2D platformers begin to make astonishing comeback

During the past few years, the basic “hop and bop” formula of 2D platform games — games that have two-dimensional graphics and feature protagonists side scrolling across the screen — from the 1980s and 1990s has made a startling comeback. Video game designers are creating more 2D platformers at an increasing rate, and people are buying them.

The worldwide success of contemporary 2D platformers, such as last fall’s Donkey Kong Country Returns, suggests a collective return to a more simplistic style of gaming. But how can such games attempt to compete or succeed in today’s Microsoft age of stunning graphics, fast-paced first-person shooters and sophisticated Internet technology?

Video game publishers seem to think it’s worth it. They continue to pump out the 2D platformers, and sales remain steady. Not surprisingly, Nintendo is one of the biggest contributors to the recent rise in 2D platformers.

The company’s bestselling Wii game is New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a 2D side scroller that has outsold the company’s more impressive-looking 3D platformer, Super Mario Galaxy, by more than 10 million units worldwide.

But the success of one 2D platformer isn’t merely a fluke. Last year’s Donkey Kong Country Returns has sold almost five million copies. Kirby’s Epic Yarn has also sold more than one million units.

It isn’t just Nintendo that is changing tactics either. In 2010, Sega introduced Sonic the Hedgehog 4 as a direct continuation to the immensely popular ’90s franchise.

These statistics point to a revitalized interest in 2D platformers, but is this actually the case?

Most of these games derive their success from 2D predecessors released two decades earlier. In the case of Nintendo and Sega, the two companies are clearly utilizing their global franchises, which is a primary reason why their 2D platformers are so successful.

Does this trend in 2D platformers mean the video game industry is slowly reverting back to its retro counterpart? Or is it simply a cash-hungry method of capitalizing on a tried-and-true franchise?

In reality, it’s a little bit of both.

Nintendo and Sega are not the only two companies launching 2D platformers, so the rise of this old-fashioned style cannot be attributed solely to the desire to resurrect and profit from a franchise. In July 2010, for example, Danish game developer Playdead released an exclusive 2D platform game for the Xbox 360 called Limbo. The downloadable game garnered critical acclaim as a remarkably creative and eerie tale, but unlike New Super Mario Bros Wii or Donkey Kong Country Returns, Limbo is not a part of a decades-long franchise. This supports the possibility that 2D platformers are finding fame naturally rather than through franchise exploitation.

Another explanation for the rise in 2D is that 2D platformers are viewed as a sort of backlash against 3D technology. Despite Nintendo’s attempts to market its Nintendo 3DS as an unparalleled, sophisticated gaming console, few consumers have actually gone out to purchase the item, leading to a massive price cut after just four months on the market.

In other words, 2D platformers offer simplicity and challenging game play that aren’t overshadowed by useless special effects.

Though 2D platformers aren’t going to overrun the video game market anytime soon — people still prefer their Call of Duty sequels and their high-definition blood fests over happy-go-lucky bouncing games — there is something to be said about 2D platformers: They are the easiest to learn and the trickiest to master. They are the games that almost anyone can play and also appeal to the widest potential audience.

Even in today’s obsession with 1080p graphics and multiplayer extravaganzas, there is no denying that sometimes simplicity reigns supreme.


Hannah Muniz is a junior double majoring in East Asian languages and cultures and English (creative writing). Her column, “Game Over,” runs Wednesdays.