In One Giant Leap, Dramus18 charts the evolution of the platformer genre, one year at a time. This month: we check out Jumping Flash! and see what the first attempts at 3D platforming looked like
Last month, we talked about how the entire games industry was champing at the bit to start working in 3D, and looked at a 2.5D game that reflected this. Next month, we’ll be looking at the 3D platformer that codified not just that genre but the basic framework for how all 3D games with a third-person camera would operate. Which means that this month, we get a pretty rare opportunity. What did these 3D games that people were so desperate to make look like before some rude Italian gave everyone the answer key?
Jumping Flash! is a strange little game. It’s a 3D platformer before Super Mario 64, it’s a console FPS before Halo, it’s a first person platformer period. It’s so many things that historically do not work very well at all. And yet the entire game, taken as a whole, is surprisingly strong. Peeking behind the curtain a bit, I tend to pick games for this column that are both notable and generally well-regarded. Even when I turn out to not like a game very much, I don’t generally choose games with the intent of picking on them. But, that wasn’t necessarily going to be the case for Jumping Flash!. I chose this one because I thought it was important to have a pre-SM64 3D platformer to establish a baseline, but I fully expected the article itself would be a lot of “here’s all of the very obvious-in-retrospect mistakes they made, but don’t be too hard on them, this was a very tough challenge”. So I am delighted to report that this game is actually, genuinely good.
To be clear, this doesn’t mean it isn’t also extremely dated. The most obvious culprit here are the “tank” controls. You press left and right on the d-pad to rotate in place, and press up and down to move forward/backwards. You can press a diagonal to move forward while rotating, which is almost like analog movement in a “we already have analog movement at home!” sense. These were very common in the early 3D era despite being almost entirely absent from the 21st century, and we can pretty much entirely chalk it up to “if you’re trying to get 360 degrees of movement out of a d-pad with 4 digital buttons you have to make some compromises”.
And yet, it kind of works here? The biggest weakness of tank controls is that they make it hard to move in a specific direction quickly. It takes up to a few seconds to fully turn around to face your new direction, and since you only move in the direction you’re facing1 that means it also takes up to a few seconds to move in your desired direction. But, Jumping Flash! never really needs you to change directions all that quickly. There aren’t a lot of enemies, and you have a lot of HP, and even the platforming challenges very rarely incorporate elements of timing.
And that, I think, gets at maybe the biggest reason I enjoyed Jumping Flash!: it’s very easy. At the time, critics viewed this as a significant flaw, but I take a different view. Jumping Flash! is trying something that hadn’t really been done before, and it’s a very rough attempt in places, but it also knows that about itself. It doesn’t ask for the player to compensate for its own weaknesses. We’re all learning here; there’s no need for pressure.
But there is a little more going on here than “well it didn’t frustrate me so I guess it’s fine”. There are some legitimately clever choices going on here. Jumping Flash! features a triple jump. Double+ jumps weren’t exactly uncommon in the 2D era, but they become almost a necessity in 3D, where distances are harder to judge and some form of course correction is often required. And not only does this game realize this fact right out of the gate, it adds a very useful twist to the mechanic. You see, Jumping Flash! is in first-person, which is not generally advised for a platformer, since it becomes difficult to judge where you are in relation to the platform you’re trying to land on. But, when double or triple jumping, the camera shifts from pointing forward to pointing down, meaning you can see your feet clearly as you land and can perform those important last-second adjustments2.
Probably the biggest weakness here is the level design. There are two levels that are enclosed mazes, but otherwise the levels are wide open arenas. The objective in each level is to collect a certain number of rocket pods3 and then reach the exit. Unfortunately, the game really struggles to dress it up any. You just kinda aimlessly wander to the far corners of the map until you stumble on the rocket pod on a platform high up or something. It just has massive “tech demo” vibes to me, which is honestly not an entirely inaccurate label for the game as a whole. Jumping Flash! is a surprisingly enjoyable few hours, and I’d recommend it to anyone interested in a blast from the past4 but I don’t want to oversell here.
The early 3D era is full of failed experiments and jank. There were hardly any templates, so lots of studios crashed and burned while flying blind. Even many of the successes are qualified; they get a few things close to right, but you also have to put up with some Stuff. In this context, Jumping Flash! is worth celebrating. It gets a few things right; the aforementioned triple jump, the fact that the player casts a shadow straight down to assist with landing5, even the aimless levels demonstrate an understanding that the old linear obstacle courses perhaps no longer make sense in a world of full 3D movement. And it does all this while being enjoyable to play. Jumping Flash! has been wrongly forgotten by history. It rules.
- Tank controls are a bad idea, and first person platforming is a bad idea, but they’re two bad ideas that sort of cancel out? Since one of the problems of the FPP is being unable to slightly adjust your facing on a tight platform without risking falling off, but tank controls inherently let you rotate in place. Again, they might not have known what they were “supposed” to do, but they weren’t dummies.
- The game will pop up an objective marker on screen when a jet pod is close enough, which is a nice way of calling it out since details can easily get lost in PS1 graphics. It’s also a very early instance of what would eventually become a pretty standard design tool, though not necessarily in platformers.
Other 1995 platformers of note:
We get a follow-up to Super Mario World in Super Mario World 2: Yoshi’s Island, but calling it a SMW sequel feels disingenuous. Yoshi’s Island has you playing as Yoshi himself, escorting Baby Mario through dangerous worlds. As Yoshi, your moveset is completely different than Mario (this game introduced flutter jumping and egg throwing to the character). Additionally, Yoshi’s Island features a really distinctive hand-drawn crayon aesthetic, in deliberate contrast to the fancy psuedo 3D graphics of Donkey Kong Country and its many imitators.
Next Time: Mario enters the 3rd dimension in Super Mario 64