Super Mario 64. Ask any gamer who was old enough to remember the launch of the Nintendo 64, and they’ll tell you what Super Mario 64 meant at the time. It was a genre-defining, industry changing title and one that is still considered seminal today, for good reason. It completely changed gamers’ perception of what a 3D title could be while simultaneously putting all other developers on notice as to how platformers were to be designed going forward.
Super Mario 64 spawned one of my favorite genres in gaming ; the 3D platformer. While I, like many, grew up playing platformers of all shapes and sizes, the genre moving to 3D added scope and depth to the titles that was previously unimaginable. Post-Mario 64 is when we saw titles such as Banjo Kazooie, Crash Bandicoot, Conkers Bad Fur Day, Psychonauts, Jak and Daxter, Spyro the Dragon, Sly Cooper, Voodoo Vince, and more arrive. And each one of those titles/series holds a special place in many gamers’ hearts. For me personally, Banjo Kazooie/Tooie and Psychonauts are some of my favorite games of all-time.
Sadly, by time the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 generation came about, a shift began. As graphics became more lifelike, online gameplay grew, and competitive shooters took the reins, development on new platformers began to fade. Kameo, an Xbox 360 launch title from legendary developer Rare, barely made a splash as titles like Call of Duty 2 received the press and play time. 2007 saw the release of arguably three of the most memorable games in the industry’s history in Bioshock, Halo 3, and Call of Duty 4 Modern Warfare. What do all three have in common? They are all first person shooters. And beyond that, Halo 3 and Modern Warfare greatly expanded the competitive online scene on consoles which still today, is arguably the most well represented genre within the industry.
With the massive shift in game popularity moving to shooters and online capable gameplay, it seemed that interest in single player platformers waned. Sony’s major mascots in Crash, Jak & Daxter, Ratchet and Clank, Sly, and Spyro all disappeared from the spotlight, the once great Rare was moved to other projects by Microsoft, and new development on mascot driven platformers seemed to dry up. Nintendo, being unique as always, thankfully carried the torch with titles like Super Mario Galaxy and Donkey Kong Country Returns on the Wii. Otherwise, while a small minority of gamers cried out for new titles, the development of them didn’t seem financially feasible for most publishers.
As we sit here in 2017 however, the industry has evolved greatly from where it was just ten years ago and it’s completely unrecognizable from where it was when Super Mario 64 released. Digital purchasing, self-publishing, crowd-funding, and tremendous support for indie developers on Steam, Xbox Live, and PSN, has allowed more titles than ever to be available. With that expansion, genres have re-emerged that the larger publishers may have been too afraid to fund themselves. Over the past few years, we have seen some of these titles gain notoriety industry-wide. Titles such as Limbo, Shovel Knight, Rogue Legacy, Broken Age, and many, many more are just as well recognized as many AAA titles. With so much variety in what’s available and even how to play them, many feel it’s never been a better time to be a gamer.
As the industry continues to evolve, I’m witnessing something that pleases me greatly ; the resurrection of 3D platformers. Last year, Ratchet and Clank returned. We recently received Yooka Laylee and Voodoo Vince. Crash Bandicoot and Jak & Daxter are returning soon. Super Mario Odyssey and Psychonauts 2 are on the way. And given the attention these releases are getting, and how they are being developed, I’m willing to bet we’re only getting started. Let’s take a quick look at each of these notable titles:
Banjo Threeie. Those two words are what every Banjo fan like me has been waiting to hear uttered for over 15 years now. Banjo Kazooie and Tooie, in my opinion, are some of the greatest 3D platformers ever made. I personally believe Banjo Kazooie is a better game overall than Super Mario 64 (though Banjo obviously owes itself to Mario 64). But sadly, Microsoft put Rare on other projects and they have never come back to work on new versions of their classics.
Enter Playtonic Games, a development company formed by some ex-members of Rare who represent some of the key talent behind Banjo, Donkey Kong Country, and other classics. Fans wanted Banjo and Playtonic wanted to make it. So while they couldn’t use the Banjo or Kazooie names or characters, they could make its spiritual successor in the same vein. And did Playtonic ever do just that. Using Kickstarter as a spring, they secured over two million pounds in crowd-funding to assist with development while simultaneously making headlines for the concept.
Yooka Laylee is out now and fans across the globe are playing like it’s 1998 again. The game is a Banjo game through and through and while I’ll let other reviewers speak to specific design decisions or polish concerns compared to the Banjo games, Yooka Laylee has captured the hearts of many including me.
Voodoo Vince was an innovative 3D platformer for the original Xbox. While well designed and critically well received, the title never became well known and never spawned a sequel. While Vince was a potential mascot for the system, Master Chief very quickly claimed that role and with the Xbox having a short lifespan, Voodoo Vince was rather quickly forgotten. However, to Microsoft’s credit, Voodoo Vince has returned.
Released earlier this month in remastered form, players who loved the original or simply never got to play it to begin with can now do so in full HD visuals. Better yet, there have been passing comments by the teams involved that a sequel could be possible depending on the reception of the remaster. We can hope!
Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy
At one time, Crash was the mascot for the PlayStation. At a time when system mascots still had large relevance and Super Mario 64 was getting all the press for the Nintendo 64, Crash gave Sony its own personality with which to bolster the PlayStation brand. While not a true 3D platformer in the same vein as some of the other games mentioned, Crash typically fell into the same category due to it’s mechanics and feature set. The Crash Bandicoot games are rightfully associated with Sony and the PlayStation due to that history however, Activision now owns the IP. Thankfully, Sony coordinated with Activision and the result is the upcoming Crash Bandicoot N.Sane Trilogy developed by Vicarious Visions (developers of the Skylanders titles).
The N.Sane Trilogy will feature the first three Crash Bandicoot games fully remastered and even supporting 4K on the PS4 Pro. And once again, it’s been hinted that the success of the title could lead to a new Crash Bandicoot title. The N.Sane Trilogy arrives on June 30th!
Jak and Daxter Collection
Jak and Daxter were another popular mascot duo in the early 2000s. Featured entirely on the PlayStation 2, the trilogy ran from 2001 to 2004 with a kart racing follow-up “Jak X : Combat Racing” in 2005. While the original trilogy was available as a collection on the PlayStation 3 and Vita, they’ve never been available on the PlayStation 4 and Jak X Combat Racing, has never been re-released.
While not a complete remaster, the collection is returning this year on the PS4 with 1080p visuals and will include Combat Racing which represents the first time it will be available since its initial release on the PS2.
Psychonauts is another title that was originally released on the Xbox, received high critical praise, but then mostly disappeared. It later arrived on the PlayStation 2 to presumably meager sales and the game was mostly forgotten. But given its uniqueness and a fantastic lead character in Raz, it has earned a cult-like following over the past decade and has seen digital re-release on multiple platforms. As with Banjo, fans have been clamoring for Psychonauts 2 for many years now (again, me included) and it makes me extremely happy to be able to say it’s now coming.
Tim Schafer’s studio Double Fine, in coordination with FIG, is bringing the sequel to major platforms next year. FIG Crowdfunding is slightly different from Kickstarter and rather than me trying to explain the details, you can follow this link if you are interested: About FIG Crowdfunding
Regardless, Psychonauts 2 is a direct sequel to the original and fans couldn’t be more excited. The title is scheduled to release in 2018 and in the meantime, Double Fine has released a short, segway title called Psychonauts in the Rhombus of Ruin for PlayStation VR that bridges the gap between Psychonauts 1 and 2!
Super Mario Odyssey
As I touched on earlier, Nintendo is one of the few exceptions when it comes to carrying the platformer torch as they have done so rather admirably through the generations. Titles such as Mario Galaxy 1 and 2 are very highly regarded and the Wii U, despite its failings, delivered some quality titles in Super Mario 3D World, Mario Maker, Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, and others. However, none of those titles fall into the traditional “3D Platformer” genre as we know it.
Enter Super Mario Odyssey ; the next mainline Mario entry which will launch on the Nintendo Switch this Fall. A new, core Mario entry on a new Nintendo console is typically something to behold. When you look back on Super Mario Brothers, Super Mario World, Super Mario 64, Super Mario Sunshine, Super Mario Galaxy, etc… you recognize they are the first core Mario releases on new Nintendo platforms and coincidentally, some of the most memorable games of all-time. With the Wii U being labeled as a failure, Nintendo quickly moving to the Switch, and the new Zelda being one of the highest rated games of all-time, expectations for Super Mario Odyssey are sky high.
But what interests me the most, is that Super Mario Odyssey seems to be a return to the full 3D platforming Mario that we haven’t seen since Sunshine. The demo showed Mario in large, open environments that seem to harken back to the hub world design we know and love. Given that, and the circumstances above, I have little doubt that Odyssey will blow us away this Fall.
Future’s So Bright…
It makes me incredibly happy to say it’s once again a good time to be a 3D platforming fan. With the success and publicity of Yooka Laylee and Crash Bandicoot, titles such as Voodoo Vince and Jak & Daxter getting the spotlight again, Psychonauts 2 becoming a reality, and the all but guaranteed major success of Super Mario Odyssey this Fall, there’s more focus on the genre than there has been in a very long time. It’s hard to imagine it being ignored by developers and publishers over the next few years and I fully expect we’ll see more new titles in the near future. Guh-Huh!