By Joe Delaney
As much as I appreciate how far gaming has come as an artistic medium, sometimes it’s just too much.
Sometimes I don’t want to play a game that makes me question the very concept of free will. Sometimes I don’t want to make complex moral choices where neither outcome appears to be the right choice. Sometimes I just wanna jump.
In the 80’s and 90’s, 2D platformers were the premiere genre of games. You had your Marios, your Sonics, your Mega Mans and many more.
At the turn of the millennium though, as gaming went in an increasingly grimdark direction, more focused on FPS games with brown/gray color palettes, it seemed like the age of vibrant, side-scrolling platformers had ended.
But near the end of the 2000’s, along with the rise of indie gaming, the genre got a second wind. Independent developers paid homage to classic games, and even some major studios decided it was time to return to their roots with some fantastic platformers of their own.
With this list, I’ll be ranking the best platformers released in the last decade. I won’t be listing any Metroidvanias, like Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest, nor will I honor any games that were primarily puzzle games, like Limbo or Inside. Those games are great, but I wanna focus on the pure experiences.
10. Kirby’s Epic Yarn
Some of the games higher up on this list are really damn hard. So let’s start out with a game that is the exact opposite before jumping into the ones that make you wanna smash your controllers.
Epic Yarn is by far the most relaxing game on this list, but that doesn’t mean it’s boring by any means. Its unique yarn-based art style, soothing music, and just overall cuteness make this just such a nice game to play. The world has enough horror and death, so it’s nice to play a game where you just collect gems and can’t die.
9. Yoshi’s Woolly World
Another Nintendo platformer featuring a mascot that eats his enemies with a yarn-themed aesthetic? Yeah, I’m sorry, I just couldn’t pick one for this list and leave off the other, although it was obvious which one would get the higher placement.
Woolly World gets the edge over Epic Yarn because it’s simultaneously relaxing, while also posing a decent challenge. It gives you real incentives to find its cleverly hidden collectibles, like how if you find all the yarn bundles in a level, you unlock an adorable new crocheted Yoshi. It’s still no Yoshi’s Island, but it’s by far the best Yoshi game since the SNES classic.
8. Super Mario Maker
Say what you want about the New Super Mario Bros. series. You can say that they’re bland, that they’re uninspired, that they’re all the same, that they’re represent Nintendo at their very laziest, that while it was cute to see the enemies move to the music the first time, but now it’s just obnoxious – you can say all that. But with Super Mario Maker, Nintendo is saying “Okay then, YOU make a good MARIO game.”
And you know what? Some people actually did. I won’t lie, about 99.7% of Mario Maker levels are trash, including the half dozen levels or so that I made. But those 0.3% of levels that are actually good truly rival Nintendo’s own designs from their golden age in the 80’s and 90’s. If you can wade through the sea of autoplay gimmick levels, and get used to putting in annoying codes to find good levels, you’re in for the best 2D Mario game since Super Mario World.
7. Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair
In 2017, the original Yooka-Laylee released, and the world responded with a collective “meh.” Although I haven’t played it myself, the consensus seems to be that it failed to capture the spirit of the games it was inspired by, specifically Rareware’s 3D collect-a-thon platformers from the 90’s. Because of the original game’s lukewarm response, it’s not a surprise that enthusiasm for its sequel wasn’t exactly high. And that’s a shame, because Impossible Lair is fantastic.
Turns out Playtonic games is way better at making Donkey Kong Country games than they are at making Banjo-Kazooie. Not only is Impossible Lair one of the best 2D platformers this generation, but it also does one thing better than any game on this list: it somehow makes its overworld fun. Even if you didn’t care for its predecessor, don’t sleep on this one, because it’s a completely different kind of game, and superior in every way.
6. Sonic Mania
The only good Sonic game since the Genesis era. Fight me, your Furrie weirdos.
Damn it, Celeste, what did I say in the intro? When I’m playing my jumpy games, I just wanna jump. I don’t need a story and character development to make me wanna hop over obstacles and collect stuff. Especially when your story is (like almost every other indie game) about a sad white person dealing with anxiety and self doubt. I’m a sad white person dealing with anxiety and self doubt and I don’t need that shit in my jumpy games!
Obviously I didn’t connect with the story in Celeste the way others did, but that’s ok. You can skip the cutscenes, and everything else about the game is excellent, from its soundtrack, to its atmosphere, and of course, its nearly flawless gameplay. It’s the second hardest game on this list (see #3 for the hardest) and its difficulty curve is one of the best I’ve seen. The main quest ramps up the challenge pretty consistently, but it’s the hidden stages that will really test you. I still haven’t been able to beat all the B-sides and C-sides, but I’m gonna keep on trying. The game’s depressed white hero never gives up, and neither will I!
4. Rayman Legends
If we were judging these games strictly based on creativity, Rayman Legends would be number 1, hands down. Not only does it sport the most distinctive art style of any game on this list, it also features some of the most inventive level designs, with the stand outs being the musical levels that end each world. What other game has a mariachi themed version of “Eye of the Tiger?” That’s enough to earn it Top 5 status.
3. Super Meat Boy
Here’s the game that arguably kicked off the 2D platformer renaissance way back in 2010, as well as one of the most influential indie games ever made. The most difficult game on this list, by far, Super Meat Boy demands focus and precision to survive its gory gauntlet. It’s possibly the purest distillation of platforming you can play.
You hear a lot of people call certain games “tough, but fair.” I’d say 99% of the time that’s bullshit, but Super Meat Boy absolutely fits that description. Thanks to its short levels and lack of load times, it never felt like a chore doing the same level dozens of times, because you could see yourself getting better with each run. And it all culminates in the moment you finally beat the level, and actually see all of your previous attempts playing at the same time, showing just how far you’ve come in the 71 times you tried and failed to finish that stage.
2. Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove
Each campaign in this collection (released between 2014-2019) offers something unique. The original Shovel Knight is the most simple experience, but it laid the foundation of everything that followed. Specter of Torment gives us possibly the most heartbreaking experience in the series, with a protagonist with surprising depth. King of Card not only gives us a fun and hilarious campaign, but also a bonus card game that is way more interesting that it had to be. And finally there’s Plague of Shadows, which stands out by being the one that sucks.
Even if you’ve never played the NES games that inspired it, Shovel Knight can’t be missed. It’s so much more than just a mash-up of Mega Man, Ducktales, Zelda 2, and Mario. Shovel Knight takes the best parts of classic game design, while giving it a modern sensibility that gives it an identity all its own. If every Kickstarter game turned out this good, then AAA publishers would go extinct.
1. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze
This might be heresy in the gaming community, but one of the most disappointing moments of the last decade for me was finding out that Retro Studios was working on Metroid Prime 4. Don’t get me wrong, I love Metroid, and I’m still excited for it. But it also means that Retro isn’t working on a third game in their Donkey Kong Country revival series that kicked off in 2010 with Donkey Kong Country Returns, and led to its 2014 sequel, Tropical Freeze. Which is a shame, because it’s the best 2D platformer since the 90’s.
So much has been said about the level design about this game, so I’ll keep it short: it’s super smart and has a near perfect difficulty curve. And while Rayman has the most creative art direction on this list, Tropical Freeze is easily the most beautiful. But what really sets it apart is the way DK controls. At first, his weight feels slightly off (he is, after all, a gorilla), but once it all clicks for you, you realize just how precise and dynamic the gameplay is. The “bop” mechanic, the way DK bounces off enemies, feels especially good, and it’s highlighted in the game’s most challenging stage, Bopopolis. It took me hours to master this level, and it was at this point in the game that everything fell into place for me, and I realized it was a masterpiece.
Along with being the best, this is sadly the most underrated game on this list. It didn’t sell well due to releasing on the Wii U, and even though it sold much better when it came to the Switch, I still feel like it doesn’t get the credit it deserves. But even if Retro or Nintendo never makes another DKC game, at least we know that series went out on the highest note possible.