Side-scrollers were the dominant way to play games when gaming came back into the mainstream in the 1980s, mostly due to technical limitation. Since the PlayStation launched in 1995, side-scrollers have been in a constant downward spiral (unless you count the indie scene), but over the past decade they have made a comeback, the following are some of the best side-scrollers from old school to modern hardware.

#10 – Super Mario Bros. 2

When the Milky Way galaxy was still in its infancy, 1988, Nintendo released the sequel to Super Mario Bros. Super Mario 2 added new gameplay features from its predecessor. Players could pick characters, such as Mario, Luigi, Toad or Princess Toadstool. Each character had a unique ability that helped players including floating and super jumping.

Super Mario 2 also added the ability to pick up items to throw at enemies and the ability to pick up enemies themselves. Unlike the original, players could travel left or right on the map as well as vertically up and down on certain levels and areas, which exceedingly expanded the amount of exploration and made the game feel massive. The soundtrack was also a step in the right direction when it comes to the evolution of music in games.

#9 – The Angry Video Game Nerd Video Game

The Angry Video Game Nerd was a show on YouTube that made fun of the angry video game nerd trope. Over the course of several years, the Nerd (as he calls himself) reviewed some of the most poorly designed and difficult classic games.

The developers, FreakZone Games, took some of the Nerd’s most hated and difficult moments and created a videogame starring the Nerd himself. Players can choose whatever level they desire, some based off Castlevania, Silver Surfer, and many others. Quotes from the show litter the game and are quite appropriate as it is one of the most difficult games I have ever played.

#8 – Ori and the Blind Forest

Ori and the Blind Forest is a modern take of side-scrolling with modern stylized graphics that look gorgeous. The player must collect shards which allow health and energy upgrades for new abilities which unlock previously inaccessible areas of the map. Ori and the Blind Forest plays it safe with gameplay elements the soundtrack and overall graphics to the game, making it a contender for one of the best platformers to date.

#7 – Shovel Knight

Shovel Knight was created to run on the original Nintendo Entertainment System and consists of a Knight armed with a shovel. The gameplay is a mix of Ducktales, Mega Man and Super Mario 3, as players navigate the world map and defeat The Order of No Quarter. The Shovel Knight pogo-hops along the level defeating enemies and discovering secret locations.

The Knight collects jewels which are transformed into cash that can be used to purchase upgrades such as additional health or different armor sets with special enchantments. Overall Shovel Knight is an ode to simple but fun classic gameplay.

#6 – Sonic the Hedgehog

When Sega released the Genesis console to compete with Nintendo, they needed a mascot to one-up Mario. Sega released the first Sonic the Hedgehog game in 1991 to critical success. Sonic is an extremely fast-paced game. As players traverse the levels, they collect rings to unlock secret levels containing ‘Chaos Emeralds’ which the main antagonist is after.

Unlike Mario, which has players traversing over blocks and in pipes, Sonic levels are more akin to race courses with multiple pathways towards the finish. Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduced the spin attack in which players could have Sonic start his spin in a stationary position then rocketing him towards enemies, loops and secret passages. Sonic the Hedgehog put the speed in the term ‘Speed Run’.

#5 – Dead Cells

Dead Cells is a frustratingly fun game, it is essentially 2D side-scrolling Dark Souls. The main character is a blob of dead cells that inhabit a corpse through each playthrough. While playing Dead Cells, I died a lot which causes the game to reset back to the beginning.

After each death and reset, the levels would randomly change their layouts, but I persisted and advanced further each time. Dead Cells features a bevy of weapons and fighting styles for players to experiment and choose their favorite. What made Dead Cells a favorite of mine is the extremely fast-paced action similar to the recently released Sekiro Shadows Die Twice from the developers of Dark Souls.

#4 – Super C (Super Contra)

The original Contra was a difficult game, but for its sequel, Konami kicked the difficulty from 10 to 100. Super Contra was the game that changed my fate forever, while I enjoyed games, Contra revealed how awesome games can be. The sheer difficulty of the game, due to instant kills from touching enemies or foreign projectiles combined with the design of the levels and bosses, gave me a sense of accomplishment few games have achieved since. Contra was the catalyst that leads to the resurgence of challenging games that are being released this generation.

#3 – The Messenger

The Messenger pays homage to 8-bit and 16-bit eras of gaming as it switches between the different pixel counts. The style of music is also affected when the graphics are switched. The Messenger is heavily inspired by the classic Ninja Gaiden games but unlike its inspiration, it relinquishes the annoying and frustrating gameplay. The music is fantastic while the story is interesting and funny if predictable, which is only enhanced by the sensational cast of characters.

#2 – Castlevania Symphony of the Night

Castlevania Symphony of the Night is by far one of the greatest games of all time. It takes the old-school Castlevania and injects traces of Metroid into the gameplay. Players play as Alucard, the son of Dracula, as he explores Dracula’s castle in an attempt to rid the world of his bloodline.

Map design is superb and, for the most part, accurately reflects how Dracula’s castle might appear. I thoroughly enjoy roaming the castle as a bat (wolf and mist are also available) and with different magic familiars that aid in combat. The atmosphere is perfectly enhanced by the superb soundtrack that I ordered from Japan (music streaming was not a thing back in the ’90s) and still listen to regularly.

#1 – Axiom Verge

I always figured Symphony of the Night would remain the greatest side-scroller’s of all time, but the release of Axiom Verge in 2015 finally knocked it off its pedestal. Axiom Verge takes place in a weird dystopian sci-fi future and the art design perfectly matches.

The pixel art for Axiom Verge is by far the best I’ve seen and is only heightened with one of the greatest soundtracks ever composed. The game combines elements of Metroid, Mega Man and a host of other classic games that meld flawlessly into one of the most fun experiences of my lifetime. Axiom Verge is the brain-child of Thomas Happ who single-handedly designed every aspect of the game and should be commended for creating not just the greatest side-scroller but one of the best games ever to be created.

Conclusion

Side-scrolling games are not as prevalent as they once were but have started to make a bit of a comeback with games such as The Messenger, Axiom Verge and Dead Cells being released over the past decade. I’m hoping there will be a greater resurgence of quality odes to old school games as games have become more technically impressive over the generations, they’ve also become less challenging and fun. The soon to be released Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night has the potential to keep the renaissance going.

About The Author

Christopher T
Staff Writer

I'm an old timer that started in 1988 with Tempest at the Disney arcade; in 1989 I was given an NES with Contra and Super Contra, thus sealing my fate forever. I moved onto the Genesis, followed by the original PlayStation, PC (mainly just for DOOM) and the N64. I got a launch day PS2 settling for the PlayStation family of consoles until 2015 when I renewed my interest in the PC world. Outside of gaming, custom PC water cooling and car parts are life.