To A or Not To A?: The Ontology of the Platformer

What was the first platformer? A quick Google search for this query returns a text box with the words Donkey Kong and Nintendo in bold. A fine enough answer — but in drawing this conclusion what exactly is being said about what makes a platformer, or to rephrase, what games are being omitted by accepting this presumption as hard truth? Is it even possible to have a working definition of “platformer” which covers every case? In pursuit of an answer to these questions I am going to use a verb-centred approach as popularized by Anna Anthropy and Naomi Clark’s A Game Design Vocabulary.

This is a definite oversimplification, but I do not think it is entirely out of line to say that the popular conception of videogames has hinged predominantly on platformers and shooters. It bears repeating that platformers were the dominant videogame genre for nearly 20 years, which not-so-coincidentally was also a period of rapid growth in the games industry technologically, financially and culturally. On a base level the common denominator between platformers and shooters is an emphasis on collisions. Normally this is attributed to a need for simulation of “physics”. I find this odd since 1) game engines really only simulate a very small subset of physics 2) game physics are not, and often should not be, true to life and 3) many game genres hardly have a need to simulate physics whatsoever.

But ever since William Higinbotham altered code for calculating missile trajectories to create Tennis for Two, collision has been a fundamental ingredient in videogame design, and what platformers have over shooters in this regard is that they are fundamentally about impacting upon a gameworld, whereas a shooting game is defined by the presence of a target. The earliest examples of shoot ’em ups such as Spacewar! and Computer Space took place in infinite black voids, while digital and electromechanical light gun shooters drew a physical barrier between player and gameworld through which shooting is the only means of communication. Even the destructible terrain in Space Invaders cannot be directly interacted with by the player avatar, it exists solely to make firefights more dynamic. Platformers on the other hand are all about the relationship between player and terra firma. As others have argued, if Super Mario Bros. had no enemies to defeat, coins to collect or power-ups to gain it would still be a compelling case study in collision, momentum and expressive movement.

Platformers are also unique as they are something which had little grounding in pre-digital phenomena at the time of their inception. For most of early games history most novel titles were some sort of adaptation of a sport, board game, pen-and-paper RPG, carnival game or other real-world recreational activity. Table tennis becomes Pong, pinball becomes Breakout, skeet-shooting becomes Duck Hunt, et cetera. Platformers on the other had no easily identifiable real-world analog, aside from perhaps gymnastics or trapeze. The things which most closely resemble platformers like parkour, the X Games and obstacle course television shows like Sasuke and Takeshi’s Castle (which became Ninja Warrior and MXC in the west) only rose to prominence after platformers had entered the zeitgeist.

JUMPING

Before we get to the bottom of these sorts of philosophical questions let us consider what other sorts of verbs may stand in place of platforming. The most obvious is jumping. Yet immediately I must inquire again, does a game need to have a jump action to be a platformer? The answer is a resounding no, and in fact there have been entire subgenres of non-jump platformers: jetpack games like Jetpac, H.E.R.O. and Jetpack Joyride; grappling games like Bionic Commando; rolling games like Marble Madness and Super Monkey Ball; gravity-switching games like VVVVVV and Gravity Rush; trampoline-bouncing games like Mappy, Doodle Jump and Alpha Waves; the shoot-to-jump game Tinertia and of course good old no-frills moving platform games from Elevator Action to Captain Toad: Treasure Tracker. Somewhat recently Snake Pass received praise for its innovative non-jump platforming, but really it’s only the latest iteration in a long line of physics-based “crawlers” which includes Incredipede, Tri-achnid and Bennet Foddy’s QWOP, CLOP and Getting Over It (an homage to Jazzuo’s Sexy Hiking). Then on the other hand are a few classic games in which characters perform jump-like actions on platform-like objects but are not considered platformers, such as Frogger and I-Robot. It is pretty apparent that the “jumping” performed in these games is like in checkers, that is moving between designated spaces.

However to discount jumping entirely would be foolish — every core-series Super Mario game has primarily been built around exploring Mario’s jump — it’s part of what makes things like the Super Mario 64 A Button Challenge such compelling experiments. Jumping presents a near-perfect arc, both in the narrative and parabolic sense: rising action, climax, denouement and conclusion. So if we are going to dissect the act of jumping into its component parts to get to the root of what makes a platformer, Donkey Kong is as good a place to start as any. But first, an etymology lesson.

CLIMBING/CHANGING

For a time the preferred term for platformers in North America was “climbing game”, which we can see published as early as the December 1982 issue of Joystik Magazine. The term even made its way into academia: in the 1985 article “Games as Teaching Tools: The Computer Connection”, Geoffrey Loftus and William Nelson refer to Lode Runner as “a jumping and climbing game along the lines of Donkey Kong”. In Japan however, platformers were referred to internally at Nintendo as “athletic games”. Although this term would not be widely adopted, it was alluded to in the “Athletic” theme music from Super Mario World. While I don’t sense that the term platformer was resisted by Nintendo per se, even their official U.S. publication Nintendo Power didn’t use it whatsoever until March of 1999 to describe Chameleon Twist 2 on N64.

With that out of the way let us now turn to Donkey Kong and what I believe are its three primary predecessors. The first is Pac-Man from 1980, and while it is not a platformer or climbing game an influence can be clearly seen in the way enemies in Donkey Kong chase Mario/Jump Man and how he can in turn fight back by obtaining a hammer, similar to the invincibility effect of the Power Pellet. Shigeru Miyamoto’s fandom of Pac-Man is also well-documented, as he also designed a more direct homage in the maze game Devil World as well as contributing design to Pac-Man Vs. for the GameCube.

Screenshot from Crazy Climber

The second predecessor is Nichibutsu’s Crazy Climber also from 1980, the first ever climbing game which, akin to Donkey Kong, tasked the player with scaling a skyscraper and even had an angry ape as an obstacle. Despite the insularity of the industry at the time it is unlikely that Crazy Climber had a direct influence on Donkey Kong’s development and the parallels between the two are merely coincidental, drawing from the same pop cultural source of King Kong. Though it spawned a direct sequel, the legacy of Crazy Climber can be seen most prominently in Spider-Man for the Atari 2600. However we can also see its climbing combined with the maze chase gameplay of Pac-Man in Nichibutsu’s 1981 arcade game Frisky Tom, wherein the eponymous plumber is tasked with climbing and repairing an array of pipes while avoiding mischievous mice. Eventually the Donkey Kong franchise would also take a stab at the climbing game formula in DK: King of Swing for the Game Boy Advance.

Lastly is Universal’s Space Panic from late 1980, which is sometimes cited as the first true platformer. The game is an adaptation of sorts of Heiankyo Alien, a maze game created by the Theoretical Student Group at the University of Tokyo in 1979 (which some claim is itself a predecessor to Pac-Man), except played from a side view rather than a top-down perspective. Like in Donkey Kong the main mode of traversing between the rows of platforms is by climbing ladders, however if the player digs a hole in one of these platforms they can fall through to a lower platform. What Space Panic lacks is a jump action, making it understandable why it is often overlooked in favour of Donkey Kong, but also tying it to other early 1980’s non-jump platformers such as BurgerTime, the aforementioned Lode Runner and Nintendo’s Popeye.

Disregarding Pac-Man, we see that climbing is one of the commonalities between Donkey Kong and its predecessors. Another is the presence of a player avatar through which the climbing is done. However climbing games and platformers are not entirely homogeneous. So what else can we look to? One answer is the presence of gravity. From here let’s start with the core of our definition: A platformer is a videogame wherein a player avatar is affected by simulated gravity. This is a decent start but leaves a lot of leeway, for example we don’t have to go much further in videogame history than Spacewar! to find a non-platformer that fits this definition. So let’s get more granular: A platformer is a videogame wherein a player avatar is affected by simulated gravity and transitions between “mid-air” and “grounded” states. Somewhere in a given platformer’s code is a value or set of values, most likely Boolean (true or false), that determine this state change. Sadly this definition only gets us slightly further ahead in videogame history.

LANDING/REPEATING

The reason I bring these up is because with the exception of the original text-based lunar lander they all fit the definition of platformer which I have laid out; the act of landing is a transition from mid-air to grounded state. Even Tetris could count as a platformer by my current definition if one sees each individual block as a temporary player avatar. However I think we can remedy this fairly cleanly through the concept of repetition that is so fundamental to the form; state changes do not occur once but many times, often in quick succession. Once more: a platformer is a videogame wherein a player avatar is affected by simulated gravity and repeatably transitions between “mid-air” and “grounded” states. This disqualifies both the lunar lander and parachute games, however it is also quite lenient and leaves a lot of room for the re-interpretation of many popular videogames.

According to my definition, both Halo and Half-Life are platformers. Mortal Kombat and Street Fighter II are platformers. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater and SSX are platformers. Every 3D Zelda is a platformer. Any videogame in which you can drive a car off a ramp is a platformer. To deny this — to say that these games simply have “platforming elements” — is a cop out, and an unconscious criticism of the way videogames have historically approached genre.

Now that we have an acceptable definition for platformers we can return to our original question: what was the first? Well there is some grey area around games like Exidy’s Circus, Midway’s Space Walk and Taito’s Steel Worker where humanoid figures are present but are not directly controlled as avatars, however ultimately I must admit to having buried the lede here. The first platformer is Frogs from 1978. Frogs of course have a storied past within videogames, but to think that the most ground-breaking arcade game featuring them isn’t even their most well-known appearance is deeply bizarre. What’s more, while the game Frogs was developed by Gremlin in the U.S. it was distributed by SEGA in Japan. That’s right, the first ever platformer is a SEGA game.

Screenshot from Frogs

Some may say that Frogs doesn’t count as a platformer because it does not have multiple platforms, just a single lilypad, and this is a fair enough criticism. However what Frogs does have that even Space Panic lacks is a “fall out” area in the form of the water to either side of the lilypad, a key feature of platformers post-Donkey Kong usually exemplified by the bottomless pit. It is in this Derridean way that Oma Keeling recently suggested that platformers are defined by “gaps” as much as they are by “aerial movement”.

ENDING: THE PHENOMENOLOGY OF THE ANTI-PLATFORMER

Perhaps then what defines a platformer is less about the variables they contain and more about the feelings they engender in the player–like how Zolani Stewart defines a racing game not by tracks or lap counters or getting 1st place but by “depicting a peculiar kind of physical experience”–a vantage that is less ontological and more phenomenological. To many game-makers a platformer is simply a skeleton onto which other things can be built, whether that’s a story, a series of puzzles or something else to which collision-dependent state changes are non-essential yet ever-present.

It is here that we can enter into the realm of the “anti-platformer” for further inquiry. While the term seems to originate with the 2011 game Project Stormos, I first encountered it in the title of a GDC talk about the development of Mushroom 11, wherein lead designer Itay Keren explains that “jumping is completely absent from the vocabulary of [the game’s] mechanics”. Elsewhere on the internet @moshboy wonders “is a platformer where you control everything but the protagonist to get the protagonist to the end of each level, an anti-platformer?”, a premise that sounds tangentially related to the Mario parody game Kill the Plumber by Filipino developer Keybol, which itself has been described as an anti-platformer by Aldrin Calimlim. More recently Nifflas’ Ynglet received the anti-platformer designation in a review for RockPaperShotgun by Katharine Castle. It is clear from these examples that there is no consensus or unified vision for what an anti-platformer is, nor how it stands in relation to the already-nebulous standard platformer.

However, I had a revelation while watching a Games Done Quick speedrun of Messhof’s Flywrench by killingpepsi and ssupnerds, the latter of whom starts the run by describing the game as a “precision platformer of sorts”, to which one of their couch commentators corrects “this is a precision anti-platformer[…]because you want to stay as much off of the ground as much as possible.” This caught me so off guard because Flywrench is hardly ever described in terms of platformer-ness–the official site describes it as “A FRENETIC ACTION GAME[…]ABOUT PILOTING AN AEROBATIC SHIP THROUGH THE DEPTHS OF SPACE.” However despite the spaceship theming Flywrench in practice plays less like a flight sim and more like a videogame where you jump indefinitely. In this way we can draw parallels to games like Flappy Bird and Balloon Fighter’s Balloon Trip mode, however the key difference is that while in those games collision with obstacles always results in failure in Flywrench success is determined by player avatar state changes, such as the ship’s orientation and corresponding colour. Thus while Flywrench may not be a platformer by my definition that is contingent on player avatars oscillating between mid-air and grounded states, its own lateral design vocabulary gives it the feeling of platforming.

FURTHER READING

David is a writer from Southern Ontario, Canada