David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults, as well as numerous nonfiction books documenting videogame development and culture, including the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen series, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and Long Live Mortal Kombat. Follow him online at www.DavidLCraddock.com, and on Twitter @davidlcraddock.

David L. Craddock writes fiction, nonfiction, and grocery lists. He is the author of the Gairden Chronicles series of fantasy novels for young adults, as well as numerous nonfiction books documenting videogame development and culture, including the bestselling Stay Awhile and Listen series, Shovel Knight by Boss Fight Books, and Long Live Mortal Kombat. Follow him online at www.DavidLCraddock.com, and on Twitter @davidlcraddock.

Bottomless Pit - Vol. 1 by David L. Craddock

For consumers who grew up on fire flowers and severe cases of "NES thumb," platform games began with Super Mario and his colorful cohort of deranged turtles, pink princesses, and cowardly brothers. But the roots of running and jumping over obstacles, arguably the most prolific mechanics in video games, extend far back from Nintendo's 8-bit Control Deck.

Bottomless Pit: Running and Jumping Through Platform Games explores the evolution of "run-and-jump" games in rough chronological order of release—from their humble beginnings in arcades through their starring role in the modern industry's explosion of unique and captivating indie titles such as Shovel Knight.

Run, jump, climb, dig, and swing with Stay Awhile and Listen author David L. Craddock as he charts a course through the platforming genre's many pitfalls, mischievous apes, and webs of ledges and ladders.


When I need a break from writing, I write something new. Bottomless Pit isn't one of my usual making-of, narrative-style biographies. I love 2D platforming games, so I set out to play all of them, in chronological order, and write down my thoughts about each one. It's a daunting task, and as you'll see, an immensely enjoyable and educational one. -David L. Craddock, curator, StoryBundle




IN THE FIRST CHAPTER OF DUNGEON Hacks, my book about formative roguelike RPGs such as Rogue (obviously) and NetHack, I summarized convergent evolution, a biological process where two or more unrelated organisms follow similar evolutionary paths. These organisms don't have to be related, nor does convergent evolution end up making them interchangeable. For instance, a bird and a bat can both fly, but they share little else in common.

Donkey Kong developed from ideas we saw in Space Panic and Crazy Climbers. It has more in common with the former than the latter, really, since Crazy Climbers is a pure climbing game rather than a platformer. Still, grasping DK's fundamental similarities and differences is important to realizing just how influential and sophisticated it was compared to its forbearers.

The origin of Donkey Kong and its popular protagonist has been exhaustively covered, so I'll keep my telling brief. Aspiring toy-maker Shigeru Miyamoto landed a job at a company called Nintendo after his dad called in a favor with a mutual friend of Hiroshi Yamauchi, president of Nintendo Company Limited (aka NCL, Nintendo's headquarters in Japan) from 1949 until 2002. Miyamoto was hired as the company's first artist. His first job was drawing artwork for a coin-op game called Sheriff. Then moved on to Radar Scope, a submarine game where players looked through a telescope and shoot enemy ships. Radar Scope bombed, so Yamauchi, determined to put all the monitors, cabinets, and circuit boards taking up space in Nintendo's warehouses, to good use, assigned Miyamoto to another project, a game inspired by (but not based on) Popeye.

When Nintendo failed to acquire the Popeye license, Miyamoto pivoted, designing a King Kong-like ape who kidnaps Pauline, the girlfriend of a construction worker named Jumpman, and holds her hostage at the top of four unique construction sites. (Okay, I guess climbing four tall buildings is another shared trait of DK and Crazy Climbers. It's very specific, and likely accidental.) You play as Jumpman, and your goal is to scale those construction sites and rescue Pauline. Before the game launched in America, higher-ups at Nintendo worried that Americans wouldn't get behind a character named Jumpman. They renamed him Mario, named after Mario Segali, Nintendo of America's landlord in the early '80s, who stormed a board meeting and demanded rent that was past due.

Saving Pauline isn't as simple as climbing ladders and running across platforms. Donkey Kong antagonizes you the whole time, throwing barrels, siccing autonomous fireballs on you, and challenging Mario to cross a variety of terrain from platforms to lifts to collapsing floors.

Those are surface details. We've established that Donkey Kong was not the first platformer. In every way, however, it was the first platformer that counted. The innovations Miyamoto and his scrappy team introduced are many, so let's get to climbing.

Nintendo's engineers kept things simple. The cabinet supported two players who took turns controlling Mario/Jumpman, guiding him with a joystick and a single button. It's not an exaggeration to say that single button revolutionized video games.

You'll remember that the object of Space Panic is to dig holes and wait for aliens to fall into them. The trouble is, digging a hole creates more problems than it solves. There's no way to jump over the hole should you need to cross to the other side. You have to either fill it in, or climb down a nearby ladder, run across the platform below it, and scamper up another ladder on the other side of the hole. The lack of a jump action adds to the game's strategy, but it's more frustrating than anything else, one of many reasons the game failed to make money in arcades.

Donkey Kong lets you jump, but that's just the tip of the iceberg. Pressing jump without touching the joystick launches Mario a few feet off the ground. To jump over obstacles, press the button while moving left or right. The elegance and versatility of such a simple action cannot be overstated.

Mario's jump works so well because the elements of that jump—namely height and horizontal distance—are immutable. Unlike later games featuring Mario, Donkey Kong has no run button; you can't build momentum to jump farther. What you see is what you get: No matter how fast you're moving, the height and distance of your jump never change. When you attempt to jump over a pit and onto, say, a rising platform, but fall short, you know it's not because the game cheated. It's because you jumped too early. The game tacitly communicates this information visually: you see Mario, you see where you jumped from, and you see where you landed. Players absorb that knowledge and learn to apply it.

Unlike later games, Mario doesn't control well in midair; he rises and falls at the same velocity no matter where you jump from. In fact, you can't steer him mid-jump at all. This, too, is a limitation that works in the player's favor. In 1981, virtually every type of coin-operated video game except shoot-em-ups—popularized by Space Invaders in '75—was unknown to players. I could be wrong, but my bet is that introducing mechanics such as maneuvering a character in midair would have over-complicated the design and frustrated players. It's enough, and better, for players to know exactly how high and how far they can jump, and put that into practice stage by stage, confident their mastery over the few tools at Mario's disposal are all they need to win.

You're given one more tool: a power-up, Mario's hammer. After picking it up, Mario automatically swings it for a limited of time, obliterating any obstacles within range and increasing your score. Hammers can be used whenever you're ready to grab them, but they're best saved for desperate situations, such as when barrels and fireballs close in on all sides.

Run, jump, climb, and pound. The details of when and where those maneuvers come into play changes from stage to stage. Donkey Kong's stages are another significant change. Space Panic's arrangement of ladders platforms varies slightly from stage to stage, but the architecture itself remains the same. You always run across stony-like platforms and climb ladders. The same can be said of other popular video games of the era. Space Invaders doesn't take place in any other venue other than against a starry backdrop. You always fight the same waves of aliens with the same barriers between you and them. Other shoot-em-ups such as Asteroids change up the configuration of obstacles like rocks or waves of enemy ships, but the terrain is always the same.

Donkey Kong features four unique stages, or "boards"—an apt term, since each stage can be thought of as a different board game, each of which uses the same pieces. The first stage, and the most iconic, features quintessential platforming: sloped platforms for barrels to roll down, ladders to ascend, and obstacles to jump over. It's a tutorial in every way except name. The difference from DK's first stage and most contemporary games is there are no lengthy cinematics to sit through or walls of text to climb. Nintendo has you learn by doing, a practice that would come to define their games going forward (with the occasional misstep such as 2011's ponderous The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword).

The next level, another construction site, introduces subtle changes. You're still climbing ladders and dodging obstacles, but to get to the top, you have to run over rivets until the structure collapses and sends the titular ape tumbling to the ground. Running over a rivet causes it to disappear. Enemies on one side won't be able to reach you on the other; the catch is that you can fall through holes after removing rivets, and even a one-story fall can kill Mario. This adds a note of tension. By this time, you're comfortable with your jump, and you must perform more of them, and more accurately, to avoid fireballs and holes.

Yet another stage, a factory, has you riding lifts and leaping narrow pits. A spring-like obstacle bounces across the topmost floor and drops into the stage. The factory's design is methodical. The spring starts in the same place, bounces the same distance, and falls from the same location, at the same interval. Your advantage is that the spring falls near the right edge of the screen. Players figure out that the stage is best tackled in two phases. Phase one: ride and jump from lifts to cross from the left side of the screen to the middle. Phase two: carefully hop pits and avoid springs as they fall while climbing to the top.

All four stages take place on a single screen, but the factory functions as two stages in one. That purposeful design by Nintendo lets you devote all your attention to one or two obstacles at a time: lifts and perilous fall distances on the left, and ladders and springs on the right. Each half of the screen builds on what you've learned. You know how to climb ladders. You know obstacles can be avoided or jumped over, depending on their actions. You know pits must be jumped, and that falling too far will cost you a life.

Teaching players how to use their tools and placing them in situations that call on them to use their tools in slightly different but always related scenarios is a staple of platforming games, and it started with Donkey Kong.

Last but not least, Donkey Kong is one of the first video games to present a narrative. I say "one of" because earlier, text-only adventure games on PC, such as Colossal Cave Adventure, had stories… kind. Adventure just had you exploring a cave; the narrative was, figure out what's going on and escape. What else are you going to do? The designers of Infocom's Zork series deserves more credit for constructing what is essentially an interactive novel. Those games were effective. They were also limited. Personal computers were relatively expensive in the early '80s, limiting access to the businesses and high-income households able to afford them. Arcades were everywhere.

Enter Donkey Kong, widely acknowledge as the first video game to feature visual storytelling. Donkey Kong, Mario, and Pauline are individual characters with (sometimes threadbare) motivations. Donkey Kong is angry at this carpenter and wants to hurt him, so he steals his girl. Pauline wants to escape, and, presumably, not fall to her death. Mario, the hero, wants to save her. There are even cutscenes, such as a reunion "cinematic" (in the leanest sense of the word) that shows Donkey Kong falling to the ground while Mario and Pauline make goo-goo eyes at each other, represented by a giant pink heart at the top of the screen.

Admittedly, Donkey Kong's narrative is cruder than something like Zork, whose text-driven adventure unfolds over the entire game. Remember, though, that Donkey Kong's theatrical-like narrative was unprecedented. Protagonist. Antagonist. Goal. The stages repeat after you conquer the rivet stage, but the difficulty scales upward, so you can reunite Mario and Pauline again and again.

That brings us to the elephant in the room. Miyamoto has stated in many interviews that he didn't put much thought into the game's story. The fairytale archetype of a damsel in distress fit the bill: it was simple to execute and easy for players to grasp. That archetype would become the gold standard for dozens of arcade games that followed, especially in beat-em-ups like Technōs Japan's Double Dragon and Capcom's Final Fight.

Reducing women to trophies and finish lines is, admittedly, problematic. Without defending Miyamoto or other designers, remember most game designers in the '80s weren't setting out to tell grand stories, nor could they. Technology was limited. Developers were learning as they went along, budgets were shoestring-sized, and time was limited. They needed quick and dirty archetypes, and Donkey Kong made one accessible.

To this day, Miyamoto maintains that gameplay must take precedence over every other aspect of game development. He used the archetype because he had neither the resources nor inclination to attempt a loftier narrative. Back in these halcyon days, most games were designed by men, for boys. This is not my attempt to defend the damsel-in-distress archetype or its widespread application; I only want to provide context. Videogame stories have come a long way, and more women are playing and making games—all of which is for the best.

Most germane to our discussion, even platformers have grown far beyond simple archetypes. One of my favorites, and one of the most effective in terms of narrative, in 2014's Shovel Knight by Yacht Club Games. Shovel Knight's creators started out with a damsel in distress, only to take a step back, test the trappings of the games they were seeking to emulate—platformers such as Mega Man, Super Mario Bros. 3, and Zelda II: The Adventure of Link—and take their damsel to the next level. Shield Knight ended up framed as Shovel Knight's "partner." She was abducted by a woman, and you rescue her, but the final battle against the evil enchantress can only be completed with Shovel Knight fighting alongside you. (Disclosure: I wrote a book about the making of Shovel Knight for Boss Fight Books.)

I discussed the damsel-in-distress archetype because it was important to Donkey Kong, and it played a huge part in games to come. I'm glad we've moved past it. Make no mistake, though: its presence does not take away from Donkey Kong's fantastic design, or its influence. It may not be the first platformer, but it's the one that gave designers and players all the tools they needed to take the ball and run (and jump) with it, and remains a phenomenal achievement of the genre's first generation. Maybe its crowning achievement, but that's for you, Mario, and an adventurer named Harry to sort out.