Whenever I look around on Steam Greenlight, I inevitably stumble upon the next puzzle platformer. Scrolling down to the comments section almost always leads to me reading people’s statements about how it’s a tired genre and people should stop making games like it.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Now don’t get me wrong, I understand the complaint on a base level: puzzle platformers are popular, and a lot of people try to cash in on the formula. It’s really the most simple base to start building your game on. And it, like any other overly populated genre, has it’s share of mediocre and thoughtless clones and wannabes. But it also has it’s share of incredible experiences.
The rise of indie games this generation has brought forth a revival of the simple 2D platformer, and some of the most well-respected indie games of the generation have been puzzle platformers. Limbo, Braid, Thomas Was Alone, etc. are all puzzle platformers at their core.
As is the game I played today: Pause Ahead.
Pause Ahead started as a game made for the 2012 MolyJam. It’s a simple “jump over the spikes and buzzsaws” platformer on the surface, but like most of these games it tweaks the formula through the use of a unique puzzle mechanic. In this case it’s, well, pausing the game.
That’s it. You just press the pause button. The clock ticking down how long you have to complete the level stops. The obstacles stop moving. Everything acts like a normal pause screen. Except one thing: You keep moving. Whatever you last motion was, you maintain that momentum during the pause screen. If you jump straight up in the air, your character will slowly float upwards, if you bounce off the ceiling, you’ll slide along at that angle until you unpause the game. You even become immune to obstacles like spikes, phasing through them without dying.
As you can imagine, this mechanic starts out easy but quickly gets difficult. It’s a short flash game, but through it’s handful of levels the mechanic is used well. There is even a hidden extra boss level that you should definitely try to find. I wish this was a fully fleshed out game because I could imagine there being a lot of interesting takes on traditional platforming this could offer.
This game was made by Askiisoft, who also made another clever-but-short puzzle platformer that I liked called Tower Of Heaven and it proves one thing: there is still room for interesting ideas in puzzle platformers!
And that’s what it all comes down to. I refuse to completely dismiss a genre as “overused” if there is still a chance a great game can come out of it. Is it ok for some developers to shed traditional genres and seek new ways to make games? Absolutely. But it’s perfectly alright to rely on an established base as well.
If anything, I’d say puzzle platformers are a great place for new game developers to start. It gives you an easy to follow framework in which to play around. It’s like taking a plain t-shirt and printing your own designs on it. But like any genre or game in general, there are pitfalls you need to watch out for.
For example, does this mechanic lend itself to a full game? Sometimes a mechanic seems like a good idea, but there ends up only being one or two things you can do with it before you just start repeating the same gameplay over and over. This tends to be the case with games that have fairly simple mechanics that don’t lend themselves to lots of different uses and possibilities. You start seeing the same tricks being used in slightly different environments. This can make the game become tired and bland very quickly.
Some games that have this problem tend to heap more mechanics and abilities onto the player throughout the game. And while this can definitely work, it can also be a pitfall of it’s own. It has the chance of bogging down your game and making it feel unfocused. The best puzzle platformers don’t have a lot of mechanics, but utilize them in numerous ways to keep things fresh without it becoming a mess of ideas shoved together. The game should give you a skill set but allow the player room to use it.
The other pitfall comes from the game looking too much like other platformers. By now, the concept of pits of spikes and buzzsaws has become almost second nature to the genre. This is probably a huge part of the genre being dismissed by a lot of gamers. It’s easy to think a bunch of games are all the same when the screenshots show the same visual aspects. At first glance, Pause Ahead looks like a Super Meat Boy wannabe where you just jump over spikes.
This is something to keep in mind when making your game. Not everyone takes time to read about a game or watch trailers. Exposure may be nothing but screen shots, so try to design your games so that the screenshots convey the idea and don’t lend themselves to “this is just a blahblahblah clone” mentality.
But let this be a message to all the naysayers of genre pieces out there: genres are genres for a reason. They work. Building off an established foundation isn’t means for dismissal. Not every puzzle platformer shows a “lack of creativity” or is just riding the success of other games in the genre. Some of them are genuinely clever and exciting still.
Pause Ahead is a flash-based browser game you can play over at Adult Swim games. You can follow the developer on Twitter or check out their website. I definitely recommend their other game, Tower Of Heaven, as well.