3D platformers were once one of the most popular genres in gaming, but they have undoubtedly fallen out of vogue over the last decade or so. Although Nintendo is still doing its best to keep the genre alive with its routinely excellent 3D Mario titles, most developers and publishers long ago abandoned mascot platformers in favor of more “mature” fare like action-adventure and first-person shooter games. Still, for anyone who grew up gaming in the PS1/N64 era, it’s hard not to feel a pang of nostalgia for the glory days of platforming games, as the genre is a shadow of its former self these days.
Still, there are some developers still trying to keep the genre alive. Super Mario Odyssey is the most anticipated game for the Nintendo Switch right now and Insomniac Games continues to pump out excellent Ratchet & Clank games, a franchise that has been going strong for 15 years now. And even though the game isn’t very good, the very existence of Playtonic’s Banjo-Kazooie spiritual successor Yooka-Laylee shows that there is still interest in these sorts of games. Platforming games may not be as vibrant as they used to be, but they’ve still given us some of the best gaming experiences of the last 20 years.
To avoid half this list being comprised of just Mario games, I’ve decided to only consider one game from any given series. In other words, while I’m aware that Super Mario 64 still deserves to be considered one of the all-time great 3D platformers, you will not find it on this list because subsequent Mario games have outclassed it.
11. Rayman 2: The Great Escape
While Rayman Legends is arguably the best overall game in the franchise, it’s not technically a 3D platformer, so we had to go with the much older, but still excellent Rayman 2: The Great Escape. Representing Rayman’s first foray into three dimensions, The Great Escape received nowhere near the popularity of titles like Super Mario 64 and Banjo-Kazooie, but it arguably stands shoulder-to-shoulder with those titles as one of the best 3D platformers ever made.
The Rayman games have earned a reputation for their beautiful graphics, excellent soundtrack, and precise controls and while each of those elements have aged quite a bit in The Great Escape’s case, it holds up remarkably well for a game that was ported to just about every console on the market in 1999/2000. If you’ve never experienced Rayman 2, you owe it to yourself to track down a copy (we suggest going for the Dreamcast or PS2 versions, as they are the best from a technical standpoint).
10. Spyro: Year of the Dragon
Before he became but one of many, many Skylander toys, Spyro the Dragon was the star of his own successful platforming series on the PS1 and developer Insomniac Games saved the best for last. Spyro: Year of the Dragon, Insomniac’s third and final Spyro game, is easily the most polished of the trilogy and built extensively upon the foundations of the previous games.
Featuring the same overworld structure established in its immediate predecessor, Ripto’s Rage, Year of the Dragon took things a step further by introducing a variety of new playable characters, with even Spyro’s firefly buddy Sparx geting a chance to shine (no pun intended) in a series of fun top-down shooter levels. Still regarded as one of the best games for the PS1, Spyro: Year of the Dragon is a platforming classic that demonstrates what happens when a developer goes out on top.
9. Crash Bandicoot: Warped
Not unlike the situation with Spryo, Naughty Dog saved the best for last with its third and final traditional Crash Bandicoot game (they would go on to do one more, the excellent cart racer Crash Team Racing). While Crash Bandicoot: Warped dialed back on the raw platforming found in the first two Crash games, it made up for this with sheer gameplay variety, with Naughty Dog dabbling in all sorts of different genres across the game’s 30+ levels. Motorcycle races, bi-plane dogfights, and on-rails shooting segments were just a few of the ways Naughty Dog changed things up, but they weren’t content to just throw in some new mini games and call it a day.
The developer also changed up the moment-to-moment gameplay by giving Crash a host of new abilities to earn throughout the game, including a double jump, super spin, and a bazooka that fired the game’s wampa fruit collectibles (this was still the 90s, after all). The best part is that once you beat the final boss, the game was far from over, as Warped tasked players with completing time trials in each level in order to reach 100%. Although other developers would go onto release new Crash games, none have been able to best what Naughty Dog achieved with Warped.
8. Conker’s Bad Fur Day
The Nintendo 64 had no shortage of mascot platformers developed by Rare, but after releasing Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, the studio decided to try something a little different for their next effort. Believe it or not, Conker’s Bad Fur Day was originally conceived as a family-friendly game, but was reworked from the ground up to be a Mature-rated game featuring a hard-drinking, potty-mouthed talking squirrel.
Of course, toilet humor and foul language only get you so far but fortunately, Rare was able to back it up with smart level and puzzle design that rivaled some of the developer’s best work. Unlike Rare’s previous efforts, most notably Banjo-Kazooie and Donkey Kong 64, Conker put less focus on item collecting in favor of a gameplay system built around a context-sensitive action system that let players pull of seemingly never-ending variety of special moves. As an indictment of the cutesy aesthetic one usually finds in mascot platformers, Conker’s Bad Fur Day is a joke that really only works once (which is probably why we’ve never seen a proper sequel) but when the joke is this good on the first try, it’s hard to really complain.
Arguably one of the most underappreciated platformers ever made, Double Fine’s Psychonauts has achieved true cult status in the years since its release. Players control Raz, an attendee of the Psychonauts training camp who must overcome its various obstacles with a range of psychic powers. Psychonauts features plenty of traditional platforming but gives things its own unique spin by incorporating abilities such as telekinesis, levitation, invisibility, and pyrokinesis.
While the actual gameplay is quite fun and varied, Psychonauts also benefits from some killer writing, with a hilarious and quirky script that helps set the game apart from its competitors. Admittedly, the game’s difficulty spikes are a bit frustrating (although Double Fine took steps to address this issue with the 2011 re-release), but when you look at Psychonauts as a whole, its status as a platforming great is undeniable, to the point where it’s easy to understand why fans are so excited about the upcoming sequel.
6. Banjo Kazooie
It’s been argued that Rare’s Banjo-Kazooie is just a Super Mario 64 imitator and while that accusation is true to a certain extent, it discredits the sheer amount of work and creativity put into the game’s design. One of the purest mascot platformers ever made, Banjo-Kazooie takes the formula established by Mario 64 and tweaks it in interesting ways, from the way its two title characters’s move sets are intertwined to the varied level design, which rivals that of Nintendo’s iconic platformer.
While it’s true that mascot platformers have largely fallen out of favor these days, Banjo-Kazooie remains one of the most beloved entries in the genre (in case you need proof of this, just look to the fact that a developer took it upon themselves to make a spiritual successor because they were sick of waiting for Rare to make a new Banjo game). Although the game’s sequel, Banjo-Tooie, is arguably just as good as the first, it doesn’t really do much to improve on what came before it either, so I have to give the nod to the original.
5. Sly 2: Band of Thieves
When one thinks of the very best platforming series, it feels like Sucker Punch’s Sly Cooper gets left out of the conversation or at the very least, doesn’t get the recognition it deserves. That’s a shame because across the board, the Sly Cooper games are a true joy to play, but it’s still Sucker Punch’s second franchise entry that stands above the rest. In many ways, Band of Thieves is the perfect kind of sequel, as it expands upon the central design of the original game while improving upon it at the same time.
Split into separate, free-roaming HUB worlds, Band of Thieves tasks players with navigating the stealthy Sly and his buddies Bentley and Murray through a variety of different heists. Each of the game’s three playable protagonists comes with their own move-sets and gameplay style (Sly is the stealth master, Murray is the brawler, while Bentley relies on hacking and sleep darts to get the job done). From its Saturday morning cartoon-style presentation to its beautiful cel-shaded graphics, Band of Thieves is a game dripping with personality and deserves to be thought of as an all-time platforming great.
4. Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time
While I think Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time falls more into the action-adventure genre, considering the majority of the game is made up of jumping puzzles and acrobatic maneuvers, I’d say it more than qualifies to be considered a 3D platformer too. The first of many 3D Prince of Persia games Ubisoft would release during the PS2 and PS3 era, Sands of Time is still considered by many to be the best, with every subsequent entry in the series failing to capture the same feeling and overall strength of design.
Players take control of the Prince as he navigates a giant palace full of hazardous traps and rather ridiculous architecture, so it’s fortunate that the Prince is ridiculously gifted when it comes to acrobatics. Wall-running, swinging, and wall-jumping form the crux of the game’s platforming sections, but with the added wrinkle of being able to rewind time if you screw up a jump or make the wrong move in combat. Admittedly, the time-rewinding mechanic makes the game a bit too easy overall but even if Sands of Time didn’t have this mechanic, it would still be considered a marvel of platforming level design, with some of the most memorable puzzles I’ve ever come across in gaming.
3. Jak 3
Before they were known for Uncharted, Naughty Dog cut their teeth on the PS2 exclusive Jak and Daxter series. In many ways, the Jak games showcase a development studio with one foot in the past and one in the future, as each successive entry moved further away from their platforming roots in favor of more action-driven, cinematic storytelling. Whereas Jak 2 went a bit too far with its Grand Theft Auto inspirations (not to mention suffering from some intense difficulty spikes), Jak 3 strikes a great balance between traditional platforming and open world design, all adding up to a game that never lets off the gas when it comes to moment-to-moment gameplay variety.
Sure, you have your typical platform jumping levels, but there’s also Mad Max-inspired car combat, a dozen varied weapons, and even a Pac-Man-style minigame. Jak 3 also has a surprisingly good story, with a late-game plot twist that still makes me chuckle to this day, which is something you don’t come across very often in platformers. Having outgrown this style of game, it’s unlikely that Naughty Dog will ever return to the series, but at least they went out on top with Jak 3 (yes, I realize Jak X Combat Racing is technically their last Jak game, but it’s more of a spinoff than anything).
2. Ratchet & Clank: A Crack in Time
I wrestled with whether to give the nod to Going Commando or A Crack in Time. While Going Commando is my personal favorite Rachet & Clank game, it’s hard to deny that A Crack in Time represents the pinnacle of the series and features the best story by a mile. Ratchet & Clank is one of the longest-running platforming franchises in gaming, with developer Insomniac Games putting out over a dozen titles across three different console generations. While the PS2 era titles were arguably the franchise’s most successful from a commercial and critical standpoint, 2009’s A Crack in Time on PS3 remains a series highlight and is one of the greatest platforming games ever made.
A Crack in Time features the same zany weaponry and diverse range of planets that this space adventure series has always been known for, but it wraps it up in a story that explores the friendship between its title protagonists in touching and in-depth fashion. While the Ratchet sections are as good as they’ve ever been and made even more exciting with the introduction of hover boots, the Clank sections, which feature increasingly difficult time manipulation puzzles, are arguably even better. The recent remake of the original game on PS4 may be the most beautiful game in the series, but A Crack in Time remains the best.
1. Super Mario Galaxy 2
Super Mario Galaxy 2 is the greatest 3D Mario game ever made and arguably the best 3D platformer to boot. Sure, it’s not as innovative as the original Super Mario Galaxy (itself a masterpiece) but it doesn’t need to be when everything about it is firing on all cylinders. Super Mario Galaxy 2 is a masterclass in level design, with so much variety that it’s rare to see the same ideas reused (and when they are, it’s for good reason). It’s also hard to think of another game on the Wii that made such good use of the system’s motion controls, as they actually enhance the game rather than detract from it.
Factor in beautiful graphics (and not just for the Wii), tight and responsive controls, and the return of Yoshi, and it’s hard to think of Super Mario Galaxy 2 as anything less than platforming perfection. If Nintendo continues to make games like this, the genre will never truly die.