions, it offered an experience where you were never sure what would happen next. You could be bouncing on a ball of pure thought energy through a dance club, climbing buildings as a gargantuan monster in a city populated by sentient lungfish, swinging above the streets in a neon-tinted black velvet barrio, uncovering a conspiracy in a twisted suburban town, traversing tightropes in a deadly circus, or just killing time around camp setting birds and squirrels on fire with the power of your mind. It’s creative, challenging, and an experience that won’t be forgotten. While it was a commercial failure upon initial release, more gamers are discovering what Psychonauts has to offer thanks to downloadable sales. And if the rumors about Schafer’s business meetings with Minecraft creator Markus Persson have any merit, there’s a chance the long-awaited sequel could someday be released. Until then, though, the original remains a true gem in the gaming world.
And that's my top 10. Agree, disagree, or do you think other titles should have been included? Let me know in the comments.