There’s something magical about 3D platformers from the time of the Nintendo 64 and PlayStation that I can’t quite put my finger on.
Maybe it was the joy of seeing the platformer genre slowly translating to a new dimension, discovering what worked and what didn’t. Maybe it was the games that prided themselves on hidden items and vast amounts of collectibles that ensured many a long evening in front of the telly with mates. Maybe they were just wonderfully designed games.
Whatever the case, they all seem to share the same grainy, comforting, VHS era quality that I can’t help but find absolutely charming. Nintendo 64 or PlayStation – there’s no room for hate or sides here. Just ten games that celebrate a golden age of platforming goodness.
Before Naughty Dog made The Last of Us, they gave us Crash Bandicoot. By the standards of every other game on this list, Crash was a pretty basic platforming title offering a small but perfectly formed selection of linear levels.
Still, what it lacked in terms of length it more than made up for in difficulty. I recently went back to Crash Bandicoot to see if it was as tough as I remembered, or if I was just shit at it because I was a kid. Turns out it is in fact a punishing title that offers no quarter for the slightest mistakes.
Approach a jump wrong, mistime your attack on a enemy, accidentally set off a crate of TNT – all of these things will ensure that your bandicoot ass is on its way to heaven quicker than you can say “Ooga Booga”.
Forget modern games like Uncharted and their endless sea of “cinematic” platforming. This PlayStation gem was all you needed to feel like a real boss.
Gex: Enter The Gecko
A lot of what you see in Gex: Enter the Gecko resembles a hazy trip on some industrial strength hallucinogenics.
That’s not to say Gex isn’t a good game – far from it. It’s a damn funky title with a myriad of great locations to explore, wonderful level design, and a healthy dose of good old fashioned platforming challenge.
Much like Mario 64, Enter the Gecko was the first Gex game to enter the third dimension, and the developers pulled it off flawlessy. Gex remains a firm favourite for gamers of a certain age, and it’s a shame he’s not been seen for so long – his last game was in 1999.
Oh, and the voice of Gex in the British version of the game is one Leslie Phillips CBE, a well regarded English actor (and the voice of the Sorting Hat in the Harry Potter films).
Not since Pokemon has the concept of animal enslavement been so cute. Ape Escape is a fantastic looking game, only really falling short of modern standards because of jagged edges and naff textures. As a product of its time though? Probably one of the best looking games on the PlayStation.
The concept alone is brilliantly fun: A super smart ape sends an army of apes across time to rewrite history. It’s your job to track down these simian fiends and catch ’em with all manner of gadgets and gizmos.
There’s a wonderful range of weapons to use, vehicles to ride in, secrets to find, and apes to capture. Replay value was high with this one, as the urge to return to a level and grab any apes you missed first time round was always too strong to ignore.
Croc: Legend Of The Gobbos
Let’s get one thing straight: Croc is the most adorable motherfucker on this list. Look at him. Waddling around with his big eyes and his lil’ backpack. Croc is friend to all.
A blend of Mario 64, Spyro, and Crash Bandicoot, Legend of the Gobbos was actually intended as a prototype for a spin off of the Mario series about his dinosaur pal Yoshi.
Fittingly enough for a game motivated by Mario, every part of the first Croc game seeps a certain kind of Nintendo magic. It’s cute without being too “kiddy” and the characters and level designs have clearly had a huge amount of love, care, and polish put into them.
It’s not hugely relevant, but can I also just point out that Croc is a vegetarian who eats mostly peas? That’s basically Legend of the Gobbos in a nutshell: lovably whimsical.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day
So, we have Croc firmly on the cute and cuddly side of the videogame mascot spectrum. Then right over at the opposite end (probably pissing up a wall) we have Conker, the foul mouthed squirrel with a drinking problem.
Conker’s Bad Fur Day is the kind of game your nan might have accidentally gotten you for Christmas based on the cutesy name, then watched in horror as you turned it on and saw what it really was: a platforming adventure into the depths of depravity.
During development the game was originally meant to be aimed at kiddywinks under the name Conker’s Quest, but was deemed too similar to other titles on the market. Props to developer Rare for going so far in the other direction.
And of course, I can’t not mention one of the greatest boss battles of all time. Who could possibly forget the Great Mighty Poo? A giant turd that endeavored to throw his own shit at you. Truly wonderful.
Another platforming masterpiece from Rare. Incidentally, they also made Goldeneye 64, which many gamers still consider to be an incredible multiplayer FPS. Rare were fucking great, basically.
Anyway, Banjo Kazooie remains a fantastic game even by today’s standards. Everything from the sound design, intricate level of detail on show and brilliantly put together levels all came together to create a truly fantastic product.
Again, similar to Mario 64, there was no set order in which to go about things. Ol’ Banjo could do whatever the fuck he wanted, and there was so much to do.
Spyro The Dragon
The fall of Spyro the Dragon was perhaps one of the hardest journeys I’ve ever had to watch a videogame icon endure – second only to Sonic the Hedgehog.
Back in the days when Insomniac Games were putting out Spyro titles for the PlayStation, it seemed like he’d be one of the greats forever. That purple bastard made me believe he could take on the likes of Mario and come out on top.
The first game, fittingly called Spyro the Dragon, was wonderful. A colourful collectathon with a wry sense of humour, a great deal of challenge, and absolutely breathtaking visuals (for the time).
My only beef with the original Spyro? That prick who ran off with the eggs. I think we’re all united in our hatred of that shady piece of shit.
Donkey Kong 64
Donkey Kong 64 is a kleptomaniac’s dream. For an N64 title there’s an almost indecent amount of content to find. Think Mario 64 crossed with the LEGO games and you’ll get a good idea of what this one is like.
There were a ton of different worlds to explore, each one rammed with all manner of hidden items and secrets. Besides DK himself, there were other characters to play as, each with their own unique abilities, ensuring you’d be returning to familiar levels to see what you’d missed on a regular basis.
It was never going to have the same impact as certain other Nintendo games of the time, but it remains an often overlooked slice of brilliance.
Then there was the DK Rap, which is quite possibly the single greatest piece of music of all time.
Rayman 2: The Great Escape
Back before Assassin’s Creed and Far Cry, Rayman was probably Ubisoft’s most treasured possession. He’s fallen by the wayside a bit of late, but it should never be forgotten that The Great Escape easily sits as one of the best platform games ever made, if not one of the best games period.
Many critics at the time consider Rayman’s second outing to be a game changer for the 3D platforming genre. While similar in concept to the first Rayman (a 2D side-scrolling adventure), our limbless hero managed to hit a whole new level when transferred to 3D.
Beyond the flawless gameplay, The Great Escape sticks in the memory for so many of us because of its wonderful soundtrack and brilliantly written cast of imaginative characters.
Super Mario 64
Whatever your feelings on Nintendo, it’s very unlikely that the other nine games on this list would have happened in quite the same way were it not for Super Mario 64. One of the greatest and most important videogames of all time, without a doubt.
Exploring Peach’s Castle, looking for paintings that led to incredible worlds, collecting stars and slinging Bowser around by his scaly tail – there’s rarely a moment in this game that doesn’t feel joyous. The castle and the surrounding grounds provided an incredible HUB world that gamers spent countless hours exploring, desperate to uncover its secrets.
And that’s to say nothing of the actual levels themselves, which were endlessly inventive, surprising, and in many cases hard as nails.
Super Mario 64 took a character who was famous for his flawless 2D platformers, and put him in a flawless 3D platformer instead. A solid example of Nintendo at their very best, and a title every gamer needs to play.
Ewan Moore is a journalist at UNILAD Gaming who still quite hasn’t gotten out of his mid 00’s emo phase. After graduating from the University of Portsmouth in 2015 with a BA in Journalism & Media Studies (thanks for asking), he went on to do some freelance words for various places, including Kotaku, Den of Geek, and TheSixthAxis, before landing a full time gig at UNILAD in 2016.