The Quest for Good Platformer Mechanics

What should a good platformer feel like? If you wanted to you could stop and think about it for a minute, but fortunately you don’t have to because I am here today to argue that it should feel mostly like this:

A screenshot of Super Mario Bros

Pictured: What good platformers should feel like

Super Mario Bros¬†was not the first platform game ever released, but it is probably the most important. It is the bedrock on which the contemporary ‘platformer’ genre is founded; it is the thing that made Shigeru Miyamoto a household name, and the key component in Nintendo’s magical money-printing machine. But enough navel-gazing: What exactly is so special about Super Mario Bros? What makes it work?

You may be familiar with Tim Rogers. He is a game designer and possible crazy person who writes multi-thousand word essays on Kotaku as well as the excellent Action Button Dot Net. And, in one of his Kotaku pieces, he succinctly explains (which is rare for him) the secret to Mario’s success:

If you asked a space alien from the future to play Super Mario Bros., and then play any of the other side-scrolling platform games of that era, and then report back to you with one sentence on what he perceived as the major difference between the two, he would speak gibberish into his auto-translator, and it would output a little piece of ticker-tape with the words “STICKY FRICTION” printed on it. It is the inertia of Mario’s run that endeared him to us. It didn’t have anything to do with brand strength or graphic design. Those things were secondary. It was all about the inertia, the acceleration, the to-a-halt-screeching when you change direction. You can feel the weight of the character. People never put these feelings into words when talking about games, though they really, really are everything.

Friction, for our purposes, is more than a Newtonian coefficient or counter-force; it’s an aesthetic. It’s the way things move relative to one another and how players interpret that movement to construct their understanding of the game world. When Rogers speaks of inertia, he refers to the way virtual pixels on a screen can gain real mass, movement and livelihood through their dynamics (that is, the manner in which they change). Super Mario Bros does not need high-quality sound effects or 32-bit colour to convey itself to us. It does not need a rumble pack or a motion sensor. We grow to understand it with each of Mario’s steps, leaps and falls.

I thought a lot about this as I first started developing the platformer-ish aspect of my portfolio. Frankly, it scared me a little. I wasn’t quite sure how I wanted the movement to work, but I knew that if the friction didn’t feel right the whole thing would seem cheap and flimsy. And so I started coding. I gave myself a few simple parameters to tweak, then a few more complicated ones. I wondered what would happen if the character could jump or climb stairs and ramps; perhaps if my dude felt good to control in a real Mario level it would also feel good running side-to-side through a less elaborate virtual campus? I followed this rabbit hole down into collision detection systems, the Box2D API, and ultimately a rather complicated software solution. I’ve put it here for you to play around with and, if you like, download and use for your own purposes.

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