Questions regarding platformer development

I was asked these questions on Twitter and since Twitter is Twitter with its letter limits, I decided to import the questions here and answer them more elonquently:

What are the key features a 2d platforming game should have?
“2d platforming game” is a fairly abstract concept and defines only a very small part of a game’s design; there are 2D platformers that vary from each other greatly, and most of their defining features don’t stem from being 2D platformers but rather from other things. Technically I could try to find some defining features that 2D platformers should have that aren’t dependent on other factors, but the list of said features would be pretty limited. Let’s try:

Things a 2D platformer needs to have:

  • A playable character
  • Sideways perspective
  • Obstacles that block your way or offer something to stand on
  • Gravity (although even this can be done without)

There are also things that 2D platformers usually have, such as collectibles, goals, failure conditions, enemies, HP, lives, levels, environments etc., but with a strict definition none of them are required to call a game a “2D platformer”. (Note that the list of things 2D platformers need was just something I made up on the spot, I’m sure there are valid arguments to reduce even more things from it!)

If someone were to learn game development via making a 2D platformer, I’d say that using something like Super Mario Bros. as a guideline on what’s expected from such a game could be the best way to go, because it contains all those strictly platformer-related concepts listed above, but also lots of handy learning opportunities in form of those other, less definitive but nonetheless handy things such as coins, score, level progression and losing.

What’s the best art style for a side-scrolling platformer?
This is a very subjective question! The definition of “best” definitely hinges a lot on both the budget and the personal taste of the developer. The game screen should be easily readable, i.e. it should be clear what is background and what is a wall, an interactable object etc., but there’s a huge amount of options to choose from in terms of unique artstyles that achieve that, and whether one of them is better than the others depends entirely on the opinion of the player/developer.

I’m personally rather biased towards retro-style pixel art graphics with stretched pixels (see: Cave Story, Eternal Daughter, Maldita Castilla). It’s important to note, though, that even stretched-pixel pixel art doesn’t have to look retro (see: WitchWay, Fez, Hyper Light Drifter for a non-platformer example) and that non-stretched-pixel pixel art is definitely also an option and can be achievable by a smaller team (see: Within a Deep Forest, IJI). Outside of the realm of pixel art things require a bit more work pretty quickly which might not be worth it for a smaller team, but on the other hand the results can be sweet (see: Saira, Braid, LIMBO). Taking a nonstandard approach to the artstyle might also be a good option (see: An Untitled Story), so nothing’s really that clear. These are obviously just my own personal tastes!!

If I were to suggest an artstyle for someone making their first 2D platformer or aiming to learn game development, I’d probably recommend something like the visual style of the NES Megaman games; stretched pixels, limited colour palette, very high readability, fairly easy to work on, tile-based background art to lessen workload and so on.

What type of music would go well with a pixel art style?
I don’t think I can really answer this properly. “Pixel art style” in itself is such a vague concept that depending on other factors pretty much any kind of music could go well with it. There are good examples of orchestral(-style) music (see: Owlboy, Titan Souls, Gods Will Be Watching), retro-style music (see: Cave Story, Spelunky classic, Shovel Knight), music with more modern instruments that I can’t think of a good category name for (see: Nuclear Throne, IJI) or minimalistic electronic music (see: Within A Deep Forest). Games like Undertale combine stuff from several musical styles very successfully, and some utilize existing music as their soundtracks (see: Space Funeral, Hotline Miami).

Again, retro-style chiptunes might be the easiest way to go, but really the answer to this question is pretty much “anything”.

EDIT: I actually haven’t played Owlboy and added it in because I checked that it has an orchestral soundtrack and pixel art graphics. I’m fairly certain that the musics fit the game but I implied too much up there. My apologies!

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