Side-Scrolling Re-Enters Stage Left

Side-Scrolling Re-Enters Stage Left
Gaming's silver age was the late '80s side-scroller era, a bygone time when Italian plumbers and blue hedgehogs were superheroes, Contra's cheat code became geek shorthand and videogames went side-to-side - but never inside.

Once gaming evolved into a third dimension, side-scrolling became a nostalgic fetish. But recently, game makers have rediscovered the artistry inherent in working with a limited dimensional palette. Gears of War developer Epic Games made a huge splash with their late-summer Shadow Complex, which quickly became the biggest Xbox Live game ever, with 200,000 downloads in the first week alone.

This crisply beautiful game is about a dude who goes camping only to stumble across an underground military base housing a secret army of leftist terrorists hell-bent on kick-starting a second civil war. (Though politics aren't much discussed in this adaptation of Orson Scott Card's right-wing nightmare novel Empire, Card's professed homophobia has sparked some controversy.)

After said dude's girlfriend is kidnapped, he must find her and then find his way out. Thing is, he can only move left, right, up and down. This design decision makes it fundamentally no different from any mid-'80s entry in the storied "Metroidvania" genre - named after Nintendo's seminal exploration-based platformer Metroid and Castlevania, which revamped the Super Mario-style side-scrollers to make backtracking not only possible but necessary,

To be fair, Shadow Complex cheats a little. While your character is restricted to two dimensions, the Unreal Engine-built environments are 3D and you can shoot deeper into the game world than you can move. But despite the HD finish, it proves that old-school side-scrolling game play still flies.

The PS3 and PC are getting their own modern side-scroller Trine. Finnish indie Frozenbyte's physics-based fairy tale platformer similarly blends gorgeous 3D graphics with 2D controls but adds three player co-op (or the ability to switch between three characters in single-player) to crack the game's clever puzzles.

Then there's one of the holiday season's most anticipated games - New Super Mario Bros Wii, the first console-size, old school Mario side-scroller since 1990. A shockingly long time span considering Nintendo DS's New Super Mario Bros has sold over 18 million since 2006.

I've logged some too-brief playtime with the game and its brilliance lies largely in simply not abandoning the brilliance of the original games. Though they've added some minor motion controls and co-op multiplayer (actually a hallmark of the original 1983 Mario Bros arcade game) it is otherwise a slightly prettier and similarly imaginative version of its iconic precedents. It doesn't need to be more. Sega has finally realized this fact themselves after a string of failed 3D Sonic games, recently announcing that their Hedgehog will return to its side-scrolling roots next year.

As a gamer who grew up in the NES/Super Nintendo era, it's rad to see developers remembering the ingenuity required when one doesn't have the safety of a three-dimensional world to wander. Console download stores are increasingly replete with these side-scrollers, from new IPs like 'Splosion Man to retro-remakes like TMNT: Turtles in Time Re-Shelled, to last year's indie hits, the philosophical platformer Braid and best-selling beat-em-up Castle Crashers.

Montreal studio Ubisoft is even turning Bryan Lee O'Malley's comic series Scott Pilgrim into side-scrolling geek manna. There are also brand-new retro-inspired games like the 8-bit Mega Man 9 and recently released 16-bit Contra ReBirth, which deliver faithfully old school graphics and design. Castlevania is next on Konami's list for a 2D "ReBirth" revival.

Sure, these games may not be able to replicate the experience of cruising Liberty City, wandering Washington DC wastelands or fleeing a Big Daddy. But side-scrollers bring videogames back to their purest form - jumping, running, gunning and exploring. The genre is returning to popularity because that third dimension may add depth but it doesn't always add fun. After all, there's a reason why this distilled game design is called classic.