Design Sins in Platform Games

Updated: 8 hours ago




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 on 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


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


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


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


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?



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’.

8) Water Levels


So, your digital human/anthropomorphic furry animal can run like a cheetah and jump like a flea, but they can’t even do a doggy paddle? And where is their natural buoyancy? Are they wearing concrete boots? Very annoying.

I hear you Sonic. I die a little inside every time I play through a water level too


9) No Going Back and Forced Scrolling Levels


Ever noticed that in Super Mario Bros you cannot make the screen scroll to the left, thus preventing you from going back and re-trying that missed jump to that Fire Flower? I did, and it was annoying.

And what about those auto-scrolling levels that plague some platform games, the ones that force you to keep moving forwards? They were infuriating.

What happened to the earlier parts of these levels? Did the world simply cease to exist? Is the Mushroom Kingdom being slowly but inexorably erased by ‘The Nothing’ from The NeverEnding Story?



Auto-Scrolling Level in Super Mario


… and It’s a NOPE from me



10) Leaps of Faith


Imagine the scenario. You are at the very edge of a ledge, platform, Floaty Sky Island, etc., and you can’t see where to go next. You crane your character’s neck up to tilt the screen upwards then have them look at their feet to tilt the screen down (Yay, this game has that feature you think to yourself) but this time it doesn’t help as there are still no platforms or solid ground in sight.

You shoot into the empty air in the hope of revealing a hidden platform or similar, but nothing happens. You are left with a single option; cross your fingers, jump as far as you can and hope you land somewhere good.

About half the time this Leap of Faith works and you land somewhere safe, and you can carry on. However, the other half of the time you either land in a nest of baddies who kill you, or you miss the Floaty Sky Island completely and die due to the IFBoS. You are unable to continue because the screen of your TV now has a joypad shaped hole in it from when you threw your joypad at it in a fit of Rage-Quit.



Time manipulation in Braid


Skip to 0:50 - Now imagine how irritating this would be if you couldn’t rewind time. Congratulations, you have now imagined precisely how irritating some poorly designed 80’s and ‘90s platform games could be.

Conclusion


Those are my top ten pet peeves about platform games. I am glad that most of the developers of the recent glut of indie 2D platform games have learned from these past mistakes.


What are your pet peeves about platform games? What games from back then sucked for you due to having one or more of your pet peeves or the above Design Sins in them? Are there any modern platformers that suck due to still featuring these Design Sins? Feel free to share your thoughts and experiences in the comments section below.


Iain is a 40+ author and gamer from England, who started his gaming journey on the Atari 2600 36 years ago. His specialities include obscure cult classics, retro games, mods and fan remakes. He hates all sports games and is allergic to on-line multi-player. Since he is British, his body is about 60% tea. He can be reached via Twitter at https://twitter.com/IainBaker17, and contacted via email at the_nomad78@outlook.com


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