Who Needs a Gamepad? We Have the Best of PC Platformers
The console is, justifiably so, the home of the 2D platformer, largely thanks to its native control scheme, the gamepad. It’s no surprise that the genre has always flourished on consoles, particularly in the early to mid-1990s. But with the total dominance of Sonic and Mario, it’s easy to forget the huge influence that the desktop platformers have had on the modern platformer.
This list highlights some of the greatest platformers to grace the keyboard.
Duke Nukem I & II (Apogee Software, 1991, 1993)
There is probably no PC game character that embodies the 1990s more than the King himself, Duke Nukem. Duke took the world by storm in the FPS Duke Nukem 3D (1996), before embarking on a 15-year fall from grace. But what many people don’t realise is that Duke’s first foray in video games was a pair of great games from platformer heavyweight Apogee Software. Set in the “future” of 1997, Duke’s first adventure pit him against Dr. Proton, while the vastly improved sequel saw Duke face off against the Rigelatins, saving the world once again. And all without a babe in sight.
Dangerous Dave in the Haunted Mansion (id Software, 1991)
Dangerous Dave 2, as it was also known, was one of many fantastic PC platformers from the guys who would eventually give the gaming world Wolfenstein 3D, DOOM and Quake. In this game, our hero, Dave, parks his truck outside a haunted mansion and ventures within to rescue his brother, Delbert. Dangerous Dave and the Haunted Mansion is, to this day, one of the most enjoyable platformers I’ve ever played. Dave’s shotgun could only hold 8 rounds, requiring the player to frequently stop and reload. This simple little mechanic results in some incredibly tense moments, as the player is constantly required to juggle reloading time in-between endless waves of monsters and undead.
Abuse (Crack dot Com, 1996)
I don’t remember when I first played Abuse, nor do I remember how I even heard of the game. What I do remember is how unique and dynamic it felt when compared to every other platformer I had played. Using a mouse and keyboard control configuration, Abuse is an action-packed, fast-paced, sci-fi platformer from a time when having EA as a publisher wasn’t synonymous with a trash-fire of a game.
Gods (The Bitmap Brothers, 1991)
Gods was one of the most soul-crushingly difficult platformers I have played, and playing it recently only reinforces how far my reflexes have decayed. The graphics stand out in my memory as particularly unique, as well as the animations. The speed of animations also meant that the player needed to time their movements particularly well. Gods is one of the forgotten classics of PC platformers, from one of the underdogs of 90s game development.
Dead Cells (Motion Twin, 2018)
Release dates are a funny thing these days, and saying that Dead Cells was released in 2018 doesn’t really tell the whole story. Early access for this game began on the PC in 2017, and even in that pre-release state, I will admit that Dead Cells took my breath away. Few platformers are able to master the concept of flow like Dead Cells, and it is one of the best examples of the Metroidvania subgenre. Of all the titles on this list, Dead Cells is probably the most debatable “PC” platformer, as it was also soon released on console. However, it had its genesis on the computer, and I can think of no better modern example of the desktop’s contribution to this genre.
Jazz Jackrabbit (Epic MegaGames, 1994)
Today, Epic Games is mostly associated with Fortnite and a controversial launcher, but they once had a key role in championing the 2D platformer on the PC. Released at the height of the platformer craze on the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis/Mega Drive, Jazz Jackrabbit could easily give Sonic and Mario a run for their money. Fast, imaginative levels, a memorable protagonist, and challenging enemies, Jazz Jackrabbit launched the career of game designer Cliff Bleszinski, the principal creative force behind Epic Games’ Unreal and Gears of War series.
Commander Keen in Goodbye, Galaxy! (id Software, 1991)
If the PC had a mascot on par with Sega’s Sonic and Nintendo’s Mario, it would surely be Commander Keen. Armed with his pogo stick and blaster, this eight-year-old hero starred in several very successful early-90s platformers from the guys behind DOOM. Technologically, the Commander Keen series was impressive in that it was able to take advantage of processing capabilities not available on the consoles of the time. Goodbye, Galaxy! is the pinnacle of the series, and features a huge, non-linear world with diverse levels filled with secrets and endless paths to victory.
Prince of Persia (Brøderbund, 1989)
One of the godfathers of computer platformers, Prince of Persia first appeared on the Apple II before making the jump to other desktop systems like MS-DOS, Amiga and Atari ST. This motion-captured platformer gave birth to the cinematic platformer, a subgenre with a focus on realism of animation, and went on to influence many great platformers like Another World, Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee and LIMBO. Prince of Persia’s legacy has cast a long shadow over gaming history; the game has seen multiple ports, sequels, and even a film.
Flashback (Delphine Software International, 1992)
Delphine Software followed up their previous game, Another World, with a similarly-rotoscoped cinematic platformer, Flashback. Flashback’s visual style was less-distinct than that of Another World, but equally beautiful. The plot was more developed and approachable than its predecessor, and aside from a little clunkiness, the gameplay still holds up well today. The DNA of Flashback can readily be found in later cinematic platformers like the much more irreverent Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee, and like its predecessor, I recommend Flashback as essential education in the history of platformers.
Another World (Delphine Software International, 1991)
Not long after Prince of Persia took the humble platformer in an entirely new direction, French developer Delphine Software doubled-down, releasing what could be considered a truly “art house” game. The visual style was simple, yet striking, and featured the familiar rotoscoped animation that Prince of Persia had pioneered. Another World felt like a bold step forward for the industry, and it was an important step in helping games garner respect as an art form, rather than just simple entertainment.