Design Sins in Platform Games

Updated: Feb 12

If you are old enough to remember the ‘80s and early ‘90s you will no doubt remember that 2D platform games were extremely popular at the time. They fell into two broad categories, the ‘pure’ platform game, such as Sonic and Mario, and the run and gun platform games such as Mega Man and Turrican. Some of these games were superb, others less so. Often the playability of a game would depend upon how much it was affected by the following gameplay mechanics and design choices, which I have termed ‘Design Sins’. Let’s take a look at ten of the worst offenders below.

1) Pixel Perfect Jumping

Some of the most frustrating platform games of the era required frequent pixel-perfect jumping. By ‘pixel perfect’ we mean your pixelated protagonist would need to start a jump from precisely the correct spot or they would fail the leap. This precise spot was usually right at the very edge of a platform, ledge, etc. If you went one pixel too far before making your jump you would fall off the edge, sometimes with fatal consequences.

Conversely, if you were a mere pixel too far back from the edge when leaping your character would not jump far enough and fall. Again, usually with fatal consequences.

As you can imagine this was incredibly frustrating. It felt to me that the developers were trying to artificially increase the game’s difficulty in the least enjoyable way.

The problems of pixel-perfect jumping were exacerbated when the game also suffered from…

Pixel Perfect Nightmare

This level was deliberately designed to be a nightmare of Pixel Perfect Jumping. Unfortunately, some retail games were littered with these too, and seemingly by accident

Video by Rodriguezjr Gaming

2) The Inexplicably Fatal Bottom of Screen (IFBoS)

We have all seen this. World 1-1 of Super Mario Bros has three instances of it. If you fall off the edge of the ground into one of the unexplained gaps you die instantly. But why? Is the entire Mushroom Kingdom floating 30,000 feet up in the air? Are the gaps actually holes you fall through to your doom? Or is it a bottomless pit?

I wish games had these…

Many games had this and it was never explained. At least some games tried to remedy this by replacing such gaps with lava, acid, spikes, etc. since it was obvious you should avoid these. But the mere absence of the floor proving fatal is simply shoddy design. It is even worse when you have no way of knowing if the gap in the floor leads to the IFBoS or an off-screen platform you can land on. Speaking of which…

3) The Unexplained Inability to Look up or Down

Imagine this scenario. You are at the edge of a platform and you cannot see any others on-screen to jump to. You *think* that there is one off-screen below you, but you have no way of telling, so you cross your fingers and jump aiming to land at where you *think* the next platform is. However, you misjudged the platform’s location and fall past it on a one-way trip to the IFBoS.

Many frustrated four-letter words now ensue.

A simple solution is being able to ‘tilt’ or ‘push’ the screen up and down a little to reveal what is hiding just above and below. This is a God-send in the games that feature it. Sadly, not all of them did. NB – if anyone knows the correct term for this please let me know.

Gunlord Switch

Gunlord on the Nintendo Switch. Extensive use of tilting / pushing the screen vertically is highly recommended to locate enemies and powerups alike

Video by ContraNetwork

4) Non-Stick Shoes

Some video game characters appear to be wearing the least ‘grippy’ footwear imaginable, causing them to slide around like chibi figure skaters. This can be very annoying, as you never feel fully in control of your character. When Non-Stick Shoes are paired with the aforementioned Design Sins it becomes a problem. If Design Sin number five is added to the mix then it becomes a BIG problem.

Super Mario Bros 3 - All-Stars Edition

Unpopular opinion inbound: I found the inertia in the early Mario games to be so unpleasant that I could not stomach playing them for more than five minutes

Video by xRavenXP

5) Tiny Platforms

Ok, I can accept that this game world is rich in unobtanium which explains all the Floaty Sky Islands, but why do they have to be so small? And what about the man-made platforms? Do they not have zoning laws about minimum platform length? Someone, please notify the Health and Safety Executive before someone has an accident and falls off.

Granted, this game is designed to be a massive troll, but I have played sections of ‘normal’ platform games that are just as irritating with their equally tiny platforms

Video by Ronnix

6) No Mantling

So, your digital human/anthropomorphic furry animal can run like a cheetah and jump like a flea, but they can’t do a single pull up to get on top of that ledge or Floaty Sky Island? I can only assume they don’t lift. Very annoying.

Mantalng in Prince of Persia MS DOS PC 1989

The original Prince of Persia from 1989 had mantling - skip to time stamp 02:15. If it could be done back then, why hasn’t every platform game since had mantling by default?

Video by OtakuChest

7) Wind

Apparently, some devs think that a combination of the IFBoS, Non-Stick Shoes, Tiny Platforms, and characters-who-don’t-lift isn’t frustrating enough. So, they went and added wind that blows you off said tiny platforms, or prevents you from making the leap to the next platform.

Some Devs, such as those who made Super Turrican, felt that all of the above should be combined with lightning strikes and infinitely respawning bullet sponge enemies that attempt to knock you off your perch and shoot you. On the first level of the game.

Super Turrican Directors Cut SNES

Fast-forward to 03:37 to see this in action. I assume the Devs skipped Video Game School the day they taught ‘Difficulty Curve 101’.

Video vy humaldo plays! - INAKTIV

8) Water Levels