The Secret of World 6 is that it’s ice sometimes.

What’s my favorite level in Donkey Kong Country Returns, you ask? Easy: Tippy Shippy. It’s a level in World 6, the mountain world — but the twist is that a bunch of wrecked ships are in the background, and as a consequence a bunch of the obstacles from World 2 (the beach world) return, including the crab enemies and the firing cannons. I like it for a couple of reasons. First, I felt bringing back some long-forgotten level motifs and working them into a more difficult environment was a nice bit of level design. Second, it’s a callback to Donkey Kong Country 2, where wrecked ships dotted the map screen of almost every world, growing increasing ridiculous as the game proceeded. And third, it made for a very interesting, and more importantly unconventional, visual.

That’s something that’s been lost recently in platformers recently, I think. You could argue that as far as game design goes, we’re in a golden age for 2-D platformers right now — certainly we’re better off in that department than we have been at any point since the 16-bit era. (From 1996 to around 2006, developers treated 2-D platformers like the plague, ghettoizing them on portables if they bothered making them at all.) New Super Mario Bros. Wii, in terms of clever level design and being fun to play, easily stands up with any of the classic Marios, and other games like DKCR, Kirby’s Epic Yarn, and the new Mega Men are popping up on consoles.

But we’ve got a new problem, and that is aesthetics. Namely, for all the advances in gameplay and level design, we’re still riffing off Mario 3 as far as stage themes and aesthetics go. I don’t know about you, but I am absolutely sick of grassland/desert/water/sky/ice/lava. Let’s look at the world themes for DKCR… this is barely a spoiler: Jungle/beach/ruins/caves/forest/cliffs/factory/lava. Beach and lava are the only two themes there that the original, 16-year-old Donkey Kong Country didn’t touch, and even those two outliers have been more than made up by, oh, the rest of video game history.

In fairness, Retro made these locations look as good as you can make them, with lots of depth and detail and tons of variety within the various biomes. (There’s not simply a “cave” template, for example, like there was back in the cartridge days; there’s three or four different kinds of cave.) But they’re still stock locations. We’ve been to all of these places before.

NSMBWii was even worse about this: Grassland/desert/ice/water/swamp/mountain/sky/Bowser. Not only did it reuse most of the level themes from SMB3, it axed the two most distinctive (giant and pipes) and replaced them with more generic naturalistic worlds. The game itself was super-fun, but the level themes were boring, the same places we’ve visited thousands of times. It even lacks DKCR’s attention to detail, with the graphics mostly being minimalistic and simplistic, the bare minimum required to give you a sense of place.

Even Kirby’s Epic Yarn, for all its charming and unique art style, just sends you to the same old places… grassland, desert, lava, ice. Yawn.

Super Mario Bros. 3 was fun and revolutionary, but how about we break out of its mold and create some truly new, breathtaking environments? I know designers have it in them. There’s no reason at all for us to be iterating these cliches after all these years — as far back as Super Mario Land Mario was exploring Egyptian-style tombs, damp caves carved out by underground waterfalls, moai-infested temples, and misty Oriental valleys, complete with bamboo. Every time I see a new platformer go “forest level, ice level, lava level” my eyes shrivel up in my skull.

Say what you will about Sonic’s games — and I usually do — but his 16-bit games represent the peak of creativity with regards to level themes. To this day worlds like Chemical Plant, Aquatic Ruins, Oil Ocean, Hydropolis, Marble Garden, and Mushroom Forest remain distinctive and unique, because no one else even bothers stretching themselves beyond Mario 3’s template.

Just to put my money where my mouth is, here’s some ideas of levels that I’ve never seen, or have only rarely seen, but want desperately to play:

–Ancient architecture, but in its own time. Sure, we’ve explored a lot of ruins, and rightfully so — but how about playing through Rome (or a Rome-alike) at the height of its power, rather than after centuries of decay? Humanity has been putting together interesting-looking structures for its entire history, and I want to play them clean, complete, and occupied, rather than run-down, overgrown, and deserted. How about the vast, complex societies that inhabited South America? Ancient Greece? Renaissance Europe? About the only period that gets this treatment is Feudal Japan, and even then only rarely.

–A modern city. I’d love to see Mario or Kirby take on a glittering, modern metropolis or a towering skyscraper rather than a magma-filled medieval castle. Castles are so passe — you’d think one of the lessons people would have taken from the success of Final Fantasy VII is that modern amenities contrasted with other genres is usually good for an interesting visual, but no — when games bother to do this, they usually just stick superfuturistic technology into the middle of a world that’s otherwise stock medieval. I want blending. I want designers to think about the contrast, and make something that looks cool.

–Ghosts in a place you wouldn’t expect them — i.e., not a mansion, castle, or forest. It’s more surprising when you don’t encounter ghosts in those places. Super Mario Sunshine had a lot of problems, but one of its great strengths was taking a single location (in this case, the tropical seaside) and pushing it for all it was worth without sacrificing variety, either in terms of visuals or stage design — such as when you encounter Boos haunting a ritzy beach resort at twilight. If the undead are going to be surprising again, they need to show up where they’re not expected.

–Clock punk. Giant factories and futuristic bases are a dime a dozen, but how about a stage that’s one massive clockwork mechanism? This isn’t entirely new — Tick Tock Clock in Super Mario 64 was kind of this, and Castlevania’s Clock Tower usually embraces the aesthetic, but you still don’t see it as much as something like, say, Sonic 2’s Metropolis Zone. Bonus points if you can give it a Renaissance, Da Vinci-esque kind of feel.

–Arabian Nights. This one’s almost never used unless the whole game is built around the aesthetic, despite being otherwise ubiquitous in popular culture. Watch Aladdin a couple times, then make a world based off it. Shouldn’t be too hard — Aladdin’s practically a platformer character himself. Surely this is more interesting than yet another quicksand ‘n’ pyramids desert world?

–The countryside — with the caveat that I’m not referring to standard Green Hill Zone-style nonsense. The first world of most platformers is a green, flat, boring world with blue skies and rolling hills in the background. I didn’t really examine this at all until I played Muramasa: The Demon Blade, at which point I became flabbergasted by the lovingly-drawn waves of rolling grain, rushing creeks, rocky outcroppings, and tall trees in the mist. It’s at this point that I realized that I’ve been living in the sticks my whole life, and I’ve never once seen one of the flat, open, empty green fields that every platform game I’d even played began in. The wilderness is beautiful and filled with all kinds of potentially interesting hazards and stage elements — why not use them instead of falling back on the “rolling hills” cliche? Video games aren’t giving naturalistic environments their due credit.

–Unusual societies. I mostly hated LostWinds and its sequel, but I couldn’t fault their art style. One of the most striking images I had of it was the peaceful village, built high up in the mountains along the sides of cliffs. The village was filled with fans and other elements that you could affect with your wind powers and was crisscrossed with large bridges. The sequel had a village protected from the elements in a cave, and another deserted city with running water and strange sound-based mechanisms. It seems to me that we could put together some very cool levels by inventing a society, designing the kind of city that society would want to live in, and running a platformer obstacle course through them. Such a level would naturally stick out in the mind more than another random ice level, wouldn’t it?

I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point. I’m sick of running the same Mario 3 derived obstacle course over and over again. Put your heads together and come up with something really striking, instead of lazing out and reinventing the wheel time and time again.

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