Because of the historical legacy of the platform genre, many interesting sub-genres have spawned through the years. For this list, we’ll include everything except games where action or puzzles overtake most of the actual platforming.
The criteria used for this top 10 list are threefold: quality of the game, lasting influence/legacy, and a limit of one game per series. The Mario series gets two entries in this list to represent one 2D and one 3D game, respectively. Onward to our list of best platform games of all time.
The most recent entry on our list also happens to be the most stylish. Cuphead is a run-and-gun platformer that doubles as a cartoon straight from the 1930s. The art and animation are hand-drawn with excellent authenticity in their presentation, like flickering CRTV effects and an original live jazz score.
But Cuphead isn’t merely style. It’s also got a lot of substance to back it up. The game is notorious for its high difficulty and intense boss fights. Each boss fight feels truly unique and carefully crafted to make the victory feel well-earned. You never feel like anything is repetitive in Cuphead.
Along with breathtaking style and tremendous depth in gameplay, Cuphead also spawned a TV show and a large popularity with streaming audiences. On Steam, Cuphead sits with an overwhelmingly positive score from no less than 130,000 users, one of the highest ratings for a platforming game.
9. Donkey Kong Country 2
Next on the list is the 1995 Super Nintendo classic, Donkey Kong Country 2. The first DKC revolutionized game animation and visuals with pre-rendered graphics using a compression technique. DKC 1 was truly next-gen for the time, but the sequel took everything DKC 1 did and upped the ante with a true masterpiece.
The flow and vibe throughout DKC 2 have a quality that continues to inspire today. The creativity of level themes, from bramble mazes to horror theme park coasters, made for an engaging experience and memorable experience. The level design also introduced several lasting concepts, such as the ability to create spider web platforms and the fluctuating hot air balloons, which made for some of the most fun platforming you could ask for.
According to fans, Donkey Kong Country 2 is the most beloved game in the series, and it’s easy to see why. The special Kremlin World, the huge number of collectibles, great level variation, fun companions, and legendary soundtrack really made DKC 2 stand out in a time when Super Mario World existed; that’s a legendary feat if there ever was one.
8. Sonic the Hedgehog 2
Sega’s answer to Mario’s success was Sonic the Hedgehog. Sega did what Nintendo didn’t, which meant breakneck speed and edgy 90s ‘tude. This stylistic difference worked for Sega, and Sonic became the face of the company and a household name through the 90s.
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 became the system-seller of the Sega Genesis and broke records as the fastest-selling game of the era. Part of what made Sonic 2 such a hit with players was its routing through large, open levels. Unlike Mario, Sonic allowed players to freely explore large vertically oriented levels that contained different routes to the exit. Sonic 1 also had multiple routes but lacked the smooth flow that Sonic 2 had mastered to a science.
The music of Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is still revered as some of the best videogame music of all time. With stage themes like Chemical Plant Zone and the jazzy Casino Night Zone, it’s easy to see why Sonic the Hedgehog is still going strong with films and an open-world game in the modern age.
7. Shovel Knight
Shovel Knight created a seachange for indie games that persists even today. This 2014 retro platformer brought the genre back into prominence after a decade or so of 3D game development obsession in the industry. 2D sprites were back in style and still are to this very day, thanks to Shovel Knight.
The reason Shovel Knight is so beloved can be found in its tight action platforming as a sort of Mega Man for the modern age. Unlike the Blue Bomber’s blaster arm, Shovel Knight wields a shovel to whack enemies. This close-range combat brings a sort of Zelda-esque element to 2D platforming that has never been captured so brilliantly as with Shovel Knight.
Like Zelda 2, there are towns where you can purchase gear and upgrades, find secrets, and even talk to villagers. The levels themselves are challenging side-scrolling affairs with some entertaining boss fights. The DLC included even better levels, bosses, and playable characters like Plague Knight and Spectre Knight, each with their own moveset and abilities.
6. Rayman Legends
Next on our list of best platform games is a gem that could earn a spot just from its quality alone. Rayman Legends combines what makes Donkey Kong Country and Sonic the Hedgehog so great and ties it into a clean and quirky package. Each level can be completed at a brisk, flowing pace, with constant momentum and very few start-stop moments. Yet, there are lots of collectibles and secrets awaiting the explorative player in every stage, not unlike DKC 2.
The addition of your flying assistant, Murphy, is ingenious. While jumping around punching baddies, you simultaneously control a flying companion that removes environmental obstacles out of your way. Cut ropes using a face button while simultaneously leaping onto the rope to the next platform. All this somehow controls like a breeze. The cool thing is you can even have a partner control Murphy with couch co-op or online play. This extra dimension to platforming is engaging and elevates the genre in subtle ways that I wish more games would utilize.
The crazy music stages from Rayman Origins return here with even better rhythm platforming fun. Timing jumps along with a bizarre cover of “Eye of the Tiger” while desperately trying to save every Teensy is just one of many gaming moments I’ll never forget.
5. Castlevania: Symphony of the Night
The entire ‘Metroidvania’ sub-genre became codified with Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. This game was basically a gothic Metroid on steroids. Instead of multiple interconnected levels, Symphony of the Night allowed players to explore a gigantic mansion with hundreds of rooms and secrets to freely explore. In addition to this, SotN revolutionized the genre with RPG elements. You’re actually building your character throughout the game with stats tied to weapons, armor, and accessories. Like I said, Metroid on steroids.
The boss battles are strategic and require precise weapon usage and platforming to overcome, or you can just grind for upgraded gear and powerful abilities to overwhelm them. Symphony of the Night gave the player tons of options when it came to defeating enemies and general progression.
There are also plenty of legendary moments in Symphony of the Night that have been cemented in gaming history. Alucard proclaiming, “What is a man but a pile of miserable secrets?” with his so-bad-it’s-good voice acting is eternally meme-worthy. Likewise, having to traverse the entire castle again but flipped upside down is another iconic moment that gets riffed on today with clever referential sequences in games like Elden Ring.
4. Super Mario Galaxy
Super Mario 64 may be the most influential 3D platformer in history, and Super Mario Odyssey is perhaps the most well-designed, but Mario Galaxy is both. The originality regarding dimensional platforming is remarkable, and it delivers this new way of platforming with consistent mind-bending quality.
Super Mario Galaxy was the Nintendo Wii’s magnum opus, and it used the Wiimote technology with wonderful creativity with its star pull mechanic and true three-dimensional platforming. Sure, the Wii motion controls weren’t precise, but Mario Galaxy’s more broad platforming style suited it perfectly. This wasn’t a precision platformer; it was a planet-sized one.
Besides setting up the Wii as one of the most successful consoles of all time, Super Mario Galaxy teemed with the most creative 3D-level design we’ve ever seen.
3. Mega Man X
Mega Man X took the original Mega Man series, and Dragon Ball Z’d it. Wall jumping is perhaps the most prominent upgrade to Mega Man’s arsenal, and his new dash and charge burst were more impactful than they ever were in the original series.
The animation and sound design were turned to 10 here compared to the original series. Mega Man X’s intro sequence atop the highway bridge is a true masterclass in background design. I mean, a sci-fi metropolis under siege by maniacal robots with Mega Man fighting atop a crumpling highway over screaming guitars? Yes, please. And the music! Some of the stage themes for Mega Man X are almost too good for our ears.
In addition to heightened mobility and more action elements, the X series introduced some RPG mechanics in the form of equipment and upgrades. Sure, the upgrades were as simple as you can imagine, but collecting the best armor and unlocking the Hadouken for X added depth to an otherwise straightforward platformer. Mega Man X lives on today as one of the coolest games to ever grace a console in the 90s.
2. Super Metroid
Without a doubt, Super Metroid was the most ambitious game from the SNES era, and it succeeded brilliantly in its ambition. Super Metroid combined open-world exploration with platforming and action gameplay against the backdrop of a sci-fi horror story.
The first thing you hear when booting up Super Metroid is a haunting hum with a sinister beeping fading in. A hatchling is heard in the distance, immediately lighting up any sci-fi geek’s imagination. The intro to Super Metroid is atmospheric storytelling brilliance. Clearly, a smart ode to the film series Alien, Super Metroid’s deep space horror story went terrifyingly well with the explorative platforming gameplay.
Branching corridors and locked doors populate much of the abandoned space station. Thankfully, Samus has access to tons of secret items and upgrades hidden throughout the derelict facility. Super Metroid helped invent a genre that continues to thrive today. It’s tough to say what the current landscape of gaming would be if not for Super Metroid’s massive influence.
1. Super Mario World
Super Mario World gets the number one spot because… well because it’s just that good. While Super Mario World didn’t invent or codify sub-genres or game-changing mechanics like others on this list, it did solidify gaming as premium entertainment. Super Mario World is one of the best launch games a console’s ever had, with over 20 million copies sold today. Talk about a good first impression for a console.
Super Mario World gave players a sizeable interconnected map with branching paths and plenty of hidden exits. Unlike other platformers of the time, you could choose one of multiple levels and routes and go off the beaten path in search of secrets. The level design is as close to perfect as it comes. There’s a wealth of creativity from stage to stage while iterating on past gimmicks to throw some advanced platforming at the player to overcome.
Ghost Houses comprise some of the most ingenious levels, with trick doors, multiple mazelike rooms, and exits to confound the player. The sheer quality on display with Super Mario World continues to put modern games to task, so just imagine how next-gen it was in 1991.
That’s it for our top 10 best platformers of all time. If you enjoyed this list, check out our other top 10s here on Twinfinite!
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