The evolution of side-scrollers


Elie Gould looks at the history of side scrollers and the success of Little Nightmares II.

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Image by Little Nightmares II, Tarsier Studios.

By Elie Gould

For me, 2021 is already looking up. This positivity is all thanks to the release of Little Nightmares II. This title was a welcome breath of fresh air from hectic multiplayers like Phasmophobia that had previously been eating up all my time. Instead, I was allowed a few moments of peace and quiet, navigating a world that was far too big and bent just a bit the wrong way.

Before we get into what Little Nightmares II is, it's probably best to have a look at its origins.

The first jump to side scrollers from single-screen games seem pretty average now with all the insane expansive open worlds like Death Stranding or Assassins Creed: Black Flag but, at the time, it was a considerable leap. It opened up significant new ways to explore and play video games, a feature which I still don't think is any less impressive as time has gone on.

My first proper introduction to side scrollers was with Limbo in 2010. This 2D side scroller remains one of my favourite games of all time and is, I believe, the benchmark of this genre which is still hard to live up to. The visuals are beautiful, and the puzzle mechanic is one of the best I've played; it's living proof that you don't need a 4k open world to have an outstanding game.

Limbo then gave birth to Inside, a game that, while not having the same kind of breadth, achieves what it sets out to do with great puzzles and even better graphics. I'm not ashamed to say that I used the visuals as my background for almost everything I owned! Inside also got rid of the 2D scrolling for something that allowed more depth of play, while still only travelling side to side.

In all of these different ways – artistic style, soundscape, and depth of play – it's clear to see that Inside and Limbo have inspired both Little Nightmares games. This observation is in no way a bad thing or an accusation of plagiarism, it just makes sense. Little Nightmares took what Inside and Limbo achieved and built on it, particularly in Little Nightmares II. The grey cityscape of Little Nightmares II seems reminiscent of Inside's industrial factories, which is good because I really love both of them.

In my opinion, just looking at what Little Nightmares II achieves on its own is cause enough for celebration. It's been some time since I was this engrossed in a single-player game, let alone a horror one. Every aspect of this game was enjoyable; the action was a fun way to increase your heartbeat without being too complicated, and the puzzles in-between allowed for much needed downtime. Overall, the balance of story and action left me playing this game for hours.

Another aspect of this game that was great to see was the depth of play. The ability to move into the scenery to explore or solve puzzles was enjoyable. While this isn't entirely new for side scrollers, it is still a welcome progression. They also fixed some aspects of gameplay which often made the first Little Nightmares a bit of a chore to play. When walking across thin ledges, you will not accidentally wander off because of a lack of depth perception. I also found the AI to work a lot smoother, and my character didn't get stuck on so many doors or jutting out boxes.

All of the above makes for a good game, but the aspect of Little Nightmares II which made it stand out for me was its audio and soundscape. The use of sound and music in this game was the best I have heard in a long time. I'm not only talking about the interactive sounds or the weird distant echoes, but the use of audio to create such a unique sense of awe. This was most noticeable in one of my favourite moments in the game near the beginning when Six and Mono cross over to the warped city. The bent skyscrapers were creepy enough, but the sound that accompanied it sent a shiver down my spine. It was great.

All in all, Little Nightmares II is an excellent addition to the side scroller family. It is comfortable and exciting to play, and you can see how the genre of side scrollers has progressed in the output of this game. If you have the time, regardless of if you enjoy horrors, I would give it a go – it's definitely worth it.