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Opinion

The Prince, The Assassin And The Thief: Have We Lost The Action-Platformer?

Sands of a simpler time.

It’s not everyday I make the active choice to crouch down, yank the power cord from my PlayStation 4 and jab it into the identical socket of its much older brother. However, even with the plethora of games clogging up my current-gen backlog, there’s a certain allure to going back one step in time and taking a pop at those PS3 titles that have barely made it off the shelf and into the disc tray.

Although tempted to recite “eeny, meeny, miny, moe” as my finger scraped the spine of countless unloved games, it stopped immediately at one in particular; the Prince of Persia Trilogy remastered in HD. I remember demanding a copy several Christmases ago, when the HD Classics trend had only just started. Yet with just ten or fifteen minutes of The Sands of Time played, I popped the disc back out and convinced myself I’d come back to it another day. Years later, that day finally came a few weeks ago when I decided to bite the bullet and play through the Prince’s iconic outing from start to finish. In short, it was an eye-opening trip down memory lane.

ActionPlat-POP

Back in the early days of the PlayStation 2, things were so much simpler. You could expect to dish out thirty to forty quid for the hottest new releases, some of them only clocking in at 6-7 hours in terms of actual playable ‘content’. If a game were to do that today we’d all be up in arms (just look at The Order 1886) yet back then it was the norm for many games, and that was totally okay.

There was no pre-order campaign for the Sands of Time, no post-launch DLC plan, no bolt-on multiplayer, no day one patch and no mobile companion app. Of course, this can be said of just about any game that released during the glory days of the PlayStation 2, but you simply got whatever came in the box.

What I found more interesting about Sands of Time is how this kind of game is now so rare to see on major gaming platforms (excluding the Wii U of course). Although the term action-platformer can still be applied to many of today’s big releases, a lot of its meaning seems to have been lost over the years.

Indeed, many of the developers that presided over this heyday of the action-platformer have moved on to other genres, even as you can see some of the roots of their PlayStation 2 era output in the background. Ubisoft Montreal, though a monolithic studio with several game series under its purview, spent years at the helm of the Assassin’s Creed franchise, which could be seen as something of a spiritual successor to the Prince of Persia. Yet, each time we strap ourselves into the Animus, we’re confronted with free roam systems, boats, faster and more fluid combat, and exercises in world building that take centre stage as the platforming is marginalised.

ActionPlat-ACS

Though also moving to an open world format, the ties back to Sucker Punch’s Sly Racoon series can be more clearly seen in inFamous and the manner in which you move around the world – the first inFamous game even included distinct platforming sections underground, if you remember. Yet even by the time Naughty Dog released the first of their Uncharted series, their output was almost unrecognisable, with a much greater focus on story, characters and action, with the platforming relatively removed from that seen in The Sands of Time or other genre classics.

It used to be a core game feature, with players spending just as much, if not more, time leaping and wall running as they did in combat. There’s a great deal of complexity in the Prince’s approach to navigation and traversal, both of which become entwined with the game’s clever puzzle-solving.

What’s more, when swinging from poles and timing wall-jumps, there’s a genuine sense of peril to be found in Sands of Time, albeit one with the novel ability to rewind your mistakes using the eponymous sands. Whatever platforming section you happen to come across, there’s a sense of build up. Fumble the controller or mistime an action and you’ll fall, potentially losing minutes of progress – unless, of course, you tap into the game’s time-bending mechanics, and reverse the error.

In Uncharted, and so many of its contemporaries, this hardcore approach to platforming has been streamlined and dumbed down, with the industry finding itself homogenised under the all encompassing action-adventure genre. Whether leaping from a cargo plane in mid-flight or scaling a mountainous cavern, it all feels far too automated. Everything is mapped to one button with every ledge, handhold, and jump clearly signposted. As cinematic as many of these sequences are, there’s no genuine sense of reward.

ActionPlat-UC3

However, this does beg the question as to whether people actually want this traditional kind of challenging platform game anymore? The answer is quite clearly yes, despite how many of us are content to breeze through blockbuster hybrids such as Uncharted or Tomb Raider, which in and of itself has changed drastically compared to fifteen years ago.

The platformer genre as a whole, whether mixed in with combat or the purity of leaping from one platform to another, is in rude health. Nintendo – who else? – have brought several excellent platformers to the table, from Mario to Donkey Kong Country and Yoshi, Yooka-Laylee looks to revive the “collectathon” sub-genre and there have been inventive takes on the genre with the likes of Ronin, Axiom Verge and Towerfall. On top of all that, Insomniac Games have persisted throughout with their Ratchet & Clank series, and next year marks its reboot and debut on PS4, while Mirror’s Edge Catalyst will, just as in the original, try to challenge gamers’ perceptions of the genre.

Ultimately, we can’t rewind time to the days when action-platformers were in their prime, let alone the days before DLC and pre-order bonuses. While many of the genre’s stalwarts have taken their craft in a different direction, there are still some exciting games to look forward to and enjoy for fans of the action-platformer. They’re different, they can experiment with new ideas and come from developers of all sizes, but the genre in its purer sense does still live on.

16 Comments
  1. Avenger
    Member
    Since: Oct 2012

    I’ve never played Prince of Persia before, but I enjoyed how Mirrors Edge did more than the simple ‘press X to climb’, and gave a fluid sense of running and climbing.

    Interestingly I remember getting frustrated at the old Tomb Raider games trying to navigate ledges, but nowadays it all feels scripted and rarely will it be game over due to a wrong jump from one ledge to another. I think, though, it’s all done for more accessibility, and in some cases like Uncharted for better spectacle.

    Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 10:25.
  2. Starman
    Member
    Since: Jul 2011

    Not having to time the jump button presses makes modern platforming sections feel like an intermission before the next shooting section. On the old style the jumping sections were as much a challenge as any other part of the game.

    I think part of the problem & reason for them being made easier is judging gaps is harder with the open, 3d games than it was with the old side on platformers.

    Nice article btw.

    Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 10:44.
  3. Dan Jones
    Member
    Since: May 2010

    The sands of time and warrior within were both fantastic games, and I do feel like we have lost that genre. Nothing has really come close in the last few years (not including the forgotten sands), maybe perhaps Castlevania and Enslaved but the platforming didn’t really take center stage in them. I would there to be a new Prince of Persia as I’m finding the Assassin’s Creed series becoming a little stale now. Most games are just too easy now.

    Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 11:08.
    • Dan Jones
      Member
      Since: May 2010

      Forgot to mention Mirror’s Edge. I can 100% see Catalyst being more focused on shooting than traversing the environment.

      Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 11:10.
      • Stefan L
        Community Team
        Since: May 2009

        They’ve said you can’t pick up guns in Catalyst.

        Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 11:24.
      • Dan Jones
        Member
        Since: May 2010

        I’ve been avoiding everything about it, my bad!

        Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 11:34.
  4. Tuffcub
    On the naughty step.
    Since: Dec 2008

    Not being able to jump is a weird in modern games. You can’t in Killzone, you can’t in Alien: Isolation, you can’t in Metro Redux. When did the human race lose the ability to do a little skip? Obviously it happens at some point in the future..

    Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 11:19.
    • cam_manutd
      Member
      Since: May 2010

      You can in Killzone?

      Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 11:43.
      • NicholasHeathfield
        Member
        Since: Apr 2015

        Not in Killzone 1, I think.

        Comment posted on 02/08/2015 at 17:01.
  5. bunimomike
    Member
    Since: Jul 2009

    I think it’s (also) to do with the progression of the game and the story itself. As title after title raced furiously towards the amorphous blob of the mundane, something had to “give”. Thankfully, stories in games are being pushed far, far harder with many a title even if many of them are staggeringly unmemorable. I guess it also couples with the fact that a disproportionate number of gamers don’t finish the games and maybe it’s more about the journey than the difficulty.

    If you ask me, I can’t help but think things could be tightened up on the difficulty front so that someone choosing “Hard” gets not only the smarter, better armoured grunts to mow down but also shorter times to perfect a jump or less clues with how to do something.

    Frustratingly, that all takes (developer) time and I guess they’re not including it these days. Bit of a shame as Sands of Time was very enjoyable. Then again, I can barely remember any of it, whereas, I can recall plenty from the Uncharted series.

    Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 12:38.
    • bunimomike
      Member
      Since: Jul 2009

      Also, excellent topic and a great article.

      Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 12:39.
  6. JR.
    Member
    Since: Apr 2013

    My first PoP game was the 2008 reboot and I absolutely loved it. I hadn’t played any of the PS2 games at that point so when the HD trilogy was released, I bought it day one. I put the disc in and loaded up Sands of Time and… I hated it. I hated everything about it. How dated it looked and how ancient the gameplay was. I abandoned the trilogy for a few months but decided to go back and give it another chance. I played a couple of hours and once I looked past the graphics and re-learned the old school gameplay mechanics, I was hooked. I breezed through the whole trilogy in a few days and even went on to pre-order The forgotten Sands on the PS3. I’ve been waiting with anticipation for the next title in the series to be announced ever since. Part of me is still hoping for a sequel to the 2008 game but it probably wont happen now which is a shame. I loved that game.

    I think Little Big Planet is probably one of the last platformers I played, that I can think of. There’s Ratchet and Clank but I’d class that as more of an action/plaformer really. The Lego games and God of War have some platforming in them. I’ve recently been playing the God of War 3 Remaster and it has some great platforming sections.

    I think as gaming has become more mainstream and shooters have become insanely popular, making a profit has taken priority over anything else. Why focus you’re efforts on making a challenging platformer that only a small percentage of the overall gaming community will bother to play, when you can make shooter or a cinematic action adventure that will sell millions.

    Could it be that platformers are just too difficult and or frustrating for casual gamers? One huge difference between modern games and games from the PS1/PS2 era, aside from looks, is the level of challenge. We’re so used to having regular checkpoints and autosaves in modern games that there really isn’t any challenge at all (unless you play on an ‘oldschool’ difficulty). If you die, you just start exactly where you left off. Back in the days of the PS1/PS2, if you died, you often lost a good 15-30 minutes of progress. It was annoying as hell but it was also extremely rewarding when you did get through a particularly tough section. By removing the risk, you lessen the reward. You’re pretty much just going through the motions.

    That’s one of the reasons I loved Alien Isolation last year. Having manual save points really upped the tension and it was the first time in a long time that a game had such an impact on me. I wouldn’t want every game to be rage inducingly difficult but I wouldn’t like to see challenging games completely disappear either. It’s refreshing to play something that tests your skills every now and again.

    Went a bit off topic there.

    Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 14:00.
    • Jim Hargreaves
      Member
      Since: Nov 2009

      Prince of Persia (2008) was a sensational game and one that shows that you don’t have to make platforming challenging to get it “right”.

      Comment posted on 31/07/2015 at 18:11.
  7. Pitcher-T
    Member
    Since: Jan 2009

    Excellent article, top stuff again from TSA.

    I feel like others, this has been dumbed down to ensure the game appeals to as wide an audience as possible. Gaming has become much more popular these days and the studios know it. So whilst we get hardcore games such as bloodborne (which admittedly did well despite this) more games are moving towards more accessible gameplay.
    Not that there’s anything wrong with it, but the jumping between platform to platform has got a bit stale in my opinion. It’ll no doubt make a come back in a few years but for now I’m quite content with the style of gaming.

    Comment posted on 01/08/2015 at 13:04.
  8. jayboy31
    Member
    Since: Feb 2009

    You’re right, there isn’t a lot of peril in games these days but as i’ve got older, i’ve got worse at games, so even the simplest of games now are quite perilous :)

    Comment posted on 02/08/2015 at 05:44.
  9. NicholasHeathfield
    Member
    Since: Apr 2015

    POP:SOT was terrific with the platform puzzle challenges. The only trouble with it is that I suffered Er, Where Am I Supposed To Go Now syndrome, especially when loading the game weeks after last playing it. Unfortunately because of that, I’ve never completed it. I suppose I should have looked up a walkthrough.

    Comment posted on 02/08/2015 at 17:03.

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