Day 37: The Side-Scroller – One-Upping Video Games For 35 Years

originally published February 6, 2012

The fundamental theorem of Riemannian Geometry states that on any Riemannian manifold, there is a unique torsion-free metric connection, called the Levi-Civita connection of the given metric. This is what Wikipedia felt I should write about on a Sunday morning. Instead, I hit ‘Random Article’ once more, and now get to write about video games.

Specifically, side-scrolling games. If there is anyone left in the modern world who doesn’t know what a side-scrolling game is by name, hopefully they have seen Super Mario Brothers, or maybe its discount non-brand knockoff version, Súper Manuel Hermanos.

A side-scroller is a game in which you control a little dude (or a little vehicle, or a little bubble thingy) and you move sideways (usually) across the screen toward a goal.

The first of these games was called Bomber, and was released by Sega in 1977. In this arcade game you fly an airplane, shoot enemies and drop bombs on buildings below. As you progress through the level, your plane moves closer to the other side of the screen, meaning you have less time to react when enemy fighters arrive to shoot you. This is one of those ridiculously arbitrary limitations in some side-scrolling games, like the fact that you can’t move backward in Super Mario Brothers. Side-scrollers are not known for their realism.

In Bomber, the screen doesn’t move. You survive to the end of the screen and you win the level. In Defender (1980), the screen moves along with you, and while there are levels, there is no real end to the game. This meant that, because proving oneself in an arcade was the early 80s equivalent of the gladiator arena, competitions were held to see who could last the longest on a single quarter. Some guy named Steve Juraszek from Illinois allegedly played for over 16 and a half hours in 1982. That would be the greatest achievement in Steve Juraszek’s life, and it probably didn’t even get him laid.

Thexter was the breakthrough side-scroller that featured a guy with a gun as the protagonist. Described on the box as a “Super Real Time Computer Game”, you controlled a fighter robot with startling good posture as he runs through world made up of colored blocks and shoots a white line at enemies that look like hamburgers and puppy chew-toys.

1985’s Gradius, which coaxed me out of a river of quarters back when life was simple and my priorities were more logical, allowed a variety of weapons to add to the meat of the game. The game spawned a number of sequels, because it’s not just Hollywood that recycles ideas.

Ikari Warriors is thrown into this category, but that seems like a bit of a cheat. The view in this game was top-down, and the characters ran toward the top of the screen. Also, the promise made by the game’s packaging was almost criminally disappointing when you played the actual game:

Games in the 1980s relied on kids’ ability to employ what little imagination and suspension of disbelief that television had not yet sucked out of them. Game worlds were never realistic, and often they weren’t even logical. Still, when 12-year-old me sat down to play Ikari Warriors, I was Ralf or Clark. (Yes, those were the characters’ names – pretty bad-ass) This may be why the concepts were so vague and ridiculous back then; we didn’t need a good back-story, or to understand why the little blobs shooting at us wanted us to die. We just wanted to shoot stuff.

Nintendo’s Excitebike is an example of a side-scrolling racing game. These were fine games, so long as you had no problem with the fact that you couldn’t see what was in front of you, apart from the tiny amount that appears on the screen. Come to think of it, I think a lot of kids who played that game still drive with a similar lack of foresight.

The first scrolling platform game was something called Jump Bug, in which you control a bouncing car and make it jump onto platforms and clouds. Why someone decided that this salad of stretched logic should be the basis for this new style of gaming, I have no clue.

Nintendo made the side-scroller a gaming standard when it released several of them among the first batch of 18 games with the Nintendo Entertainment System in 1985. This included Ice Climber, in which you control an Eskimo armed with a large hammer who has to dodge seals, polar bears and birds as you climb through the environment to retrieve stolen vegetables from a giant condor. It’s like the game designers threw a bunch of words into a hat and wrote games based on what they drew out.

The last form of side-scroller to develop is the beat-em-up game. In the world of these games, enemies would lie in wait, killing time until you reached their ‘room’ or ‘area’, at which time the screen would stop scrolling and you would have to defeat them in hand-to-hand combat in order to advance. It didn’t matter if the enemies were just twenty feet away, past the next tree, they would have to wait their turn. I wish they’d make movies based on these games that emulated the actual logic around which these games were constructed.

As technology got better, the side-scrolling games began to disappear. Super Mario 64 took the Mario franchise into a 3-D world, where all the drug-induced elements from the original games (angry mushrooms, unpleasant turtles who kill you if you touch their face) were rendered in a more visually immersive environment.

Today’s games have rendered the 2-D side-scroller almost obsolete. For those who have the time, the inclination, and the fond memories of these games from childhood, there are still a number of side-scrollers showing up in the online browser world, at sites like Kongregate, Armor Games, and Addicting Games. Some of these games are great, they’re all free, and you can play them with your actual work open in another window, believing that somehow you are being productive.

Me, I’d rather play any of these games than think about how the curvature tensor can be defined for any pseudo-Riemannian manifold, or indeed any manifold equipped with an affine connection. But that’s just me.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s