Jump has a lot of meanings. There is of course the physical action, it can be used as a type of syntax in coding like machine language, or can be used as a synonym for taking a risk. All of these can be rolled into discussion about games, though of course the first definition carries the most meaning. I wanted to quickly examine instances of bounding and hopping to examine how video games have explored the vertical space and the importance of that idea.
The first known game to involve a visible character actually jumping is Atari’s (well, technically Kee Games’) Steeplechase (1975). This is an interesting divergence looking at the company’s output, mainly consisting of more traditional motorized racing games. In the case of Steeplechase, the added element of a jump provided a couple of things to the design.
- It allowed for a horizontal orientation. Most racing games up to that point were top down, and obstacles tended to only be oriented to one of the two axis. Without such obstacles you wouldn’t have much of a race. Steeplechase provided a clear long-way’s view without needing to clutter the playfield.
- The animation implied a sense of three-dimensionality. While having no real way to alter the sprite on an inward plain, the fact that the horse and rider shift in such a convincing way allows players to see depth in the interactions they are provided.
- Simplicity. Six (!) players could crowd around a machine and press a single button to compete. While it was probably a little cramped, that level of involvement was perhaps even better for most operators than something like an gigantic Indy 800.
Steeplechase opened up the vocabulary for realism in video games, though the example of jumping particularly wouldn’t take off for a while longer. This probably has far more to do with how the themeing of games, both by necessity and by interest, strayed away from articulated characters.
Most often mistakenly referred to as the origin of the jump verb in digital games is Frogs (1978) by Gremlin Industries (released as one of the first games under the Sega/Gremlin label). Programmer Bill Blewett recently shared with me a photocopy of some of the original pixel art created by designer Ago Kiss. Here we can see the four primary animation frames of the character’s jump cycle.
Frogs again benefits from most of the points as above, save for a might more complexity through use of a joystick. Frogs has a much quicker pace which is more in line with what we imagine a ‘platformer’ to be, though the game restricts the freedom of movement somewhat by being locked to a several stage grid. Still, it’s a game that takes full advantage of the vertical space with very thin jump arcs that rocket to the top of the screen and then back down. The screen becomes liberated by virtue of the ‘jump’ verb.
Then of course there’s Jumpman. There’s probably enough to be said about the stages of Mario’s jump to fill a book, but it’s interesting to see the ways that obstacles played into this aspect overtime. In Donkey Kong (1981), the player had to be directly next to a barrel to get over it, not unlike Steeplechase. Coming through Mario Bros. (1983) there could be multiple enemies working in alternating patterns, so mid-air control became essential. Super Mario Bros. (1985) went for the full famous parabolic jump arc.
Of course, the story of jumping does not end with Mario, he’s just the guy who brought attention to the most elegant manner of doing a run-and-jump four-direction kind of game. In other fields like fighting games, the jump came to be a far more deliberate action. Committing to a jump in Street Fighter II (1991) creates a possibility space which can be used either defensively or offensively. Most of the time, the jump turns into a disempowering measure because it (ironically) shifts control away from the one who enacts it.
Of course this style can be used in a traditional platformer too. Castlevania (1986) has some of the most famous committed jump mechanics. While it presents more of a challenge than expanding the overall possibilities, the benefit to the slightness of the jump is an immediate recognition of failure when the action is performed improperly. When a player misses a long jump in a Mario game, they have to wait to see the results and then have a wide range of options to try again. In these deliberate platformers, the character often plummets down to the ground and the mistake is made obvious to the player. The latter method often works better when positioning takes a central role in the moment to moment play.
When moving to 3D, jumping becomes necessarily more lenient even in games where it would make sense to have tighter arcs. Tomb Raider (1996) is necessarily hampered by the D-pad controls compared to Super Mario 64 (1996), yet still gives a fairly generous leeway even without the ledge grabbing. This can also be attributed to the enhanced realism required to display these games, as player should expect both feet to be spatially positioned on a ground surface to remain stationary.
Alpha Waves (1990), normally described as the first 3D platformer, showcases some interesting ways the jump can be used to contextualize a space. The abstract format of the world is emphasized by how much of it a player can reasonably access. By making the vertical ascent very high with a wide mid-air control communicates openness in an otherwise rather rigid game. It also prevents shortcuts when on higher platforms, since the ceiling also acts as a deterrent.
Jumping Flash! (1995) takes the abstract art style to a whole new level, creating a far looser and more tactical jumping space. It’s interesting to see the ways that developers were toying with the ideas of ‘bouncing’ on enemies before Mario 64 codified a less advantageous jump height. Jumping Flash! is all about using the secondary jump to strategically move in between challenges, which in themselves are often oriented vertically since that is where the player is looking most of the time.
On secondary jumps, there are certain things to note about the introduction of extended leaps to a character’s arsenal. The double jump stands as one of the most game-y mechanics to ever exist, yet feels completely natural in context. God of War features a double jump that really seems silly when examined, yet has no great disparity next to some of the other superhuman feats performed in the game. The additional boost serves as an augmentation to the challenge, like a hit combo.
Even when a double jump is required to conquer an obstacle, the introduction naturally reduces the skill floor for any succeeding bounds. Also the jump arc becomes widened, and often times this ability marks a shift from vertical traversal to horizontal. Therefore it becomes clear that the jump action is less about a specific gameplay element and more about space itself. Games feature a jump not because they are oriented in challenge in any particular direction, but because they are spatial.
Jump provides realism and surrealism; groundedness and floatiness; challenge and ways to overcome it. A fundamental verb that has changed the way we think about games and digital spaces. Jump reflects youthfulness and athleticism in an empowering manner. It’s a word that describes video games so well.