The 2D Platformer is a genre of video game that has been around for nearly as long as the medium itself.
It is a genre home to dozens of the most respected, beloved, and fondly-remembered classics in gaming, and with no shortage of venerable veterans to the genre with recognizable names. There's Mario, Sonic (sometimes), Rayman, Kirby, and many, many more.
All of these franchises are home to great games, and may of them have bred success out of their efforts; But with success comes imitation, and with imitation comes eventual normality where there were once new ideas.
Which is why I'm here to talk about platformers with standout unique gameplay.
Now let me be clear, a typical or familiar feeling platformer isn't necessarily a bad thing, but I feel that it's only fair that we shed a little light on some games that dared to break the mold of what you'd expect from a genre that so often treads familiar ground.
This list is going to focus on 2D Platformers specifically. Who knows -- I may do one on 3D Platformers sometime. But for now, let's keep it flat.
Alright. Let's a-go!
It's simultaneously both surprising and not surprising how few people played Drill Dozer when it was first released.
It's surprising because it was developed by Game Freak, the same company that puts out all the Pokemon games, and anything with their logo on it should have at least three spin-offs.
It's also not surprising, because it was released for the Game Boy Advance in 2006, about a year and a half after the DS had been released. So nobody cared much about a cutesy new IP for a last-gen console.
But let's forget about the game's history and who made it for a minute, and just focus on what the game has to offer.
In Drill Dozer you play as a little girl with pink hair named Jill, and you pilot a bipedal walking tank with a massive drill on the front, appropriately dubbed a Drill Dozer.
If that isn't enough to convince you to play this game, then you need to go to the doctor and get yourself checked out. But in case that really isn't enough, allow me to convince you further.
The drilling is done using the L and R buttons on the GBA in order to spin the drill clockwise and counter-clockwise respectively.
As you progress throughout each stage you uncover additional gears for the Dozer that allow you to shift into second then third gear; This allows for the drill to move faster and deal more damage, as well as give the player access to sections of that level that had been previously inaccessible at lower gears.
Every stage has you do something new with the drill while keeping the mechanics and controls the exact same the whole way. This can range from picking the lock on a safe, to blasting through tunnels, to even using temporary add-ons to both fly and propel through underwater environments.
There's also upgrades to buy with the money you collect in stages, including health tanks and new drill bits, as well as maps later on in the game that allow you to go to secret challenge levels. There are also treasures to explore around for just for collecting's sake, and secret areas within main levels only accessible through later-acquired upgrades.
The story is pretty and characters are pretty 'meh', but that only makes the last few levels and emotional chords that the game strikes all the more effective and memorable.
Every cartridge of Drill Dozer had a built in rumble pack that would vibrate intensely whenever the drill was used, which could be turned on and off from the options menu, and would actually speed up and rumble harder whenever the player shifted to a higher gear.
If that sounds just too amazing to miss, then don't fret about finding a physical copy, as a brand new copy of the game in it's box is just about $25 right now.
Even if you don't care about the nifty rumble pack, check this game out anyway. It'd be good to show Game Freak that it's a good idea for them to branch out more, and it's a great game regardless.
Monster Tale was a sleeper hit from 2011 that, a lot like Drill Dozer, not nearly enough people took the time to play. Which is really a shame, because it's probably one of the best games on the DS, and for sure one of the absolute best first attempts I've ever seen from a developer.
Yeah, you read that right, first attempt.
Monster Tale was the first game released by developer DreamRift, and it's good enough to rank up with the most elite of the DS library. Let's get to why that is.
The game is a sort of Metroidvania aimed at children that utilizes both the top and bottom screen of DS and mostly uses the buttons for control.
The two main characters, Ellie and Chomp, make for a likable duo -- even if they don't interact as much as they maybe could have -- and the world is soft and colorful even when it succeeds in creating a lonely or creepy mood.
For a game clearly aimed at children and adults looking for something innocent, the combat and controls are stunningly deep. The extent to which you can wreck enemies and to which your abilities get upgraded is truly impressive.
Speaking of stunningly deep, the game also has RPG elements in the form of food-based stat boosting, multiple forms and learnable moves for Chomp, and branching skill trees to go along with those forms.
The game's music is simple and catchy, the sprites are well animated, and the graphics overall have a pleasant coloring and shading about them that's reminiscent of children's picture book -- which suits the simple but emotional story presented.
The game is just really solidly structured. It's only as long as it needs to be, which is still decently long, and the above-average difficulty for a kid's game scales at an appropriate pace.
I'd also just like to point out that playing as a polite little girl who is also capable of dishing out a true schoolyard beatdown while firing lasers from her fists is both refreshing and very, very funny.
This game would have been impressive even if it had come from a well-known veteran developer; But it's made all the more impressive considering it came out of nowhere.
Show DreamRift some love and buy Monster Tale. A game this good should be supported as much by the consumer as possible.
Move over Ecco the Dolphin, there's a new (and much less annoying) kid in Underwater-Platformer Town (population: not that many)!
The Legendary Starfy is the fifth, and at the moment most recent, installment of the Starfy series (called Stafy in Japan). It is also the only game in the series to ever make it outside of Japan.
The Legendary Starfy looks like a member of the Kirby family, controls like Ecco the Dolphin if it had actually been designed to be user friendly, and plays like something all its own.
The Legendary Starfy takes the best approach to building a game made for kids about mostly being underwater that such a game possibly could: It completely removes any sort of air meter.
This means that you are never restricted to how long you are able to stay underwater, and the challenges presented are based on enemies, puzzles, and platforming, rather than a stressful time limit placed on top of the normal gameplay. Swimming through the gentle blue of Starfy's levels controls well and just feels relaxing on top of being naturally-flowing and free.
It's a very easy game with most of the challenge reserved for collecting extras and bonus levels. But the journey feels much more pleasant than patronizing. It's a game where if you want a challenge, you're gonna want to go for every hidden chest and collectible, although the gameplay is far from mindless.
The graphics are also very pleasant for a DS game. The characters, enemies, and foreground are all excellent 2D sprites while the background is 3D with scrolling layers to convey a sense of scale and depth.
Throw in some visual-novel style cut-scenes with a puppet-show-like aesthetic to help tell the charming little story, and the whole package gets neatly wrapped up in a pretty little bow.
The platforming on land is less common, but is still not uncommon, and controls just as well with a different set of controls than when you're underwater.
Going against what one might expect from a game set mostly underwater, the worlds you visit are very varied, ranging from a foggy mold-coated forest, to a a steamy hot spring, to a haunted sunken ship full of sharks.
It's also a game where you'll get a lot of value for your money. In addition to a decently lengthy campaign, the game has loads of costumes to unlock, trophies of in game characters and enemies, a whole set of single player and co-op mini games that only require one copy of the game, and even a two-player co-op mode with two differently controlling characters.
The Legendary Starfy is a great game for kids as well as adults looking for something fun and pleasantly simple; and it is completely worth the pittance it would cost nowadays.
The biggest reason you should play Freedom Planet and what makes it unique is very simple -- it's basically a 2D Sonic the Hedgehog game, only better. (And honestly, just saying that would be selling it pretty short.)
While it was definitely heavily inspired by Classic 2D Sonic, having started life as a Sonic fan-game, Freedom Planet does much more than just imitate another series, and what it does imitate it actually does much better than the original.
Freedom Planet draws inspiration in both tone and gameplay from Sega Genesis classics such as Gunstar Heroes and Rocket Knight Adventures. It takes these elements combines them with its own plethora of new ideas and distinctive charm in order to create something completely new and refreshing.
Most levels can be played as all the characters, and despite all of them playing very differently from each other, every shared level still feels as though it was designed around their individual abilities.
On top of that, every level has not just one, but several, unique mechanics and hazards to show off; Whether you're gliding around on giant dandelion seeds or playing the slots, the levels are constant excitement and variety shown off in a large and graphically appealing string of fun.
The game's story is, admittedly, not all that great, and the dialogue could come across as stilted for some and potentially annoying for others. But you can still tell that a lot of heart went into it regardless.
The characters are, for the most part, likable and distinct from one another. The game's villain Lord Brevon deserves special mention, because as far as main antagonists in these kinds of games go, he's particularly, impressively evil.
There are currently three playable characters in the game, all with there own story and classic modes (although most stages are the same between them), and there are several characters supposedly coming later on as free DLC (much like Shovel Knight).
As an added bonus, the soundtrack is absolutely fantastic. It is also available for purchase from the developer's bandcamp, which I highly advise you do if you're a fan of up-beat and energetic music with strong composition.
The controls are sublime and responsive, the combat is simple yet deceptively deep, and the sense of speed shown off beats out every Sonic almost 100% of the time.
Not to say Sonic is bad (all of the time), but Freedom Planet is just better (most of the time).
Even without comparing it to other games it's similar to, Freedom Planet is an amazing platformer. It plays like the memories of an adult looking back on the games they loved as a kid, and it shines just as bright if not brighter.
- Marina Liteyears, The Ultra-Intergalactic-Cybot-G
You'll be hearing that a lot if you decide to talk a trip down the infrequently traveled road that is Mischief Makers by Treasure.
It may be from the same developer as Gunstar Heroes, but it is not the same kind of game at all. Mischief Makers is a 2.5D Platformer where the central mechanic is the grabbing, throwing, and most importantly, shaking of objects and enemies.
This mechanic allows for pretty novel gameplay, when you find in yourself in a situation where you need to catch rascally children and then throw them at their mother, and another situation where you need to fight a giant lizard merman in a volcano --- within the same hour of play.
On top of all the grabbing and shaking (tee-hee), there's also plenty of running and jumping and combat as well, with the boss fights in particular all being fun and ridiculous anime-esque brawls with goofy Saturday morning cartoon style villains.
The tongue-in-cheek plot and dialogue also add a lot to the game's overall charm (due partly to the shaky translation that wobbles when you lean on it).
The completionist/collect-a-thon aspect of the game is also handled very well. There is one golden gem hidden in each level and collecting all of them will result in getting the best ending.
Additionally, you collect one type of gem for refilling your health, and another kind of gem for paying for longer health bars at the start of levels, and for using continues when you die. This system makes it so every collectible is useful, which is admirable for a game with such a linear structure and so little to unlock on the side.
The visuals are unlike anything else on the Nintendo 64. They aren't the prettiest, but the bold combination of sprites with 3D models on a mostly 2D plain makes it stand out among the system's library of games made of bulky triangles and not-quite circles (as pretty as they might be).
The artstyle is as odd as you'd expect anime-inspired games of the time to be and it really makes it standout among the N64's other offerings.
It's a game that's quirky but still easy to fall in love with. It's silly, special, and shaky. Go play it!
Last, but certainly not least, we have Mibibli's Quest. The tricky to say and trickier to spell Mad Hatter's Tea Party of a Platformer... and it is amazing.
Mibibli's Quest was solely developed by the wonderful deviant Ryan Melmoth, and it is, simply put, one of the most bizarre and truly unique games to come out in the last few years.
While the game follows most typical conventions of 2D Platformers, such as a lives system and a level-to-level structure with interconnecting hubworlds, it constantly puts a new twist on elements, or mocks and subverts them to the moon and back in a style similar to Earthbound or Undertale.
Every level offers something completely new, and showcases throwaway ideas too solid and unique for me to comfortably call them gimmicks.
In one level you could be shooting the moon out of the sky so you can jump on it, in another you could be fighting soldiers that hatch out of eggs, and in another you could be fighting exploding corpses of yourself hanging from the ceiling.
There is gun that shoots glowing neon slugs that crawl along the walls. There is a cross power-up that lets you fly around obstacles, and there are supposed-to-lose fights around every corner.
Both the game's tone and its NPCs simultaneously bounce between funny, disturbing, sad, and irreverent. It's a game that always keeps you guessing, and never, EVER phones it in.
Once again, as a delicious bonus, the soundtrack for Mibibli's Quest is beyond fantastic. Every track sets the mood of the level perfectly, and after hearing the whole thing you'll probably have trouble getting about a dozen or more catchy tunes out of your head.
As luck would have it, the game was re-released on Steam just last week with added content, including a new final boss fight, and you can pick it up for $6.00 (around $10 if you want to buy the soundtrack too)!
At times it's morbid, mean, sad, violent, and even a teensy bit sexual, but if you have the guts to play through it despite that, you'll find one of the most memorable gaming experiences you've ever had in your entire life.
I don't want to spoil any of the game's other surprises, so if it sounds interesting at all, just go play it. Pretty please. You will not regret it.
It is not just a passing novelty or a quirky distraction; It is a truly unique gaming experience, and a genuine passion project.
Well that's the list, I hope you liked it! If you have any unique platformers you'd like to share with us, post a comment and tell us about it! I may just end up making another one of these lists -- maybe even more than one.