For many people of a certain generation, 2D platform games were almost certainly the first games they played as a child.
If you grew up in a Nintendo household, your first time holding a controller almost certainly coincided with the first time you played a Mario game. If you grew up with a console that did what Nintendon’t, then you more than likely spent your youth running through loops and bouncing on badniks.
Of course, the humble 2D platformer wasn’t born in the late 80s or early 90s.
There are arguments around which game can truly be crowned as the ‘first 2D platform game’ but looking back to the start of the decade that gave us Transformers, leg-warmers and Kajagoogoo gives us a glimpse of the earliest platform games, such as 1980’s Space Panic or 1981’s Donkey Kong.
While we obviously celebrate everything old-school here at Retro Dodo (the clue is in the name), we are also thrilled to see that the 2D platform games didn’t vanish with advent of three dimensional rendering.
It’s safe to say then that the 2D platformer is here to stay, and to celebrate we’re going to highlight 10 of the best 2D platform games of all time.
Table of Contents
1. Super Mario All-Stars (1993)
The best 2D platform game of all time is Super Mario All Stars, a celebration of everything that defines a great platform game!
Including Super Mario All Stars at the top of our list of the best 2D platform games of all time is the only way to celebrate all of Mario’s earliest outings without the little moustachioed one dominating almost half of our list.
It’s impossible to deny the impact that the original Super Mario Bros. had on players and the industry as a whole and its sequels ushered in greater challenges, complex level design and unforgettable music.
Every game in Super Mario All Stars is immediately playable with gamers able to jump in and start having fun instantly. Super Mario All Stars slapped a fresh paint of coat on these games back in 1993 and they are still beautiful to look at and play thirty years later.
Perhaps Mario’s most important contribution to the platform genre is his moveset. Players will quickly grasp Mario’s abilities within the opening moments of any game in Super Mario All Stars. He moves with a simplicity and fluidity that is often imitated and rarely bettered.
Naturally Mario’s adventures ramp up the difficulty from early-doors but that’s also what makes them so rewarding to play through. The obstacles in your way will rarely feeling like you were cheated, and will only harden your resolve to improve and overcome them.
2. Sonic Mania (2017)
Narrowly missing out on the top spot by a rodent’s whisker, Sonic Mania is the best 2D Sonic game. That wasn’t an easy sentence to write either as my opinion on which of Sonic’s 2D games is the best changes almost as fast as the Blue Blur runs.
Despite my lifelong love for Sonic’s escapades on the Mega Drive, Sonic Mania features the perfect blend of everything that makes Sonic special. The game features stages that encourage confident speeding, imaginative bosses that pay homage to Sonic’s history and a soundtrack that slaps harder than Big the Cat.
Sonic Mania arrived just in time for Sonic’s 25th anniversary and was spearheaded by lead programmer and friend to pixels and polys alike, Christian ‘Taxman’ Whitehead.
Sonic’s most notable attribute, his speed, has often been the undoing of games with level design that can’t quite accommodate a character that moves as swiftly as Sonic does.
Perhaps more so than any other Sonic game, Sonic Mania nails the locomotion of it’s main character and in turn fixes a grin on the players face as they zip through zones, rolling through loop-the-loops and pinging between bumpers.
Sonic Mania’s levels and physics aren’t the only things to celebrate though, with Tee Lopes’ music delivering a soundtrack that is quintessentially classic Sonic and yet modern.
Throw in a whole host of playable characters, endless replay value, stunning boss fights and a plethora of game modes and it’s easy to see what makes Sonic Mania one of the greatest 2D platform games of all time.
3. Celeste (2018)
Most platformers encourage you to literally get over stuff. Jump this, vault that, clear these spikes, bounce over those baddies. And sure, Celeste, sees you doing all of those things, but it also makes you think about getting over something else.
Can you get over your own insecurities?
The premise of Madeline is a unique one within gaming. It’s rare that we take charge of a character who lives with anxiety and depression, and it’s even more unusual to see those emotions and challenges form such a fundamental building block of the gameplay.
Madeline encounters a loveable cast of characters during her climb up Celeste Mountain with each screen becoming a more challenging platforming puzzles than the last. Thankfully an instant restart means failures can be easily brushed aside in favour of just one more go.
I love to highlight accessibility options in games and they don’t get much better than those found in Celeste. Multiple aspects of the gameplay can be tweaked to suit an individuals personal preferences, from disabling damage to enabling infinite air dashes. Celeste is a game that is accessible to all and wants you to enjoy it’s heartwarming story regardless of your platforming prowess.
And if all of the running, jumping and climbing gets too much, you can simply fire up Celeste and relax with it’s beautiful soundtrack.
4. Mega Man 2 (1988)
And I thought Celeste was going to be the hardest game I wrote about today!
Mega Man 2 sees our titular hero once again facing off against the nefarious Dr. Wily and his assortment of robotic ragamuffins.
While not as tricky as it’s predecessor, Mega Man 2 still delivers a brutal platform experience that requires both patience and fast reflexes to overcome.
Each of the eight stages is littered with deviously placed enemies just ready to ruin your day. The sort of enemies that seem to fire a projectile with laser accuracy into Mega Man’s groin every time he jump.
So getting shot in the groin doesn’t sound very fun and yet I’ve put Mega Man 2 in the number four spot in our list of the best 2D platform games of all time. What gives?
I’m pleased you asked, dear reader. The joy of Mega Man 2 isn’t the getting shot in the groin; it’s overcoming those that shoot us in the groin.
Learning a level’s layout through trial and error to eventually overcome it with pin point accurate platform is extremely gratifying.
Every boss in Mega Man 2 poses a challenging threat to the player but beating them and stealing their power to use against other bosses makes us feel great! Add in the strategy of picking the correct order to beat each boss and you’ve got yourself a demanding yet perfect platform game for the ages.
5. Disney’s Aladdin (1993)
Disney’s finest movie became one of the Mega Drive’s finest platform games back in 1993. The platform market at the time was saturated with mascot platformers, and for every Sonic or Mario there were a dozen clones that failed to nail the concept.
Fortunately, we were in the 16-bit era and licenced movie games were still a few years away from becoming the greedy cash-grab that they were during the late 90’s through to the late 2000s.
Disney’s Aladdin captured the charm of the movie from the off with it’s loving recreation of the Peddler’s storefront serving as the opening menu screen. The developers at Virgin Games created a game full of gorgeous artwork that replicated the look and feel of the movie perfectly.
Disney’s Aladdin is one of the funniest animated classics from the House of Mouse, and that humour makes its way to the Mega Drive with guards losing their pants instead of being brutally sliced up by Aladdin’s scimitar.
The game follows the young street-rat Aladdin as he makes his way from the streets of Agrabah before finding a mystical lamp in the Cave of Wonders and encountering the magical Genie of the lamp and a flying carpet.
Aladdin manages to balance traditional platforming sections with intense-high speed carpet riding levels that demonstrate that you don’t have to be a hedgehog to be a platforming icon on the Mega Drive.
6. Hollow Knight (2017)
We burrow down into the Kingdom of Hallownest for the next entry on our list and say hello to the beautiful Hollow Knight.
Taking place in an underground society of bugs and creepy crawlies, Hollow Knight bucks the trend of many 2D platform games and embraces a muted and darker colour palette than many of it’s contemporaries.
Playing as a modest knight, you must travel to the forsaken kingdom and uncover the truth behind the infection that has ravaged the once great civilisation. Fans of the Souls series will be at home with copious environmental storytelling and lore.
Hallownest is a labyrinth of claustrophobic passages and hidden avenues that intricately link to one another.
Through upgrading the Knight, new abilities are unlocked that allow players to explore deeper into the unknown and discover all manner of horrors and threats.
Not for the faint of heart, Hollow Knight is difficult game that is easy to fall in love with. If the splendid artistry doesn’t get you, the perfect platforming and ethereal vibes will.
7. Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze (2014)
Technically the second entry on our list for Nintendo’s beloved Ape, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze originally swung into action on the Wii-U back in 2014.
The ‘tropical freeze’ of the title describes the onslaught of the invading Snowmads upon Donkey Kong Island. These chilly chumps have locked the Kong homestead in a deep freeze and it’s up to DK, Diddy and the rest of the Kong troop to hit the defrost button!
While Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is aesthetically pleasing to players of any age, its cute looks hide a deviously tough platforming challenge. Like the best platform games though, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze’s hardest endeavours can be overcome with patience and skill.
Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze perfects the classic 2D platforming formula and is host to a veritable bevy of secrets and hidden collectibles across its seven different islands. Those collectibles can unlock a bounty of bonuses and hidden levels for even more platforming goodness.
With fluid platforming, tons of secrets and a great assortment of bosses to fight, Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze is a must place for fans of the platforming genre. It’s easy to see why it made it into our list of the best Donkey Kong games.
8. Rayman Legends (2013)
Rayman Legends makes it’s way onto another of our ‘top ten’ lists. We love this game at Retro Dodo and it’s easy to see why.
The artistic achievement in Rayman Legends is unmatched by any other game on this list, with every scene bursting with life and imagination.
Rayman’s quirky adventure takes place one hundred years after the events of Rayman Origins and our titular hero has been snoozing ever since closing the book on that caper. The Dark Magician is back and this time he’s split himself into five clones and is terrorising the Teensies.
Yes, it sounds cutesy, but the set up means that Rayman and co. must travel through over one hundred levels of precise platforming heaven.
In addition to the regular platforming levels with spins, dives and wall jumps, Rayman Legends introduces the fantastic musical levels.
Each one of these presents a rift on a well-known banger and the team at Ubisoft Montreal have crafted an exquisite series of levels to accompany each melody, including running along the rooftops to ‘Black Betty’ and riding sand serpents to the tune of ‘Eye of the Tiger’.
It’s a crime that we haven’t seen a sequel to this tremendous achievement. Let’s hope we don’t have to wait a century for a follow up!
9. Rocket Knight Adventures (1993)
1993 really was the year of the platformer, wasn’t it! Not to be outdone by Sega, Nintendo or Virgin, Konami brought out the phenomenal Rocket Knight Adventures.
Rocket Knight Adventures sees players take on the role of Sparkster, a possum in a suit of armour wielding a sword and rocking a jet pack on his back.
Full marks to Konami for creating this iconic character during a time when every other game starred some forgettable mascot!
Sparkster is a little sluggish to move around the screen on foot, but he literally flies when you prime his rocket attack. A fully charged possum pinging around the screen with his sword out in front of him is something to behold, and decking enemies with this attack is still so much fun thirty years later.
Rocket Knight Adventures isn’t just about dismembering enemies with swords as Sparkster eventually gets to pilot his rocket pack during fast-paced, on rails sections.
The game offers a thrilling challenge for players and, while it’s relatively short, every level brings something new and unique to the gameplay.
10. Donkey Kong (1981)
The ‘OG’. The ‘King of the Apes’. The ‘legally-different-enough-to-have-teams-of-lawyers-from-Universal-Studios-throwing-darts-at-pictures-of-Shigeru-Miyamoto’ monkey man! Of course, we’re talking about Donkey Kong.
Donkey Kong burst onto the arcade scene back in 1981 and was an immediate smash hit. The premise was originally supposed to involve Popeye rescuing Olive Oyl from the brutish Bluto, but after Nintendo failed to secure the rights to the comic strip, the titular Kong was born.
While he didn’t receive top billing, players took charge over a character known simply as Jumpman.
Jumpman would have to scale each level while dodging incoming projectiles that Donkey Kong launched at him, and Jumpman’s aim was to reach the top of each stage and rescue Lady from the giant ape.
Jumpman is capable of performing pixel perfect platforming and can even pick up hammers to destroy troublesome obstacles and gain a points bonus. And of course, that little Jumpman grew up to be Mario.
Nowadays, Donkey Kong can be enjoyed on multiple different devices away from the arcades. You can see my monkey paws getting to grips with Donkey Kong’s endless barrage of barrels on the Nintendo Switch version above.
Donkey Kong is a truly iconic game and one of the very first platformers to ever see the light of day. It’s significance to the medium cannot be understated, and its gameplay has stood the test of time, even after 43 years. We’re willing to bet our last quarters that Donkey Kong will remain a firm favourite among retro gaming enthusiasts for many decades yet to come.
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Theo first fell in love with gaming when he sped through Green Hill Zone in Sonic the Hedgehog back in 1991. Theo has previously provided reviews, news coverage and articles for The Games Cabin and enjoyed producing comedic Let’s Plays on his own personal YouTube channels.
A huge Kingdom Hearts and Metal Gear fan, Theo enjoys deep gameplay mechanics and complex storylines. A completionist by nature, Theo has earned over 140 platinum trophies including top digital trinkets for Stardew Valley, The Witness, Bloodborne and a plethora of GTA games.
Outside of gaming, Theo can often be found riding his motorbike, headbanging at gigs or out in the countryside exploring nature and marvelling at the ‘realistic graphics’.