How Game Developers Could Make Modern Platformers Better

Christy Smith5 minute read

Video games are always built upon iteration and improving on previous games. In fact, I suppose any media is made of iteration on iteration. However, it’s particularly easy to spot with video games because they are such a new form of content compared to books and film. This innovation has contributed to the rapid and widespread adoption of games and gaming. 

We love video games because they have quickly evolved from Pong into fully immersive experiences. They are always pushing the latest, most innovative tech available. But what happens when games improve to their own detriment? Is that even possible?

Super Mario Bros. Gameplay

I argue that it is possible for video games to advance in ways that leave disabled players out. Disability inclusion isn’t something that advocates are always trying to add to games. In some cases, we’re trying to make sure it isn’t removed. That’s the case in modern 2D platformers.

Platformers are a very old, traditional form of gaming. If you ask people on the street what the first big video game was, I bet a lot of them would tell you it was Super Mario Bros. The platformer has become so iconic for the industry, that most games include some form of platforming mechanics.

Gris Gameplay

To clarify what I’m calling traditional and modern platformers, two-dimensional Mario is a traditional platformer, even the new titles. The formula hasn’t changed much over the years. The graphics may have improved, and the stages may have gotten more complicated, but they are still very similar to the original games that were made with simpler graphics and mechanics because of hardware limitations. 

Modern platformers, in my mind, are games like Ori, Gris, and Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze. These are games that try to give players the same sense of ambiance and place as 3D games. The backgrounds are more complicated, the platforms are more realistic, and the lighting is more artistic. In short, they are an advancement of the genre. They take the basic platforming mechanics and add in immersive elements like other modern games.

So what’s the problem? This is the industry innovating. That’s great, right? Well, if you’ve read my recent review of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze, you’ll know that I can’t agree.

Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze Gameplay

Tropical Freeze has received excellent reviews from nearly all outlets – and for good reason. The soundtrack is fun, the level design is clever, the art style is captivating, and it uses that art and longer levels to make a game with much more depth than 2D Mario games.

Ori and the Blind Forest Gameplay

All of that immersion comes at a price, though, and those amazing graphics end up making the games visuals complicated. What gives the game that great sense of atmosphere and place also creates lots of clutter and visual noise for the player.

This puts low vision players, such as myself, in an odd place of opposing innovation – which is something that video games simply are. Games are innovation.

So is the solution for low vision to play Mario exclusively?

Super Mario Bros. U Gameplay

No. The solution isn’t that we ask the industry to stop innovating. The solution is we ask them to innovate faster, and with us at the table. Good platformers are out there. I’ve detailed a few below for reference. If developers and publishers take the time in the development cycle to research, there is plenty of information that’s readily available detailing what our community needs out of platformers.

Menu shows options to reduce game speed, have infinite air dashes, and invincibility

For example, Eagle Island includes options to highlight characters and enemies and allows you to turn off or mute the background. Super One More Jump includes an art style with a simple dark background, a chunky playable character, and single-button controls. Celeste includes a fully customizable assist mode. 

These are things that make platformers accessible. Making platformers with innovative graphics without including innovative accessibility features is not embracing the potential of the genre.

Menu showing options to dim background, outline characters, disable screenshake, and turn on colorblind mode
A white block navigates a course of bold white and blue platforms against a dark grey background

Video games have been built upon making use of every emerging technology and idea, but modern platformers are not living up to this history. With a little effort though, they can – as long as we take platformers seriously as modern video games and put research, playtesting, and community outreach into them, just like we do for triple A releases.

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Christy Smith is a visually impaired gamer whose main goal in life is to snag a seat on the metro instead of having to stand so that she can play Switch on her commute. She/her/hers or They/them/theirs

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