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The Adventures of Shuggy, Limbo, 'Splosion Man: The Silver Age of 2D Side Scrollers

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Posted August 25, 2011 - By Guest Writer



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The Adventures of Shuggy, Limbo, 'Spolion Man: The Silver Age of 2D Side Scrollers

For about a ten year stretch of time I didn’t play a single 2D side-scroller. Not one. Over the last week I’ve played three. I’ve played dozens just this year. I’m playing them because they’re different and genuinely better than the vast majority of three dimensional games out there. But after beating both The Adventures of Shuggy and Ms. Splosion Man in a weekend, I had to stop and give some serious thought to what exactly has led to this Silver Age of side-scrollers.

I know you’re thinking that side-scrollers never really went away; they just moved to handhelds. And that’s correct in a way. But for many of us, save for our beloved JPRGs, the handheld is just something to play on the train until we get home to our consoles. The fact is that once Wolfenstein 3D brought 3D gaming to the forefront of gamers’ minds there was no looking back for a long time.

But that's been changing. Read on to find out why.

For a while, the only way to push graphics and gameplay was in the 3D arena and side-scrollers seemed doomed to the refuse pile of history. “Imagine if tomorrow, no one made a first person shooter for 15 years; it would be mind boggling. But that’s what happened.” said founder and creative director of Chair Entertainment when I spoke with him on Wednesday, “It was heartbreaking.”

Once the N64 released with Mario 64, Goldeneye and Zelda, along with a dozen other fantastic 3D titles, no one was clamoring for a side-scroller. Even when Dreamcast rolled out with the surprisingly addicting ChuChu Rocket! in 2D, it was top-down. GTA 2 on the Dreamcast and PlayStation was the same story. Great games still used two dimensions, sure, but they no longer side scrolling. After all, when 3D platformers could provide millions of new options beyond up, down, and forward; what possible reason could they have for going backward?

So why are they back now?

The simple answer is the widespread success of the XBLA and PlayStation Store. At first, only a ripple in the ocean of games, XBLA soon made a splash. When Undertow released in 2007 using the Unreal Engine it soon became clear that the XBLA was no longer a repository for Pac-Man remakes and board games. The XBLA Summers of Arcade in 2008 and 2009 produced a wealth of side-scrollers that solidified their resurgence. The PlayStation Network hasn’t had as much luck securing side-scrollers, but with the recent releases of previously-exclusive platformers Braid and Limbo, it too has contributed to the cause.

Another innovative addition that has helped side-scrollers once again gain traction is the introduction of 2.5D. 2.5D adds a wealth of capabilities for a side scroller. For example, background characters usually just added as, well, background, are now completely interactive. In Super Metroid if you saw a bug climbing in the background you ignored it and moved on. But in Shadow Complex they shot you, you shot them, and looking back and forth was no longer sufficient. Ms. ‘Splosion Man also utilized 2.5D to great effect in the cooperative mode in which one player ventures to the once irrelevant background and the other helps her in the foreground.

But that’s just the economics and technology of it. Providing cheap bite-sized games is all well and good and has historically seen success, but critical acclaim for a $5 game has long been unheard of. Diner Dash may be fun, but it’s not getting any perfect scores from major publications. That is all starting to change. More and more now we’re seeing side-scrollers dominate discussions about “games as art.” They have begun to offer more than just jumping and shooting and then battling a boss.

Take Limbo for example. We all know discussing the artistic merit of Limbo has grown just as tired as talking about the atmosphere of BioShock. But that alone speaks volumes to what game developers are currently accomplishing with what was once considered limited technology. Games now have their own equivalent of the literary short story – and something gamers spend less time and money on can have just as large of an effect upon them as a full retail title. Indeed, after the final scene of Limbo I spent much more time digesting the game than I did after beating LA Noire.

The same goes for Shadow Complex, written by comic book writer Peter David and set in a universe created by science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card. It too features a spectacular story that was met with critical acclaim and spawned a best-selling trilogy written by Card. That trilogy is second only to Ender’s Games in Card’s sales.

For fans of puzzle gaming, side-scrollers are currently the place to be. Although it may seem that three dimensions would give designers more of opportunities to create puzzles, unless they’re Valve, it usually feels like there’s just too much to work with. And quite frankly, most 3D games except Portal usually fill space between puzzles with shooting or some sort of violence. Side-scrollers; shorter by nature, have the good fortune of being able to avoid that pitfall.

The Adventures of Shuggy is a perfect example. The game delivers fast-paced bite-sized puzzles that can all be completed under a minute. The puzzles are vast, varied and challenging, and there are hundreds. However, it only costs ten bucks. ‘Splosion Man is another fine specimen. Although Twisted Pixel likes to poke fun at the simplicity of their game only utilizing one button, it’s deviously complicated and it only uses two dimensions.

But perhaps one of the simplest reasons they’re back is that developers who grew up loving them just wanted to see them again. “One of my favorite games of all time is Super Metroid and I think most people on the team share that opinion,” said Mustard of the team at Chair, the studio behind Shadow Complex; a game that pays homage to Super Metroid in countless respects. “We saw Super Metroid as the pinnacle of 2D side scroller technology.” Most would agree, including innumerable developers who grew up playing Mario and Metroid but now find themselves making first person shooters. So don’t expect to see this train lose speed anytime soon.

We are sitting at the dawn of a renewed age of gaming. Watching so many well-made side-scrollers come out year after year, I can’t help but wonder what’s next. XBLA games are being made using the same engines used on full retail titles. Some of them are leading the fray in “games as art” discussions. Most importantly for many gamers, they’re affordable without sacrificing quality.

When we look back on this silver age of side-scrollers, the emergence of the XBLA and PlayStation Store may be cited as a reason, but only a minor one. What people will talk about most is that this generation produced a wealth of games so good, they revitalized an antiquated technology. Because of the superiority and distinctiveness of these games, they will ensure new side-scrollers aren’t just a flash in the pan, but here to stay for good. Mustard probably said it best; “A great game will be successful no matter what; it doesn’t matter where you put the camera.”

So, welcome to the Silver Age of Sidescrollers. If the main image above from Pixeljunk Sidescroller doesn't help convince you, get in there and play it when it comes out later this year and make up your own mind, from left to right.

Nationally unacclaimed freelance writer Jonathan Deesing has been writing about video games for dozens of weeks. His professional knowledge ranges from skiing to Peruvian history and of course, anything with buttons. If you can't get enough of his musings, check out his Twitter feed.

The Adventures of Shuggy, Limbo, 'Splosion Man: The Silver Age of 2D Side Scrollers
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