Gaming Literacy: A brief history of the jump (Part 1)

Everybody jumps. It’s a rule in video games. The jump is one of our most pervasive and beloved video game mechanics. All of our old gaming mascots were known for jumping. The platformer dominated early sprite based gaming. Without jumping, we wouldn’t have video games as we know it.

But where did it come from? Who was the first person to think of making a video game character jump? Why did we, as a collective industry, settle on the jump as the go to mechanic that served so many purposes including mobility, attack, puzzle solving, and so much more?

Well come with us as we take a look into the history of the jump to uncover its origins and evolutions.

It all starts with frogs

As is the case with most video game mechanics, the origins of the jump lie outside of the video game world. While it’s difficult to track down specific influences, jumping had been used as a mechanic in carnival and midway games for a long time before it was used as a video game mechanic. You may remember a carnival game which asked you to flip a frog onto a lily pad or through a hoop. This was, essentially, just the video game jump in analog form.

Perhaps that’s why the first video game to ever feature a jumping character featured a frog. Appropriately titled Frogs, this 1978 arcade game developed by Sega-Gremlin had you controlling a frog who had to jump to eat insects while still landing on a lily pad. Eat as many as you can within the time limit without falling off to earn the high score. Riveting… or should I say ribbiting…

Sorry, I’ll never do that again.

The platformer genre

You might be wondering “what the heck is up with all these frogs?” It’s a commonly held belief that Donkey Kong was the first game to feature a jump, but that’s simply not true. It’s also a common belief that Donkey Kong was the first platforming game, but that’s also untrue. The jump and the platformer actually developed independently of each other. Donkey Kong was just the first game to marry the two.

Perhaps the first platformer ever was Space Panic, a 1980 arcade game developed by Universal. In this game, players were tasked with climbing to platforms via ladders in order to avoid pursuing aliens. They could dig holes in these platforms to trap the aliens and then fill those holes up to make the aliens fall. Causing aliens to fall on top of each other gave the player extra points.

This was the shape of the platformer genre for some time, and would continue to be the shape of many platformers even after Donkey Kong released. A few notable examples are Crazy Climber, another Donkey Kong precursor that tasked a player with climbing a building and Burger Time, another platformer game released a year after Donkey Kong which had a player assembling giant burgers without the ability to jump.

Enter the Jumpman

There was a fatal flaw with early platform games: it was easy to corner yourself into an unwinnable situation. All you could do is move left and right and up and down ladders. If two enemies managed to sandwich you between them, it was over. Much of the strategy in these early arcade games revolved around avoiding this one scenario. However, this made platformers not all that different from their maze game predecessors, like Pac-Man.

Shigeru Miyamoto and Gunpei Yokoi’s Donkey Kong changed all that. It was developed partially in response to this ladder based platformer design. In the very first level of Donkey Kong we actually see the massive ape climb and destroy the ladders present throughout the first stage. This signaled to the player that they would have to find another way to maneuver. That way was jumping.

Level 1 of Donkey Kong was sort of a tutorial level for jumping. The threats were mostly linear, always coming at you from the same direction. However, Jumpman (also known as Mario) could not make it from ladder to ladder in enough time to avoid these obstacles. That’s where the jump came in. By timing the jump at the right time, Jumpman could vault over barrels and flames, letting him progress onward. If the player was ever to be sandwiched between two enemies, they could still escape the situation by jumping over one of them.

Jumpman wasn’t just a name chosen because Nintendo didn’t yet settle on Mario’s Italian moniker. They wanted to express that jumping was part of his identity. This was because Donkey Kong simply could not be beaten without jumping.

In the first stage, jumping was primarily used to avoid enemies. In the second stage, jumping could be used to cross platforms quicker than ladders would allow you to. The third stage, 75m, would be a stage that went down infamy. In this stage players had to use the jump to cross platforms in order to finish the stage. There was simply no way to complete this stage without mastering the jump as a central mechanic. 

It’s not entirely clear if Donkey Kong succeeded because of how it implemented the jump or if the jump became popular because of Donkey Kong’s success, but either way, Donkey Kong would define the blueprint of the jump for years to come. We now know that jumps could be used to avoid enemies and to traverse locations that you couldn’t otherwise walk.

It was perhaps ironic that Donkey Kong Jr., Nintendo’s official sequel, would then de-emphasize jumping for more a more traditional climb-centric platforming game, while dozens of copycats would step in to try and get a piece of the original Donkey Kong’s success.

The deadly jump

In the early ‘80s, it was clear that all games with a jump were mimicking Donkey Kong.  They were all games with single screen stages that tasked the player with jumping on enemies, or sometimes jumping from platform to platform. Jumping was an inherently defensive technique.

Once again, it’s tough to say exactly when jumping was retooled to be an offensive technique as well, but Nintendo played a big part in it. Mario Bros., the game that canonized Mario’s name and that created Luigi, inherited the jump from its predecessor Donkey Kong.  However, stages didn’t have a “finish line” so to speak. Instead, players were tasked with defeating all enemies on screen.

How? With jumping! Enemies would pursue Mario and Luigi throughout multi-tiered levels. By jumping underneath an enemy, players could flip the enemy over. Touching it afterward would then cause Mario or Luigi to kick the enemy, defeating it.

Adding another functionality to the jump was groundbreaking for video game design. It was a way to allow characters to do more, without actually increasing control complexity. Characters can now attack, dodge, and access a special kind of movement all with one button. In Mario Bros. players could even activate a screen clearing POW attack through the use of the same button. This would become the cornerstone of Nintendo’s design philosophy to this very day: giving the player a great deal of things to do without complicating the way they do them.

Limitations

At this point we had seen the jump make its way into videogames as a useful mechanic, but it was still very primitive. Most jumps were coded to make the player travel a set distance, kind of like the jumps in Castlevania. The player had to commit to each jump they made. This left very little room for error, especially when jumping around enemies.

Games themselves were also somewhat primitive. Most games featuring a jump took place on only one screen. A few games, like Pitfall gave the player the illusion of progression by featuring several single screen levels that “connected” to each other.

It would be a long time before players would be jumping around freely like an acrobat. Luckily, Nintendo and a few other innovators had some tricks up their sleeve to make the jump an even more useful tool in the sprite based era.

Come back next time when we examine different types of jumps including the high jump, the long jump, the double jump, the dash jump, and more. We will also see jumping used for yet more purposes, like exploration.