One of the first actions we were given when the first pixelized version of a person was displayed in a video game was a jump. Jumping, a simple action, has probably been explored and expanded through video games over the decades more than any other human ability. Even the face of video games, Mario, was originally just “Jump Man” back in the day. As soon as we could jump, we needed things to jump on, over, and around, and thus the platforming genre was born.
The idea of running and jumping through an obstacle course is genius in its simplicity. Anyone, no matter what language they speak or culture they come from, can understand the basics of jumping over a pit to reach the ground on the other side. Things have only gotten more complex, as is necessary to keep the genre from becoming stale. Platformers added new elements alongside just jumping, such as unique hazards, stories, and even the third dimension. Today’s platformers are arguably at their best. With decades of examples and inspiration to draw from, the games released today, big and small, are the most polished ever seen. Here’s our list of the best recent platformers you can play right now.
We should also mention that only one game per franchise is eligible for this list, if only to just keep it from being half made up of different Mario games.
Celeste (PC, PS4, Xbox)
What started as a simple game jam project has evolved into one of the most beloved and highly rated platformers of all time. Celeste is a heartfelt and touching story about a girl named Madeline and her quest to climb the titular Celeste Mountain, but also a deep and introspective tale on depression and mental illness. That part is better left experienced firsthand without spoiling anything, but nothing can ruin just how good the game is to play. What’s even more amazing is that it can cater to everyone from people who have never touched a platforming game before to the most hardcore speed-runners.
In terms of 2D platformers, Celeste feels about as tight as any game ever could. You have just the right amount of weight and air control, plus the ability to cling onto walls, climb them, and dash either on the ground or in the air. Like the best platformers, Celeste takes these limited options and devises creative, challenging, and even puzzle-like obstacles for you to solve using those tools. Then there are the secret strawberries for additional challenges, along with the B-side levels to give people who really want to master the game’s mechanics a place to test their skills. On the other hand, the number of accessibility options the game has means you can tweak the game so that just about anyone can enjoy it without getting frustrated.
Read our full Celest review
Ori and the Will of the Wisps (PC, Switch, Xbox)
The surprising hit Ori and the Blind Forest left a strong impression thanks to a touching story, beautiful art, and the Metroidvania-style design that kept Ori’s movement abilities a joy to utilize. The sequel, Ori and the Will of the Wisps, came later, and while it did suffer from a slightly rocky launch, is now firmly one of the best platformers you can get on Xbox. Visually, this game hasn’t lost an ounce of detail or care. The environments are lush and beg to be explored, with more details packed into the fore and background than you will probably notice while zipping through them. Speaking of which, Ori’s animations and control are so tight and fluid that you never feel bogged down even when treading back over familiar spaced.
Ori and the Will of the Wisps ups the ante in every way. The world is larger, with more to explore and do, choices to make regarding progression, more varied environments, side quests, and even more exciting challenges that test all your abilities. You even build up a little hub town full of friendly NPCs to talk to for more story and characterization that will draw you deeper into the game’s world. No space or effort is wasted here. Every time you go off exploring will lead to something worth your time, and at no point does the game ever feel unfair.
Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove (PC, PS3, PS4, Vita, Xbox, Switch, WiiU, 3DS)
Shovel Knight laid the groundwork, if you’ll pardon the pun, for all indie-developed Kickstarters. It was, at the time, one of the most well-funded game projects on the site, reaching tons of stretch goals that kept additional content coming to the game for years after release. Now that the dust has settled and the game is complete, retitled as Shovel Knight: Treasure Trove, this homage to classic 16-bit platformers has outclassed just about every source of inspiration it was taken from. If you have a fondness for those classic platformers like Mario, MegaMan, and Ducktales, Shovel Knight is somehow able to surpass even your most nostalgic memories.
The base game alone would make it a contender for this list, but all the extra content that has been added just makes this retro-style platformer stand even taller. You get the original adventure with the titular hero, three additional character campaigns, and co-op and competitive modes. Each additional character has its own abilities and playstyle that feel distinct from one another, along with hand-crafted levels that take full advantage of each individual character’s move set. Once you use your shovel to pogo bounce on enemies to clear obstacles while the amazing soundtrack bops in your ears, you’ll be glad to have dug up this treasure trove of a game.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (Switch)
Praised by critics when it originally releases on the WiiU for being one of the best 2D platformers on the system, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze finally got the chance to reach the audience it deserved when it was ported to the much more popular Switch. Just like the older Donkey Kong Country games on the SNES, Tropical Freeze is a tough platformer with tons of secrets, collectibles, and inspired boss battles that rival even the best 2D Mario titles. Every stage is immaculately designed, whether it’s one of the series famous minecart or barrel-blasting sequences, or more traditional ones. No two levels feel overly similar, and the game prides itself on strong attention to detail.
The one downside some had with the original release was the difficulty. The game expects you to learn and get better as the stages go on, as any good platformer should, but ramps up to a level right on the cusp of frustration. Nothing is ever unfair thanks to well-telegraphed dangers and tight controls, but the level of execution the game asks for by the end can be a little daunting. If you’re up to it, that’s all the more points in the game’s favor, but if not, the Switch version included a new “Funky Mode” where you play as Funky Kong. This kong has more hits and can use his surfboard to glide slightly to help with precision platforming and avoid spike damage.
Read our full Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze review
Sonic Mania (PC, PS4, Xbox, Switch)
Sonic was a fierce competitor with Mario back in the 2D days, but immediately stumbled once introduced to the third dimension. Since then, the blue blur has struggled to find his footing again in the gaming space, experimenting with multiple different styles of games, and even releasing a few good ones, but Sonic Mania is far and away the best Sonic has been since his original trilogy. It isn’t just based on nostalgia, either. While the game does feature many locations from those old games, they are remixed and changed in ways that make them even better than before. The level design and way Sonic himself moves and animates just ooze with passion.
Part of the reason for Sonic Mania’s success, or perhaps all of it, can be placed on the decision to allow an outside team lead by fans of the series to develop the game. Team Sonic clearly has talent, but seemed unable or unwilling to just give fans of the series what they loved about the first games. If you have any nostalgia for those Genesis classics, or just want to know why Sonic was held in such high regard in the first place, Mania has become the quintessential 2D Sonic title.
Hollow Knight (PC, PS4, Xbox, Switch)
If Shovel Knight was the Kickstarter successor to classic titles like MegaMan and Ducktales, then Hollow Knight is the same for Metroid. Taking the Metroidvania formula, wrapping it up in a fluid, soft, and slightly creepy art style, and making it feel like a dream to control, Hollow Knight deserves every ounce of praise it has gotten since release. It uses the genre to slowly introduce new movement mechanics, like dashes and double jumps, without overwhelming you right off the bat. As you get deeper into the game, literally and figuratively, the game will push on your execution more and more.
This game is on the more difficult side of the platforming spectrum since it also takes some cues from the Souls genre, with an equal amount of the challenge coming from combat as it does from platforming sections. That’s not even mentioning how hard the platforming itself can get on its own, with challenging gauntlets that require near-perfect precision to pass through. Those are, for the most part, optional, but do consider this one tailored more to the experienced and hardcore platforming fan.
Spelunky 2 (PC, PS4)
It might seem counterintuitive to include a rougelike on a list of best platformers. After all, how could a game that’s somewhat randomly generated be tuned to give a polished and well-crafted experience every time? In truth, Spelunky 2 doesn’t have levels that can compete with, say, a Mario stage that has been tested and tweaked for weeks and months by dozens of people. On the other hand, the fact that it still has really good levels that are always beatable without taking damage if you’re careful and good enough is a massive accomplishment.
Spelunky 2 is a very simple platformer. By default, you can jump, grab ledges, climb ropes and ladders, and attack with your whip, bombs, and other throwable items. There are items and other ways to expand your move set some, but those are the basic tools that alone can get you through the entire game … if you’re good enough. The key to what makes this game such a great platformer is that it tests not only your reflexes and precision but also your ability to pay attention and plan. One bad jump into a trap or a single enemy knocking you back will more often than not lead to your death. If you learn the game’s language and pay attention, nothing is more satisfying than perfectly clearing a dangerous floor.
Mega Man 11 (PC, PS4, Xbox, Switch)
The Mega Man franchise arguably had an even more unpleasant shift when trying to go 3D than Sonic did. Aside from maybe Legends, all the 3D games just felt … bad to play and led to the series becoming mostly dormant for years. Eventually, the series came back with Mega Man 9 and 10, which went back to the original NES style of 2D platformers, pixel art and all. Those entries felt like they fit right in with the original games, but Mega Man 11 feels like a true step forward for the series in 2D. Whether you love or hate pixel art, it is hard to deny that Mega Man 11’s smooth, more cartoon-inspired look isn’t a treat for the eyes.
If you’ve played any Mega Man game in the past then you will know the drill here. You have eight robot masters to take down in whatever order you want, claiming their abilities to use against the next boss. You can run, slide, jump, shoot, charge, and even call in your robot dog Rush for assists in platforming, but the new mechanic this game brings is the Gear system. You can use your Gear meter in two ways: Speed and power. Speed allows you to slow down time to make platforming and dodging easier, and power increases your firepower. While all the stages give you a blend of shooting and platforming challenges, this title adds in a ton of extra challenges for hardcore players, such as time trials, stages where you can’t shoot, or even ones where you can’t jump.
Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair (PC, PS4, Xbox, Switch)
The first Yooka-Laylee game was attempting to be a successor to the massive collectathon titles Rare made on the N64 like Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64. It couldn’t quite recapture that magic as well as the 2D follow-up, Yooka-Laylee and the Impossible Lair, did as a successor to Rare’s 2D titles like Donkey Kong Country on the SNES. This shift in scope allowed the team to make far more memorable and enjoyable levels for our heroes to leap through. The duo also feels far better to control in a 2D space than 3D, and the way the game shakes up some established formats of the genre is truly inspired.
Right off the bat, you start this game in the final level. If you can manage to beat it, well, you’re better than we are. If you do fail, as you’re intended to, then you can begin exploring the levels on the overworld map. Each one you beat gives you more lives to take with you when you decide to try the final level again. It’s up to you when you think you are ready, putting you in direct control of both the difficulty and pacing of the game. Of course, there are plenty of things to collect and secrets to unlock in all the stages that make them worth playing. In fact, you will want to play them twice, since actions you do on the overworld can dramatically impact stages you already beat once, such as flooding or freezing them.
Super Mario Maker 2 (Switch)
It was never a question of if we would have a Mario game on this list, but rather which one. The Switch has probably the greatest collection of Mario games that any single Nintendo system ever has, from Odyssey to Super Mario 3D World + Bowser’s Fury. However, we have to give it to Super Mario Maker 2. Not only is there something just so pure about 2D Mario platformers compared to 3D, but SMM2 encompasses an almost endless amount of content. If you were a fan of the original Super Mario Bros., Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, or the 2D Wii games, they’re all here. Someone has made all the levels for each of those original games, and if by some fluke they haven’t, then you can make them yourself!
Nintendo basically handed over the keys to developing our own Mario games with Super Mario Maker 2, and the community has not disappointed. From ultra-hard, bordering on impossible, challenges of skill that require pixel-perfect action and timing, to fun and wacky adventures, and even puzzles and other genres you didn’t even think could work, there’s something here for everyone to enjoy. Not every level will be worth your time, obviously, but because of the base engine the game runs on, it will always feel as good as 2D Mario always has.
Read our full Super Mario Maker 2 review
Astro’s Playroom (PS5)
To wrap up, we have a small but surprising hit bundled right inside your PS5. Astro’s Playroom is technically the third appearance of the little robot after his introduction on the PS4 in The Playroom and Astro Bot Rescue Mission, the latter being among the best VR platformers ever made. Now that he’s unshackled from the limited VR hardware, and a free inclusion for anyone with the console, there’s no excuse for PS5 owners to not go on this quick journey with Astro. Don’t let the name fool you; this is way more than just a tech demo for the new controller.
Astro’s adventure isn’t long, but it feels just right. It never dwells on any one mechanic or environment for too long so you never get bored of what you’re doing. You will jump, hover, and punch your way through four worlds that are all inspired by the PS5 hardware, which might not sound like great settings for levels, but the way they’re represented is incredibly creative and fun. If you’re a fan of PlayStation, then all the little Easter eggs and references to the console’s history and big franchises will make exploring these spaces even more fun. It’s as close to perfect that a short, casual 3D platformer can get.
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