While Super Mario Brothers is generally accepted as the quintessential platform game, for some Taito’s 1987 arcade classic Rainbow Islands is the real thing. Rainbow Islands differs from the Mario games in several ways, but the most important is that the whole thing only scrolls up and down, with the playfield being only the width of the screen. You start at the bottom with the simple aim to get to the top before the encroaching water causes your strangely ugly avatar to drown. Rainbow Islands contains a lot of important life lessons.
One clear losing strategy in this game is to stand in the middle of the screen and jump repeatedly up and down. You will survive for a while, assuming no baddie gets to you, but failing that, drowning becomes inevitable. In order to proceed you must move to near one of the platforms conveniently placed for your usage by the almighty designer and then jump. On landing on the platform you notice that you do not go through it but remain at your new level, and so higher levels of platform are now within reach. Therefore given enough platforms you should be able to get to the top, no matter how high. (It remains a tedious question of philosophy if this means the achievable height is actually infinite, or merely potentially infinite).
Being a 1980s arcade character has benefits, and in this case that includes the ability to shoot rainbows, which temporarily form arches, up which you can stroll casually, before jumping off to another platform. Should you land on a rainbow it will collapse, killing things immediately underneath it.
Some players are tempted to abuse their rainbow generating privileges, and short term gains can reward the strategy. The major problem is the fragility of the resulting structure requiring utmost precision from the player as one misplaced overenthusiastic jump can bring you rapidly back to a possibly water covered earth. In a concept alien to Montrealers, you could view the solid platform as your protection from whatever evils are below, and a solid foundation on which to build higher. In contrast using the rainbow as a foundation offers us the option to return often far too easily to a lower point from which to re-ascend, possibly via an alternate route. We often find we have no choice in the matter, and the rainbow forces us to accept collapse and to our needing to climb from somewhere else. Sometimes merely looking at a structure of assembled rainbows is enough to breed suspicion in experienced minds, and they will seek alternative paths, or maybe even destroy the rainbows in order to clear themselves a safer passage. (The poutine eaters of the world will see parallels with the proposed redevelopment of the Turcot interchange).
Prolific rainbow builders not only find their own numerous experiences of structural failure cause them to consider solid platforms as an impossibility but they start to consider the idea undesirable. They would argue that at some point someone will come around that has some pressing need to go down greatly before going up to new heights, and if they meet a solid platform in the wrong place this will prevent the whole enterprise. This is really an elaborate cover for laziness, often stemming from a lack of imagination.
What is reasonably likely is that using the solid platforms alone you can find yourself stranded on one side of the screen, unable to get to the other. The rainbow builder laughs at the inevitability of our problem, knowing our calls for the almighty designer to provide a solid foundation across the screen are in vain. A particularly poetic rainbow abuser might claim, “What good are your two solid platforms if between them are such great voids that you cannot help but fall into the eternal abyss?”
It becomes clear that sticking entirely to solid platforms or to rainbows is a foolish way to progress, and only by correctly choosing as you go will your ascent to glory be assured.
Once again, our omnipresent designer is a few steps ahead, and is of the mind to keep things interesting. Imagine that there was one very regular easy to navigate pattern of platforms in order to get up the screen — some claim this would make the game too easy. To compensate the designer shows their true wisdom through arrangements of items that at first glance look familiar, but with subtle differences that only reveal themselves as the player finds themselves hurtling the wrong way into a baddie or towards their watery doom. This teaches us that while consistency enables faster progress, as experience gained in one place applies to another, the false illusion of consistency will lead to a swift end, and cause greatly slowed progress in other actually consistent areas, thanks to a now justified suspicion of irregularities meaning an excessive amount of caution will be used. The result from introducing even small inconsistencies is a dramatic reduction in speed of ascent of the player.
When Newton referred to standing on the shoulders of giants this wasn’t yet another reference to gravitational phenomena but to the idea that life is too short to do everything yourself. You can cover the whole place in rainbows, but the chance of you making it to the end that way is not very high, with your risk increasing the higher you get. Great players see the world as it is, and do not fight it, but embrace what is there, creating the minimum needed to enable progress from one solid platform to the next, knowing attempts to skip to the end will generally have the opposite outcome. The temptation to destroy and recreate is felt by all of us, but knowing when this is appropriate is an artform surprisingly few have grasped.
As an end note, readers interested in the problems presented by being underneath a mass of falling platforms would find the superb Mr. Driller quite enlightening.
Nigel Birkenshaw runs Atomirex Technologies.
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