It occurred to me this week, while looking around at my expansive shelves of games, that my collection is broken into two distinct halves; there are the violent, fast-paced ones that usually consist of shooting things or driving dangerously, and then there are my cutesy platform games, which more often than not contain plenty of cartoon animals bouncing around pastel-coloured worlds collecting fruit. For every Crackdown or Gears of War, I’ve got a Marvel Land or a New Zealand Story – it’s as though my collection has a case of bipolar disorder.
This week I also played the criminally underrated Flicky, a Megadrive platform game where tiny yellow chicks must be rescued from a gang of dastardly cats. It’s absurdly simplistic (it wasn’t even pushing Sega’s 16-bit technology in much back in 1991), with tiny sprites and warbly music that sounds like an old Bontempi keyboard drowning in a bath, but I’m absolutely hooked; there’s something about the simplicity of the gameplay that I’ve found strangely compulsive, despite its age.
As I guided my heroic blue bird around Flicky‘s platforms, throwing furniture at ginger felines, I began to wonder: what happened to cute, animal-based platform games? Without Nintendo or Rare flying the flag with their Mario and Banjo Kazooie franchises, they’d be all-but extinct. What happened to Taito, once famous for Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands, two of the best platform games ever?
It seems that Japan, a country once seemed to excel at creating zany adventures full of weird, big-eyed creatures, has simply stopped making them. We’ve had the genuine joy of the Katamari games of course, but they’re the exception rather than the rule. This is a terrible shame, because while the Western industry still puts out pleasant enough fare such as Ratchet and Clank or Rayman, we just don’t design them as well as the Japanese do – the unmatched quality of Super Mario Galaxy is proof of that.
Sadly, Japan seems to have turned their collective backs on the cutesy platform genre – in fact, much of their current output consists of samey RPGs as far as I can tell. Western games also appear to be going through a rather dour and austere phase in their own evolution, where characters with furrowed brows fight one another beneath stormy clouds.
I know blowing stuff up and shooting things is all the rage these days, but are games of a more whimsical nature really so outmoded? Is there anything wrong with playing a game where a small boy shatters rainbows over spiders and toy cars, or a game that pits a bow-and-arrow toting Kiwi against the might of a giant walrus? I’d say not – but the game buying public, it seems, doesn’t agree.
Even the Xbox’s ex-commandant, Peter Moore, seems to have it in for the genre – in a round-about way at least. Rare are one of my favourite software companies, responsible for the sugar-coated delights of Donkey Kong Country, Viva Pinata and the previously mentioned Banjo Kazooie series. In fact, they’re so good at the ‘cute’ genre of games that Microsoft poached them from Nintendo. Anyway, Moore made this rather bitchy remark to the Guardian a few days ago:
“…we were trying all kinds of classic Rare stuff and unfortunately I think the industry had [passed] Rare by […] their skillsets were from a different time and a different place and were not applicable in today’s market.”
Is Peter Moore right? Are platform games featuring animals in trousers really so unfashionable? Are we doomed to a video game future of relentless digital wars, where bull-necked jocks grunt at each other from behind their machine guns?
Possibly, but I sincerely hope not – I’m hoping the forthcoming Banjo Kazooie 3: Nuts and Bolts will prove him wrong, and that Media Molecule’s puzzle platformer Little Big Planet will encourage more developers to get out their pastel coloured pens and create some cute platform-type games of their own.
Ryan writes his gaming column every week at Den Of Geek. Last week’s is here.