Jerry’s Top 10 Side-Scrollers, Chronological Order

1. Super Mario Bros. (NES, 1985) [EDITOR’S CHOICE: GOLD AWARD]

SMB is the best because it’s the purest. All subsequent Mario games would dumb down the physics to one extent or another, giving you more control over Mario after he was already in the air. But that would neuter this game, a laser-focused left-to-right (you can’t even scroll the screen backwards) momentum-based action game built around mastering the run and jump maneuver to make Mario land exactly where you need him to. To this day, it’s the Mario that’s most like a pinball table. The version in Super Mario All-Stars is still pretty fun, and it’s how I finally played The Lost Levels (which I ended up enjoying way more than Super Mario Bros. 2 USA), but they changed the way Mario bounces after smashing a brick, making everything slower and floatier and at least 25% less like pinball. Criminal!

Fact: SMB ruined video games for me. It wasn’t the first game I played (that was Ms. Pac-Man, and it’s still my template for what a video game can and should be). It wasn’t even the first NES game I played (that would’ve been Duck Hunt, because even as a six-year-old I intuitively understood that the ultimate input device was a fucking gun). But it was the one that cemented my love for the medium. I still remember the first time I played it, I got to World 1-2 and saw that if I smashed myself a staircase out of bricks, I could climb all the way outside the level. Being a dumb kid, it never once occurred to me this wasn’t something I was supposed to do. When I broke out of the top of the screen, I started running full-speed along the level’s ceiling, behind the score display, smugly smiling as I bypassed all the carefully-placed traps and pitfalls. Just when I was pretty sure the guys who made this game must have been idiots, I got to the end of the level and kept running because hey, why not? And that’s when I saw it: the Warp Zone. “Real clever, kid. Why don’t you just go ahead and pick whichever level you want?” Since then, every moment I’ve ever spent playing a video game has been varying degrees of disappointing.

2. Super Mario Bros. 3 (NES, 1990)

Nintendo was pretty much screwed when it came time to make a sequel to SMB, because the original was already perfect. About the only thing they could do was make it harder, which they did in The Lost Levels, but that didn’t really make it any more fun. So for SMB 3 they went experimental, offering a hundred bite-sized prototypes on the theme of running and jumping. In one you’re chased by an angry sun, in another you hijack a giant boot and go on a butt-kicking rampage. There’s a suit that makes you a frog and one that makes you a statue and one that lets you fly like a raccoon. SMB 3 was the Double Nickels on the Dime of platformers.

3. Super Mario World (SNES, 1991) [EDITOR’S CHOICE: BRONZE AWARD]

By the time Nintendo made this second “real” sequel to SMB, they weren’t even trying to make a platformer anymore. SMW picks up on the adventure thread present in SMB, and now it’s an exploration game about finding all the hidden exits from each level, which in turn lead to more hidden levels with their own secret exits. The addition of a save system made SMW the first Mario game that could be enjoyed equally by players of all ability levels: little kids could play it as a fun (if overly-forgiving) traditional Mario that ends when they rescue the princess; slightly older kids knew the game wasn’t REALLY over until their save file said 100% complete, a mental and physical challenge on par with any of the NES titles. For managing to be all things to all people without compromising for any of them, SMW is my third-favourite platformer.

4. Mega Man 4 (NES, 1992)

Yes, really. Being a relative latecomer to the NES, I didn’t have Mega Man 1, 2, or 3 – I had Mega Man 4, 5, and 6. They were all good games, but 4 was easily my favourite. They say the addition of an R-Type-style charged shot to a game without forced scrolling just resulted in a lot of standing around waiting for your gun to power up, but since I didn’t have anything to compare it to, it never really bothered me. Maybe it still wouldn’t, who knows? I really need to play more Mega Mans. If these were ranked, MM4 would be number nine or ten.

5. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 (Genesis, 1992)

I’m going to be honest with you: this game is on here because I’m a graphics whore, and Sonic 2 is arguably the most beautiful game ever. When you see Green Hill Zone or Chemical Plant Zone or Casino Night Zone parallax scrolling past at 60 FPS, Sonic bouncing and rolling with the fluidity of furry blue mercury, while that incredible triumphant techno soundtrack transports you to a synthesized pixel art Garden of Eden… you’ll never want to settle for ‘real’ nature again, when you could have the hyper-real electro-nature of PLANET SEGA. Blue skies. Blue, blue skies.

6. Mega Man X (SNES, 1994)

MMX came out the year before Super Metroid, and you can tell they were both struggling with the problem of to how to add ‘depth’ (not depth in the purely mechanical sense but depth in the slightly inaccurate RPG sense, stuff to occupy the portions of your brain left idle during moment-to-moment gameplay, long-term planning and narrative complexity and so on) to the traditional platformer template, but they went about it in two different ways. MMX retained the discrete, mostly-linear stages of previous Mega Mans, but added more alternate paths with hidden upgrades that could in turn be used to access previously-inaccessible parts of other stages. Not only that, but events in one stage could affect conditions in others – something I already went on about here. I’m glad we got this branch on the side-scrolling action/adventure family tree, I just wish it would have borne more fruit (no, the endless reheated sequels don’t count). Maybe for their next Castlevania resurrection, Konami could think about ripping off Capcom instead of Nintendo or Sony Santa Monica?

7. Super Metroid (SNES, 1994)

Incredibly, all it took to transform Metroid from borderline-unplayable to one of the candidates for best action/adventure game of all time was save stations and an automap. Super Metroid brought both, plus the kind of confident, wordless environmental storytelling that would seem more at home in a French sci-fi comics album than a Super Nintendo game. Yes, you could blame Super Metroid for every game these days that begins with an unskippably atmospheric narrative tutorial sequence that has you exploring an abandoned facility before crouching under fallen debris to escape a self-destruct sequence, but there’s one important difference: SM never told you Tutorial Station was coming apart in two minutes, and it certainly never lied to you about it. It just put a timer right there on the screen, and God help you if it reached zero before you made it back to your sweet-ass bounty hunter spaceship. Compare SM to any game where you can sit in that first burning building until your real-life graphics card catches fire from rendering all the pretty particle effects, and the difference is almost insulting.

8. Donkey Kong Country (SNES, 1994)

I think the hate for this game springs largely from a general unfamiliarity among the Nintendo generation with the proud, half-arsed tradition of British platformers. Understandable, given that 99% of British platformers are shit, but these particular Brits had Miyamoto cracking the whip, making DKC the first jump ‘n’ run to combine PAL spirit with NTSC-J polish. European developers have always been more concerned with capturing the sensation of movement than providing the direct mind-machine interface of a highly-tuned Japanese production. Sometimes this is expressed in regrettable ways, like adding acceleration to shmup controls or burying the jump command under a calcification of rotoscoped animation. In DKC, it was expressed with the most pleasantly tactile hopping and bopping ever committed to ROM. The amazing sample-based ambient jungle soundtrack by David Wise is maybe the most chill music to ever accompany a gorilla going ape shit, and gets even better in the sequel, if you can believe that.

9. Donkey Kong Country 2: Diddy’s Kong Quest (SNES, 1995) [EDITOR’S CHOICE: SILVER AWARD]

My second-favourite game on this list, after SMB. Already a dinosaur in the 3D multimedia age of 1995, DKC2 was the tyrannosaurus rex of side-scrolling platformers, the Plymouth Superbird of massive 32-megabit cartridges. By tightening up and fleshing out the level design while committing fully to the two-games-in-one structure of Super Mario World, DKC2 took the intensely pleasurable platforming mechanics of DKC and gave them a point. Still, this game isn’t for everyone: some find the atmosphere, inspired by classic works of all-ages fiction like Peter Pan and The City of Lost Children, to be oppressively dark. Others lack the crossover gameplay skillset to enjoy both outside-the-box puzzle solving and traditional precision-platforming in the context of a single stage. But for those with the stomach for it, no game will ever so thoroughly capture the experience of being a very small monkey on a very big adventure. (Also, the plot revolves around rescuing Donkey Kong from bloodthirsty crocodile pirates, and one of the two playable characters – the more useful one, even if her name isn’t in the title – is a hairy girl-monkey in a cute pink beret. Just in case that matters to you.)

10. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night (PS/XBLA, 1997/2007)

Somewhere between a Super Metroid set in Dracula’s beautiful, sprawling gothic castle, and a mechanically-superior side-scrolling version of Diablo, lies the original Metroidvania. What’s not to like? Well, the RPG-esque experience system and grindable weapon drops mean you can potentially cheat yourself out of the game’s most challenging encounters by playing too conservatively and over-leveling. And the solution to one puzzle hinges on an item having properties you’ve got no reason to suspect it should. But this is minor nitpicking. The “second castle” alone is one of the most memorably cool examples of re-purposing assets in a series that’s made the creative recycling of expensive, high-quality 2D artwork its bread and butter. I didn’t play this game until ten years after it came out, but I’ve finished it four times since. Love at first bite. (Yes, that is the line I want to go out on.)

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Jerry Whorebach