Top 2D Platformers That Aren’t Mario or Sonic

Want to play a 2D platform game that doesn’t involve an Italian plumber or a blue hedgehog? R.G. gives you his favourite alternatives.

One game per franchise only. What’s your favourite platformer? Please let us know in the comments below.

Super Meat Boy (Xbox Live Arcade/Windows, 2010)

If you want a game that will drive you insane from sheer frustration and anger, I would recommend Team Meat’s indie hit Super Meat Boy. There is nothing more appropriate than starting the list with the title that embodies what made the platformers from the 80s and 90s so awesome – retaining the unrelenting but fair difficulty and the old school vibe in its presentation. It also satirises as well as celebrates tropes from the games that inspired it, delivering an amusing and nostalgic story that consist of Team Meat’s unique visual style. Aside from being a definitive rage inducer, Super Meat Boy sucks you in with its tight controls, diverse soundtrack, and the concise, well-designed, and peril-filled platforming stages. No matter how good you are, you will die a lot. And to make things better, the game mocks you by replaying every single death whenever you succeed after god knows how many tries. More than 300 levels at its disposal plus numerous goodies to unlock will guarantee a long, frustrating, and very enjoyable experience.

Mega Man Zero (Game Boy Advance, 2002)

Before this game, I wasn’t much of a fan of Capcom’s flagship series. Don’t get me wrong, the entries are fun action-platformers, but for some strange reason, I didn’t love it as much as other people did. That is until the arrival of Mega Man Zero. Deemed as one of the hardest titles in the series, it hooked me in by its dark story, the addicting challenge, and new welcomed additions that I thought improved on the previous games. Zero keeps the Mega Man gameplay intact while adding interesting mechanics like Cyber-Elves and weapon levelling to slightly ease the difficulty. It also changes up the progression by making it more similar to a Metroidvania game as the levels were connected rather than the usual stage selection. As typical of a Mega Man title, the music is kickass, and the platforming and run-and-gun gameplay is incredibly satisfying. Skill, patience and a good memory are required as it is relentlessly difficult. There are enough death traps, intense boss fights and strenuousness in its levels to make it an adrenaline-filled ride.

Rogue Legacy (Windows, 2013)

As you can tell, I generally like my platformers difficult, and here’s another ball-busting one. Rogue Legacy involves you traversing through a randomly generated castle with the overarching goal of beating four bosses and reaching the head honcho. Of course, what you will be doing the majority of the time is collecting as much treasure as you can to buy upgrades. Without the aforementioned, you won’t be able to scratch any of the bosses – unless you are extremely good. Like the old-school platform games that inspired it, Rogue Legacy has fickle platform puzzles and a steep learning curve. In short: it will kick your ass. Taking pages from RPGs and rouge-like games, its one of the most unique platformers out there. The game has a peculiar progression system where death actually makes you stronger and the developers definitely didn’t half-ass the dying part because it will happen to you many times. The progression takes the form of ancestry, where the previously-deceased character will pass on the level and the treasures collected to their child, which are randomised in terms of class and traits. This, along with the randomised levels, makes each play through fairly unpredictable in a fun way without being too tedious.

Tombi! (PSOne, 1997)

Behind the huge library of titles for Sony’s first console, this was one of the more elusive. Tombi! – or Tomba! in the US – is my all-time favourite PlayStation title and one of the games that defined my childhood. You play as the titular Tombi, a pink-haired wild boy who is on a mission to stop seven evil pigs from ruling the land. As well as being one of the best-looking PSOne games, it is a zany platformer with a unique background and foreground perspective, imaginative level designs, and an unusual mechanic that involves Tombi grabbing things full-body. Unlike traditional side-scrollers, the progression is focused on exploration and quests rather than finishing a level. The missions require a fair amount of thinking since the hints and given items are relatively cryptic. It’s on the easy side when it comes to difficulty but it’s just a joyful feeling going through its bizarre world that’s filled with all sorts of weird creatures and wacky environments. The title used to be hard to obtain since it’s very rare and expensive, but thanks to its release on the PSN, you can get this obscure gem for a reasonable price.

Fez (Multi-Platform, 2012)

As much as you can hate on developer Phil Fish for his controversial and acerbic behaviour on the Internet, it’s hard to deny how much work the guy and his team has put into Fez. It is an expansive, nostalgia-heavy and colourful puzzle-platformer with a very unique mechanic that lets you manipulate the dimensions to change your perspective. With no enemies and peril in general, it’s more focused on exploration. While it involves a lot of back-tracking and the map is not very reliable, not to mention that it is a very large game for an indie, it rarely gets boring because each level is designed and presented with painstaking perfection. The retro soundtrack and 8-bit visual style give the title a relaxing yet isolating and melancholic atmosphere. The only goal you have in the game is to gather golden cubes, which open up new areas as you collect more. The big seller is of course, the ability to rotate your surroundings, where the title really shines in its visuals and platforming gameplay. Is that ledge too far of a jump? No problem, just spin the level around to bring it closer. It’s steady learning curve and the absence of death does make most of the puzzles easy, but you just admire how they were built and programmed with the mechanic. Even if Mr. Fish is unpopular amongst the gaming community, give this title a chance and don’t judge a game by its creator.

Kirby Super Star (Super Nintendo, 1996)

No matter how much I suppress it, I just cannot deny how adorable that expressive pink blob is. The Kirby series is one of Nintendo’s most successful sellers but it never gets the same respect and recognition as Mario. Granted, it is mostly targeted to the casuals since the games are known to be incredibly easy, but it has never stopped them from being imaginative platformers. Arguably the best entry in the series, Kirby Super Star acquires an edge for having numerous stand-alone adventures for our cute protagonist. In comparison to the other Kirby releases at the time, the visuals had more personality and colour, the gameplay is much more refined with better controls, and there are a plethora of powers to play with. The different modes are very enjoyable in terms of their concept, and it feels like you own many in one package. There is never a dull moment in this title – from taking down Meta Knight’s floating battleship, to hunting for treasure, or fighting King Dedede in a wrestling ring.

Ristar (Sega Mega Drive, 1995)

Sega’s 16-bit console was as equally rich in platformers as its rival the SNES. While my allegiance has always been with Nintendo, Sega was a nice alternative. Their releases were much more edgy and action-oriented, and even if the audio generally sounds like crap, there’s a certain charm to it. I am still wondering if that blast-processing thing that Sega always brags about was actually true. If you have ever owned a Mega Drive, there should be a good chance that you have heard of this game. Unfortunately, the sales of Ristar were overshadowed by the end of the Mega Drive’s lifecycle and the impending release of the Saturn. Made by the same team who created the the world-renowned blue hedgehog, Ristar is my favourite platform title outside of Sonic on the system. The game is a bit different from the others on this list because the platforming involves less jumping and more on the titular character’s extendable arms as a means of transport and attack. The level design is comprised of rounded pillars, ladders and rotating swings to use for travelling from platform to platform. While the arm mechanics do need a little bit of getting used to, it’s very fun traversing through levels with them, and it’s satisfying using your entire body to launch an enemy flying. Using the same visual and audio style as the Sonic titles, it’s one of the best-looking and best-sounding titles on the Mega Drive.

Castlevania: Aria of Sorrow (Game Boy Advance, 2003)

While everyone fauns over Symphony of the Night as the definitive Castlevania game, I always preferred Aria of Sorrow. Even if it doesn’t look as pretty, and the gameplay wasn’t as expansive in comparison to SymphonyAria wins me over for the silly reason that it’s Kirby and Castlevania mixed into one. Aside from personal preference, Aria still retains the fluid controls, encouraged exploration, and character-building that made Symphony a revolutionary game for the series. You have a castle filled with many mythological monsters you can kill at your disposal. The portable entry has a mechanic called Tactical Soul where you can acquire the powers of fallen enemies, with some required to access a previously unreachable area, and it’s incredibly satisfying to experiment with different combinations. Fortunately, the monsters aren’t too generous with giving their abilities away, which gives the title a steady and fair progression.

Cave Story (Wii/Windows/3DS, 2010)

Originally released as freeware way back in 2004, Cave Story has become one of the definitive downloadable indie titles. Developer Daisuke “Pixel” Amaya takes his love for the classic games of his childhood to create a sprawling and emotional retro adventure. For a game that looks like its from the late 80s, it delivers a riveting story involving many dramatic and tragic scenarios, and a cast of unique and well-realised characters. Inspired by numerous iconic 8-bit games, Cave Story contains simple run-and-gun platforming gameplay with a fair amount of difficulty. It has an interesting weapons progression which encourages you to avoid being hit as it will lower the damage of your gun. The maze-like nature of the level design does get grating at points because of the sheer size of the map, as well as the amount of back tracking that you have to do, but there are a lot of hidden secrets and rich lore to find to keep you entertained as you get to the next narrative point.

R.G. Villanueva

Contributing game and film writer for SquabbleBox. Occasional DJ and instrumentalist, amateur programmer, all-around lazy guy.

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  1. Comic Compendium says:

    Yoshi’s Story (1997) for the N64. Because it doesn’t contain Mario I’ll argue this fits the criteria until the Shy Guys come home.
    Although it was a very short and simplistic game I loved it and must have played it through coming up almost a hundred times. Although it contains Puzzle elements it was the Platform elements that had me hooked. Eating bad guys, turning them into eggs and then throwing said eggs at other enemies? How is that not awesome?

    • R.G. Villanueva says:

      I wanted to put a Yoshi game on the list but I’ve only played one, which is Yoshi’s Island. Couldn’t do it because of that stupid baby on his back. I hate baby Mario.

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