Where is the Precision in Platformers?
It's alright when controls are tight.
I’ve gotten further than I ever had in Ratchet & Clank. I’m on Planet Oltanis and I made my way through the various light guards, sentry robots, and machine gun turrets. It hasn’t been easy, with Clank not available for this level. I lack a lot of the various platforming upgrades I’ve acquired through my playthrough. However, I’m here, and the shiny bright aura surrounding my prize is in my sights. All that remains are some floating platforms with slingshot orbs above them. I grapple onto the first one. No problem. The next one is easy to reach as well after waiting for it to be in line. I grapple onto the third and final orb. It pulls me in. I drop down. I land on the floating platform. Something’s wrong. I’m stuck in the falling animation.
I’m on the platform but I can’t move, aside from slowly spinning Ratchet around. I’m stuck this way for about a minute, which is the right amount of time for me to get as frustrated as a severe claustrophobic in a walk-in closet when finally Ratchet lands. Then he just slips off the platform to his doom and into the abyss. This happens to me four more times until I finally quit in an agitated rage. What the what, man?
Unfortunately, this is an occurrence that has been happening with platformers since the genre started moving toward the third dimension. From Banjo-Kazooie to Jak and Daxter, the move away from sprites seems to have affected the precision of the genre. When it comes to the precision that platforming requires, I have trouble finding the actual issue aside from superficial ones. For instance, since 3-D allows for more diverse landscapes, many platforms and separate places of land are no longer rigid cliffs and are more organic with rounder surfaces. With this being the case, it is more likely that a character will slip off a seemingly solid place to land, since it actually lacks the structural integrity to firmly plant yourself in that spot. There's also the increased abundance of inclined planes. I would argue that due to the lack of pinpoint pixel planes and platforms like those in 2-D games, many 3-D games wind up having small patches of invisible walls in places you would need to jump to, meaning that what would be barely making it in Sonic the Hedgehog 3 isn’t close enough in Spyro the Dragon.
A great deal of the problems seem to be coming from the controls. It's one thing (among many) that Mario always gets right. When you want Mario to stop, he stops. If you run and stop, he’ll slide a bit as he stops, which makes sense. If you run and jump and pull in the opposite direction, he’ll stop where he lands; maybe even go backwards a bit. Accidently running off a cliff doesn’t happen much because you have complete control of the plumber. The controls are so tight and so precise it’s as if there’s this red flag in your head that subconsciously pushes you back when you’re about to run off the ledge. When you don’t make a jump and fall to your death, it’s your fault. It is your error in judgment. You just miscalculated the distance of the jump.
However, when I jump from platform to platform in Ratchet & Clank, I find myself overusing Clank’s Heli-pack and later the Thruster-pack to slowly descend onto a platform, just so I can be sure that I land directly on it. When you want Ratchet to stop, he moves a step or two more before actually stopping. Sure, there’s more control in the speed of his movements thanks to the use of the analog stick, and that’s a welcome change from the older 16-bit games, but the more realistic delay between the release of the analog stick and the complete stop of the character on screen can cause more problems than the technological prowess it shows off. This is not to say that this kind of control method is inferior to the pixel perfect method of yore. It’s merely different, and that difference is not well represented or contrasted in 3-D platformers.
Of course, there are exceptions to the rule. One that comes to mind is Psychonauts, which does suffer from this problem, but to a lesser degree. At least when Raz misses a jump that should’ve been close enough, the ability to grab onto the ledge of a platform feels more reliable than in other games. Although I seem to be using Ratchet & Clank as my main example, I am mostly referring to the first game; later installments fixed these problems and refined the controls, especially Tools of Destruction. Sly Cooper 2 is one of my favorite games ever and one of the main reasons is its great control and precise platforming. Of course, Mario has brought his precise controls along to his 3-D games and Super Mario Galaxy is no exception.
A platformer for the SNES based on The Wizard of Oz is a great example of the other side of the coin, where the use of 2-D sprites doesn’t seem to save it from having such bad precision in its jumping that it appears to be nonexistent. Aero the Acrobat lacks the sense of control needed for a platformer with speed being a main component à la Sonic. Bubsy is another game that comes to mind that has relatively poor controls. You basically flail around the stage, jumping and hopping, hoping you land on something that’s not going to hurt you so you can get to the end of the level in one piece.
In summation, I don’t dislike these games. Spyro the Dragon 1 and 2 (3 not so much) are games I hold dear to my childhood and I’ve always felt the strength of Ratchet & Clank was in the weapons. Similarly, I enjoy Bubsy 1 and 2 (again, 3 not so much but who does) and their crazy turnstile approach to the series. Still, I see it as a problem when platforming in a majority of platform games is less than accurate. I would expect somewhat loose mechanics in an action game, such as Tomb Raider or Uncharted. These are games that strive for realism and human error is believable for this style. However, realism should go out the window when your main character is a pre-pubescent psychic, or a purple dragon, or a bear named after a five-stringed instrument.