Saturday, February 28, 2015

What's In a Jump?

One of the key elements in most classic side-scroller gaming, especially "platformer" games, was jumping. This was established as early as games like Atari's Pitfall, and Nintendo's arcade classic Donkey Kong. But where it REALLY got it's start, as an established "left to right, run and jump" type of gameplay convention, was Nintendo's first true mega-hit, 1985's Super Mario Bros.


Super Mario Bros., for certain, set the groundwork for every platforming style game that would follow it. The entirety of the gameplay was based around the "run and jump" mechanics, and it was the fact that those in-game mechanics WORKED so well, that it became popular in the first place. To be perfectly honest, the jumping/platforming of Donkey Kong and the original Mario Bros. was awkward and wonky at best. Great games, but the guys at Nintendo obviously hadn't ironed out all the kinks yet. With SUPER Mario Bros., they achieved this, not only creating walking/running and jumping mechanics that felt very responsive and fairly seamless, but they also more or less single-handedly created the concept of a TRUE "side-scrolling" game, wherein you moved from left to right (or right to left, and even later up and down in other games), through one continuous long level. Unlike in previous more arcade style games, where the action took place on a single screen, so even in something like the platforming predecessor Pitfall,  you would traverse through a single screen, get to the other side, and then a new single screen of action would have to momentarily load.

With SMB1, you just kept going, and it gave the player a whole new level of freedom. And almost of equal importance, what SMB1 also did, was it relayed some important elements of physics into the world, where running and jumping had a real sense of weight to it, like you could really control your actions, like getting a good enough running start and jumping RIGHT from the edge over a pit, would help you get just enough distance to make that next platform. Or how when you hit a "question block" from below, to make a power up appear, that power up (unless it was a fire flower, which just stayed put), would either fall left or right, depending on which angle you hit the block from. For as primitive and limited as Super Mario Bros. might seem now to many younger, modern gamers, in all blunt honesty, it was so far ahead of it's time it's not even funny. It was quite revolutionary in it's approach to many things, from continuous side-scrolling, to reliable in-game physics, to the novelty of different power-ups, separate worlds with different dangers, the variety of having ground and sky and even underwater swimming levels (in which you had to master swimming physics, learning how to navigate both gravity and hazards in the water stages). If it didn't outright create some of these elements, it certainly innovated all of them. And again, what brought it all together, what made it work, and made people care (in the millions, making the NES a hit and Nintendo a household name), was that great jumping gameplay. If that jumping had sucked, I would argue that Mario, and Nintendo, might be in a very different place today.

But not all platforming is created equal, as we'll soon see........

"Watch out for that MEDUSA HEAD!!!"

Castlevania wasn't quite the massive cultural phenomenon type hit that Mario was, but it was still another successful NES hit, and a genuine classic. The original Castlevania games are all great in their own way (yes even part two), but while they were more action based (whipping enemies, etc.), than Mario games were, they also still asked the player to do a fair deal of platform jumping. And that's where we hit a snag. As great, and wonderful, and classic as Castlevania is, with it's fantastic monsters, and ambient level designs, and catchy soundtrack, the one thing that the game honestly did NOT pull off very well, was it's jumping mechanics. Simply put, it's slow, it's awkward, it's clunky, and cumbersome, it feels like Simon Belmont (the main character) weighs a ton, and your level of side-scrolling depth perception has to be FAR sharper than it would be for a Mario game. That isn't to say that Castlevania sucks, nor that Mario is easy. Take it from a kid who cut his teeth dying in the later worlds and (literally) crying about it at a young age, SMB1 is no joke. It has some cut-throat platforming that it asks you pull off at times, and you really have to get GOOD at it to beat the game. And the same things can be said, to some extent, for Castlevania, except for this: this game wasn't made for jumping. Mario was obviously crafted around the notion of running and jumping, so the developers obviously put a lot of time into making those parts of the gameplay work super smoothly, which they did. With Castlevania, on the other hand, one could argue that the main gameplay mechanic is using your whip (or secondary weapons) to defeat monsters. And while jumping does factor heavily into some levels (especially the goddamn Clock Tower), the developers obviously just did not put as much time into making that work smoothly. Or, it's also entirely possible, that they were sick, sadistic bastards, and could have made the jumping work better, but left it clunky on purpose to up the challenge level. I could really see that.

And the thing is, that second option might have a bit of validity, because come Castlevania 2 and 3, the jumping didn't really get any better. Hell, it didn't even get MUCH better in my favorite entry in the series of all time, Super Castlevania IV on SNES. They didn't get around to really improving the platforming aspects of CV games until Symphony of the Night on the Playstation, and even then it could be rather trying at times. Don't get me wrong, the jumping in the old CV games isn't HORRIBLE, I've certainly experienced worse (which I'll get into in a moment), it's just that if I were to list off side-scrolling games where the platforming part of the gameplay was actually FUN to perform, I would not list Castlevania among them. Having said that, let's move on to a game where the platforming is almost assuredly worse....

Not as cool as it at first would appear.....

It seemed with the NES, good things often came in threes. There were three main Mario games, three Castlevania games, three Ninja Turtles games (if you don't count the fighter), etc. And another game that turned into a trilogy on NES, was a little gem called Ninja Gaiden. Now like Castlevania, Ninja Gaiden is considered by many longtime gamers, especially ones like me who love and appreciate "retro" gaming and gaming history, to be a really great series. It was good enough to merit sequels, and even a Super Mario All-Stars style Trilogy re-release on SNES. And to be fair, NG has it's finer points. You're a ninja, you get cool ninja magic/weapon abilities to attack enemies. You have a sword that works pretty well (even if it IS terribly short range), and probably Ninja Gaiden's single biggest contribution to gaming, if incorporated the concept of a "wall jump" into the equation of side-scrolling gameplay. As seen above, your ninja, Ryu, could use his super spiffy ninjitsu skills to allow the player to jump and hang on parts of walls (and signs, and things). And honestly, this is a cool feature. The problem is, it simply didn't make for great platforming gameplay. In fact, it often contributed to making the game fucking ridiculous in the "NES hard" department. Which is why the Ninja Gaiden trilogy, which notoriously got harder with each installment, and like Castlevania the devs simply did not really update the jump mechanics much at all from entry to entry, is generally regarded as some of the toughest gaming in history. In fact, being able to beat the first Ninja Gaiden alone, is considered a pretty awesome feat. The jumping itself in NG is wonky in it's own way, not QUITE so heavy and stiff as in Castlevania, yet awkward all it's own, and not as smooth and precise as in Mario, especially when you're dealing with ridiculously re-spawning enemies, and of course swooping BIRDS. The birds by themselves make platforming somewhat of a nightmare.

All in all, Ninja Gaiden really is a good game, but it's SO damn hard because of wonky platforming, and I just can't help but think that smoother/more responsive jumping mechanics would have made the games far more pleasurable to play through. Instead know.....a heart attack waiting to happen.

You jump, and you shoot.

Next, for fun, we'll take a look at how different games from the same company (in this case Capcom), had very different approaches, and thus experiences, to platforming. First up, as seen above, we have Mega Man. Mega Man is a real blast to play (pun intended), and in it, Capcom took their own approach to platforming. Instead of Mario's style of "running and jumping", Mega Man instead does not allow you to run, merely walk, and focused it's gameplay on "jumping and shooting". Thus it is more of an action-oriented game. But, unlike Castlevania, which as we've already discussed asks some fairly tricky platforming of you that simply isn't easy to pull off because of leaden jumping physics, in Mega Man, someone else besides Nintendo got the formula right, because the jumping in Mega Man is fairly light, tight, and precise. And that's good, because there are times in the Mega Man series (which was so popular it spawned a total of not three but six games on NES alone), when the levels require you to do some pretty fancy platforming indeed. Such as the notorious "disappearing platforms", that will disappear and reappear in a patterned sequence, tasking you with memorizing it and improving your hand-eye coordination to the point of being able to "hop, hop, hop" your way through it without missing a beat. All in all, Mega Man's jumping works very well, and I would even say that Capcom actually bothered to improve the mechanics a bit over time, most noticeably between Mega Man 1 and 2.

So you'd probably assume Capcom has a handle on this whole jumping thing. And in certain other games, such as Duck Tales or Chip n Dale: Rescue Rangers, you'd be right. But that was not always the case.....

Fuck you, Red Arremer. Seriously.

Say hello to Ghosts n Goblins. In all honesty, another classic game, and like Castlevania, chock full of cool mythological (and otherwise) inspired monsters, and spooky levels, and cool music. But also like Castlevania, SUPER leaden, cumbersome jumping. In fact, I would go so far as to say that while Castlevania's jumping mechanics are inconvenient, when it comes to GnG, I would go ahead and call the jumping downright bad. I'd maybe even say that it has some of the worst jumping of any game I've ever played, or at LEAST any otherwise WELL made game I've ever played. It's a fun game, or can be, once you get a lot of practice in, but it can also be cumbersome as HELL to actively play through. Combine shit-tastic jumping physics that literally send you sailing, often uncontrollably, into the arms of a waiting enemy, with a plethora of devious, asshole enemies that all seem to have the advantage on you (except maybe the zombies), and that's an equation for gaming madness.

As in throw-your-controller-and-scream-like-a-jerk madness. Otherwise known as "Gamer Rage", or in my friend Harold's case, also known as "Being Harold". And the thing is, this game had a SNES sequel, Super Ghouls n Ghosts, which was a major upgrade, great graphics, even better music, more and better weapons, the ability to get MORE hits for your armor and charge up your powered up weapons, etc. But the ONE thing they didn't improve? You got it: the jumping. The jumping in SGnG STILL sucks ass. The only thing that saves it, is that among many other additions, they gave you a double jump, or "air jump" ability, which lets you inexplicably jump a second time while in the air (sometimes). But even THIS doesn't always help you, because you still can really control your decent or landing when jumping, once you've committed to a direction, you're going that direction. And as good as these games are, otherwise, it's still SUPER frustrating. A lesson, perhaps, in how NOT to make platforming work...

"Go Go Gadget ARM!!"

And just for the proverbial "Shits and Giggles", here's Bionic Commando, also from Capcom. And it happens to be my friend Brandon's favorite game ever (friend shout outs are fun when you know they're going to read this at some point). It too, like Castlevania, or Ghouls n Ghosts, or even Ninja Gaiden, is a pretty hard game. But the one thing you CAN'T say about Bionic Commando, is that it's got "bad jumping". Why, you ask? Because it's got NO jumping!! That's right. With this game, Capcom decided to take the truly novel approach to a side-scroller, and removed the players ability to hop around at all. And trust me, especially back in the NES era, this was a big deal, because you could manually jump in almost EVERY side-scroller there was. Instead, as seen above, in BC, your hero, Nathan "Rad" Spencer, lives up to the game's title, and uses his bionic robo-arm, ala Inspector Gadget, to reach out and hook onto platforms or objects above him, then allowing to either climb up a level, or in the picture's case, swing across to another platform. Now, the mechanics of this didn't always go smoothly, and involved a lot of trial and error (just ask Brandon), but once you got the hang of it (get it?), it really was a novel and fun approach to platforming. One I'm honestly kinda surprised more companies never really ripped off.

Totally rad, dude.

And circling back around to what started all this, "run and jump" gameplay, I'd like to introduce you to one Master Higgins. I've mentioned him before in my Favorite Game Companies article, that Adventure Island, by Hudson Soft (RIP), is one of my favorite gaming series. Or at least, the three NES games (four if you count the Japan only game we never got), and the Turbo Graphx entry. And out of all the other games I've mentioned in this piece, Adventure Island is the only one that really took the Super Mario Bros. ball and ran with it. You can't, like in Mario, run and bop on (most) enemies heads to defeat them. Instead, Higgins relies on a variety of primitive weapons to dispose of his baddies (axes, fire, spears, etc.). But where the game embodies the Mario spirit, is in it's whole-hearted dedicated to "running and jumping". And trust me, in AI games, you HAVE to RUN and JUMP, a lot. Because, as you can see in the pic above, Hudson decided to make their game a bit more frantic than your average platformer, and added a life-bar/timer, that winds down as your progress through the level, and drops even further down if you get hit by enemies (or stub your toe on rocks....seriously). The only way to replenish your bar, is to grab fruit that magically appears in the air (and in some levels is not all that plentiful), or if you're lucky, happen upon an occasional leg of meat or jar of milk, which will give you a much bigger boost (because getting your protein is IMPORTANT). But the only way to truly survive, and beat a level in Adventure Island, is the RUN LIKE HELL, and beat the clock. Which would typically be super easy, if you didn't have to deal with: poisonous snakes, assholes spiders, assassin frogs, crazy ass foxes/pigs that run from out of nowhere to hit you, fires that jerks leave lying around, giant ass boulders that try to crush you, killer bats, killer ice, killer demons, killer octopuses, killer clouds (yes, clouds), etc. etc. 

Adventure Island is a goddamn marathon and minefield all rolled into one. And what makes it FUN, instead of just HARD, is that while not QUITE as well as Mario, the jumping actually works. You can, for the most part, actually control where you're going to land, and even position in the air a bit, similar to Mario. If it wasn't for great platforming mechanics, these games would be an outright chore to play. But since the platforming plays WELL, their premise of "run and jump madness" actually works out, and once you master it, it's a real blast to play.


So there ya go. A look at several instances of both good and BAD examples of how jumping in old school, 2D side-scrolling style games can work (or not). And how those mechanics and physics working (or not), can really change the shape of how the game plays, and thus your experience in playing the game. And as shown, it isn't always necessary for a game to have GREAT mechanics to still be a good game and to (somewhat) enjoy playing it. But when it comes to certainly helps.