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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.

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  1. the_importer on July 7, 2019 at 1:25 pm said

    A bit off-topic, but it always makes me laugh when PC elitist keep telling console players that that FPS and RTS are better with a Keyboard & Mouse when they can’t admit that platformers are better with a gamepad.

    I’m a PC gamer BTW, I mainly platformers, JRPGs and fighting games with my DS4 using DS4Windows.

    • I agree with controllers for platformers on PC. However back in the time of Duke and Keen there was very little options for controllers. seemed like it was either you use the keyboard or you use the awful Gravis Gamepad (only if the game supported it at all).

    • Replace PC elitist with Keyboard & Mouse aficionados.

      PC elitists at least know one of the main draws of PC gaming is the freedom to use whichever controller you want.

  2. darkmage0707077 on July 8, 2019 at 3:45 am said

    Problem with most of these: they’re all ancient as hell, so even if you get them to run on modern hardware, they look/sound like cancer (unless you grew up with them like I did and are used to it).

    Are there any good PC platformers that are later then, say, 2010?

    • I’d argue with you on the aesthetic point (Another World looks amazing IMO), and many of these have been remastered to run well on modern computers (or are easily run with DOSBox).

      The reason that there aren’t any modern examples is because PC platformers are hard to find these days. Games usually launch on multiple platforms at once, thereby meaning that they are not “PC” platformers, per se.

      Some of the entries in this list did eventually appear on consoles, however all of them started out on a desktop system.

      • “Are there any good PC platformers that are later then, say, 2010?”
        “PC platformers are hard to find these days.”

        https://www.metacritic.com/browse/games/genre/date/platformer/pc
        https://www.slant.co/topics/2361/~best-2d-platformers-for-the-pc
        https://store.steampowered.com/search/?sort_by=Reviews_DESC&tags=3871%2C1625

        Are you both completely unaware of all the indie platformers on PC/Steam or something? PC is still the main platform for indie games, of which 2D platformers comprise a lot of.

        • As I stated below, there are tonnes of great platformers for the modern PC, but the majority of these are either multi-platform releases or were initially released on consoles.

          It is relatively difficult to find a PC-originated platformer these days. In fact, the lines between PC and console are so blurred it hardly matters anymore.

          What I am highlighting here is, before multi-platform became common, the PC actually had an underappreciated contribution to the genre.

          • Why does it matter if the games are multiplatform? Why should any 3rd party game, not being paid exclusivity for, be locked down to one platform? Those games were exclusive to PC back then, because it was easier to get games out on the PC compared to consoles back then.

            But the fact of the matter is, the majority of indie platformers still do originate on Steam/ PC, to this day. This is just common knowledge as the PC will always be the primary platform for indie games, due to its ease of publishing and development.

            Also, your argument that PC used to have an “underappreciated contribution to the genre” is a bit daft, because, things like Steam have made digital distribution of indie games on PC so much easier and lucrative than it ever was in the past.

    • BrigandBoy on July 8, 2019 at 6:20 pm said

      Yeah. Sundered, Dust;An Elysian Tale, Dex, Dead Cells, Bloodstained Ritual of the Night (and Curse of the Moon), 20XX, Rogue Legacy, Ori and the Blind Forest, Salt…

      And that’s off the top of my head. I know there are others, and even others I have played. They all were worth my time and money. I’m still playing a few of them, actually.

      • Some good games, no doubt.

        However most were either released on consoles initially, or were multi-platform releases, thereby not fitting the criteria.

        I’m not saying that they aren’t worthy of praise, but I was focusing on platformers that had their origin on desktop systems. Even Dead Cells was a bit of a stretch.

  3. The best PC platformer of all time has been left out! Who can forget about “I wanna be the Guy!”?

    • Truth be told, I’d never heard of it before… And now after doing some research, that’s definitely one I’ll be checking out, it looks like a lot of fun.

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