One of the most common refrains being espoused by people discussing Fez online is that the “fake retro 8-bit” style of games is growing long in the tooth. That strikes me as a limiting and narrow-minded perspective; Fez’s aesthetic is a deliberate stylistic choice that required a fair amount of artistry — the game excellently depicts things like frogs with remarkable minimalism! — and it serves a functional purpose as well by helping enable the game’s optical-illusion-based core mechanic. Sure, lots of games have mishandled the faux-8-bit look, but when it’s used well (as it is in Fez), it becomes as a valid a visual style as the high-poly-count, four-rendering-pass “realism” of AAA shooters, which, incidentally, will look painfully dated five years from now. At least the pseudo-classic look front-loads its visual obsolescence.
Most importantly, Fez’s throwback style helps communicate the relatively simple nature of the game mechanics, which makes it not only a viable look but an appropriate one, too. It serves as a sort of graphical shorthand to clue viewers in to the fact that it’s not a complicated, cumbersome-to-play contemporary game but rather one that hearkens back to a simpler age. And it’s only one of many recent and upcoming games to look back to these more straightforward play mechanics. As anyone who spent a little time on the show floor at PAX East can attest, the 2D platformer is undergoing a revival of sorts. Liberated from the “handheld ghetto,” where most self-proclaimed hardcore gamers will turn their nose up at any game regardless of its excellence, the side-scrolling run-and-jump game has set up camp in the indie game space of consoles and PCs. The genre never died; it merely needed a safe place to live, where gamers’ obsession with a visual bang for their gaming buck doesn’t overshadow the quality of the software itself.
Like the “dated” visuals that often accompany them, 2D platformers are simply another take on game design. Their sudden resurgence, I think, has less to do with nostalgia or an obsession with the past than it does a growing realization that simpler games aren’t necessarily worse games — that a pick-up-and-play experience with no need for tutorials and lengthy narrative setups and on-screen prompts for contextual actions can at times be far more satisfying than a laboriously crafted, immersive, 3D world crafted by hundreds of people rather than a handful of them. This shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to anyone who’s paying attention; Nintendo has made a killing with its New Super Mario Bros. games, which offer precisely this. Their success isn’t fueled by Mario affection alone or else the Super Mario Galaxy titles would be equally successful. There’s an intrinsic value to this style of game — a different value than larger productions, definitely, but no less legitimate.
Below are nearly a dozen interesting, inventive, and worthwhile 2D platformers that every serious gamer should be watching for in the coming months. And since they’re indie or download-only games, you should be able to pick up the entire set for the cost of two blockbuster retail releases. And with these, you don’t have to worry about being ripped off by on-disc DLC. Let’s hear it for the old ways.
Polytron | Xbox 360
Polytron’s Fez is a 2D platformer in spirit if not in appearance. The XBLA game’s been in the works for a dog’s age — we first reported on it in 2008 — and in that time, it’s been beaten to the market by several games with a similar gimmick of visually compressing space and transforming optical illusions into viable play spaces. But Fez takes this concept further than Super Paper Mario, echochrome, and Crush 3D, and it builds uniquely evocative atmospheres with its low-tension game mechanics, somber soundtrack, and enigmatic world. And while it’s ultimately a puzzle game by nature, Fez’s puzzle mechanics are less upfront than most games of its type. The riddles are more cryptic and better integrated into the stage designs—worth a look.
Arkedo/Sega | Xbox 360/PS3
When I played Hell Yeah! At PAX East last week, I was stuck — smitten, really — by its spiritual similarity to Game Freak’s cult GBA classic Drill Dozer. It turns out that’s because the game’s creators were, in turn, smitten by Drill Dozer themselves. While its hyperactive art style and gross-out factor can come off as a bit of a try-hard Jhonen Vasquez rip-off, the play mechanics are equally fast-paced. The progressive in-level advancement turns each stage into an exciting puzzle of sorts, and the presence of 100 unique enemies should keep things varied. The developers understand the proper use of the word “unique”, and those 100 foes only appear once apiece, and each requires different tactics (and a special WarioWare-inspired minigame) to defeat. Fun to play and grammatically sound? A real gem.