Whatever happened to collect-a-thon platformers?
Earlier last year Yooka-Laylee came out, promising to be a grand revival of the collect-a-thon platformer and… it wasn’t. For all its similarities to games like Banjo-Kazooie and Super Mario 64, Yooka-Laylee felt too big, overly padded for content, and generally compelling from a gameplay perspective. Even its jumping, which is arguably the central point of any collect-a-thon platformer, felt repetitive at best and failed to engage the gamer in ways that near identical games had in the past.
This led some to postulate that the collect-a-thon genre was simply dead. Genres are a transient thing after all. It’s entirely possible that the collect-a-thon platformer came about due to our infatuation with moving in the third dimension in early days of polygonal graphics technology. Now that three dimensional movement is fairly standard, games that focus on this movement have lost their appeal. This would explain why a game that was so similar to Banjo-Kazooie failed so hard in our current gaming environment.
But that theory ignores a lot of recent successes. A Hat in Time was an indie 3D platformer that had a positive reception and Super Mario Odyssey was one of the best games of 2017. Even games like Super Mario 3D World had appeal, even though it was a hybrid of the standard platformer and collect-a-thon formulas. There are plenty of games out there that build their core gameplay around moving and jumping in 3D, which should be proof enough that the genre isn’t “dead.”
So why has there been such a huge drought in collect-a-thon platformer releases? In addition, recent collect-a-thon platformers have massively changed the formula, from Super Mario Odyssey’s 800 moons and open-world feel, to A Hat in Times’ rapid changes in gameplay mechanics. Does this mean that the classic formula that we remember from titles such as Banjo Kazooie is dead?
Let’s examine the genre piece by piece. If the “platformer” part of collect-a-thon platformers isn’t dead, then maybe the “collect-a-thon” part is dead. But this theory, again, ignores many recent successes, specifically the success of the open world genre. In a sense, open world games are exactly the same as collect-a-thons. Instead of collecting coins or stars or notes or any other little trinkets, you are collecting missions, treasure, and special equipment. The theory is the same, collect enough stuff to move on to the next area to collect more stuff.
In fact, one of the most recent open world successes, The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild, is remarkably similar to the collect-a-thon formula. The core of its gameplay involved finding shrines and collecting spirit orbs. Half of these shrines involved jumping puzzles of a sort. Many shrines required jumping and climbing to even get to them in the first place. If jumping and collecting are the two defining aspects of a collect-a-thon’s gameplay then doesn’t that make The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild a collect-a-thon?
I think Breath of the Wild and Super Mario Odyssey’s existence sheds some light on what happened to the collect-a-thon platformer up until recent days. The collect-a-thon has evolved, much like every other genre has, by absorbing aspects of other genres. Think about how many genres include RPG elements. That too was a natural evolution of the RPG genre and gaming in general.
This means that any genre that uses collecting as a major gameplay mechanic has borrowed from the collect-a-thon genre, and just about every genre has collecting in it. Whether you are collecting guns and loot in Borderlands, collecting Riddler Trophies in the Batman Arkham series, or collecting special pieces of art in Mario + Rabbids Kingdom Battle, collection has become a major part of most game genres. It’s just not the central focus anymore.
Which begs the question, will we ever see a return to the collect-a-thon genre of old. Can retro revivals like Yooka-Laylee actually survive in our market? The answer is both yes and no. For the collect-a-thon to come back, it needs to adopt aspects from other genres to become something bigger than itself. This is what we see in games like Super Mario Odyssey.
There are many ways to put a new spin on collect-a-thons. RPG elements are always a good place to start. Making your collectibles unlock new abilities will give the player a sense of progress. Metroidvania is another great genre to cross over with. After nabbing a certain amount of collectibles, new areas on a huge collected map can open up, giving you an opportunity to traverse them with new abilities.
But as we add more and more elements to our collect-a-thon formula, you might notice that we are becoming more and more like games that already exist, games like Breath of the Wild or Metroid Prime. So maybe collect-a-thons aren’t dead after all. Maybe they never were dead. Maybe they simply changed, adapting to the extent that they aren’t recognizable anymore.
Maybe that says more about the way we think of genres than the collect-a-thon genre itself. Game genres are kind of a messy thing to begin with. Some genres are based on mechanics, some are based on tone, some are based on graphics, and some are even based on what country the game is made in. We don’t really have a good system for dividing games up into categories. Maybe we don’t even need one. Maybe the success of platformers, open world games, and other games with collect-a-thon elements is proof that the collect-a-thon did its job, and one way or another its legacy lives on.
Or maybe Mario will be the only series to truly inherit the collect-a-thon name for years to come.
What do you think? Is Super Mario Odyssey a grand revival of the collect-a-thon genre or did the genre never die in the first place? Let us know in the comments.