Gaming Literacy: A Brief history of the Jump (Part 2)

In our last look at the history of jumping in video games, we examined its origins as a mechanical solution to platform design. Today we are going to look at how the jump has evolved in both purpose and execution.

The Double Jump

You might think that the idea of double jumping would naturally follow from the idea of jumping. What’s better than jumping once? Twice!

However, the concept of jumping in mid-air is not nearly as obvious as you might think. Supposedly, the double jump has its origins in glitches. Games that coded their jump incorrectly would be unable to tell when characters were on the floor or in the air. This would allow characters to jump in mid-air as if they were on the ground. Turns out this style of jumping was actually fun, and so it became accepted as an actual game mechanic, at least that’s how the oral tradition goes. It’s not entirely clear which game first encountered this “glitch.”

We do know the first game that featured a double jump, however. It was Namco’s 1984 arcade game, Dragon Buster. While nominally a platformer, Dragon Buster was more of an action game, littering the screen with enemies rather than giving you difficult platforming challenges. However, the game was still 2D and primarily used its vertical screen space to design mazes and branching paths. This meant the main character had to jump. However, since the game was built around fighting there wasn’t even a jump button. Players had to press up on the joystick to jump, which was incredibly clunky.

The designers didn’t want players to end up dying or being unable to progress simply because they could not make a jump. Thus, they gave the player a bit of insurance by allowing them to jump again at the peak of their jump. This not only gave them extra height and distance, but gave them extra control if their original jump was mis-aimed.

This remains the key purpose of the double-jump in game design to this day. Any jumping system that doesn’t give the user enough control can integrate a double jump to make it just a little bit easier to handle. Of course, double jumps would also eventually be used for exploration as well, allowing the player to reach areas they could not with a single jump. Of course, to look at this we need to look at the history of...

The Metroidvania

Jumping had always been a solution to a puzzle. What do you do when an enemy comes your way? Jump!

But what happens when you make that puzzle bigger. What happens when you make the ability to jump a gateway to progression? This is the start of the “metroidvania” genre, which gave you a large map to explore that was slowly opened up by further abilities.

We won’t go deep into the history of metroidvania games here. That’s an article for another time. However, we can tell you the very first metroidvania, and no it isn’t Metroid. It’s a 1985 game for the Sharp X1 by Enix called Brain Breaker.

Brain Breaker didn’t give the player access to high jumps or double jumps. It did, however, eventually grant access to a jet-pack which opened up vertical movement. This was a whole year before Metroid would introduce us to the high jump boots.

The Wall Jump

Let’s get back to looking at different types of jumps. Wall jumps are sort of like situational double jumps. They allow you to gain extra height and distance provided there is a vertical surface nearby. Wall jumps were made famous by games such as Ninja Gaiden but they can be traced back to our good friend Mario.

Well, not just Mario, but any game that used Nintendo’s early platforming engine. You see, the way Nintendo handled collision was on a tile by tile basis. If Mario attempted to move forward into a solid tile, he simply wouldn’t move there, or at least that’s how it appeared.

In reality, Nintendo had to make a couple concessions to allow Mario to run and to let his jumps have momentum. A running Mario was faster than a walking Mario, which in game terms meant that he was moved forward more pixels per frame. This created a situation in which Mario could, technically, move enough pixels to end up slightly inside a solid object.

To fix this problem, Nintendo simply made it so that Mario would be pushed outside of a solid object on the very next frame. Mario never got too far inside an object to notice, and this correction happened so quick that players rarely noticed. For all intents and purposes it appeared as if Mario had just collided with a wall.

But that’s not how the game sees it. For one exact frame, Mario is considered inside the wall. This means that he is, for all intents and purposes, on solid ground, and Mario can jump while on solid ground. Thus if Mario was moving downward on the frame that he entered the wall, and the player pressed the jump button on the exact same frame when Mario was considered grounded, they would jump again. Thus, we have the wall jump.

This was a known problem with Nintendo’s collision engine, but they chose not to fix it for a very long time. In fact, the engine stayed in this very same form all throughout the sixteen bit era. You can perform wall jumps in Super Mario Bros. 3, Super Mario World, and Yoshi’s Island. In fact, Nintendo would keep this glitch in Mario’s repertoire until they canonized it in Super Mario 64 by making it an actual technique.

But well before then, other games adapted the wall-jump into an actual technique. Ninja Gaiden and Strider were some of the first games with wall-jumps, tying them to their ninja aesthetic. Taito’s 1988 action arcade game, Rastan also had wall jumping, and was perhaps one of the first instances of being able to climb vertically using one wall, something which we would see again popularized in Mega Man X.

Wall jumps are like double jumps in that they give the player a certain degree of insurance every time they try to close a gap. If a player mistimes their jump they can then jump again if they come in contact of the wall of the gap they were trying to cross.

The wall jump also opened up possibilities for interacting with the environment. Vertical surfaces weren’t blockades, they were new paths to explore. This allowed designers more freedom when designing maps and platforming challenges since the player character effectively had a way to move vertically without requiring any sort of special button press or input.

The Strategic Jump

If you have read any of my articles then you know I can’t talk about video game history without talking about how fighting games were involved, so let’s talk Karate Champ.

Karate Champ, largely considered one of the first fighting games ever made, was an arcade title and as such, had a lot in common with the original Donkey Kong. No, no one was jump-kicking gorillas, but characters were jumping, specifically jumping to avoid hazards just as you did in Donkey Kong. In this case, the hazard was a low kick, and the jump was the counter.

This was the general idea behind jumping in fighting games until Street Fighter. Jumping still let you avoid low attacks, but it also let you perform high attacks, which had to be blocked standing. This differentiation of high and low attacks made jumping an extension of your offense. As time went on, jumping would be used less for defense and more for offense.

This is why jumping in fighting games is executed the way that It is. Every other game maps jumping to a button but fighting games map it to a tap on the joystick. Jumping is an extension of your attacks. Since most attacks in fighting games are performed by tilting the joystick and pressing a button, jumping attacks are as well. Timing on attacks is more important than timing on jumps, as opposed to platformers in which jump timing takes precedence.

But up until now we have only talked about jumping in two dimensions. Come back next time when we talk about how jumping makes the leap (pun intended) into 3D.