Year of the Platformer


It’s been a big year for Nintendo, with more big-name franchise releases than any other 12-month period during the Wii’s lifespan to-date. Some of these have met with universal critical acclaim, others with mixed skepticism. Not surprisingly, of course, most of the undisputed success stories have come straight from the genre that first launched Nintendo to greatness: platforming.

The trend towards a greater volume of platformer releases started with last year’s holiday season, which saw Nintendo drop a new console Super Mario Bros. title for the first time in almost two decades. When it quickly went on to become one of the top-selling games of all time, many thought the new Golden Age of Nintendo was finally about to begin. Is that the case? Perhaps, but no matter what this year has delivered some of the best gaming experiences to hit the Wii thus far. Jump inside for my top three.

Number 3 – Kirby’s Epic Yarn

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I didn’t expect much out of Epic Yarn besides a bit of feel-good fun – and it turns out that was a terrific decision, for that’s exactly what the game’s made of. While the game’s visuals are nothing technologically stunning, the charm of its characteristic style, gameplay, and musical direction won me over without a fight. As the old adage goes, style isn’t everything – thankfully in Epic Yarn‘s case there’s plenty of substance to back it up, taking as many forms as Kirby has transformations.

Speaking of transformations, I don’t think the series has ever seen anything better than the UFO form, or more surprising than the fire engine. I’d really love to see some of these new Epic Yarn additions find a permanent home in a classic Kirby-styled game. Two-player co-op is fun, but not as obviously shoved in your face as the feature was in New Super Mario Bros.

It’s not quite classic Kirby, to be sure, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the most enjoyable platforming romps I’ve undertaken in quite some time. I’d say it goes toe-to-toe even with New Super Mario Bros. Wii, and that’s one of my favorite Mario games of the past three console generations.

Number 2 – Donkey Kong Country Returns

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Donkey Kong Country? Score. To be released this year? Excellent. Developed by Retro Studios?! Heaven. This was one of those out-of-nowhere sort of titles that no one expected, but that everyone was looking forward to, and it certainly didn’t disappoint. Heck, I’d even label it the best side-scrolling platformer to grace the gaming world since Super Mario Bros. 3.

What impressed me most was the sheer level of detail Retro packed into this game. Normally one expects a 2D side-scroller to be, well, two-dimensional – somehow Donkey Kong Country Returns feels richer than many games with fully 3D environments. Interactions with the scenery occur regularly and are executed masterfully, with tons of secrets and obstacles around every corner.

And it’s actually difficult, not in a cheap and frustrating way as is often the case with games of late, but in a satisfying “I’m so determined to beat this that my thumbs are on fire” sort of way. The game throws opportunities to grab extra lives at you with what at first seems a disappointing regularity, but it’s just as quick to take them all away as you try to get past that tricky part. It strikes a rare balance that I don’t think we’ve seen before in any game.

The level design really shines, however, in the game’s post-completion challenges, which are probably the most intense gaming gauntlets outside of the NES era. It’s a shame to say, but I still can’t quite get the rhythm right for those time trial speed runs. Curse you, Tiki tribe!

Number 1 – Super Mario Galaxy 2

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Don’t tell me you didn’t see this one coming! It was an extremely close call between this and Donkey Kong Country Returns, but the Galaxy games are so special that I couldn’t bring myself to deny it the top spot. It exceeds in every area just as much as the original Galaxy – its graphics are just as stunning, its musical score just as magical, its level design far exceeding the standards of its predecessors.

A lot of people will disagree, but after playing this game, it’s clear that the 3D Mario games have come a long way since Super Mario 64, and yet something about this game feels closer to the classics in terms of style and substance. Maybe it’s the dense level design that focuses on meaningful progression rather than scope and scale. Galaxy 2‘s Stars feel more like the end of a complete level than part of a series of collect-a-thons. The game has all the feel-good elements that made Epic Yarn fun, plus just enough difficulty (Grandmaster Galaxy, anyone) to keep me on my toes.

In the end, what makes this game stand out is that it’s everything that a sequel should be, with a healthy balance of throwbacks to the last game and the series at large as well as plenty of brand-new content. The elimination of forced treks across the hub world, while a controversial move, makes perfect sense to me – the game’s not about the hub, after all, it’s about the galaxies. And it comes off feeling like the most ambitious 3D Mario title yet, without failing to live up to the hype.

I haven’t yet spoiled my original experience with the game with a second playthrough, but as I’m writing this I’m tempted to give it another go, as we await what next year has to offer.

2010: Year of the Platformer

Though there were a lot of other terrific games this year – we here at Zelda Informer have an infamous love for Metroid: Other M and Pokemon HeartGold and SoulSilver were possibly the best remakes ever made – it’s clear that platforming is king. Had Skyward Sword made its debut this year as originally planned, things might have turned out differently. But, as things stand, I proudly proclaim 2010 Nintendo’s Year of the Platformer. Better luck next mission, Samus.

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