Why It’s Time For the Return Of The Mascot Platformer
by Tito W. James
Action platformer games with colorful stylized art and cartoony characters were are part of many gamers’ childhoods and teen years. However, with the rise of photo-realistic AAA games and a push to make the video game medium more cinematic, Mascot Platformers saw a decline. And yet, the recent success of games like Crash Bandicoot 4: It’s About Time, Ratchet and Clank: a Rift Apart, and Psychonauts 2 prove that there’s a possibility for a return of the Mascot Platformer.
Microsoft’s recent acquisition of Activision means that many fan-favorite platformer mascots are now ready to be updated for a new audience. Microsoft exec Phil Spencer cited Voodoo Vince as a personal favorite of his. There’s also a vibrant contemporary indie gaming space that could expand beyond metroidvanias, roguelikes, and the whole pixel art retro aesthetic. In this article I want to highlight the pros and cons of the Mascot platformer and what I’d like to see in the future.
What We Loved
The strength of mascot platformers is that they usually have a core game mechanic and then expand upon it in every level. What’s brilliant about games like Mario or Donkey Kong is that they have a simple moveset but the environments have creative variety. Mario has alternate costumes that can open up different game mechanics while Donkey Kong can interact with barrels and gismos to keep gameplay varied. In addition to running and jumping, Ratchet and Clank added an entire arsenal and Sly Cooper added stealth and thievery. Creating a compelling platformer is about keeping the core mechanics simple and the obstacles complex.
What Could Be Improved
The trailer above for Kao the Kangaroo looks like a fun game that I’ll probably play and enjoy but it’s not really adding anything new. From their inception, Mascot Platformers were intended to be like Saturday morning cartoons that were mostly game. It’s worth noting that cartoons and animated storytelling have become more sophisticated than slapstick cartoons.
If Mascot Platformers are going to transcend nostalgia and appeal to new audiences then they need to catch up or even go a step further than contemporary animation. We should have games that feel like playing a Pixar film or a good Cartoon Network show. Additionally, the cell-shaded look is growing ever more popular post-Spider-Verse and Mitchells vs the Machines. I want the video game cutscenes to have the insane energy seen in Invader Zim: Enter the Florpus or Rise of the TMNT.
Platformers saw a decline in popularity when AAA games pushed for more cinematic stories for mature audiences. There’s a space for M-rated platformers that appeal to a teen and adult audience. I feel that Conker could come back in a BIG way. The whole idea of an edgy cartoon mascot that parodies pop culture and breaks the fourth wall could strike a cord with fans of cartoons like Rick and Morty. I think Battle Toads and Voodoo Vince could strike a similar tone within a T-rating and there’s always something compelling about cartoon characters acting as they shouldn’t.
Mascot Platformers have always had their share of iconic and fun video game bosses but I feel they could be even more impressive. I want God of War 3 and Shadow of the Colossus-sized bosses! The whole level is an enemy and the only way to kill it is to solve puzzles and slay enemies really quickly.
The next wave of mascot platformers should incorporate what’s been done well in indie games and communicate truth without realism. There should be moments of meditative silence where players can just soak in the atmosphere– like a combination between the silhouette levels in Donkey Kong Country and Limbo. It’s these quiet scenes that can leave an emotional impact and allow for abstract storytelling.
Where We Can Go
We’ve had a history of great Mascot Platformers including: Psychonauts, Mario, Donkey Kong, Ratchet and Clank, Crash Bandicoot, Rayman, and Sly Cooper. But for Platform games to thrive, they must go even further than what their predecessors have accomplished. Ultimately, I would like to see a mascot platformer do what Bioshock and Portal did for First Person Shooters. I want to see the kind of revolutionary storytelling that’s happening in comics and animation applied to this next wave of video games. If game developers make these improvements, then I believe the greatest Mascot Platformer games lie ahead of us.