Back with a bang

It goes without saying that 2D gaming didn’t suffer much of an exile on Nintendo’s handhelds, including the DS. The Game Boy Advance and DS both continued to serve up consistent doses of 2D platforming and sidescrolling action while the home consoles mainly focussed on 3D experiences. With the DS, one release had a particularly significant impact. New Super Mario Bros., released in the summer of 2006, brought a blend of classic Mario platforming with modern graphical touches. Often regarded as a 2.5D Mario title, Shigero Miyamoto has referred to this release bringing Mario back to his roots. In the Super Mario History 25th Anniversary booklet, Takashi Tezuka explains how it brought different generations together within Nintendo, an impact that seems to have been shared with gamers:

You could almost call this a collaboration between the old guard and the younger staff at Nintendo. I hope players get that old-school Mario feeling playing this game.

It looks like players did get that old-school feeling, and enjoyed it. Combine that with the polished, and simple, gameplay, this title enjoyed enormous commercial success; with 22.5 million units sold it's the biggest-selling DS game, and still selling at full retail price in most stores. We’d like to be mischievous and suggest that this set brains whirring with dollar signs in Nintendo HQ, with the Wii set to become the new home of 2D gaming.

In September 2008, Wii owners with some purchasing savvy may have picked up Wario Land: The Shake Dimension (aka Wario Land: Shake It), a platformer with sublime hand-drawn visuals and an abundance of charm. That was a start, but the big one was coming: New Super Mario Bros. Wii. Released in November 2009 the game became a major selling point for the Wii. We’re not claiming that this title is behind the commercial success of the Wii, but it gave it a very welcome bump in sales; so much so that it even got bundled with the console in special anniversary editions. Almost matching sales of the DS entry and surpassing the sales figures of the Super Mario Galaxy games, the fact that it arrived a few years after the DS title suggests a correlation between the successful launch of that title, and the decision to develop a successor on Wii.

A key development, and a feature that in our view has helped bring 2D platforming back to mainstream gaming, was co-op play. In New Super Mario Bros. Wii this co-op play was at its most manic, with players able to directly interact with each other; it was fun, crazy and utterly mad gaming when four players all jumped in. This title, and the co-op option, opened the door for a wide variety of gamers, fitting nicely with the ethos of the Wii. It’s commonly known that everyone from Wii grandparents to young children have played this title together. It was a welcome bonus, meanwhile, for veteran gamers to see that the one-player challenge was there in full force; the challenge of collecting each star coin in every level is reserved for those with the required skills.

2D platforming, in fact, has become a staple of the Wii in its later years. Donkey Kong Country Returns was a relentlessly challenging return to form for good ol’ DK, with some nice implementation of barrel blasting into the background. Even with perspective changes, it still came down to running left and right, jumping over pits and bopping enemies. Kirby’s Epic Yarn was an altogether gentler affair, with a slower tempo and an inability to die, though stronger players could pursue precious beads to gain medals. A common feature in both of these games is co-op game play, a feature that is likely to continue in Nintendo’s future platforming entries. Even as the Wii bids its farewell, Ninty has found time for one more platformer: Kirby Returns to Dreamland will support multiplayer co-op, and looks to be a continuation of more traditional Kirby action.

The Wii has also seen plenty of third party entries that fit into these retro 2D stylings. To name a few, A Boy and His Blob and A Shadow’s Tale are fairly standard puzzle-platformers, while Muramasa: The Demon Blade is a 2D hack-and-slash with gorgeous hand-drawn backgrounds and elements of back-tracking and exploration. It's WiiWare that's truly become a home for this retro genre, however: some of the NES classics listed earlier have been faithfully recreated, making the old, new once again. Mega Man 9 and Mega Man 10 play in almost exactly the same way as their ancestors, while Konami weighed in with their 'Rebirth' series, which included Castlevania and Contra. We’ve seen innovative use of the Wii Remote in the Lostwinds titles and NyxQuest: Kindred Spirits, while indie release Cave Story earned rave reviews.

What is it about these kind of games that gives them their appeal, and what role will they have on the Wii U and 3DS?