the crunchy platformer

the other day, i started up penny’s big breakaway, which i’ve been excited to try out since reading a batch of reviews that said “cool mechanics, uneven execution.” i’ve found myself interested this past year in platformers with a notably strange, slightly alienating feel: i played gurumin on the 3ds, where the low framerate makes the already-wobbly gameplay feel even more unstable and the homing attack requires the player to momentarily cede control of the character; and i played sylvie lime, which is built entirely and expertly around movement systems that are purpose-built to perplex.

something about these games feels crunchy. in contrast to the buttery polish of a modern mario, these games try new and interesting things with their mechanics and controls, and feel very textured as a result. occasionally the texture can be off-putting - frogun, an extremely crunchy platformer, has a massive difficulty spike partway through and i suspect a lot of players fall off the game as a result. but i find myself drawn to the crunchiness, the feeling that the developers are consciously prioritizing A Cool Idea over the more granular moment-to-moment gamefeel.

thinking about this got me curious to play and hear about other possible examples of the form. are there any crunchy platformers that you like? what defines their crunchiness?

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I’m stretching the definition of platformer here but Rain World definitely prioritizes a cool idea over accessibility. The movement system feels weird at first and might put you off but it can be mastered quite naturally if you take the time to struggle through the initial awkwardness. So it’s not just jank, but has a design idea behind it.

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I feel like the ZX Spectrum is home to many crunchy platformers, but the one for me is the obvious one: Jet Set Willy. I love Jet Set Willy but I think I would describe it as crunchy. The jump sucks, which is fine, but also the game demands unreasonable precision. Every time you jump the game plays a clicky scale of notes, and if you’re lucky enough to have music, that also sounds more or less like aluminum foil.

But none of that really matters because Jet Set Willy is about exploring a surreal house(?) and its surroundings. They are populated with floating razor blades and microchips and ice cream that all want to kill you. The house has a cathedral and a wine cellar and an orchard. One room is just called “The Nightmare Room” where you temporarily turn into a flying pig. Just past the drive is the base of the MegaTree, and past that is a liquor store. And it goes on and on. It’s a game that really provokes my imagination, despite being an impossible game made for aliens and young British school children growing up in the crucible of the Thatcher years.

Its reminds me as much of Resident Evil as it does Dark Souls 2 as it does Takeshi’s Challenge. Really great, terrible platformer. It demands you explore a place, but it doesn’t facilitate that exploration.

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Thanks, appreciate you trying it out! Hope you have fun with the game

Lately I’ve been playing a bunch of random stuff. Sandra no Daibouken for Super Famicom and Coca Cola Kid for Game Gear are some retro ones that have interesting controls.

I also am a big fan of the Toree series, which are more recent indie titles. They are quick, punchy, and make their statement without being too high concept. I also really liked Pseudoregalia, which I learned about from the Insert Credit 2023 GOTY episode

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we must perform a quirkafleeg

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this sold me, i want to play this immediately - even though i will probably bounce off real fast. this sounds extremely cool!

i like those games! i feel like the free-roaming sections in the second one land pretty close to what i was thinking wrt crunchiness - those mechanics feel really great for a linear level but start to get a little weird in a more exploratory context. have you played cavern of dreams? it’s got some of that feel in it, though it’s a much slower game.

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It’s on that ol’ Internet Archive if you want an easy way to jump in: Jet Set Willy (1984)(Software Projects) : Free Borrow & Streaming : Internet Archive

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I’m sure someone can name an exception that I’m forgetting, but I think the natural state of platformers pre-Super Mario Bros was pretty dang crunchy. Even (non super) Mario Bros has some extremely specific and somewhat hard to adapt to jumping behaviour. But you can try a bunch of Atari 8-bit computer games that I would suggest qualify, like Epyx’s Jumpman series, Mountain King, and Miner 2049er to see some extremely odd jump physics. It’s not that any of these are so much unpolished as it is the idea of a platformer was still pretty unpolished.

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this makes sense to me! i think the thing that’s really appealing to me about the crunchiness is the feeling of sort of inchoate possibility. sylvie lime really threw this into relief for me, because that game is so purposefully crunchy and awkward to control but it uses those qualities in extremely precise ways, so i ended up thinking about what other platformer “rules” could be broken in similar ways…

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I’m not sure if I’ve understood the concept of the thread, but the game that came to mind for me was Flashback (or Prince of Persia, or Another World). The default movement is one step at a time, which you can switch to running by holding a button, there are three or four different jumps, you can roll, taking out your gun gives you a different moveset, and it’s all very confusing until you get used to it. Once you have it down it feels very cool, but any slip-up makes it ridiculous as your guy just slams into a wall or falls off an edge or otherwise doesn’t do what you want. I fired it up again this evening to remind myself and I’m stuck at the start of level two because I can’t figure out how to do a running jump off an edge and grab onto a higher ledge across a gap. Gonna have to dig the manual out.

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I think I might not have read this manual before - I played this game as a kid at other people’s houses and via piracy, and the ex-rental copy I have now is pretty grody:

But I really like these little diagrams. Looks like Conrad should do the jump I can’t get him to do automatically if he’s running. Me trying to do it manually must have been messing it up.

There’s like five pages of these. I miss manuals.

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no this totally applies! i should replay another world, i picked up the remaster a few years ago and got to what i think was the final scene and just got tired of wrestling with it… but it was a really cool experience. i do love how ambitious and complex the moveset is, that makes clearing one of the setpieces feel incredible. seeing it all laid out in the manual is so cool - there’s so much flexibility there!