Floating and raised platforms littering the screen. The hero jumping from one stretch of land to the next, collecting power ups along the way. What game do you think we’re talking about?
If you’re thinking about a certain moustachioed plumber, you’re wrong. But we won’t blame you for guessing incorrectly. Mario and the rest of the gang eclipse other titles and franchises in the platformer genre by a fair margin.
But for platformer veterans looking for a new challenge beyond the Marioverse, a treasure trove of retro games await. Here are a few fun and challenging gems you can jump on.
Sega’s most popular contribution to platformers may be a certain blue, speedy hedgehog, but it's not the first. Four years before the publisher released the first Sonic game in 1990, it came out with Wonder Boy. The game was a critical success upon release, reaching number two in Euromax’s UK arcade chart in 1987.
Wonder Boy puts you in the loincloth of Tom Tom, a caveman (caveboy?) on a quest to–you guessed it–rescue his girlfriend Tina from the clutches of the Dark King. Mechanics are simple but fun. You beat enemies by chucking hatchets at them. Surprises come from breaking open eggs. Sometimes the “reward” is actually a debuff. Sometimes, it’s a skateboard you can use to move faster.
Getting gnarly since prehistoric times
That’s not the game just trying to be cute. Tom Tom’s life–called his “vitality”--is constantly depleting. Players can replenish it by collecting food, but the constant pressure ensured players were never standing still for long.
Continuing the tradition of cavemen on a mission to rescue princesses is Toki. Released in 1989, the game is one part platformer and one part shooter. In it you play the eponymous Toki, a caveman whose beloved Miho gets snatched away in a gigantic hand by an evil shaman.
To add insult to injury, he turns you into an ape. It doesn’t seem like a good idea to turn the hero into an animal that’s five times stronger than humans, but we’re no villainous masterminds.
Has anybody considered weighing down these damsels?
The transformation doesn’t leave you knuckling around as a useless primate, either. Toki can shoot energy balls out his mouth, which is pretty useful given the situation he finds himself in. The game plays like the child of R-Type and Mario, and critics praised its level design and beautiful graphics. It’s also one of the few platformers of its time that let players hop, swing, and swim through the action.
Taito’s The Legend Of Kage starts with a familiar premise: princess-napping. In the game you play as the ninja Kage, on a quest to rescue Princess Kiri from evil samurais and ninjas. Spoiler alert: He succeeds but she gets nabbed again and again until, well, you run out of lives.
Understandably, it takes more than jumping to endure Kiri’s unfortunate chronic condition of involuntary relocation. And the game gives players a myriad of tools to fight with, making The Legend Of Kage a fun hybrid of genres. Armed with an infinite supply of shuriken, you can look at it as a shooter. Kage also dual-wields kodachi shortswords, which means you can hack and slash at any enemy that slips past your barrage of shooting stars.
Evil shinobis on their way to Princess Kiri's monthly kidnapping
But movement is the element that places The Legend Of Kage amidst other notable platformers of its time. You can freely move left and right instead of being locked in an endless scroll forward. Kage’s jumps aren’t cute little bunny hops, but massive leaps that allow him to hurdle entire trees.
Unlike many of the platformers in this list, Koei Tecmo’s Bomb Jack didn’t have you running and jumping through a side-scrolling level. Your caped hero, the titular Bomb Jack, is confined within a box. There are five stages in the game, each one set against a historic architecture like the Sphinx and the Acropolis.
The story is that some big bad–whom we never actually see–set up bombs in these sites. The goal is to collect all the bombs on the screen, all while dodging mummies and birds who are presumably very angry.
Ever wonder how the Sphinx lost its nose?
Aside from its unique level design, Bomb Jack stands apart from fellow platformers because of his movement style of choice. Our hero doesn’t just jump over enemies. He makes good use of his cape by flying and doing controlled glides. Confined in a tighter area, this makes play feel more frantic as you zig and zag onto platforms and between enemies.
If you’re looking for a retro platformer that predates even Super Mario Bros, then hop onto Jump Bug. Released in 1981 under publisher Sega, it’s one of the first games to use horizontal and vertical scrolling smoothly. It also made use of some parallax scrolling to give the stages the illusion of scale.
The game puts players behind the wheel of a cute red Volkswagen Beetle. Instead of moving like a normal vehicle, it bounces around like a pogo stick. Colourful levels take you through strange, 8-bit landscapes. One level takes place underwater. Another has you zooming through the sky.
Defying the laws of automotive engineering since 1981
Complete disregard of the physics of cars aside, Jump Bug saw moderate success upon release. It tied with shooter Scramble–regarded as Konami’s first global hit–as the 14th highest grossing game in 1981.
What do you get when you put a hero in red, monkeys, roller coasters, and a damsel-in-distress together? Nope, not a Donkey Kong Roller Coaster Tycoon expansion. You get Jump Coaster, a 1983 platformer released by Kaneko.
Jump Coaster may be absurd in general, yet what really makes it great fun to play is the kooky level design. Players aren’t just jumping from platform to platform to avoid enemies. Enemies are swooping left to right, up and down, and loop-de-looping around the stage trying to get to you.
It’s enough to make you go loopy!
If you’re thinking the most important objective is to save the princess, you’d be wrong. Before swooping in to save the day, players have to pick up money bags scattered around the platforms. Guards who chase after the hero make collection trickier, as you have to dodge simians bearing down on carts while other enemies nip at your heels.
There’s more to the platformer genre behind the shadow of Mario’s moustache. Apes on rollercoasters, mummies with bombs, and heroic cavemen promise capers that’ll have you frantically mashing the jump button for hours.