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Four platformers with the best approaches to difficulty

From Kirby’s chill approach to Celeste’s excellent Assist Mode, we’ve got you covered

Mario, Toad, and Peach (in a cat suit) run across a level in Super Mario 3D World Image: Nintendo
Nicole Clark (she/her) is a culture editor at Polygon, and a critic covering internet culture, video games, books, and TV, with work in the NY Times, Vice, and Catapult.

Dear Polygon,

My name is Emily, I’m 22 years old, and I am terrible at platforming.

I don’t know if it’s a case of being raised in a society that didn’t encourage young girls to pick up video games, or just my generally meh motor skills, but the point is I want to be less terrible at platforming. There are so many amazing platformers out there that I am itching to play, but the trouble is that I often find myself stuck at one obstacle and it’s hard to motivate yourself when you’ve done the same two minutes of gameplay 30 times.

How do I get good at platforming? I’m tired of being such a platforming n00b that I had to give away my Mario game. I want to join the cool kids!

Dear Emily,

Reading your letter sparked instant recognition. I know that pit-of-your-stomach dread of getting stuck in a game. Competitive shooters are my own personal white whale — no matter how much I try, I can only really focus on aiming or moving, but never both at the same time. I watch other people play, who seem to have motor skills that I don’t, and wonder: How can I join the party? How can I get better at this thing?

I’ll start by saying I think “skill” is overrated. I don’t think people should have to “git gud” to enjoy a game. I love exploration and puzzle solving as much as fighting and kiting, and much of the time, I seek out customizability, a welcoming difficulty curve, or fun workarounds. I absolutely grind runes in Elden Ring before over-leveling to deliver an absolute smackdown. That said, I do recognize the thrill that comes with really nailing a sequence, and on the flipside, the frustration of feeling repeatedly barred from progress. You can’t really “over level” in platforming games, making it feel like you have to “git gud” in order to play them at all.

But I don’t think it has to be that way. Or, at least, not all the time. I have a few specific recommendations for platformers that range from beginner friendly to incredibly customizable — to avoid that head-against-the-wall feeling. I tried to pick a collection that could scale with you in challenge as you get more comfortable. I love platformers and have played them my whole life, starting with games like Super Mario Bros. 3 and Yoshi’s Island on my Game Boy Advance SP. When platforming is good it feels a lot like flying. And I hope these open up new avenues of joy and experimentation, without the frustration that often precedes them.

Kirby sucks up a fox in Kirby and the Forgotten Land Image: HAL Laboratory/Nintendo

First up is this year’s newest Kirby game, which is a must-play. In Kirby and the Forgotten Land, our favorite pink puffball explores a dystopian, relic-strewn world while saving kidnapped Waddle Dees. Kirby is a perfect platforming hero — you get to play around with tons of different forms (Carby!), but the float ability makes it far easier to avoid falling-related deaths. If a level feels difficult, you can always play it cooperatively with a friend or with a different ability equipped. And as you clear each world’s core levels, you’ll encounter a number of “Treasure Roads,” which are dexterity tests themed to each of Kirby’s inhale abilities — like hitting buttons by throwing your cutter or using tornado powers to launch from one peak to another. If you’re feeling confident with the base game, these ancillary challenges are a great way to practice other skills. Plus, Kirby is cute as hell.

You mention giving away your Mario game — and I feel that. Some of those are hard as hell. The Mario games for GBA always felt so unforgiving, and contemporary titles have platforming challenges that feel just as intense. This is why I loved Super Mario 3D World, originally developed for Wii U but ported to Nintendo Switch (which is where I played it). While Super Mario Odyssey is such a banner game for the Switch, I think of Super Mario 3D World as an undersung hero that captures a lot of the classic platforming magic, but with more thoughtful tools.

Levels are chock-full of the familiar Mushroom Kingdom antics, like hopping between platforms as a Chain Chomp chases you or finding secret paths along cute beaches. But, crucially, it has a great frustration-busting feature — if you fail a level a certain number of times, the game will offer you an invincibility tanooki leaf that will make you invulnerable to enemies. You still have to clear the platforming challenges yourself, but it’s much more achievable without having to dodge and fight enemies as well.

Yoshi’s Crafted World - Yoshi jumping, and dropping eggs Image: Good-Feel/Nintendo

In a similar vein, Yoshi’s Crafted World captures so much of what made classic Yoshi games a hit. It’s technically a 3D game, but it has a 2D side-scroller heart. And like these other Nintendo titles, it’s player friendly, with a “Mellow Mode” that adds in an infinite float — giving players increased precision when controlling where Yoshi lands.

This last recommendation may sound unhinged, because the mountain-climbing platformer is notoriously difficult. But Celeste’s customizable Assist Mode is second to none. Whereas other games have varying difficulty modes, Celeste lets you tailor specific elements of difficulty, which makes it easier to identify or work on skills.

Platforming requires mastering an array of mechanics, and it can be hard to know what particular part is the biggest challenge. In Celeste, you can modify anything from game speed to stamina (how long you stick to a wall) to your maximum number of dashes. You can also elect to be invincible, or skip a particularly pesky chapter altogether. If you feel like you’ve gained the skills to come back later, you can absolutely revisit. It’s a great way to prevent dead-end frustration, while also giving players tons of options for scaling up the difficulty later on.

Protagonist Madeline braves harsh winds in a screenshot from Celeste Image: Matt Makes Games

The fact that you listed Hades as a recent favorite (in a different part of the Dear Polygon form) tells me that you love a challenge, provided it comes with customizability and story progression. Celeste can offer that kind of progression, if you’re open to noodling with the settings.

More than that, the game’s whole ethos is incredibly encouraging. Pause screens and story dialogue urge you forward to the next challenge. Sometimes I love a “You Died” Elden Ring screen to reinforce the comedy of my demise. But sometimes, when I’m really and truly tired, all I want is a game to tell me, “You got this.” It’s silly but it’s also just that simple. And I hope each and every one of these options offers that kind of optimism, which makes platforming feel within your reach.

The next level of puzzles.

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