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Welcome to Ask Kotaku, the new weekly feature in which Kotaku’s rank and file weigh in on the burning questions of our time. Each query is a crucible on which nerds and giants clash, monumental contests of wit, that…well, OK. This is just another excuse to talk vidya games. You down?
This week on Ask Kotaku: What are your top 3 platformers of all time?
Summary of Ninja Gaiden‘s groundbreaking cinematics: Poor Ryu… poor Ryu’s dad! Poor Ryu’s dad’s friend! Poor Ryu’s CIA girlfriend! Nice sunset.Image: Tecmo
3. Klonoa: Door to Phantomile (PS1, 1998): Dreaming cat-thing Klonoa can grab foes to either throw as weapons, or vault to greater heights. That’s it. That’s the game. Namco squeezed every drop it could from these simple mechanics and dressed it up with a charming, storybook presentation, gorgeous music, and delightfully looping, 2.5D level design. I cried at the bittersweet ending, and then jumped back in to master the pleasantly brutal Extra Vision. Its sequels are OK, but much like certain dreams, only Door to Phantomile remains memorable.
2. Ninja Gaiden (NES, 1989): Propulsive, rhythmic, one of the tightest action games ever made. Response is instant, so aptitude alone determines your fate in passing Tecmo’s atmospheric gauntlet of unerringly rude enemy placement. As in many 8-bit games, foes respawn if you scroll the screen backward, or not far enough. You can even de-spawn them, sometimes. I love the sort of abstract meta-strategy this adds to an already-intense contest. Today that’d be viewed as a bug or lapse in realism, but on the NES it was just another bit of challenge to internalize, strategize around, and conquer.
1. Gunstar Heroes (MD, 1993): Treasure’s co-op shooting / brawling hybrid was so over the top—with transforming, multi-jointed bosses, previously unseen visual effects, and 16 mix-and-match, projectile-spewing guns—that it seemed a wonder the Genesis could handle it all. Wildly innovative, Gunstar was the rare technical showcase as deep as it was pretty, with every stage bringing weird new surprises. As Treasure’s first release, Gunstar served as the maverick new developer’s declaration of intent, and I was instantly smitten.
Iconic.Image: DICE / EA
3. Mirror’s Edge (Multi, 2008): A lot of 3D platformers are overrun with junk for you to collect or distracting side-tasks to complete, but Mirror’s Edge preserves the joy of running and jumping despite the addition of a jaw-droppingly majestic first-person view. It’s beautiful, it rips, and I’ll never forget the first time I popped over a rooftop ledge to plunge into the azure-drenched cityscape below.
2. Super Smash Bros. Melee (GCN, 2001): I’m still chasing that high of wiggling back and forth across Melee’s Corneria as the nimble but weighty Young Link in fights that felt like some real Nu-Star Wars Jedi shit. From its double-jumps to its shield-rolls, no other platformer controls as intuitively and crisply as—who would have guessed—a Nintendo fighting game.
1. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (SNES, 1995): Somewhere out there I can hear Tim Rogers telling me to get off his porch because Donkey Kong Country games are an abomination but every level in Diddy’s Kong Quest is exquisitely crafted to make the most of its clunky protagonists. If I had to play one video game level on loop forever it would be Bramble Scramble.
3. Fez (Multi, 2012): Goodness, a lot of drama surrounde Fez’s creation. A lot of hype and bluster, too. But the game itself, reveling in retro aesthetic, felt like a cohesive vision emerging from all sorts of chaos. I like Fez. Its success inspired many other game developers, but it also became a lesson in caution. But now, years after its release, with all the backstory fading into the background, taking Fez on its own terms is not only more enjoyable but fairer.
2. DuckTales (NES, 1989): I almost put Castle of Illusion Starring Mickey Mouse here, but of course, DuckTales is a better game. Both titles got remakes during the last generation and both titles evoke all sorts of nostalgia for players. As a kid, I remember being often disappointed by licensed games, but DuckTales proved to me that sometimes they worked out. It was challenging, with great graphics, wonderful music, and multiple endings. Kids in the late 1980s were lucky to have games like this.
1. Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985): The first console I ever owned was the Nintendo Entertainment System, and I was blown away by Super Mario Bros. This was the mid-1980s, and I was familiar with Jumpman in Donkey Kong, but this was before kids started eating Nintendo breakfast cereal and before the little plumber became synonymous with video games. Considering the character’s iconic status, it’s hard to imagine a time before Mario.
I don’t think Super Mario Bros. is the best platformer, let alone the best Mario game. I do think that world 1-1 is a remarkable piece of video game storytelling. It’s a tutorial, yes, but then, we didn’t really have tutorials. The way it introduces the gameplay and the enemies is brilliant. First, you encounter one goomba, then more, and then a koopa troopa, while being introduced to the power-ups, and if you really explore the world, secrets. It’s all so simple, yet brilliant—an encapsulation of Shigeru Miyamoto’s genius.
Whenever I’m writing about something complex I need to explain to a wider audience, such as Japanese tattooing, whisky, or sake, I always keep world 1-1 in mind. It never talks down to players, but at the same time, it’s logical and liberating, introducing new concepts one at a time, allowing players to understand what’s happening, and letting people make connections for themselves.
3. Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End (PS4, 2016): I never picked up an Uncharted game in earnest before the fourth. I had no connection to Nathan or Elena or Sullivan but, since this was my first run-in with that uniquely Naughty Dog style of storytelling, I fell instantly in love with all of them, totally compelled by their stories. I didn’t hate the platforming—while I did in fact, hate the combat—but more often I found myself just autopiloting through gameplay sections so I could get more of that rich, delicious storytelling.
And the epilogue with Nathan’s daughter? It was so beautiful I cried, the first time a video game made me cry since the ending of Kingdom Hearts. That game planted the seed in my heart: This is what you wanna do girl. You wanna write things about or in video games that make people feel like what you feel right now. I started freelance writing that same year and now here I am.
2. Tomb Raider II (PS1, 1997): Since my first video games were on handhelds, Tomb Raider II was my first experience with a game that wasn’t Pokémon or Sonic—my first real “adult” game.
And adult it was. I had guns to shoot, goons to murder, and the biggest boobs (sharp and triangular as they were) I’d ever seen not attached to a relative. This game scared the piss outta me. Whenever tigers or other enemies would jump out of nowhere, I’d get so panicked and flustered that I’d just run away and hope they wouldn’t kill me. I was so new to this style of game (and controller) I hadn’t yet learned how to move and shoot at the same time.
It got so bad that I used one of my first experiences with classroom internet to look up cheat codes so I could just skip all the levels and go right to the last, where Lara has to protect her home from an invasion. Because there was no way to skip it, and no way to end the level without killing every bad guy, I learned how to run and gun with a quickness. My reward: The final scene where Lara, about to get into a shower, turns to the camera and says “Don’t you think you’ve seen enough?” before blasting it with her shotgun.
1. Sonic Triple Trouble (GG, 1994): I’ve already said some words about how Sonic Triple Trouble is the best Sonic title of all time. It just is. Superior mechanics, music, story, everything. I would spend hours on this game, draining dry the six AAA batteries it took to power the electrical brick that was Game Gear. Of the handful of games I had, Triple Trouble is the only one I ever finished.
Playing it, I went through every emotion a 12 year-old could muster. Joy from the music of Sunset Hill’s boss level. Anxiousness from the special zones that had you run against the clock to find a Chaos Emerald—and sadness whenever I failed because those levels were labyrinthine and designed to frustrate and confound. My Game Gear is lost to the march of time, but I hollered aloud when I discovered Triple Trouble on the Nintendo 3DS eShop for 5 bucks. 25 years later it’s still so much fun, and holds up really well for a Sonic game.
Ari, you’re pretty good at Dead Cells!
3. Ori and the Will of the Wisps (Xbox One, PC, 2020): Remember feelings (y’know, other than pure terror at the fact that people still aren’t wearing masks in public)? Ori and the Will of the Wisps is a supercut of every feeling—each turned all the way up to 11—crammed into one too-cute-for-words package. Plus, it feels great to play, smacks of Studio Ghibli vibes, and is on Game Pass? Are you kidding me?! Ori and the Will of the Wisps was the last good thing before the pandemic. It’s now the only good thing during it.
2. Dead Cells (Multi, 2017): There’s something irresistible about Dead Cells. Beating the game only takes an hour, but it might take you 40 hours to reach that point. And even after that, it’s tough to put it down, because no sole run through this caffeine-fueled side-scrolling dungeon-crawler is the same. New DLC from earlier this year—yes, this game is still getting updated!—infused fresh energy with a bunch of new levels, a whole new army of irradiated beasts to kill, and a new mini-boss that definitely didn’t give me nightmares, nope. (No need to press that point any further.) Who knew, three years later, I’d still be playing the little roguelite that could.
1. Sonic Adventure 2 Battle (GCN, 2001): We could talk all day about Chao gardens and pavement-boarding and gaming’s arguably most heart-pumping multiplayer mode. But there’s something more important at play here… this, for example.
Or this. And who could possibly forget this?
The defense rests.
3. Shinobi III: Return of the Ninja Master (MD, 1993): I was hesitant to consider Shinobi III a platformer until Alexandra told me to go with it. So any complaints you have about this choice should be directed at her.
When I got tired of playing Sonic the Hedgehog for the millionth time, the next Genesis game I reached for was Shinobi III. There’s something about its weird, cyberpunk-esque take on Japanese ninjas and samurai that really speaks to me, especially when things get all body horror toward the end of the game. It’s also just really good on a gameplay level, with a variety of complicated movement techniques that make every level worth revisiting to eke out slightly more fluid routes.
2. Kirby Super Star (SNES, 1996): This is probably cheating because Kirby Super Star is, like, seven games in one, but I don’t care. It’s one of my favorite games of all time, mostly thanks to its diversity. Spring Breeze is a remake of the first Kirby game, while Revenge of Meta Knight is like if Kirby was inserted into an intense sci-fi action movie.
Milky Way Wishes is the best of the bunch, though. Instead of his usual copy ability, Kirby finds statues as he travels between various planets that allow him to switch powers at will. The adventure then culminates in one of the series’ best boss battles against yet another eldritch horror, because Kirby. I love it.
1. Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1990): I consider Super Mario Bros. 3 my first video game even though I wouldn’t play it myself until much later. A common story in my family is how I would sit on my dad’s lap as a baby, transfixed by his playing on our television. When I was old enough to play myself, my dad and I would have marathon sessions, bonding as we alternated stages as Mario and Luigi.
Fortunately, Super Mario Bros. 3 is a very good game apart from whatever sentimental attachments I may have to it. The platforming is snappy and responsive, the worlds are diverse and challenging, and the art style is unmatched throughout the rest of the series. I’ll never forget my first time running from its angry sun or finding the hidden locations of the warp whistles.
3. Vectorman (MD, 1995): I don’t play a lot of platformers, so my list is strange. But one of the first games I remember loving and playing for hours and hours was Vectorman. I distinctly remember watching my dad and uncle play it. They were older and better at it than me. I was always amazed by how far they got in it.
2. Icy Tower (PC, 2001): When I was much younger I didn’t have a lot of games. They were expensive and my family, while not dirt poor, wasn’t rich. So I played a lot of demos and freeware titles. One of the best freeware games was Icy Tower, a never-ending platformer that supported custom characters. I would download weird files from strange sites and half the time it never worked. But to this day, I’m down to play Icy Tower.
1. Super Mario Odyssey (Switch, 2017): Blah, blah, blah, it’s not as good as Super Mario 64 or whatever. I’ve heard those people. Thing is, I played Mario 64 and never liked it all that much. But Odyssey? I loved every moment. It looks amazing, feels great, and the hat transformations are so cute and clever. What a great game. I want a sequel, like Galaxy 2. It’s still my favorite Switch game, and my favorite platformer.
3. Sonic the Hedgehog 3 (MD, 1994): This was, for me, Peak Sonic. The visual tricks pushing the Mega Drive to its absolute limits, the incredible soundtrack, the very Sega weirdness surrounding the whole thing (like Michael Jackson doing at least some of the soundtrack and this actually only being half of the originally planned release), it encapsulates everything I remember and loved about not just early Sonic games, but Sega’s best console.
2. Jet Set Radio (DC, 2000): Can I call this a platformer? The Wikipedia page says it is and I’m going to run with that, because while it’s a game with skating at its heart, it’s not a skating game. It’s actually a game about graffiti and racing/jumping around its impossibly vibrant levels, battling some violent cops and an even tougher enemy: the clock. From the soundtrack to the visuals, I love every part of Jet Set Radio from the bottom of my heart.
1. Super Mario 3D World (Wii U, 2013): The perfect platformer. It’s a neverending test of your dexterity and cunning, but one that lets you do everything at your own time and pace, and never feels like it’s punishing you. If you like anything about any Mario game from the ‘80s, ‘90s, or ‘00s then 3D World has what you liked, only here it’s better. Bonus: Mario has never looked better than when he’s in a cat suit.
How About You?
Kotaku’s weighed in, but what’s your take? Three platformers: no more, no less. What makes your cut? The conversation continues below, so have your say. We’ll see you in the comments, and will be back next Monday to take on another no-doubt nerdy head-scratcher.