The other day we were having a family game session on the PS4, which means we were playing the light-hearted adventure game Knack. Though it's not really any sort of revolutionary title, being little more than an update of Crash Bandicoot, it is a bright, joyful spot in the increasingly dark and violent world of gaming that I can share with my four-year-old daughter. Whose HDMI port do I have to kiss to get a colorful cartoon character not named Mario around here these days?
With her little hands what usually happens is one of us will control the movement of Knack with the left thumbstick, and the other will be in charge of the punching and jumping buttons. You can get a fair amount through the game on easy mode this way, and it's a neat way to each hand-eye coordination and cooperation.
On this occasion the Kid With One F was the buttoner, and she was getting us through the first level perfectly when she asked, "Daddy, how come Knack can jump in mid-air?"
I had honestly never thought about that. Who the hell came up with the idea of the double jump anyway? It seems like the laziest programming ever devised. Made the level impossible to beat because the ledges are too far apart? Just jump again in mid-air! That should do the trick. Of course, that does beg the question of why you can't just keep jumping until your legs give out, essentially giving you the world's second most ridiculous form of flight right after Mario turning into a raccoon.
Of course, some games do try and give a reason for the double jump. Castlevania titles are especially good about it. In Portrait of Ruin Charlotte Aulin will bust out a witch's broom for the second jump (Though Jonathan Morris apparently doesn't need one to do it), and in Symphony of the Night Alucard uses his cape as bat wings to accomplish the task. In Vectoman the lead character has rocket boots, and these double as a devastating attack.
Most of the time, though, there is no real reason for it, and sometimes it gets to ridiculous levels. Under the right circumstances in Dissidia: Final Fantasy Zidane can perform a triple-decuple jump, which I think we can all agree is madness.The Fairly Oddparents title Shadow Showdown just straight up took the piss out of the concept when they used it, saying "Double Jump. That's right, forget everything you know about the laws of physics and jump again in mid-air."
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The game we have to thank for this concept is a 1985 dungeon crawler from Namco called Dragon Buster. Actually, we owe a lot of aspects of modern gaming to it. It was the first game to use a life meter, the first game to have a hub world map linking dungeons, and one of the first to combine action-adventure with RPG elements. It also invented the double jump.
The thing is, no one seems to be sure why it did so. There's never been an explanation. Was it a glitch that the developers decided they liked? Was it a quick fix like I mentioned earlier? Or did the makers of Dragon Buster actually feel like it was a reasonable ability for their hero Clovis to have?
It might have possibly been an intentional variation of an earlier technique that appeared in 1983's Smurf: Rescue in Gargamel's Castle for ColecoVision and Atari 2600. By pressing jump immediately after landing from a previous running jump you enabled your Smurf to jump higher than he previously could. You see the natural evolution of this idea in things like Mario's modern triple jumps. Perhaps Dragon Buster just cut out the landing first part since the initial controls on the arcade cabinet were so difficult to use.
Whatever the origin the impossible ability shows no sign of going anywhere, as evidenced by its presence in the launch title of an eighth generation console... and I don't have an answer to my daughter's question.
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I did a little digging around and discovered that a double jump without other means of propulsion is actually possible. You just have to be on Saturn's moon Titan. It is the only satellite in the solar system that contains a sustained atmosphere, and that atmosphere is around 1.45 times as dense as that of the Earth. When you combine that aspect with the moon's low gravity, it should be theoretically possible for a person to "swim" through the air there with a mighty flap of your arms and push of the legs at the top of your jump.
"Knack lives on a moon of Saturn where the air is so thick you can jump off it, sweetie."
Seems as good an explanation as any when you're talking about a magic golem made of colored blocks.