Limbo and the return of the 2D platformer

With LostWinds, Braid and now Playdead’s sinister, atmospheric Limbo receiving huge acclaim, is the once forgotten 2D platform genre back in vogue?

Limbo

For years, the once ubiquitous 2D platformer was trapped in limbo. In its 80s and early-90s heyday, the genre was massively popular, serving as a springboard for enduring videogame celebrities such as Mario or Sonic the hedgehog, whose games went on to sell millions.

But then, sometime in the late 90s, the 2D platformer died. The onward charge of technology sparked an industry love affair with 3D, and with the rising popularity of the first-person shooter, the comparatively simplistic platform genre fell rapidly out of favour. A new breed of platform game appeared, spearheaded by Mario himself on the N64, that took the concepts of its 2D ancestors and recast them in a three-dimensional, free-roaming world.

For more than a decade, the 2D platformer continued to retreat. Its once venerated heroes such as Miner Willy, Alex Kidd and Monty Mole faded into obscurity, while the genre itself found refuge on the more humble technology of mobile phones and handheld consoles.

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The past two years, however, have seen a renewed interest in this neglected game breed. Thanks to the rise of digital distribution, independent developers have begun to experiment with the genre once again. Jonathan Blow’s Braid used the processing grunt of the Xbox 360 to introduce a mind-boggling time rewind mechanic that would have been unthinkable in a platformer of the 80s or 90s, while its philosophical subtexts cleverly played on generic expectations.

Frontier’s LostWinds, a gently and whimsical download-only platformer for the Wii, was one of the few games to make imaginative use of the system’s once unique control system.

It seems, as mainstream games have reached a new level of complexity, that studios of all sizes are redefining the possibilities of the platform game, pushing one of gaming’s earliest and most simple challenges – run from left to right, jump, and collect stuff – into previously unseen new arenas.

Which brings me to Playdead’s remarkable Limbo, a 2D platformer with the atmosphere of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale crossed with Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Taking the genre into murky, unfamiliar territory, Limbo is among the most unsettling games I’ve played all year. Initially, the only obvious objective is to guide the game’s youthful protagonist from left to right, solving the puzzles that block his path and avoiding death for as long as possible.

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But later, new information slowly unfolds, wordlessly, as the player muddles through the game’s oppressive environment. Its post-apocalyptic world, apparently empty at first, is later revealed to be teeming with strange and decidedly unfriendly forms of life.

Death is all over Limbo like a fog. At every turn, its hero is impaled, crushed or drowned in ways so imaginative that, when they’re not outright disturbing, are blackly hilarious. Even those who remember the original Prince Of Persia‘swince-inducing traps and bone-shattering drops will blanche at the sheer number and frequency of fatalities displayed here. The boy’s first encounter with a vast, malevolent spider is a hackle-raising moment, its ultimate defeat later in the game unforgettably icky.

Depicted entirely in stark blacks and shades of dismal, Limbo‘s world is like a moving charcoal sketch. Its visuals are thick with doom and Freudian menace, the occasional flurry of butterflies or ray of diffuse sunlight the only respite from an otherwise unremitting sense of despair.

So palpable is Limbo‘s atmosphere, in fact, that it’s easy to forget just how simplistic its gameplay is. But, like Jonathan Blow’s Braid, Playdead has taken the ageing skeleton of the 2D platformer and forged a game that is entirely unique and hugely compelling.

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But it’s not just small, independent studios rediscovering their love for the platform genre. Nintendo took its mascot back to his 2D, side-scrolling roots with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, a game that sold nearly 17 million copies, almost doubling the sales of Super Mario Galaxy.

While the genre will never again dominate the videogame landscape as it did twenty years ago, it’s great to see developers rediscovering the possibilities suggested by the 2D platformer.

Braid and Limbo are proof that even apparently simplistic, outmoded game types can be used as a basis for new ideas, and that, with enough imagination and technical ingenuity, the platform genre can still be used as a launch pad for unique, highly personal stories and fascinating new worlds.