Jumping for Joy: The History of Platform Video Games strikes a successful balance, providing an in-depth account of the facts of the genre’s greatest players while offering a subjectively curated list of overlooked platforms. We could start with Green Hill Zone and Bowser’s Castle, but there’s plenty of time for things worth seeing off the beaten path.
These destinations are a big part of what this guide by author Chris Scullion is designed to help you sightsee. The first two sections of the book are dedicated to running and jumping the most famous icons, first giving an overview of each Mario platformer, then going through each Sonic sidescroller. Midway through the book, it jumps to a rundown of 50 important Scullion games, starting with early titles in the genre, like Pitfall! and Manic Miner, and extending to recent standouts like It Takes Two and Celeste.
At first, I was wary of Scullion’s approach. There are plenty of Mario and Sonic games out there and a lot of them (especially, sorry, from Sega’s side) aren’t that worthy of attention. Fortunately, the bet pays off. On the one hand, the parallel approach allows the reader to learn more about Mario and Sonic in the context of each series, rather than in competition. Games industry stories – even books like Console Wars and Super Mario that focus more on a publisher – tend to be drawn to the framing of who’s up, who’s down, what the marketing around them is. console wars encouraged. Jumping for Joy claims that each series is interesting on its own. Each new entry meant something to its respective series and to the players who experienced it, not just as a shot through its competitor’s branch. Scullion does a good job framing them this way.
Jumping for Joy’s biggest problem, then, is how much Scullion seems to care about aspects of games that games themselves rarely devote much time or attention to. In the early Mario/Sonic sections, each game only gets a third or quarter of the page. Despite the limited space, Scullion devotes a bewildering amount of words to the story behind each entry. When I got to Donkey Kong 64, a game I had never played because everyone from critics to friends told me not to bother, I was disappointed to see that Jumping for Joy devoted a good third of the entry to the story game. I’m not completely opposed to including narrative information – analyzing how this game’s story and mechanics intertwine is crucial if you want to understand how the medium works – but when there’s so much So much ground to cover and so little space to cover it with, it’s frustrating to see the game’s historical context, gameplay and critical reception so little addressed.
This problem runs through much of the book and sometimes prevents Scullion from digging deeper into how a game represents a stage in the evolution of a series. I was also disappointed when I got to the Super Mario Odyssey chapter and found that the book only briefly mentioned the game’s possession mechanic and devoted more space to its story. While there’s certainly some analysis to be done about the themes that repeatedly appear in Mario and Sonic’s narratives, without that analysis the constant invocation of history seems odd to me when talking about series primarily focused on the gameplay.
However, in the back half, Jumping for Joy gives each game discussed a full two-page spread that solves this problem. Another problem arises though, with hugely important and influential games like Super Mario 64 and Sonic the Hedgehog ending up with far less space than Bubsy in Claws Encounters of the Furred Kind and Klonoa: Door to Phantomile. How much will it bother you depending on whether you’re reading a book about the history of games for the first time or already know the familiar stuff by heart.
Overall, I quite like the structure the book uses for its back half. Giving so much space to a game like Bug! or Pandemonium! or Zool (sorry no exclamation mark on this one) offers the reader a chance to experience games they’ve never heard of and which might otherwise be lost to history for a generation of gamers who don’t weren’t there to see it on a Blockbuster shelf. I’ll take a little less on Super Mario Galaxy if that means I get more on Jumping Flash. That’s the compromise the book makes, and it’s largely a success. Scullion offers breadth to the biggest players in the genre and depth to underdogs.
NEXT: I Can’t Stop Thinking About Klonoa’s Gut-Punch Ending