What was the first platformer, Space Panic or Donkey Kong?

Side-by-side animation of the arcade versions of Space Panic and Donkey.

When game historians talk about the birth of platformers, the first game that usually comes up is Shigeru Miyamoto's freshman effort, Donkey Kong.  Released in 1981, it can certainly be credited for inspiring many other designers to make platform-style games, but was it actually the first?

As it turns out, another platform-like game, called Space Panic,was released about a year before Donkey Kong.  There is some controversy, however, as to its classification, with some reviewers acknowledging it as the first platformer and others designating it a "maze game".  Who is right?  Let's look at some arguments for each side.

Look and Feel

Gameplay and sprites for the arcade version of Space Panic.  Sprites for the player and three monsters are shown.

Space Panic was released in arcades in 1980, by Universal.  It was moderately successful in its time, eventually spawning a Colecovision port and a port to the short-lived Casio PV-1000 console.  The object of the game is to destroy all of the monsters on the screen, either by dropping them from platforms or dropping other monsters on them.  Your only weapon is a shovel, which you can use to dig holes to trap the monsters.  Once the monsters are trapped, you can use the shovel to refill the hole and knock the monster to the next level, which may or may not destroy them, depending on which type of monster they are.  

At first glance, there seems to be no doubt about the classification of Space Panic.  It resembles Donkey Kong in many ways, with a character navigating 2D platforms and ladders from the side view.  The platforms span multiple levels and can be split into pieces by the digging holes in them.

If we put Space Panic side-by-side with Pac-Man (a prototypical maze game from the same year) and Donkey Kong, which does it most resemble?  Unquestionably, the latter.  So, Space Panic is a platformer, right?

Well, not so fast...

But No Jumping?

The most frequent objection to the classification of Space Panic as a platformer is the lack of jumping.  The only actions your character can take are to run across a platform, climb a ladder, or dig/fill a hole.  Some people see the navigation of platforms by jumping as an essential part of the platformer experience, and it certainly features prominently in some of the most famous examples of the genre, including Donkey Kong, Super Mario Bros., Mega Man, etc.

This objection gets more credence when you look at Space Panic's origins.  In 1979, a group of theoretical physicists at the University of Tokyo devised a game called Heiankyo Alien.

Gameplay and sprites for the arcade version of Heiankyo Alien.  Sprites for the player and monsters are shown.

The mechanics of Heiankyo Alien are almost identical to those of Space Panic.  You run around a maze and destroy monsters by digging/filling holes.  There are no ladders in Heiankyo Alien, but horiztonal/vertical maze passage ways are analogous to the platform/ladder setup of Space Panic.  In the sequence below, the player traps and kills an enemy in both games, using exactly the same set of actions.

Comparison of a typical game event in Space Panic and Heiankyo Alien, comparing the overhead and side views.

The primary difference between the above clips is visual -- one is shown from a side view and the other in an overhead maze.  If the underlying mechanics are the same between the two games, that surely matters more than its visual appearance.  Heiankyo Alien is unambiguously a maze game, so Space Panic must also be a maze game, right?

Well, not so fast...

Gravity

Our perception of a game is not just about the actions we take to achieve a particular result.  The context for the action matters a lot, and in the case of platformers, a key part of that context is gravity.  A vertically stacked set of platforms is not equivalent to overhead maze with the same arrangement because the platforms have a clear order to them.  And in Space Panic, that order does matter.

Gameplay for the arcade version of Space Panic, demonstrating how gravity changes the game.

Some enemies need to be dropped multiple levels in order to be killed, a gameplay element that has no analog in an overhead maze.  Perhaps even more importantly, your character can quickly change levels by dropping through the holes they've dug.  This action is very similar to jumping, in that the player is interacting using the game's gravity in order to navigate the maze.  

In fact, there are other games without a jumping mechanic that are widely considered to be platformers, such as Lode Runner and Mr. Do's Castle, both of which give the player the ability to create and fall through holes. Space Panic really is a platformer then, right?

Well, not so fast...

Genre As An Acknowledged Type

A big part of what makes a genre a genre is that it's conceived within a particular mold.  When somebody makes a platformer today, it's with an awareness that it is a platformer, or at least that it is a game type with historical precedent.  This sense of continuity through history can make genre a useful tool for understanding the development of games.

Space Panic was not a very influential game, and was not successful enough to capture the popular imagination to anywhere near the extent that Donkey Kong did.  When a platform-based game was made after Donkey Kong, the developer was fully aware that they were making it within a particular rubric, a rubric laid out by Donkey Kong or one of its descendants.

There are countless analogs in other artistic media, but one that particularly springs to mind is the classification of punk music.  While there is a lot of rock music made throughout the '60s and early '70s that sounds like what we now call punk rock, music historians typically only use the term "punk rock" to describe music that was associated with the punk movement; that is, a cultural phenomenon that broke into the mainstream in 1976 and 1977.  Thus, artists like the Ramones and The Sex Pistols are considered punk, while a Stooges album from the early '70s would be given some other label, either proto-punk or garage rock, even though it sounds an awful lot like punk.

Similarly, Space Panic looks and plays a lot like a platformer, but it neither inspired nor originated a particular type.  So then we have our answer, Space Panic is not a platformer?

Eh...

Final Decision

In reality, genre is a very fluid and versatile thing.  While it can serve as a historical tool, more often it just acts as a shorthand for describing what a game is like to those who have never played it.  If I'm a video game historian, maybe I classify Space Panic as a maze game, or perhaps a "proto-platformer", but the rest of us would be better off calling it what it looks and plays like -- a platformer.  If it had been made after Donkey Kong, I don't think there would be any debate about its classification.

If, on the other hand, the question is who deserves "credit" for inventing the platformer, I lean more in the direction of Miyamoto's Donkey Kong.  Not only was it far more influential, but it demonstrated how the formula could be used to create something new and exciting.  Space Panic, by contrast, is very similar to its maze predecessor and only uses the platforming elements sparingly.

But however you look at it, both of these games deserve a nod for their place in video game history.  Credit where credit is due.

Comments

  1. Lode Runner and Mr. Do's Castle are both direct descendants of Space Panic, and neither has any obvious influence from Donkey Kong. If they can be considered as platformers, then I think Space Panic should be too.

    I agree that Donkey Kong should be credited for establishing the genre, though, for the same reasons as you. That said, I think there's a family of platformer-like games without any clear influence from Donkey Kong - "runner" type games where there is jumping over and avoiding obstacles, but lower emphasis on platforms. Arguably Pitfall and Smurf Rescue fit in this category.

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    1. I agree that the mechanics of Lode Runner and Mr. Do's Castle do more closely resemble Space Panic than Donkey Kong, but once a bomb drops, it's difficult to claim that you weren't influenced by the fallout. In fact, if this link is to be believed, Lode Runner was actually born from a second- or third-hand description of Donkey Kong:

      https://lifeandtimes.games/episodes/files/14.html

      But I think you're right that the term "platformer" ended up enveloping a range of games that may have been more closely related to other evolutionary branches than the one started by Donkey Kong. That's a great point about Pitfall -- scrolling platformers are a fascinating case that I'm looking forward to blogging about.

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