Press A to jump: mobility in video games

Sam Long, Tom Grundy

Press A to jump: mobility in video games
August 25, 2020 Sam Long, Tom Grundy

Jumping has been a part of gaming for as long as any of us can remember. It’s no surprise that the jump mechanic holds such an important place in video game history, dating back to 80s arcade games. Today, games have moved on in nearly every way — but it’s a rare game that doesn’t have a ‘jump’ button. Why?

In early video games, vaulting over obstacles was a core element of gameplay. The first to ever utilise the jump mechanic was a 1978 arcade game called Frogs, in which the player controlled a frog that leapt into the air to collect flies. Don’t remember it? Well, it didn’t make much of a splash. However, it did pave the way for a new genre of gaming: the platformer.

Whilst not the very first game of the platforming genre, the first platformer that utilised jump mechanics and received critical praise was Donkey Kong, released by Nintendo in 1981. Donkey Kong was the first to marry the ideas of scaling platforms and jumping over gaps and obstacles as a means of progressing towards a goal — in this case, the princess and a big monkey. Not only did Donkey Kong popularise the platformer genre, but it also birthed some of gaming’s greatest icons: Donkey Kong and ‘Jumpman’, whom you might know better by the name Mario. The platformer genre dominated the early 80s in arcades thanks to the groundwork set by Donkey Kong

With the release of the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES), and later Super Mario Bros in 1985, 2D side scrollers emerged. These would have the player’s character move from left to right until they reach a goal — often to find that their princess was in another castle. Now players could control the length and height of their jump, enabling greater control over what the player could do. The jump was also used as a means of attacking enemies; you could stomp on the heads of Goombas. 

The original Metroid and Castlevania gave the world a new style of game, a blend between platformer and side-scroller, in 1986. ‘Metroidvania’ titles started you off with a basic jump, but had players acquire upgrades — such as double jump or ‘dash’ — to proceed further. This was both progression in terms of the player character as well as progression through the game’s areas.

Over the history of video games, it seems as though every evolution in genre has brought about innovation to the jump mechanic. Fighting games such as Street Fighter (1987) utilised the jump mechanic for positioning and aerial combos. First person shooters (FPS) first implemented a jump mechanic in 1995 with Star Wars Dark Forces, which included a jumping and crouch mechanic as a means of ducking in and out of cover and traversing gaps and ledges. Quake (1996) was the first multiplayer FPS, in which jumping was even more important. The shift from 2D corridor-shooter to 3D environment meant that the player could have more mobility. Techniques such as bunny-hopping and strafe jumping were quickly discovered; by using certain button inputs correctly, players found they could gain increased speed and manoeuvrability. Since then, these mechanics have been a mandatory aspect of high-level play in the multiplayer FPS genre. They’ve been arguably perfected in the 2016 game Titanfall 2, whose movement mechanics, wall running, and jumping are praised to this day. 

Jumping has always been a matter of careful consideration in game design. Throughout all games that allow the control of an avatar, there has always been a discussion on the ‘feel’ of how the player controls the character. If the controls feel too stiff, the character won’t feel natural to play; go too far in the other direction and the character will feel ‘floaty’. Players commented that in 2018’s Super Smash Bros Ultimate characters remained too long in the air, and that movement wasn’t satisfying. Tommy Refenes, developer of the 2010 game Super Meat Boy, has commented that he spent two months getting the ‘feel’ of the jump right for that game. Super Meat Boy is heralded as an incredibly difficult platformer because it demands precise timing and control from the player for them to master its jump mechanics.

When jumping isn’t implemented well, it can be maddening. One of the most critically marred examples of this is the Blighttown section of Dark Souls, released in 2009. In it, the player jumps from platform to platform in order to descend to the swamp below. However, Dark Souls’ controls are clunky. In order to perform a jump, the player had to first sprint by holding a button then quickly tap the same button to jump. This meant that your character would often stop sprinting, jump too soon or jump too late, and fall to their death. Not only that, but the jump ‘felt’ heavy; if you happened to clip your feet on the platform you were jumping to, you were knocked out of the jump animation and would fall to your death. Jumping has been widely criticised throughout the Dark Souls franchise, so much so that its community took to developing mods for the game that change the mechanics, controls, or even remove Blighttown from the game.

We have become so accustomed to having a jump button that when a game lacks one, the game can feel like it is missing something. Outward, released in 2019, is a third-person 3D roleplaying game (RPG). It lacks a jump button. The game’s emphasis is on plausibility and realism, despite its fantastic world; and the developers clearly didn’t feel as though jumping was a useful way to traverse its landscape. However, in user reviews and online forums, players have consistently focused on the game’s lack of jumping, arguing that it reduces the player’s sense of agency and mobility. 

Rainbow Six Siege is an online FPS game released in 2015 and takes a realistic approach of what it would be like to play as a SWAT operative in a hostage situation or bomb threat. The game boasts a high skill ceiling like Super Meat Boy and Titanfall 2, requiring tactical awareness and teamwork. However, unlike these games, R6S has no jump mechanic. Of course, no SWAT operative would jump about or try to bunny-hop in combat, after all. However, players still look for the control to jump, and complain online at the lack of it.

We rarely jump in everyday life, and it isn’t a well-known survival mechanic in armed combat. In our daily lives, we’re more likely to climb over or walk around an obstacle than jump over it. Why is it that, in games whose world is designed to be traversable without the need for jumping, do players still acutely feel the lack of it? Jumping was an essential part of control in one axis when games were 2D. Now they’re not, why is it still so important?

It could be that jumping is the main way that players have of moving along the third axis. No Man’s Sky, released in 2016, doesn’t have a ‘jump’ button — but few complain of the lack of it, as the player has a jetpack. In this way, flight could be the natural evolution of jumping in games — complete control in the third dimension. 2019’s Anthem allows the player to both fly and jump, and its world was expressly designed with verticality in mind. While much of Anthem was panned by critics, most players and reviewers agreed that the game’s sense of mobility was one of its strengths.

Developers strive for realism in many ways, but a sense of mobility and agency is key to the escapist appeal at the heart of video games. Removing it seems to reduce players’ sense of freedom, even if the games’ worlds are not designed to need it. 

Perhaps this is the best way to view the ubiquitous ‘press A to jump’. Thinking about how necessary it is in a game might miss the point; jumping isn’t a tool for a specific task, it’s an essential part of the liberating appeal of video games. Perhaps we like it precisely because it’s unrealistic.