I feel like my relationship with platformers exposes me as something of a fraud. Platformers are the “ur genre” of console video games; the console landscape as we know it would not exist without the popularity of the original Mario. They’re foundational and informed whole console generations, from 8-bit to 64, and have transferred to so many other genres that you don’t even need to include the genre descriptor. Platforming puzzles in shooters like Destiny or platforming sections in modern adventure games are a given since platforming is part of the genetic makeup. Essentially they understand that if you’re playing games you will at least have some sort of idea of how to jump and explore. The platformer genre itself is still proving popular with everything from 2D indie throwbacks, to new Mario and Sonic games, to the more hardcore or “masocore” games that require precise coordination to navigate more complex platforming challenges. All of which is to say that platformers are the bedrock in which the modern gaming landscape was built. They are so ubiquitous that their challenge is often left out of the wider difficulty conversation, which only makes me feel worse for being horrible at them.
I find platformers to be insanely difficult. I have a really hard time going back to older titles that are stiffer to control and way less forgiving. I’ve been interested in Megaman since I was young (watching the animated series reruns are largely to thank for that) but to this day I have never beat a single robot boss. It’s so difficult for my brain to wrap my head around and taking risks can feel overly punishing. Platformers by and large are set up to be difficult and challenge the players to successfully coordinate and utilize the toolset to avoid traps, enemies, projectiles and spike pits. The problem with the genre being a foundational sign post is this difficulty is largely not discussed. Modern difficulty discussions are focused at the hardcore genres ie Souls games and masocore or kaizo platformers. It’s a given that systems in games like Megaman are already institutional knowledge, so every time I go to play one I feel like I’m already behind the curve.Yes they are difficult, but the true conversation is around boss order not traversing the levels themselves. Even Mario games are tough for my inexperienced mind.
That difficulty extends to modern Mario as well. I’ve been playing through Super Mario 3D World with my partner and let me tell you that is no cakewalk. All of the playfully designed 3D levels take all of the platforming of the 2D incarnations and add a level of depth to them. You’re no longer on backdrops but can move your character forward and backward in space which adds a layer that makes my brain hurt. You have to compensate for distance on a 2D plane (x & y) while making sure you’re aligned forward and backward (z). The feeling of “I should have landed on the platform” is exacerbated when I’m missing it on the z axis. Luckily the coop has made failing easier, not only in the sense that we can both laugh at our miserable attempts at platforming but also continue the level when one of us dies. Whenever one of us completely messes up by either leaping to our deaths and charging at an enemy, the other one is usually there to allow our character to respawn. I cannot tell you how much better that feels, to pick up right where you left off rather than restarting a level. We can be more daring with our strategies and learn a lot of how to manipulate spaces. Do you think we jump over to that star? Or should we try and wait for a suit? We have more leeway to test our hypotheses without the more severe punishment.
There are two other important game systems that also help with failing. First, losing all of your lives is not a huge deal. You get a sad game over screen featuring whatever characters you’re playing, but then you just hit continue and you’re bounced back to the level you were just on. There’s only a couple minor consequences; you lose any suits that you had in your inventory and you have to restart your current level from the beginning (meaning your checkpoint progress is erased). All in all that’s not too bad! It removes any big inconvenience and leaves you with only minor annoyance. The game essentially takes you aside and says “why don’t you try this again fresh.” The gameover acts a way to reset and get the player out of whatever loop they might have been stuck in.
The other addition is more drastic; the white Tanooki suit. The suit, which first appears in Super Mario 3D Land, functions similarly to the regular Tanooki suit (tail attack and slow float to stay in the air) plus invincibility. This isn’t a regular suit that you find in a level, but rather the game offers them up when you’ve died five or more times. A new box appears at the start or checkpoint and it’s up to you whether you want to use it or not. It’s subtle, a perfect nudging toward “you can use this in case you need some help.” We have definitely relied on the suit more than a few times to get us through difficult platforming sections (and even then still died from hard jumps). It’s honestly the perfect mode of assistance, a way to switch the game to an easier difficulty for one level. The suit allows the player the choice to adjust the difficulty without having them make a decision to actually adjust a setting, which has a history of complicated feelings associated with it. Choosing “easy” when playing games has traditionally been associated with playing a game “wrong,” a pressure from the community that you’ll miss the experience of a game by playing it on that setting. There’s a long history of games themselves talking down to players selecting this mode (“I’m too young to die” from Doom or “Ninja Dog” from Ninja Gaiden). Having the suit as an optional assistance removes all the burden and only surfaces when you may need that extra boost to get through. After you’re done with a level, it’s back to a regular Tanooki suit.
This sort of accessibility is a good thing! Our relative inexperience playing tough platformers is helped by this optional tool. We’ve been able to get through a lot more levels and practice playing way more by using it. It’s also not playing the game for you; we have died plenty of times while wearing the invincible suits. It takes the sting out of repeatedly bashing our heads against the wall and allows us to just have fun. I’ve found my learning experience to be more rewarding, a set of optional training wheels to get me riding.