Once upon a time, the platformer was king.
Each of the three console heavyweights of the 1990s – Nintendo, Sony and Sega - used a platforming hero as their mascot, a recognisable face that could appeal to new gamers in what was then a rapidly growing market. Mario, Crash and Sonic are all still universally recognisable today, though only Mario remains the ‘face’ of his company, with Crash only recently revived following more than a decade in the doldrums and Sonic becoming somewhat fragmented as a property following Sega’s withdrawal from the console market since the Dreamcast's failure.
The genre isn’t dead, but it is nowhere near as popular as it once was, eclipsed by the likes of sports games and first-person shooters, with the most acclaimed platformers being small independent games that hark back to the classics of yesteryear. More common in the contemporary gaming landscape are action/adventure games such as the Uncharted and Assassin’s Creed series, which blend the jumping and climbing elements of platforming with action, puzzles and RPG elements.
As a result of this, many once-recognisable characters and series have now drifted into obscurity. Ratchet & Clank are back for another adventure after more than five years away in the recently released Rift Apart, but the majority of their counterparts seem consigned to history. Let’s fondly remember some of them!
Rare are one of the many, many, many examples of innovative and groundbreaking teams of game developers being bought up and ground down by an industry giant. Unlike most, they still exist today, having been maintained as a subsidiary by Microsoft following a 2002 acquisition, but the fall from grace they’ve undergone since their 1990s heyday has been significant.
That decade saw them make their bones with the Donkey Kong Country trilogy on SNES consoles, resulting in an exclusive partnership with Nintendo that led to the creation of some of the best games on the Nintendo 64, including GoldenEye and Perfect Dark. Another jewel in their crown was Banjo-Kazooie and its follow-up, Banjo Tooie, which stood out enough for their solidity, creativity and soundtracks to challenge Mario’s chokehold of the platforming genre on the console.
Microsoft did not capitalise on their acquisition until 2008, by which time Banjo's appeal had dwindled. Nuts & Bolts was a solid enough game, but its construction-focused mechanics polarised audiences and it struggled to sell, with the bear and bird’s only appearance since (outside of an eyebrow-raising turn as DLC characters in Super Smash Bros Ultimate) being in the Rare Replay collection of remakes.
Yooka-Laylee, a spiritual successor of sorts, was released on the PS4 in 2017 by several of the original development team following a Kickstarter campaign. Attracting criticism despite an authentic 90s feel, its lack of success is indicative of how the genre has moved on.