The release of Yooka-Laylee last month seems to have gotten a ball rolling. If you take a look at the release schedules for games, you may notice the steady uptick of animal mascots jumping around floating blocks and snagging shiny collectibles. We're seeing reboots of old IPs run-n-jump staples, such as last year's Ratchet & Clank and next month's Crash Bandicoot N. Sane Trilogy. Even Super Mario Odyssey appears to be stepping back to the older 3D Mario formula. In addition, new IPs are also entering the fray, with titles like this month's Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island and the much-awaited Kickstarter darling A Hat in Time. I spoke with the developers on these two new games to get an idea on the development scene surrounding the Renaissance of 3D Platformers.
To give some quick background, a 3D Platformer is a type of game where players have to use jumps and other movement techniques to navigate through 3D environments, often with some simple form of combat. There are a lot of subtle sub-genres, but most will fall into two categories: obstacle courses or collectathons. Obstacle courses, like the recent Super Mario games from Galaxy onward, typically present a set of linear challenges the player must overcome to reach the end. Collectathons, like the Banjo-Kazooie games, tend to present fewer, bigger levels that encourage exploration and the obsessive gathering of sparkly baubles.
Super Mario 64 was not the first 3D Platformer, but it was the best of the early batch and popularized the genre. The second half of the 1990s was full of game studios trying their hand at making their own jumping mascots. This was the era that gave us Spyro the Dragon, Crash Bandicoot, Gex: Enter the Gecko, Croc: Legend of the Gobbos, Conker's Bad Fur Day, and Rayman 2: The Great Escape. It seemed like everyone and their mom wanted a cut of Super Mario 64's fame, so even franchises like Looney Tunes and The Muppets cashed in on the trend. Well established series like Donkey Kong and Sonic the Hedgehog made entries in the field.
So it probably comes as no surprise that by the time the PlayStation 2 and GameCube debuted, players were beginning to tire of them. Even the old Sony standbys, Spyro and Crash, started producing lazy, glitchy titles, such as Spyro: Enter the Dragonfly and Crash Bandicoot: The Wrath of Cortex. New IPs either had to evolve or die: Sly Cooper and the Thievius Raccoonus incorporated stealth mechanics, Ratchet & Clank was predominantly a shooter, and even Jak and Daxter—initially a core open-world platformer—ventured into shooter territory for its sequels. New IPs that refused to adapt sank due to the oversaturation regardless of quality, like 2003's ill-fated Vexx.
By the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 era, the 3D Platformer was all but dead save for LEGO's movie tie-in games and Nintendo's occasional Super Mario title (and even they were drifting back to 2D with their New Super Mario Bros series). Spyro became the vehicle for the Skylanders franchise, which subsequently gave him the boot. The Rabbids usurped Rayman. Banjo and Kazooie starred in a car game. It was like watching the video game equivalent of Watchmen, where studios relegated these once-great heroes to banal party games and spin-offs. Previous attempts to revitalize the genre fell on unsympathetic ears. 2010's Flip's Twisted World tried to pull off the same gravity and orientation stunts as Super Mario Galaxy but flopped under its lousy gameplay and budget presentation. Then there's Knack, which thinks it's a much more beloved series than it really is. However, fads come in waves, and with Kickstarter as an engine fueling nostalgia and creativity, the industry seems to be perking its ears up at 3D Platformers again.
To understand the resurgence of interest in 3D Platformers, I spoke with two indie game developers. Jonas Kaerlev is the director and producer of Gears for Breakfast's A Hat in Time, a "3D Platformer about a little girl that runs around, stitches her own hats, and fucks shit up." I also spoke to Jakob Gavelli, an artist for Right Nice Games' Skylar & Plux: Adventure on Clover Island, another 3D Platformer whose heroine "finds herself stuck on Clover Island and under attack by the evil overlord CRT."
For starters, I asked both what their inspirations were for their respective games. Kaerlev said his team draws from "games from the Gamecube era, so stuff like Wind Waker and Mario Sunshine and also older games like Mario 64." One needs only to compare the cel-shaded art style of A Hat in Time to The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker to see the influence. Part of their inspiration, though, comes as a direct response to observations in other games. "We have this level in the game called Mafia Town," Kaerlev told me, "and a big inspiration for that level is because I played another level in a Sonic game where you just speed past everything. But what if I stopped up and got to explore this area?"
Gavelli also cited the Zelda and Super Mario games as gameplay inspirations for Skylar & Plux, but additionally mentioned some classic Sony platformers like Spyro and Jak and Daxter. Gavelli's team, however, isn't solely drawing direct influence from 1990s and early 2000s games. He stated that "on the art side of things, we were inspired by more modern open-world games" and that "the environments and overall aesthetic were more inspired by Wildstar and Skylanders." The former is a massively multiplayer online role-playing game from 2014, and the latter is a highly popular toys-to-life franchise that debuted in 2011.
I asked them what they thought the overall appeal of 3D Platformers was. Gavelli said, "3D Platformers are typically light-hearted and have a stylized aesthetic. I think there’s a uniquely cozy feeling and pure joy that comes from jumping around a colorful world in 3D Platformers that has been lost in the industry today ... it offers a bit of fresh air from all the browns and grays of military shooters." Since A Hat in Time is more of a classic collectathon, I asked Mr. Kaerlev to elaborate on the appeal of that subgenre. He explained that, "it's not really about racing through a 10 kilometer field, it's about more contained areas. It makes it possible to tell more unique stories and introduce more interesting characters. So I feel like being able to just explore on your own and getting to meet this very interesting cast of characters is very appealing to a lot of people."
So, if 3D Platformers provide what other genres do not in terms of world design, storytelling, and exploration, why then did they go out of style? Oversaturation was probably a factor, but not the whole reason. After all, despite the glut of military-themed first person shooters from the mid-2000s onwards, that genre never really died out. I asked Gavelli to speculate. "I don’t think pure 3D Platformers were ever in style to be honest! Mario is pretty unique, even the old school 3D Platformers like Spyro, Crash Bandicoot, Banjo-Kazooie and Jak and Daxter were more focused on the adventure and story aspects of the genre."
Kaerlev offered an alternative hypothesis, using the Super Mario franchise as an example. "Mario 64 resonated because they wanted to show they could make this huge 3D world, and they also wanted to show that you can kind of interact with everything. But it had its limitations, right. They couldn't really cram a lot of story or a lot of characters into the game. And so they tried that in the next title, they tried that in Super Mario Sunshine and that got kind of a mixed reception. But they found that the linear sections were almost universally praised, and it's also much easier to design these linear segments which means that when they went on to do Mario Galaxy, they were like 'Okay, let's just focus on the linear segments with some small specific areas that are more open,' and this results in a gameplay experience that's more refined because it's easier to define a game if you know exactly what a player is coming from. And that's great, right, Mario Galaxy is one of the highest rated games of all time. But you also lose something in the process of making it more linear. You lose the kind of interest in exploration and interest in seeing, 'Huh, where can I go? Where can I find things that are more unique to my experience?'" He also added that "things like cinematics and being able to tell a more interesting or deep story has also contributed to it, because if you develop cutscenes or a big story for your game it doesn't really make sense to give the player a whole lot of freedom, because if they deviate too much from the beaten path then the story doesn't match up anymore."
One argument I've seen a lot for the death of the 3D Platformer is that some players feel that it is just an outdated format. I asked both interviewees how they would respond to that criticism, and both surprised me with their answers. Gavelli said, "I think there might actually be some truth to that. I mean, there haven’t been that many 3D platformers in recent history so that’s a pretty good indication that they’re outdated. However, I think that’s exactly why it’s time for them to make a comeback." Kaerlev also said, "I kind of agree! So I'm making a game in that genre, right, but I do definitely feel like it has some outdated roots. Like, especially if you replay Banjo-Kazooie today, you'll definitely feel like, 'Ugh, I have to collect every single music note in the level,' like why? So you have to be very careful that the game doesn't feel like you're just going through a checklist." He added, "There's a difference between perceived optional and truly optional. Perceived optional is when you say, okay, collect five balls and you get one thing, but that thing is required to proceed. So those five balls are technically optional, right, a perceived optional, but to be truly optional you should be able to complete the game without those being in any way required. And we do that a lot in A Hat in Time."
This "checklist" factor was a large point of contention in Yooka-Laylee when it released last month, and part of what spurred the "outdated" debate. I brought this up with Kaerlev, who responded by saying, "without commenting on you know whether Yooka-Laylee is a good game or a bad game or whatever, I feel like it took this genre verbatim and it did exactly what people expected, which was just a third Banjo-Kazooie. And I think they did a good job of doing that. But ... they took both the good parts and bad parts and people aren't as forgiving for the bad parts anymore. So definitely, if you're going to make a 3D Platformer, definitely make sure you know what works and what doesn't work. And we did exactly that for A Hat in Time. A Hat in Time is a product of a lot of experimentation. We never had a design doc where we said 'OK, well this is how the game is going to turn out.' And we didn't have a Bible or anything that we never deviated from. It was very much a product of experimentation. So whenever we sat people in front of the game and they said 'Okay well we don't like this part or we think this part isn't too great,' we were like, okay, fuck it, get rid of that. That's not fun to play, so why have it in the game?"
I asked for an example of something that was cut from A Hat in Time, so he offered an anecdote from the process. "If you remember in Banjo-Kazooie there were a lot of encounters where you meet one character and he says 'Okay, go get my hat,' or whatever, 'Go get 10 of these things and I'll be happy.' Those were almost universally hated in our playtesting, just because it feels like you're doing chores for someone else, right. And today people don't want to feel like they're doing chores, they want to just get to the good stuff. And so, even though we had coded and programmed and done most of the things for those fetch quests, we just decided to say, okay, well ... in best case these missions are acceptable, in worst case people don't like them. We can include them to pad out time, but why? Right? We cut them. And then we decide, okay, well that makes the game shorter, but I think more people will enjoy that the game just gets straight to the point, just gets straight into the good stuff and then doesn't really beat around the bush too much or waste your time ... It doesn't ask you to do anything that's below average."
I also asked Gavelli what the Skylar & Plux team was doing to balance nostalgia and innovation—how it was living up to the formula and how it was breaking away. "In Skylar & Plux," he said, "you have all the moves you’d expect from a standard platformer. You can jump, double-jump and do a spin-attack. Later you’ll unlock the jetpack, which lets you jump further and higher. Aside from those pure platforming mechanics we’ve added puzzle mechanics that are more traditionally found in adventure games like the Zelda series." In regards to nostalgia, he said, "It’s incredibly hard to find the right balance. Since we’re a new intellectual property, we thankfully don’t have any expectations put on us to have any specific mechanics or story. Nostalgia is hard because we all remember the games from our childhood as, probably, better than they actually were. Skylar & Plux isn’t necessarily designed to be directly analogous to old platformers; rather, we designed them the way we remember old school 3D platformers."
Perhaps this is the best path for 3D Platformers to stay relevant throughout this renaissance: maintain the core gameplay but adapt the mechanics around the wants and needs of modern players. I like Gavelli's idea of making a game that plays out like your fond memories of the past rather than trying to hit a 1:1 ratio to old design choices that may or may not make sense anymore. Kaerlev's attitude of aggressive playtesting to cut out any joyless missions is also very encouraging to hear. Maybe it's time to stop pining for Banjo-Threeie, Conker's Other Bad Fur Day, and other sequels that can't live up to our expectations after decades of waiting, and stand aside for new mascots to take the reins. We'll have to wait until the games release to say for sure, but it certainly looks like the next generation of 3D Platformers is in good hands.
I would once again like to thank Jonas and Jakob for their time.