What Made Those Old, 2D Platformers So Great?

2D Platformers are often the go-to for aspiring developers, and for many good reasons: it’s a well-established genre that can look good with basic assets, there are lots of programming tutorials on how to make ’em, and tons of people grew up with the genre during its heyday.

However, the actual design of these is sometimes an afterthought. To help fix that, I wanted to take a look at three common gameplay elements of many classic platformers. These point are not the only things that made those games great, but they’re a shared base that appears again and again.

1. The Moveset

Sonic CD saw the addition of the dash move. It left Sonic more vulnerable than his spin dash, but it lasted longer and was a great way to instantly build up speed.

The moveset is a nebulous term that encompasses all of the player character’s abilities and properties. These include the standard run and jump, but also other mechanics such as sliding, and the rules of various behaviours, e.g., how much time does it take to accelerate to a maximum velocity, how does the character react when he’s hit, etc. Temporary powerups such as Mario’s Starman and permanent modifiers like Mega Man’s boss weapons also fall under this umbrella.

So what makes a great moveset?

Well, let’s start at the beginning. First of all — and it’s hard to believe that this needs to be explicitly stated —  the moveset should be very clear and accurate. There’s nothing worse than running over a collectible and not picking it up. Well, unless it’s getting hit by an enemy that’s clearly not touching you. This kind of stuff is incredibly frustrating, and it makes the player feel cheated by the game.

Mega Man’s wall-slide and wall-jump mechanics added a lot of gameplay elements to the famous series.

As soon as we’re sure that we’re not actively pissing off the audience, we can build a connection between the player and the game itself.

To start off, the interface needs to be quick and responsive. Input should have an immediate effect on the character in order to foster a sense of full control. Granularity and different control techniques, i.e., pressing, tapping and holding, are also important as they provide a level of precision to the movement.

It’s important to note that the majority of 8-bit and 16-bit games actually ran at 60 frames-per-second. Sure, many of the animations were composed of only 2-5 frames, but the actual motion of the sprites was very smooth. This not only aided the physics, but also created a very dynamic sense of movement.

Yoshi’s Island has one of my favourite movesets of all time.

Now precision in platformers is often associated with pixel-perfect leaps that — if not properly executed — result in game death. While that is sometimes the case, precision is an ever-present facet of these titles that’s experienced at virtually all times, e.g., jumping up to a moving platform, dashing through a tight tunnel, firing shots at floating enemies, etc.

So how do we actually make the moveset fun?

Well, there’s something to be said for vicariously living through a speedy, agile ninja that performs maneuvers one would not likely do in real life. However, what I consider even more important to the “fun factor” is the integration of the moveset with the various facets of level design itself.

2. The Levels

On largely aesthetic level, it helps a great deal if the game is composed of various zones that each have their own unique look. Of course that uniqueness is often accompanied by numerous interactive objects that add variety and help with the pacing, but there’s one small detail that occasionally falls through the cracks: the separation of foregrounds and backgrounds.

Donkey Kong Country has experienced a bit of a backlash over the years, but it was a stellar platformer with clearly outlined levels.

This might seem like a relatively small issue, but if not handled correctly, it can confuse and frustrate the player. Confusion is rarely a good thing, and pretty art is a poor consolation for jumping on phantom platforms.

Now as far as the environments themselves, it’s not a coincidence that they’re often filled with all sorts of slides, bridges, trampolines, ladders, etc., In a way, they’re simply playgrounds for the player, both literally and figuratively. They cater to the moveset and enhance the flow of the game.

Bonk’s Adventure was relatively slow-paced and straightforward, but it included some truly bizarre and entertaining levels.

Smart playgrounds also funnel the player into using his various abilities. Once again, this is to provide a wide array of experiences by fully utilizing existing resources. The funneling itself can be subtle — indicating a path through a series of collectibles — or forced — requiring the player to scale a wall in order to proceed.

A great example of organic playground elements in Castlevania: Rondo of Blood. The long water slide ends with a leap onto dry land, quickly followed by a boat ride with the ferryman.

When designing levels, a guiding approach also helps with creating specific setups for how the player enters and leave a specific area. For example, a path of collectibles can lead to an isolated spot that contains a useful powerup. Getting there requires a series of leaps and wall jumps that take the player through the lines of collectibles and deposit him at the desired destination. On his way back, the collectibles are gone, removing the need to retrace steps and making the descent itself easier and more enjoyable.

A good example of incentive-funneling in Super Mario Bros 3. A flight-leaf powerup is followed by a straight runway that ends with a path of coins leading up into the sky (where more collectibles await).

3. The States

Picture this scene: your character is jumping through the air, an enemy is homing in on him, and a stray missile explodes and destroys a brick wall. A snapshot of this scene reveals multiple states: jumping, homing in, and exploding/crumbling.

States are basically logical denominations that encompass various behaviours and properties of “game objects.” They give standard enemies and end-level bosses a rudimentary intelligence, and challenge the player to decipher and exploit their patterns. This imbues them with personality, and once again encourages the use of various techniques to defeat them.

Every Mega Man game is filled with enemies that all have unique, state-driven behaviour.

However, states are just as important to the levels themselves as to their inhabitants. Even though it’s easy to visually separate enemies and interactive objects, they’re largely the same thing. Springs, conveyor belts, swinging vines, breakable walls, etc. fill out the playground, and they do a tremendous job of turning a static image into a living, breathing environment.

On the initial playthrough, states encourage experimentation and improvisation. Despite the fact that they’re entirely predictable, they also enhance the replay value. Learning the mechanics and patterns of a game guarantees that the player — at least to a certain extent — will continuously get better at it. In some cases, this can even lead to the creation of speed runs.

And if you really doubt how vibrant a game can be largely through its use of states, click the play button below.

Now as you start putting all three of these principles together, chances are you’ll also foster those intentional and emergant moments that players tend to remember.

What moments, exactly?

Well, it’s stuff like using pinball bumpers to dart around in Sonic the Hedgehog while avoiding the boss’ attacks. It’s exploring all new underground caverns in Super Metroid thanks to a special ability. It’s running through a level of Super Mario Bros. without stopping while piranha fish sail above you, but never quite touch you.

The flow created by intelligently combining movesets, levels and state mechanics is a large part of what makes platformers fun.

And as a final point, the combination of all three of these aspects can actually be seen in the intro to Indiana Jones and the Raiders of the Lost Ark, and who didn’t like that?


  • Great article! I guess I never really thought about what made em fun, but this is interesting.

  • god i hate those flash platformers where the backgrounds look the same as foregrounds. you think the artists would know better..

  • God damn you americans and your Mario fanboyism. There are numerous other and better platformers like Turrican and such. And no, the best versions are NOT on the consoles, but computers like Amiga.

    • Thank you for sharing your toughts – excellent article.

      @Rembrandt – that’s quite a lame comment really. to compare turrican with mario is like comparing chicken Jalfrezi with strawberries imo.

  • Heh, well I’m not American, and this is the first time I’ve been accused of being a Mario fanboy (Sonic, maybe, but never Mario).

    As for the Amiga version of Turrican, it was a very enjoyable game, but I think it falls more into the run ‘n’ gun category (also the reason why I didn’t mention Contra, Gunstar Heroes, etc.)

    This wasn’t a top-platformers list either, just a post about what made them good, and Turrican’s existence certainly doesn’t detract from the quality of design found in the various Mario titles.

  • Damn you Europeans and your love of Turrican… kidding, Turrican rocks. I’d like to mention the Klonoa series as one that kinda gets looked over in favor of, well, Mario and others from his era. You actually had to do a little thinking instead of going from point A to B.

  • Nice article. I think there’s another important factor in the old games’ greatness. In _Understanding Comics_, Scott McCloud explains how a cartoon, because it’s more simple and more abstract than, say, a photograph, allows a wider range of readers to identify with the character, and allows the identification to be more complete. It allows for a more abstract identification, which can therefore be carried out on a deeper level. I think a similar principle holds here.

  • About turrican, yes, it kicked ass. Great platformer. And the music in Turrican II, jesus christ! :D (I played the Amiga-verison).

    I think this article raises some good points, and I personaly hate too “floaty” controls :).

    This post made me think of a great little platformer called “Knytt stories”:


    .. seriously, try it out, not a big production, just hits the sweet spot with it’s sound/gfx/controlls/simpleness.

  • Rembrandt X :
    God damn you americans and your Mario fanboyism. There are numerous other and better platformers like Turrican and such. And no, the best versions are NOT on the consoles, but computers like Amiga.

    Amiga? AMIGA?!?! Useless, modern rubbish, I say. The only platformers really worth playing were Jumpman, Jumpman JR and Miner 2049. All running on a good old 6502. If it can’t be done with eight bits, it’s not worth doing it!

  • Thanks for the article. My favourite games on the Amiga were “Emerald Mine IV” (2D but not quite a ‘platformer’), and Cool Coyote in Fire & Ice. Oh yeah, the Indy video reminds me Rick Dangerous was pretty fun too.

  • I love 2D games as well, although I’m into a bit newer ones. One of my favorite games ever are Demon Star (2D vertical alien shooter, much like Raptor) and Gex (2D scroller).

  • 2-D platformers were great, and this guy has listed why in a very great article. But what I think, is that the reason they were fun was because they were simple. All you needed was move, run, jump, and use power, nothing more. Now adays, we have more complex stuff that can be frustrating as hell with too many things that factor in with it that only add to controller-throwing frustration.

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